Atop the Hill of Beath stands a statue of one of Scotland’s greatest ever players. Locally born Slim Jim Baxter has been cast with the ball at his sublime left foot, overlooking a landscape now bereft of its pits, miners’ cottages and many of its pubs.
Stretching away in the distance, Cowdenbeath grew up around the mining industry just as football was taking hold in the late 1800s. Cowdenbeath FC were formed here in 1882 from a merger of Cowdenbeath Rangers and a Raith Rovers, but not the better-known side from Kirkcaldy where Jim Baxter started his career as a part-timer in 1957.
Of the main four clubs from Fife, Dunfermline have had the most success but all have suffered financially in recent seasons. Two have been taken over by supporters’ groups, while East Fife and Cowdenbeath struggle from Saturday to Saturday. The mining communities – as a school leaver, even Baxter worked briefly down the pits – no longer produce coal or generations of great players and managers.
Like Baxter, Dunfermline had their heyday in the 1960s. Cowdenbeath have only once competed in the top flight since the war, after promotion in 1969-70. In 2016-17, the Blue Brazil came within a penalty kick of dropping out of the Scottish League altogether. East Kilbride missed the vital strike in the League Two play-offs and Cowdenbeath live to fight another day. In 2017-18, it was a second-half comeback in a relegation play-off against Cove Rangers.
Just off Cowdenbeath High Street, Central Park has been the club’s home since 1917. The pitch is surrounded by a tarmac track used for stock car racing, the only stand is in fact two, one the remains of the original structure that survived a fire in 1992. This is football at its most hand-to-mouth and shoestring. In 2016-17, Cowdenbeath registered the lowest average gates in the Scottish League, 345, even below those at Annan Athletic.
Where Cowdenbeath go from here isn’t clear. Last-chance survival has kept the Blue Brazil in the Scottish League but talk of a new stadium near Broad Street has long died down.
The local non-league scene continues to survive. Before 1917, Cowdenbeath played at North End Park, near the roundabout where the High Street meets Perth Road. The ground is now the home of Hearts of Beath, from Jim Baxter’s mining village. Former tenants of Keir’s Park, Hearts of Beath were reformed in 1989 and now play in the Fife amateur divisions.
Running out at Keir’s Park today are Hill of Beath Hawthorn, an old name revived as a new club in 1975. Here is where you’ll find the statue to Jim Baxter and the Hill of Beath Ex-Servicemen’s Club that comes into its own on match days. Winners of the Scottish Junior Cup in 1990, the Haws continue to compete in the East Superleague, the highest regional level in the Scottish non-league (‘Junior’) game. Winners of the East, West and North leagues, and the Junior Cup, now qualify for the Scottish Cup, although there is no directly interlinking pyramid system as in England. Many clubs do better within the Junior set-up – Hawthorn can attract bigger crowds than seen at Central Park.
While Hawthorn may be the spiritual successors of the Baxter era, the team he first played for were Crossgates Primrose. Based at the wonderfully named Humbug Park halfway between Cowdenbeath and Dunfermline, The Rose used to attract crowds of 5,000 for big Scottish Junior Cup games. Folding in 1960 despite the sale of Baxter to Raith for £200, the club sold Humbug Park to Dunfermline Athletic as a training ground.
Reformed in 1983, Crossgates moved back into now council-owned Humbug Park. Nearly going under in 2016, Crossgates now play in the East Region South Division, two flights down from Hawthorn.
Edinburgh Airport is 30km (19 miles) from Cowdenbeath. From Stance G on the terminal forecourt, Stagecoach bus Jet 747 runs to Halbeath Park & Ride (Mon-Sat every 30min, Sun morning every 1hr, journey time 35min, £8.20) by Crossgates. From Stance 6, Stagecoach bus No.19 (Mon-Sat every 10min, Sun every 20min) and No.33A (Mon-Sat every hr) head to the main bus stop in Cowdenbeath, The Fountain, just off the High Street and close to Central Park, journey time 15min. From Stance 1, the quicker X26 leaves hourly (Mon-Sat) for The Fountain, journey time 10min, as does the X54 (hourly, daily). The X26 serves Glasgow Buchanan Street (1hr 40-50min). the X54 Edinburgh bus station (1hr). A single ticket Halbeath-Cowdenbeath is £1.90.
Cowdenbeath station is by the High Street and close to the ground. From Edinburgh Waverley, a regular direct train takes 45min, single £6.60, off-peak day return £7.30. The train also calls at Edinburgh Haymarket. Sunday service is hourly, with only one train back after 7.30pm. From Glasgow, it takes 1hr 30min-1hr 50min, changing at Edinburgh Haymarket, single £15, off-peak return £22.
Based outside town by the A92, Adam’s Taxi Cowdenbeath (07783 657 109) also offers airport transfers.
Near Central Park, the Woodside Hotel on Broad Street contains a pub with a kitchen and beer garden, and six first-floor rooms, although a shared bathroom. Near Cowdenbeath station, Wee Jimmies, as well as being a major local pub, also lets out rooms.
The only hotel in town is outside the centre at 74 Perth Road, close to the golf course and North End Park, home of Hearts of Beath. Struan Bank offers six en-suite rooms, including one single, and its own bar. Rates (singles £40, twin £65) include a full Scottish breakfast.
Pubs line the High Street. Those closest to Central Park can be found in the section on Cowdenbeath FC.
Wee Jimmies at No.127 is a well run, spacious pub with a kitchen and plenty of live entertainment.
Further up on the roundabout past the Struan Bank Hotel, the Junction Bar is a standard local at 79 Perth Road.
For friendly football chatter over a pint, the Hill of Beath Ex-Servicemen’s Club on Cowdenbeath Main Street, a 10min bus ride from the High Street, sits alongside Keir’s Park, home of Hill of Beath Hawthorn FC. It opens every day from noon.