Friday, 8 January 2016

A quick siesta and then a crack at Sydney and the Heathens!

* Felsted 2016 . . . a view little changed from Sydney's day?
FELSTED School in Essex.  Possibly the only school in the country where the daily timetable demanded pupils go to bed at lunchtime for a 30-minute nap!  This was the case in the 1930s and 1940s anyway, while the school was being run by charismatic and controversial headmaster Julian Bickersteth.
Designed to improve boys’ health and well-being, the Felsted ‘siesta’ must have had an interesting effect on their cross-country team when they faced afternoon races against the might of Sydney Wooderson and his Blackheath Harriers team at the school either side of the second world war.

When the young men of Felsted raced the experienced older ‘Heathens’ it was always a lively affair, attracting loud enthusiasm from boys watching in the school grounds in this normally quiet and refined corner of mid-Essex. On my visit the quietude was punctuated only by the odd passing car or smiley person on a bicycle. This was the sixth of the 60 race venues that make up Project Sydney (see * below) and I suspect it will prove to be one of the least-changed locations since Sydney’s heyday.
* Roomy shorts were the order of the day for Sydney
His debut at Felsted in November 1937 generated high excitement among the pupils, who were told Sydney had only recently smashed the world mile record in a track race in London. A somewhat high-pitched hero’s welcome to Essex was guaranteed. Sydney duly won the 5.25-mile cross-country contest in 31 mins 30 secs, comfortably ahead of his teammate and brother Stanley, the nearest challenger.

Two years later, after the outbreak of war, the school was given only 10 days’ notice to pack up and move out when the Army requisitioned it to become the HQ for Eastern Region Defence. Five years later normality was restored and before very long Blackheath and national hero Sydney were back to pose another cross-country challenge for the boys in December 1947.
The ‘Heathens’ arrived in the area by Great Eastern Railway and took taxis to the school. The afternoon’s race was over soft ground but a freshening wind kept the rain away. After the usual fast start, things settled down and Sydney cruised into the lead after a mile, gradually lengthening his advantage and coming home in 31:10, almost three minutes clear of the rest to smash the course record.

Teammate Busby lost a shoe early on, but hobbled gamely all the way round, eventually coming home barefoot to great cheers despite finishing last by a big margin.
The excited young onlookers received news of progress of the race via a cleverly-arranged network of boys out on the course and a loudspeaker at the finish line. The commentary spared nobody’s blushes and there was great hilarity when the school’s last finisher came home to the announcement that was probably in that position because he was a victim of nicotine poisoning!

* 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!

* A runners' view heading away from the school in 2016

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