Why I’m watching Millom vs Red Star Belgrade.

Today, on the BBC lunchtime news, they decided to end with a good news sporting story. One that couldn’t help pique my interest. Millom RLFC, the world’s oldest amateur rugby league club, were going to be going head-to-head with Red Star Belgrade, the newest. The unlikelihood and romance of the Challenge Cup tie in itself was interesting, but it set me off thinking about a whole bunch of other, related stuff, too.

But wait, Red Star Belgrade have a rugby league side? The Red Star Belgrade of European football fame? Turns out they do. More of that later.

As for Millom, I’ve always had a soft spot for the place, as it where’s my Gran, who I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, spent her childhood years and just recently my interest has increased-partly due to a natural interest in family history but also due to: 1. I am now living about a one-hour drive away from the town, and recently visited it for a camping-and-hiking expedition late last summer (I think one always feels a bit more of a connection to a place once you’ve visited it). 2. I’ve also in relatively recent times discovered the great Millom writer/poet Norman Nicholson, who writes in his poetry and prose so vividly about the place.

I’m currently reading the late Nicholson’s 1968 book Greater Lakeland, which I found in the school library where I work and posits the idea that the Lake District does not solely exist within the narrow confines of what is now the national park but also takes in a wider area such as Morecambe Bay/North Lancashire (where I now live) and the Cumbrian coast, the Howgills etc. It’s a great read (I can say that at about three-quarters of the way in), exploring almost every valley, lake, town and village in the region-describing their quirks and characteristics, the types of work that led to them existing in the first place and the very rocks and water that make up the landscape (more interesting than it might sound, that last one!). Nicholson, although a romantic in his own way (a poet, after all), didn’t have much time for the idea of a chocolate-box Lake District, made up solely of farmsteads and tourism. Being a true Cumbrian, he wanted the people to have a diverse economy that could support them in good times and bad. And, like my Gran, he’d grown up in the small, working-class industrial town of Millom on the banks of the Duddon estuary, the quarries, ironworks and the mines were as much a part of his landscape (and hers) as the dunes, the mountain backdrop and the vastness of the bay and the Irish Sea.

The town had a peak population of 10,000 in 1967, but, even as Nicholson was writing, ill winds of change were blowing in. The following year the local ironworks closed, announced whilst he was on holiday in the Scottish highlands, discovered in a chance encounter with a newspaper headline, and referred to in the poem Glen Orchy (‘five hundred men/At one stroke clean out of work’) and leading him to write in another poem, On the Dismantling of Millom Ironworks:

“…they shovelled my childhood/On to a rubbish heap…

here five generations/Toasted the bread they earned at a thousand degrees farenheight

And the town thrived on its iron diet.”


And then later, as the poem rises to a crescendo:


“An age/Is pensioned off-its hopes, gains, profits, desperations/Put into mothballs.

The proud battery of chimneys, the hell-mouth roar of the furnace,

The midnight sunsets ladled across a cloudy sky-

Are archeological data…

To a peninsula bare as it used to be, and beyond to a river

Flowing, untainted now, to a bleak, depopulated shore.”


These last lines, are a riposte to that other Cumbrian great, Wordsworth who had written (as quoted in the opening of the poem) ‘remote from every taint/Of sordid industry thy lot is cast’ in the poem The River Duddon. Nicholson was an admirer of Wordsworth but found such a claim about the Duddon to be laughably inaccurate ‘Even in Wordsworth’s time’, never mind his own era. And that goes to the crux of the matter and its something that, as a Lancastrian, but growing up in sight of Cumbria and with plenty of Cumbrian blood in my veins, I feel as well-for all its beauty-of which I’ll never tire of visiting and exploring when I get the chance-it cannot and should not be devoted solely to a straight jacket of what a few tastemakers decide is a timeless rural idyll. Industry has always been a part of the picture and, as much as one cannot stop the ebb and flow of economic forces as much as King Canute could not command the flow of the tides, the problem of Cumbria is a problem of the North, the whole country and the western world-too much reliance on services and not enough of the older industries around to balance it out.At least other parts of the Cumbrian coast are managing to bring forward their industries into the modern era-I hope they continue to do so, so that at least part of the local economy is founded on something other than what Nicholson refers to in Greater Lakeland as ‘taking in other people’s washing’ (and maybe I feel this even more keenly as, being from Blackpool, we always had the car industry and the civil service as counterbalances against the vast tourist economy, and I had family members in both of those former categories-and like, the men from Millom Ironworks, my father’s brothers, my Millom Gran’s sons, were forced to look elsewhere for work when the TVR car factory they had worked at pretty much from leaving school was closed and relocated elsewhere when they were both well into middle age).

To bring the picture up to date, Millom is now just over half the population it was back in the 60s (it lost nearly a third of its population in the three years following the closure of the ironworks) and to visit it now is to visit a lovely (or so it was when I went in late summer) yet remote (by English standards) spot on the edge of Lakeland and the sea. I’m sure it does bleak with the best of them in winter (when I write), but in, what is becoming something of a late-summer tradition, I agreed to meet up with my old university friend Mike to do a bit of camping and exploring so we pitched up at the Harbour Lights campsite (recommended, check it out), and spent a late Saturday afternoon and early evening wandering around the ruined-mine-cum-marina of Hodbarrow Nature Reserve, the beach and skirted the town via pathways through housing estates en route to a pub meal in the neighbouring village of Haverigg (probably most famous for its prison, these days). We didn’t make it into the town centre of Millom itself (a pleasure deferred, as far as I’m concerned) but the following day we did undertake a short expedition that I’d always wanted to (and in fact had sold the trip on the merits of): walking up Black Combe Fell.

Black Combe-highest hill in England, more impressive than many mountains, rising up as it does almost from the sea itself. Visible from a great distance-it was always there, dominating the northern horizon across Morecambe Bay when I was growing up on the Fylde Coast and visible from even further afield (I’ve seen it from the beach at Southport).I didn’t even know its name until the last couple of years, we always referred to it as ‘Barrow’ or ‘the Lakes’ as the shipyards of the former and hills of the latter make up part of the same scene looking northwards from Blackpool, but it’s both adjacent to and separate from those particular landmarks. We walked up it on a murky Sunday morning-somewhat spoiling the view out to sea, but the view of the Duddon Valley and back up into Lakeland was truly spectacular. I’ll definitely be going back on a clearer day.

So, how does all this link to Rugby, and the capital of Serbia for that matter? As mentioned above, Millom RLFC claim to be the oldest amateur side in the world. The Cumbrian coast, being similar in character and workforce to the heartland areas of British rugby league in neighbouring Lancashire and Yorkshire were enthusiastic adherents to the new 13-man code at the time of the league-union schism in the late 19th century. They even had a local saying (according, again, to Nicholson) for doing things wholeheartedly, no half measures-‘Giving it Wigan’-a reference to the endeavour and commitment of the great sides that hailed over the years from that former Lancashire coal-mining town. I’m pleased that they are going to get their moment of glory in front of the cameras, and that the club exists as a focal point for the community, and a link to its blue-collar past.

And, what about Red Star Belgrade? Well, like most people I knew them solely as a football side, one that with a name with both connotations of both communism and glamour stands out like a sore thumb in any Champion’s League fixtures list. Turns out they are a very recent phenomenon, under the Tito regime in the former Yugoslavia league was supressed in favour of union-which seems typically Tito-esque (emphasis on unity, no regional offshoots) and all media (and probably most neutral) eyes are on them as the surprise package, the exotic team. I’m looking forward to the game, I don’t claim to be an expert but I enjoy both watching both codes of rugby (and especially league) as a casual spectator. And it’s history, too, for both sides a part of their hopefully on-going story. the live stream is on the BBC Sport website at 1.30 p.m. Check it out if you get the chance, and feel so inclined. And let’s hope they both give it some ‘Wigan’!




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