On Ron Wallwork’s 80th: A Personal Reminiscence

Weeks later than promised here is my personal contribution to celebrating Ron’s 80th.

Ron, Joan and family out for a walk on his 80th birthday

My first memory of Ron sees him striding stylishly towards me, already in the lead as the 1959 Northern Junior 10 miles championship unfolds. For my part, I was positioned a few yards up a railway bridge in the village of Bickershaw, thirteen years later the infamous site of a mud-spattered pop festival. The course comprised an initial out and back section, to which I had been assigned, followed by three undulating laps of just under 3 miles. Back in the red-brick Hindley Green Labour Club, where the competitors changed in the committee room and milky tea poured out of large green metal kettles was the obligatory post-race refreshment, I was too shy a twelve-year-old to say anything. However, I could sense a buzz of excitement from the gathered besuited Lancashire Walking Club officials. Had the club unearthed someone, who might begin to challenge the dominance of Sheffield United Harriers with its array of stars, such as Roland Hardy and Lol Allen? Indeed in retrospect it certainly had.

Ron leads Jack Sankey and Mike Jeffries in a 1958 club race at Leyland
One of my appearances in a club race at Leigh , circa 1962. From left to right – Dick Smith, Joe Lambert, Mike Hatton, Graham Abley, Frank O”Neill, Fred Pearce Jnr, Fred Pearce Snr, John Grocott, Ron [the tallest at the back], Ivor Percival, a youthful me John Todd and Dick Rattigan. Tucked away on the pavement berween Dick and Joe is the diminutive figure of Zena Smith. Has anyone got a good photo of her? She was an ever present stalwart.

Over the next few years, given the absence of opportunities for youths and juniors in the North-West  I was allowed to race in club events now and again. During this period Ron was living up to the old guard’s expectations, winning Northern titles and establishing himself, in the words of Race Walking Record, ‘as a walker with a very bright future’.  Indeed, my next memory of Ron conjures up his image in pursuit of the majestic Ken Matthews in the 1963 National 10 miles championship held in Manchester at the rain-drenched Belle Vue Zoological Gardens.  He was to finish fifth behind Ken, Paul Nihill, John Edgington and Vaughan Thomas. The sight of these stars in full flight had a great impact on me. Later that year in October Ron was a member of the GB team that defended successfully its grip on the Lugano Trophy, the World Cup of Race Walking. He finished a magnificent 5th in the 50 kilometres. Could I ever hope somehow to follow in his footsteps?

A key moment in my relationship with Ron came in 1967, courtesy of the Northern Senior 10 miles championship held on the hilly roads of the picturesque village of Holloway in Derbyshire, home of the enthusiastic Northern President, Joe Twells. Travelling down from Newcastle where I was studying, playing football and beginning to train a little more consistently I found myself making history in the company of Ron, Julian Hopkins and John Todd. Below the banner ‘Wallwork puts an end to Sheffield Run’ Peter Keeling, a 4-minute miler himself and a good friend of our sport, explained in the Manchester Guardian.

Since the race was started in 1947 Sheffield United Harriers have always won the Northern 10 Miles road walking championships but on Saturday their run – the longest monopoly of any event in the British sporting calendar – was ended by the Lancashire Walking Club.

Sheffield without International Mal Tolley defended their record bitterly, even to the extent of bringing back veteran Olympic walkers Lol Allen and Paddy Proctor. But Lancashire led by Empire Games gold medalist Ron Wallwork just had the edge by a four-point margin, despite spirited packing by their Yorkshire rival.

Wallwork’s impressive individual victory, his fifth successive win in the event, left him seven hundred yards ahead of Wakefield’s Guy Goodair and George Barras.

A classic image of Sheffield’s post-war dominance – all those hooped shirts! Lol Allen is taking the lead on the inside. Other notables are John Dowling [32], Norman Hopkinson [41] and Mick Greasley [28]. John Todd to Mick’s right is the first Lancs competitor.

In the pub afterwards, sharing a shandy with Ron [nothing ever stronger as I remember], I felt the flowering of a friendship. Although he was a gold medalist and on his way to winning both the national 10 miles and 20 km championships that year he was without ego, possessed of an engaging smile and a wry sense of humour. In particular, he was an attentive listener, a quality to be treasured and, in my experience, rarer than a truthful answer from Boris Johnson.

Ron triumphs in the 1967 National 10

In hindsight 1968 was a frustrating year for Ron himself as he missed out on making the Olympic team. Yet in a contradictory way, this setback was to be the stimulus for both his own spectacular comeback in the next few years and the rise to consistent national prominence of the Lancashire Walking Club itself. Such was the enthusiasm Ron generated that I moved with my first wife, Hilary into a one-up, one-down cottage complete with a lavatory across the cobbled street, that led to the Eagley Mills in Bolton – a couple of miles from Ron’s and twelve from the school where I taught. The priorities were plain – training first, teaching second, toilet facilities a constipating third! To illustrate what you might well see as my skewed priorities, I arose in the said cottage on the Sunday after my wedding the previous day to participate in a training event, organised at Leverhulme Park by Ron. Such was my romantic honeymoon.

School Street, Eagley Mills where a strong bladder was required!

Over the next few years, Ron burst back onto the national and international scene. I can but mention a few of the things we did together that both played a part in his revival and illustrate his commitment and desire to do the best for the club and the sport.

In a gesture to the Mexico Olympics, we formed in October 1968 the ‘Groupo Uno’. Apart from Ron and I, regulars were Steve Crow, second to the mercurial Olly Cavigioli in the National Youth 3 miles of that year, Mick Entwistle, team player extraordinaire, Dave Vickers, a converted steeplechaser, who in a meteoric rise to prominence had just won the classic Dick Hudson’s race and, last but not least, Julian Hopkins, who was to become an innovative and controversial National coach. Amongst our sessions was the Wayo Assault Course, named after the beautiful reservoir where the masochism took place in the early hours of Sunday mornings. Always it seemed in the pouring rain. The exercise consisted of a combination of strolling and running around the reservoir itself,  all of which was a prelude to a series of exercises undertaken on a steep slope above the tranquil waters below. Passing ramblers were perplexed to see us hopping on two legs, on one leg, forwards and backwards, up and down dale. Years later you could still see the down-trodden area we had ploughed up with our gymnastic antics.

Wayo on an unusually sunny day!

Winter evenings saw us introducing on Mondays and Fridays a programme of demanding circuit training. along with an increased emphasis on mobility exercises. We tried to convince one another that racing was bound to be easier than this twenty minutes of hell.  Thanks to Ron’s relationship with the caretaker of his old secondary school we used unofficially its gym and its equipment. carefully putting everything back in place before locking up after ourselves. Such an informal and trusting agreement would be utterly impossible nowadays.

A fast session every week was essential, usually midweek from Ron’s house or at the weekend from the Leverhulme Park track, home of the Bolton United Harriers and the likes of Ron Hill, Mike Freary and Steve Kenyon. Most of these efforts were not timed. Neither were the courses measured. Everything was down to how we felt. How far is such an intuitive approach from the exhaustive data-driven regimes of today? This said,  our resident physicist Julian Hopkins was beginning to drag us from the subjective to the objective, drawing on his meticulous scientific mind. As it was, ignoring Julian’s insights, every month our unashamed ‘blast’ preceded a nourishing meal prepared by Joan, which set us up for the dash to the splendour of the Midland Hotel, West Didsbury for the always well-attended club committee meetings. 

The Midland Hotel, West Didsbury with the LWC club crest on the wall

Together with Chris Bolton and Fred Pearce, Ron was instrumental in producing CONTACT, the club’s monthly newsletter, which was an essential ingredient in nourishing our camaraderie and respect for each other. One way or another every member of the club was afforded a well-earned mention in its pages.

To give you an idea of the dedication demanded by Ron we went on holiday together in early July 1969 to Criccieth, a beautiful resort in North Wales.  Our relaxing break went as follows.

Saturday – arrived after an eventful journey in Ron’s ageing car. Settled in and at 9.00 pm 7k run, partly on the beach.

Sunday – 8.15 am 15k steady walking; 2.00 pm 2k running on sand dunes; 9.00 pm 7k run

Monday – 7.10 am 40k comprising stroll from Criccieth to Snowdon followed by ascent and descent of the mountain via the Watkin and Pyg tracks. Ignored the effort of a Countryside Warden to dissuade us from proceeding on account of our scanty attire.  Met by Joan, two years old, Linda, born on the eve of Ron’s 1967 National Ten victory and my first wife Hilary in the support vehicle.

Tuesday – 8.30 am 12k fastish walking; 5.45 pm 12k run on a mix of road and sand.

Wednesday -7.45 am 15k steady walking; 6.00 pm 8k run through fields. Heated conversation with nettles!

Thursday – 9.00 am 12.5k run; 7.40 pm 12.5k fast walking reverse direction.

Friday – 8.50 am 12.5k easy walking; 8.00 pm 8.5k run roads and tracks

Saturday – 8.00 am 10k run, Black Rock Sands. Travelled home – a little tired.

Total: 173k – Enough said. What Joan, Hilary and Linda thought about this week’s frolics and fun is another matter!?

Responding to Dave Ainsworth’s lovely tribute to him in the Essex Walker, Ron recalled what he thought of as one of his greatest weekends, May 30/31, 1971.

On the 30th, I drove from Bolton to Saffron Lane, Leicester for the CAU 10km championships finishing second in 43.57 to the great Phil Embleton, 42.24, then drove home. On the following day I drove from Bolton to Bradford for a 9.30 start and after a torrid battle with John Warhurst won in 4.29.20, one of the few sub 4.30 performances at that time. John clocked 4.30.03. Oh, and then I drove home again and turned in for work at 07.30 the following day.

Ron and Jake Warhurst shoulder to shoulder

Yet Ron’s Inter-Counties 10km and  Bradford 50km double tells only part of the tale, within which I played a supporting role. On the Bank Holiday Monday as he was battling with John I was his Lancashire County substitute in a lively CAU 3 km, finishing a distant fourth behind Bob Hughes, Geoff Toone and Wilf Wesch. The fancied favourite Phil Embleton was disqualified by none other than Bob’s dad, Alf! The decision was accepted with good grace.  However, the week was far from over. In Blackpool the following weekend for the Lancashire 3km and Northern 10km championships, Ron was victorious in both events with me chasing forlornly as usual, followed by the evergreen Joe Barraclough in the shorter and  Sheffield’s John Warhurst in the longer distance. Not a bad eight day’s racing for Ron!! Certainly, he was in great shape that summer as confirmed by his 2 hours UK record in late July. With hindsight, it is tempting to suggest that in 1971 Ron would have been better served by focusing on the 20 rather than 50 kilometres, being selected for the European Games in the latter, where he was forced to retire. Personally, I’m sure that in the right race he would have gone under 90 minutes for 20 kilometres.

As can be seen from above my very best memories of Ron might well be found in the many miles we did together in training. Although I must confess to being envious, even jealous of the fact that Ron never seemed injured. Or perhaps he never complained when he was. As for myself, I was more than prone to whingeing ad nauseam about my painful right groin and hamstring! In passing let me mention that Ron never ventured out to train on Guy Fawkes Day. In those days every street seemed to host a bonfire. Over in the world of serious competition, he always found another gear, leaving me trailing in his wake. I remember with joy finishing 6th [74:07] in the 1970 National 10 at Kirkby, close behind Phil Embleton, as Ron was pipped by Wilf Wesch for the title. Mistakenly I felt I was on my way to greater things, inspired by Ron. It was not to be. I never really lived up to that promise.

The 1970 Metropolitan 20 kilometres. As ever I’m following Ron with Wilf Wesch [124] to our left

Nevertheless, in 1971 I was chuffed to be with him in the 20 kilometres winning team, the club’s very first national title; made up to be on the same sodden Blackburn track when he broke Ken Matthews’ 2 hour track record; and proud to be selected alongside him to represent GB in the match against West Germany – a first for the club, having two members in the same international team. As for our personal rivalry it’s revealing to note Colin Young’s reaction in the Athletics Weekly to my defence iin 1974 of the Lancashire 15 kilometres title. Somewhat shocked Colin penned a headline, startling in its simplicity, ‘Tony Taylor beats Ron Wallwork’, omitting sensitively the caveat ‘at last’! The spectators at the race itself in Stockport were equally stunned.

The eagle-eyed will notice that both of us raced in the colours of Blackburn Harriers. There is a tale that needs telling as to how this came about.

1974 was to prove a pivotal and contrary year for both Ron and me. At least I think so. On paper 1974 was my best year in the sport, ranked 6th at 20 kilometres, selected for my second GB vest. Yet something was not quite right. My discovery of Marxism and political activism clashed increasingly with my athletic pretensions. In the ensuing years, I was to spend more time on the picket line than the starting line. As for Ron, performances on the road were disappointing by his high standards and a new career with fresh challenges beckoned.

On the picket line in 1979. Bearded as befits a would-be revolutionary!

By a twist of fate, the way forward for both of us was to be provided by youth work, the oft-misunderstood world of relationships and conversations with young people outside of schools and further education. Out of the blue, or so it seemed, Ron had been offered the post of full-time trainee youth worker with the Lancashire County Council. Within weeks I was doing part-time evenings, sweating profusely in the gym of the Briarcroft Youth Centre for which he was responsible. To cut the story short, Ron moved to Leicester in pursuit of his full-time qualification, whilst I leapt from teaching into youth work with the newly created Metropolitan Borough of Wigan. For an insight into Ron’s philosophy as a youth worker and human being see this link – his humanity shines through.

Ron was that rare character, who worked with young people and the community on the same patch throughout his professional career. Huge respect.

Our paths were not to cross for many a year, catching up with one another made even more difficult by my emigration to Crete. As is well-known Ron has continued to make a remarkable contribution to race walking in general – even now the leading light in the success of the Enfield Walking League. For my part, I am grateful and privileged to have been his friend and training partner those decades ago. And, I know it seems a tired cliche but when we have met up in recent years, notably when we celebrated the anniversary of his UK record, in my mind I can still see us going hell for leather up Crompton Way, ‘eyeballs out’ on a bitterly cold Bolton evening back in 1969. It’s as if it was only yesterday. Thanks for the treasured memories, Ron and enormous respect. for all you have achieved.

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