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:

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