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.

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