Falling from the heights
Memories of Wearhead United from England's most elevated football field
It used to be the highest football field in England. That’s the claim. The remote County Durham village of Wearhead, up in the North Pennines, was home to Wearhead United. For more than a century the team, resplendent in Red-and-White, competed on its memorably uneven pitch. The players rarely hit any great heights; this isn’t a tale of stirring cup runs and improbable title triumphs. But, at 1,017 feet above sea level, the team was proud of its geographical claim to fame.
On top of the football world in one sense, this was a grassroots outfit in every other. The days when Wearhead was a thriving, if remote community serving the lead mines immortalized by W.H. Auden are long gone. As a small town slowly turned into a village, the local amenities drifted away. Once there was a cinema, a pub, five shops, a garage, a bank, a haulage business and even a railway station. The football club was perhaps the last survivor in a community of barely 200 souls.
I visited in 2017, snow in the hills but not on the pitch. Not quite. A fearsome wind howled around, recalling the days when a judicious tot of brandy was dished out by club officials to fortify the more reluctant players. Today, reluctance isn’t weather-related. It’s simple demographics. As Wearhead declines, people move on in search of work. The remaining population tends to be either elderly or incomers, families commuting to Tyneside or Durham for work but fancying a rural idyll at the weekend. Neither are likely to play much football, recruiting players becomes an ever growing headache.
The occasion was a Crook & District League game, a local derby against Stanhope Town, travelling up from the self-styled ‘Capital of Weardale’ to visit the place where the river rises from the hills and begins its journey to Sunderland and the North Sea. Once, these two teams did battle at the Stadium of Light before a (presumed) league record crowd of 913. That was due to the foot-and-mouth crisis that closed great swathes of the English countryside – including both teams’ home grounds. A cheeky request to Sunderland AFC chairman Bob Murray tickled the fancy of the one time Bank of England club; the game could be staged at the end of the Wear’s course rather than the start.
If one epidemic brought unexpected joy, the current COVID crisis proved to be the final straw for Wearhead. Over the summer, the club announced that, “in the current situation”, it could not play on. Game over, after 113 years of battling the elements as much as the opposition.
Even before that, the writing was on the wall. My visit came during the last season of Saturday football in Wearhead. At the end of an unsuccessful campaign, the club switched to Sunday League action in the hope that players would be easier to come by. The decision merely delayed the inevitable.
So what remains? A field, improbably sloped and marked by a distinctive grassy ridge that runs parallel with the halfway line. A children’s playground, where hardy tots can enjoy wind-assisted swings or dangle from shivery climbing frames. And a pavilion, named after heroically devoted club stalwart Norman Wright, where the club’s history was laid out on the walls. That grand day out in Sunderland – a 2-2 draw, better than the 0-2 loss I saw – garnered plentiful column inches, not least from Mike Amos, the Northern Echo’s long-time connoisseur of local sporting eccentricity. But there was so much more in a gallery of photos: team pictures charted the vagaries of football fashion as red-and-white stripes swirled at odd angles and the lengths of shorts, hair and beards rose and fell as sharply as the pitch outside.
For most of the football world, Wearhead United’s existence or otherwise means little. In a global game, the local is easily overlooked. In a world where it’s as easy to get news from another continent as it is to hear about what happened in the next street, the old sense of community is changed forever. Whether the new world is better, worse, or merely different, there’s still merit in taking a moment to mourn what was lost, here at the top of England’s football world.
For more sports writing, take a look at Groundhoppers, my blog about following sports around the world, from ice hockey in Chile to reindeer racing north of the Arctic Circle in Russia.