The end is near for Saltergate

Saltergate, January 2012
Saltergate, January 2012

One of the finest sports books published last year was Britain’s Lost Cricket Grounds by Chris Arnot, writes sports editor Andrew Jarvis.

Among many that have disappeared, it featured a long-forgotten wicket from the Peak District village of Edale and there were dozens of nostalgic black and white photographs of one-time grounds that will never see another ball bowled.

Lovingly written, the book received the generous review it deserved in Times Sport and a couple of copies of the £25 publication were offered to readers as prizes.

Arnot, a national freelance feature writer and an Aston Villa fan, has now turned his attention to his next project – lost football grounds.

And in the name of research, he paid a visit to north Derbyshire the other week to see what remains of the Recreation Ground, Chesterfield FC’s home from 1871 until it was vacated by the Spireites in the summer of 2010.

His tour came in the same week as it was announced that Barratt Homes had bought the Saltergate site for residential development, news that no doubt heartened many folk living nearby who have witnessed the deterioration of the old stadium since the football club flitted to the B2net at Whittington Moor.

I know that many people considered it as the ground that time forgot, a crumbling, ramshackle dinosaur of a stadium, but I have fond memories of Saltergate.

It was a permanent fixture in my life from the age of 11 and even though the B2net is better than most fans could ever have expected, it still came as a wrench to leave the Rec.

And I witnessed how the old ground had plunged downhill a few months after the club upped sticks when I walked along Cross Street for the first time since the doors were closed to professional football for the last time.

There had been an auction, selling off fixtures and fittings to boost club coffers, but what I saw took my breath away.

Turnstiles had been removed in the most crude fashion imaginable – literally ripped out – leaving great gaps in the castellated stone wall with daylight pouring in.

I was shocked and it felt like looking at a much-loved aunt who had had her teeth knocked out.

To give Arnot a feel of what the old place was like, it was initially hoped to acquire the keys to Saltergate and to have a look round to see how it had stood up the ravages dereliction.

But this proved impossible to arrange, so it was agreed that Chesterfield FC historian Stuart Basson and I would meet him in the car park outside the old main entrance on St Margarets Drive.

Unfortunately, that was also out of the question as the two entrances were chained off and we were left looking at the crumbling and increasingly shabby back of the main stand from the pavement. It was not a pleasant sight.

We led Chris on an anti-clockwise tour of the ground and Stuart and I gave him snippets of information about the place but it was difficult for him to get too much of an impression from the outside alone.

Peering up gennels on Compton Street may give a tantilising glimpse of the foliage-covered rear of the Pop Side but it hardly provides a realistic flavour of what it was like to watch a match from the stand.

However, Chris seemed smitten after his visit.

He said: “I’m amazed the place is still standing, it was fascinating to see.

“Even though it was in a cobweb timewarp, the ground clearly meant a lot to local people.’’

Nothing lasts for ever and the property developers have scheduled the demolition of the old ground for this spring following an archaeological survey of the playing surface.

Chris’s new book about the lost football grounds, which is set to feature Saltergate, will be called Fields of Dreams, and is likely to be published in October.

And if it is anything like his book on cricket grounds, every sports fan should put it on their Christmas list.