Among the winter sports at Leamington College ( England) in the 1950s, the softest option was cross-country; being soft, I opted.
Its lofty moniker notwithstanding. Leamington College was a boys' high school, where the attraction of cross-country was that all you had to do was to run a couple of miles around country roads, after which you were free to go home—usually an hour or so before the stalwarts on the rugby field were finished. With this as an enticement, and being familiar with some shortcuts across the fields that connected the local roads—I took the term cross-country literally—I arrived back at school in good time after a practice. Unfortunately, this was duly noted by the duty prefect (a senior student monitor) called Hancock—first names were a no-no—with the result that I was selected with about 50 others to run for my house in the school cross-country run.
Leamington College was divided into four houses, which competed for the Cock House Cup, a trophy awarded to the house with the top combined score for rugby, cricket, tennis, swimming, track and cross-country. The cross-country scores were decided in an annual 3�-mile run that involved about half the school, which meant a field of approximately 200.
It was one of the idiosyncrasies of this event that boys from the lowest to highest forms (grades) ran together, so that 12-year-olds such as I were competing with runners as old as 17. Naturally, those of the tenderest years suffered the most humiliating results and thereby became potentially better citizens—or so the theory, not untypical of such places, went. To add to its character-building qualities, the race was always held in winter, when the weather could be guaranteed to be cold, wet and numbing.
The run took place over the Campion Hills, some local undulations strategically interspersed with meadows that for much of the year were waterlogged. Most of the rest of the course consisted of cart tracks that were four or five inches deep in mud, except for one spot adjacent to a five-bar gate where three dozen cows assembled each morning, ostensibly to go to pasture but in truth to bedazzle one another with the volume and pungency of their excreta. There were other obstacles that were just as tiresome—stray briars, for instance, that littered the route like recalcitrant trip wires, and puddles that turned out to be potholes—but none was as picturesque as the site of this daily bovine rendezvous, and the stories of overconfident swells coming to grief there had become part of school lore. As most of the course was covered twice in order to simplify the monitoring of runners, this meant making two passes over this hazard.
The only advantage I had in all this was that I knew the route intimately, because the field next to the cow pasture was the home of a huge and ancient shire horse called Jasper. I had been friendly with Jasper since my early childhood, when he was rescued from the nacker's yard by the field's owner. I had played among the thistles and cowslips of his field while he nuzzled the back of my neck, and I had combed my fingers through his blond forelocks while he was shod. In his early retirement he would come over to meet me at a gentle trot and later, as he grew older, at a quiet amble. He knew there was always a reward for these attentions: I had discovered he liked umps of brown sugar. The one consolation of taking part in the run was that I could say hello to Jasper on a school day.
The morning of the run, a Wednesday in December, was predictably foul. At school we changed into thin cotton running shorts and shirts trimmed with our house colors, put on regulation gabardine raincoats and shuffled the mile or so to the starting line. There, we deposited our raincoats in huge piles under trees while masters wrapped in duffel coats and scarves sent off those lucky enough to be mere race monitors to their respective staging posts, which were staggered around the course so that runners were never quite out of sight of the four house monitors at each of four posts.
Among those members of my house, Heatley, who were dedicated to competition, the urgency was intense: We were running neck and neck with Strachey House for the Cock House Cup and we had to win the cross-country run. The point system used was complicated, but my house master had worked it out that no member of Heatley could come in lower than 161st.
"Remember," he had said the day before, rapping his desk with his fist to emphasize the point, "162 won't do. What won't do?"
"One sixty-two won't do, sir," we replied with varying degrees of conviction.