When Fifa absent-mindedly scheduled its World Cup to clash with the first stages of my bus trip around England, they left me with a tricky choice: pull the plug or press on.
I’d paid some deposits for bed and breakfast, though, so that was that one resolved. Problems in Whitchurch, however, where the whole of the north Shropshire market town appears to be booked up.
“Must be a wedding on or something,” they tell me at the fourth B&B I try. So Plan B it is, extending a day that begins at 6.42 on the bus to Bolton until a teatime landing at Ludlow.
That involves traversing the whole county of Shropshire, or Joe Hart Country, as it might be known for tourism purposes.
The England goalkeeper is a proud Salopian, born and bred in Shrewsbury, where I change buses for the seventh and last time of the day, and a former head boy at Meole Brace High School, which we pass on the way out of town, not far from Shrewsbury Town’s unloved new ground, New Meadow. Some of the stand seats from Gay Meadow now grace the bowling green behind a pub in the Belle Vue area of the town.
Nowhere in England will they have been hoping for a blemish-free performance from the nation’s No 1 more ardently than here.
Shropshire has not exactly produced a wealth of internationals, but the ones it has nurtured have tended to be rather durable. Billy Wright, from Ironbridge, further down the Severn, was the first player anywhere in the world to win 100 caps.
Ludlow, a foodie Mecca and a regular choice as most pleasant town in the country in which to live, is not exactly mainstream football territory. I’ve already been warned by a Ludlow resident not to expect interest to be at fever pitch. “Half of them are Welsh and care more about the rugby,” he says of his neighbours.
There are accommodation hiccups here as well, as I book in at one place and find myself transferred further up the hill to another establishment, like a lower division striker used as a makeweight in a deal.
There are few England flags in evidence, apart from one rather impressive one on Stokesay Castle near Craven Arms, but apparently that is always there.
Evidence of patriotic fervour is hard to find in Ludlow itself. Only three of its 20-odd pubs consider it worth putting the match on. Behind the bar of one that doesn’t, the debate is over whether the landlord has missed a trick.
The consensus is that he hasn’t, although he always brings down a TV for the big rugby occasions. As for the three candidates, he doesn’t like sending anyone to the first and says the second is “full of idiots”.
That leaves The Compasses, the sort of multiscreen sports bar they have in every town, but in this case across the road from the half-timbered magnificence of The Feathers.
For a long time, it seems that the audience might consist of two lads in England shirts, sipping pints of lager. By kick-off time, though, the place is tolerably full and ready for the roller coaster ahead.
When Italy score their second, though, the spirit goes out of the place and people start wandering off into the night.
Sir John Betjeman famously called Ludlow “the pleasantest town in England”. Not when Mario Balotelli has just scored the winner it isn’t.
‘Route 63: Around England on a Free Bus Pass’, Dave Hadfield’s account of his travels, will be published by Scratching Shed early in 2015. www.scratchingshed- publishing.comReuse content