Of all the idyllic spots that host football matches in Cornwall – the seascapes of Boscastle and Pendeen, the chocolate box riverside backdrop of Calstock, the rolling farmland of Week St Mary and Altarnun – there’s one whose renown reaches beyond the county.
Victoria Bottoms, in the china clay mining village of Nanpean, has lured football ground connoisseurs from far and wide, drawn by its unique natural amphitheatre and flora-lined surrounds. So the shock when Nanpean Rovers FC of the East Cornwall Premier League, after a 116 year history, folded last season was felt beyond the world of Cornish football.
The club moved to the ground, a filled-in clay pit, in 1936, and it’s the combination of manmade structures from that era juxtaposed with the shock of nature that make the place special. Three sides of the ground are steeply banked, dense with trees, shrubs and bamboo thickets, rusted antique floodlights blending in with the vegetation. Behind the goal at the west end stands a pillared stone shelter which has been accurately compared to a Victorian folly, and at the other end sits a dilapidated little tin-roofed shelter. The fourth side offers a view of the Karslake clay tips.
Best of all are the pathways that wind around the banks. Overgrown in summer, you have to beat your way through them until you emerge at one of the clearings that offer a new view over the pitch. The whole ground feels like an organic entity, mutating with the seasons. When I first went there I couldn’t help laughing at the sheer bloody magicalness of the place.
Yet for me Nanpean has a more prosaic, personal reason to claim favourite ground status. When you’re photographing football at this level there generally aren’t any other spectators around you, and when the ball flies out of play it’s your rightful duty to return it as best you can. When you’re unprepared, holding a camera and wearing heavy walking boots, that can provoke mild panic. Do you take a touch first or just stick out a leg and hope it goes in the right direction? Whatever, the chief priority is to avoid looking a twat.
It was at Nanpean a few seasons back that a wayward ball came heading straight for me, waist height, at pace. As for any truly instinctive striker, the lack of a moment to think was a blessing. Somehow I took the sting out of the ball with my first touch before volleying it back with precision into the arms of the player running over to take the throw. A bunch of supporters outside the clubhouse started singing ‘Sign him up!’. That was my moment of triumph, and it was all the sweeter for having happened at Victoria Bottoms.
And the real good news is that the club’s back in business this season. They’ve re-formed, have just won their first home game at the bottom of the Duchy League and will be hoping to make the climb back up to senior football. Best of all, that ground’s hosting games again, doing what it was meant to do.