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!

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