Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Feeling quite at home among those fleet-footed deer!

HE may have been an international superstar when it came to four-lap track races in summer, but Sydney Wooderson was always keen to help his club out in those gruelling cross-country slogs on winter Saturdays.

Barely three months after smashing the world mile record on the cinders of Motspur Park in August 1937 (4 mins 6.4 secs) our hero took to the muddy fields of south-east England for a very different kind of challenge, with little thought of personal glory.

Twenty-three-year-old Sydney had dabbled in cross-country before, but mainly at school and in low-key matches for Blackheath Harriers. But now, after winning a couple of relatively minor races at the end of 1937, he agreed to wear the Heathens colours for the first time in a major XC contest.
The occasion was the annual Kent County Championships, a highly prestigious affair being staged this year in the 1,000-acre medieval deer park surrounding Knole House in Sevenoaks. His admirers often said Sydney was so light and fleet-footed that he ran “like a startled deer”, so this setting would mean he was perfectly at home!

Nearly 80 years later, I found myself in Knole Park this week on a mild and dry Boxing Day morning, one of at least a dozen runners roaming the paths and grasslands to shake off seasonal excesses. This was the fifth of the 60 race venues that make up Project Sydney (see * below).
The 'Hole in the Wall'
To run in the footsteps of ‘The Mighty Atom’, my first task was to find a landmark known locally as The Hole in the Wall, which marked the point where he and his fellow runners had to gather on Saturday 8 January back in 1938 for the start of their two-lap contest. First home after seven seriously undulating miles would be able to call themselves champion of Kent for a year.

I found the spot easily enough after directions from a local runner, but it seems my predecessors from Blackheath Harriers 77 years ago did not! Drenched by rain, they missed the start of the junior race as a consequence, and the official who wrote up the report for their newsletter was still in a grumpy mood about race arrangements when he put pen to paper some days later!
Sydney was of course by now a very famous fellow indeed by dint of his track heroics, but a race like this would pose all sorts of difficult and intriguing questions of his capabilities. However, he was well to the fore when the pack of seniors shot off down a wide valley at the start of lap one. An uphill stretch soon slowed them all down but a group of six established a good lead as the event unfolded.

My own finish line in Knole Park
was an abandoned boot!
Sydney’s natural speed and nimble style saw him cope with apparent ease and stay at or near the front for mile after mile. As the finish got closer on lap two he found himself locked in battle with just one opponent, Hodges of Gravesend. Undaunted by the continuous rain which had kept spectators to a minimum, the pair raced hard from the top of the golf course steeply downhill at breakneck speed. They swept round a bend and Sydney won a terrific battle for the tape by a mere two seconds to take his first major title over the country.

He was a modest and unassuming chap, but had he needed bringing down to earth, the job would have been done when the weary finishers were promptly directed out of the park to Sevenoaks swimming baths, where the allocated changing area was the cold, tiled floor of an empty pool!

* 'PROJECT SYDNEY’ is more than just a book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which is to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60!  This blog records the progress of that challenge which, conveniently, will not only help keep me fit, but assist greatly with the research for the book!

Sydney and his pals sped off down here in a massive group at breakneck speed,
but on  Boxing Day 2015 there was just one pink-clad lady runner to be seen. 

Monday, 21 December 2015

Floating over lumps and bumps at Chelmsford to smash a record

* Down here he flew, the GB record in his sights . . .

* The bespectacled 'People's hero'

ONE thing always bugged me during the eight-year stint I lived in Chelmsford: It concerned a stretch of the A1060 just around the corner from us, known locally as ‘Bundick’s Hill’. Although I know zilch about the Bundick person immortalised in this way, I became convinced it would be far more appropriate to have this location named ‘Wooderson Hill’.

This bit of road swoops past Admiral’s Park and Tower Gardens to the west of the city, right next to the spot where ‘people’s hero’ Sydney Wooderson broke the British mile record on a summer’s afternoon many decades ago – against all the odds.

Bespectacled Sydney’s historic run of 4 mins.10.8 secs sent shock-waves through the sporting world, and enthralled 5,000 locals on the afternoon of Saturday 20 June, 1936. Nearly 80 years later the venue this week became the fourth of the 60 I am visiting as part of Project Sydney*.

What made his record so unlikely was the nature of the place. This was no springy, sheltered, perfectly flat neoprene running track. Oh no. Sydney had to run four laps of a cricket pitch, complete with misshapen bends, slopes and dips, and travelled outside the boundary ropes, meaning the grass was inferior to that of the cricket field itself.

The occasion was the 14th annual Southern Counties AAA championships, hosted for the first time by Chelmsford AC and friends, despite the fact they had no proper cinder running track to offer the elite athletes in attendance. Great local interest and good weather saw programmes sell out completely, and a crowd tightly packed under the parkland trees enjoyed plenty of drama - including pole vaulter Vanall coming a real cropper when his pole spectacularly snapped.

Earlier, officials and journalists had strolled up Rainsford Road to the ground from the railway station, their conversation centred on Wooderson’s rumoured attempt on the record. This had been leaked to Fleet Street the previous day. The Sporting Chronicle correspondent ‘Ubiquitous’ was one of many who thought Sydney had no chance of running under 4:12 on this imperfect track.

The start of the Mile was held up in comedy fashion when latecomer Hodges of Southgate suddenly hove into view and pleaded loudly to be allowed to get changed and compete. This was granted and 21 men lined up, one quitting early after being spiked. Henderson (Polytechnic) took off fast, pursued by Sydney, and a gap opened up. Sydney ran the first lap in 60.2 seconds and hit halfway in 2:04.4. Pacemaker Henderson then dropped back and Sydney surged into a lead which slowly increased. He was 30 yards ahead at the start of the last lap (3:08), looking smooth and untroubled. He came home to loud roars 50 yards to the good, famous names Thomas (RAF), Pell (Herne Hill) and Cornes (Achilles) trailing in his wake.

It was a new British amateur record, 1.2 seconds inside the 4:12 set by New Zealand ace Jack Lovelock in Oxford four years earlier. Lovelock was here, but to the surprise of many had quietly opted to run the half-mile instead, in which he was beaten.

One correspondent wrote in awe of what he’d seen: “The graceful ease with which this marvellous run was accomplished; the utter absence of any symptom of distress –during its performance or subsequently – and the manner in which Wooderson sailed away from such magnificent previous champions, left an ineffaceable memory.”  

The run booked his place for the forthcoming Berlin Olympics, and this would prove the second of a ten-year stint as undisputed mile champion of Britain.

* Project Sydney’ is more than just a book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which is to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60! This blog records the progress of that challenge which – conveniently – will not only help keep me fit, but assist greatly with the research for the book!

Friday, 11 December 2015

The day they nearly throttled one of the posh boys!

Stamford Bridge . . .  as it looked this week

ON an almost daily basis, matchday or not, football fans from near and far with rucksacks and ill-fitting jeans wander the concourse that encircles the Stamford Bridge stadium, agog at the ostentatious display of wealth and glamour that is Chelsea FC in 2015. There’s a megastore, a museum, restaurants and a luxury hotel to gawp at.

When little Sydney Wooderson travelled with his teenage chums to race inside this stadium in 1931 things were very, very different. The 12-acre site had nothing to amuse or entertain tourists, indeed it was imposing enough to generate waves of fear and nervous tension in those about to perform here. The magnificent gloom of the huge Brompton Cemetery, right next door, won’t have helped in this regard.

This famous corner of West London was the third of my 60 running venues being visited as part of Project Sydney (see * below).

The Stamford Bridge of Sydney’s youth was used for athletics and greyhound racing as well as football. He came here aged 16 to run competitively for the very first time outside a school environment, representing Sutton Valence in the Mile race at the Public School Athletic Championships of April 1931.

Heading into central London to compete against the best boys from other Public Schools was a big deal, and there was added pressure on Sydney. Just three weeks earlier he’d emerged as a real star in the making by winning the school sports' 100 yards, 440 yards, 880 yards and Mile to be named outstanding athlete at his school. He was now well and truly out of the shadow of his elder brother, another fine runner.

But the posh boys from other parts of Britain proved tougher nuts to crack at the Stamford Bridge gathering. Most oozed with the confidence that comes with a privileged upbringing and most looked physically far superior to the likes of Sydney. 

Take Lord John Hope, for example. This lanky figure, two years older than Sydney, roared to a spectacular record-breaking win in the half-mile, cheered on by fellow Etonians among the big crowd. This was a man who would later become a Major in the Scots Guards and Cabinet Minister in Harold MacMillan’s government.

Sydney was among the younger and less experienced runners and it showed when he tackled his mile heat on the heavy cinder track. Reports say he ran “an ill-judged race” and was lucky to qualify for the final thanks to a desperate late sprint to come second behind Tony Leach of Oundle. 

In the final the following day a bitterly cold wind and heavy rain made life miserable out on the track, and although Sydney battled hard he could only manage sixth, Samuel of Watford Grammar winning in 4 mins 37.4. But better days would follow for Sydney at Stamford Bridge. 

A year later he returned for the 1932 Public School champs, finding once again the occasion was marred by heavy rain. By now he’d joined Blackheath Harriers and with a further year’s experience under his belt was shaping into an obvious running star of the future. 

In his heat he qualified for the final by coming second to Sullivan of Shrewsbury with a minimum of fuss. Next day he produced his trademark finishing burst on the home straight but narrowly failed to catch Sullivan again, missing out by barely 12 inches to take the silver medal.

It was a fine effort, but gained him little media attention as most reporters were concentrating on the fact that the championships were the first anywhere to try “an ingenious new invention” – a starting gate for sprint races.

But the new equipment, devised by eminent Cambridge Professor Henry Rottenburg, was hastily withdrawn after just two attempts – on one of which a runner from Oundle false-started and got his neck tangled in tape, nearly throttling himself!

Sydney won the Public Schools mile at the third attempt . . .

For Sydney and the Professor it was a case of back to the drawing board. Sydney would never race again at Stamford Bridge, but in the 1933 Public Schools championships – his third and last – he would get the victory he craved. 

After an intense battle at the White City Stadium with Dennis Pell (Chatham House), and despite a last-lap stumble, Sydney won in a meeting record of 4:29.8 - a world-class time for an 18-year-old. He was hoisted shoulder-high by jubilant schoolmates and it was clear that in this scrawny, bespectacled lad Britain had found a potential world champion.

* Project Sydney’ is more than just a book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which is to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60! This blog records the progress of that challenge which – conveniently – will not only help keep me fit, but assist greatly with the research for the book!

* See also www.robhadgraft.com

Friday, 4 December 2015

'Project Sydney' (2/60): Wartime heartbreak comes to Camberwell

Sydney Wooderson.
ACCORDING to Sir John Betjeman it was “a strangely beautiful place”, a relatively unspoiled haven tucked away in a quiet corner of busy South East London.
The poet was referring to a little Victorian urban park and its adjacent Camberwell streets, the place Sydney Wooderson was born in 1914 to the second wife of a successful fruit and veg merchant.

But the attractions of Myatts Fields Park, which so enchanted Betjeman, were denied Sydney in early childhood. He was born in a smart eight-room Victorian villa exactly 200 yards from the main gates of the park, just a week or two after the start of the 1914-18 Great War. But sadly for him and other local youngsters the park closed after being requisitioned to help the war effort. It became an annexe to the First London General Hospital which was hastily created at the former St Gabriel’s College which loomed tall over the western end of the park. The park accommodated the soaring number of British casualties returning from battle, those men in need of urgent surgery placed in beds that were crammed inside newly-erected wooden huts. Night-duty nurses slept in other huts in the park.
Sydney's Camberwell birthplace.
Many soldiers breathed their last in this little park, and the sombre atmosphere would be heightened on overcast days by the dramatic and brooding presence of the enormous hospital building, formerly a happy place when occupied by carefree college students.

During my visit this week on stage two of ‘Project Sydney’ (see * below) the gates were welcomingly open and the well-kept paths lent themselves nicely to running a few laps of the park. I passed a handsome bandstand, The Little Cat cafĂ© incongruously blasting out Latin American music, and some thoughtful council gardeners doing a fine impression of Monty Don as they discussed design plans.
Sydney was seven years old by the time the park was able to re-open in 1921 for its original use. As he lived so close by, it’s reasonably safe to assume it was here he did the very first running of a life that would be defined by his achievements in the sport. It wouldn’t be long, however, before he’d be packed off out of the capital to the fee-paying public boarding school at Sutton Valence, 50 miles away in deepest Kent.

No doubt he left the family home in nearby Baldwin Crescent with heavy heart. Of considerable comfort would have been the fact elder brother Alfred was already a prominent Sutton Valence pupil, performing well on the sports fields and thus a perfect role model for the shy, quiet, but energetic younger brother.
The family unit had recently comprised his elder half-siblings Violet, Rhoda and George, his brothers Alfred and Stanley, parents George senior and Jeanette Emma, and a domestic servant called Elizabeth Shields.   George, whose fruit and veg business was evidently thriving, had married Sydney’s mum not long after his first wife Caroline died aged just 37 in 1909.  

Their impressive bay-fronted villa (Monteagle House) was part of a well-to-do neighbourhood. In 2015 little has changed in that respect, for I note it is currently undergoing renovations having been purchased not long ago for a price approaching £1 million. And next door to the former Wooderson home is a house once occupied by acclaimed writer Dame Muriel Spark, in which she wrote her first eight novels.

* Project Sydney’ is more than just a book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which is to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60!  This blog records the progress of that challenge which – conveniently – will not only help keep me fit, but assist greatly with the research for the book!
Details of other books: www.robhadgraft.com