Part 2: Stoke trips, Arson attacks, and a Land-Swap?
Throughout the 1996 season, hundreds of Cradley fans regularly made the 100-mile round trip to see their beloved Heathens’ riding ‘home’ matches in Newcastle-Under-Lyme (Stoke). And back in the Black Country, the campaign still raged on. Signatures on the petition included Labour’s then deputy leader John Prescott as well as National Heritage secretary Virginia Bottomly and Environment secretary John Gummer. With the original application refused, it was a waiting game to see whether Barratts would appeal against the council's decision. As the deadline for such a move grew nearer, it seemed that there would be no such development. However, to the disappointment of the supporters, the developers confirmed that they would appeal. A date was set for 29th April, 1997 but in the mean time, further possibilities were to arise.
First of all, hopes were raised that there may be a place for Speedway on a vacant 41-acre site in the centre of Dudley. The ‘Castle Gate’ site included the former home of Worcestershire County Cricket Club and would have provided an ideal alternative to Dudley Wood, but the plan was rejected on the grounds that it would not create enough jobs to secure European funding. So as the season drew towards an end, Speedway officials pledged to return to the Black Country while stadium owners still stubbornly insisted "there will never be any more Speedway at the stadium". The stadium itself was subject to several arson attacks during this time, some of which were quite serious. The owners often made no attempt whatsoever to secure the site and it was frequented by vandals on a regular basis. Local fire chiefs were constantly worried about it and acknowledged that as long as it was empty, they would have to keep returning. Several measures had to be taken to avoid a serious accident as the land yielded countless dangers. On one occasion, 15 fire fighters had to attend a blaze and removed propane cylinders which had been left "lying around", yet just a week later fire crews from across the borough took two hours to control another massive blaze. Unbelievably, within just a month after that, the biggest fire yet, with flames of 50ft, took three hours to control with four fire engines in attendance. It remains a mystery how no-one was injured throughout the series of episodes and that no more damage was done to surrounding properties.
The next plan on the agenda was a "land-swap" agreement. This would potentially have involved the council trading a piece of their own land with Barratts in return for the Dudley Wood site. The immediate response from the Bridgewater family was that "there will be no swap". Speaking on behalf of the owners, Noel Bridgewater stated "Speedway is finished at Dudley Wood. I would rather the land lie dormant". However, Barratts, who I understand had a conditional contract to purchase the land, did agree to discuss the proposal. Several pieces of land, including prime building sites were offered to the company but all were turned down for different reasons.
The new talks, in advance of the public inquiry, continued through the Winter. Eventually though, with no likelihood of a Dudley Wood return and a financial disaster being the result of the season at Stoke, Cradley Speedway announced that they would have to withdraw from the new British Elite league at the start of the 1997 season. The prized rider assets were immediately snapped up with Greg Hancock moving to Coventry and Billy Hamill to Belle Vue. The new season started without the Heathens’ presence as a team for the first time in over 30 consecutive seasons...
Words by Steve Johnson; sources include various press cuttings ranging from 1994 to 1998
[Forward to Part 3]