We’re all footie fans now

Ambleside is where Dorothy Wordsworth used to walk to from Dove Cottage in Grasmere to pick up post for her brother William. It was where Thomas Arnold retired to after doing all that headmastering at Rugby, and where Felicia Hemans enjoyed several holidays.

Come on. You must remember her. Wrote "The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck".

Ambleside today is a pretty little place, population scarcely 3,000, at the far end of Windermere. Surrounded by open fells, loved by walkers. What you don't expect is to see a large sign saying "The Homes of Football".

I was totally confused when I first spotted it. How could there possibly be any sort of home of football in this remote spot? On the pavement outside there are usually some papier mâché football figures and inside it's ever so cool and elegant, like a Bond Street gallery. All the photographs and displays are devoted to football, the work of Stuart Clarke, one of the best-known football photographers at work today and the author of many books.

Stuart went to Berkhamsted School, which Graham Greene attended, then studied art and photography at Central London Poly. He did odd bits of work for Time Out, which sent him on a job to Glasgow, where the phrase "The Homes of Football" came to him. Glasgow really is one of the founding homes of the game, but Stuart was thinking of "home" in the sense of stadiums, where fans go to worship.

And so that became his passion: photographing football being played - the flags, the burger bars outside, the crowds, the stadium, players lining up, though very rarely any action. Everyone snaps that.

He opened his gallery in Ambleside in 1997, for the simple reason that Lakeland was where he was living and the premises, in an old photographic studio, had become available. From Ambleside, he has covered all the World Cups since 1990 and done work for the FA and Fifa. Just shows you. You don't have to be based in obvious, nasty, snobbish old London to make it as a photographer.

His football postcards, which sell for only 50p each, are his bread and butter. They show stuff like half-naked Geordie fans with beer bellies, England fans at the World Cup with their Union Jacks tied round them like shirts, nervous young Sunderland fans gazing up at the big screen, John Motson in the snow. Among his most popular images is one of a little game going on in Ambleside with only a handful watching.

You suddenly realise there's a helicopter fluttering on a hill behind. "I don't know whether a real mountain rescue was going on, but it made the picture."

Next year, Stuart is moving to Manchester, joining the National Football Museum when it moves from Preston into the Urbis building, which is a more logical home for each of them.

“You say Ambleside is not a heartland of football, but all the local pubs are packed when they show live football," he says. "We are all football fans now, wherever we live, whether we like it or not." How true.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit