If ever there was a ground to divide opinions of grounds enthusiasts on one hand, and the average spectator on the other, it is Clarence Park. The former will positively salivate over the wonderful 1920s wooden stand, whilst the latter will complain about the obstructed view within and relative lack of cover elsewhere in the ground. Guess which camp I subscribe to? No, it wasn’t difficult was it!
The football ground in fact occupies just one area of Clarence Park, given to the people of St. Albans in 1894. Before the Saints were formed in 1908, the Old Albanians played on a pitch laid out on the cricket ground adjacent to where the football ground is now; with the fine Victorian cricket pavilion (which still stands) used for dressing rooms. The new club brought with them a set of posts and nets from the defunct St. Albans Abbey FC.
During the Great War the club had to evacuate the ground as the military moved in and it was not until during the 1919/20 season that they were allowed to return. The next time the Saints vacated their home was not until the mid 1980s when much needed improvements to the drainage system forced the club to play its first two home matches on opposition soil.
Despite the occupancy of the variously named St. Albans Football Clubs at Clarence Park, that particular corner of the Park has not been used solely for the purpose of what used to be frequently referred to as the 'winter pastime.' The original plans for Clarence Park made allowances for a corner of the Park to be used for the playing of tennis and during the early days the end of the football season would see the goalposts come down and tennis played on the football pitch. This practice is known to have continued until sometime in the 1920s.
During the 1930s the football ground was also the venue for a rugby match with the aim of raising funds for the Durham miners who were on strike at the time, and in 1941 a boxing match took place to boost donations for the wartime Spitfire fund.
The wooden stand was built in 1922 at a cost of £1,400 and extends virtually the entire length of the near touchline. There is evidently a preservation order on it, which is great news for the purist, but a real headache for the club who have to maintain it. The views are of course, poor, being obstructed by a myraid of supporting columns. However, it would be a tragedy to lose such an important structure.
Peeping over the top the stand, rather like Chad looking over the wall, is the clubhouse, built in 1948 and reached by steps at the rear.
The remainder of the ground is extensively terraced, although the only cover is a large concrete cantiliver roof that provides shelter on either side of the half-way opposite the main stand. Of interest are a couple of Coca-Cola adverts painted on the wall at either end of the roof - Pop Art at Clarence Park! The terracing replaced banking, fashioned from old railway sleepers, during the late 1950s/early 60s - the covered section dating from 1962. Floodlights were also erected the following year.
Until 1999, Clarence Park’s main claim to fame (or rather infamy) was a large oak tree that protruded out of the terrace at the near end of the ground. Although it conveyed even more rustic charm on the ground and had a preservation order on it, the tree did require regular pruning by the club. In addition, visiting goalkeepers suffered from being pelted with acorns by home fans behind the goal!
In 1992/93 St. Albans finished as runners-up in the Premier Division of the Isthmian League but were denied promotion to the Conference on account of the tree (and the fact that the ground wasn’t fully enclosed). In 1999 the tree was found to be diseased (although some doubt that it really was) and it was cut down.
Writing in 1995, Kerry Miller’s words were sadly prophetic: ‘Unless there is a change of heart or of policy, then Clarence Park will not see Conference football as long as the tree stays healthy ... it’s a shame it’s not a diseased elm’. Conspiracy theorists take note!
Today, a small area of slightly lighter coloured concrete indicates where it once stood. In fact, the remains of the tree can still be seen oustide, where they have been fashioned into a bench.
As mentioned above, the presence of the much-maligned tree wasn’t the only reason for the club failing to gain admission to the Confernce, and in early 1999 the ground was completely enclosed with eight foot high metal cladding. Even an old reactionary like me has to concede that this was a necessary step and thankfully it doesn’t really detract from what is a ‘must-see’ venue for any serious grounds enthusiast ... even if it does little to cater for the needs of the average spectator.
There is an extensive history of Clarence Park by David Tavener (from which a couple of paragraphs here have been ‘borrowed’) on the official St. Albans website - see link at top of the page.
From the A1081 turn into Alma Road. At traffic lights turn right into Victoria Street and continue to junction with Crown pub. Go straight across into Clarence Road, and the ground is first on left about 50 yards past junction. Alternatively, take the next turning on the left into York Road, ground entrance is at the end of the road on the left.
St. Albans City (BR) 5 minutes.