Thursday, 24 March 2016

The end of an era down by the banks of the Medway

* Sydney imagined at the former Aylesford Paper Mills sports grounds in 2016.
THERE was much sadness in 2015 when production at the huge Aylesford Paper Mills site in Kent ground to a halt after nearly 100 years. More than 200 workers were made redundant, the famous landmark was decommissioned and its associated sports grounds nearby were put up for sale. 

I was here recently on my tour of Sydney Wooderson race venues*, and the first thing I noticed was the isolated and quaint little football grandstand, now deemed too decrepit for safe use. It looked out forlornly across the paper company’s windswept sports fields where the future is now highly uncertain. 

Here on the banks of the River Medway, not far from bustling Maidstone, that ancient little grandstand has witnessed much fine sport down the decades – not least a 10-mile cross-country race that saw Sydney Wooderson eke out one of the best victories of a celebrated career.

It happened on an unseasonably warm February afternoon in 1948. When the bespectacled little figure from Blackheath stormed across the finish line - 10 seconds clear of a very strong field - he became Southern Counties champion for the first time. In typically modest fashion he kept a low profile afterwards, but knew this win was a very important milestone. It convinced him he’d been right to abandon thoughts of a last tilt at Olympic glory and to instead spend this winter building towards the English National cross-country championships. Although winning mile races on the track had made Sydney famous, he had a deep love of cross-country and in the twilight of his career felt that becoming national champion would be a great way to sign-off.

Aylesford Paper Mills Sports Club (Athletics Section) boasted some top runners in their ranks at this time and some fine facilities to offer visitors. From its inception, the management of the mills was keen to foster sporting and social societies among its workers and backed this up with generous subsidies. Later in 1948, of course, London staged the first post-war Olympic Games, and the visiting Finland squad chose to base themselves at Aylesford. They organised the construction of a sauna on the sports club premises, and didn’t take it away when they left - meaning many local folk would afterwards have the chance to sample this Scandinavian delight for the first time.
* Sydney (right) settles for joint-third at Aylesford in 1947.
Sydney Wooderson’s only other race at Aylesford prior to the 1948 Southerns had been a year earlier when the locals hosted the Kent cross-country champs. Here Sydney had worked hard towards the end of a rain-drenched three-lapper, but was unable to peg back the home club’s Macoy and Charlesworth, ultimately settling for joint-third, coming in alongside Blackheath clubmate Monshall (see pic). 

Sydney and around 25 clubmates had travelled down by coach that day, and were grateful to make use of this vehicle for shelter, such was the persistence of the rain throughout the day’s programme.

* '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’ - to visit and 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. Conveniently, it will not only help keep me fit, but assist with the research for the book!

* Sydney imagined passing the Aylesford PMSC cricket pavilion in 2016.

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