Some dubbed it the Little House on the Prairie. An old brick farmhouse, smartly painted in white with red trim, the facade enlivened by a projecting wooden window frame on the first floor. Of all the dressing rooms in non-league football, it was perhaps the most distinctive. A genuine cottage to generate a flicker of recognition in Fulham, perhaps?
It used to be home to Stanley United, another of those towns perched on a ridge as the Pennines rise up from the Vale of Durham. Just up the road from Tow Law, Stanley Crook (as distinct from the Stanley between Consett and Gateshead) was another place with a reputation for Arctic weather in the height of summer and apocryphal snowdrifts swamping the streets in July. It was also home to a plucky Northern League battler. In 1946, United were the league’s first post-war champions; in the early 60s they won two titles either side of a second-placed finish behind Crook Town, rivals from just down the hill. The same rivals clashed in the FA Cup First Round in 1954, Stanley’s best cup run ended at Millfield; a truncated road to Wembley that barely left the banks of the Wear in its path through four qualifying rounds. But by 1974 the club was rock bottom of the league and handing in its resignation.
Reformed to join the Wearside League’s freshly-minted second division in 1984, Stanley United were fondly remembered by the Northern League. The local rivalry with Tow Law prompted an annual pre-season friendly – the edition I saw ended 4-4, the strong Tow Law team of the mid-90s pegged back by their less illustrious neighbours – while Northern League affections were strong enough to include the Hill Top Ground was included in the first ever Groundhop. For many visitors the evocative, elevated location, plus the Little House on the Prairie, was the highlight of the weekend. As recently as 2005 the ground was still spick and span and seeing action in local football, but by the start of the 2006-07 season it was no longer in regular use.
Stanley United had folded and dropped out of the Wearside League in 2003; Crook Wanderers briefly took up the name and the ground but soon went back down the hill to continue in the Crook & District League (today they play as Crook Town Wanderers). Unused, if not unloved, the ground began to crumble. The little house burned down; where once fans lamented the clumsiness of a carthorse centre forward, passers-by can spot a couple of genuine quadrupeds grazing. Today, with rusting goalposts intact, it’s a farmer’s field; the covered stand on the far touchline now a store for fodder. The grass banks that stood for a terrace back in the day are overgrown, the perimeter fence twisted into bizarre loops. The surrounding area is steadily being swallowed by housing – the Methodist chapel next door was sold for development in 2015 – and it’s hard to imagine the old football ground escaping that fate for much longer.
Special thanks to David Bauckham and Centre Circle Publishing for permission to use images of the ground as it was in 2005. Follow David – @CentreCirclePub – for more fantastic images of football’s lesser-known delights.