The Racecourse, Northampton
|Racecourse, Racecourse Park|
|Type||Open space park|
|Area||118 acres (48 ha)|
The Racecourse (also known as Racecourse or Racecourse Park) is an open space park situated in the centre of Northampton. The park is surrounded by the Mounts, Kingsley and Semilong estates. Due to the historical links of the Racecourse to Northampton's history, it remains one of the town's famous landmarks. As implied by its name, the Racecourse once staged regular horse racing meetings, however, these ceased in 1904 due to a high number of accidents, which included fatalities, caused by the sharpness of the track.
Located about 500 metres to the north of Northampton town centre, The Racecourse comprises around 118 acres parkland and includes public footpaths, changing rooms and open space. Access to the Racecourse from main roads includes via the Barrack Road (A508), Kingsley Road (A5095) and East Park Parade / Kettering Road (A5123). It can also be accessed from St George's Avenue (north-west), Colwyn Road, Beaconsfield Terrace and Leicester Street via the Mounts Estate.
From 1632, unofficial race meetings were held at Northampton Heath, the name originally given to the area including the Racecourse because of its location between the Kettering Road (A5123) and the Market Harborough Road (A508).[clarification needed] Races continued here until 1681, when they were stopped due to the number of accidents.
The park is believed to have been used from 1778 to 1882 as an area where freemen had grazing rights under the 1778 Act of Enclosure. Between these dates the Racecourse was known simply as the Freeman's Common. In 1882 when Commoners lost their right to graze cattle, the land was sold on by the Northampton Corporation Act. The park was then used by the public as a general recreation ground.
Race meetings resumed in 1727, with the help of Lord Spencer, and in 1737 the first official race meet was held on the new course. The races were well-attended and frequently visited by royalty, including the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. In 1844 new stands were erected on the site at a cost of more than £2000.
The racecourse was left-handed (anti-clockwise) around the park and a hotel was erected on the north-eastern corner of the park, now on the corner of Kingsley Road and Kingsley Park Terrace. The hotel known then as the Kingsley Park Hotel was built in 1889. It served as a residential club for ardent racegoers but was closed in 1904 following a fatal accident involving spectators. The Jockey Club left it empty for eighteen years, during which time local residents started to refer to it as "The White Elephant" - an epithet still used today. Gypsies camped along what was then known as Gypsy Lane (now Kingsley Road) where downhill towards Kingsthorpe "The Romany" pub is situated.
From 1715 to 1818, the park was frequently used for public executions. The Racecourse has been the scene of hundreds of hangings. Condemned convicts were taken by cart to the gallows on the Racecourse. These marches were said to be intimidating and unruly, with huge crowds in attendance.
One of the most famous executions was that of four members of the Culworth Gang who operated for two decades until 1787. Two of the gang, William Pettifer (alias "Peckover") and Richard Law were caught by police at an inn in Towcester. It is reported the two had arrived with bags, which they said contained birds as they had been cockfighting, however the landlord discovered that the bags contained the notorious masks and smocks which the gang used to hide their identity. Eventually, following a robbery in Blakesley the pair were served with search warrants and police constables found stolen property. The gang admitted forty-seven offences and were hanged at midday on Northampton Racecourse on 4 August. 5,000 people turned up to witness the hanging as the Culworth Gang were said to have terrorised as far as Oxford.
As was the fashion of the time, the condemned were supplied with drink at the last inn on the way to the Racecourse — the Bantam Cock on Abington Square. The last executions on the Racecourse took place on Friday, March 27th 1818 and were those of James Cobbett and George Wilkin found guilty of passing forged bank notes. As usual, a large crowd assembled to witness the scene.
Before the turn of the 20th century, race meetings held were becoming increasingly dangerous leading to yet more fatal accidents with jockeys and spectators due to the Racecourse's 'pathways across the course, roving spectators and the sharpness of the bends'. Racing was suspended on 31 March 1904 prior to being permanently withdrawn the following September.
By 1912, the council had turned the area into a sports recreation ground. During the First World War the park was used as an army base for the Welsh Division which included 16,000 men and 7,000 horses.
In 1917 the park was ploughed up for wartime allotments, and in 1923 a new playground was built (on the side next to East Park Parade) as well as changing rooms and a restaurant converted from the old Racecourse stand and law houses which to this present day stands as the Jade Pavilion (circa 1930), a Grade II listed building.
At the White Elephant junction, a tram shelter was built in 1924 which would have been used to serve the electric tram system up the Kettering Road however motor buses were said to have been already used in 1923 leaving the shelter redundant.
During the Second World War, the Racecourse was again used as a barracks. In 1941, a Stirling bomber crashed into Gold Street in the town centre. Wreckage spread to George's Row but did not affect All Saints Church. The bomber's crew had baled out over Northampton and a body later found on the Racecourse was said to be that of the pilot.
The park was returned to its now green state sometime between 1942 and 1948. Football, bowls, cricket and rugby were once again became the activities commonly played on the Racecourse.
In 1974, the park was used as an International heat of the Eurovision contest Jeux Sans Frontiers. From 1990, during mid-August the Racecourse held the locally popular Northampton Balloon Festival. The festival drew tens of thousands of people for just under two decades (until 2008) and was seen as a similar event held on a larger scale in Bristol. Due to poor attendances due to a combination of bad weather and festival income, the council moved the festival to Billing Aquadrome. The Umbrella Fair based at the Pavilion building have an annual event boasting over 10 stages, arts and family events with over 20.000 visitors every August.
The Racecourse remains one of the most popular places in Northampton for amateur football, cricket, rugby union, Tennis, Parkrun, Fitness and bowls. Over twenty Sunday League football teams use the park as their venue each weekend from early autumn to late spring. The changing rooms were redesigned to meet F.A. standards
In 2007 £1 million was spent on new changing room facilities adjacent to the Colwyn Road end behind the Jade Pavilion. Prior to that, the Pavilion was used by players as changing rooms but a series of leaks and a lack of hot water meant that by 2005, plans for the new facilities were warranted. Bad luck continued to hamper the building's use as in 2010, Legionella bacteria were found resulting in the changing rooms being closed three times in five years. The most recent of these occasions occurred in May 2012.
By 2010 the Racecourse welcomed another development which saw the council spend £85,000 on an adventure park space including a zip wire, climbing frame complex and five-person buddy swing.. A Parkrun takes place each week comprising two laps of the racecourse.
Use in everyday Northampton
It is estimated that thousands of members of public use the park each week, the Racecourse sits adjacent to a park campus by the University of Northampton locally known as Avenue Campus and is used regularly by students.
The Umbrella Fair Cafe and The Medieval Restaurant are both in the Listed Pavilion Building. Car parking is situated adjacent to the building and public toilet inside. There are playgrounds, a basketball court and a bowling green situated nearby.
Often blamed for its proximity to the town centre by authorities, the Racecourse has attracted a reputation as an area with high crime levels.
On 22 June 1997 22-year-old Ryan McEwen King was sexually assaulted and murdered in bushes around the basketball courts on the Racecourse after walking back at night from a nearby pub. Her killer Raymond Ellis, unemployed was later jailed.
In 2006, the park regularly made front page news locally for its high levels of day and night-time robberies and assaults, leading to the Northampton Chronicle & Echo newspaper setting up The Friends of Northampton Racecourse (FONR). The partnership looked at reclaiming the Racecourse from the criminals, with its campaign eventually gaining respect from a national broadsheet The Guardian. The group continues to support the park's heritage and image.
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- Published on Wednesday 5 October 2005 12:34 (2005-10-05). "No early bath fear for Sunday footballers!". Northampton Chronicle and Echo. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
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- Greenslade, Roy (2006-09-06). "Northants paper praised for 'positive' campaign". Guardian. Retrieved 2012-05-25.
- Published on Monday 28 January 2008 10:57 (2008-01-28). "January 28th: Racecourse needs care not 'enhancements' - Reader letters". Northampton Chronicle and Echo. Retrieved 2012-05-25.