The house where WG Grace was born is on the market for sale. The WG Memorial Cricket Ground nearby has temporarily escaped commercialisation.With Bristol suffering from congestion due to repair work, Arunabha Sengupta drove down to the Downend and Bromley Heath area early in the morning to pay homage to the Father of Cricket.
It should have been frozen in time and space, safeguarded and curated, preserved as the foremost shrine of cricket. This was the house that saw the birth of the man who went on to change the face of cricket forever.
More strikingly this was the house in which WG Grace — that giant leviathan of a cricketer who strides in the cricketing consciousness to this day with his enormous girth and beard —that enormous hulk of history had crawled, drooled and spluttered as a baby.
Sadly, there is only a plaque that rather unobtrusively assures those embarking on this rare pilgrimage that yes, Dr WG Grace was indeed born here on July 18, 1848. The only words that the notice adds to underline the eminence of Grace read: “famous Gloucester cricketer”.
Famous Gloucester cricketer? ‘Understatement’ itself comes up as a hapless self-referential 13-word conglomerate of ineptitude to describe this description. The famous Gloucester cricketer, indeed!Grace was by far the greatest cricketer in the land for most of his life, as also in the world for much of it. He happened to be born in Gloucester. Other than that his greatness spread far and wide, way beyond town, shire and land, transcending age, era and century.
He changed cricket, and he became the game … the most recognisable face and beard in the Empire. He grew up in this three-storey building with his eight siblings, every one of them gripping a bat almost as soon as they could stand erect.
And since a year, this house in Downend, Bristol, has been on the market for sale. The Grade II listed building, with its 11 rooms,is for the taking for £595,000. Earlier used as publishing offices, it is advertised as having bathrooms and kitchens on each floor. The enormity of cricketing memories submerged in the prosaic description: “Rendered, moulded stone coping to parapet, double saddle pantile roof, end gables. Three storeys, 3 windows, later sashes without glazing bars in exposed wooden frames. Later 3-light square bays to ground floor, joined by tiled pentice forming porch. Central panelled door with slab hood on pilasters — modern glazing and porch.”
It would have been put down as an economic inevitability if the same had been the fate of the quaint little cricket ground nearby the house. However, thevenue where WG cracked balls around, perfecting his forward and backward play, turning the old one-stringed instrument into a many-chorded lyre, has survived the tentacles of commercialisation.
Now known as the WG Memorial Ground and the home of the Downend Cricket Club since 1920, the small patch of green with the quaint pavilion is still there. The pavilion is known as the WG Grace Memorial Pavilion. One solitary employee of the Downend Cricket Club cleans the premises, as I approach. Visitors must be few and quite far between, because on seeing me armed with camera this fellow smiles widely and waves genially.
A similarly inconspicuous foundation memorial stone plate beside the pavilion announces that it is in the memory of WG Grace. But the pavilion was founded in 1922, after the great life had achieved all those laurels and had just come to an end some years earlier. It justly describes WG as The World’s Greatest Cricketer.
If one looks at the expanse, with the eyes fading out into the recesses of imagination, one may spot the spirit of the Father of Cricket, batting diligently at the nets, even hear his willow strike the ball, and listen to his high-pitched voice calling out to the bowler to bowl a better line.
There had been talks between developers and the Downend Cricket Club over four years, and there the cricket ground tottered on the verge of becoming a concrete tomb of the game in the form of residential flats and supermarket stores. However, the talks fell through, a new home for the club was not forthcoming, and the ground managed to breathe easy. At least for the moment.
Curiously, the only giant image of WG Grace in the locality is atop a cycle store at the corner of North Street and Downend Road.
The ground and the building of his birth are curiously understated in the remembrance of one of the greatest figures in the history of cricket. Yet, for the ones who are aware of the giant steps taken by this colossus will perhaps be able to feel some of the echoes and reverberations as they walk along the quarters that had been his earliest haunts.