Friday, 28 October 2016

Cross-country at school - not always a miserable memory!

ALTHOUGH he made his name circling cinder tracks at high speed, Sydney Wooderson always harboured a deep love of traversing open countryside – either by way of long Sunday walks, or by entering cross-country races.

This love seems to have stemmed from his days attending Sutton Valence School in the inter-war years. The Kent school placed a strong emphasis on sport and regularly sent its boys into the fresh air for cross-country jaunts across the nearby beauty spots of the Weald of Kent. 

* Weald of Kent, viewed from Boughton Monchelsea churchyard.
A lifetime list of Sydney’s races shows that of his first 30 fixtures, all run as a teenager, at least half were cross-country races in this area. My year-long ‘challenge’ to visit and run at 60 of Sydney’s racing venues - in advance of publishing a book about him - took me out here, armed as usual with running shoes, notebook and camera.

The record shows that Sydney’s first four races were all in the colours of Sutton Valence with many of his opponents older than him. All four were won by his elder brother Alfred, the school’s star athlete. Sydney would eventually emerge from Alfred’s shadow in the spring of 1931, aged 16, when he narrowly won a steeplechase of five-and-a-half miles in a time of 32.29.

The biggest conurbation by far in this area is Maidstone, but it would be fully ten years later before Sydney competed in this county town of Kent. It would ultimately amount to five races here, three cross-country battles and two track contests.

Crossing a down-at-heel housing estate, neglected footpaths and barbed wire, I was eventually able to locate the place where he made his Maidstone debut in wartime 1941 – the grass track used by the county’s Police HQ. Representing a combined Army/RAF team, Sydney anchored a medley relay against a Police & Medical Services team. He looked in good shape following recent injury troubles as he set off first over 880 yards, handing the baton to teammate Harold Wickerson and leaving his team well placed. They ultimately won by 20 yards and and the overall event by a big points margin.

* The site of the former track at the Maidstone police HQ grounds.
Sydney's first return to this track came five years later, at the Kent county champs of June 1946. No longer specialising at half-mile and mile, Sydney tested himself in the three miles event and became county top dog by clocking 14:59.2. It was the first county champs since war began nearly seven years earlier, but for Sydney it was more significant as an indicator of good things to come at longer distances.

Next for me was to locate the scene of Sydney’s various heroics in the Gillingham and Chatham area. Back in 1937 he’d made his bow at Gillingham’s United Services Sports ground, successfully defending his county mile title in hot sunshine and on a badly disintegrating cinder track. A relatively modest time of 4:30.8 was all it took to lift the crown, and his well-known electric burst of speed was only required for a brief surge in the second lap in order to establish a good position.

Just a week earlier he’d thrilled a big crowd at the White City, winning the Kinnaird Trophy mile in 4:17.1, but on that occasion conditions were better and the opposition stronger. Despite this, in some quarters of the press disappointment was expressed that Sydney had “only” managed 4.30 at Gillingham. If he was miffed by such criticism, he characteristically didn’t display it publicly, and it was left to the editor of his club’s newsletter to castigate the moaners.

* The old United Services Sports ground at Gillingham.
If any spectators at Gillingham were disappointed by his low-key cruise to victory they only had to wait another year, for the 1938 Southern championships were held at the same ground, and Sydney powered to a brilliant victory in the half-mile (1.56.4) beating title-holder Arthur Collyer into second place. 

Overcoming a gusty wind and poor track conditions, Sydney brushed off an episode of jostling to grab the lead less than 200 yards from home. Checking the progress of the chasing Collyer all the while, he nevertheless flew across the line some eight yards clear as the crowd roared its approval. It was a sensational demonstration of his superiority.

* Sydney Wooderson book on the way; My other biographies on Jim Peters, Arthur Newton, Alf Shrubb, Walter George, 'Deerfoot' and more, all available via Amazon.  Click this link: 

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