“Farewell, old friend”
Some U’s fans, probably not that many, may have heard of the Abbey Church on Newmarket Road. They may have even seen it, walked past it, hiding behind a wall and a row of trees opposite what used to be the Five Bells pub back in the day. It is, it’s fair to say, not exactly conspicuous. If it is then it’s for the wrong reasons. The front gateway entrance is caged with a notice attached(see below), peering through one can see that modern life has, if not destroyed it, then has certainly ignored it. Boarded up windows, wildly overgrown grounds, untended graves and a crumbling, blighted construction. Goodness knows what the residents of Beche Road behind must think when they wake on a bright summer’s morning with that spectacle. A fair amount of desperation abounds in these parts.
It might look distinctly unloved now but this is one of the oldest buildings in Cambridge. Dating back to the early thirteenth century, the original official name was St Andrew the Less, reflected in the name subsequently of the local parish The construction was by the Barnwell Priory on an original Augustinian site. It escaped a huge fire which engulfed the locality in the eighteenth century and some significant restoration took place in the mid nineteenth century and as ‘recently’ as 1928 the iconic sculpture of St Andrew was added above the main entrance and actually remains as iconic today as I’m sure it did nearly a century ago. Whether it lasts a full century is perhaps questionable but arguably unforgivable if not.
Martyrdom should have legs, you know.
Local historians and indeed church leaders will tell you that the Church has suffered from a lack of patronisation for hundreds of years. A local archive from 1801 notes the church looked neglected and unpopulated. Whether it be the competition, for want of a better word, from the nearby Christ Church which is now, as I suspect it’s always been, a fine, upstanding, sociably thriving pillar of the community; or an inherent inaccessibility in terms of location. The advent of the Elizabeth Way bridge in the early 1970s and the collateral dustbowl of a new intersection wouldn’t have helped matters either.
Whilst being part of Coconuts means it is absolutely obligatory to be always writing about the dim and distant past, I don’t normally cover the downfall of ecclesiastical edifices and I am not as such a religious person. There is though a sting in the tail here to stir interested readers. Many, many people of my ilk have tried and largely failed to find a documentary link and/or trail between the Abbey Church and Cambridge United(known originally of course as Abbey United) however we have plenty of anecdotal detail supporting the contention that in 1912 when Abbey United was founded, the entity was created from the ranks of the Sunday school at the church. And indeed much later we have on record a speech from the then Abbey Utd and then CUFC secretary, Frank Pettit, to a local history group telling us that the nucleus of the playing side was derived from members of said choir. See Andrew Bennett’s excellent Risen from the Dust, volume 2 of the exhaustive Celery & Coconuts series, for more details. Initially you may observe well what a strange connection but actually there are many precedents in this life, check out the origins of Everton(St Domingo’s FC), Manchester City( St Mark’s) and Southampton(St Mary’s CEYMA) just for starters. Without mentioning Bolton Wanderers, Spurs and Birmingham City. You wonder why we started life as Abbey United…… and not St Andrew's FC! The Abbey Church title was more popular even then to be fair.
Robert J Wadsworth is a name etched in the history of our beautiful little football club even though he flirted as well with that lot over the river. He was vice-president of Abbey Utd, described as a well known Cambridge sporting personality and one of his many claims to fame was that in 1932 he officially opened what we all now know as the Abbey Stadium. Wadsworth was still around two decades later when the Cambridge United name was in full flow, not bad going when you consider he was on the Abbey Utd committee back in 1919! As quoted in the Cambridge Daily News in April 1952, Wadsworth, now chairman, remarked “....it is just 40 years since this club was formed as the old Abbey United that started as the outcome of the desire to play football by a Sunday School class…..” Well there was no other church in the vicinity of all those landmarks you read about in the early days of the Newmarket Road Roughs, yes volume 1 of the aforementioned Celery & Coconuts!
Here we are in 2023 and we know that the Abbey Church has begun the process of being deconsecrated. You probably got it but in other words, being “de-churched”. It is though a grade 2 listed building so being levelled, and rebuilt as something else is not going to happen overnight. Perhaps in time the modern day Abbey United may mark its connection with this monument of the Abbey district in some way. Too much to ask?
Finally, forgive my self- indulgence but I am going to nick a couple of lines or so from a favourite track of mine from a West London-based band from the late 1970s. Andrew Bennett would I think be impressed:
“ It was cold, every night
I was with you, some time ago.
But you were laughing to hide your crying
In shock and dazed we walked away….
You said they’ll know, in desperation,
The world we knew, in desolation.”
Farewell, old friend.
(Andy Fox, chair, 100 years of coconuts
With customary thanks to my predecessor, Pat Morgan and the late inestimable Andrew Bennett.)
Happy Harry's blog
I'm the living embodiment of the spirit of the U's, and I'll be blogging whenever I've got news for you, as long as I don't miss my tea.