It’s surprisingly bright at 4.15am. Smithdown Road is deserted; gulls and blackbirds rule the roost. It’s the middle of the night, but it’s as clear as day. There’s a small collection of white-clad men and women converging on Sefton Park Cricket Club for one of Liverpool’s most extraordinary traditions: a game of cricket played to mark the Summer Solstice, with the first ball bowled at 4.43am, daybreak on the longest day.
“Bonkers”, “ridiculous” and “magical” are just a few of the words the cricketers use to describe the annual Solstice Cup, a three-hour affair contested by players from all levels and genders at the club for the simple absurdity of the thing. By 8am the game is over; by half-past the players have left for work, school or their beds.
The inaugural cup, held in 2010 to celebrate the south Liverpool club’s 150th anniversary, was the brainchild of former Sefton Park captain Robin Surtees. He says it was important to commemorate the club’s landmark “in the most memorable way”. For him the idea of the game being surprising, enigmatic, even slightly secretive was important: a midnight summer dream. “I loved the idea of driving to a cricket match in the semi dark,” he recalls. “Seeing foxes, hearing the dawn chorus, bumping into a bunch of musicians tripping, having breakfast at 5.30am… and then going to work!”
When asked why Sefton Park lends itself to such acknowledged silliness, the answer is not immediately obvious. “That’s a question! My wife says it’s because we’re nice, gentle people who are up for a laugh. Perhaps it’s because cricket, more than any other game I’ve played, lends itself to slowness, reflection and a chance to get to know people.”
As the game commences it attracts attention from the odd cyclist and dog-walker, who look, pause as if to check the reality of what they’re seeing and head off into the gloaming under the canopies. The club’s business secretary and stalwart Stuart Lomas remembers when a group of young men, possibly under the thrall of something stronger than the magic of the longest day, stumbled upon an early solstice match and watched, enraptured. “I suppose cricket is just an inherently funny game, especially at quarter-to-five in the morning,” he muses, as spectators gather.
Frank Shovlin is one such spectator, sitting on the concrete banks of the club. This is the first year he’s attended, though he adds that he did see someone cycling to the ground wearing cricket whites at 4am in years past. Frank was born in Donegal — “where there was no cricket!” — but says, to him, cricket is the quintessential English summer game. “There can’t be more beautiful places to mark the longest day and I love the summer, so this is as good as it gets as far as I’m concerned. The best kind of English eccentricity.”
The first innings has passed with what could generously be described as friendly cricket. It’s 6am and time for breakfast, provided, as always by bar worker Jan Kelly. All four of Jan’s boys have played cricket at Sefton and she was frying bacon at 4am as far back as 2010. As much as the players, she’s a fixture of the solstice. She recalls the original, back in 2010, as being “perfect”.
“The weather was glorious, I sat and watched cricket in the sun and then I went to work and said ‘you won’t believe what I’ve been doing this morning’. No-one believed me, they all thought I was mad! It’s bonkers, really, and a thing that’s unique to Sefton [Park].”
Later, as the teams come off the pitch — the match was won by the Long Shadows team off the final ball of the match — I spot a late spectator by the side of the pavilion. It’s Edward Feery, who has come down to remember his friend, Andy Godden who passed away in his early 30s, four years ago. Edward describes Andy as “an evangelist” for the club, who played for several teams and in various solstice matches. He explains that the annual match has become an act of remembrance for him.
“Since Andy passed away I’ve tried to make an effort to watch this game,” says Edward, looking across the pitch. “It’s nice to take some time one day a year to witness something that he loved and spend some time remembering him. I’m not sure ‘sacred’ is quite the right word but you get the sense of why people drive all the way to Stonehenge; to see the dawning of the day when you come here.”
“It’s bittersweet,” Edward reflects. “I’d give anything in the world for him to still be here. But at the same time, it’s so lovely to come to this space and remember Andy on the Solstice.”
It’s 8am. The players are leaving and the pavilion is being locked up. As goodbyes are said for another year and the final car leaves the club, even the footsteps in the early-morning dew are evaporating as the sun beats down on Sefton Park.
• Originally written for the Liverpool Post in June 2023. Click here to see the PDF version of the original: Solstice Cup – Liverpool Post