Whaley Bridge AFC V Eagle Sports
Horwich Park / Cheshire League / 14th May 2016
“Where are you going this week…Buxton again? Or New Mills?”
This has been the running joke for the best part of 2 years from my colleague James. For some reason, he thinks I have some sort of undying love for Buxton and New Mills in the Peak District and that they are the two places that best the embody of the sort of places I love to venture. No doubt about it, I do adore the Peak District and I regularly sing its praises, but Mr. Edgerton’s perception that I regularly flaunt around the area on a regular basis is exaggerated to say the least. For the record, I’ve only been to Buxton 3 times in the 5 years I’ve lived up here and New Mills just the once on a cold Friday night a couple of years ago; far from excessive in regards of Peak District pilgrimage. However, in regards of Peak District adventures, there was also our superb and utterly bizarre trip to Chapel-en-le-Frith and Chapel Town this time last year and there was my attempted pub crawl through the small communities of the area en route to Sheffield FC; but that escapade started and pretty much finished in Marple, after the ill-conceived idea that Chinley would be a good place to alight at and explore.
So, this week as per usual, Mr. Edgerton rolled out the, “Where are you going this week…Buxton again? Or New Mills?” line and I could actually reply with, “Yes, I’m off to New Mills…sort of.”
Tony Robinson wrote in an article in the Sunday Telegraph dubbed ‘My Top Ten Train Journeys’ that the journey from Manchester towards Derbyshire is one of his favourites and added, “It is not a trip to do all in one go; stop off at the dramatic little town of Whaley Bridge and have a stroll around the historic Peak Forest Canal Basin”. Well, I was going to listening to Robinson’s cunning plan, but put my own little twist on it: I was going to walk the 4 miles from New Mills to Whaley Bridge. Why? I had no idea, but the weather was beautiful, I knew the scenery would be too, so I thought ‘why not?’
Indeed, I have to agree with Robinson that the train journey from Manchester into the heart of the Peak District is a beautiful one with the train ride offering a plethora of stunning scenes. After leaving Manchester shortly before 9am, I was in New Mills Newtown train station by 9.30am. Estimated walk time to Whaley Bridge was just over an hour, but I figured the early start gave me plenty of opportunity to get sidetracked if I wanted to.
As I walked out into New Mills, it dawned on me that I really hadn’t done enough research on where I was heading; all I knew was that I was to follow the canal. It took a matter of seconds after exiting the train station to spot the waterway and so I latched onto the adjacent footpath and followed on, hoping that I was heading towards Whaley Bridge.
The walk really was wonderful. There was no phone signal or internet connection, so the walk was a peaceful, undisturbed one as I passed ducks and canal boats and some of the nicest houses you could find. Plus, everyone I passed, on dry land and onboard canal boats, wished me a’ good morning’, which was lovely. I’m not expecting to reach my retirement age, but I thought to myself that if I do, I would absolutely love to retire to this part of the country. Maybe I could become a fanatical Buxton FC fan and learn about birdwatching or something.
Through random fields, farmland and then back onto the canal walkway I headed, crossing through small communities and Furness Vale, before eventually signs for Whaley Bridge started appearing. I knew I was quite a fast walker and so I had even tried to walk the route at a gentler speed, yet I still made it to Whaley Bridge in less than an hour after I had departed New Mills. It seemed I’d have plenty of time to kill here.
Just under 200 years ago, Whaley Bridge was a buoyant transport hub at the end of the Cromford and High Peak Railway. It was also from this small town that limestone was transferred by wagons to canal boats for onward transport to Manchester. However, the town is a far quieter affair these days, although within two minutes of walking off the canal path and into the town, I had spotted 3 pubs. This was going to be my sort of place, I thought. It would prove to be a frustrating morning though.
It was still a bit early for the pubs of a small town to be open and instead I decided to just follow my feet and see where they took me. Being a Valleys boy, they unsurprisingly led me off the main high street and up the steep hills towards the rural hills enveloping the town. At the top of the hills, above the town itself, I found a lane leading to the cricket club and another pathway heading straight on. I wasn’t really in the mood for cricket, so straight ahead I headed, only to eventual be greeted by a gentleman coming out of his garden to inform me that I was walking on his property. Fortunately, this local was very friendly and asked what I was doing in town, after picking up on a strange accent for the area. Initially he asked was I moving into town, to which I replied in the negative, as I thought it was still 40-50 years too soon to spring the retirement plan I had conjured up just an hour before on him. Instead, I told him my story and he seemed rather bemused when I told him I was here to watch football. Still, from atop the hill he pointed out the ground in the valley below and then told me to head up to the cricket club as I’d be able to get some good photos there. He was right. Plus, I found a rather eerie, abandoned car on the hill too, which was rather odd.
I was sure I had walked a fair few miles by now and it still was barely past 11am, so I decided that now was the time to head back into town and frequent one of the local drinking holes. This plan wasn’t to be. By now, I had discovered 6 pubs in the town, yet 2 were clearly closed down and none were open for business at this time. Great.It also seemed that the Whaley Bridge clime had scrambled my phone and so I couldn’t even find out where my fellow groundhopper George was or what time he’d be arriving. Instead, I figured I may as well keep following my feet and so onwards to the reservoir I headed.
The Toddbrook Reservoir, which dominates much of the town’s landscape, was abuzz with activity with families strolling around watching the sailing boats head out on the water, whilst the skate park alongside was full of teens throwing themselves about on scooters and BMXs. I was enjoying the views and the sunshine, but while I was here I thought I’d try find the football ground. The search was short-lived. The other side of the fence around the reservoir, I found the ground. I’ll talk more about the ground later, although ‘ground’ may be too strong a word here. We’ll stick with saying the home of Whaley Bridge being ‘humble’ for now.
I headed through the Memorial Park (unsurprisingly, where the town’s war memorial is held) and then back down the road to the main high street. Still, the pubs were closed, but I did randomly find George traipsing the streets looking equally perplexed as to what to do with himself in town. And so ensued the two of us circumnavigating the town one more time as we waited for the clock to tick over midday, when we assumed the pubs would open. I pointed out that Wetherspoons should move into the area and take advantage of this lack of pre-midday pub openings in Whaley Bridge; I bet there’s a whole load of alcoholics in the town’s streets shaking vigorously for the town’s pubs to open (although I clearly can’t say much with how frustrated I was getting at the lack of beer trade occurring before midday).
Cock would prove to be the saviour of the day…stop giggling, I’m talking about The Cock Inn! In fact I was loving The Cock in Whaley Bridge. Dizzy Blonde ale was on tap and they were even selling the excellent Big Wave Hawaiian lager in bottles (George delved into it, but I’m use to drinking it in the ice-cold glasses of Duck ’til Pawn in the Northern Quarter, so I left it today). The only irritation I had with the place was that the words ‘THE COCK’ painted on the side of the pub were accompanied by a picture of a unicorn and not a chicken irritatingly; although George then pointed out that a unicorn is used as the symbol for Robinsons Brewery, the owner’s of the pub.
I’d had enough of The Cock for one afternoon, so we rolled out and down the road to the White Hart. This place didn’t have the pristine look of The Cock and was a bit more ‘authentic’. Nothing to turn your nose up at though, as I indulged in some Wendo’s Pale Ale, while a whole host of 80s power ballads played in the background; this subsequently led to me singing Cyndi Lauper’s classic Time After Time for the rest of the afternoon.
The final pub of our mini-pub crawl through Whaley Bridge was to be the Shepherd’s Arms. I’d seen movement within this place when I walked past earlier in the day, but the pub didn’t open until 2pm. With such a ‘late’ opening time, I was expecting the place to be spick and span and in fairness it was. This was my favourite of the Whaley Bridge pubs so far. Me and George were the only drinkers present in the bar and so the barmaid quizzed us about what we were doing in town. And fairplay to her, she seemed to know her stuff regarding the town’s football club and the Cheshire League in which they play in. She even claimed that she was making a bid to get the Whaley Bridge team to adopt her pub as their drinking hub after a season of calling the White Hart home.Politics of the Whaley Bridge football drinking scene were soon at the back of my mind though, as found myself mesmerised by the picture on the wall of various types of sheep on the wall…not sure why I was so engrossed in the sheep…
The friendly barmaid had informed us not to expect to find a bar at the football ground, so instead we crossed the road and headed to the Co-op to purchase some cans to enjoy pitchside; I write ‘we’, but it just occurred to me that it was only me that did this. Perhaps I do need to start going to some meetings?
The walk to the ground was a repeat of the reservoir walk from earlier in the day for me. This second time around though, I speculated whether I had actually had a more serene and scenic stroll to a football ground. I’m really not sure.
Soon enough the mighty home of Whaley Bridge was in front of us – ‘mighty’ if you consider a fenced off pitch and a small building housing a tuck shop, toilets and changing rooms to be ‘mighty’. Some ASBO had even drawn a cock on the fencing; what is it with this town’s interest in cocks? I did say earlier I’d describe the ground, but that’s pretty much job done right there in those past couple of sentences. Like I said, ‘humble’. There were a couple of signs proclaiming that the club had received funding through the Football Foundation, but there wasn’t a lot else to see here.However, like pretty much every part of the town, there were some lovely hilly backdrops to the ground and we could even see a cricket match unfolding up in the heady heights of the cricket club I wandered by earlier.
Today’s away team were Warrington-based club Eagle Sports, a team who George is quite cosy with having once got extremely drunk with them apparently. George said hello to a couple of players and staff, but there was little time to waste and minutes after we had arrived, the teams were heading out onto the pitch.
Great shirts – that’s the first thing I should say with Whaley Bridge wearing a sort of light blue and navy blue striped shirt and Eagle Sports wearing a far more garish luminous orange with black stripe down one side. Both were cool. Sadly, the reason I’m probably talking about shirts here is because there was little else to talk about.
Why does 2016 keep providing me with shit games?! Step 7 games are usually goalfests for me but today’s game just never got going. Instead, I spent the first 10-15 minutes trying to think of the Brazilian goalie who played for Roma and then briefly at Liverpool (it was Alexander Doni – not Cristiano Doni as I was dubbing him at the time, before remembering that the Cristiano was the delightful Italian playmaker of the late 90s/early 00s). I was trying to recall the Brazilian goalie Doni purely because I thought Eagle Sports’ keeper looked a bit like him.
The game was still a very slow burner to say the least and instead I found myself more excited by stray balls going out of touch for me to chase after like an excitable hound. My ball skills were off form today though and my more ambitious passes to Doni were wayward. Must do better.
There was one moment where something happened when a Whaley Bridge shot was well saved by the Eagle Sports keeper’s feet, before the rebound was superbly rescued off the line by the retreating defender, but that was about it.
Half-time: Whaley Bridge 0 – 0 Eagle Sports.
The majority of the 40 strong crowd (think you can still call that a crowd) headed for the small tea hut indoors and it was good to see them all emerge with their brews in mugs. Without a doubt, mugs are one of the great joys of proper non-league football, when a club opts for them over the usual polystyrene cups. It seemed not everyone was happy with their hot drink though as there were a few envious glances my way at my cans of beer. Or I was just being looked at with disgust, as I was essentially drinking cans in a public park with young people nearby. What an awful role model.
The game’s excitement level did raise in the second half and we were even treated to a goal. The goal would be scored by the home team when a ball shot across the box was met by another attacker sliding in and just about directing the ball upwards into the top corner from the edge of the 6 yard box.
The remainder of the game was spent cheering on Whaley Bridge’s substitute and slightly greying and balding striker: the man simply known as Raymond. It seemed everybody loved Raymond, as it felt like every time Whaley Bridge attacked there were cries of “Give it to Raymond!” and encouragement for the great man when he was the ball. It wasn’t going for Raymond though and it seemed he had come on to destroy rather than create. It was left to the brilliant Bridge midfielder Will Bailey (we thought his name was originally Bill Bailey) to pull the strings in the middle of the park, but even his efforts couldn’t create anything else of note. And so we were left with just the single goal to savour on this warm Spring afternoon.
Full-time: Whaley Bridge 1 – 0 Eagle Sports.
It seemed we had visited every other (open) pub in Whaley Bridge, so, with only one left to visit in the town, we headed back past the reservoir and down to the Goyt Inn. We’d noted earlier that it looked a bit like a pleasant terraced cottage that someone had just thrown a pub sign on, but it was this cosiness, which saw it overtake the Shepherd’s Arms for the coveted accolade of ‘Matt Harrison’s Favourite Pub in Whaley Bridge 2016’. Well done Goyt Inn. To celebrate such an achievement and to accompany my ale, a packet of pork scratchings was purchased.
After having spent the best part of 90 minutes circumnavigating the town, I felt like I’d seen it all and with that in mind, me and George headed back to the station for the first train back to Manchester. Ostensibly I’d say it was because I’d seen it all in Whaley Bridge, although I’d sadly be lying if I said the fact that Eurovision was starting at 8pm contributed to me wanting to get back. Of course, I’d not be heading straight anyway – a compulsory trip to the Piccadilly Tap before heading home for some trashy Europop (I was supporting Georgia’s more rocky effort by the way).
Whaley Bridge was a lovely little part of the country and I expected no less from the Peak District. It was a typical example of the ‘don’t let the 90 minutes of football ruin your day’ – or the pubs not opening until early afternoon. I suppose I’ll see Whaley Bridge again in the future when I’m an old man settled and retired in the area. I’ll leave you with some Whaley Bridge-themed literature, which I found on the wall in the Shepherd’s Arms.
Highlights: canal walk, scenic town, lots of pubs, Shepherd’s Arms, mugs, Raymond, Goyt Inn.
Low Points: pub’s not opening on arrival, basic ground, poor game.
See all my photos from Whaley Bridge here.