Wednesday, 28 December 2016

White City: A sporting landmark demolished for BBC offices

MOST people – especially sports history buffs – hate to see a well-known and much-loved landmark building demolished only to be replaced by something of far less architectural or aesthetic merit.  
A typical example was the case of the White City Stadium. There was deep dismay and gnashing of teeth when the old place was smashed to smithereens by a wrecking ball in 1985. This athletics ‘Mecca’ in London W12 was removed to make way for a widely-detested office block for the BBC’s ever-proliferating management.
It’s true the White City facilities had become pretty much obsolete, but surely this historic site should have been earmarked as a striking and much more convenient location for Wembley Stadium’s replacement? That never happened, vested interests winning the day with the ‘new’ Wembley being created on the old footprint.
 My year-long tour of 60 of Sydney Wooderson’s race venues culminated in a visit to the spot where the White City Stadium once stood. I found that although the old place has been wiped off the face of the earth, at least there were a couple of small reminders of the past among the mundane and functional edifices of today.
By looking skywards I found a memorial wall (above), bearing the five Olympic rings and names of medal winners at the 1908 Games held on this spot – and by looking down I located engraved paving that showed where the finish line on the old cinder running track was positioned (below).
The only other reminder of the past in the vicinity these days is the adjacent street Dorando Close. This was named in tribute to Italian marathon runner Dorando Pietri, who stumbled across the finish line in first place at the 1908 Olympiad, only to be disqualified for receiving assistance.
The stadium was built in 10 months on the site of the Franco-British Exhibition and opened by King Edward VII in April 1908. There were more than 60,000 seats and the original running track three laps to the mile. The classic 26.2 miles distance for the marathon was fixed here, with the 1908 Olympic race starting at Windsor Castle to a point in front of the White City royal box.
In 1926 the Greyhound Racing Association took over the stadium and grassed over the running track for dog racing and speedway and built new covered terracing and a restaurant. From 1927 until closure in the 1980s it would be considered the top greyhound track in Britain.
In 1931, a 440-yard running track was installed for the AAA Championships, which were held there from 1932 - the very year of Sydney Wooderson’s breakthrough in senior athletics. The AAAs main event continued here up to 1970 and there were many other major internationals fixtures. Crowds, especially in the immediate post-war years, were huge.   
QPR used the stadium for home matches in the 1930s and again in the 1960s, and when a World Cup 1966 group game between Uruguay and France clashed with dog racing at Wembley, the match was switched to White City.
* Sydney Wooderson wins the 1939 AAA mile at White City.
My on-going research for a biography of Sydney Wooderson tells me the little man raced at White City around 25 times between 1933 and 1946. He regularly thrilled the big London crowds with his fast finishes in mile races, arguably the most memorable of the lot being a rare defeat – at the hands of the brilliant Arne Andersson on a Bank Holiday Monday in August 1945.
Sydney had only just recovered from a serious bout of rheumatic fever that hospitalised him for many weeks, whereas Andersson arrived from Sweden in peak condition having avoided all the hardships of the recently-ended war. Wooderson ran bravely and brilliantly but was pipped in dramatic style right on the line, losing out by less than half-a-second.
Watching wide-eyed that day was a young Roger Bannister, who admitted later the excitement, the roaring of the crowd and the courage of the little English underdog inspired him to take running seriously . . .  and the rest is history!

* The Sydney Wooderson book is still a work in progress, but my other books – including biographies of runners Jim Peters, Arthur Newton, Alf Shrubb, Walter George and ‘Deerfoot’- are on sale via Amazon now. Link:

Thursday, 15 December 2016

'King of the Milers' does the double for garden party guests!

MY year-long trek in the footsteps of forgotten British sporting hero Sydney Wooderson is nearly at an end. Fifty-nine of 60 of his racing venues are now ticked off the list.

The journey - not a continuous one you understand, but done in bits and pieces over the past 12 months - has served its purpose as a research tool for my forthcoming book. For those to whom his name means nothing, Sydney was 'King of the Milers' long before Joe Public had even heard of Roger Bannister. But just when Sydney was poised to achieve the first four-minute mile and Olympic glory, war was declared in 1939 and things got rather complicated. But that's a story I'll save for the book!

In the mean time I'm tracking down the scenes of his triumphs and this update covers my journey, mostly on foot, around the streets of SE London.
*The former Private Banks sportsground, Catford Bridge.

My research told me Sydney raced at least a dozen times on the Private Banks Sportsground at Catford Bridge, a place that housed the 'home' track of his club Blackheath Harriers for many years. Athletics history was often written here. In fact, the very first Blackheath fixture here (in 1883) saw the charismatic Walter Goodall George run a mile in 4:24.5, which many regarded as the fastest mile in history to that point. It was no flash in the pan, for George later brought the record down to a sensational 4:12.75, a clocking that would keep his name near the top of the world rankings for more than half a century. George's remarkable life story is told in my 2006 book 'Beer and Brine', which can still be obtained via Amazon as an e-book (link: )

Sydney's appearances near the rail tracks at Catford Bridge were mostly 'domestic' club races of little national consequence. All these years later the ground remains a multi-use sports arena, but is nowadays owned by the independent St.Dunstan's College.

Within a short distance from here I found three more tracks trod by Sydney that have yet to disappear under new buildings, and two of them are still staging sporting events nearly 90 years later.

Ladywells Park/Arena (above) has been the home of Kent Athletic Club for well over 100 years. This is the club serving the Lewisham area, which only retains its rather misleading name for reasons of consistency and nostalgia, I was told. The running track here was first created in 1936, the same summer that saw Sydney smash the British mile record (4:10.8) with old Walter George turning up with his walking stick to see his long-standing mark finally beaten!  Sydney ran here at Ladywells in May 1947, winning a two-mile race comfortably, helping Blackheath beat Cambridge Harriers in the process.

The smart, imposing building that still graces the north side of Eltham Road today (above) was created in 1912 as the Ravensbourne Club. It was a residential clubhouse and sports centre for the many employees of Cook, Son and Co.(St.Pauls) Ltd., a huge wholesale clothing company. This handsome four-storey block was refurbished in 2007 and retains its U-shape around a quadrangle at the rear, where there  used to a be a swimming pool and running track.

Athletics historian Kevin Kelly has furnished me with images from the offical programme of the Annual Sports and Garden Party at Ravensbourne in summer 1937. Sydney did the 'double' that day, winning the mile handicap race easily and then helping Blackheath win the Kent mile relay championship. 
Just down the road in the Grove Park area was the track (above) where Sydney pulled in big crowds to see him win two wartime half-mile races. Brian Boulton, himself a former Kent mile champion and President of Kent AAA, used to live and run in this district and he told me:

"Much of this City of London School sportsground is now owned by Eltham College. From 1950 till 1971 I lived nearby with my parents in a house backing on to the CLS grounds. For many years I used to train off-track by exiting our back  gate to gain access to the College playing fields. I was athetics captain at the College in the late 1950s and later trained there with Glynis Goodburn, whom I coached before she married fellow long-distance star Keith Penny. The track I recall was not a standard shape, but pear-shaped."

* My biography of forgotten hero Sydney Wooderson will be published soon - the sixth in my series of books on running legends of the past. 
Click for info: 

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: