Friday, 5 August 2016

The sweet smell of chocolate and the sweet smell of victory!



* In summer 2016 a solo walker quietly laps the old Bournville track . . .

THERE wasn’t just the sweet smell of chocolate in the air when mile champion Sydney Wooderson pitched up at Bournville Village on an overcast afternoon in May 1939.

There was excitement and tension too, a bumper crowd of over 12,000 turning out to see the best athletics meeting staged in the Birmingham region for years. Many of them were workers and families attached to the nearby Cadbury chocolate factory, whose huge Rowheath sports ground was hosting the big day.

It was billed as Bournville sports club’s ‘Coming of Age’ carnival meeting and it involved a bumper four-hour programme of no fewer than 106 track and field events. The mile race, starring world record holder Sydney Wooderson was undoubtedly the most highly anticipated.  

The Rowheath venue is still there in 2016. I recently called in and jogged a few laps as part of my 12-month tour of the race venues graced by forgotten hero Sydney – who is the subject of my forthcoming book.

* The line of the track can still be clearly seen.
The facilities were opened between the wars for the large Cadbury workforce, most of whom lived locally at the specially-created 75-acre Bournville Village. There were 14 pitches for football, 13 for cricket, four for hockey, two for rugby, 31 tennis courts, two croquet lawns, a green for clock golf, a boating and fishing lake and, of course, the athletics track. A stylish-looking pavilion served as a clubhouse and often held elaborate balls and dinners too. All in all, a remarkable set of facilities for the time.

Eventually the pavilion would fall into disrepair, but was reborn in more recent times as the HQ of a church organisation. The site of the old running track, likewise, is now mostly long grass, but was easy for me to find. A pathway has been trodden along its oval-shaped route and although no runners were to be seen during my visit, there was one big lad determinedly plodding around at walking pace. He was the only sign of life in the entire vicinity and his continual lapping suggested he was on some sort of weight-loss exercise programme.

Seventy-seven years earlier he wouldn’t have had such a tranquil and undisturbed setting for his solo exercising. The enormous crowd that gathered in May 1939 was buzzing with anticipation, but when it was announced Olympic gold medallist Godfrey Brown was withdrawing from the quarter-mile a big howl of anguish went up. It meant even more pressure on Sydney to entertain them when his turn to run came along . . .

In terms of a compelling race, the mile turned out to be a fairly routine victory for the little man in glasses, although his excellent time of 4:12 was more than three seconds better than anything ever seen in the Midlands before.

Sydney turned in laps of 58, 68, 65.6 and 60.2 seconds, winning comfortably by 50 yards from the Surrey champion Frank Close. Discounting a relay effort the previous summer, the time of 4:12 was Sydney’s fastest since he’d cracked the world record at Motspur Park in South London two years earlier (4:06.4).
* Rowheath Pavilion - once home to the chocolate factory athletes.
The big crowd of Brummies went home happy and some of them would be able to return a year later (eight months after war was declared)  for another big Bournville track and field promotion. This would be in aid of the Lord Mayor of Birmingham’s War Relief Fund and just under 5,000 came along. Sydney won the mile by a whisker from Welsh champion Jim Alford, clocking a more modest time of 4:20.4 – but not bad considering the deprivations of wartime.

* 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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