Friday, 17 June 2016

A bright star emerges from a grim, grey landscape



WITH the nearby QE2 Bridge barely visible in the mist, I slipped off the A206 skirting Dartford and headed down a scruffy pot-holed lane, past ugly piles of random fly-tipping, and down towards the southern banks of the River Thames.

It’s a bleak and gloomy part of the world, a place that proves that a lack of traffic and buildings doesn't always signify tranquility and a pleasant aspect.

* Dartford in 2016 and Sydney in the 1930s – back together again!
Although we think of the first half of the 20th century as a black and white world, there would have been a welcome splash of colour across this grim landscape on a cloudy January day in 1932. Long lines of runners in the Kent cross-country championships headed down here from high on Temple Hill in the town – a spot near the main railway station - circuited the levels nears the river and raced back up again, the course not far from the riverside Joyce Green Hospital, an isolation unit.

This was the 20th stop on my ‘tour’ of 60 of the race venues featuring in the celebrated career of Sydney Wooderson. This rather forgettable place was actually very significant in the development of that career – a spot where his talent was seen for the first time by the great and good of the Kent running scene.

Sydney ran in the junior championship race that day in 1932, a tiny, skinny 17-year–old nervously tackling his first county event. A pupil at Sutton Valence school, he was a highly promising runner who just a week or two earlier had joined senior club Blackheath Harriers, and here on the edge of Dartford was keen to make a good first impression on his new colleagues.

Through his thick spectacles, little Sydney kept a watchful eye on the runners just ahead of him as they all trudged under overcast skies and a chilly wind coming off the Thames. He gathered himself as they went into their final circuit and headed back up towards the finish. It was a three-mile race and the terrain was tricky, but Sydney smoothly kept his pace below six-minutes-per-mile. He moved up impressively in the later stages and once he’d grabbed the lead there was only one winner.

He may not have looked like a future superstar, but the small crowd of officials and other runners milling around near the finish must have been vastly impressed by the plucky figure in first place.

Crossing the line in 17 minutes and 29 seconds, this was a significant milestone in Sydney’s blossoming career. His only previous cross-country victories had been in closed schoolboy events – never before had he won a race comprising lads from other clubs and schools.

* The former Joyce Green Hospital isolation unit (pic: simonleerobinson).
Sydney’s career would ultimately span nearly 20 years, either side of the Second World War, but only twice more would he return to race at Dartford. Both of those would be post-War events on grass tracks used for the then-annual Dartford Hospital Sports. In June 1946 he won a two-miler in 9:34.6 and a year later repeated the victory in 9:36.4.

By the time of those two-milers he'd long been established as one of the most famous sportsmen in the land, but that very first visit 14 years earlier was a far more important landmark – and one of the last occasions he could ever turn up for a race and enjoy the undisturbed anonymity of being unknown.  

* 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!


*www.robhadgraft.com

         

Friday, 10 June 2016

Wartime days when a track runner with a beard was considered newsworthy!



BEATEN by an art college student who was sporting a beard!

That was the fate of British mile champion Sydney Wooderson in a wartime race in Coventry. It was an outcome that shocked his many fans and created big headlines (especially the bit about the winner having a beard!)

There were mitigating circumstances of course. The race in question was a half-mile handicap event in which the hairy victor had been given a 15-yard start on Sydney. Not only that, the track was in a very poor condition, and – perhaps most significant of all – our champion was just a few weeks away from going down with a serious case of rheumatic fever that would hospitalise him for nearly four months.

Sydney’s appearance pulled in a big crowd at the Coventry Godiva Sports at the Coundon Road stadium on Saturday May 27th 1944. It was his first run in this part of the country and one that helped boost morale of local people weary of the war and the various restrictions that went with it. Coventry had taken a real battering (1,236 locals killed in bombing raids over a two-year period) and days like this were to be enjoyed.

Sydney received a big ovation and his trademark fast finish would make it a dramatic race, even though he couldn’t quite catch two of the opponents given starts on him.

Unusually for a track runner, Harold Fox of Leicester College of Art & Technology sported a beard for the race. He stormed off from a point 15 yards ahead of Sydney, with other, lower-ranked runners even further ahead. The local paper called Fox one of most stylish half-milers seen in the Midlands for years.

It proved a great race on a poor track, with Sydney putting in a brilliant late burst 300 yards from home, surging just as Fox appeared to falter. Frank Froggatt (Small Heath Harriers), who’d started 38 yards ahead of Sydney, momentarily looked set to grab the lead, but Fox revived himself and kicked again. All the time Sydney was closing dramatically – getting ahead of Willetts of Godiva in the process - but ultimately ran out of track. The first four crossed the line in a blur, just two seconds covering them all. The finishing order was Fox, Froggatt, Wooderson, Willetts.

I wanted to include Coventry as part of my 2016 tour of Sydney’s race venues, but as the track they used in 1944 has long since disappeared, I had to elicit the help of another star athlete in order to pinpoint its location. Colin Kirkham was the man who came to the rescue – a local runner who took part in the Munich Olympics back in 1972 and who has marathons of 2hrs15mins to his name.

* Coundon Road stadium is now this housing estate . . . 





Colin explained to me the complex history of sports venues in Coventry. Back in Sydney’s day, Coventry Godiva athletics club was based at Rover Sports Ground at The Butts (they used a 360-yard grass track squeezed inside a cycle track), but during the war this was taken over by civil defence authorities. It meant Godiva had to find other places to race and train, hence the 1944 meeting being held at Coundon Road, long-time home of Coventry Rugby Club.

Coundon Road’s facilities would eventually be demolished in 2004, and when I wandered down to the site on a rainy afternoon I found it covered by new housing. But at least the apartment blocks and streets have been named after the former rugby stars who once played there.

The Coventry Godiva club, incidentally, are nowadays based at Warwick University campus, which, as Colin Kirkham points out, is actually part of Coventry despite its name, thanks to politics and boundary changes!

*  ‘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!

Thursday, 2 June 2016

The bespectacled Army corporal who had his own post-War party - on a running track!



* Wooderson in 1945 and GEC's sports grounds in 2016 - together again!
In the early summer of 1945, while the victorious allies and Soviets were sorting out how to divide up Berlin and govern defeated Germany, a certain corporal in the Pioneer Corps was preparing to defy medical opinion and re-launch his celebrated running career.
While the nation celebrated the end of the war, 30-year-old Sydney Wooderson was concentrating on a return to competitive sport, just months after doctors told him a severe bout of rheumatic fever would probably prevent him running again.

The pre-war mile world record holder had been hospitalized for a miserable four months towards the end of the war, and will have been a bag of nerves on Saturday 23 June 1945 when travelling by train to Rugby in Warwickshire to run his first mile race in exactly a year.

Since his recovery, training had gone surprisingly well. He’d proved he was on the way back with a fast relay leg in April in South London, and then victory in a half-miler at Worthing a month or so later. Now he was back running his favoured distance at Rugby, representing the South against the Midlands AAA in a match at the BTH sports grounds on Hillmorton Road. The nation was still in party mood (VE day had been six weeks earlier) and a good-humoured crowd assembled to see star attraction Sydney’s big comeback.
As part of my tour of the venues at which Sydney raced during his career, I pitched up recently in Rugby to seek out the old sports ground that had been the property of engineering company British Thompson Houston back in the day. I found the place was now generally known as the GEC Recreation Ground and is the home of the AEI rugby club.

* GEC Recreation Ground pavilion - in 2016.
BTH merged with Metropolitan Vickers in 1959 to become known as AEI (Associated Electrical Industries) and although AEI was taken over by GEC in 1967, the AEI name lives on through the rugby club. The old sports ground is still there, although the running track is long gone and there has been some encroachment by new housing.
Hillmorton Road sits on the eastern edge of town in a relatively peaceful spot. On an overcast morning, two elderly ladies walking their small frisky dogs were presumably completely unaware they were pottering around on the very spot where Sydney’s front-running generated roars of approval from a lively crowd some 70 summers ago.

On that day he took an early lead and was never headed. The dramatic late finish he'd been famous for before the war was not needed as he won at a canter in 4:20.8. It was well short of his lifetime's best, but comfortable enough to beat Midlands rivals Brown and Reid by more than 20 yards.
The outcome filled Sydney with great heart for the summer ahead, and indeed for the resumption of his top-flight career, and saw the press begin painting him as a real gutsy hero. His poor eyesight had prevented service overseas in the regular Army during the war, but he’d done his bit in other areas – and now he was ready to take on Europe’s best on the running track again.

* ‘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!