Thursday, 25 February 2016

Puny Sydney passes a test of strength in Kentish countryside

A REMOTE windswept hilltop in Kent – miles from the nearest town – provided a classic rural setting for many memorable cross-country battles either side of the 1939-45 war. But the hundreds of runners – many famous names among them – would rarely suffer a shortage of support during gruelling races at this venue, for it was also the permanent home of scores of small boys rescued from broken and destitute homes.

The race HQ in question was the Farningham Homes for Little Boys, a pioneering 19th century project comprising 15 or so buildings which made up Britain’s first ‘cottage homes’ establishment – seen then as a safer healthier alternative to the old Victorian workhouses. During a recent TV episode of 'Who Do You Think You Are', the 1960s icon and model Twiggy uncovered information that her Uncle Harry had grown up here!  

* The boys' home at Farningham was a key cross-country base.
The small hilltop complex, not far from Horton Kirby village, would survive until 1961, by which time attitudes to child welfare had changed. But some original buildings remain to this day, now part of a private residential village called Southdowns.
I visited the area as part of my quest to run at 60 Sydney Wooderson race venues. It was a cold day of relentless high winds and I found that traversing even the flatter of these fields overlooking the Darent Valley was tough going in such an exposed area. Some important county and regional cross-country races were staged from here in years gone by – occasions that added colour and excitement to the lives of the boys from the Homes, but which also gave fascinating glimpses into another world for the runners who came from more conventional domestic backgrounds.

* The hilltop race venue as seen in 2016.
The visiting athletes tackled a tough but popular course, used for a 13-year period (1926 to 1939) for the annual varsity contest between Oxford and Cambridge. The Horton Kirby millstream and River Darent featured prominently among the obstacles to be overcome.
Britain’s most famous runner of the era, Sydney Wooderson came here in January 1948 to regain a Kent cross-country crown he’d last won ten years earlier. He and a big party of fellow ‘Heathens’ from the Blackheath Harriers were present – including club President George Wilkinson who was praised for hiking more than a mile from the start so he could shout encouragement from a remote spot where he said he was “most needed and least expected!”   

The three-lap, seven-mile course featured many slopes and stretches of plough and tested 106 men to the full in the senior race.  Sydney was by now 33 and after years as one of the world’s top milers had recently quit the track to enjoy considerable success in cross-country where he was more than happy to be part of a team and not always the centre of attention.
*Pre-war cross-country racers prepare to set off at chilly Farningham.
His main rival this day would be Aylesford Paper Mill’s Jack Charlesworth who took an early lead. Sydney was keeping his tinder dry back in 11th place, looking for all the world like he would leave things late and make use of his famed explosive finish. But, suddenly, at the start of the second lap, he stepped things up and within a space of barely 200 yards had gone smoothly from 11th to the shoulder of leader Charlesworth.

This seemed to demoralise most contenders and before long the leading pair had an unassailable lead. Reigning county champion, the RAF man Macoy, drifted outside the top ten, suffering from lumbago. A nice piece of downhill grass at the start of the third loop presented itself and Sydney shot away from the younger Charlesworth to cross the line at least 70 yards clear, winning by 16 seconds. It was his fifth triumph in eight races so far this season and he looked unruffled and composed. His chances looked bright of becoming national champion should he choose to compete over 10 miles at Sheffield a few weeks hence, despite his slight build and mile-racing background suggesting otherwise.
Blackheath had five men in the top ten to win the team prize by a big margin. Weary legs and cold weather were forgotten as they celebrated a great day out in the Kent countryside. Sydney, of course, characteristically made little fuss, wiping his glasses and quietly getting changed for the journey back to London.

* 'Project Sydney’ is more than just my forthcoming 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 with the research for the book!
* Southern Counties runners go through goalposts and across Farningham fields in 1937.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The quiet man who kicked up a storm at Motspur Park

SYDNEY Wooderson only raced at Motspur Park three times during his glittering career. All three were won, two joyous affairs in world record time. But the third was a sad and hollow victory, ending with him limping heavily and missing a UK record. It was a rainy London day that marked the beginning of the end of a glittering track career.

Huge crowds turned out for all three races and the excitement and noise levels on those occasions was a far cry from the day of my visit this week – even though that very same field was hosting another sporting occasion when I arrived. As I peered into the now highly secure and carefully screened premises, Fulham FC’s under-18s were beating visitors Reading 3-2 on what was once the infield of the famous Motspur Park track. It was a contest that barely warranted a line in the sporting press, unlike the massive headlines Sydney garnered for his heroics here either side of the 1939-45 War.

The cinder 440-yard track they created here in the Surrey/London suburb of New Malden in 1928 had six lanes with 11 lanes on the straight, built on a chunk of open countryside acquired for the University of London for the princely sum of £18,000. It grew into one of London’s most important athletics venues over the next 40 years or so.
* Motspur Park after Fulham FC moved in.

The track would eventually be grassed over in 1995 having not been used for athletics for five years. The grounds were sold in 1999 as a training base for Second Division champions Fulham FC, owned by Harrod's boss Mohammed Fayed and managed by Kevin Keegan. The covered stand that overlooked the old running track would be spared the wrecking ball and remains in place, now painted in Fulham's black-and-white livery.

Sydney’s exploits made Motspur Park a famous sporting landmark, and the track was also used in three feature films, most notably the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire. Although the cinders are long gone, the track’s curved sweep remains a feature of the present Arena field, as does a home straight that accounts for the large divide between pitch touchline and stand. The calibre of the facilities has meant international football teams often base themselves here, previous visitors including Brazil, Colombia, England, South Korea and Sweden.

Motspur Park was the ninth venue on my list of 60 to be visited on my whistle-stop tour of Sydney’s race locations this year. But being ninth was purely for logistical reasons – in terms of significance to his career it would be vying for the No.1 spot alongside the White City Stadium of course.

In August 1937 Sydney set a world mile record of 4.06.4 here that would remain unsurpassed for five years. It was a performance that convinced many that a human being really could one day run a four-minute mile. Sydney set off from scratch with the seven other runners up ahead being given starts (including his kid brother Stanley), thus giving him something to chase throughout. It was a run that ensured his place in sporting history for ever. On being re-measured the distance was 22 inches over one mile. Although the record attempt had been carefully staged and was by no means a ‘pure’ race, Sydney would reflect later: “I was quite amazed and couldn’t sleep undisturbed for some days after.”

Almost exactly a year later he returned for another specially-framed handicap event to smash the world half-mile record, running 1.48.4 for 800 metres and hitting the half-mile in 1.49.2.

Much water would pass under the bridge before his final visit, including the entire 1939-45 war: Eight years on New Malden witnessed an attempt on the British two-mile record that came just a week after Sydney magnificently became European 5,000 metres champion at Helsinki. Many thought two miles in 9 minutes would be a formality, but on a rain-sodden Motspur Park track he was badly hampered by a recurrence of an ankle problem. Not wanting to disappoint the huge crowd he carried on, limping to victory less than 10 seconds adrift of the old record of 9.03.4.

* Third time unlucky . . .  Sydney's last Motspur Park race. 
Although he ran and won seven club track events the following summer (1947), that hobbling finish at Motspur Park effectively marked the end of his high-profile track career at the age of 32. He turned to cross-country and focussed on helping his club Blackheath in team competitions.

* 'Project Sydney’ is more than just a forthcoming 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 with the research for the book!

Monday, 8 February 2016

The ghost of a forgotten hero?

WAS this the ghost of Sydney Wooderson?
I spotted the elderly runner chugging slowly but surely across blustery Chingford Plain in splendid isolation on a bright but chilly afternoon. Perhaps he was reliving past glories here on the edge of Epping Forest, recalling colourful camaraderie and muddy battles of his running youth?

I did a double take. From 100 yards away he certainly looked like Sydney. But, hang on, this was surely no ghostly apparition . . . if Sydney was to pay a return visit to this mortal coil wouldn't he be far more likely to do a few paranormal circuits at the sites of his most famous races - say White City, or maybe Motspur Park?

Research for my book on Sydney is coming along well, with some prominent people proving very helpful. And my visit to Epping Forest – an excellent running area I get to all too rarely - meant another ‘Project Sydney’ venue ticked off the list of 60 that must be trod this year by my trainer-clad feet.

Our hero raced here, hosted by Orion Harriers AC, four times in his short but glorious war-interrupted career. In all four he was clad in the black vest of Blackheath Harriers, the last being a ‘mob match’ in 1950 that was his very last serious race, apart from a couple of relatively minor closed club affairs.
The most notable of his quartet of appearances came 18 months after the start of the 1939-1945 war - the Southern Counties Inter-team Championships, contested by a dozen clubs over 7.5 miles.

At that point it had proved a strange winter for runners from the London area. The 1940-41 cross-country season opened while the capital was being heavily bombed by the Nazis every night – but the show went on, despite reduced numbers and depleted teams.
One of Sydney’s clubmates reflected back on this: “It seemed improbable the season could be successful and yet a few people turned out regularly and despite the conditions some of the old winter enjoyment was experienced. There were, of course, servicemen visiting HQ on their leave glad to find that one of the old well-loved things [running] remained.”

This show of bulldog spirit among the running clubs led to plenty of races being staged at the start of 1941 and Sydney managed to get time off from his duties as a corporal in the Army’s Pioneer Corps to race in three of them as he built towards the season’s finale, the Southern champs at Chingford on Saturday March 22.
Races at this venue were adjacent to Orion HAC’s splendid and imposing HQ, the Royal Forest Hotel (still open today) and its neighbouring royal hunting lodge. Just a few weeks before the Southerns, 26-year-old Sydney had also run here, coming joint-first in a club ‘mob match’ with colleague Harry Thompson. Despite dreadful weather and a sea of mud underfoot, one of the keenest spectators that day was his dear old mum!

When Sydney ran here the threat came from something a bit bigger! 
On the big day the press hyped up the Southern race of 95 men as a confrontation between track mile champion Sydney and off-road ace Tom Carter (Belgrave), unbeaten in his last ten races over the country. But while these two contenders worried about each other, Eastleigh’s Reg Gosney would nip in to win by a few yards from Carter, Sydney breathing hard back in fifth. Local club Woodford Green proved top dogs in the team contest.
London was still being heavily bombed over this period, but that day’s racing provided a few hours’ pleasant distraction before the return to grim daily life.

* 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 with the research for the book!