Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Running wild on the Common: Black-clad Heathens from Hayes!

MY 2016 book-related quest to visit and run at 60 race venues graced by forgotten hero Sydney Wooderson was close to completion when I hit the Hayes area of SE London – the home patch of Sydney’s club Blackheath Harriers.

Locating places where Sydney’s track races were staged has been relatively simple, but finding his cross-country venues has proved a far more tricky business.

His club staged ‘home’ events from a number of different spots in the Hayes area, just south of Bromley. So who better to consult than a couple of the club’s past Presidents – two very helpful gents by the names of Mike Martineau and Chris Haines.

They told me about several different routes for Blackheath fixtures back in Sydney’s golden days of the 1930s and 1940s.  These tended to be on or close to Hayes Common – a place that lends itself very nicely to cross-country races or a training spin. The Common is a vast oak woodland with small patches of lowland dry heath, dry acid grassland, lichen heath, scrub and ponds. These days there’s even an SSSI (site of special scientific interest) thrown in for good measure.

Sydney and his cronies would often gather less than half-a-mile from their Bourne Way clubhouse (pictured above), at a point halfway along Prestons Road in Hayes (pictured below). From a clearing here, a footpath heads south through the trees and is where virtually all club races used to start up until the late 1960s. From here runners would head down the main path, eventually finishing adjacent to a premises known to all as ‘The Café’.

This post-race oasis was positioned at the busy Croydon Road end of Hartfield Crescent. These days it’s no longer a café, but the home of the ranger who looks after the Common. I know this because he was standing right there and politely enquired whether I was lost!

There were a couple of exceptions in Sydney’s day to the Prestons Road-to-Cafe route. Blackheath’s five-mile handicap race would always start near the Bourne Way HQ, make its way up unmade Hillside Lane to finish, inevitably, at the ever-popular café.

And what became known as the ‘Schools Race’ (Blackheath regularly raced pupils from Sydney’s alma mater Sutton Valence) was held on farmland a mile or so from the club HQ, based at Wickham Court Farm just off Layhams Road, which is in West Wickham.

Sydney hung up his spikes and racing flats for good in 1951, but for years afterwards would come along and help the club with timekeeping and other duties on these local courses. As ever, he was happy to support a club that he’d first joined in 1931.

This club loyalty was a feature of his entire career in fact. Even when he was Britain’s most famous runner either side of the 1939-45 war, his main aim in cross-country races was to help the team effort and not necessarily chase personal glory.

Sydney was always ‘old school’ and liked nothing better than to score points and help clubmates from the outfit known nationwide as ‘The Heathens’. In 1969 he accepted the honour of serving them as President for their centenary year.

The club still occupies the same Bourne Way building it purchased for £850 in 1926, but nowadays call themselves Blackheath and Bromley Harriers AC, following a merger with Bromley AC in 2003.

Much has changed since Sydney’s day, of course, but the club still recognises him as the greatest Heathen of them all.

* My biography of forgotten hero Sydney Wooderson will be published in the not-too-distant future - the sixth in my series of books on running legends of the past. Click for info:

Friday, 4 November 2016

The slopes of Shotover and the cinders of Iffley Road

* Sydney Wooderson imagined on the slopes of Shotover Hill!

THREE times during his celebrated running career Sydney Wooderson tested himself on Oxford’s fearsome cross-country course at Shotover Hill.

The first was as a raw 20-year-old track specialist, who was only there to help his club out. The second visit – more than 12 years later - was a very different scenario. He was by then at the height of his powers as a cross-country man and just a few weeks away from becoming English champion.  Sydney’s third and final Shotover run came at the tail end of his career, by which time his sole intention was again to merely grab a few scoring points for Blackheath, with no serious expectation of personal glory.

My year-long ‘challenge’ to visit and run at 60 of Sydney’s racing venues - in advance of publishing a book about him - took me up Shotover Hill on a grey and rainy day, armed as usual with running shoes, notebook and camera.

Apart from Sydney and other top runners, the place has seen plenty of excitement over the years. Shotover was once part of a Royal Forest providing a hunting ground for noblemen, fuel and grazing for local people and timber for Oxford’s historic buildings. 
After it became open farmland the main road to London passed across Shotover Plain and here travellers often fell victim to highwaymen.

Around the time Sydney ran here for the first time, the City Council began managing Shotover as a public park. During the war Slade Camp was set up to provide a temporary home for soldiers who took part in the D-Day landings and on the slopes of Shotover Hill military training took place and tanks were tested.  

Runners of various sorts still frequent the area in 2016 in high numbers, slogging up the tricky slopes in kit rather more brightly coloured than when Sydney and cronies ran the Blackheath versus Oxford University ‘mob matches’ of yesteryear.

The weather was miserable for the duration of my visit - but I was assured the place is normally a riot of nature’s finest colours and aromas. At the foot of the hill are springs which feed marshes and pools fringed with aromatic water mint and further up delicate white flowers of heath bedstraw mingle with the red of sheep’s sorrel. The grasslands are popular with green woodpeckers looking for ant nests, while the bracken is full of foxes, muntjac and roe deer.

*Sydney, imagined at RAF Halton . . .
Earlier, before hitting Oxford, I called in at RAF Halton in Wendover, scene of a wartime match between airmen and guest runners who formed ‘The Combined Clubs’ team. With most young athletes occupied in one or other of the services, most sporting events of the era involved cobbling together teams in this way, but the watching public had no complaints and were glad of such entertainment on a summer’s afternoon.

Sydney Wooderson, still world mile record holder, was of course the big attraction here at the airbase on Saturday 13 June 1942. The little man didn’t let his fans down and sped to an impressive victory in the mile race in 4:24.2. He was never really pressed, with teammate R.Hughes trailing in second ahead of the RAF’s Moore.

It would prove Sydney’s very last mile race as world record holder. Just 18 days later in Gothenburg, the mighty Swede Gunder Haegg grabbed the record for himself with a run of 4:06.2.

Sydney’s reaction to losing a record he’d held for five years no doubt included a rueful smile - for the likes of Haegg, living in neutral Sweden, had been able to escape the privations of war and was operating under a far more favourable dietary and training regime than British soldiers like Sydney.

* . . . . and on the historic Iffley Road track!
No visit to Oxford would be complete without a look at the legendary Iffley Road track, where Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier. Sydney raced here in May 1943, part of a strong AAA team who took on an illness-depleted University outfit. Sydney moved away from the pack on the second lap of the 880 yards (half-mile) race, winning easily by 35 yards or so in 1:57.4. It was a race that gained a couple of column inches in the wartime papers, but nothing like the fuss this track would generate 11 years later when Bannister and his pals came to town!

Friday, 28 October 2016

Cross-country at school - not always a miserable memory!

ALTHOUGH he made his name circling cinder tracks at high speed, Sydney Wooderson always harboured a deep love of traversing open countryside – either by way of long Sunday walks, or by entering cross-country races.

This love seems to have stemmed from his days attending Sutton Valence School in the inter-war years. The Kent school placed a strong emphasis on sport and regularly sent its boys into the fresh air for cross-country jaunts across the nearby beauty spots of the Weald of Kent. 

* Weald of Kent, viewed from Boughton Monchelsea churchyard.
A lifetime list of Sydney’s races shows that of his first 30 fixtures, all run as a teenager, at least half were cross-country races in this area. My year-long ‘challenge’ to visit and run at 60 of Sydney’s racing venues - in advance of publishing a book about him - took me out here, armed as usual with running shoes, notebook and camera.

The record shows that Sydney’s first four races were all in the colours of Sutton Valence with many of his opponents older than him. All four were won by his elder brother Alfred, the school’s star athlete. Sydney would eventually emerge from Alfred’s shadow in the spring of 1931, aged 16, when he narrowly won a steeplechase of five-and-a-half miles in a time of 32.29.

The biggest conurbation by far in this area is Maidstone, but it would be fully ten years later before Sydney competed in this county town of Kent. It would ultimately amount to five races here, three cross-country battles and two track contests.

Crossing a down-at-heel housing estate, neglected footpaths and barbed wire, I was eventually able to locate the place where he made his Maidstone debut in wartime 1941 – the grass track used by the county’s Police HQ. Representing a combined Army/RAF team, Sydney anchored a medley relay against a Police & Medical Services team. He looked in good shape following recent injury troubles as he set off first over 880 yards, handing the baton to teammate Harold Wickerson and leaving his team well placed. They ultimately won by 20 yards and and the overall event by a big points margin.

* The site of the former track at the Maidstone police HQ grounds.
Sydney's first return to this track came five years later, at the Kent county champs of June 1946. No longer specialising at half-mile and mile, Sydney tested himself in the three miles event and became county top dog by clocking 14:59.2. It was the first county champs since war began nearly seven years earlier, but for Sydney it was more significant as an indicator of good things to come at longer distances.

Next for me was to locate the scene of Sydney’s various heroics in the Gillingham and Chatham area. Back in 1937 he’d made his bow at Gillingham’s United Services Sports ground, successfully defending his county mile title in hot sunshine and on a badly disintegrating cinder track. A relatively modest time of 4:30.8 was all it took to lift the crown, and his well-known electric burst of speed was only required for a brief surge in the second lap in order to establish a good position.

Just a week earlier he’d thrilled a big crowd at the White City, winning the Kinnaird Trophy mile in 4:17.1, but on that occasion conditions were better and the opposition stronger. Despite this, in some quarters of the press disappointment was expressed that Sydney had “only” managed 4.30 at Gillingham. If he was miffed by such criticism, he characteristically didn’t display it publicly, and it was left to the editor of his club’s newsletter to castigate the moaners.

* The old United Services Sports ground at Gillingham.
If any spectators at Gillingham were disappointed by his low-key cruise to victory they only had to wait another year, for the 1938 Southern championships were held at the same ground, and Sydney powered to a brilliant victory in the half-mile (1.56.4) beating title-holder Arthur Collyer into second place. 

Overcoming a gusty wind and poor track conditions, Sydney brushed off an episode of jostling to grab the lead less than 200 yards from home. Checking the progress of the chasing Collyer all the while, he nevertheless flew across the line some eight yards clear as the crowd roared its approval. It was a sensational demonstration of his superiority.

* Sydney Wooderson book on the way; My other biographies on Jim Peters, Arthur Newton, Alf Shrubb, Walter George, 'Deerfoot' and more, all available via Amazon.  Click this link: 

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Brighton adventures of Walter and Sydney

AND so to Preston Park, a substantial 63-acre chunk of recreational space on the edge of trendy Brighton. It’s a place that nowadays hosts the hugely popular Brighton Marathon, but in past decades witnessed the exploits of the most famous track runners and cyclists in the land.

A cinder running track was first laid here more than 100 years ago, sitting rather uncomfortably inside the banked velodrome track which is still there today. British mile legend Sydney Wooderson raced here just once – in the summer of 1937 aged 22 - and put on a memorable and powerful display that belied his tender years and lightweight frame.

My year-long ‘challenge’ to visit and run at 60 of Sydney’s racing venues - in advance of publishing a book about him - took me to Brighton via various places he also passed through late in his running career during annual London-Brighton Relays. Handcross, Hickstead (pic below), Hassocks and Patcham all witnessed his pattering feet on separate occasions as he dutifully swept through these places ‘transporting the baton’ for Blackheath Harriers.

His selfless efforts on behalf of his beloved black-clad London club were admirable, but never was his talent more evident than when he regally cruised around the Preston Park track on Saturday 26 June 1937. On that day he won the Southern AAA championship mile ‘as he pleased’, to coin a phrase of the day.

Clocking laps of 64.5, 64.5 and 65 seconds, he looked in great shape tucked in behind the labouring leaders. Then, 350 yards from the end he suddenly produced that famous 'kick' and surged clear apparently effortlessly, putting in a final lap of 60.6 to win by 10-yards in 4:14.6. It was the best mile by a Brit since his own native record at Chelmsford a year earlier (4:10.8).

The experts reckoned it was only a matter of time before Sydney would set a world mile record – something no British-born runner had done since Walter George 50 years earlier, back when Victoria was on the throne.

W.G.George, a lively character who confessed to liking “a cigar, a drink and a spree” between training runs, had strong links with Brighton himself, having run here and worked as a junior dispensing chemist in the town.

Walter and Sydney were both great milers, but it was there the similarity ended. While Sydney was small, bespectacled, introverted and a diligent city office worker, Walter was a tall, handsome fellow who loved his celebrity status and occasionally strayed into the type of trouble that didn’t befit an athlete of international status. By way of example, here’s just one of many tales about Walter I included in my biography of him, published several years ago:

“One typical episode involved a drunken midnight foot-race along Regent Street in Central London with some pals. Ignoring a bobby’s advice to go home to bed, Walter then trekked through the night to meet a lady-friend in another part of London. This was followed by a hectic morning’s shopping and a lavish lunch in the West End before our hero then bowled merrily into the Lillie Bridge stadium to casually smash a world record!”

I think it’s fair to say Sydney’s build-up to big races tended to be a little more circumspect than Walter’s . . . .

* BEER and BRINE – The Making of Walter George, Athletics’ First Superstar (Author: Rob Hadgraft, Publisher: Desert Island Books; Illustrated 256-page hardback, or as e-book). Available via Amazon - - or direct from the author).