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Archive for the ‘Bath’ Category

To my surprise Vice magazine has been added to the list of places where my name is quoted in connection with racing history.  I was approached by David Hillier, a journalist who had been commissioned to write an article about violence at the races, in view of trouble at Haydock in February, and at Ascot and other tracks last summer.  He was interested to know whether this was a new problem, and found me by searching online for “racing historian”.  Hooray for Google.  I was able to tell him the answer was definitely no.  Just think of Brighton Rock – and see the chapters in many of my books where 1920s gang warfare affected meetings such as genteel Bath, or 19th century chicanery with con-men, find-the-lady tables and welshing bookies.

I gave David quite a bit of material to consider.  I didn’t expect the whole lot to be quoted, but enough was used to justify me getting a name-check and an unexpected addition to my portfolio.

Vice is not as insalubrious as its name suggests, and the content is serious, quirky, and from my quick look at it, well-written.  But it’s not for the proverbial maiden aunt to read.  It can be read online here.

https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/qvya9x/a-brief-history-of-the-mass-brawls-at-british-racing-events

Meanwhile a revised proof of the Salisbury book from the printers should be with me in a few days, and I’m hopeful there won’t be many more versions before we can say “print”.  The last photo to be included, a group shot of staff and directors, has been received (necessitating a re-jig of the colour section, as it was of Cinemascope width rather than an ordinary landscape shape).  The front and back covers are 99% done.

Now I am concentrating on getting the Ffos Las text close to completion, while waiting to find out what we can spend on photos.  (Smaller book, smaller budget)

 

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The Salisbury text is now formatted – as far as I can do it – in Word, and apart from some more checking is ready to go to the printers.  There will always be more checking that could be done, but eventually one just has to “let go”.

With the exception of the modern colour photos and one more image that needs some creative input, all of the pictures have been chosen.  They now need captions and to be paid for.  Calls to the relevant press agencies will be made very soon.  I know which chapters each picture will go in, but I need to specify where in each chapter I’d like them and work out whether they’re half page or full page and so on.

We have an abundance of modern pictures we can use, and it seems that many of them will make their way into the book.  As a consequence of its 400+ year history, the wordcount is 59,000 – the same as my other wordiest book, Bath – and there is a faint chance we might depart from the normal A5 softback format.  We can make a decision on that when we’re further into the printing process.

I spent slightly less time than I’d wished for at Ffos Las last weekend.  I’d wanted to either walk the course, or the local footpaths around it, or both, but the incessant rain deterred me.  Another time, I hope.  What went very well was my second meeting with some of the people who were involved with its creation.  The first was 18 months ago and by now I had some follow-up questions.  They kindly came to the course and gave me lots more information.  I was also given a disc containing 200 photos taken over the course of a year by a lady who’d walked the local paths with her dog each day.  The variety of wildlife she’d snapped as the seasons changed was marvellous.  Flicking through those photos is as good as a nice walk, but without leaving the comfort of one’s fireside.

I also had a nice chat with the former head groundsman, and then I was off to the local library.  That also worked out well; I’d ordered 50 or 60 press cuttings in advance and they were all ready and waiting for me when I arrived.  A few hours was sufficient to absorb their contents, and that filled in some more gaps in the story.

Once Salisbury is with the printers I can devote myself to completing Ffos Las.

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I was pleased to get one of those occasional, random enquiries about something really obscure the other day.  It concerned a stud groom employed in the late 1880s at the Heather Stud near Bath racecourse.  The initial enquiry came in to Bath, and they passed him on to me, mentioning my book.  I had never come across it, but I dug out some information from the excellent British Newspaper Archive, which I think added a little bit to the enquirer’s knowledge.  Unfortunately for a someone who was a mere employee there’s usually a limited amount of information out there once you’ve gone beyond births, deaths, marriages and censuses.

I continue to be near the end of the full first draft of Salisbury.   Yesterday I settled down to make inroads into two discrete subjects.  Instead, I started on a third, found an old photograph that created a new mystery; solved another one that I wasn’t sure was a mystery; and found a ten-years-later epilogue to a story I thought had finished.   On balance, though, quite productive.  Yet I remain near the end, and feel just about the same distance from it as I did yesterday morning.

I made my first visit of the year to Salisbury races this week.  The first of what may be very few, as nearly all of their other meetings are weekends, evenings or days when I have other things lined up.  Something will have to give.

They have a fine new information panel on the wall of the rubbing house, explaining what it is and that it’s at least 300 years old.  As for the racing, I received a good tip.  “If Lady Rothschild is present, back her horses.” I was told this moments after she arrived in the winner’s enclosure to greet one of her horses, which had just scored at odds of 10/1.

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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.”

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The Newmarket Town Plate was in the news this week, partly thanks to the Qatari Sheikh who rode the winner last year being unseated three furlongs from the finish and crashing through the rails.   He wasn’t badly hurt, and only needed a stitch or two to patch up a cut.

It is a race that needs careful definition, as it’s the longest flat race run on a British racecourse, though it’s not run under Jockey Club rules.  It’s been going since 1665, on a unique three and three quarter mile course which doesn’t quite comprise one full circuit.  This year’s race prefaced the first day of the big July meeting, but I distinctly remember seeing it one October when it was part of an Arab horse race meeting.

I’m pretty sure the conditions as well as the timing has changed over the years.  (I’d be glad to hear from anyone who knows.)  Currently riders have to apply to take part, and they have to be “genuine amateurs” – my phrase – as those participating in this year’s race didn’t appear to be the people that are licensed to ride in normal races for amateurs.

Definitions also needed care when I wrote about Bath, which was ostensibly to celebrate their 200th anniversary in 2011.  However, racing around Bath started about a hundred years before on the other side of the city.  The first racing on Lansdown, the area where today’s track is, was in the 1780s.  After a hiatus racing resumed in 1811, but not where it is now; it was about half a mile nearer the city.  Not until 1831 was the current track used.  The wording for publicity for the celebrations couldn’t, in reasonableness, spell out all this.

There was also the old sort-of trick question, “What is the longest race run under Jockey Club Rules?”, to which the answer was the Boat Race.  Is this an old wives’ tale?  I’ve read that this is not the case now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it used to be true.  The JC rules define disqualifiable offences such as crossing in front of your opponent.  I think it’s quite likely that the organisers of the early Boat Races would have used the JC rules rather than invent some of their own.  That’s a line of research I wouldn’t mind pursuing,  but not right now, as Salisbury beckons.

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I was saddened to read in the Racing Post last month about the death of the former trainer John Powney.  I first got to know him in 2011 when researching Bath.  John had lots of roles in the racing world over many years but he was best known for training for the TV entrepreneur David Robinson in the late 1960s and early 70s.  Robinson made a fortune out of his chain of shops renting TVs, at a time when they were far too expensive for most people to buy.  He was one of the biggest owners around before the oil-rich Arabs came on the scene.

John’s father Hugh trained too, as did his uncle John. His grandfather, another John Powney, owned horses and trained across the road from Bath racecourse.  He died there in 1894, in the same room as he was born 86 years before.  His best horse was The Hero, who won a host of races in the 1840s.  He was a generous soul who kept open house and wasn’t very well off by the end of his life, thanks to betting.  His motto was, “We’ll win it back next year,” but in the end he hadn’t!  Many of the Powneys are buried in a remote churchyard in the hills above Bath.

The 19th century John Powney married into the Day family, and like many others of that clan “my” John was interested in the family’s history. He kept cuttings albums about his ancestors’ exploits more than his own, and allowed me access to them to help with my books about Bath and the background of Alfred Day.  He was already in his eighties when I met him but very sprightly, helping out at the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket.

He was a gentleman of the old school, but not fixed with crusty “it was better in my day” views. I knew his health had deteriorated in the last few years but the report of his death still came as a shock; I thought of him as almost indestructible.  I wish I had met him and his wife earlier, as it was always fun listening to their old racing memories.  I should have taped all his stories for posterity.  There’s another tribute to him on the blog of Newmarket trainer and former Mayor John Berry.  http://stable-life.blogspot.co.uk/ and look for the entry headed “second hand news” posted on or around 13 March.

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My second book review, about a very different and much shorter publication, needed quite a bit of time to be spent on it arising from queries on my first draft raised by the books editor. I hope it’ll appear in next Sunday’s Racing Post.

I’ve also been composing a review of The Blood Is Racing, mentioned here six weeks ago. The only place it might appear is here, but as the author has asked me to write it, I will discuss it with him first.

I’ve spent some time on Bromley finding maps of the district around the racecourse before and after its existence. Will these help me to establish its location?  I speak only of the principal course, which lasted only fifteen years, not long enough to catch the eye of map makers.

I was at Newbury last week, where two book signings were advertised. One for me, after the third race, attracted rather less attention than the second one, which was Jilly Cooper signing dozens of copies of her new hardback Mount!  Hopes I had of us sitting together and swapping one of hers for one of mine were dashed.  It’s good that it will have increased awareness of my books, for all of them were on display and I chatted to quite a few people about them.  Buyers, however, were elusive.

I looked in on Bath racecourse about ten days ago, and my goodness it has changed since I was last there in July 2015.  The plush new stands look top-notch inside and out, although to enjoy all of them – and I’m thinking of the new Roof Garden – racegoers do have to pay a premium.  It was great to meet the staff there, even more so as they gave me an impromptu guided tour and were complimentary about the book.  I was pleased to see they had used it to give names to various parts of the new facilities and are keen to play up the heritage aspect.

 

 

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