That I can just turn up at one of twenty eight table tennis matches each week seems to me pretty special. I pour over the fixtures hoping for an interesting clash and then days later wheedle my way in – sometimes with trepidation, often in the knowledge I’ll see a familiar face, always conscious that I scribble too much down and risk missing the deeper story.
At times, gearing up to watch Premier and Division One matches is like walking into a private function room or board members’ and football managers’ bar. “Who the hell are you?” I sense them thinking. “Ever played at this level?” “Nobody” and “No” would be my answers. No access to the vintage whisky and wine or Cuban cigars therefore. No easy laughter – just the frozen air surrounding an impostor.
I exaggerate of course. The chocolate factory of table tennis venues is mostly welcoming. I was once offered a cup of coffee by Barry Walsh – Hilton’s sprightly elder statesman. And Richard Whittleworth of Walkden Methodists has hypnotic-like power over the Ladies’ Fellowship group there which shuffle in with the tea and biscuits at 8.30 prompt.
Comparing this prized, free, invisible season ticket with say, a 2013/14 Reebok Stadium pass or regular visits to the dark side (Old Trafford) or even Fleetwood’s Highbury Stadium is credible, however. I cannot promise the cultured movement of Tim Ream, the mega-signings of slothful, rich kids, or the reassuringly charming Captain Pugwash music each time a point is scored. What I can do is guide you through Bolton’s network of still blazing, sporting homes.
Hilton Table Tennis Centre is where the journey must begin. Home to 22 of the league’s 58 sides, it is now entrenched in Horwich’s history – up there with Rivington Pike, Winter Hill, the town’s first-built locomotive (1887) and The Blundell Arms to my mind. An unassuming building, a discreet location in the back streets yards from Aldi, yet inside – the perfect floor, lighting, tables, nets and dividing curtains; a true Mecca with matches played each week night.
Harper Green Leisure Centre is next in size. Exactly nine miles from the table tennis capital, Farnworth’s multi-sport venue is years behind the master, yet shows signs of developing young talent and a true thirst for the game courtesy of 13-year-old ‘D’ team player, Keane Mills and others.
The smaller venues have their quirks and humorous betrothals as you enter. Heaton Cricket Club has something of the operating theatre about it. At the same time, descending those steps to the ‘cellar’ can feel like walking into The Crucible.
Ramsbottom, as I have alluded to before, is quite a sodden place offset slightly by the pleasant drive there.
Here is my overall ‘Top 10’ for match nights:
Ranking/Venue* Capacity Pros Cons
1 Hilton TTC 5 Professional set up Noise
2 Harper Green LC 3 Gymnasium space Lighting/Distractions
3 Walkden MC 1 Modern and spacious Lighting (angled)
4 Ladybridge CC 2 Good length Low ceiling
5 Bolton L&G Club 3 Space Noise/Human traffic
6 Heaton CC 1 Separate to spectators Overall size
7 St Paul’s Peel PH 1 Peaceful Setting up table
8 Lostock TC 1 Very private Table/Low ceiling
9 Meadow Hill TC 1 Intensity Temperature/Length
10 Ramsbottom TCC 1 Sufficient seating Temperature/Length
* Albany TTC, Farnworth SCCC, Flixton CC, Little Lever CC, Radcliffe CC & Wharton URC – yet to be assessed.