It’s a thirty-five minute train ride from Ipswich to Bury St Edmunds (£7.20 return with a Gold Card) stopping at Needham Market, Stowmarket, Elmswell and Thurston, which for a 25 mile journey by train seems quite a long time. But whilst it’s not one of the fastest train rides in the world, it’s pleasant enough and there’s a busyness and hum about it due to the churn of passengers at each of the four stops.
I board the 1320 and sit at a table seat where just before departure I am joined by three blokes in their thirties who seem to be part of a larger group on a stag weekend, but they also seem to be Margate supporters heading the nine miles down the track to today’s match at Needham Market; an interesting combination that beats paintballing in Dublin. At Stowmarket the train fills up again and pulls away from the station passing the Green Meadow ground, where later this afternoon Stowmarket Town will beat Ipswich Wanderers 3-0. Three well-turned out women in their forties apologetically take up the empty seats around me, asking if I mind if they sit there. “As long as you behave yourselves” I say and they reply that they can’t promise anything but they’ve only had one drink so far today. They’re heading for the bright lights of Bury St Edmunds to celebrate a birthday and they natter constantly throughout the journey about all of life’s trials. “Oooh, I can’t get on with public transport” says one “You know that striped carpet we’ve got” says another “ …had to have it re-laid twice, they got it all wrong on the stairs” . “I don’t go shopping anymore” says the third “Just do click and collect”. “Same with me” replies one “But I just buy baked potatoes”. Then one talks at length about the problems with parking outside her house and an intimidating little bloke in a Range Rover who’s got four cars and a bike, but there’s only him and his wife living there. She doesn’t know what they’re going to do when Annabel gets a car.
Arriving at five to two at Bury St Edmunds’ beautiful red brick railway station, the women alight and thank me for letting them sit with me, I tell them it was my pleasure, and it was. Stepping onto the platform I immediately breathe in the sweet smell of the local sugar beet factory, a smell that transports me back to the school playing fields of Ipswich in the 1970’s. It’s not exactly a pleasant smell because it’s thick and cloying, but it’s always at its strongest on clear, bright, cold days like today when the wind is in the east and the sky is a frigid blue, and for that reason I can’t help but like it. The sugar beet factory is a thing of beauty with its grey concrete silos and billowing trail of white steam belching and then dissipating into that blue sky. I feel glad to be alive, but it’ll pass.
Heading for the town centre I turn to admire the railway station with its pair of ‘minarets’ and then set-off along Northgate Street before turning into Cannon Street and stopping at the Old Cannon Brewery, hotel and bistro. Most of the people in here are eating and it doesnt have the ambience of a pre-match boozer, but I just have a pint of Black Pig (£3.50) and sit at a small table facing the shiny brewing vessels to read the football pages of the Bury Free Press. The headline story concerns Walsham le Willows FC who apparently are being threatened with relegation from the Eastern Counties Premier League if they don’t resolve some health and safety issues at their ground in Summer Lane. I worry why the League considers relegation would resolve the issue, unless the view is that in Division One some injury and possible death is to be expected.
I wrestle with the idea of having another pint, but decide to head for Bury Town’s ground because it’s now twenty five past two and I’m not sure exactly how far it is or what delights await me at Ram Meadow. I am surprised at how quickly and easily I find the ground considering that I last came here in February 1989. The approach is across the adjacent municipal surface car park (£1.80 for three hours) and is not very imposing; there is no sense of arrival, just a close board wooden fence and three advert hoardings with a single gate. If there was a queue at the turnstile people could be mown down by small men in Range Rovers desperate to park.
I pay my entrance money (£9) and step around the turnstile to stand in what looks like a queue to buy a programme (£2), but it’s not, it’s just old blokes talking; so I step around them explaining to the programme seller that I thought they were a queue. The layout of Ram Meadow is a lot like that of King’s Meadow in Sudbury with the main stand and club house on the west side. The club house at Ram Meadow is new and tacked onto the end of it is a conservatory which is the members’ lounge. Through the glass I can see people scoffing plates of boiled potatoes and pies. By the side of the conservatory is the club shop, it’s the sort of structure that the occupiers of suburban bungalows call a ‘garden room’. I love a club shop; this one is pedalling the usual shirts, scarves and woolly hats but also bears and dinosaurs in Bury Town t-shirts.I head for the bar.
The club house at Ram Meadow is quite new having opened in September 2016; it’s a very plain building but I forgive this because there’s a hand pump on the bar, although the barmaid doesn’t know what it’s serving just that it isn’t what it says on the pump clip. I buy a pint (£3.40) and have pricked the barmaid’s curiosity; she has to find out what the beer is, but returns to say she’s none the wiser and the barrel just says SX SW Pale Ale. I take a seat at the side of the room near where the Bury Town Under 10’s are getting ready to be mascots; there is cake on a table and a mother stands with a plate of chips with a look of ‘do you want any more of these?” on her face.
Two blokes next to me are talking about the match. “So where is Waltham Abbey then?” asks one. “Down near Harlow by the M25” says the second, looking it up on his ‘phone. “They’re all fucking down there, these clubs” is the reply. They speak not in Suffolk accents but as though they really should know where Waltham Abbey is. The beer is good and is quickly gone so I step back out into the cold afternoon. It’s not long until kick-off so I think about where is going to be a good spot to watch the game. I wander back round to the corner of the ground by the turnstiles and the teams are just coming onto the pitch when a voice says “Allo Martin”. It’s Dave, the man with whom I used to write the ‘A Load of Cobbolds’ fanzine back in the 1990’s. In his day Dave was every bit as dedicated to watching Ipswich Town as ever-present Phil who never misses a game is now. I will be eternally jealous of Dave because in 1981 he was in a minibus that went to St Etienne to see Ipswich win 4-1 in Ipswich Town’s greatest performance ever. But Dave became disillusioned and did something about it, he stopped going. But Dave can’t give up football and now has a Bury Town season ticket.
Dave and I walk round to where he sits every week, in the Jimmy Rattle stand with two old codgers who like to just sit and moan. The Jimmy Rattle stand is a long low, multi-stanchioned structure with just a few rows of lovely, warm, wooden bench seats. A scaffolding tower adds interest in the centre, from where each match is filmed. The game begins with Waltham Abbey, in green and white hooped shirts and green shorts, kicking towards Bury St Edmunds cathedral and Bury Town, in all blue, kicking towards the sugar beet factory and its plume of white steam. If I had to choose ends, I’d choose the sugar beet factory.
The pitch is soft and muddy and the colourful kits and clear blue sky make a beautiful scene. Dave updates me on family life; his eldest daughter who I met as a toddler in 1992 is now head of history at a school in Cambridge; I remember her being able to say “We are top of the league; we are top of the league”. Dave says how his younger daughter is less academic and her idea of preparing for an exam was to do her make-up and hair. She has a boyfriend who plays for Bury Town. Dave likens his children to Lisa and Bart Simpson and clearly enjoys that they are so different.
Meanwhile, on the pitch the game is entertaining whilst being of rather poor quality in terms of skill and well organised football. My attention is mostly taken by a Waltham Abbey player who looks as if his kit is a size too large for him
and the Bury right-back for whom the opposite is true.
Bury are expected to win as they sit 10th in the Bostik League North Division table, whilst Waltham Abbey are 13th and have lost most of their last eight or nine games. Very little happens near the goals and most time is spent ploughing through the muddy turf of the congested midfield. But near the end of the half Waltham Abbey twice break free and although their number ten looks certain to score he contrarily hits each post and then a short while later another player carelessly boots a third good chance wide.
We buy a fifty-fifty draw ticket each (£1.00) from a lady called Maureen and the half soon ends. With half-time I return to the club house to catch up on the half-time scores, and to celebrate that Ipswich are winning I buy another pint of the mystery pale ale. With my beer in a plastic cup I am free to wander outside and explore, and as I do so my beer gets colder and colder as the sun sinks low in the west. At the sugar beet factory end of the ground is a an advertisement board for The Suffolk Pest Control Comp[any Ltd , which features a silhouette of a Suffolk Punch horse; I didn’t know these animals were considered pests, but can well imagine that an infestation of them would be a bit of a bugger. But it does account for why the Suffolk Punch is a rare breed.
As the game resumes I visit the outside toilet, in which very weirdly I think I can detect a faint smell of Christmas pudding. I pass the ‘Home and Away Directors box’ and wonder if there are other TV Soap themed directors’ boxes around the country or whether this is the only one. I wander back past the clubhouse where the faces of men holding pint glasses peer out through the double glazing, watching the game from the warmth of an alcoholic haze. As with most non-league or local football, the crowd is mostly made up of middle-aged men and older, and the occasional dog.
There should be more dogs at football matches.
The most passionate Bury fans have now re-located to the Cathedral end and pinned
their flags to the high quality close board wooden fence that encloses the ground. “BTFC. Suffolk Is Ours” boasts one flag somewhat incomprehensibly. It smacks of the same conceit that sees the town of Bury St Edmunds label itself “a jewel in the crown of Suffolk”.
Back on the Jimmy Rattle side of the ground I meet Andrew, a fellow public sector employee who is here with his young son who points out that the Waltham Abbey substitute has an interesting hairstyle. Indeed, he looks like he is from a 1970’s discotheque and as we watch, the ball comes to him inside the Bury Town penalty area, he aims a kick and misses the ball completely.
By and by I return to sit again with Dave and the game carries on much as before, but Bury are the more dominant team now without ever really looking like scoring; it’s a lot like watching the Championship, but cheaper and more fun. We talk a little bit of politics and how even the Labour Party supporters are Tories in Bury St Edmunds. The game is drawing to a close and Bury hit a post, but and even before the three minutes of added on time is announced people are drifting away, beating the imagined rush of 274 people all simultaneously trying to get through the one little gate in that wooden fence. “Have you had enough entertainment for one afternoon?” asks Dave of the old boy who was sat next to him as toddles off home.
The three minutes elapse and I reflect that I have enjoyed a wonderful afternoon’s entertainment. I say good bye to Dave as I head once again to see if I can still smell Christmas pudding and Dave goes round the corner to pop in on his mother-in-law. Before I finally leave Ram Meadow I check on the full-time score at Preston where Ipswich have won. On the walk back to the railway station I phone my wife and as the camera pans away from my afternoon Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ can be heard.