(Hotspur Homepage)


This episode taken from The Hotspur issue: 1030 August 4th 1956.

The stories behind the famous sporting headlines. Told for the first time by NORTON LEYLAND - Ace Reporter.


The Gypsy Runner.

My name’s Norton Leyland, and I’ve been reporting on sporting events for a good many years now. I recently had a letter I found it hard to answer. A reader of mine asked me who was the greatest cross-country runner I ever met. Well, I’ve got no doubt about the man I’d nominate. The trouble is, I never knew his name! I came across this unknown champion a year or two back, in the Midlands. My newspaper had sent me along to report on the annual English cross-country championship run. The English cross-country, as you probably know, is held at the beginning of March every year. It is run over a grueling nine miles in Warwickshire, and some of the going at that time of the year has to be seen to be believed. Nevertheless, the senior event usually attracts over five hundred runners. A placing in such a national event is an honour in itself, and it’s also a guide to the selectors who are picking the national team for the European International a fortnight later. The man in the news that particular year was Ted Maybury. He had won the English cross-country in the two previous years, and in his second win he had set up a record time of 45 minutes 17 seconds. He was expected to romp away with the honours again, and the experts were asking if he would be able to beat his own best time. I went down to Warwickshire a couple of days before the race, to have a look around. I went by car, and I didn’t enjoy the trip. The roads were icy, and there were patches of snow. By the look of the sky, there was more snow to come. I didn’t envy Saturday’s competitors. I put up at a hotel in Warwick, then drove out to have a look at the course. The start, as usual, was from the famous Steeple Farm, but the stewards had made a few alterations to the route, and I wanted to get up-to-date. The course twisted its nine miles across open country some distance out of town. I drove first up Edgecumbe Hill. From the top I could get a clear view over most of the course. Parking the car at the top of the hill, I got out. An icy wind whistled round me. I shivered and turned up the collar of my overcoat. The wind brought the faint chiming of a clock to my ears. Looking across the fields I could see Steeple Farm in the distance, half hidden among the bare trees. The farm had large, old-fashioned stable buildings, and the famous clock was in a steeple over the stables. The farmer was proud of that clock, and it was his boast that the cross-country could have been timed by its accuracy. Winter still lingered, and the course looked bleak and desolate. Saturday’s run would take all the stamina the competitors had got. A movement in the empty fields caught my eye. A figure had come out of the clump of trees near Steeple Farm, and was trotting up the slope towards me. I watched. As the runner came nearer I saw that he was a slim young fellow in open-necked shirt and slacks. Apparently some competitor was putting in some preliminary practice. The runner wasn’t any well-known athlete that I recognised. As he approached, I saw that he was dark-haired and swarthy. To my surprise, I noticed that he had a gold earring in one ear. “Hello,” I called. “Getting in some practice?” The young fellow looked at me in surprise. “I’m a reporter,” I explained. “I’m covering the race on Saturday. What team are you running for?” “I do not understand,” said the young fellow. He spoke slowly and carefully, like somebody using a foreign language. “You’re one of the cross-country runners, aren’t you?” I asked. The swarthy chap smiled, showing even, white teeth. “No,” he said. “Why should you think that?” “Well, you’re running across country in a biting wind half undressed,” I pointed out. “I couldn’t think of any reason for doing that except a training spin.” “I always dress like this,” said the young fellow. “In weather as bad as we’re having now?” I gasped. “My people are used to the fresh air,” smiled the other. I was beginning to understand. “You’re a gypsy?” I said. The young fellow nodded. “I live with my grandfather in our caravan,” he said. “The farmer lets us camp near Steeple Farm.” “You’ll have a good view of the race,” I said. “This race is important?” asked the gypsy. “It certainly is,” I answered. “One of the biggest events in English running.” “I would like to see it,” said the gypsy. “When will it be held?” “On Saturday,” I said. I was surprised. “You live right on the spot, and you don’t know about it? The papers are full of the build-up.” “I cannot read,” said the gypsy, simply, “and my grandfather is blind.”  I didn’t know what to say to that. “I’m sorry I held you up,” I said. You’ll catch cold, standing around with no coat on.” “The wind does not worry me,” smiled the gypsy. “But I must leave you. My grandfather needs extra food, and I have to reach Darnley before the shops shut.” “I don’t know where Darnley is, but if you’ll direct me, I’ll be glad to give you a lift,” I said. “No, thank you,” said the gypsy. “I do not like riding, and I can reach Darnley as quickly across the fields as you could by road.” He gave me a nod of the head that was almost a bow, and trotted away. He crossed the road, and I saw him disappear across a field on the other side. By now I was feeling frozen, so I climbed back into the car. I glanced at my watch, wondering if I had time to drive round the lanes towards the finish of the cross-country course. It was half-past twelve. The thought occurred to me that the gypsy had plenty of time to reach the shops in Darnley, assuming they closed at the usual time in the afternoon. There was also time for me to look around a bit more. I drove away through the lanes, peering at the glimpses of frozen fields I got through the leafless hedges. After about half an hour of this I felt I’d done my duty, and a cup of tea seemed a good idea. At the next turning I came across a signpost. It said “Darnley, 4 miles.” I turned in that direction, hoping I’d find a café. Darnley turned out to be a small village. Just before I entered the one main street, I caught sight of a figure trotting away across the fields. It was the gypsy lad, and he was carrying a bulging carrier bag. Apparently he’d bought the things he needed. There were shops in Darnley, but they were all shut. Many of them had the blinds drawn. I stopped and called to an old boy in gaiters who was ambling past. He shook his head when I asked him if there was anywhere I could get a cup of tea. “Too late,” he said. “It’s after one o’clock.” “Do the shops close during the lunch hour, then?” I asked. “Today’s Thursday,” said the old boy. “It’s early closing in Darnley.” I thanked him and he pottered off. Then a thought came to me. The Darnley shops had closed for the day at one o’clock. But that gypsy lad had got here in time to be served. I pulled out my road map. I found Darnley and traced back to the spot on Edgecumbe Hill where I had met the young fellow. Even across the fields it was all of five miles. And it was half-past twelve when the gypsy left me. “It’s incredible!” I muttered. The gypsy had run that in a time Ted Maybury would have been proud of. He had covered five miles of hard cross-country going in something under half an hour, and he hadn’t been going full out.

The Championship Race.

We got the snow that the clouds had threatened. It came down heavily on Friday. By Saturday morning the storm had died out, but several inches of snow covered the countryside. In places the roads were almost impassable, and the cross-country course looked more suitable for Commandos than runners. That didn’t deter the competitors. I saw the teams setting off for Steeple Farm, where the start was to take place. I had decided to station myself at the finish, so I drove off in that direction. I had some difficulty in getting through the snow, and I saw more than one car abandoned in the ditch. But I crawled along in a stream of vehicles carrying spectators and officials, and I finally got there. Despite the weather, a large crowd was gathering round the finish. My press card came in useful, and a steward directed me to a reserved space. On the way there I caught sight of the gypsy lad. He was in a good position against the ropes, next to the press enclosure. I shivered when I saw he still wore only a shirt and slacks. “Hello,” I said. “I’m glad you managed to get here.” “I am interested to see these famous runners,” replied the gypsy. “You’ve done some running yourself, haven’t you?” I asked. “Competitive stuff, I mean.” “No I have never raced,” said the gypsy. It was getting near the time for the start, and I wasn’t able to continue the conversation. I had to begin making notes for the article I was going to write. But as I forced my cold fingers to scribble, my mind went back to the young gypsy again. He was as hard as a barn door because of his open-air life. And he was a natural athlete, I was convinced of that. It showed in his lithe movements. Even more it had been evident in that cross-country run of his to Darnley. Then a stir among the officials brought me back to earth. It was almost two o’clock, the starting time of the race. We all stared across the fields in the direction of Steeple Farm. The start was out of sight from here, but when the runners got away a rocket would be fired. That would be the signal for the officials to set their stop-watches running. I had my stop-watch ready in my hand. It had been a habit of mine for years to make an independent time check at sporting events. I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s become an automatic habit with me. We stood in silence, waiting for the rocket signal. It was two minutes past two, and the race had not started. There must be some hold-up at the other end. Another minute ticked away. Then the rocket soared up and exploded in a red flare, I clicked my stop-watch on. With the tension eased for a moment, people began talking. Now we had to wait again. That increased the excitement. People were speculating about who would be in the lead. The name Ted Maybury was mentioned most often. He was my choice, too, but I couldn’t see him breaking any records in conditions like this. My stop-watch ticked on. Twenty minutes, thirty. The runners should be over halfway now. Thirty-five, forty. The tension was increasing. Any second now we should be able to see the leaders. A shout went up. The leader was in sight. We could see him striding over a field below us. Even at that distance the lanky figure and rangy stride were unmistakeable. Ted Maybury was on his way to his third successive victory. Maybury was out on his own. His stamina was amazing. The rough going had slowed down the rest of the field, but Maybury was ploughing through the snow like a machine. Far down the course the rest of the field were beginning to appear. But Maybury was out alone at the finish. He came pounding down a lane of cheering spectators, and I snapped off my stop-watch as he crossed the line. He had covered the nine miles in 45 minutes 19 seconds, only two seconds outside his best. It was a magnificent achievement. I pushed forward to join the crowd congratulating him. Maybury was leaning on somebody’s shoulder gasping for breath. He smiled his usual modest grin as hands thumped him on the back. “Well run, Ted!” exclaimed one of the officials. “You made it look easy! And after the snowfall we were wondering whether the race ought to be held or not!” “It nearly wasn’t,” panted Maybury. “A fire broke out down at Steeple Farm just before the start. That’s why we were delayed getting away.” “You mean Steeple Farm’s on fire?” exclaimed the official. “Not the farm,” said Maybury. “A caravan parked nearby.” I was shoved aside. The gypsy lad came thrusting to the front. He grabbed Maybury’s arm. “You said a caravan was on fire?” he exclaimed. “Yes, a gypsy caravan—” began Maybury. He took in the young fellow’s appearance, and stopped. “Is it yours?” he asked. “My grandfather was in it,” snapped the gypsy. “Is he safe?” “They said an old man had knocked over a lamp inside,” answered Maybury. “That’s what started the fire.” He hesitated. “I don’t know if he’s hurt or not.” “He is blind,” said the gypsy, “I should not have left him for so long. I must go to him.” He gave Maybury a hard, straight look. “He was trapped inside, is that not so?” Maybury stammered. The direct question had embarrassed him. “I don’t know all the details,” he said. “You are trying to spare my feelings,” said the gypsy. “But I understand what you are trying to say!” He turned, and the suddenly silent crowd parted to let him through. I stood in front of him. “My car’s here,” I said. “Let me take you.” “The roads are blocked,” said the gypsy. “I shall get there quicker on foot.” I stepped aside, and the gypsy started running. He set off down the course Ted Maybury had just followed, passing the runners who were still coming in. I watched his slim figure go striding over the snow towards Steeple Farm. Then I realised that I had automatically started my stop-watch again.

The Way Back.

I pieced together the story of that run later on, from the accounts of the stewards along the course, and the people down at Steeple Farm. The gypsy lad went down the slope from the finishing point almost like a sprinter. He ran with a smooth stride that covered the ground with the least expenditure of energy. His feet never came far off the ground, and his knee action was slight. He had the perfect long-distance style. Stragglers were still floundering along the course. The gypsy strode past them in his shirt and slacks and rough shoes. The steward at the first check-point was astonished when the gypsy raced past him. The young fellow was driving through the snow, and his dark face was set. He went up a bank out of the field in a rush. The runners coming down had turned the surface into something like a slide, and the gypsy clawed his way over the top. The track twisted uphill over a sloping field that had plough furrows hidden under the snow. The watching steward saw the gypsy fall once, but he was up again at once. He went racing on, and over the crest of the hill. The run down on the other side was just as difficult to negotiate. The gypsy plunged at it in a headlong rush. The steward at the turn at the bottom saw him come slithering down without a check. The gypsy went round the turn and down the rough cart track at the bottom without a glance at the steward. The official told me about it later. “I’m certain he didn’t even see me,” the steward said. “His eyes seemed fixed on something in the distance. I’ve never seen anybody run like it. He looked as if he was miles away.” That steward was right. The gypsy was miles away in his mind—at Steeple Farm, where his blind and helpless grandfather had been trapped in a blazing caravan. All along the course the stewards saw him race by. They were all experienced judges of running, and every one of them was amazed at the gypsy’s headlong pace. “The snow might not have been there,” one of them told me afterwards. “He ran like a man on firm going on a summer’s day! There seemed to be something behind him urging him on.” There was no slacking of his pace over the second half of the course. He was driving towards Steeple Farm with every ounce of strength he possessed. Only his own muscles could get him there quickly, and he was willing them not to let him down. He had passed all the stragglers now, and he was by himself, a lonely figure racing over the snow. The stewards near the start were leaving their check-points and walking back to the farm, their job done. The gypsy strode past them, his eyes unseeing, his lean body concentrated on its task. Steeple Farm was in sight. A wisp of smoke still curled up over the trees. The young gypsy thrust forward faster when he saw it. He came striding over the beaten snow towards the farm, and the crowd gathered there saw him coming. The farmer recognised him, and told the others who he was. Sympathetic expressions came to the faces of the onlookers as they watched the gypsy racing towards them. His stride was as firm and certain as when he started. He had covered nine miles of snow-covered country at his fastest speed, but he was still running strongly. The crowd was silent as he raced into the courtyard in front of the old stables. He looked round, but nobody seemed willing to be the first to speak. The sudden chiming of the clock in the stable tower broke noisily into the stillness.

The Unknown Champion.

It was the farmer who came forward and took the gypsy’s arm. “Your grandfather is in here,” he said gently. He led the young gypsy into one of the stable buildings. Lying on a tarpaulin in the straw was the body of a frail old man. “I’m sorry,” said the farmer. “We got him out at last, but it was too late.” The gypsy nodded. For a moment he did not speak. “He died a few minutes ago,” he said, at last. “Is that not so?” “Yes,” said the farmer. “He tried to say something, but I couldn’t make out what it was.” “He was calling me,” said the gypsy. “I heard him.” The farmer startled, looked at him. The gypsy bent by his grandfather’s body. “I heard him as I was running,” he said. “I tried to reach him in time, but I failed.” Silently the farmer walked away, leaving the gypsy alone in the stable. Outside the silent crowd was beginning to drift away. They had all gone by the time I reached Steeple Farm. I had finally got through the lanes in my car. The gypsy had been right in saying he could do the journey quicker on foot. But I was determined to hear the end of the story, and I had struggled on. The farmer met me, and he told me about the death of the old man. “The caravan was an old gypsy one of wood,” he said. “It flared like a torch. I think the old man knocked a lamp over that had been left burning to warm the place a bit.” Then another gypsy caravan came lurching up to the farm. It had two horses harnessed to it to drag it through the snow. Two elderly men were with it, and they gave the farmer and me a grave salute. “We have come for the body of our brother,” said one of them. The young gypsy came out of the stable, and all three spoke together in Romany, the language of the gypsies. Then they went into the stable. “How did they know of the death?” I asked the farmer. “There’s nothing the gypsies don’t know,” he answered. “They haven’t got telephones or radio, but news travels as fast among them as if they had. Don’t ask me how they do it! These two probably heard of it from some of the spectators at the race, though.” The three gypsies came out, carrying the body of the old man carefully. They laid it gently in the caravan, and the young grandson came round to us. “Thank you for your kindness to us,” he said to the farmer. “Now we are taking my grandfather for a Romany funeral.” He shook hands with the farmer, and then with me. The caravan lurched away. The young gypsy was walking silently behind it. The farmer shivered suddenly. “It’s cold,” he said. “Come inside and have a hot drink.” We didn’t say very much until we were sitting with welcome cups of tea in front of us. The tragic ending to an afternoon of sport had had its effect on us. “The young gypsy,” I said. “What’s his name?” “I’ve never really known it,” said the farmer. “I’ve always called him Manny. Short for Romany you know.” A car drew up outside. A sergeant and a police constable were in it. They had heard about the fire, but the snow had prevented them from getting through any earlier. “Anybody hurt?” asked the sergeant. “The old man was killed,” said the farmer. “I’d better have a look at the body,” grunted the sergeant. “The gypsies took it away,” said the farmer. The sergeant stared at him. “What!” he said. “They can’t do that! There’ll have to be an inquest. Why did you let them take the body?” “I couldn’t stop them!” protested the farmer. “It was nothing to do with me. You know gypsies like to do things their way.” “They’ll do things according to the rules and regulations!” snapped the policeman. “We’ll have to catch them up. How long have they been gone?” The farmer glanced at the clock on the wall. “Over half an hour, I should say,” he answered. “I remember the stable clock was just chiming half-past three when the grandson arrived, and the caravan turned up probably half an hour later.” The policeman bustled out, looking somewhat annoyed. I hardly noticed them go. I was thinking about that chiming clock. I pulled out my stop-watch, the one I had set going at the moment the young gypsy started out on his nine-mile run. “I’ll bet they don’t catch them,” grunted the farmer. “The gypsies will see to that. They don’t like interference to their customs. The old man will get a burial according to the gypsy fashion, with no inquest or police procedure.” “Yes,” I said vaguely. I looked at my watch again. “Are you sure about that stable clock? That it was chiming the half-hour when the grandson got here?” “I’m positive,” said the farmer, in surprise. “And your stable clock is accurate, isn’t it?” I persisted. “Of course it is,” snorted the farmer. “It’s never a second out. Why?” “I want to have a word with the grandson,” I said. “I hope the police find the caravan.” But they didn’t. The young grandson disappeared with the caravan. Somewhere in England, still roaming the lanes, is the greatest cross-country runner I have ever seen. That stable clock chiming the half-hour fixed the time it had taken the gypsy to cover the nine miles to Steeple Farm. That and my stop-watch showed he had done the distance in forty minutes. It is a time nobody is ever likely to beat. The gypsy is not likely to try. He doesn’t know he’s a champion, and my telling of this story is not going to make him any wiser. Don’t forget, he can’t read.



© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007