Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Running wild on the Common: Black-clad Heathens from Hayes!

MY 2016 book-related quest to visit and run at 60 race venues graced by forgotten hero Sydney Wooderson was close to completion when I hit the Hayes area of SE London – the home patch of Sydney’s club Blackheath Harriers.

Locating places where Sydney’s track races were staged has been relatively simple, but finding his cross-country venues has proved a far more tricky business.

His club staged ‘home’ events from a number of different spots in the Hayes area, just south of Bromley. So who better to consult than a couple of the club’s past Presidents – two very helpful gents by the names of Mike Martineau and Chris Haines.

They told me about several different routes for Blackheath fixtures back in Sydney’s golden days of the 1930s and 1940s.  These tended to be on or close to Hayes Common – a place that lends itself very nicely to cross-country races or a training spin. The Common is a vast oak woodland with small patches of lowland dry heath, dry acid grassland, lichen heath, scrub and ponds. These days there’s even an SSSI (site of special scientific interest) thrown in for good measure.

Sydney and his cronies would often gather less than half-a-mile from their Bourne Way clubhouse (pictured above), at a point halfway along Prestons Road in Hayes (pictured below). From a clearing here, a footpath heads south through the trees and is where virtually all club races used to start up until the late 1960s. From here runners would head down the main path, eventually finishing adjacent to a premises known to all as ‘The Café’.

This post-race oasis was positioned at the busy Croydon Road end of Hartfield Crescent. These days it’s no longer a café, but the home of the ranger who looks after the Common. I know this because he was standing right there and politely enquired whether I was lost!

There were a couple of exceptions in Sydney’s day to the Prestons Road-to-Cafe route. Blackheath’s five-mile handicap race would always start near the Bourne Way HQ, make its way up unmade Hillside Lane to finish, inevitably, at the ever-popular café.

And what became known as the ‘Schools Race’ (Blackheath regularly raced pupils from Sydney’s alma mater Sutton Valence) was held on farmland a mile or so from the club HQ, based at Wickham Court Farm just off Layhams Road, which is in West Wickham.

Sydney hung up his spikes and racing flats for good in 1951, but for years afterwards would come along and help the club with timekeeping and other duties on these local courses. As ever, he was happy to support a club that he’d first joined in 1931.

This club loyalty was a feature of his entire career in fact. Even when he was Britain’s most famous runner either side of the 1939-45 war, his main aim in cross-country races was to help the team effort and not necessarily chase personal glory.

Sydney was always ‘old school’ and liked nothing better than to score points and help clubmates from the outfit known nationwide as ‘The Heathens’. In 1969 he accepted the honour of serving them as President for their centenary year.

The club still occupies the same Bourne Way building it purchased for £850 in 1926, but nowadays call themselves Blackheath and Bromley Harriers AC, following a merger with Bromley AC in 2003.

Much has changed since Sydney’s day, of course, but the club still recognises him as the greatest Heathen of them all.

* My biography of forgotten hero Sydney Wooderson will be published in the not-too-distant future - the sixth in my series of books on running legends of the past. Click for info:

Friday, 4 November 2016

The slopes of Shotover and the cinders of Iffley Road

* Sydney Wooderson imagined on the slopes of Shotover Hill!

THREE times during his celebrated running career Sydney Wooderson tested himself on Oxford’s fearsome cross-country course at Shotover Hill.

The first was as a raw 20-year-old track specialist, who was only there to help his club out. The second visit – more than 12 years later - was a very different scenario. He was by then at the height of his powers as a cross-country man and just a few weeks away from becoming English champion.  Sydney’s third and final Shotover run came at the tail end of his career, by which time his sole intention was again to merely grab a few scoring points for Blackheath, with no serious expectation of personal glory.

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 up Shotover Hill on a grey and rainy day, armed as usual with running shoes, notebook and camera.

Apart from Sydney and other top runners, the place has seen plenty of excitement over the years. Shotover was once part of a Royal Forest providing a hunting ground for noblemen, fuel and grazing for local people and timber for Oxford’s historic buildings. 
After it became open farmland the main road to London passed across Shotover Plain and here travellers often fell victim to highwaymen.

Around the time Sydney ran here for the first time, the City Council began managing Shotover as a public park. During the war Slade Camp was set up to provide a temporary home for soldiers who took part in the D-Day landings and on the slopes of Shotover Hill military training took place and tanks were tested.  

Runners of various sorts still frequent the area in 2016 in high numbers, slogging up the tricky slopes in kit rather more brightly coloured than when Sydney and cronies ran the Blackheath versus Oxford University ‘mob matches’ of yesteryear.

The weather was miserable for the duration of my visit - but I was assured the place is normally a riot of nature’s finest colours and aromas. At the foot of the hill are springs which feed marshes and pools fringed with aromatic water mint and further up delicate white flowers of heath bedstraw mingle with the red of sheep’s sorrel. The grasslands are popular with green woodpeckers looking for ant nests, while the bracken is full of foxes, muntjac and roe deer.

*Sydney, imagined at RAF Halton . . .
Earlier, before hitting Oxford, I called in at RAF Halton in Wendover, scene of a wartime match between airmen and guest runners who formed ‘The Combined Clubs’ team. With most young athletes occupied in one or other of the services, most sporting events of the era involved cobbling together teams in this way, but the watching public had no complaints and were glad of such entertainment on a summer’s afternoon.

Sydney Wooderson, still world mile record holder, was of course the big attraction here at the airbase on Saturday 13 June 1942. The little man didn’t let his fans down and sped to an impressive victory in the mile race in 4:24.2. He was never really pressed, with teammate R.Hughes trailing in second ahead of the RAF’s Moore.

It would prove Sydney’s very last mile race as world record holder. Just 18 days later in Gothenburg, the mighty Swede Gunder Haegg grabbed the record for himself with a run of 4:06.2.

Sydney’s reaction to losing a record he’d held for five years no doubt included a rueful smile - for the likes of Haegg, living in neutral Sweden, had been able to escape the privations of war and was operating under a far more favourable dietary and training regime than British soldiers like Sydney.

* . . . . and on the historic Iffley Road track!
No visit to Oxford would be complete without a look at the legendary Iffley Road track, where Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier. Sydney raced here in May 1943, part of a strong AAA team who took on an illness-depleted University outfit. Sydney moved away from the pack on the second lap of the 880 yards (half-mile) race, winning easily by 35 yards or so in 1:57.4. It was a race that gained a couple of column inches in the wartime papers, but nothing like the fuss this track would generate 11 years later when Bannister and his pals came to town!