Friday, 27 November 2015

Serene corner of old England where it all started for Sydney

VEILED by a thin mist, the silence is eerily invaded by the distant sound of the school clock striking 11.

* The only sound was the tolling of the school bell . . .
The glistening playing fields stretch almost as far as the eye can see, but are completely deserted save for a groundsman pottering quietly beside a far-off hedge. Mid-morning on a Thursday is clearly not games time at Sutton Valence, a fee-paying boarding school here in deepest Kent.

Ahead of me sits a fenced-off eight-lane running track, its brick-red synthetic surface and silver kerbing harshly incongruous in this verdant corner of old England. The effect is exaggerated by the strange but irrefutable fact that the track has been built on sloping land. How many runners must have cursed that uphill back straight in the closing laps of a 5 or 10k race?

The track and its attached facilities may be modern, but the rest of the surroundings appears little changed since these fields were the proving ground of a quiet, serious, bespectacled boy destined to become perhaps the mostly unlikely sporting hero this nation has ever seen.

Sydney Wooderson attended Sutton Valence School from 1926 and 1933, where he was largely overshadowed by the prowess of elder brother Alfred, an accomplished runner. For years Alfred was the undisputed star of school sports, but focus began to shift to his little brother on the day Alfred ran 4:49 to smash the school mile record, but only a few yards behind in third place was the tiny figure of Sydney.        

Sydney learned how to race the quarter-mile, half-mile and mile on these Sutton Valence fields, and was introduced to the rugged pleasures of cross country here too. Now that I’ve embarked on the task of writing a book about him, it’s only right I should pitch up and have a run over these field myself.
‘Project Sydney’ is more than just a book, however, it also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which was to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60. This blog will record the progress of the challenge, and the whole thing will not only help keep me fit, but assist with research for the book.

Some of the 60 venues I aim to visit are still used for running, but a number simply won’t exist any more. I fully expect to find cases where they have ‘paved paradise and put up a parking lot’. But that’s not the case today.
Later in the day I must head west from this serene spot to hunker down among the Bromley Central Library archives, where boxes of historical material relating to Sydney’s club Blackheath Harriers await my perusal. So a refreshing run on these fields is a welcome precursor to all that.

As a schoolboy Sydney (pictured) could run a mile in around 4:30 on this very grass, but my little jaunt doesn’t quite match that today. But, of course, I’m not here to emulate his speed but to chalk up the first of my 60 ‘Sydney runs’ of the coming year. ‘Project Sydney’ is safely underway.  
       * PROJECT SYDNEY: It’s a book, a blog and a birthday challenge! Venue 1 of 60 was Sutton Valence School playing fields in Kent, run by S.C.Wooderson during the period 1926-1933 and occasionally later on too.

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