Today, the 1,000 souls who make up the community of Hambledon call this village ‘The Cradle of Cricket’ but it was less a comforting, rocking, soft-pillowed cot and more a fierce furnance of cricketing competition and innovation.
Those with an interest in cricket and how it is played today will be rewarded by an interest in the phenomenon that was Hambledon Cricket Club. C.C. as the club’s insignia confidently proclaims itself, played in the Seventeen Hundreds first on Broadhalfpenny Down, a windswept height two miles outside the settlement and later at Windmill Down nearer to the comforts of the township.
Those rewards come not just because this venue was the home of very strong sides, sometimes playing as ‘Hampshire’ and able to take on any opposition willing to wager the equivalent of tens of thousands of pounds against it between the 1750s and 1790s, but because this was the place and time when cricket’s greatest and most significant period of rapid technical and cultural evolution revolution came about.
Those looking up the location for the first time on a road map will be surprised that this dormitory village is situated amid a forest of roughly similar hamlets and villages linked by a tracery of lanes due north and ‘over the Hill’ (Portsdown) from the mighty naval base of Portsmouth and due east of the bristling port of Southampton in a rectangle formed by the M25 motorway to the south, the A3(M) arterial route to the east, the cross country A272 to the north and the A32 running along the Meon Valley to the west.
Hambledon, today, lacks and is distanced from every advantage that is needed to sustain important economic and cultural centres. Is Third Man really suggesting that this village once sustained a social, economic and cultural phenomenon that was a regional if not a national focus? If he is then Hambledon’s decline and degeneration must have been as structurally dramatic and as painful as that of a Detroit or a Liverpool.
Of course a map that showed the centres of political power prior to the Reformation would show a completely different situation. The Church dominated political and economic life, rivalling the power of the Monarch and often, in parts of the country distant from London, out running it. Such a map would show in very large black capitals the cathedral cities of WINCHESTER, the former capital, and CHICHESTER.
A straight line joining these two centres of economic, political and cosmic power passes through Hambledon just as the weaving hedge-bound B2150 does today. In September 1651, Charles II fleeing from defeat at the Battle of Worcester and on route for the Continent used this route and hid one night in a cottage adjoining Mr Thomas Symonds’s house. Brave stuff, because Hambledon was ‘for Parliament’ and, just seven years before, the ‘Hambledon Boys’, campaigning under the command of Colonel Norton of Southwick, had distinguished themselves at the Battle of Cheriton.
That map would also show a well used route linking London and the Admiralty with it’s principal base, Portsmouth, which also passed through Hambledon. In fact Hambledon and the surrounding settlements were favourite choices for naval commanders to spend their considerable prize money restoring and enlarging houses for their families to live. Followers of the adventures of Jack Aubrey will know that The Master and Commander did just that and with his crew and often played at cricket to keep their war spirit sharp in times of peace.
In Saxon days Hambledon belonged to the Abbey of St.Peter, St. Paul and St.Swithin at Winchester. Figures given in the Domesday Book suggest quite a prosperous community when William the Conquerer seized all church lands. In about 1160 Henry II returned the manor of Hambledon to the Bishop of Winchester and a hundred years later Henry III granted the Bishop a weekly market there on Tuesdays. This econmic boon increased the Bishop’s income from stall holders but also prompted a rapid growth in the prosperity as a strong market economy developed.
By the Seventeen Hundreds, Hambledon sustained 12 public houses in to serve ant remaining pilgrims, the warriors, truckers waggoners, officials, highway men and all those who served their needs like bakers, cobblers, cartwrights, carpenters, wine merchants, publicans and shopkeepers.
High above this noisy competitive, individualistic hubbub of the marketplace, on the breezy sheep-clipped Downs the shepherds led their more communal life at the pace set by their sheep, in an almost seperate community linked by their web of mutuality and kinship. Their dependence on neighbourliness and common purpose reflected in the games they played on the springy turf to while away the time.