The Beast from the East wasn’t all bad, as dull snow-ridden days meant I had a good excuse to press on with writing Salisbury.  The draft text has reached the beginning of World War 2.  That is a very self-contained part of the course’s history and I have copious notes about it.  Next on my agenda is to aggregate them, eliminate the duplicate stories, watch out for any discrepancies and try and leave the residue making sense.

A planned visit to the English Heritage archives at Swindon proved unnecessary, as the lady I’d liaised with there when making and postponing appointments had the bright idea of extracting the files I wanted.  Photocopying what turned out to be just three pages and posting them to me for a modest fee was very sensible.  Top marks to her.

Meanwhile my non-book work has settled into a routine of providing four pieces of written work every week, adhering to four regular deadlines.  Other irregular tasks and Salisbury fit in around them.  It is strange to see Salisbury so prominent in the news for a completely different reason.

Cheltenham is invariably top of the racing headlines, but I’m afraid the plethora of chat about it so far ahead has gone beyond overkill.  Why there has to be a whole big section about it at the top of the Racing Post website’s news pages three or four weeks in advance I don’t know.  Let’s face it, most of it is speculation.  With certain big stables you don’t know which races they’ll eventually run their horses in until a few days before.  And if horse X has had to be withdrawn from race Y, well, that’s too bad, but unless it’s the reigning Gold Cup winner or Champion Hurdler, is it really that important?  I commend you all to look forward to the Midlands Grand National at Uttoxeter next Saturday instead and pay particular attention to any David Pipe runners.


Are you there, S?

Looking at this blog’s WordPress stats yesterday I saw I had some views from Norway.  I wonder if that is my old correspondent S, who a few years ago was assiduously researching her family history, which overlapped with Binda Billsborough and the Days of Fontwell.

I’ve been making a few attempts to probe the gap between Binda’s pre-WW1 childhood in the East End and her emergence as a film star’s secretary in the 1930s. I tried looking at secretarial training colleges in central London, but there are so many listed in directories at the time and there are no records as far as I can tell.  There’s another possible person connected with Binda that I wanted to investigate, but when I went to my local library to use ancestry.com for free I found that thanks to their new computer system it wasn’t available and they didn’t know when it would be rectified.  I hope this is nothing to do with Carillion.

I went back to Chippenham the other day to take another look at a plan of Salisbury racecourse that I’d drawn a rough sketch of on my first visit there. Now it was desirable to get some photos of it to see if it threw any light on the great reinforced concrete stand conundrum.  I also had the joy of looking through some old City Council accounts.  This was in order to look for references to the City Bowl, a race that the local authority has supported since the 17th century.

A further close-up look at 1900s photos with a grandstand semi-obscured in the background still encourages me to think it’s the current Tatts stand. It’s frustrating that we can find no written evidence to verify it.

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?