The Welcome Inn Fish Bar at 206 Evelyn Street, Deptford, is not the most glamorous location in the world. It’s not even the most glamorous location on Evelyn Street.
On the face of it there’s nothing special about the place. Its glass-fronted hot cabinet has the usual selection of yellow-lit chicken pieces and battered sausages, the heat warming your face as you lean in to examine the pie selection. A poster sellotaped to the white tiled wall behind you displays various breeds of fish and a couple of ornamental Chinese elephants gaze out towards the council blocks across the road.
Yet it was for neither a battered sausage nor a squint at an illustrated bream that I visited the Welcome Inn Fish Bar today. No, I was there at the end of a dark week in order to immerse myself in the eternal Edwardian late-afternoon, shadow-stretching sunshine of cricket’s Golden Age on this the longest day of the year. In particular I was there because of a left-arm spinner of magnificent artistry; a gentle, sensitive man whose place in the history of both cricket and England is forever assured.
Colin Blythe spent his earliest years at 206 Evelyn Street, Deptford. The son of an engineer at Woolwich Arsenal he would grow up to become one of the greatest bowlers in the history of the game; the cream of an English generation at the peak of its powers in a brief, sun-splashed era when anything seemed possible.
The stats are almost irrelevant – taking more than 100 wickets every season of his county career between 1899 and 1914, including once taking 17 Northamptonshire wickets in a single day for example – because Blythe, a sickly man, epileptic, who was also a gifted player of the violin, transcended his mere outstanding qualities as a left-arm spin bowler.
His career spanned the most nostalgic period in the history of a game more prone to the benevolent whimsy of nostalgia than any other, but in Blythe’s case the warm regard for his memory is entirely justified.
“Charming, pale-faced Blythe,” wrote Neville Cardus, “while he spread about the batsman’s ears – or wrists – those buzzing wasps of spin, was himself the least menacing of men. It was as though his happy head knew not what sinfulness his fingers were doing.”
Blythe only played nineteen Tests for England. His record was impressive enough to justify many more but the stresses and strains of cricket at the highest level tended to leave him ill for days afterwards. His delicate constitution and artistic leanings seemed to confound his Deptford roots – many who met him were surprised at his working class south London accent – and remarkably given his health complications he was accepted into the army at the age of 35 on the outbreak of the First World War.
Cardus’s least menacing of men spent three years at war before being killed by a stray shell landing on the railway line he was crossing near Paschendaele in November 1917 at the age of 38.
“On any of those quiet, distant, delicious afternoons at Canterbury, when Blythe bowled his gentle spin and the summer blossomed all around, could even the ironic gods have discerned the course of events which was to take Blythe over the seas and leave him there part of the foreign dust?” asked Cardus afterwards.
Deptford has precious little in the way of a cricket legacy. Indeed, William McCanlis who first spotted Blythe and sent him on trial to Kent, described it as “a place one would hardly go in search of cricketers. The lads of this town have only the roughest parts of Blackheath on which to play their occasional cricket”.
But cricket owes a great debt to Deptford and a stout Victorian building opposite a council estate that’s currently home to a quiet, friendly fish and chip shop. “Blythe of Kent,” wrote McCanlis in the 1930s, “what a name, how perfect for the prettiest slow left-handed bowler of his or surely any other period” drew his first breath there, maybe even in the room where I stood choosing between steak and kidney and chicken and mushroom.
206 Evelyn Street is not Lord’s by any stretch of the imagination. But the chips are better.