Thursday, 7 July 2016

The running track where potatoes replaced athletes!

MANY a ghost flits around Broomfield Park in Palmers Green. It’s a tranquil North London haven where at almost every turn another reminder of the past reveals itself.

The ancient and previously splendid Broomfield House, for example, has survived major fires but now stands forlornly derelict, encased in scaffolding. A short walk away, the site of the park’s former running track is easy to make out: The big clue is the concrete terracing which used to hold spectators and is still largely intact, although the sports pavilion at the top is long gone.

British athletics’ forgotten hero Sydney Wooderson raced on this track 80 summers ago, clad in the black uniform of Blackheath Harriers. His team ventured here from south of the river on a cloudy Wednesday evening in May 1936 and in an eight-lap relay, Sydney helped ‘The Heathens’ trounce home side Southgate Harriers by seven seconds. It would be his only appearance here and I visited the site recently as part of my year-long tour of his race venues (see * below).

The sunken area where the track stood was a former gravel pit that had provided road building material, which by 1905 had been levelled and grassed. The first running track to be created here had square corners, but this was modernised to become the home of Southgate Harriers and there was a grand opening ceremony in 1933 (see picture).

A huge crowd in Broomfield Park for the 1933 inaugural track event.
It soon became clear the home straight went downhill, meaning unusually fast finishes to races were often witnessed. The action was halted during the 1939-45 war when it was temporarily ploughed up to grow potatoes.
Eventually the track’s varied life drew to a close after the Southgate club changed its name to Haringey & Southgate AC in 1974 and moved to pastures new. Nowadays it is grassed over but from subtle changes in grass texture you can still see it had six lanes and a long-jump run-up. 

Sydney Wooderson would remember this track as the place where he began producing convincing evidence he could become a world class half-miler in addition to his status as Britain’s fastest miler of all time. During the eventful previous summer (1935), aged 20, Sydney had raced over 880 yards for the first time against senior opposition and clocked a remarkable 1min 54secs in a relay at the Ravensbourne Club in Lee Green.

His next crack at this distance would be a straight half-mile race at Catford Bridge in which he recorded 1:56.8 - a fine run considering he’d only dabbled at half-miling to this point. A fortnight after Catford Bridge came the 4 x 880 yards relay in Broomfield Park – and Sydney went off third for Blackheath, repeating his Catford time of 1:56.8.

The steps to nowhere . . . the athletics pavilion is long gone.

He was star of the show that afternoon and it was another run of tremendous potential, coming at a time when the world record stood at 1:49.8 (Ben Eastman, USA). Of course, just two years later Sydney himself would become world record holder over two laps – but that’s another story!

For now, this modest junior solicitor was not getting carried away, merely quietly pleased to be showing signs of form as the momentous Olympic summer of 1936 got underway.   

* 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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