Kentish Town races

The remnant of the Kentish Town racecourse mentioned last time consists of a short piece of footpath next to a pub called The Vine, which used to be the focus of races held in the fields behind it. The path goes between two brick walls – and with a brick extension from the pub or the building on the other side overhead. Then there is another old brick wall facing you when reaching a T-junction of paths. The fields are long gone, by turning left onto College Lane I soon found a housing development promoted, aptly, by The Furlong Collection. A four bedroom house in this quiet enclave was on the market for £1.6m in 2016.

There are any number of “Racecourse Roads” and “Racecourse Avenues” up and down the country commemorating former courses. It’d be interesting to see how many, though collecting all their details would be a dry and arguably pointless exercise. Pubs named after racehorses is another task for the anorak, and it’s becoming easier as more and more close. Or pubs with racing-related names; one I came across in connection with Salisbury research was the Blagrave Arms in Reading. Its connection with the wealthy family of that name has long gone.

I’ve just returned from a few days in Uttoxeter. Even though the weather forecast was unpromising there was a good crowd at the races. The restaurant, as far as I could tell pressing my nose against the glass from outside, looked very busy if not full. They’ve gone from having a couple of big days, the Midlands National and the Summer Plate, to having half a dozen or more. I gather there is still a steady trickle of book sales, so it won’t be going on Amazon for a while.


I always wanted to work in racing, and it’s ironic that now I’m retired from my proper job I find myself now with four weekly writing assignments as well as other planned and impromptu tasks.  Having to study websites such as the Racing Post and watch TV racing under the guise of “work” is a dream come true.

In fact, this work and the necessary preparation has significantly reduced the time available to compose the Salisbury book. Whereas I used to have “plenty” of time, it’s now moved along the spectrum towards “more than enough”.  The rough first draft already goes up to the end of the 19th century.  Even though I will have to backtrack to write discrete chapters about certain subjects that don’t fit into a strict chronology, and the 20th century is the one with most material, I am well on the way.  Days or half-days with no appointments or outings are often earmarked for Salisbury.

I was pleased to see my latest book review in the Racing Post last Sunday, especially as the editor hadn’t made too many alterations!  (And those he made were absolutely spot-on.)  It was kind of the author to get in touch to thank me for it.  To quote myself, the revised paperback edition of The Scots and the Turf, by Alan Yuill Walker, has “a huge amount to interest racing fans regardless of their nationality and it is excellent value at a very reasonable price.”

Racing history can pop up unexpectedly. During a guided walk along the course of the now-underground river Fleet that flows from Hampstead down towards the Thames, our very knowledgeable leader spoke of a racecourse at Kentish Town.  She seemed to think there were still traces of it.  This surprised me, as I’d have placed the racing there circa 1730 and when I got home to look at some old notes they confirmed my understanding.  Perhaps she means Alexandra Park, but while they are both north London they are not next door to each other.  I’ve emailed this to her; I will be intrigued to see what the answer is.  A new defunct racecourse?

Concrete assistance

Hats off to my architect chum Neil’s brother, who kindly spent a day going to a university library 20 miles from where he lived in order to wade through the archives to try and throw light on the Salisbury concrete question.  The conundrum is that, according to newspaper reports, a new stand was built in 1898-99.  Neil and an engineer friend are sure the current Tattersalls stand dates from about that time and that it is reinforced concrete – yet, try as we might, we can find no independent written evidence that it was built that way at that time.

The inventor and patent holder, a Monsieur Hennebique, licensed others to use his technology to create new buildings in other countries. A book listing 36,809 such works in the UK between 1897-1917 has no entry for Salisbury racecourse, unless it has been categorised in a very peculiar way.

We need to be absolutely sure that the current stand is as old as I think. We’ve got a 1931 photo of it.  There are others from earlier in the century that may show it, but it’s obscured by objects in the foreground.   So I will need to revisit those early sources and see if there’s another picture where the stand is more visible.  That would strengthen the case for it to be one of the oldest surviving reinforced concrete structures in this country.

At Kempton yesterday, I was reminded over the controversy of a year ago when the Jockey Club announced plans to close the track, sell it for housing and use the proceeds to finance other major projects. Opposition from within racing was considerable and the local authority and residents were even more anti.  I was and still am puzzled by the apparent lack of public access to acres and acres of space formerly used for the Jubilee course, beyond the limit of the currently used track.  It seems to me there is no loss of public amenity if all that green space is off limits.  Houses could be built there and the existing track could be retained.  The whole subject has been dormant for some time but will no doubt flare up again unless the Jockey Club decide to abandon any redevelopment plans.

Review and review

I’ve finished the book review for the Racing Post. I reached the stage where I’d got the required number of words and it said what I wanted it to.  However, to paraphrase the old Eric Morecambe and Andre Previn sketch, I wasn’t sure that all my sentences were in the right order.  I’ve shuffled them round and I think they’re OK.  I could carry on tweaking it ad infinitum, but I think it’s time to let the commissioner of the review see it.

Writing Salisbury has continued, while being surrounded by Christmassy distractions such as new books to read and alluring chocolates to resist or eat (in that order). Progress can be halted by any time when the fatal phrase, “Oh, I must just check that,” leaps to mind.  Before long an hour or two has gone, reviewing something I have quite possibly looked at before.  Or getting a fresh idea that I might uncover a fresh story about so-and-so, and not stopping to think whether it will be interesting enough to make the published version.

I’ve even had another bash at the fourth and final box of old Sporting Lifes that have cluttered up the place for over a year. Noting articles relevant to Salisbury, the courses I have written about before, and others of interest takes time.  A determined effort seems to have increased the height of the “done” pile by about three inches, yet the unread pile only seems to have decreased by two.  Eighteen inches of unreads are left, so that’s a lot of rainy days to look forward to.   Surely I will finish them in 2018?

It was good to see the Racing Post do a feature on the top horses of 50 years ago yesterday.  More historical articles, please!  The sport has a terrific heritage and I suspect we don’t make enough of it.


Footnotes of history

Continuing to compose the Salisbury text, I feel as if I have covered the first 200 years fairly quickly.  Yet I also know it will take a lot of revision.  There’ll be much more content involved in its more recent history.   There are still gaps that might be plugged by visiting the Chippenham archives again, Newmarket and one or two other places.

A fair amount of the last fortnight has been swallowed up by grappling with my first ever smart phone, which has entailed four visits to the O2 shop in that time. I downloaded my first app the other day; it must have taken three quarters of an hour between decision and completion.

Earlier this week I met an old chum who’s been working on the history of Alexandra Park racecourse for quite a while. I think he has gathered a stupendous amount of information, as a sample page I saw was very fully referenced with footnotes.  That’s a degree of academic thoroughness I choose not to exhibit, in spite of always being told at school to “show your workings!” when in exams involving calculations.  I always used to do so, in the hope that if my answer was wrong, I would get some credit if the workings showed my logic was correct.

I could use footnotes, which certainly add an air of authority to a book. Thinking about my reason for not doing so, it comes down to laziness.  Footnotes must add a lot of extra time to do, and to check and revise each time the body of the text changes.  (They also mean more pages, and therefore more expense when it comes to printing.)  I will see if I can continue not to attract brickbats for this.

Reviewers of some of my early books said they’d be better with an index, and I complied with my later ones.  I’ve been given a book to review for the Racing Post, and while it is very good, I keep wishing it had an index.  If I put that recommendation in my review it wouldn’t exactly be the pot calling the kettle black – would it?

Concrete evidence

Writing Salisbury ground to a halt in the last few weeks, due to being sidetracked into studying the history of reinforced concrete.

It seems that the Tattersalls stand there, from the top of which a distant but wonderful view of the cathedral can be obtained, is made from that particular substance.  If it dates from 1898-99, as I believe, that makes it one of the earliest surviving buildings of its kind in the country.  Unfortunately I and my architect friend Neil haven’t been able to find contemporary evidence about its construction – yet.

Lots of online archive-trawling led to some plausible sources, but none that hit the jackpot.  One trail led me to the RIBA Library in Portland Place, not far from Oxford Circus.  It’s on the third floor of a splendid 1930s Art Deco building, which is well worth a wander round.  You don’t have to be an architect to go in and use the library.  Once I’d explained what I was there for, the librarian thoughtfully directed me towards four or five hard copy publications for me to search.  While there were snippets about other racecourse grandstands being built at the time, there was none for Salisbury.  It was a bit of a long shot.  Our enquiries continue.  We haven’t given up hope – there are more avenues to explore.

Composing the text resumed today.  Unlike many other people, the diary gets emptier as we get closer to Christmas, which means more writing time!

This is post number 200.  Who’d have thought it would go on this long when D set up this site for me almost seven years ago – and she’s not even a racing fan!  I met her for the first time in quite a while the other day.  In spite of many reasons to be otherwise, she is as sparky as ever.

An obscure question arose this week with Salisbury research, but it wasn’t too obscure for fellow author Tony Byles, who kindly delved into his library to find the answer to it and the supplementary questions I posed.

These were about the Royal Plates, usually four mile races for six-year-olds sponsored by the monarchy. Though the first may have been as early as 1634, it was the fun-loving Charles II that got them going.  Future royals kept them up, so that by 1727 there were eleven of them spread round the country.

Originally they had trophies worth £100 but they moved to cash prizes later. Basically their value was such that the best horses would enter, and with no second or third prize money fields were often small or there would be a walkover.

Their numbers increased in the 18th century and their terms and conditions evolved, but as racing changed to an emphasis on speed instead of stamina, they became anachronistic and the last of them was run in 1887.  Their descendants are the stayers’ Cup races at Ascot, Goodwood, Doncaster and York.

Tony talks about this more fully in his Kindle book of 101 Interesting Facts on the History of Horse Racing, and you can see some of it on Google Books. I know he hadn’t planned to write any more after his book about the ringer who won the 1844 Derby, In Search of Running Rein.  (I see hardback copies of that one are being offered on Amazon for £85 to £503.93.  Plus postage.  Paperback and Kindle versions are rather more reasonably priced.)

He must have found, like I did, that once you start this research plus writing malarkey it’s difficult to stop. Let’s hope he is compiling the Next 101 Interesting Facts on the History of Horse Racing.