It’s a one and a half hour journey by rail from Ipswich to Lowestoft on a chugging two-carriage diesel. Leaving at 12:17 the train arcs around the north of Ipswich giving a fine view across the town as it crosses Norwich Road and Bramford Road; the cluster of tower blocks in the town centre and on the waterfront look impressive and the floodlights mark out Portman Road as a football ground that still looks like football grounds should do, with lights at each corner, even if on steel sticks not pylons.
Leaving Ipswich, the train, which smells of cheese, possibly parmesan, which means it probably smells of sick, trundles on to Woodbridge and Melton past Westerfield and through disused Bealings station. On into the Suffolk countryside the ride becomes more and more rural. It’s a journey for geographers, biologists and historians as we pass through sands and boulder clays, marshes and broads, passing cows and horses, pigs and sheep, an albino pheasant, partridges, ash and oak, gorse and broom, flint churches, a World War 2 pill box and thatched cottages. Football fans who know what they’re looking for can spot the floodlights of Woodbridge Town Football Club, and further up the line College Meadow, where Beccles Town are destined to lose 0-3 at home to Debenham in the Suffolk Senior Cup later this afternoon, is right next to the station.
The train stops at Woodbridge, Melton, Campsea Ashe for Wickham Market, Saxmundham, Darsham, Halesworth, Brampton (request stop only), Beccles and Oulton Broad South; as if taking an inventory of rustic place names. Large stretches of the line still produce the old-fashioned clickety-clack of the railway track; near Brampton two people stood in a field wave and I wave back imagining they are Jenny Agutter and Sally Thomsett; a child at the table in front bawls, a mother accuses and a whining sibling pleads innocence; it was a game that went wrong. A John Deere tractor tills a massive field, the train passes under towering pylons marching two by two from Sizewell nuclear power station whose dome is visible in the distance over the tops of trees; there’s a windmill and wind turbines. This is a wonderful journey on a beautiful, bright autumn day.
Leaving Oulton Broad South the approaches to Lowestoft soon follow; a bleak landscape of seemingly disused dock on one side,
a huge Aldi and retail park on the other. Lowestoft station is at the centre of the town, at the bottom of the High Street. It’s the end of the line and it looks it, a handsome Victorian building that’s too big for the two lines that host the buses on rails that rattle in through wonderful East Anglian landscapes from both Ipswich and Norwich. It’s a town that has undoubtedly seen better days, it expanded in the late nineteenth century on the back of industrial scale fishing, an unsustainable activity like coal mining and as that industry declined so the town lost its raison d’etre. It had other industries such as bus body building (Eastern Coachworks) but with the de-nationalisation of bus travel that closed too.
It’s just a ten minute walk from Lowestoft railway station to Lowestoft Town’s stadium via Katwijk Way, onto Raglan Street and then left into the charmingly named Love Road. The streets are of terraced houses and even a couple of back street boozers, an alleyway runs down the back of the main stand; this is a proper football ground with a vista of chimney pots and residential roof tops. You can see where the supporters live here, not where they buy their weekly groceries, or go bowling and to the cinema. Lowestoft Town have been at Crown Meadow since 1894.
However, before getting to the ground I take a diversion to the excellent Triangle Tavern on the Triangle Market at the top of the High Street. It’s not far from the stadium and serves beers brewed by Lowestoft’s own Green Jack Brewery. I have a pint of Lurcher Stout (£3.30) and a little while later a pint of Bramble Bitter (£3.00); both good, but the Lurcher was easily my favourite. There are twelve other drinkers in the bar where I sit and I think eleven of them are older than me. Four are sat around a table, all drinking halves. Three sit in a row, talking occasionally but also reading and another three, one of whom sports a Kingstonian shirt, sit at a table by the door. One of the Kingstonian group looks at least 70 and surprises me by suddenly mentioning Depeche Mode, although he seems to think David Sylvian was lead singer and is quickly corrected by the wearer of the shirt. I bemoan to myself that the conversation between the sort of blokes who frequent real-ale pubs often sounds like they are just waiting for the pub-quiz to start.
In Love Road, the away team bus, which is called Elaine Mary, is bumped on the kerb opposite the stadium;
I approach the smart blue turnstile block beneath a sign that says “Welcome to the Amber Dew Events Stadium”; it should say that it’s real and lasting name is Crown Meadow but it doesn’t. “What is it? A tenner?” I ask of the lady turnstile operator. “Eleven” she says, adding “If you’re an adult, are you?” I laugh, “Nooo, I’m not an adult” I say perhaps a little too sarcastically, but later I think maybe she thought I’m a pensioner. I reckon £11 to watch non-league, part-time football is a bit steep, and although it’s no more than other clubs charge at this level, in France it cost less (9 Euros) to watch a fully professional match (Nimes v Auxerre) in Ligue 2. C’est la vie. Just inside the turnstile programmes are sold from a table for £2, I buy one.
Whilst I’m not thirsty anymore, I am hungry and after exploring the earthly delights of the club shop I head to the far end of the ground to the food kiosk. Inside the kiosk a middle aged man attends the deep fat fryer and a young woman takes the money, whilst surreally a second older man is asleep on a chair. From the usual football food menu I opt for the ‘hot dog’ (£3.50), which consists of two very ordinary sausages with onions (optional), in what turns out to be a very crumbly
finger roll; I can’t recommend it. It takes a while to cook the sausages and the teams have come on to the pitch, been through all that hand shaking ‘respect’ stuff and kicked off before I take my first bite. Kingstonian are in red and white hooped shirts with black shorts and socks whilst Lowestoft, who kick-off the game towards Love Road and the dock, are in all-blue. Lowestoft Town are nowadays known as the Trawlerboys, but their shirts are sadly not sponsored by Fisherman’s Friend cough sweets, but by ‘Africa Alive’, which I believe was once more prosaically known as the Kessingland Wildlife Park.
The game is evenly contested early on, to the extent that neither team looks likely to go on and win. Although Lowestoft do hit the cross bar, not much else is happening near the goals, but it holds my attention in bursts. The Kingstonian number five Michell Gough stands out, mostly because of his hair, which might be described as pirate-like or a bit girlie depending on your point of view, but also because he is very involved in the game and hits a decent long pass. It is probably a good thing that men are once again comfortable wearing a pony tail, but I’m glad that a rubber band or scrunchy did not deny me the sight of the flowing locks of Mario Kempes, Kevin Beattie and Gunter Netzer back in the 1970’s. For Lowestoft, their number eleven Cruise Nyadzyo seems keen to get the ball forward, but too often his crosses pick out no one in particular. I multi-task by walking around the ground and watching the match at the same time. A steward eyes me suspiciously. There is a country bus shelter type structure behind the far goal which sports on its back wall a trawler-shaped memorial plaque to one Ted Lightfoot.
Three Kingstonian fans occupy the shelter and muse upon whether they comprise the smallest group of Kingstonian fans ever assembled behind a goal for a Kingstonian first team match. Along the long side of the pitch opposite the mainstand are the dug-outs; the Lowestoft manager, bald headed and in a black tracksuit is very mobile, swearing violently to himself when one of his players fails to live up to his expectations.
Above the dug-outs a camera loft looks like it could double up as a hide for birdwatchers on the nearby Broads. I linger for as long as it takes me to get bored with hearing the word ‘fuckin’. Moving on I can see the blades of a wind-turbine over the top of the stand opposite. I pass behind the goal at the Love Road end, squeezing between a wall and the row of mostly younger Lowestoft Town supporters pressed up against the rail.
It’s approaching half-time and I settle in a gap between spectators stood against the wall in front of the main stand. “Hello Peter, how are ya?” says a cheery Suffolk-accented voice. “I int sin ya for ages” he continues. “Well, I sin your boy” says Peter, adding a further layer of mystery to the conversation. It turns out Peter and his friend who hasn’t seen him in a while are also Ipswich Town fans. Peter’s friend has been taking the train to Ipswich to watch matches and keeps Tuesdays free for midweek games, which is why he is annoyed that the Sheffield Wednesday match has been moved to a Wednesday night. “Bloody Sky tv” he says “they’re ruining the game” and he voices the thoughts of football supporters everywhere.
There will be two minutes of added on time at the end of the first half which is time enough for Kingstonian’s number four Paul Rogers to clear the ball and in so doing raise a boot too close to the face of the Trawlerboys’ number five and captain Travis Cole, who makes me think of Malcolm McDowell in Lindsey Anderson’s marvellous film “If”. Travis keeps touching his face and looking for blood, clearly suffering from the weird form of hypochondria that affects all footballers when anything brushes by their pretty faces. The consequence is that referee Mr Quick wastes no time in booking the slightly unfortunate Rogers and awarding a penalty to the home team, which is scored by number nine Jake Reed. Emboldened by the goal, there are a few shouts of “Come on you Blues” from the home supporters, one of whom has a bass drum. But half-time swiftly follows and I return to the scene of the crumbling hot dog to obtain a pounds worth of tea, which comes in a much larger cup than at other grounds I’ve been to, but it doesn’t taste particularly nice; I think it’s the fault of the slightly waxy paper cups. Back in front of the main stand ‘Woody’, a large bear dressed like Uncle Sam, patrols with his minder encouraging people to visit Pleasurewood Hills, a local theme park. As things stand Woody is a viable United States president. I look through the match programme and am a little disturbed that the advert for the stadium sponsor, Amber Dew Events, features a picture of a partially squashed ant, albeit a partially squashed ant inside a piece of amber.
For the start of the second half I choose to sit in the main stand, just in front of the area reserved for the club officials; the only people in the ground wearing suits and club ties. I want to tell them to relax, grow their hair, wear shades and a beret; they surely only dress like they do so people know that they are the club officials. I smile to myself. The main stand is a lovely, low, gloomy structure with a deep, grey fascia beneath the roof and glass screens at either end. Inside the stand there are no plastic seats like those found at most grounds; here they have the original cast iron frames with beautifully mellowed, curved wooden backs and wooden tip up seats. The stand has no stanchions to block your view suggesting it might be of a cantilever design, in which case it was an early one. Despite lashings of blue paint, it’s dull and utilitarian; but it’s beautiful and a candidate for local listing by Waveney District Council. Club officials in de-mob suits, brogues and fedoras, and smoking pipes would not look out of place in this stand.
The second half begins and from my newly elevated position I finish my tea and enjoy the burst of sunlight that breaks through the mass of cloud that started to hang low over Lowestoft this afternoon whilst I was in the Triangle Tavern. For all its beauty, this stand is on the wrong side of the pitch and a hundred or more people squint in unison. There are more shouts of “Come On You Blues” as people sense victory is possible, but this seems to make some older supporters sat behind me a bit tetchy too. Mr Quick the referee receives some mild abuse for one or two of his decisions and there is clearly a belief that the world and in particular Mr Quick is against Lowestoft. But according to Wikipedia, this is a town with three UKIP councillors, so fear and a lack of logic are common currency.
The folks behind me are full of advice for the team; “Pass to Smudger”, “Too Late”, “ You shudda passed to Smudger”, “ Get a grip Blues”, “ What did you give it away for Blues?”, “Give it to someone who can put their foot on the ball”. It’s odd, but I must have seen more than two thousand football matches in my time and I’ve never seen anyone gain any advantage by just putting their foot on the ball, but there are still people who seem convinced that it is an effective tactic. I did see Arnold Muhren put his foot on the ball, drag it back and then release a thirty metre pass of pinpoint accuracy, but I don’t think that is quite the same thing.
The game rolls on and way off to the right I can see the copper spire of Lowestoft’s parish church, the Grade One listed St Margaret’s. Oblivious of medieval flintwork the commentary continues from from behind me, particularly when Cruise Nyadzyo is substituted; it’s not a popular decision. The view seems to be that he was the best player on the pitch. Things don’t get any better in the eyes of the mainstanders as Kingstonian’s Thomas Derry strikes the cross-bar with a header from a corner. But taking the best player off seems to have no lasting effect, perhaps it makes the other players work harder, and soon afterwards a low right-wing cross from Lowestoft’s number eight Sam Borrer is easily kicked into the Kingstonian net from close range by Jake Reed and Lowestoft lead 2-0. Going further behind seems to be just what Kingstonian needed to do however, in order to raise their game and they eventually score a goal too, from a free-kick off the head of number five Michell Gough. The remainder of the game involves Kingstonian trying to equalise and Lowestoft trying not to concede. I leave my seat to stand closer to the exit because when the final whistle blows it won’t leave long to get to the railway station for the 17:07 train. Eventually at 16:58 Mr Quick calls time and I sprint off down Love Road leaving the victorious Trawlerboys behind me; I make it onto the train with nearly three minutes to spare.
It has been a good day out, a day of many pleasures; a scenic train ride, fine local beers, blue skies, sunshine and clouds, a football ground set amongst terraced houses and back alleys, an old-fashioned grandstand and a half decent football match, which isn’t bad for a depressed town with the highest unemployment rates in Suffolk. Visit Lowestoft, it needs you.