Field of Dreams – Dean Park ground
Liam O’Hara looks back at 150 years of cricket at Bournemouth’s Dean Park ground
Published in April ’16
On a mild day last August, away from the packed seafront and busy high street, Dorset Cricket Club’s final match at Bournemouth’s Dean Park ground limped to a finish in front of a sprinkling of spectators. Perhaps the town’s sports fans were more focused on the Cherries’ narrow loss (to Liverpool) the previous evening in their debut season in the Premier League.
The enthusiastic supporters that were dotted around the boundary to see Dorset’s last innings witnessed the end of a historic association between high-class cricket and this quiet corner of Bournemouth. For almost 150 years the ground had paid host to some of the greatest players ever to don the whites, from W G Grace to Geoff Boycott. It had been the venue for hockey matches, international football and even seen Prince Philip flash a cover drive across its outfield. In fact, the ground could claim to have hosted more stars than the Winter Gardens. What is it about this hidden gem, in a town full of attractions, which makes the loss of cricket from Dean Park feel like the end of an era?
It’s clear that cricket has always been a popular pastime in Bournemouth. So keen were the early residents to play, games were organized on the drier parts of the meadows surrounding the Bourne Stream in what is now the Upper Gardens. After losing the spaces around Exeter Road to the growing number of schools in the town, Bournemouth’s cricketers found a more suitable pitch at Springbourne. The first official Bournemouth Cricket Club was formed here and in February 1869 negotiations commenced for a 6½ acre corner of the Dean Park estate. This ‘fine piece of table land’ was felt to have a perfectly level playing surface and excellent light. Once Mr Clapcott Dean sold the lease, the ground was turfed and tennis courts built, with the first version of the pavilion constructed in September 1875.
Dean Park’s first fixture saw Bournemouth CC take on the Artillery Officers side from Christchurch, in June 1871. Hampshire’s debut at the ground came in a two-day match versus Somerset in August 1880. After Bournemouth’s successful hosting of the Parsees of India team and exhibition matches against the MCC and Gentleman of Philadelphia, it was decided that the healthy gate receipts and the generous capacity of Dean Park made it more than suitable for regular first-class county fixtures. Well-marked on maps of the town from the time, Dean Park’s ‘Bournemouth Week’ in August every year became a popular fixture on the cricket calendar from 1899 onwards; enticing locals and holidaymakers up from the seafront and into the ground.
One of the eras biggest superstars enjoyed everything Bournemouth had to offer. Dr W G Grace, the man who ‘found cricket a country pastime and left it a national institution’ captained the Gentlemen of the South against the Players at Dean Park in 1903. In Robert Low’s biography of Grace, the Doctor is said to have suggested to his fellow teammates staying at the Grand Hotel to race up the stairs and back. ‘The last man would stand drinks all round – and this at one o’clock in the morning’. The cricketers did this again and again, causing other guests to believe the hotel was on fire and no doubt causing uproar in the genteel seaside town.
As Dean Park grew in popularity after World War 1, with visits from Jack Hobbs and other greats of the game, Hampshire CC officially took over the lease in 1927. Two years later, perhaps in an effort to make money from the ground in the winter months, Dean Park played host to a schoolboy international football match against Wales. In front of close to 20,000 spectators, England gave a debut to the promising young winger, Stanley Matthews.
Despite this rich early history, it is the post-war years of cricket at Dean Park that established the ground as one the most romantic sporting venues in the south and a popular part of Bournemouth’s appeal. In 1949, 10,000 spectators watched a Duke of Edinburgh XI play to raise funds for the National Playing Fields Association, of which Prince Philip was president. Flying down from Balmoral to Bournemouth, and arriving just before the 11am start, the Duke changed in the Cooper Dean Pavilion with his teammates and kept his sunglasses on to bowl some gentle off-spin half an hour into Hampshire’s innings. He returned respectable figures of 1 wicket for 25 runs. Playing alongside Denis Compton, and advised to ‘have a swish’ whilst batting, the Duke was clean bowled for what the Pathé News commentator called ‘a fast dozen’ runs, with his team eventually winning by a single wicket to thunderous applause.
The early 1970s saw a string of world-class cricketing royalty play in Bournemouth. Hampshire’s championship winning side of 1973 boasted such talents as South African Barry Richards and West Indian Gordon Greenidge. Fixtures during that year brought Richard Hadlee, Derek Randall and Zaheer Abbas to town with opposition teams. A year later, with Hampshire poised to lift the championship again, a three-day washout across the final weekend in August denied the club another trophy. John Woodcock of The Times wrote that ‘if Hampshire were to feel that there is some malign influence at work (in Bournemouth) it would be understandable.’
Even so, David Turner, who batted at number three behind Richards and Greenidge during that time, remembers Dean Park fondly. ‘It was an old-fashioned, traditional cricket ground’, he says. ‘A lot of supporters from Yorkshire would come to Bournemouth on holiday and tie their trip in with the cricket.’
This atmosphere at the ground was enhanced by the beer tent, which seemed to be the only place where a drink could be bought during the afternoon in Bournemouth.
Schoolchildren were let into the ground without charge after the tea interval to sit around the boundary edge and the mix of posh hospitality marquees, rickety fencing, ice cream vans and burger bars made for a unique experience. ‘The crowd were on top of you,’ remembers David. ‘It created a better atmosphere.’
As one-day cricket became more popular, healthy crowds flocked to the town to see Sunday matches. These were sometimes televised and also saw children run onto the outfield between innings to bat and bowl with tennis balls. Players would stroll around the ground and mingle with fans too. ‘In today’s games you’re a lot further away,’ continues David, ‘At Bournemouth the bar was open to the public, so we were with the supporters. You walked in to get a drink and next to you were the fans.’ At the end of games, the entrance to the pavilion would be jammed
with spectators searching for autographs from their favourite stars.
One unique feature of Dean Park allowed spectators to park their cars at the Richmond Hill end. An incident during a Sunday league game saw the proud owner of a new sports car display it nonchalantly beside the scorebox, only to see the windscreen shattered by a six from Australian captain Allan Border, which bounced off a wooden chair and through the glass to roars of laughter from the crowd.
In 1992, Hampshire’s association with a ground that was now not even inside their county ended. The final first-class match versus Middlesex boasted a who’s-who of English cricket; Gower, Gatting, Emburey, Fraser and Tuffnell all turning out onto the Bournemouth turf. As kitbags were packed for the final time, a spectator on the last day placed a rose on the wicket with the message, ‘Fondest memories at Bournemouth. Will Ye No Come Back Again?’ The advertising boards were removed, seating taken down and a few years’ later flats were built to the side of the pavilion.
Hampshire’s choice to vacate Bournemouth opened the ground up to other cricket teams. Parley CC, Suttoners CC of Kinson and Bournemouth University all played matches there since. After some use in the 1980s, Dorset made Dean Park their regular home from 1994 until 2015, winning the Minor Counties Championships in 2000 and 2010.
When Dean Park went up for sale again, almost 150 years since Clapcott Dean agreed to lease the ground for cricket, many lovers of the game feared that the wicket that had seen legends and royalty play would be churned up forever. However, the lease was taken over by Bournemouth’s Park School and by the end of November pupils were enjoying football training in front of the
Despite the weight of history the ground holds, what seems to make this little corner of Bournemouth so special is the people that use it; from the early cricketers who developed the game in the town, to the spectators who lapped up world-class sport in the ground’s heyday and the enthusiastic followers of Dorset’s county side since 1992. Still in use and with its current owners keen to liaise with local cricket clubs, Dean Park may just yet have a few more innings left in it. ◗