Ipswich, a city at the confluence of the rivers Orwell and Dee, has been a place of religious, industrial, and cultural significance for centuries. It is rich in history; the Roman Catholic church, Mary’s Hospital, and many educational establishments were all established there. Most importantly, Ipswich is famous for its yearly Witches’ Day Parade (officially known as the Great Feast Day parade or GF Day). The annual event, which has been taking place for almost 100 years, continues to grow in popularity, even attracting national attention.
The parade is named after the infamous 16th century witch trials that took place in the city. However, it should be noted that many innocent people were also tried and convicted during this time. The fact that so many people were accused of being witches is a testament to the deep-seated fear that the outbreak of the plague had instilled in the population. But, despite its controversial past, the event is now a source of civic pride, with the 2018 parade attracting a record-breaking crowd of more than 100,000 people. Thousands of these spectators lined the streets to watch the marching bands and colourful costumes of the high school students. While watching the parade is one of the major attractions, there are a host of others that the city has to offer.
Whether you’re a history buff or just love a good scare, the following will tell you about one of England’s most intriguing hidden gems: The Ipswich Witches Speedway. Located in the suburb of Grove Park, the former track was the location of the city’s annual sports and music festival from 1920 to 1927. It was also the setting for the filming of a couple of scenes from the 2019 horror-thriller, The Big Snitch.
An Early Days Motorcycle Race
The origins of the Speedway can be traced back to early 20th century England where motorcycle racing was at an all-time high. In fact, there were hundreds of smaller trackless velodromes scattered around the country. But, unfortunately, most of these tracks were built on military land, which the local council had prohibited the public from accessing. One group of resourceful youths decided to change this, and in 1912 they founded the Ipswich Motorcycle Club. They wanted to bring motorcycling to the public and, as such, applied for a lease of Grove Park. It wasn’t easy convincing the council to let them race on military land, but the young men were undeterred.
On 17 September 1913, the Ipswich Motorcycle Club held the first official motorcycle race at the Grove Park Speedway. It was a 25-mile race that attracted a large crowd of 20,000 spectators. The drivers’ entrance was at the front, with the grandstand and stands for the supporters on one side and the track on the other. Women were also allowed in the grandstand, but had to sit behind a screen to avoid any distractions. It must have been an extraordinary sight: thousands of motorcyclists whizzing past, with women cheering them on. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I put a stop to all sporting events, including the annual bicycle race. But, even during the war, motorcycle riding continued to grow in popularity, particularly among the British military who were granted access to civilian motorcycles. With more people getting behind the wheel, it became evident that there was a need for more tracks.
Creating A Modern Speedway
After the war, the Speedway was one of the first motor sports complexes to be built in the United Kingdom. The tracks slowly started appearing in cities across England, with Coventry, Birmingham, and Leeds all boasting fully functioning motorsport venues. In 1924, the Trafford Park complex in Manchester was opened, offering a track and grandstands that could seat 13,500 spectators. However, this was to be the last of the major track and stadium openings for a while; the economic climate of the time simply did not allow for such extravagant displays of wealth. This was especially the case in the United Kingdom where the Great Depression had begun to bite.
It was during this time that the organisers of the Ipswich Motorcycle Club decided to rebuild the venue. They wanted to create a modern speedway that was similar in design to the ones being built in other English cities. And so, in 1927, the revised and improved version of the Grove Park Speedway was opened with a concert that evening. The new speedway was four lanes wide, with the grandstand seating 3,600 spectators and the paddock, where the bikes were stored, accommodating another 2,400. This brought the total capacity to 7,000. Most importantly, the organisers kept faith with their original vision: the track was open to the public, with no membership requirements. But, after a few more years of financial hardship, it was decided that the Speedway would become a limited-entrance amusement park. This was partly due to the fact that there were already so many parks in Ipswich that the council wanted to promote a more family-friendly environment.
The racing at the club continued even after the track became a leisure facility. In 1933, the Grand Prix was revived and held there regularly. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that the track was finally turned off, with the last organised race taking place in 1948. The last public race was held on 2 June 1948 and the following day the grandstand, track, and paddock were all closed to the public. This was because the council wanted to build a new school on the site, as part of their ambitious rebuild programme that was also going on in the city at the time. The last bits of track were demolished in 1952, but the legacy of the Speedway lived on; it was one of the mainstays of the city’s annual sports and music festival, which continues to this day.
The Grand Tour
One of the delights of the city’s annual sports festival is the array of events that take place throughout the month of October. The month is usually filled with music performances, educational seminars, and even comedy gigs. One of the major attractions is the speedway; it is one of the highlights of the festival, with the highlight being the annual Grand Prix, which is held in late October. For the best view of the action, the race is broadcast nationwide on television. This is followed by two full days of entertainment; the city’s historic pubs and clubs are open as usual, while additional food and drink vendors have been brought in to serve the crowds.
Although the Speedway has ceased to be an active venue, it has not lost its place in the hearts of the city’s residents. So much so that when the organisers decided to rebuild it in the modern era, the vision was to create a venue that was as close as possible to what was originally built in 1923. As a result, the organisers decided to use as many original designs and styles as possible. The original track design was retained, with the exception of the four extra turns added near the middle. The grandstands were also retained, with the capacity being increased from 3,600 to 7,000. Furthermore, as modern safety standards became mandatory, the pits were moved from the back to the front. This ensured that there was always a close-up view of the racing action, regardless of where you were seated. Sadly, the only things that the city didn’t retain were the wooden grandstands and the paddock, which were replaced by steel and stone structures. But the original layout and most importantly, the passion of the organisers, resulted in what is now one of England’s most interesting and historic sports venues.