A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Che

Student life, Chester City FC and horse-racing fourty years ago; Simon Catterall treats us to some of his...

Youthful Memories of Chester

had just turned 18 when my parents dropped me off at Christleton College on that roasting hot afternoon in September 1974. I felt a little miserable when I waved them off out of the drive and over the canal, goodness knows why because I’d been through it umpteen times before with Dad in the forces and boarding school. Still, that's how it was so, when I wiped away the tears, I swept the college sports pitches and spying an isolated oak tree in a far corner I parked in its shade and started on my packed lunch while I took in the surroundings.

There was no bypass cutting through the College grounds in those days, just an abundance of green fields and copses among which Christleton Hall nestled before me; an old eighteenth century mansion recently purchased by the College of Law and adapted to be one of their three major seats of learning, the others being Guildford and Lancaster Gate in London. The village of Christleton, very much dominated by the college, was also delightful, dozing silently and unspoiled two miles south-west of the old city of Chester where in the distance I could make out the silhouette of the Cathedral tower.
I was there to study for the Solicitor's Part 1 examination in advance of which there was a preliminary lecture at 2.30pm to introduce the college facilities, following which I would return to my digs and do the rest of my unpacking. I looked over my last sandwich at the timetable and other foundation papers- there were only five heads of law to be learned- Contract, Tort, Constitutional, Criminal and Land Law. It seemed easy enough when I realised that for the next ten months I was only expected to attend a single one-hour lecture each weekday and a short tutorial once a fortnight.
It seemed a piece of cake and prospects improved still further when, within sixty minutes of arriving, I ran into some other freshers, and we all went for a drink at The Trooper

That night as I lay in bed I thought how lucky I was to be enrolled on a fairly straightforward course over ten months in such a superb location during which time I was to be handsomely paid by the local authority who were sponsoring me.

What could possibly go wrong?
My digs were in Vicars Cross and I quickly settled into a routine that started with a late breakfast followed by a read of the papers and general loafing around in the morning before walking down the towpath to my solitary afternoon lecture. I would then walk home down the towpath, have my tea and watch TV before going to bed. After a while I discovered I could swap lectures and attend the morning class, which I frequently did when I discovered the attraction of going to the betting shop. I don’t recall ever doing any prolonged study.  My digs were comfortable and included all meals and changed linen for the princely sum of £7 per week each.  My landlord Jim was a good bloke, a real Scouser and Liverpool FC fanatic although his wife was a bit of a cow and gave him and us all a hard time.
I am ashamed to say that I completely wasted my time at College that year, consumed as I was by an imperial belief that I was clever enough to get through the exams without doing any work. I spent my time dossing around the city centre, lounging in the bookies, slobbing around the recreation room playing table football or darts or hitching home at weekends or to see friends. I could and should have studied in the holidays to catch up with the course but no, I decided I preferred the company of my mates and as a result I fell seriously behind in what was expected of me.
Even though I ended up failing my exams I had many good times at Chester, it was as wonderful a city then as it is now. I made friends with my landlord's gang at The Little Oak in Boughton and soon became one of the regulars. I also followed Chester City FC who that year reached the semi-finals of the (then) Football League Cup. I was at Sealand Road to witness them destroy the remnants of the mighty Leeds United team of the 70’s 3-0. What a night that was- the veteran Chester centre forward Derek Draper caused mayhem in the Leeds defence with his glancing headers, and the whole town went absolutely wild at the final whistle. The team then beat Blackpool 1-0 before we all travelled to St James’ Park in Newcastle for a dreary 0-0 stalemate.

That was my first trip to St James’ and memories were of a bloomin long coach trip, a really poor match and showers of spittle raining down from the home supporters. Still we had the last laugh when Chester beat them 1-0 in the replay, although I missed the game because it was in the holidays.
The following round was the semi-final where the Sealers, bidding to be the first fourth division team to get to Wembley drew the formidable Aston Villa, whose ranks included the legendary goal scorer Ray Graydon. The first leg took place at Sealand Road and the town was in a state of near hysteria as the game approached.

I remember when I entered the little ground with my mates Steve Porter, Paul Manski and Ian Brown, it was filled to such capacity that we were picked up by this unseen force and carried two sections down from our ticket allocation. When the game ended it was the same- the crush was absolutely indescribable. We didn’t need to walk anywhere- we were simply picked up a wave of humanity and swept en mass down to the exit doors where the force squeezed us through the gates and poured us out stumbling into the street. It was a very frightening and I shall never forget it. The awful events at Hillsborough in 1989 were still 15 years away but something just as dreadful could easily have taken place that night in Sealand Road if a barrier had collapsed. As it was, once we were out we thought no more of the danger and the only talk in the bars that night was about the famous 2-2 draw we had all just witnessed.

The Wembley dream ended in the second leg when Villa beat Chester 3-2 or 5-4 on aggregate. Such a shame. The gulf between the first division and the fourth (as they were both called then) was enormous in those days, but very, very occasionally a little team with a few experienced veterans, some keen youngsters and a big heart could turn the formbook upside down. Sunderland did it in 1973, Don Rogers team did it to win the League Cup final although even their mammoth achievements would have paled if little Chester had only succeeded. Still I was fortunate enough to be in the town at the time and reflect at the end of it all that only a single unconverted prevented them from being the first team from the fourth division to make it to Wembley for one of the major competitions.

If I remember correctly, they were promoted to Division 3 at the end of the season on goal difference- the team they pipped were actually promoted themselves with one game to play but they lost it and Chester snatched it by the smallest of goal margins.

I wonder if any of your other contributors recall that roller coaster season?
In the summer of '75, as a fuzzy-faced, bushy tailed student at Chester College of Law, I was first drawn to the fleshpots of horse racing on the Roodee. Ah The 'Grundy' summer of '75. It seems like yesterday with Smokie at No 1 with 'If you think you know how to love me'.

 There were two bookies I frequented in those days, the first a small terraced unit in Boughton opposite the ancient churchyard of St Giles’ about 100 yards up from the memorial to the 1554 burning of George Marsh. This small independent betting shop was only ten minutes walk from my digs and near a good pub, The Gardeners Arms so as you can imagine I spent some considerable time there.

The second the bookie I sponsored was the Ladbrokes office in Frodsham Street 100 yards from the Cathedral under the east city wall. This one is still there I believe.

At first I restricted these excursions to Saturday afternoons when I would walk down to the St Giles’ bookie armed with a £1 note to see if a series of 10p singles and 5p yankees could last me the afternoon. There was small b/w terrestrial TV and positively no satellite service in those days and I would join the ranks of old men and winos who would crowd into this scruffy dank ground floor office and cluster around a single 'blower' which passed on third hand commentary from the various courses.

I would stake a bet at the till in return for a little ticket/receipt with a three-digit number on which would end up on the floor or be exchanged for winnings if the selection was successful. I generally fared well in that tiny shop by following Andrew Turnells horses Birds Nest, Shock Result and Tamalin. I also did well with the Fred Winter/Johnny Francome millionaire's row of Lanzarote, Bula, Pendil and of course the magnificent Crisp. A point aside I never saw a braver performance by any horse than the legendary display of jumping put up by Crisp when he carried 12 stone around Aintree in 1973 only to get collared on the line by the lightly weighted Red Rum. After all these years it still makes the hair on my back stand on end when the BBC show the replay every April. Those of you who follow the 'Grand National' will recall a horse rarely carries more than 11 stone to victory around Aintree- let alone 12 and this before the course was tamed! Crisp. What a magnificent animal!

Another favourite of mine was a lesser-known beast called 'Blakedown' that won five times for me at varying prices culminating in a 20/1 beanfeast at Cheltenham. Terrific stuff!
Anyhow, I digress! These first victories were all with the National Hunt, but I did not fare so well on the flat where eventually I went and stuck my neck out at Royal Ascot. Many of you who follow racing will recall that first dreadful occasion where after a few exciting and successful plunges into the world of gambling, one flew too close to the flame and wings were seriously burnt. This is what happened to me during that year's Royal Ascot where Vincent O'Brien sent over seven horses, six of which won and the seventh that came second- all ridden by the mighty Lester Piggott.

Ah, tomorrow's news today- if only!
I was well and truly singed at that Royal Ascot meeting at a time when I should have been studying so in a way it served me right. Looking back, I guess there were a few of us fairly hooked on the sport, wasting our time pouring over the racing sections of the morning papers that were furnished every day in the student's common room. The intention was for the students at Christleton to keep abreast of the latest law reports but they mainly thumbed by racing dropouts like myself who would assemble each morning with our rolled cigarettes and cups of coffee to discuss the afternoon's runners. Well, it was on that first day of the 1975 Royal Ascot meeting that I found myself in our usual haunt but this time being teased and goaded by some of the others about my modest stakes.

'You're just too scared to go for it Simon' said Rob Rawe, a marvelous bespectacled and slightly eccentric chap from the South who became my best friend on the course.

'I really don't know why you don't stake more Simon, you seem to do very well on the whole' goaded one of my other friends who like me submitted more time to following the sport of kings than his supposed chosen profession.
They were winding me up of course, but it is amazing how often those in receipt of good fortune on the cards, tables or horses are easily convinced that good luck is nothing other than the reward of ability. Eventually I became so fed up with all the teasing that I decided I would show them all and 'go in big' (as my father used to say) with a really decent bet. I told them all this and on the second day of Ascot having spent the whole morning scanning all the naps and articles checking the form, the ground, the course specialists and the jockeys I eventually settled for the unbeaten sprinter Royal Boy.

'Can't be beat' said Robin Goodfellow.

'Will win in a canter' touted Man on the Spot.

'Sure thing' said Peter O'Sullivan.

And so it went on.

'Right then' I said to my cronies, 'I'll go down down to Ladbrokes in Frodsham Street at lunchtime and clatter it.'

'Money in the bank' said my mate Rob.

I had £80 nestling in my building society account (courtesy of a tax rebate) that was to pay for my summer holiday in France with my best mate Spike Oldfield. With heart pounding, I went to the Abbey National Blossoms branch and withdrew £10 from the fund and invested the lot plus tax of 12% on Royal Boy in the Frodsham Street office. It doesn't sound much now but in those days it was a hell of a lot when a pint of beer cost 20p and a Cornish pasty 6p. The odds were rubbish as well (8/13) but that was no big surprise as the horse was absolutely nailed on.

 That afternoon I sneaked out of lectures and went back to Ladbrokes, my stomach turning over. I just made it in time for the race and with the announcement 'And they're off!' I closed my eyes, listening intently to the commentary as my heart thumped wildly.

 Royal Boy was running really well and took it up with a furlong going away.

'Phew, thank goodness for that! I'll never bet this much again!'

However just as I was counting my winnings, disaster struck when Lester Piggot sprang out of the clouds on the Irish 6/1second favorite Fadiaki (not one of O’Brien’s by the way) to turn me over on the line in a photograph.

My heart sank. Royal Boy had been beaten and I had lost all that money let alone several hours valuable study. I had never experienced a feeling like it. I was absolutely gutted and spent the rest of the day wandering around in a sickened daze. I couldn't eat, I couldn't study and I couldn't sleep. There was only one thing for it. The next day I went on the chase and plunged £10 on 'Stand to Reason' with Johnny Seagrove up. That won in a photo at 11/8, but it was a phyrric recovery. The damage had been done and my racing innocence was lost forever with that first dreadful experience of staking and losing far more than I could afford.
A happier racing memory of that year was when I received the most wonderful tip from the most unusual of sources that came to me when I was hitching home to Darlington one weekend. I was thumbing across country to the M6 and had been stuck in the pissing rain at a remote lay-by near Frodsham for half an hour with everything swishing past when suddenly this large horsebox crept out of the gloom and stopped to pick me up. At last a lift!

I literally sprang into the cab then as the relief at finally being carried away from that awful spot settled, I turned to survey my good Samaritan.  He was a small wiry man of about 50 with a woolly bobble hat, immensely overgrown eyebrows, ruddy complexion and a well-lined, craggy face. He was a hugely entertaining fellow, happy to establish that he was an ex-jockey, hadn’t quite made it but was now retained by one of the larger stables to ride out and help with transport. It appears our paths had crossed on this particular May morning because he was taking two racehorses from their stables at Lambourn to York.

‘That’s so-and-so in the back and so-and-so. They’re running tomorrow at the Dante meeting but we don’t think they’ll beat such-and-such and probably not worth a bet this time’.

I can’t remember the names of these horses now, only that their names were well known to me at the time and it was hugely welcome to be picked up by a driver who actually spoke. The miles shot by as we discussed racing, the forthcoming Derby, whether Mark Antony would take Grundy on again, the emerging trainer Henry Cecil and so on.  Then after about an hour or so just as we were heaving up a long Pennine moor this wonderfully engaging little man turned to me and said ‘I’ll give you two horses that will win though. The first is Semenco and the second is our star mare Bedfellow. Remember the names, Semenco and Bedfellow.’

I did. I remembered them when we said our farewells at Wetherby and I remembered the names as I scoured the papers every day for the next three months.

‘Semenco and Bedfellow, Semenco and Bedfellow. Where are they? Perhaps I’ve got the names wrong but I’m sure that’s what he said.’

I had just about given up when one morning, long after the exams, I was sitting at home and there it was- Bedfellow running for the first time, trained by Peter Walwyn, and ridden by Pat Eddery the champion jockey elect.

I told all my friends, both at home and ex-college, together with my brother Jeremy who passed it on to all his mates. Robin was still at school and Tim was away at college in Newcastle but other than that, literally every man and his dog was on the horse when she duly obliged at 7/1.
Hurrah! What a night that was! We all got absolutely legless!

As for Semenenco? He ran a couple of months later when I was on holiday in France so I missed it. Just as well as he was beaten.

I dread to think what we would all have had on it.
I have so many happy memories of my time at Chester. I was there in 1974 to fail my Part Ones and came back 10 years later to sit my finals (that's when I ran around the walls naked). In the intervening years I worked for a car company and was back there in September 1979 when we sponsored the RAC Rally. I also ended up going back after I qualified to see my girlfriend who was at Christleton sitting her own finals. We became engaged under the Blossoms clock and have been happy together for seventeen years.

Now read Simon Catterall's hilarious Around the Walls Naked!

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