Catch the train from Birmingham and alight at Colwall a few hundred yards after you emerge from the tunnel through the Malvern Hills. You are following in the footsteps of many of the spectators at what was one of England’s prettiest racecourses. A day trip from South Wales made the track as popular with people from there. Cross the footbridge and pass the nature reserve, and as you emerge into the fields you are at the top bend in the course, with a short run alongside the railway before a left turn into the home straight.
Colwall Park racecourse, in Herefordshire, operated for just 40 years, overlooked by British Camp and the Malverns. It owed its existence to two things: a determined Victorian gentleman and the railway.
The racecourse was developed on the Barton Court Estate, and the daughter of the owners had married our Victorian entrepreneur, a Mr Roland Cave-Brown-Cave. In due course he became the estate manager. One of his first improvements was to build a decent hotel close to the railway station. Named the Park Hotel it thrived, and continues to do so today as the Colwall Park.
This was just a prelude to his ambition to bring horseracing to the estate. Success depended in part on the railway. Roads in the area were poor and few, and horses, trainers, and jockeys had to join spectators on the iron horse to reach the track.
A layout was designed by Frederick Page, a leading journalist and National Hunt enthusiast of the time, and early in 1900 a new left handed circuit of one and a half miles, with eight fences, including two ditches and a water jump, was ready. There was also a one-mile hurdle course. The track was mostly flat, with just a slight rise on the far side as it ran at the foot of the hills, and then a 400 yard run in where it turned South from the railway line.
Right from the opening on 10 May 1900 meetings were graced by racing dynasties. Ernie Piggott, Lester’s grandfather, rode Sophos, owned by Roland Cave-Brown-Cave, to win the Bosbury Selling Hurdle. Several years later Geoffrey, first of four generations of Scudamores to make a living as a jump jockey, earned a formbook comment of “jumped well, made all, spectacular” for his ride on a prolific point to point winner called Sawfish.
Not surprisingly, like many new ventures, racing at Colwall Park did not receive a universal welcome, with one resident complaining to the Malvern Advertiser. “It is a source of great regret that the once quiet little village of Colwall should have been desecrated by having a racecourse in its midst and sad that anyone should suggest that it would be the making of the village. Characters of the lowest type, the gambler, the pickpocket and the ne’er do well all assemble on these occasions; public houses, too, are overcrowded, and the issues are most repugnant and demoralising; men and women making themselves little better than brutes.”
Meetings took place in March, April, May and September, almost always on a Monday, but despite the moderate prize money put up, after just 15 years Colwall Park was in financial difficulty. At least, Roland Cave-Brown-Cave was, and having disposed of his wife’s family fortunes, the estate, including the racecourse, was auctioned off on 25 November 1915, ironically at the hotel he had built when first taking over responsibility. Fortunately the new owners were happy to see racing continue, and with approval from the Government for racing to continue through the Great War, they let the racecourse and some adjoining meadows to a new enterprise, the Colwall Park Race Company.
Their stewardship saw the track through its most prosperous times, and saw two Totalisator buildings put up during the 1930s. Before this, Tipperary Tim logged his first win over fences in a novice chase in October 1923, before famously going on to win the 1928 Grand National at 100/1, in a race in which only two horses finished, and he was the only one to jump round without falling.
75 years ago today there was a royal winner at the track, as local historian Bert Davies explained to me. Slam, owned by King George VI, won the Eastnor Park Maiden Hurdle on 29 May 1937. He was ridden by Frenchie Nicholson to win by a head in a tense three-horse finish.
The following year a future Champion Hurdle winner graced the track, when Keith Piggott rode African Sister to victory exactly a year before they went on to Cheltenham. She was one of nine winners he had there,
That was almost the end for Colwall Park, and on 25 May 1939 the curtain came down as the countdown to war began. The military had no need for the ground during the First World War, but this time round it did not escape, and under threat of compulsory purchase the land was sold to Dowsett McKay, government contractors for assembling machinery. It became a military vehicle park.
After the war some attempts were made to resume racing, with five days of pony racing in 1949, and meetings of the North Ledbury Hunt in the early 1960s. But the area was already mainly farmland, and it was not going to be given up. One of the Totalisator buildings was dismantled, bought by a local estate, where it now serves as a lunchroom for the shoot. Everything else was demolished, and now there’s just a slab of concrete that was the base of one of the stands, and a short piece of running rail to remind us of Colwall Park racecourse.
Or is it? Adjacent to the track is The Elms, founded in 1614, and said to be the country’s oldest prep school still on its original site. Last Sunday the school held its annual Tetrathlon, with several local pony clubs joining the pupils in a competition featuring running, swimming and riding. But how many of the 100 or so taking part know that just the other side of the hedge, thousands used to gather to cheer on favourite horses and famous riders over much bigger obstacles?