Whippet racing was Saturday afternoon spectacle

DOGGONE ... Lizard Lane: 'That end was uphill. It was often comical.'
DOGGONE ... Lizard Lane: 'That end was uphill. It was often comical.'

IT’S a lesser-known aspect of the history of our impressive coastline – its role in observing, for a time, an iconic tradition of the North East’s mining communities: whippet racing.

This goes back to that picture I featured of Marsden Bay from an era before there was ever a caravan site on the Coast Road above.

The latter, it had been suggested, had a previous history as a whippet racing track and, indeed, such are the happy memories that the piece brought back for reader John Lightfoot.

He and his family moved to a house in Grotto Road, backing on to the field, when he was seven, in 1950. The houses had just been built.

He reckons that the picture couldn’t have been taken long after that.

But most pleasingly, he also confirms that there was whippet racing every Saturday afternoon, after the pubs shut.

“It probably started in about 1956 and ran for possibly five years,” he says.

He remembers that, at that time, 3ft-high grass and nettles covered the whole field, so a strip had to be mowed at the top, near the golf course, which was then cut regularly.

This strip was about 25ft wide and ran from the Coast Road end, up to the Lizard Lane end.

The traps and other gear were stored in one of the gardens belonging to the whippet owners/trainers and backed on to the field.

Says John: “The hare-winding gear was an upside-down old bike frame with a thin wire rope round the back wheel, which didn’t have a tyre, with some rags tied on the end of the rope.

“It was sited at the Lizard Lane end, which was uphill, and the ‘hare’ was pulled down behind the traps.

“It was often comical because the track was slightly cambered along its length, and the person winding the hare could see the starter waving his flag high, but couldn’t see the ground or the whippets until they came into view half-way up the track.

“If he wasn’t winding quickly enough, the dogs caught the hare before the finish line and mayhem ensued, with the whippets going wild, attacking the rags like they were the real thing, and the dog owners swishing their caps about, trying to keep them apart and each recovering his own animals.

“The men were very unhappy, to put it mildly, and I think they had to run the race again.”

John recalls that, after the whippet racing, the grass and nettles were cut back over the whole field and it was used by the nearby riding school for grazing, as well as breaking and training horses.

“My bedroom faced the field, and whenever I looked out, even in the middle of the night, they were always standing up, usually grazing.

“Later, of course, I learned that horses sleep standing up,”