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STAY IN MORE...............................BOOK REVIEW



Birmingham author Chris Pitt is the country's leading expert on old racecourses, and Steve Beauchampé reckons his latest volume is a thorough bred winner.

Horse racing, in something approximating the form we recognise today, dates back to the second half of the 18th Century. The earliest racecourses were often impromptu affairs, defined by a few ropes and rails, with perhaps a canvas booth for officials and the occasional temporary wooden grandstand.

Like most of Britain's most popular and enduring sports and games, drinking and gambling was central to its longevity and by the 19th Century, countless towns and villages throughout Britain staged at least one meeting per annum; this remember, was an age when both the ability to ride and ready access to a horse was commonplace.

Chris Pitt's examination of Britain's lost racecourses is an essential purchase for both horse racing fans and sports archaeologists (i.e. the type of sad nerds who insist on visiting every bowling green, tennis court, cricket ground etc. in their locality) and an evocative journey through the culture, characters and landscapes of Britain's racing heritage.

An expansive tome (heavily revised and extended from its original 1996 imprint), the author traces the history of those lost tracks with extensive references to the key meetings, runners and riders who graced (and occasionally disgraced) them.

And while the book is primarily concerned with those tracks which have closed since 1900, there is thankfully a wealth of supporting information relating to the most minor and seemingly insignificant (mostly pre-1900) meetings, whose existence either encouraged or supported the development of a local racing culture through which the more established venues could flourish…or at least take root.

Because, be honest, how many readers will have been aware of racecourses at Dawlish, Shincliffe, Usk and Llangibby or Tenby? Yet these long forgotten outposts of "the sport of kings" each have their own stories to tell, their rise and demise enthusiastically and knowledgably related by Chris Pitt without reversion to cloying nostalgia.

Some overreached themselves financially, while others failed to attract consistently good prize money or fields (the former inevitably leading to the latter), For tracks such as Castle Irwell (Manchester) and Bromford Bridge (Birmingham), urban expansion was their downfall, their owners receiving irresistibly lucrative offers to sell the large tracts of real estate on which racecourses invariably sit (a scenario common to many of Britain's sports grounds since WWII).

Some remained part of the sporting inventory; Derby was subsumed into the county cricket ground, Rothbury and Shirley Park resurrected as golf courses. More ignominiously, Plymouth became a council tip, Some were fine courses: Hurst Park in Middlesex, Bromford Bridge and Lincoln - until 1964, the traditional start of the Flat racing season.

While the book's hand drawn cartography is somewhat rudimentary (OS maps would have been more rewarding), Chris Pitt's own descriptions of each course and location are more thorough, the work of an assiduous researcher, keen to place each track in its wider local geographical, social and cultural context.

Equally enjoyable is the wealth of photographic material assembled; grainy images of Victorian and Edwardian meetings, of great horses and riders, of the gentry in their landaus and the more humble race goers queuing for buses.

Yet arguably it is photographs of the courses themselves, their grandstands, enclosures, scoreboards and general racetrack paraphernalia, which remains longest in the memory: Bungay's distinctive barrel-roofed stand, Shirley Park's steward's box, Castle Irwell's decorative clock tower and grandstand.

Traces of many courses still survive: check out the corrugated iron grandstand from Buckfastleigh course in Devon, the still visible tracks and railings at Alexandra Park and Lewes (the latter is still used for galloping and boasts a recently constructed stable block), and the amazing sight of Lincoln's grandstand, now fronting the A15 near Carholme Island!

Horseracing at such places may be a long time gone, but Chris Pitt has vividly brought its memories back to life.

A Long Time Gone - The book costs £19.95 (+ £3.50 p&p) and is published by Timeform. It can be ordered on line from or by phone on 01422 330540.

Steve Beauchampé is the co-author of Played in Birmingham and is currently visiting every bowling green, tennis court and cricket ground in the Birmingham area.


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