Thursday, 18 August 2011

Article - Forest racecourse was one of the finest in England (Nottingham)

STAND at the corner of Gregory Boulevard and Noel Street and there is Nottingham's green lung laid out before you.

Now imagine 15,000 cheering punters around the boundary, watching the finest racehorses in the country. Try to picture them rounding the turn about where the park-and-ride site now stands.

The crowds cheer and wave their hats with excitement as thundering hooves charge over ground that these days gives itself up to the annual Goose Fair.

It is generally accepted that the first race meeting in Nottingham, held on the old course where The Forest recreation ground is now located, took place around 1690.

The course was said to be among the best in England, one of only 12 where races for the King's Guineas could be staged, and earned the praise of chroniclers of the time, including Daniel Defoe.

It boasted a fine grandstand, built in 1777, for the gentry to get a better view of the action. It was still on site in 1912.

In his 1815 History of Nottingham, John Blackner described it as "a handsome brick building of two stories high".

A subscription, with a minimum of £20, was collected the year before, and those contributing were three dukes, two earls, four lords, six baronets and 37 other wealthy people. Each subscriber was to receive "two silver tickets, to be transferable; each ticket to admit a lady or a gentleman to the Grandstand".

Meetings usually lasted three days and The Forest was the scene of many memorable races, including one in 1773 between two men, a Mr Harrison of Staffordshire and Mr Granny of Belper.

Friends of Mr Granny backed him to the hilt... "many of them sold their beds, cows and swine... and others pawned their wives' wedding rings" to lay bets, according to the Nottingham Date Book.

The two runners discarded all their clothes for the event and, watched by more than 15,000 people, Harrison left the weeping Granny in his wake.

Over the decades, many famous horses ran at The Forest, ridden by the leading jockeys of the time, watched by some of the most important people in the land.

The Duke of Cumberland, brother of George II, was granted the freedom of Nottingham to mark his visit in 1779, Fred Archer rode many winners there and great horses like Eclipse and Manifesto pounded the turf.

But by the late 1800s, the condition of the track was deteriorating and the Corporation decided it could no longer afford its maintenance. The final nail in its coffin came in 1890 when the drinks licence was lost.

The last race was held in September 1890, three times Grand National winner Arthur Nightingale on Sir Hamilton taking the final glory.

In medieval times, the land stood at the southern tip of Sherwood Forest. As a racecourse, it was bordered by the open fields of old Hyson Green.

In bygone times, 13 windmills stood on The Forest and the remains of two of them were found during excavation work to create the impressive Waterloo Promenade.

The area surrounding Mansfield Road was known as Sandfield — one of Nottingham's three main common fields. It was honeycombed by a maze of underground sand mines which were worked until the late 1820s. Donkeys were used to haul sand out of Rouse's mine on the west side of Mansfield Road in the Peel Street area.

Two sand mines were also sited where Mansfield Road crosses Mount Hooton at Gallows Hill. Twenty four criminals were hanged on the town gallows which, until 1827, were sited where St Andrew's Church now stands.

The Forest's name survives from mediaeval times when the land now occupied by the recreation ground was part of Sherwood Forest, a royal hunting forest. Before the Enclosure Act, burgesses (also known as freemen) were entitled to graze sheep and cattle on The Forest throughout the year.

One resident recalled being taken by his father to pick bluebells (harebells) on The Forest. The flowers grew among the prickly gorse bushes, which were flecked with fragments of wool left by passing sheep.

In the years following the Enclosure Act, which allowed Nottingham's overflowing population to spread into what would become suburbs like Hyson Green, Lenton and Radford, 80 acres were permanently preserved for a fine recreational park.

In commemoration, the Mayor of Nottingham planted the Inclosure Oak at the Mansfield Road entrance to The Forest.

The land was enclosed by a low stone wall, topped by decorative railings, which were removed during the Second World War.

Handsome entrance gates and lodges were built, and architect Joseph Paxton laid out an attractive network of paths and trees planted on the southern slopes.

By 1910 the sloping land to the north of The Forest was laid out as a series of streets which became known as Forest Fields.

Wealthy landowner Thomas Birkin purchased the land from Catherine Gregory and named several streets after his sons – Leslie Road, Russell Road and Stanley Road.

The Goose Fair moved from the Old Market Square to The Forest recreation ground in 1928, where it has been ever since.

Strict rules were laid down for developing the area. Large houses were built in Shakespeare Street and the roads northwards. The area to the east of Alfreton Road and north of the General Cemetery was mostly working class housing. A close-knit community rose up in streets like Burns Street, Larkdale Street, Gedling Grove, Russell Street and Ayr Street.

Nottingham Forest first played their games on The Forest after their formation in 1865, hence the club's name. They last played there in 1898, six years after election to the Football League, when they moved to the Town Ground on the banks of the River Trent and finally the City Ground.

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