Saturday 26 March 2022

Fryent Country Park extra! – Horse racing at Bush Farm

I am grateful to Philip Grant for this latest investigation into our rich local history 

Two years ago, I wrote the first of a series of articles about the history of the area which is now Fryent Country Park. In six parts, this told its story from more than 1,000 years ago up to the present day, but there are always new things which can come to light.


As a result of a reader’s comment, the “Cold War” story of the bunker on Gotfords Hill was uncovered in an “extra” article. Now, an enquiry from William, who is researching the history of horse racing in Victorian times, has led to the discovery of another piece of Fryent Country Park’s story that we didn’t know before.


Bush Farm stables, at the entrance to the Country Park from Slough Lane.


Steeplechases organised by John Elmore of Uxendon Farm in mid-Victorian times were mentioned in Part 2 of The Preston Story. As early as April 1830, Elmore was involved in organising a private race match between the wealthy owners of two top horses, “Niagara” and “Wonder”, for a stake of £300 each. “Niagara”, with Captain Martin Becher (whose name now graces a famous Grand National fence at Aintree) in the saddle, won the four-mile contest for the horse’s owner, Mr Caldecott.


A Harrow Steeplechase from 1864 pictured in a sporting paper. (Courtesy of William Morgan)


The cross-country course from Brockley Hill to Elmore’s farm on the northern edge of Barn Hill became the scene of further high stakes steeplechases. Another course, around the fields of Uxendon and Forty Farms, also proved popular with spectators, although a water jump across the Wealdstone Brook proved fatal to several horses before the approach to it was improved. John Elmore continued as organiser of and host to racing at Uxendon until the early 1860s.


The original enquiry Wembley History Society received was about the racecourse at Hendon, run by William Perkins Warner, the landlord of the Old Welsh Harp. I wrote about him in Part 2 of the Welsh Harp Reservoir Story, and mentioned that he had organised big horse racing meetings as part of the attractions that brought thousands of visitors to his tavern. What I didn’t realise at the time was that his steeplechases, that went across the fields of Kingsbury, were not run from the Welsh Harp itself!


The Grandstand at Warner’s Welsh Harp racecourse. (From the late Geoffrey Hewlett’s collection)


Warner had taken on the lease of the tavern, and the fishery on its adjacent reservoir, in 1858. By February 1862, he was one of the promoters of a horse race meeting, with a course that began and ended in a field beside the inn. A report on this experimental meeting, in the “Bell’s Life” sporting newspaper, said that it was: ‘just sufficiently satisfactory to prove that something much better might, with judicious management, be brought to issue.’


A two-day race meeting in September 1862 drew large crowds to the Welsh Harp, and by 1864 this Hendon fixture was a regular feature of the racing calendar. “The Era” wrote in 1865: ‘the Meeting held on the ground in the rear of the Welsh Harp, Hendon, on Thursday and Friday, must be pronounced the very best ever seen under the auspices of Mr Warner, who has done all in his power to place the affair on a respectable and permanent footing.’ 


By this time, Warner had begun organising steeplechase races, over artificial fences, on his course beside the Welsh Harp, but these did not do as well. In December 1866, in conjunction with Edward Topham (the famous handicapper, who staged the Grand National at his Aintree course), leased land from Joseph Goodchild of Bush Farm, and put on the “Metropolitan Grand Steeplechases, Kingsbury (Edgware)”. 


A hedge between two fields on the Bush Farm land, with Harrow Hill in the distance.


The course they designed for the two-day meeting was described by the “Sporting Times” as one of the best around London. The oval-shaped course was a mile and a quarter long, and each lap included seven natural fences. These would have been existing hedges between the farm’s hay meadows, cut down to a manageable size for the horses to jump, along a course marked by wooden posts. But where exactly did this race course go? 


The site of Bush Farm still exists, and its fields were saved from housing development by Middlesex County Council, who bought the land from All Souls College in 1938, to create the Fryent Way Regional Open Space. Although the course never appeared on any published map, a series of sketches from a meeting in September 1875, published in “The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News”, did supply some clues.


“Kingsbury Showers”, some sketches from a rather wet autumn race meeting in 1875.
(Courtesy of William Morgan)


Several of the sketches showing racegoers at this Kingsbury meeting include details of the landscape in the background. I decided to take some of these images with me, when I went for a walk on the Country Park on a bright January day, to see whether I could identify where the artist had been standing when he drew them. I believe that I had some success!


The approach to Bush Farm from Slough Lane, 1875 and 2022.


I’ve coloured in the landscape details on an extract from the sketches, to help with the comparison. I’m certain that racegoers approached the course up the driveway to the farm from Slough Lane. The present Stables building is in the same place as a farm building in the sketch, and may even still have part of the earlier structure within its construction.


Looking west across Bush Farm’s Home Field, 1875 and 2022.


I think that this second pair of “then and now” images are again viewed from about the same place. The shape of the distant hills against the skyline is very similar, as is the slope of the land. The course was described as having an uphill run-in to the finish of 300 yards, and you can just make out the “matchstick” figures of two horses and their riders approaching the final fence at the far side of the field. That would fit with the distance from the bottom corner of Home Field to where the grandstand appears in the 1875 sketch. 


The original steeplechase course was described as a pear-shaped oval, with the stand at its narrow end. As Bush Farm was leased from All Souls College, all of its fields will have been within Kingsbury Parish. Using all of this information, I have set out what I believe is a possible route for the mile and a quarter (ten furlongs) course, which does cross seven hedges.


Possible 1866 Kingsbury Vale steeplechase course (in brown), marked on an 1895 O.S. map.


Overnight rain between the two days of the original race meeting at Bush Farm in December 1866 ‘reduced the ground to the “slough of despond” ’. If you’ve taken a walk on Fryent Country Park in winter, you’ll understand the problems that wet clay, especially when churned up by galloping horses, would have caused. A low-lying field, like “Honey Slough” (on the left as you come down Fryent Way from Kingsbury Circle, after passing Valley Drive) did not get its name for no reason!


Future December meetings here were often troubled by wet ground or frost, and by competition from a Christmas meeting at Kempton Park (which still continues), but Spring and Autumn race meetings proved popular. This kept the Bush Farm course, known as “Kingsbury Vale”, in use for a dozen years. The course was lengthened to two miles, by going over the fields north of Barn Hill as far as Uxendon Farm. Part of its appeal was the open hay meadows and natural hedges, and racing papers such as “Bell’s Life” referred to it as ‘the charming Kingsbury Vale.


Looking north-east across Meade and Warrens fields on ‘the charming Kingsbury Vale’ course.


Crowds of 10.000 were not uncommon at the course, despite the lanes leading to it being narrow and in poor condition. Part of the attraction was the number of runners, including some good quality horses, attracted by the prize money offered by Warner to the winners. You can see him (with the beard) in one of the 1875 sketches above, alongside the caption “Cup presented by the owner”. 


The drink which was freely available (also supplied by Warner, from his Welsh Harp tavern) and the opportunity for betting, on races that (as far as Warner could ensure) were not “fixed”, were also reasons why these race meetings were popular. But they were not popular with everyone! By 1873, letters from local residents were appearing in “The Times”, and other papers, complaining about the ‘ruffians’ and ‘thousands of the biggest scoundrels and blackguards’ which the race meetings attracted to Kingsbury.


Warner found himself before the Magistrates Court several times for allowing illegal cash betting to take place on the course. Prosecuted for this offence at the December 1877 meeting, he was fined £7-10s plus costs, despite providing evidence that he’d done his best to prevent it. The fine was relatively small, but a bigger blow came when the Edgware magistrates refused him a licence to sell refreshments (alcohol!) at his race meetings. 


The loss of income from drink sales meant there was now little profit for Warner from this horse racing venture. The final straw came when the December 1878 meeting had to be cancelled because of frost, and the Kingsbury Vale course was abandoned. It would have become illegal anyway, under the Racecourses Licencing Act of 1879, which banned unlicenced horse racing within 12 miles of Marble Arch.


I’m glad that dealing with the enquiry has helped to identify where the Kingsbury Vale race course was. It has also given me the chance to share its story with you. I am grateful to William Morgan for allowing me to use information from his forthcoming book, “Strongholds of Satan” (volume 1 – covering the lost Victorian race courses of the south-east and East Anglia), to help tell that story.


Young people enjoying a horse ride on Fryent Country Park. (Photos courtesy of the Bush Farm Collective).


Horse racing at Bush Farm ended more than 140 years ago, but there are still a few horses kept at the stables on its former site, which continue grace the fields of this part of Kingsbury. Now, they are not ridden to jump the blackthorn hedges, but to give enjoyment to youngsters (and some adults) for recreation, as part of the many attractions of Fryent Country Park.

Philip Grant.




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