Sporting cathedrals pass into oblivion

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The other day The Daily Telegraph reported that the small but perfectly formed Starter's Box from the Old Course at St Andrew's, built in 1924 and shipped to California in 2001, was still lying unloved in a ship's container.

This came only a week after the news that at the very moment London was going Olympic-crazy the Herne Hill velodrome, venue of the cycling events at the 1908 and 1948 Games, was in danger of closure because the landlords had repossessed the site.

No country is more sentimental about old buildings than Britain. Touch a slate on a church and locals who have never set foot in it suddenly discover godliness; try to make use of a redundant barn and the listed-buildings people race down remote farm tracks to make sure you do it their way; monstrosities from the 1930s suddenly acquire sentimental defenders if they are in any way under threat.

Yet our sporting cathedrals which attract at least as many people each week as all the churches in the land remain curiously unloved. This, in part, is because for so long they could be taken for granted. For nearly a century until the 1990s, barely a single English football club moved house.

There was no new venue for Test cricket between 1902 and 2003. In that time only three main county grounds (Cardiff, Sheffield and Southampton) disappeared. Since a cull in the early 1960s, just a handful of racecourses (Alexandra Park, Stockton, Wye and Lanark) have gone, and still not one has opened since Taunton in 1927.

But the change has come. It was sparked by the succession of football ground disasters of the 1980s (their names Heysel, Hillsborough, Brad- ford emblazoned on the memory of those times) that forced everyone into a realisation that doing nothing was untenable. Since then, a pile of League football grounds (Ayresome Park, Roker, the Baseball Ground, Maine Road, Burnden Park, the Dell, the Den) have passed into oblivion, and they have not been missed much.

This was fair enough, in the sense that they were aesthetically undistinguished and obsolete in their facilities. But when the most famous of all English stadiums, Wembley, was also bulldozed, its iconic twin towers went too, accompanied only by subdued murmuring. Over the next few years, the trend will gather pace, as Highbury vanishes and probably Anfield, and maybe Goodison.

But a change in attitudes towards the old is also coming, and a new series of books has emerged that might spearhead this movement. It is produced by Simon Inglis, the journalist whose pioneering work, The Football Grounds of Britain, first made what was once an eccentric interest respectable.

Inglis's new project is Played in Britain, a series produced in conjunction with English Heritage, to celebrate not just football grounds but all the quiet and forgotten corners where the nation's sporting dreams have been enacted, from swimming baths to bowling greens. The first fruit of this labour, Played in Manchester, is a little gem of local history: evocative, sensitive, nostalgic without being maudlin and full of photographs worthy of a coffee table book, which is quite something for £9.99.

Manchester is a splendid place to start, because no city in Britain has a richer or more eclectic mix of sporting memories, some lost, some still findable. On a summer's evening a few years ago, I wandered round the back end of Salford and came across the remnants of Manchester Racecourse at Castle Irwell, and a modern cantilevered stand, staring forlornly into the middle of nowhere. Inglis says the stand was built in 1961 and was the first at any British sporting venue to feature "private viewing boxes".

It was designed by Ernest Atherden, a young Mancunian architect much influenced by the designs used for the 1960 Rome Olympics. Atherden then got the commission to redesign Manchester United's ground, brought the board out to Castle Irwell and persuaded them, "not without difficulty", to have similar boxes at Old Trafford. Thus was born the modern age of corporate sporting hospitality.

By then, however, the Castle Irwell prototype was already redundant. Manchester Racecourse had always been both foggy and boggy, and in the early 1960s its financial problems were mounting, not helped by the cost of paying for Atherden's new stand. So the company sold out to developers, the course closed and the area would have been turned into a housing estate had not the scheme fallen at a public inquiry. Now the stand is a students' union building, and is apparently haunted by the ghost of a long-gone jockey.

As more of our old stamping grounds vanish, there will be more hauntings. The process needs to take place, heaven knows; Britain desperately wants modern sports facilities. But we also need to be sensitive about what might be lost, before it is too late.

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