Wednesday, 20 July 2016

"What a scrum - just look at 'em!" exclaimed the plummy voice

* Dr Frank Aaron (left) and Alec Olney at the start of the last lap.
BROMFORD Bridge was never one of Britain’s most glamorous or scenic racetracks. But it certainly had an interesting 71-year lifespan: Suffragettes burned down its main grandstand, it was used as an anti-aircraft station during the war, and in 1949 humans replaced horses when it hosted the English national cross-country championships.

Now Bromford Bridge is no more. Lester Piggott, Greville Starkey and other famous jockeys dismounted one wet June evening in 1965 and next day the place closed for good. Birmingham council purchased the site and bulldozers moved in. Nowadays the site is a sprawling housing estate with a long chunk of the M6 motorway thrown in for good measure.
You can still make out parts of where the racetrack went, but you need to look very carefully among puddles and long grass under overhead cables and the motorway flyover.

I jogged around here as part of my 12-month tour of the race venues graced by forgotten athletics hero Sydney Wooderson – the subject of my next book.
Sydney performed here in the twilight of his spectacular, albeit war-interrupted, career. By now he was 33 and concentrating solely on cross-country, his days as the world’s greatest miler slipping into history.

*Bromford Bridge as it looks now . . .
Having caused a real stir by winning ‘the National’ at Sheffield the previous year (1948), Sydney lined up at Bromford Bridge as a popular reigning champion. He was among a record pre-entry of nearly 2,000 runners for this 62nd annual staging of the event – and a record 449 started the senior men’s contest.
“It was colossal,” wrote one correspondent, and the Pathe News commentator with the plummy voice exclaimed: “What a scrum! Just look at ’em!”

Jimmy Green, editor of Athletics magazine, called for restrictions in future as he believed this size of field was totally unwieldy, despite the good facilities at Bromford Bridge. The 10-mile course featured fences to be hurdled, rough tussocky grass and a hill that had a cliff-like descent. The runners got changed in the racehorse stables, one stable allocated to each club.
After the spectacular sight of the mass start, Sydney was nippy enough to establish a prominent place early on, but after a few miles he dropped back. His finish position was recorded as 52nd, very modest by his high standards, but no great shock really. His salad days were over by now and his priority was to help his Blackheath team effort rather than seek personal glory.

A thrilling duel up at the sharp end saw the Leeds doctor Frank Aaron pip North Londoner Alec Olney by 30 yards to become the new English champion. Sydney didn’t seem unduly sad about handing over his coveted cross-country crown – for holding the title for a year had been a wonderful bonus at the end of a career that might easily have ended years earlier.   
 
Apart from an outing at the London-Brighton Road Relay the following month, this Birmingham appearance of 1949 would prove Sydney’s very last taste of serious competition. His only other races before complete retirement would be a handful of relatively minor club events.

Within a matter of months his spikes and road flats had been hung up for good and Sydney had married his work colleague Pamela. From 1950 onwards athletics would take a back seat in his life.


* 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!
*The racetrack is now a housing estate with racing-related street names.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

The running track where potatoes replaced athletes!





MANY a ghost flits around Broomfield Park in Palmers Green. It’s a tranquil North London haven where at almost every turn another reminder of the past reveals itself.

The ancient and previously splendid Broomfield House, for example, has survived major fires but now stands forlornly derelict, encased in scaffolding. A short walk away, the site of the park’s former running track is easy to make out: The big clue is the concrete terracing which used to hold spectators and is still largely intact, although the sports pavilion at the top is long gone.

British athletics’ forgotten hero Sydney Wooderson raced on this track 80 summers ago, clad in the black uniform of Blackheath Harriers. His team ventured here from south of the river on a cloudy Wednesday evening in May 1936 and in an eight-lap relay, Sydney helped ‘The Heathens’ trounce home side Southgate Harriers by seven seconds. It would be his only appearance here and I visited the site recently as part of my year-long tour of his race venues (see * below).

The sunken area where the track stood was a former gravel pit that had provided road building material, which by 1905 had been levelled and grassed. The first running track to be created here had square corners, but this was modernised to become the home of Southgate Harriers and there was a grand opening ceremony in 1933 (see picture).

A huge crowd in Broomfield Park for the 1933 inaugural track event.
 
It soon became clear the home straight went downhill, meaning unusually fast finishes to races were often witnessed. The action was halted during the 1939-45 war when it was temporarily ploughed up to grow potatoes.
Eventually the track’s varied life drew to a close after the Southgate club changed its name to Haringey & Southgate AC in 1974 and moved to pastures new. Nowadays it is grassed over but from subtle changes in grass texture you can still see it had six lanes and a long-jump run-up. 

Sydney Wooderson would remember this track as the place where he began producing convincing evidence he could become a world class half-miler in addition to his status as Britain’s fastest miler of all time. During the eventful previous summer (1935), aged 20, Sydney had raced over 880 yards for the first time against senior opposition and clocked a remarkable 1min 54secs in a relay at the Ravensbourne Club in Lee Green.

His next crack at this distance would be a straight half-mile race at Catford Bridge in which he recorded 1:56.8 - a fine run considering he’d only dabbled at half-miling to this point. A fortnight after Catford Bridge came the 4 x 880 yards relay in Broomfield Park – and Sydney went off third for Blackheath, repeating his Catford time of 1:56.8.

The steps to nowhere . . . the athletics pavilion is long gone.

He was star of the show that afternoon and it was another run of tremendous potential, coming at a time when the world record stood at 1:49.8 (Ben Eastman, USA). Of course, just two years later Sydney himself would become world record holder over two laps – but that’s another story!

For now, this modest junior solicitor was not getting carried away, merely quietly pleased to be showing signs of form as the momentous Olympic summer of 1936 got underway.   

* 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, 1 July 2016

Hospital celebrities: Nellie the donkey and Sydney the miler!



*1940s Sydney meets 2016 Tottenham.

THE Prince of Wales Hospital in Tottenham opened its doors to sick and injured people for around 120 years. As hospitals go, it seems to have been an interesting sort of place – apparently a donkey called Nellie was a popular member of staff, for example!
  
Just before it closed and was converted into an apartment block, the hospital provided the setting for Dennis Potter’s landmark TV drama 'The Singing Detective'. Another brush with fame came during wartime when the hospital staged an afternoon of athletics and Britain’s favourite runner Sydney Wooderson came along to run the mile.

The hospital grounds near Tottenham Hale station extended to four acres, but my research suggests the sports day of 22 August 1942 took place just up the road on a cinder running track on Down Lane Recreation Ground.

I stopped off here on my tour of Wooderson race venues (see * below) and found that although grass football pitches now dominate the site, the route of the old cinder track can still be clearly seen. It becomes even clearer when viewed via Google Earth’s satellite imagery (see pic). No sign of Nellie the donkey these days though.

* The shape of the old cinder track is still visible from the air.
Sydney Wooderson took time off from his home-based war duties in August 1942 to run here and the residents of war-battered North London gratefully turned out in high numbers hoping for some good entertainment. It was badly needed, for these were depressing times.

Just three days earlier more than 3,000 of our boys died in the failed Allied invasion of Dieppe. The raiding force was trapped on the beach by obstacles and German fire and within 10 hours all Allied troops had been killed, evacuated, or left behind to be captured. The bloody fiasco suggested France couldn’t be successfully invaded for a long time.

At Tottenham, meanwhile, Sydney ran a one-mile handicap race, in which he went off the scratch mark, and the other less accomplished entrants were given head starts of various distances.

One of them, W.S.Kingsley of Hoffmann's AC, had a huge 165-yard start on Sydney and managed to stay narrowly ahead of the champion to cross the line first. Inevitably Sydney’s time of 4:21.6 was easily the fastest of the day, but not quite enough for victory in a thrilling finish.

He received a fine ovation, the crowd not caring a jot that the little man had recently lost his coveted mile world record (4:06.4) to Gunder Haegg, who was racing in neutral Sweden without the deprivations of war. Haegg had clocked 4.06.2 earlier that summer and just 10 days later that record was equalled by his compatriot Arne Andersson. Sydney had been world record holder for five years and was still well short of his 30th birthday, but it was clear his chances of staying at the very top of his game were now being hampered by the war.

*  . . .  and the line of the old track at ground level in 2016.
The scene of Sydney’s Tottenham run would be the subject of a Sports Council report in 1973 which described the track as having become sub-standard and partly derelict, and recommended it be abandoned. By the 1980s it had been grassed over. 

Over the road at the hospital, 'closure by stealth' had slowly taken its toll by the early 1980s – department by department – and finally in 1993 the main four-storey red brick building was converted into 38 apartments.


* 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