Cricket at Holkham Hall: a spectacular innings

The backdrop of Holkham Hall is the most idyllic of settings for one of the summer’s most iconic sports, and the tradition of cricket on the estate is at least 180 years old - and continues to this day

Cricket is one of the most genteel of sports, even though the first mention of a cricket bat in the media (1624) records a batsman deliberately using his to kill a fielder who was about to take a catch.

Happily, Norfolk has a rather prouder place in the early history of the game’s most famous piece of equipment as it can claim to be the home of Salix alba Caerulea, a more upright version of the white willow. The tree’s exceptionally light and strong wood was soon found to be so perfectly suited to the purpose that it’s now actually known as Cricket Bat Willow - and several local artisans in the county handcraft cricket bats to this day.

It’s often claimed that the tree was discovered across the border in Suffolk in 1803, but in his monumental 36-volume English Botany (1790-1814) the botanical illustrator and natural historian James Sowerby mentions a 10-year-old Salix alba Caerulea in Hethersett just outside Norwich that was blown over by a gale in 1800 - so it was already known in Norfolk at least as early as 1790.

We don’t know if cricket was being played at Holkham Hall at the time, but it had certainly become so well established by the middle of the 19th century that Thomas William Coke, 2nd Earl of Leicester levelled part of the grounds to make a rudimentary cricket square, which his grandson treated to rather more elevated attention.

“Between the two world wars the 4th Earl of Leicester arranged for members of the MCC’s ground staff come to Holkham and lay the square more professionally,” says Thomas Coke, 8th Earl of Leicester from the family home, which remains one of the finest examples of Palladian architecture in the country. “I suspect that was because in addition to being a concert-standard violinist (amongst many other things) he was also an accomplished playing member of the MCC.”

Owner of the iconic ground at Lords and guardian of the game’s laws, Marylebone Cricket Club is the world’s most famous and active cricket club, and the square they helped create at Holkham eventually measured some 125ft across and hosted up to 60 matches a year. Given the spectacular setting it’s hardly surprising that teams from around the UK came to north Norfolk to play in front of the hall.

The tradition of cricket at Holkham continues to this day, and the estate is home to three teams that operate independently of each other. The best known and the one that plays the most matches is the Holkham Cricket Club, while every member of the Holkham Estate team is employed in some capacity on the estate. Only appearing on special occasions are the Nubian Ostriches, an invitation-only team that used to be captained by Lord Leicester himself and takes the family’s heraldic emblem as part of its name. 

It may be a friendly club that only plays friendlies, but Holkham Cricket Club has always achieved a good standard and has a tradition of fine cricketers. Virtually all the matches are played at Holkham over the summer (mostly on Sundays) and the emphasis is firmly on ensuring that everyone involved has an enjoyable day - regardless of the result.

Historically, the village and surrounding area provided the players for the club, but as local interest dwindled in the post-war period it was necessary to start attracting team members from further afield - which meant Holkham Cricket Club was at risk of distancing itself from the very people it hoped to represent. Fortunately local interest in the club (and cricket in general) has been rekindled in recent years, and the club is in a much healthier position now. 

New members are always welcome, and the only entry requirements are that you’re capable of playing cricket to a reasonable standard and can commit to playing at least six games during the season. For people interested, a great idea is to visit one of the weekly net sessions that are held every Wednesday evening at Holkham from May, meet the players and see the standard for yourself. The club also welcomes supporters, and if you’d like to be involved as either an umpire or scorer, HCC chairman Jon Smith would love to hear from you. Call 07884 490368 or 01328 712033 or send an e-mail to j.smith@holkham.co.uk. In addition to being part of a local sporting tradition you’ll also receive free entry to the park and enjoy a fantastic tea.

And you’ll discover why cricket is still known as the “gentleman’s game”.

“Because of its core values and intrinsic sense of fair play, cricket has always been a calm and civilising game, despite how exciting it gets,” says Lord Leicester. “In fact, when Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister at the height of the Cold War, he’s reported to have remarked that ‘the world would be a much better place if the Russians and Americans played cricket!’

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