Escape to Newmarket
Between the ages of 18 and 20, I, like every other able-bodied young man in Britain in the 1950s, did my two years’ National Service.
Starting off at RAF West Kirby, just outside Liverpool, I went through six weeks’ square-bashing, where they attempted to force my square peg personality through a round hole. However, although it was brutal for some, having previously learned to play the trumpet, I found that band practice and pass-out parades regularly cut into the torturous schedule of crawling through barbed-wire, bayonet charges, gas attacks and giving pints of blood away. From there, having survived what should have been an onslaught on my passive lifestyle, I was posted to RAF Hospital Ely in Cambridgeshire, where, working as an orthopaedic clerk, with a little trumpeting on the side, I lived an almost useful life.
The highlight of my stay at Ely was undoubtedly an eight-day rest in bed with newspapers, fruit and a radio, owing to a suspected concussion sustained when slipping up on my first parade. Other modest achievements included playing The Last Post in church on Armistice Sunday and landing a treble at Epsom to win our four-man syndicate £125 (at the time, my pay was £3 per week).
The journey from Newmarket to Ely is about 12 miles. I had always wanted to go racing there, but they had no Saturday fixtures and I could never get time off during the week. The thought began to bug me, and in view of my imminent posting to Bristol University Air Squadron, I might never be as close to the racecourse again. What was known as the First October Meeting started on Tuesday, September 27. It was a three-day affair and to me, it looked like now or never.
Tom Lewis, the Station Warrant Officer, also Entertainment’s Officer, was known to be keen on sports, particularly athletics, and from time to time would organise cross-country runs. According to the Orderly Room notice board, the next, over six miles of local terrain, was scheduled for Wednesday, September 28 – perfect. Ben Jordan, camp pianist/punter, whose official job title was Medical Clerk, was also keen to go to Newmarket. After much discussion, and to everyone’s amazement, we both entered our names for the cross-country.
On the morning of the run, SWO Lewis informed the various sections that, owing to a previous engagement, he would not be accompanying us on the run but Corporal Waterhouse would. We should assemble at the Guard Room at 13.00 hours in regulation shorts, singlet and plimsolls, signing out on our departure and in on our return. Having seen a number of POW films, by comparison our Great Escape took the minimum of planning.
Our third party enabler was Leading Aircraftsman Bobby Barnes: MT driver/danceband drummer, and supplier of new-laid eggs. One of his tasks was to take the Hospital’s outgoing mail down to Ely Post Office and today this was conveniently arranged for 13.00 hours.
Ben Jordan and I had already rolled up our civvies into a spare mail bag, and thrown them into the back of Bobby’s van. Our signatures and last three numbers having been recorded at the main gate, we set off at a steady trot. So steady in fact that, after half a mile, we were already 200 yards adrift of Corporal Waterhouse and the main pack.
Immediately turning off into a side lane, who should be waiting for us but our chauffeur for the day, Bobby Barnes. We quickly changed into civvies and stuffed our running gear into the post bags. Bobby then drove us to the racecourse, promising to meet our return train at Ely after racing.
The two principle races this day were the Newmarket St Leger and the Cheveley Park Stakes. In the ‘Leger’, Ben and I plumped for Cardington King. We had both recently been kitted out at RAF Cardington and had backed the horse each-way in the Derby at 100-1. Sadly he finished fourth that day, but we reckoned now was the time to get back our money – and that’s just about what we did. Cardington King won by three lengths at odds of 4-7 and we spent our entire winnings on two half-pints of Mackeson Stout.
The next race was a two-runner affair, but by the time we had collected our previous winnings and queued for the beers, it was all over. The Cheveley Park, for 2-y-o fillies, looked an interesting event and often threw-up a Classic contender. This year, the French filly Midget was all the rage and, ridden by Roger Poincelet, won easily. We collected on our modest even-money investment, then the sun broke through and our ‘away day’ seemed proof of our charmed life. It was not to last.
Queuing at the bar for further refreshments, a familiar, but dreaded voice shattered our bonne fortune.
“What the bloody hell are you doing here Church? And you too Jordan?”
“Wer-wer-well Warrant Officer, we did our cross-country and c-came on here.”
“I can see that,” he fumed, “but sports afternoon is not intended for Horse Racing.”
“Oh, I didn’t realise,” I replied feebly, my voice trailing away.
As the three of us were strangely wedged together against the bar, he eventually succumbed to ask us briskly “How are you doing anyway?”
In my shaken state, it must have taken me fully five minutes to tell him we had backed C-C-C-Cardington K-K-K-King, and from the glazed look that came over him I knew he wished he hadn’t asked, worse still, we had all missed another race. Lewis, unable to extricate himself from our unfortunate pincer movement in front of the bar, heard that his intended nap of the day – Sculpture – had been beaten in a close finish.
“Well, I suppose I’ve got you two twerps to thank for that,” he said grudgingly.
At this point, Ben thought it might help our predicament to order another round of drinks and although SWO Lewis accepted his offer, his expression gave us no sign of hope.
Eventually, we broke free in time to see the last race. Neither of us had a bet on it and we watched the finish in a subdued silence. On the long walk back to Newmarket Station, we talked over various excuses to give the Military Police on our return, none of which I feared, would get us less than 14 days confined to camp.
Bobby Barnes met our return train as arranged, and we changed back into our crumpled, but spotless running gear in the station toilets. Jogging the last half-mile back to camp we had our ‘got lost’ excuse ready and offered up prayers that SWO Lewis had not shopped us.
“Who goes there?”
“Ch-Church and Jordan.”
“Advance and be recognised.”
A corporal MP looked us up and down.
“What hour do you bloody well call this?”
“W-we g-got lost c-corporal,” I stammered.
“Yes, yes, yes, I’ve heard all about it.”
My heart sank.
“Lucky for you Station Warrant Officer Lewis saw you running in the wrong direction – half way to Cambridge he said.”
Later that evening, Lewis came into the NAFFI.
“You boys all right after your long run?” he enquired.
“Yes fine, and thank you for looking out for us.” I replied.
“Strange you didn’t see me,” he said meaningfully.
“Anyway, next week’s concert in the Town Hall wouldn’t have sounded the same without our pianist and trumpeter, would it?”
We nodded solemnly, knowing it was just another case of ‘birds of a feather.’
This short story is one of 22 from Michael’s book Born to Bet,
of which he has a few signed copies for sale.
Illustrations by Julia Jacs