WILLIAM Ainsley, licensed to retail British and foreign wines, spirits, ale, porter and tobacco, failed to recognise the polite young man enjoying a pint in his peerless, timeless, pitch-perfect little bar.

Told afterwards that the stranger was His Royal Highness Prince Harry, William replied languidly.

“Oh right,” he said, “does he play cricket for Spout House as well?”

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William had been Spout House Cricket Club secretary for 66 years, his grandfather for 72 before that.

He’d first played for them when he was nine, supposed that the men must have been hay-making, waited another 35 years for them to win anything – a cup final way up at Bransdale where even the horse flies are thoroughbreds.

“They took a bit getin’ ‘ome that night,” he recalled.

He’d played on 62 grounds, umpired thereafter, shed blood in the Spout House cause when the ball seemed to shoot all the way up the blade of his Len Hutton bat, fracturing his cheekbone before ricocheting past short leg.

Though it’s not recorded if they ran a quick single, William spent three days in hospital. “I doubt if Leonard himself could have played that shot much different,” he said.

He kept all the records, too. Who else might authentically have averred that WG Grace was bowled for a golden duck by John Willie Wood, the 28-stone Fangdale blacksmith, in an exhibition match at Newburgh Priory?

The bowler’s response may be more apocryphal. “They’ve all come to watch WG Grace,” he said. “Now they’ll have to watch JW Wood.”

Similarly, the Sun Inn at Bilsdale had had the name of Ainsley over the door – almost always William Ainsley – since 1823.

The cricket ground’s out the back, perhaps familiar to Backtrack readers.

The Darlington and Stockton Times once called it “unusual”, which as understatements go was a bit like saying that Alastair Cook was a half-decent batsman.

The column 12 years ago was a little less equivocal. “There may be no cricket ground closer to heaven, unless St Peter himself takes first guard.”

Variously we have described it as sloping like a Grenadier guardsman, plunging like a Baywatch neckline and (with scant regard for geometric nicety) angled like the square on the hypotenuse.

Capricious contours and glorious idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, William loved and nurtured the place, never wanted to be anywhere else, championed its integrity.

“It’s t’same for both teams,” he observed in a dialect that may only be described as pure Bilsdale. “If it lands in’t cow clap for one, it lands in’t cow clap for t’other.”

Latterly it was William’s sheep with whom cricket shared that unique acre. “People complain about sheep shit,” he conceded, “but they complained even more when it was cows’.”

More than 150 years after cricket was first played there, Spout itself was awarded its first cup final in 2000. “Do you know,” said William laconically, “I was beginning to think it was never going to happen.”

The Northern Echo: SPOUT HOUSE: There may be no cricket ground closer to heaven

William George Ainsley, a gentle, industrious and truly delightful man, died on December 27, aged 83.

All his life he had lived, farmed and sold ale, wine and whatnot in and around Spout House. The little dale mourns greatly; the cricketers wonder what happens next.

BILSDALE dances between Stokesley and Helmsley, in North Yorkshire. The original, cruck-framed Spout House, a pub since 1765 but standing two or three hundred years before that, is now a National Trust property.

The new pub was built a few yards away in 1914 and may little have changed in the ensuing century. The Guardian called it “a peaceful drinking Arcadia”, the Eating Owt column happily went hungry. “No frills, no food and no question that it’s out of this world.”

William recalled selling bottles of Vaux Maxim to early-to-rise farmers before he went to school and they got their pipes. He entertained the Bilsdale Hunt, the Bilsdale Silver Band, Bilsdale.

On the farm, he’d first worked with Clydesdales, loved them, was bought one by his father after the war. The old Ferguson tractor was from 1964.

Still started first time, he said.

The pub closed a couple of years ago, William and his ever-loyal wife Madge beset by intermittent illness and their son – inevitably Young William – unable to take it over.

William himself had had several spells in the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton, on one occasion given an injection by a student nurse who asked if it had been all right.

William agreed that it had. “Soon,”

he added, “I’ll be able to let you inject t’sheep.”

They lived in the cottage next to the pub. We’d last seen him in the summer, less athletic than of yore but content with his lot. After almost 200 years, the Sun Inn has recently been on the market as a private house.

WILLIAM may also have been custodian of the local rules, for Spout House Cricket Club – long and proud in the wonderful Feversham League – had more unwritten byelaws than a municipal park with an over-officious clerk.

“If it ’its ’en ’ouse it’s fower,” he’d explained when first we visited, “but you can keep on running to try for five.”

A six might only be scored by clearing the dry stone wall, or by hitting a speeding motor cyclist, a four for hitting a careless sheep “or any other obstacle”, but nothing for striking Madge’s clothes line, inside the boundary at short third man. A chasing fielder incurred no penalty for running into it, but may inadvertently have been garrotted.

The eight-man heavy roller had SHCC carved on the handle, lest anyone whip it and flog it in a car boot sale. The sheep perhaps a little less efficient than a Flymo, it was lost balls that were the perennial problem.

William once recalled standing at square leg against Rievaulx, when Spout ran six wides from a ball that had dropped about 20 yards from the striker. “Slips must have been asleep.

It stopped just by ’em, in’t long grass yonder, but they went chasing off to’t boundary.

“I’d seen it land. It just wasn’t in my interests to tell ’em.”

The pavilion, which in the winter itself doubled as a Spout House hen house, was a very small hut bought second-hand from a fertiliser factory at Thornton Dale. When it was replaced a few years ago, the new hut a little larger but not what you’d call palatial, the golden ribbon was cut by the Countess of Mexborough, who lives nearby. She wondered how the displaced hens would manage.

It was as one of the Countess’s house guests that Prince Harry had visited William’s little pub, and later played at least twice against Spout.

Though they don’t much broadcast these things, the six little pebbles with which the umpire counted the prince’s over are framed on the new hut wall.

Harry Mead, Spout cricketer and William’s long-time friend, believes that cricket will continue on that wondrously grass-rooted, close-toheaven hillside. “He loved farming, he loved his little dale, but cricket was absolutely his overriding passion.

It will be a memorial to him. So long as there are Ainsleys at Spout House, I’m sure there’ll be cricket.”

William is survived by Madge, herself in hospital at the time of his death, by young William and by Christine, his daughter. His funeral is at St John’s church, Bilsdale, at noon next Tuesday.