Friday, 17 June 2016

A bright star emerges from a grim, grey landscape

WITH the nearby QE2 Bridge barely visible in the mist, I slipped off the A206 skirting Dartford and headed down a scruffy pot-holed lane, past ugly piles of random fly-tipping, and down towards the southern banks of the River Thames.

It’s a bleak and gloomy part of the world, a place that proves that a lack of traffic and buildings doesn't always signify tranquility and a pleasant aspect.

* Dartford in 2016 and Sydney in the 1930s – back together again!
Although we think of the first half of the 20th century as a black and white world, there would have been a welcome splash of colour across this grim landscape on a cloudy January day in 1932. Long lines of runners in the Kent cross-country championships headed down here from high on Temple Hill in the town – a spot near the main railway station - circuited the levels nears the river and raced back up again, the course not far from the riverside Joyce Green Hospital, an isolation unit.

This was the 20th stop on my ‘tour’ of 60 of the race venues featuring in the celebrated career of Sydney Wooderson. This rather forgettable place was actually very significant in the development of that career – a spot where his talent was seen for the first time by the great and good of the Kent running scene.

Sydney ran in the junior championship race that day in 1932, a tiny, skinny 17-year–old nervously tackling his first county event. A pupil at Sutton Valence school, he was a highly promising runner who just a week or two earlier had joined senior club Blackheath Harriers, and here on the edge of Dartford was keen to make a good first impression on his new colleagues.

Through his thick spectacles, little Sydney kept a watchful eye on the runners just ahead of him as they all trudged under overcast skies and a chilly wind coming off the Thames. He gathered himself as they went into their final circuit and headed back up towards the finish. It was a three-mile race and the terrain was tricky, but Sydney smoothly kept his pace below six-minutes-per-mile. He moved up impressively in the later stages and once he’d grabbed the lead there was only one winner.

He may not have looked like a future superstar, but the small crowd of officials and other runners milling around near the finish must have been vastly impressed by the plucky figure in first place.

Crossing the line in 17 minutes and 29 seconds, this was a significant milestone in Sydney’s blossoming career. His only previous cross-country victories had been in closed schoolboy events – never before had he won a race comprising lads from other clubs and schools.

* The former Joyce Green Hospital isolation unit (pic: simonleerobinson).
Sydney’s career would ultimately span nearly 20 years, either side of the Second World War, but only twice more would he return to race at Dartford. Both of those would be post-War events on grass tracks used for the then-annual Dartford Hospital Sports. In June 1946 he won a two-miler in 9:34.6 and a year later repeated the victory in 9:36.4.

By the time of those two-milers he'd long been established as one of the most famous sportsmen in the land, but that very first visit 14 years earlier was a far more important landmark – and one of the last occasions he could ever turn up for a race and enjoy the undisturbed anonymity of being unknown.  

* Project Sydney’ is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – which was 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 should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book!



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