With the Pigeon Fliers of Bethnal Green
With the pigeon racing season drawing to a close, I took the opportunity to join Albert Stratton, pigeon flier, and his pal Keith Plastow on Saturday afternoon in Bethnal Green to wait for return of the young birds – born this Spring – given an outing each year as the penultimate race of the season. Even though these fledglings only pecked their way out of the egg in March, many have already spent months in training, building up their stamina with practice flights of twenty-five miles from Harlow three times a week. On Saturday, Albert had eleven young birds among eight hundred competitors, flying one hundred and twelve miles and one hundred and seven yards, from Newark in Nottinghamshire to Bethnal Green.
As soon as I got the call to say “The birds are up!”, I raced over from Spitalfields to Albert’s house, arriving at three thirty. Then we all sat together in nervous anticipation in Albert’s garden for half an hour gazing anxiously at the sky while he amused us with a constant stream of droll banter and, in time-honoured fashion, his wife Tracey reclined on the couch in the living room relaying us the results in the Tottenham game. “It’s a heartbreaking sport, pigeon racing,” confessed Albert, turning melancholy, his eyes fixed firmly on the occluded sky, “It’s like supporting Tottenham Hotspur – if only you got out as much you put in.”
Albert informed me that pigeons fly at fifty miles per hour with no wind, but can reach speeds of eighty miles an hour with a gale force behind them. Saturday’s wind was South West. “Not helpful! It slows them down and pushes them out to East, which gives the Easterly fliers an advantage,” declared Albert, exchanging a grimace with Keith,“Let’s hope it’s not like last week, we were twenty minutes behind the rest.” Albert hoped the first of his birds – liberated at one thirty in Nottinghamsire – would arrive home shortly after half past three but, when four o’clock approached, he shook his head in disappointment as we all checked our watches.“Give me my hat,” Albert asked Keith, exasperated and clutching at straws now, “or they won’t recognise me.”
Positioning himself next to the pigeon shed, Albert waited with a cup of nuts ready for the first arrival, while Keith occupied the back door of the house, puffing on a cigarette to relieve the tension as he peered into the unyielding sky. Then two pigeons appeared, a blue cock and red pied bird. They circled, but instead of flying down to the pigeon shed, landed on the roof of the flats in the next street, looking down at us curiously. Albert and Keith were beside themselves simultaneously with excitement and frustration.
“Three hours flying and then five minutes walking up and down!” quipped Albert through gritted teeth, as he shook the peanuts in his cup to encourage his birds down. At once they flew down, increasing the tension further by alighted on the gutter over our heads. With intense self-control, Albert shook his cup of nuts again, calling tenderly, “Come one, come on,” and after short pause both birds landed on the wooden platform attached to the pigeon shed. Yet even now the tension did not abate, because we had to wait again, in speechless excitement, for the birds to enter the shed through the ‘trap.’
Then Keith ran over, dropping his cigarette as he swiftly pulled the ring off the first bird once it entered the ‘trap’and putting it triumphantly into the special clock that records the arrival times. These clocks were all synchronised earlier in the day, and we would only discover who had won when the members gathered at Albert’s house later and the club president unlocked the clocks with the only key. Meanwhile a falcon circled overhead and Albert grew concerned for his other pigeons. “Poor little birds,” he said, turning emotional with relief now that a couple had arrived, asking,“Where’s the other nine?”
“We ain’t seen anyone else’s birds.” Keith reminded Albert hopefully, as he continued putting the rings in the clock and keeping a running total of the times when more pigeons arrived, while Albert became sardonic in defeat, announcing, “The winner will be here soon, whoever’s won it will knock at the door.” Hopes of victory abandoned, Albert’s sole concern was the safe return of his beloved pigeons, and, over the next hour, as they appeared in ones and twos, like weary children returning from an afternoon’s ramble, he was particular to make sure they had slaked their thirst, sympathetically observing them stretching their tired wings. “He’s had enough,” commented Albert affectionately, as a favoured bird dropped down from the sky and sought refuge in the pigeon shed.
“It takes over your life,” Albert revealed to me, caught in the emotion of the moment and speaking frankly of his life-long passion for pigeon flying. “It’s worse than golf. I’ve not been separated from my pigeons for a night, when I could help it,” he confided, referring to a recent spell in hospital. “They go on holiday without me,” he continued, referring to his family, as he consoled himself with the parental delights of his chosen sport, “It’s not just the racing, it’s the breeding. It’s very satisfying when you put a couple of birds together and they have healthy young ones.”
We were interrupted by a knock on the door, and four excited members of the Kingsland Racing Pigeon Club entered carrying their clocks. At the stroke of six-thirty they all stopped their clocks which they lined up on the floor for John Hamilton, president and clocksetter, to unlock them with his key and tabulate the figures that would give a winner. Tracey served tea and these minutes of waiting gave the opportunity for bravado and banter as the members, who are all old friends as well as arch competitors, faced each other out making conversation. First up was a discussion about how many young pigeons had gone missing. Les Hicks (last week’s winner as well as this week’s favourite) declared nine out of nineteen lost, with alacrity. Next up was a discussion about those ignorant fools who denigrate pigeons as flying rats, and, in the process of the discourse contrary to this prejudice, I learnt that the queen is patron of the Royal Pigeon Flying Society and that pigeons have saved thousands of lives in war. Finally the members compared the size of their first ever pay packets, the lowest being £3 and highest being £12.50, but I failed to ascertain which was superior in this subtly competitive debate.
After writing out the figures and scrutinising the printouts from the clocks, John Hamilton had a winner – but Albert Stratton, club secretary, was dubious and insisted on checking the figures with his calculator before the result could be disclosed. Yet after the average velocities of each of the birds had been calculated again, Albert confirmed the president’s result umambiguously, although he chose to add that the victor had emerged only one decimal point ahead. Tracey came in to stand beside her husband Albert to give him moral support as John Hamilton announced the official result. The winners were Mr & Mrs Albert Stratton. It was an unexpected climax to an emotional afternoon.
Enjoy this music video featuring Albert Stratton & his racing pigeons.
Albert Stratton waits with his cup of peanuts, ready to coax any errant pigeon down from the rooftops.
Anxious moments gazing expectantly at the sky.
The first birds arrive in Bethnal Green from Nottinghamshire, in just over two hours and thirty minutes.
Keith removes the ring from the bird’s leg prior to placing it in the clock on the right.
Keith keeps a running score.
Keith Plastow, seasoned pigeon flier, “My father kept pigeons before me.”
John Hamilton, president and clocksetter of the club, transcribes the race times from the clock.
John and Albert, club secretary, check their calculations to confirm the result.
John Hamilton, President of the Kingsland Pigeon Fliers Club.
A victorious flier, safely home.