Thursday, 5 January 2017

Britain is a country and Wales a nation which say "Goodbye" to an old athlete called Bernard Baldwin, who gave a town called Mountain Ash its 'Nos Galan Road Race'

That is no country for old men..
Caught in that sensual music all neglect 
Monuments of unageing intellect.    
W.B.Yeats 'Sailing to Byzantium'
Only a few days ago, the 2016 Nos Galan Road Race's were an enormous success
1,600 runners of all ages and abilities registered to take part in the 'Childrens’ Races', 'Elite Race' and '5000 Adult Fun Run' with the role of 'Mystery Runner' being played by Wales’ Football Manager Chris Coleman. The competitors were taking part in one of the top 500 races in the world, alongside the New York, Boston and London Marathons and would not have been there had it not been for the efforts, 58 years ago, of a remarkable secondary school P.E. teacher called Bernard Baldwin who has died at the age of 91.

Bernard was born in Barry, the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales, one of seven children, in 1925, An accomplished athlete by the time he was in his teens, he won the Welsh Junior Men's Mile Title in his last year at school in 1943 emulating. his brother, Bramwell, who had won in 1937. In the same year, the fourth year of the Second World War, he was enlisted as a trainee air gunner and served in artillery until he was demobbed in 1945.

He then studied for three years at Caerleon Teacher Training College and, while a student, gained a Senior Welsh Cross Country Vest representing Wales at the International Cross Country Championships held at the Hippodrome de Saint-Cloud in France when he was 22 in 1947. He also demonstrated his prowess on the football field, playing in the Welsh League teams : Tynte Rovers, Abercynon and Penrhiwceiber. His skills as an administrator were utilised when he became Secretary of the Welsh Amateur Association at the age of 24 in 1949.

Having qualified as a teacher he took his first job at Tintern Village School in the Wye Valley, Monmouthshire, before his appointment as P.E., Games and Music teacher at Mill Street Secondary Modern School in Pontypridd and took up residence in the mining village of Mountain Ash in the Borough of Rhondda Cynon at the age of 25 in 1950. It was in his first the School assembly that Bernard was introduced to the pupils by the Headmaster, as a "new teacher and accomplished athlete."  At break-time on the same day, one of the pupils told him about the local, legendary runner, Guto Nyth Brân, who was buried at St Gwynno’s Church, Llanwonno.

He subsequently learned that the runner in question was Griffith Morgan who was born in 1700 at Llwyncelyn, in an old farmhouse of 'Nyth Brân', the 'Crows' or 'Raven’s Nest', where his father ran a sheep farm and was given the Welsh nickname, 'Guto' for 'Griffith' and became 'Guto Nyth Brân.'

Brian would have learnt the tales of Guto being fleet of foot and how he would pace himself against the fastest hares and foxes, would run with the local Llanwynno hunt and had no difficulty in keeping up over moors and mountains with the hounds and would catch the fox by its tail, long before the hounds came into sight. How his fame spread and when he was in his late thirties he was challenged to a race, with wagers, by a man called 'Prince' on a route from Newport to Bedwas Church, a distance of some twelve miles. He won the race, but when his trainer and manager, 'Siân from the Shop', slapped him on the back in congratulation, he had a heart attack and died in her arms. No doubt Bernard visited the spot where he expired, marked by a large gravestone erected in 1866, over 100 years after his death.

Bernard was ten years into his teaching and 31 years old when the idea of organising a road race, open to all, starting in one year and finishing in the next came emerged from his conversation with Ken Norris. Ken crossed the line for the G.B. team in the 1955 International Cross Country Race in France : and was the 1956 National 'Cross Country Champion' and legend of the 'Thames Valley Harriers' who had won the iconic 'Sao Paulo Midnight Race' in Brazil in the same year. Bernard first met Ken and fell into conversation with him at Merthyr AC’s Annual Dinner, where Ken had been the guest speaker. It was to mark the beginning of a lifelong friendship, but more importantly, their talk over dinner sowed the germ of the idea of what would become Bernard's 'Mountain Ash Midnight Race'

In the summer of 1958, Bernard acted as Press Officer at the 'Empire and Commonwealth Games' held at Cardiff. The legend of Guto hadn't left Bernard and that autumn he put the finishing touches to the plans for what would be the first  'Nos Galan' or 'New Year's Eve' Road Race in Mountain Ash.

He planned two events, the first was the 100 yards dash on the main street of Mountain Ash and his competitors list read like a 'who’s who' of British athletics and bore testimony to respect with which he was held as much as his powers of persuasion. The event was won by Peter Radford (left), just a year before he gained his Olympic bronze 100m medal in Rome, with British team-mate Dave Segal in second place and local star Ron Jones (right), third.

Then everything was ready for the four mile 'Midnight Race' with 101 runners getting underway at precisely 11.46pm and, literally, running into the New Year. Tom Richards, 1948 Olympic Marathon Silver Medallist, was to be the first-ever Nos Galan 'Mystery Runner', the person who represented the spirit of Guto Nyth Brân, who, after a church service at Llanwynno, lay a wreath on the grave of Guto, then lit and carried a torch the 4 miles to Mountain Ash and the start of the races.

That first Midnight Race was won by Stan Eldon, then, Britain’s leading distance star, with fellow British international runner, Frank Salvat, second with John Merriman, winner of the silver medal over 6 miles in the Empire Games held earlier in the year, finishing fifth. In fact, Bernard managed to entice Peter and Dave to also run in the race with Dave finishing 82nd with Bernard commenting on the following day that Peter Radford was "still out on the course somewhere." His friend Ken Norris also ran and finished 10th.

In 1961 Eddie Strong won the Midnight Race and Bernard produced the programme for the day :

In 1965 Stan Eldon (left), played the role of 'Mystery Runner' and carried the burning torch with the  Mayor and other dignitaries looking on : :

In subsequent years the role 'Mystery Runner' was played by many all-times greats of the sport : Derek Ibbotson, Lillian Board, Lynn Davies, Ann Packer, David Hemery, David Bedford, Steve Jones and in 2011 British Lion and Wales Rugby legend, Shane Williams (right) with Bernard and accompanied by Wales and Ospeys team mate, Ian Evans.

The participation of Olympic champion and world record-holder, Mary Rand, who was more used to running in events no further than 400m and was enticed by Bernard to brave the elements at midnight in a South Wales mining town and run four miles carrying aloft a very heavy lighted torch was once again, testimony to his powers of persuasion.

Bernard now spread his wings and organised similar road races in other South Wales valleys. A mile event, in nearby Penrhiwceiber, was added in 1959 and was won by former world record-holder Derek Ibbotson. But the undoubted star of the event was the European indoor 1500m champion and double Olympic finalist, John Whetton, who won for seven successive years between 1962 and 1968. The 'Taff Street Dash' in Pontypridd was also started in 1959, 'Wattstown' in 1961, the 'Easter Monday Meeting at Pencoed' in 1963 - sadly, none of which exist today.

Peter Radford won that first 'Taff Street Dash' over 250 yards from Dave Segal and Wynne Oliver and at the after-race function at the New Inn Hotel, which also doubled up as the Annual Dinner of the Road Runners Club of Wales, Bernard regaled and entertained the party with anecdotes about, almost each, of the 300 guests.

When he recalled the 'Taff Street Dash', J.J. Williams, winner of four Welsh sprint titles and a Welsh rugby icon who won as a schoolboy in 1965 and also in 1971 said : "The atmosphere created was tremendous and all of the leading sprinters at the time wanted to take part."  But added : “If you got drawn in one of the outside lanes, you were in the gutter, and didn’t stand a chance of winning!”

One of Bernard’s most popular events among distance runners was the 'Cardiff to Mountain Ash Two-man Relay' which combined running and motoring, started in 1964, it was terminated in 1968. when it ran foul of  traffic regulations. His 51 mile 'Cardiff to Swansea Two Man Relay' lasted just three years with Welsh CCA Secretary, John Collins, who was in the winning team each year, recalling that one team used a hatchback for speed and convenience while another used a van with the back doors removed.

After 11 years and after the future 1973, 10,000m world record-holder, David Bedford, won the Nos Galan Four Miles Race in 1969, Bernard had enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing every runner of note in Britain, as well as stars from abroad, take part in his race. In 1971 David ran again (left) and Bernard's contribution to sport in general was officially recognised when, at the age of 46, he was presented with the MBE by The Queen at Buckingham Palace for his 'Services to British Athletics.'

Two years later, Bernard's 'Nos Galan Organisation' ventured over the border into England to Bristol when it promoted a 20 miles race on the new track at Whitchurch, which saw the future 1974 Rome European marathon fourth-placer, Bernie Plain, set a 'UK  Allcomers’ Best' record. This was the year, 1973, when, due to health and safety reasons, his Nos Gallan races came to an end. It would be 11 years before he saw them return in triumph as ‘Nos Galan Reborn’ in 1984. It was an event with three Mystery Runners - David Bedford, Steve Jones and Lisa Hopkins, representing the Past, Present and Future.

Past Mystery Runners gathered at the  grave of Guto from left to right : Berwyn Price (1973), Kirsty Wade (1986), Derek Ibbotson (1960), Ron Jones (1967), John Merriman (1961) and Stan Eldon (1964)

Bernard was busy with his pen over the years with publications focused on Welsh athletics. He was Welsh correspondent to 'Athletics Weekly' for 22 years, wrote articles on athletics to the Western Mail, South Wales Echo, South Wales Argus and Sunday Express and was a regular broadcaster on BBC Wales. He also went on to be a leading light in 'Welsh Athletics' working as Secretary of its Governing Body.

Eventually, when he retired as race organiser, he handed the reins of Nos Galan over to Rhondda Cynon Taf Council and the Nos Galan Committee, which promptly appointed him as 'Honorary President of the Nos Galan Road Races' at the age of 81 in 2006. Eight years later the Council granted him its greatest honour when he was granted 'Freedom of the County Borough' in a ceremony attended David Bedford, Olympic fourth-placer and Tony Simmons, European 10,000m silver medallist.

Former British sprint relay world record-holder, Ron Jones, born only a mile or so from Mountain Ash and always a supporter of Bernard's events has said : “I have great admiration for Bernard – he brought athletics to people who would not normally watch our sport.”

In recent years and with Bernard's approval, Nos Galan has been rescheduled to embrace family entertainment, finishing at around 9pm. The changed format means that the day now starts with an afternoon of street entertainment and fun runs for children and this seems entirely appropriate in view of his lifelong commitment to convey the joy of athletics to as many people as possible.

David Bedford, who once his field days were over went on to become the Race Director of the London Marathan said : “Bernard was a huge inspiration for me when it came to my own personal athletics achievements and also my creation of the London Marathon.”

Over half a century ago In the December 10th 1961 edition of 'Athletics Weekly' Bernard had written : 'The first Inter-County Championships were held at Duffryn High School, Newport. High Winds and driving rain almost brought organisation to a standstill, but all the competitors and a handful of officials braved it out. Reports afterwards indicated that course markings were sometimes indistinct, but the results were scarcely affected, and there were some fine racing.'  

There he was on that bleak winter's day 55 years ago, indomitably facing the elements and communicating his support and enthusiasm for athletics to the youngsters. As Pauline Jarman, local government Councillor for Mountain Ash East, has said :

"Bernard was a man of great energy, commitment and determination. He was Mr Nos Galan - of that there can be no doubt."
                  Bernard with Linford Christie at the races in 2014

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