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24 September 2014

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Hilltop venue for the 'Sport of Kings'
Horse statue at Racecourse Common
Statue at Oswestry Racecourse, placed in the 1990s
Perched high above the hills to the west of Oswestry lies one of the county's most curious pieces of history - the racecourse that became a victim of the railways.

Old Oswestry
Find out more about this pre-historic landmark and see our panoramic views

Oswestry Castle Panoramic views taken from the castle site.

The rise and fall of a railway town
How Oswestry grew to become a major railway town in the 19th Century - only to lose it all in the 1960s.

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Although Ludlow is Shropshire's last-surviving racecourse, there used to be many more. As well as the Oswestry races, there were courses at Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth, Ellesmere, Newport, St Georges and Whitchurch.

Shropshire's racecourses relied on attracting the great and the good as patrons, but were also magnets for less savoury pursuits such as bare-knuckle boxing and cock fighting - even long after it was outlawed in 1835.

Oswestry's Racecourse Common was once the venue for the Sport of Kings.

Now it's one of the most beautiful places in the county, with spectacular views for miles across the Shropshire and Cheshire Plains to the east, and across Wales to the west - if you're lucky with the weather!

For 70 years this spot was a working, busy racetrack patronised by local lords and gentlemen, including the infamous 'Mad Jack' Mytton.

Sitting on a hillside known as Cyrn y Bwch - the Horns of the Buck, Oswestry Racecourse sits on a plateau running north to south just to the east of Offa's Dyke and the Welsh border, some 1,000 feet above sea level.

Click here to see our panoramic image of Racecourse Common
Click here to see our panoramic image of Racecourse Common

No-one knows exactly when racing began here, although it's known to have been at some point in the early 1700s.

Horses were raced around a two mile-long figure of eight-shaped track that straddled the road from Oswestry to Llansilin, today the B4580.

The annual race meetings were a big event, usually lasting three days. Chains were slung across the road to stop the traffic, and turf was laid across the surface of the road. Everything stopped for the races.

The festivities were never confined to the common. Down in the town the races were the signal for much in the way of drinking and merry-making, as well as a packed programme of social events.

Ruins of the old granstand at Racecourse Common
Ruins of the old granstand at Racecourse Common

From the start the races were backed by the great and the good of the Oswestry area. Jack Mytton was one. This legendary character once owned a stable of 40 horses, although he had to sell them all to cover his gambling debts.

Mytton, incidentally, was also an enthusiastic backer of Shrewsbury races, which were once staged on his land at Bicton Heath. But racing obsessed this man so much that he even named his son after one of his horses.

By the early 19th Century, business was booming at Oswestry. The course was relaid with new turf - by French prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars - and it was decided to build a grandstand close to the start-finish line.

This building, the remains of which can still be seen, provided some cover and a vantage point for those with the money to pay for a seat, and was used by traders selling food and drink to the racegoers.

While those with money sat in the grandstand, most of the racegoers had to make do with the earth banks that lined the track and which can also still be seen.

But things didn't last.

Painting of the grandstand as it probably appeared in its heyday by local artist Gordon Jones
Painting of the grandstand as it probably appeared in its heyday by local artist Gordon Jones

Racing inevitably meant gambling took place here, and hard drinking was rife among racegoers. And the presence of so many people drinking and gambling meant that beggars and pickpockets were also at the races in large numbers.

By the 1840s outsiders and horse owners from the lower classes had begun to win races, which, of course, wasn't popular among the great and the good.

Rowdy behaviour during race week - both on the course and down in Oswestry - got worse and worse and people started to avoid the event.

Attendances fell and the revenues from stall holders, traders and admission fees dropped correspondingly.

The end of the races

Another development which helped spell the end of racing at Oswestry was the arrival of the railways, which allowed horses to be transported further afield, along with spectators.

The last meeting took place in 1848 - the very same year that the Shrewsbury to Chester railway line opened - and the course was abandoned.

For a little while the grandstand was occupied by a group of mole catchers, but gradually it fell into ruin and the stone was used to build other houses nearby.

Today the Racecourse Common is a recreation area where some unusual plants can be seen, thanks mainly to the acidic grassland of the former racetrack. In spring, much of the site is covered by a carpet of bluebells.

It's home to all sorts of wild animals, and attracts a wide variety of birds, including Willow Warblers, Chiffchaff and Linnets.

Fancy a visit?

Take the B4580, signposted Llansilin, from Oswestry town centre and follow the road out of the town and up the steep hill. At the crest of the hill follow the signs to Racecourse Common.


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