‘Leeds used to be a rugby town’, a bloke said to me as I waited for my Indian takeaway at the nearby ‘Home Bar’ at Roundhay, in November, 2009.
He had heard my Aussie accent and we got talking sport in general. He was a Yorkshire County cricket supporter, but had a soft spot for the Leeds Rhinos Rugby League side, which shares the Headingley complex with cricket.
When he said Leeds used to be a rugby town, my first thought was, surely it still is.
But he explained, that before the birth of Leeds United (soccer), in 1920, the focus was very much on rugby (league) clubs like Leeds, Hunslet and Bramley, all located in the Leeds’ metropolitan area. Now United is the biggest drawing football club in town.
The formation of a rugby club in Leeds dates back to 1864, when the Leeds Mercury newspaper carried an advertisement seeking players for a football club “on Woodhouse Moor for a few days a week from 7 to 8 a.m.”
Five hundred members joined very quickly, and “their practises, in which from 60, in the morning, to 150 in the evening, took part, were amongst the sights of Leeds. Broomsticks with cotton flags served for goal posts, and they experimented with all sizes of ball.”
From this start, came the Leeds Athletic club, which had a hand in the inauguration of the Yorkshire Rugby Union Challenge Cup, which provided the city with its first international player, R H Fowler, who played in the England pack in 1877. Leeds Rugby League was essentially born out of these events.
Hunslet was born out of the local cricket club, in 1883, while Bramley was founded in 1879 by a group of rugby-minded clerics, under the leadership of Rev. S W Cope. Bramley, at that time, was a pleasant village, and the club was nicknamed “The Villagers”. Bramley folded as the Villages in 1999, but have reformed as the Buffaloes, and play in a league which includes teams from Hull, Nottingham and Siddal.
My good mate, the late, Raymond Fletcher’s son was a devoted Bramley fan. Dual rugby international, Jason Robinson, is a product of Hunslet rugby league.
On November 9, 2009 my wife, Marie and I had left from Brisbane for Europe. On the flight I sat next to Nick Etchells from Channel 9, who was travelling to Rome to do a special on the Vatican’s playlist for MySpace. (No idea what that means). I thought Nine would have had him in Business Class!
We arrived at London Heathrow on time, and the Customs’ lass was curious about my wife, Marie being born at Casino. She didn’t think there was a town called Casino, only casinos. I told her all about the cattle industry in the Casino area, and she thought I said ‘kettle’. I don’t know where kettles are made.
Caught a flight to Manchester, where we picked up a VW Polo, before driving through Wilmslow to Macclesfield, where we had a leg stretch at the canal basin at Bellington, beside the Adelphi Cotton Mill.
From there we drove to Whalley Bridge and the Bugsworth Canal Basin, where we spoke to a retired couple (ex GPO) who are travelling the canals with their two dogs. Look, I love the British Waterways system, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than spending month after month cooped up in a canal boat, and with two dogs!
Marie and I enjoyed one drink (I had Golden Pippin beer from Yorkshire) at the Navigation Pub, at nearby Buxworth, which is in the High Peak district of Derbyshire.
On our first night we stayed with close friends, Andrew and Sandy Varley. I shouted the Indian meal, and enjoyed two beers at the ‘Home Bar’, while waiting.
Andrew, one of England’s top sports photographers, had been to Elland Road to cover the Leeds United v Grimbsy Town match, which United won 3-1. Trivia – one goal was scored by Oliver Lancashire, another by Neil Kilkenny.
Noted Australian sports photographer, Col Whelan was also staying with the Varleys.
The next day we watched the Remembrance Day Service from Westminister Abbey. For the first time, there were no World War 1 soldiers.
Then Marie and I drove to the Varley’s beach house at Sandsend, north of Whitby, with Varley roaring past us on the Motorway.
“I thought a tractor was holding up traffic,” he joked.
We stopped at Pickering for a walk and a bit to eat (corn meat and pork and apple pasties), then drove through Rosedale, dodging pheasants (not peasants) as we went.
Varley had the Yorkshire flag flying high at his beach house, which looks down on the North Sea.
That night we dined at the Moon and Sixpence in Whitby (halibut and half a dozen Colchester oysters for me and sea bass for Marie).
Jet lag did not seem a problem, as we all discussed rugby, soccer, journalism and photography. Certainly, Andrew derives most of his income from covering soccer, not rugby (league).
Photo 1: Leeds’ skipper, Joe Thompson leads his men from Central Park after a win over Wigan in 1932.
Photo 2: Bugsworth Canal Basin November 2009
Photo 3: Whitby