By Neil Allen and Kevin Kelly

The hopeful revival of activity at a refurbished Herne Hill stadium in Burbage Road provides an opportunity to emphasize that this is the only Victorian facility of its kind still in use in London and one unique in the rich history of its events.

The London County Grounds, as they were known, were officially opened by the L.C.C. in May 1891 to help satisfy the public's vast enthusiasm for cycling. Provision was also made for similar facilities for cycling and athletics at Catford, West Ham, Putney, Kensal Rise, Wood Green and Paddington, now all gone.

Herne Hill's original ground comprised a banked wooden cycling track with a cinder athletics track inside, though this has now been replaced with a cement one of 450 metres circuit while the 440 yards running track has been grassed over. Ideally, we would hope that the venerable grandstand and changing rooms could be spared because of their association with British sporting champions.

After the athletics club, the Herne Hill Harriers, was founded at Milkwood Road in 1889 the Burbage Road ground became the Harriers' summer headquarters, often featuring joint promotions with the Catford Cycling Club. In 1892 the new track was christened with a 15 miles world record run of 1hr.22min.15.4sec. by Sydney Thomas and in 1911 walking records were achieved over 15 miles and 25 miles by Harold Ross and Sidney Schofield.

Ghosts lingering affectionately might include the 1924 Olympics 100 metres champion Harold Abrahams and his coach, "Sam" (Scipio Africanus) Mussabini who were portrayed by Ben Cross and Ian Holm in the memorable film Chariots of Fire.

Mussabini, whose other Olympic gold medal winning charges included sprinter Willie Applegarth and the 800 and 1500 metres champion Albert Hill in the 1920 Games, lived for several years at 84 Burbage Road and Abrahams himself, a leading British athletics administrator and broadcaster, told us that he was first coached by Mussabini at the Herne Hill stadium when he was only twelve years old.

The Amateur Football Cup Final was played at the ground in 1911 between Bromley and Bishop Auckland and the London Welsh Rugby Club trained and played there for many years - hence the reason why The Commercial pub, opposite Herne Hill Station, is filled with framed rugby shirts presented by leading London Welsh players including Welsh international John Taylor, ITV commentator on the 2003 World Cup.

Modern consecration came in the summer of 1948 when the stately old arena was chosen as the venue for the track cycling events of the Games of the XIVth Olympiad, staged so courageously by this country while the rest of Europe was still recovering from the ravages of the 1939-45 war.

The official Olympic report says: "Herne Hill track was the only suitable one. Minor repairs were carried out, spectator accommodation increased by the erection of permanent stands, gates and turnstiles were augmented and a temporary stand erected on the back straight. Press accommodation was increased, 12 telephone boxes installed behind the press seats and the BBC erected a stand with a control room beneath. First aid and refreshment accommodation for competitors and officials were provided in marquees in an adjacent field."

The admirable spirit of "Britain can fix it" was underlined by the competitors' solution to the insistence of the organisers that they must travel with their precious bicycles to the ground. Seats were stripped from one side of a 32 seater coach so that it could carry about 12 machines plus the riders and their trainers

Fifty years later, when a group of 1948 French Olympians made a sentimental journey to Wembley Stadium, where King George VI had formally opened those Games, an elderly French cyclist wiped a tear from his eye as he recalled : "I will never forget, never, the way in which the people of 'erne 'ill, you Londoners, made us welcome."

 

(Neil Allen, who has lived locally for 40 years, reported 14 summer and winter Olympics for The Times, The Evening Standard and The New York Times.

Kevin Kelly is an athlete, sports archivist and author of the recently published history of Herne Hill Harriers, Into the Millennium.)

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