Three miles south of Chelmsford, Galleywood Common is popular today with dog walkers and bird watchers. But this tranquil, tree-lined grassland once hosted much larger animals. From 1759 to 1935 it was one of England’s oldest racecourses; fast horses and big crowds gathered here for the Chelmsford Races. At the Galleywood Heritage Centre there is a proud symbol of the era. Above the domed clock tower, the weathervane features a galloping racehorse.
‘The Heritage Centre was a clubhouse. Members, jockeys and trainers used it during the race meetings,’ explains Susan Wilson. Wilson has lived in Galleywood for 40 years and volunteers at the Centre. She created this Discovering Britain trail around the common due to her interest in local history, which soon becomes apparent as she shows me around. Wilson points out some nearby outbuildings with exceedingly tall doors: ‘These were stable boxes. The high doors allowed jockeys to ride in and out without dismounting.’
From the Heritage Centre, we make a short trip along the B1007 Stock Road to a small car park. A clearing takes us onto Galleywood Common itself. It’s a calm day. A pale blue sky complements the greenery and at the time of writing, the ground is dappled with the purple and yellow of blooming heather and gorse bushes. As Wilson and I continue, flanked either side by trees and with our shoes swishing the grass, it’s possible to imagine that we’re riding along on thundering thoroughbreds past cheering racegoers.
Galleywood held flat races and National Hunt jump events. In 1931, Golden Miller, the legendary Cheltenham Gold Cup-winning horse, won two hurdle races on the common. The course layout changed several times but it constantly attracted large audiences. The Members’ Grandstand alone held 700 people. Surrounding roads were closed and special trains were laid on from London Liverpool Street station. I ask Wilson what made this village common a horse racing haven. ‘Galleywood is very near to what is today the A12 to London, so plenty of people could get here,’ she explains. ‘Then there was the ground...’
The common is an elevated site. The higher areas are capped with sand and boulder clay, while the slopes are lined with different gravels. This blend of topology and geology means the soil is moist but drains well, making it ideal for horse racing. The ground beneath our feet becomes visible at Marven’s Pond, named after a local brick maker. Old maps of the common show several brickyards. Brick-making thrived from the 19th century until the 1940s, as the abundant sand and clay provided plenty of raw materials. Clay, of course, retains water. Since the industry’s decline, ponds have emerged in the old excavations.
‘Galleywood’s racing heritage is unique but there is more to the common,’ Wilson continues. To illustrate this we arrive at the Star Fort. Built in 1804, when the Napoleonic Wars brought fears of French invasion, the fort’s outline is difficult to make out today as the structure has been reclaimed by nature. But just over two centuries ago, the area teemed with thousands of soldiers. The common’s location and landscape made it a good military training area. Soldiers returned once more during the Second World War. Race buildings were used as a depot and part of a grandstand became a military morgue.
By that time, racing at Galleywood had come to an end. One reason was basic logistics. The course crossed over roads in four places and as traffic levels increased, closing them became more difficult. The biggest problem though was money. ‘The organisers couldn’t make it pay,’ says Wilson. ‘Racing began as a form of self-promotion by the local gentry. They would put on races as part of a campaign to run for Parliament, for example. But because this was common land, anyone could turn up and watch for free.’ As a result, despite plenty of punters, the races made a loss. Galleywood became a victim of its own success.
After racing stopped, Chelmsford Council bought the course, the buildings and 116 acres of the common. Some traces of the course remain. At a crossroads by The Eagle pub a replica set of white railings line the roads. Other features are long gone. Until the 1940s, the common was home to several small farms. Grazing farm animals helped to keep the racecourse grass short. These four-legged friends disappeared through changes in farming methods and the land was sold for housing. From the crossroads, Wilson highlights another impact of their absence.
Above the trees loom the tower and spire of a church. St Michael and All Angels opened in 1873 and was the only church in Britain located inside a racecourse. ‘St Michael’s is Galleywood’s great landmark,’ says Wilson. ‘Many people say it’s comforting. Driving on the A12, it’s like a beacon guiding you home.’ With a spire 131ft high and built 277ft above sea level, the church is visible for miles. It used to stand out even more. Photos from pre-war years and earlier show very few trees on the common. Walking around today, trees are almost everywhere, several surrounding the church tower.
In the days of racing, most of the common’s vegetation was low-level bushes. Older residents can remember how different the landscape looked. ‘One gentleman told me that as a boy he could see right across the common,’ Wilson recalls. ‘He used to wave hello to his friends hundreds of yards away.’ The end of racing and farming may have encouraged the trees, but numbers have especially increased in the last 60 years. Locals debate whether the common is being maintained or neglected. The land may be reverting to an earlier form. The 1086 Domesday Survey records Galleywood Common as a 500-acre ancient forest. Today it covers around 175 acres and is protected as a local nature reserve.
A short way from the church, our Galleywood gallop concludes at The Horse and Groom pub. As the name suggests, it was originally built to serve thirsty racegoers. The furnishings include horse brasses and horse shoes. Like the common itself, the pub has adapted over time. When Chelmsford Golf Club was formed in 1893, the first tee and last hole were outside the pub. Again, the common’s geology came to the fore. In theory, the gravel subsoils were dry and playable. But golf wasn’t to last.
‘Golfers, farmers and racegoers often got in each other’s way,’ Wilson explains. ‘Plus, to maintain the greens, the club had to burn back lots of bushes. The fires caused a lot of worry and people wrote letters to the local newspaper.’ As a result, there are accounts that golfers spent more time searching for lost balls than actually playing the holes.
For the last three Boxing Days, the pub has welcomed a classic car club meet. The shift from horse power to horsepower reflects Galleywood Common’s evolving landscape. Wilson and other local volunteers are discovering more stories all the time: ‘The common is quite popular with amateur radio enthusiasts because the high ground gives a good signal. We’ve begun some research into the origins of this. There are suggestions that Marconi [based in Chelmsford] may have used the common to test ground-to-air radio signals for aeroplanes in the lead up to the First World War.’