By Kevin Westlake.
As a kid, I grew up in one of the best places in the world. It wasn’t Disneyland or Paignton Zoo, it wasn’t hot, or dry or even attractive. It was Beacon Park. Not the over-inflated housing area in the city, but the real Beacon Park. My fortress, my home and my sanctuary for the vast majority of my childhood.
As an adult, I am constantly reminded of that childhood as I walk around the ground at Brickfields. Former players socialising, the historic memorabilia in the clubhouse and the fact that the management of Plymouth Albion is trying so hard to bring the community back into the club.
I am certainly not the only one who remembers Beacon Park, it was a popular place to be. I wasn’t the only child in the stands when our boys turned out in the original cherry, green and white kit made of the heaviest possible goats’ wool, there were many others. But I do wonder if the others have the kind of fond memories I have.
Back in the 80s and 90s, rugby was full of characters and Plymouth Albion was no exception. On the pitch, you had man-mountains and whippy little backs. Off the pitch, there were the “die-hard” supporters club, led by the wives (and mothers) of the players, who could make more noise with an air-horn than should have been humanly possible. I vividly remember my grandmother finishing her duties in the admission hut and making her way to the stand, where she would blow the horn, and shout her support with real passion until she had to disappear to the kitchen to prepare the players food!
The hardest thing about a story is knowing where to start. “At the beginning” I hear you say! But in my case, this just isn’t possible, as my beginnings at Plymouth Albion started about a week after I was born.
On a cold, wet and squalid Saturday in January of 1979, I experienced rugby for the first time. I was paraded around the old clubhouse at Beacon Park, with players (pints in hand), supporters, committee (hiding in the lounge area), families and anyone who would look, observing my entry into what would become one of the biggest, and best things in my life.
My first real memory of Beacon Park was meeting the gentleman who looked after the ball-boys. His name was Bill Blank. Bill also served as the groundsman and kit-man. He was a large, imposing figure who was never afraid to shout if he thought you were slacking. Bill was my arch-nemesis for many years, he always liked to follow me around ensuring my trail of destruction was limited to things he could fix easily. I used to enjoy playing in the sandpit near the changing rooms. I was four and it was like being at the beach. But Bill was never as keen as me, to this day I still maintain I was helping to spread the sand on the pitch, I certainly didn’t mean to get it in Les McCoy’s pint or in his eyes.
Bill was a tyrant (in my eyes), the man who stopped the fun! I remember a time, I think I was seven, where I stole the Albion flag! Back in the day, Bill would always display the club flag and the union jack on matchday, from the flagpoles at either end of the grandstand. In my infinite wisdom, I lowered the Albion Flag, took it off the rope and hid it under the tea hut. No one noticed it had gone, so, being seven, I thought nothing more of it, until Bill cornered me.
I tried so hard to remain innocent, telling him in true “Shaggy” style, it wasn’t me. I remember Bill screaming “it was you…. Westlake, you are the only one who would do it. Give me back my flag”.
It is here that my opinion of Bill Blank changed forever, he told me I had two options: give him back the flag and no-one would ever know or face the wrath of the Albion committee (and my dad).
It took some convincing, but I retrieved the flag (now covered in mud and sand) and returned it. True to his word, he never told a soul (as far as I am aware). I never tried that little stunt again.
Albion’s is full of “legends”. Not all of them played, not all of them knew much about rugby, but every single last one of them would bleed for the club. In this series of stories from my childhood, I will explore more of these legends and expose the truth behind the myths.
Next time, Devon Cup Finals, the squash club and floodlights!