Wednesday, 20 July 2016

"What a scrum - just look at 'em!" exclaimed the plummy voice

* Dr Frank Aaron (left) and Alec Olney at the start of the last lap.
BROMFORD Bridge was never one of Britain’s most glamorous or scenic racetracks. But it certainly had an interesting 71-year lifespan: Suffragettes burned down its main grandstand, it was used as an anti-aircraft station during the war, and in 1949 humans replaced horses when it hosted the English national cross-country championships.

Now Bromford Bridge is no more. Lester Piggott, Greville Starkey and other famous jockeys dismounted one wet June evening in 1965 and next day the place closed for good. Birmingham council purchased the site and bulldozers moved in. Nowadays the site is a sprawling housing estate with a long chunk of the M6 motorway thrown in for good measure.
You can still make out parts of where the racetrack went, but you need to look very carefully among puddles and long grass under overhead cables and the motorway flyover.

I jogged around here as part of my 12-month tour of the race venues graced by forgotten athletics hero Sydney Wooderson – the subject of my next book.
Sydney performed here in the twilight of his spectacular, albeit war-interrupted, career. By now he was 33 and concentrating solely on cross-country, his days as the world’s greatest miler slipping into history.

*Bromford Bridge as it looks now . . .
Having caused a real stir by winning ‘the National’ at Sheffield the previous year (1948), Sydney lined up at Bromford Bridge as a popular reigning champion. He was among a record pre-entry of nearly 2,000 runners for this 62nd annual staging of the event – and a record 449 started the senior men’s contest.
“It was colossal,” wrote one correspondent, and the Pathe News commentator with the plummy voice exclaimed: “What a scrum! Just look at ’em!”

Jimmy Green, editor of Athletics magazine, called for restrictions in future as he believed this size of field was totally unwieldy, despite the good facilities at Bromford Bridge. The 10-mile course featured fences to be hurdled, rough tussocky grass and a hill that had a cliff-like descent. The runners got changed in the racehorse stables, one stable allocated to each club.
After the spectacular sight of the mass start, Sydney was nippy enough to establish a prominent place early on, but after a few miles he dropped back. His finish position was recorded as 52nd, very modest by his high standards, but no great shock really. His salad days were over by now and his priority was to help his Blackheath team effort rather than seek personal glory.

A thrilling duel up at the sharp end saw the Leeds doctor Frank Aaron pip North Londoner Alec Olney by 30 yards to become the new English champion. Sydney didn’t seem unduly sad about handing over his coveted cross-country crown – for holding the title for a year had been a wonderful bonus at the end of a career that might easily have ended years earlier.   
Apart from an outing at the London-Brighton Road Relay the following month, this Birmingham appearance of 1949 would prove Sydney’s very last taste of serious competition. His only other races before complete retirement would be a handful of relatively minor club events.

Within a matter of months his spikes and road flats had been hung up for good and Sydney had married his work colleague Pamela. From 1950 onwards athletics would take a back seat in his life.

* 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!
*The racetrack is now a housing estate with racing-related street names.

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