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.

Fillip the great?

In the last month or two the Salisbury research has turned up some particularly interesting possibilities which, if confirmed, will give the book a big fillip.  It’s far too early to go public with them, and there is more testing of these theories to be done.  There is also the ghastly fear that if and when these are unveiled, someone will say, “Oh no, this isn’t right,” and come up with proof that I was mistaken – in which case I’ll have egg on my face.

Nothing has come along to disprove these notions so far – quite the contrary – and I can temporarily luxuriate in an “aren’t I clever” glow while dismissing, for the time being, any prospect of disappointment or embarrassment.  It must be like having a horse being prepared for a race who you know is well handicapped, or better than its public form suggests.   It’s exciting, but he might go lame the day before the race or fall at the first fence.

On a more prosaic note, I’ve realised there is a file in a distant archive that I’d like to see, but for all I know it may consist of one piece of paper that doesn’t tell me anything new.  I figured out an opportunity to see it by taking a diversion from another journey, only to find the place is closed that day.  There is no real urgency about seeing this file, and another excuse to be in the same part of the country is bound to come along eventually, but having been thwarted once I am now unreasonably impatient to see it.

I did a Radio Stoke interview last week to tie in with a Uttoxeter race meeting marking its 110th anniversary on the present site.  As a result of that I’ve had one or two enquiries about the book – it’s still only on sale from me and the racecourse, as they haven’t said they want to put it on Amazon yet.

With Salisbury I’m on the verge of starting to write about one of the key episodes in its history. There’s a lot of material to play with from several sources, but quite a few of them feed off each other or come from the same minority of earlier writers.

After coming to a standstill with my scrutiny of the four boxes of Sporting Lifes I took on almost a year ago – getting stuck two thirds of the way through the third one – a blitz in the last fortnight has left me with just one box to go through. These are newspapers from the 1980s and 90s which I’m trawling for information about Salisbury and the courses I’ve written about before.  I still continue to collect stories about them just in case there’s ever a need for a revised edition.

I made my usual last-meeting-of-the-season pilgrimage to Brighton, where conditions were decidedly autumnal and pretty dark mid-afternoon. Earlier in the week I’d been to Windsor for the first time this season.  The day was supposed to be warm but under strangely grey-yellow skies, it wasn’t.  I was sorry to see that the old Jamstick bar had been renamed The Princes Head, and had a sign outside depicting the Prince Regent.  All very incongruous, as he died 36 years before racing started there.  Whoever decided to make that change hadn’t read my book!

Four weeks on …. goodness knows what happened to the post I scheduled a fortnight ago.

I see a new book about the history of Wincanton races is being launched at the start of their new season on 20 October.  I wish them good luck with it but if, as their website says, it consists of only 60 pages then charging £25 for it is, in my view, ambitious.

The book about Chelmsford races I referred to a while ago deals much more with the old racecourse, paradoxically much nearer the city than the modern incarnation called “Chelmsford City” – which to many of us is still “Great Leighs”, as it was called when it first opened in 2008.  There is much, much more to be told about its origins, oft-delayed inauguration, its closure less than a year later and the behind-the-scenes planning in the intervening years that led to its revival.

I was sorry to see that one of “my” courses, Bath, has been hit by an infestation of a type of beetle that eats grass roots, thereby causing the ground to become dangerously uneven.  They’ve lost a couple of meetings and with their season now over I feel I have neglected them by not going racing there at all this year.  Similarly, I haven’t visited Windsor races this year either.  I hope I can put that right this month.

Congratulations to the boss at Uttoxeter, David MacDonald, who has been elected on to his local council in a neighbouring county.  It’s strangely appropriate, considering the extensive part played by local authorities in the history of his racecourse.   If you’ve read the book you will get my drift.

After a fairly quiet period with regard to Salisbury, due to domestic reasons, I’d allowed myself to think that most of the data-gathering was done, and that I should start reviewing it with a view to starting to actually composing something.  I started reading one of my Word files of Salisbury notes.  I had only got about six lines down page one when I realised there could be untapped material in one of my online sources.  Lo and behold, a search there using different criteria brought up some very useful new material.  And more has emerged since then.  While browsing through my files has allowed me to start on a chronology of the most important dates, to misquote the voiceover at the end of each episode of The Apprentice, “The (re)search goes on.”


A holiday precluded much Salisbury work being done this last fortnight.  However, I have arranged to meet a couple of old pals there at one of their forthcoming race meetings.  They haven’t met each other before; I met them separately through my racing history research.

Though a great deal of the work involves picking through archives and online records when I look back I have formed a lot of interesting and varied friendships that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. You don’t need to be bosom buddies or in frequent touch, but you have that certain something in common that means renewing acquaintanceships is relaxed and pleasurable.

Many are people who have worked – or are still working – at the courses I’ve written about, especially those who are keen on racing anyway. They include managers, clerks of the course, weighing room staff and people who on the owners and trainers entrances. Others, not racecourse-based, who work or have worked in the business include commentators, bookmakers, booksellers, jockeys, owners, trainers, councillors, journalists and other writers on the subject. Even an architect, who is one of the pair I’m going to meet at Salisbury to see what he thinks of the old rubbing house there, where horses used to be cleaned up after their racing exertions.

One meets numerous people during research and nearly all go out of their way to be helpful.  Often the degree of helpfulness is an indicator of potential future friendships. So I thank those I spoke to once or twice, for which that was sufficient for both parties; I thank even more another set of people who I know well enough to be able to have a conversation in passing at the races; and I am more grateful still to have known the precious set with whom lasting friendships have formed.  With them I look forward to many more outings and jollity, on and off the course.

Chippenham away

More time was spent in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre at Chippenham working on Salisbury research last week.   For my previous visit I’d worked out which items from their catalogue I’d like to see, and a succession of them were brought out to me during the course of that day.  This time I wanted to see what I could find on the open shelves of the local history library (which is all in the same room) and from old-style card indexes and other manual filing systems.  I must say that I found these were the easiest to find, follow and understand records office procedures that I can remember.  Maybe I’m just getting the hang of it after 25 years blundering around them in several counties, but more likely credit is due to WSHC for the way they organise things.  It’s been a pleasure working there, and in a way it’s a pity that I’m unlikely to need much more there.

They also showed a willing, flexible attitude regarding a bit of an old map I wished to photograph or copy.  (Copyright lawyers need not worry; I paid for a copy for private use, but if I want to use that image in the book I will go back to WSHC for permission to do so and pay the appropriate price.)

Regrettably, I’ve only been racing at Salisbury once this year.  The journey is long enough for me to want a guaranteed fine afternoon when I get there, and that hasn’t been the case.   I will try again before the end of their season.  I took a chance going to Newbury last week and was rewarded with frequent heavy showers from midday onwards.  If the sun was shining, you knew it would be raining in fifteen minutes and vice versa.  At one stage an all-too-close thunderstorm held up proceedings.   The two-year-olds who were in the paddock whinnied their concerns to one another and were taken back to their stables until the darkest clouds had passed over.  Unlike this unusually glorious Bank Holiday weekend.