The March – December 6, 2014 – 12.30 for 1pm at Butts Close
What is the purpose of the march?
The club’s landlords have proposed a land swap deal with a developer that will could result in the construction of a supermarket on the Top Field stadium site and relocation of Hitchin Town to an out-of-town site on the Stevenage Road. The club, which has a 25 year-lease on Top Field, with a five-year break clause, does not wish to move. The march is aimed at making known the feelings of the club, its supporters and additionally, the impact that a supermarket will have on the fabric of Hitchin itself.
How important is Top Field?
In many ways, it is a football heritage site. The club started playing there in the early 20th century and returned in 1928 when it was reformed. It is one of the oldest football venues still remaining in Britain, possibly the world. Hitchin Town played in the first FA Cup in 1871-72 and has hosted many Football League and Premier League clubs down the years including: Aldershot, Arsenal, Barnet, Brentford, Bristol Rovers, Cambridge United, Charlton, Chelsea, Colchester, Coventry, Crystal Palace, Dagenham, Fulham, Gillingham, Hereford United, Ipswich, Leicester, Luton Town, Millwall, MK Dons, Northampton, Norwich, Orient, Peterborough, QPR, Reading, Southend, Stevenage, Swindon Town, Tottenham, Watford, West Ham, Wycombe Wanderers, Yeovil.
How important is Hitchin Town Football Club to the community?
For the past decade, the club has operated a very robust community engagement programme that has included youth, disabled and ladies football. The club has strong links with local schools, youth groups and educational units. As well as business links with the various bodies in the town, the club also has a good relationship with local museums. Over 200 children are linked with the club’s youth football club and every weekend the yellow shirt of Hitchin Town can be seen playing in youth football at various sites around town. Hitchin Town are one of the best supported teams in the Southern League Premier Division. The club’s supporters are incredibly loyal and helped to establish a trust that has run for around a decade, providing valuable financial support to the club. Hitchin Town is also the most senior sporting entity in the town and attracts far more spectators than any other sporting event.
What effect will the development of Top Field have on the town of Hitchin?
Although other bodies are better qualified to answer that question, it is very pertinent and the club has a view. Another supermarket could be the death knell of the town’s economy. It will drive people out of the town centre and severely impact the profitability of local businesses. The march, therefore, is not just about a football club, but the commerce of an historic and much-loved provincial town. There is also the question of the Green Belt. The proposed site, close to Kingshott School, is on green belt land. So there is a big environmental issue at stake aswell.
What has been the reaction to the campaign and who will join the march?
The club has been moved by the depth of feeling displayed by the community and by the non-league footballing fraternity. Furthermore, goodwill messages have been received from all over the world.
The march will include: Supporters, youth team players and their families, first team players and management, officials of the club, members of the business community and various Hitchin groups, sponsors, the Hitchin Town Ladies team, the Hitchin Town Ability Counts (disabled) team, non-league supporters and more. All are welcome to make this march visible and effective.
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The history of Top Field
Look at an old map of Hitchin in the late Victorian age, and you will notice that Fishponds Road does not extend to the site of Hitchin Town's Football Ground. In fact, the road which is now the formal address of the club ended abruptly with a dirt track, some two hundred yards from the Top Field. In those days, Hitchin played football on a site in Payne's Park, just south of its existing home.
The origins of football in the area are somewhat ambiguous, but it is known that in the days when Football was almost a tribal war between rival villages and towns, Hitchin and Stevenage started off somewhere between Great and Little Wymondley, and kicked the Pig's bladder from “Dawn 'til Dusk”. Hitchin Football Club, which was formed in 1865 also played at the town’s cricket ground and Dog Kennel Farm in Charlton, as well as Butts Close.
Top Field was separated from Butts Close by a thin path, and was held as part of a trust known as the Cow Trust, which was run by the Cow Commoners. The site was installed as a place of recreation for the people of Hitchin, and as such, that was the prerequisite for any activity which took place there. If you were a Cow Commoner, you were entitled to run your sheep or cattle along Bedford Road (adjacent to Top Field) and across Butts Close once a year.
The first Hitchin Club played at Top Field not long after its formation in 1865 - the exact date is uncertain, but what is certain is that one of the very first FA Cup ties was was played on that ground. On November 11,1871, Hitchin drew 0-0 with Crystal Palace in torrential rain at Top Field. That, in itself, marks Top Field as a place of sporting heritage. In the early days of Top Field, the players would change in the Public House opposite Butts Close, The Cricketers. In those days, The Cricketers was on the site that is now the Firs Hotel (some 200 yards from where it is presently).
The ground soon took shape, and a fine wooden grandstand, one which was higher than the existing structure, was the pride of the club. Hitchin FC turned professional in the early years of the 20th Century, but the move was to prove an expensive folly, and they struggled. The grandstand was destroyed by fire one terrible night, and as a result the club lost heart and folded in 1911.
Football in Hitchin continued, however, in the form of Hitchin Blue Cross, a club run by the local temperance movement. They played their games at the Grammar School in Fishponds Road. It was not until 1928 that Hitchin Town was reformed and shortly afterwards, it was agreed the club should move into the ground once more in time for the start of the Spartan League campagn.
At that time, the Imps, an athletic club, was using the ground. Top Field again became the home of senior football in the town, and in the early years of the reformed club the ground was built up once more. A grandstand of 450 seats, under cover, was installed in the latter weeks of 1928 and still stands today. In 1931-32, one of the other notable features of the ground - wooden terracing - was introduced for a big FA Amateur Cup tie, installed as a temporary measure. At one time the terracing used to extend around most of the ground, but the years have taken their toll and there has been some culling due to accident and inclement weather.
In 1955, the record crowd was set when 7,878 filled the ground as Wycombe Wanderers came to Hitchin for an FA Amateur Cup tie. The biggest change to the ground since the original constructions of the laste 1920's was the installation of £5,000 worth of floodlighting. They were switched on by the late Billy Wright in 1962, when Arsenal came to the ground to commemorate the occasion.
In 1963 a new clubhouse was built, at that time it was considered one of the best in Amateur Football and another innovation, a sauna, was installed in the late 1960's. Healthy crowds flocked to Hitchin in the 1970's, witnessing epic cup battles against, most notably, Swindon Town and Cambridge United but few major improvements were made. Recent years have seen the construction of concrete terracing at the Ickleford Road end and following a bad storm in late October 2002 replacement covering on the popular side.
In 2012, Top Field, which was registered as common land, was deregistered. In June 2012, the club's landlords announced a ground development proposal in Stevenage Road. Amid fears that the Top Field was to be sold to a major supermarket, a "Save Top Field" campaign was launched by local residents.
The ground, which is still a monument to 1920s football architecture, remains a welcoming if somewhat archaic place to watch the game.
Author Archives: GOTP Editorial - NF Jensen
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