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David & Lesley Bridger of East Preston, Ian Benstead of Capel and John Wills of Frimley


Looking back at London & South East Classic Club winners (Part 10.)

David & Lesley Bridger of East Preston.

David & Lesley Bridger have won many premier races in their 50 plus years in the sport, including 1st open NFC Messac in the 2017 season, but we are going back to 2011 when they won the London & South East Classic Club from Tarbes. The L&SECC held it Tarbes ‘Blue Riband’ race at the back end of June in 2011 and that season’s 560 mile event turned out to be a very tough affair. The birds were liberated with the CSCFC birds at 07.00hrs on the Friday in a no wind situation at the super market car park liberation site, but soon met up with northerly winds on route which greatly reduced the chances of day pigeons. One game pigeon was clocked on the day, at 21.33hrs, on the south coast and was owned by a delighted David Bridger of East Preston, which is near Littlehampton in Sussex. His Classic winner was his beautiful three year old pencil blue pied hen ‘Pipi’ and she flew the 524 mile race, being sent sitting 12 day old eggs. She is paired to one of David’s premier racing cocks, ‘The Star’, winner of several premier positions including 1st Federation Messac and 6th Federation Yelverton. Two weeks after the Tarbes Classic, Peter Taylor and I made the 50 mile drive down to the south coast to visit Dave and Lesley and to see their champion pied hen, ‘Pipi’. We picked a beautiful July day for the visit and the Bridger’s wonderful garden was in full bloom. David told me Lesley is the gardener and I must say she certainly knows her job, the garden looked magnificent!

On our arrival at Bridger’s home, we sat and had tea in their back conservatory, and I began by asking David if he had enjoyed his Tarbes success and he replied, ‘Being asked to have a report on my loft following my win from the London & South East Classic Club Tarbes is by far the biggest honour that I have had in nearly 50 years of racing. I have in the past had the only bird on the day in the club from Thurso 551 miles, timed from both Thurso and NFC Pau on the same day and have been 1st Club, 1st Federation, 1st Combine Thurso and 1st Club, 2nd Federation, 2nd Combine from Thurso, but nothing tops the feeling I had when timing my London Classic Club bird on the day from Tarbes flying 524 miles 587 yards at 9.33pm. The icing on the cake was when I received a telephone call from the Classic Club Secretary, Terri Hoskin, to inform me that it was the only bird timed on the day. As I live on the south coast only about half a mile from the sea shore it was obvious to me that I could have been beaten into first place because birds flying further up country need only to be timed early next morning and I would have lost on hours of darkness combined with birds having to fly a further distance. Fortunately for me the rain that had set in around 20.00hrs on the day of liberation, kept up through the night and did not ease off until about 07.00hrs on the Saturday morning. This put paid to any early second day birds but it was not until about lunch time of the second day that the provisional result was put on the Classic Club’s web site which confirmed that Lesley and I had won 1st SW section and 1st open. I have never lost any sleep over winning the Club, Federation or Combine but I certainly did that night’.

When I asked him about his new champion, he told me, ‘the Tarbes winning bird is a 3 year old hen now named ‘PIPI’, which came about as a result of me first thinking that the quick flash that I saw over the loft was a bat. It was nearly dark and raining, and I had almost given up on timing a day bird and was sitting in the conservatory half hoping but could not clearly see the loft due to rain drops on the glass and the fading light. I initially thought that I had seen a Pipistrelle Bat flick over the loft which is often the case but on closer inspection found my game hen on the landing board. She was sent to the race sitting 12 day old eggs and had previously this year had a few inlands races, then Fougeres with the South Coast Federation, Tours with the L&SECC and although being one of those birds that are always thereabouts had never set things alight. Looking at the breeding of ‘Pipi’ you can see why she performed as she did. Her four grandparents are as follows: The paternal grandsire is a direct son of ‘Somerset Lad’: 1st section, 1st open NFC Pau Grand National 560miles (4524 birds) for the Patrick Bros. The paternal grand dam was bred by Crammond and Langstaff of Fontwell out of a cock and hen from Emiel Denys. The cock is from ‘Klein Tee’ when paired to ‘Lady Barcelona’ and the hen is a daughter of ‘San Sebastian’ 1st International San Sebastian. The maternal grandsire is a direct son of champion ‘Gwen’ 1st section 1st open NFC San Sebastian for Joe Raeburn and the maternal grand dam is from the Patrick Bros champion ‘Jonge Favoriet’ and champion ‘De505’. It was all in there waiting to come to the surface and looking at the pedigree that this hen has it is no surprise that she came up trumps on the day’.

David had lived at the current address in East Preston for the past 30 years and apart from a few years living in Rustington and Littlehampton, just after being married he has been in East Preston all of his life. Like a lot of lads in the sixties he started to get some fantails and pigeon odds and sods together when he was about 12 years old. This moved on to him catching and reporting strays, and always hoping that the owners would agree to transfer them to him. David’s first loft was part of his fathers old chicken shed, but after some persuasion a small 6ft x 6ft loft was soon erected and a few years later was extended to a 12ft long structure, with an 8ft section for old birds and a 4ft section for young birds. This housed 12 pairs of old birds which were all flown natural and he bred 16 young birds for racing every year.

After obtaining a letter of consent from his parents he joined the Littlehampton RPC in the winter of 1963 at the tender age of 14 and in 1964 he had his first young bird race from Christchurch and came last. In the next race from Dorchester he recorded 2nd club with a bird bred by his good friend and at the time fellow club member Des Coulter. That was it, the bug had well and truly bitten, and his enthusiasm today is no less than it was nearly 50 years ago. Des provided him with several good young birds and also some older stock birds to get him going, and in addition he added birds from other club members at the time namely Peter Griffin, Sam Greer and George & Alf Robinson. Dave didn’t keep any particular strain but used the old adage of pairing the best cock to the best hen and this paid off. He thinks this method is still as important today as it was then. The young David probably did not do the birds justice but it was a good start as many positions were won with offspring of these birds. His first winner was in 1966 from Selby, 200 miles on the north road and in this year which was only his second year racing the full season he had 1st, 2nd and three 3rd in the local club. He was then 17 and just starting to get the hang of things, but now some 45 years later, he says he is still learning.

Feeding beans, beans and more beans was one big mistake he made in the early days of his pigeon racing. He says, ‘nowadays the feeds available are endless and to a new starter in the sport it must be very confusing. The only advice I can give in this direction is to befriend a fancier who is winning the races that you would like to win and follow his methods as closely as possible. After a while you will now when to adjust the quantities and type of food to give the birds the best help possible in achieving the condition that you want them in for a particular race. In those days as a young lad names such as Eric Canon and Jim Biss were the top flyers and always seem to time in when others struggled and although I did meet Eric Canon many years later how was I to know at that time that they were to become the legends that they are’.

In 1983 while he was busy renovating the house which he and Lesley now live in, he joined up with Charles Langley and formed the partnership of Bridger and Langley. Charlie had retired to the coast from his home town of Mitcham and became David’s great friend and mentor until in 1997 he moved on to the great pigeon club in the sky at the grand old age of 91. David said, Charles still maintained his interest and lifelong passion for racing pigeons right up to the end. He was a fancier of great renown in the Carshalton area in his younger days but always maintained a razor sharp enthusiasm and was a past master of conditioning birds to fly at almost any distance, wanting to win every race from first to last through the season. One of the partner’s best performances was from Thurso (551 miles), when they timed on the day to win 1st Club, 1st Federation and 1st Combine winning an RPRA award for the best individual performance for a bird flying the north route over 450 miles.

David and Lesley have a very smart loft set in the very special garden and when I asked about the loft and racing system, I was told, ‘the loft set up has grown over the years but I have always kept it to a size I thought was manageable. It is currently 32ft long with a tiled roof divided into six small sections with sliding doors between each section. This enables me to separate off certain sections or have the birds running together depending on how I want to treat them for racing. I have a small stock bird section which has an aviary so that the birds can enjoy the sunshine and fresh air something, which I feel is essential if you are going to keep birds in captivity. At the start of the season I usually have about 24 race pairs and 12 stock pairs and breed about 45 young birds with quite a few regularly given to other club members. The youngsters are darkened from mid March until the first week of June which helps them keep in good feather for the later young bird races. I get nearly as much satisfaction when somebody else wins with one of the birds bred at my lofts than as if I had won myself. With regard to feeding I do not have any particular fads as long as the feed is of good quality. I regularly feed Gem foods from Brian Wall in Chichester together with Beyers young bird mix, Depurative and Energy mix and Versa Laga Best All Round. The quantities and mixture are adjusted to accord with the racing that is taking place i.e., fed very lightly on the short sprint races and heavier feeding with energy mix as the distances increase. Feeding is a bit of a science and can make the difference in being regularly at the top of the result sheet or not. Getting the balance just right takes a lot of practice and heart ache along the way especially with young bird racing. I give the birds a multi vitamin in the drinker for the last two days prior to basketing and they have electrolytes in the water the day of their return. The only other treatments are for the normal canker and cocci which I give them while sitting their first round of eggs and then again about every 3 to 4 weeks during racing. They are treated for worms via an Ivamectin drop on the back of the neck at the beginning of the season and are vaccinated for Paramyxo prior to racing’.

All David’s pigeon friend call him David ‘long distance’ Bridger, but he tells me he enjoys all racing long and short, but gets his big ‘buzz’ from racing long distance. The loft houses several inland Federation winners and has been very successful with Mark and Dick Evans’ Vandenabeele pigeons. David has been up to Yorkshire several times to visit ‘Myrtle Lofts’ and owns grand children of the champion breeder, ‘Shadow’. The Bridger loft has won premier positions in the Federation, Combine, Classic and National through the years and in one young bird inland race took the first sixteen positions in the Federation. Not bad for premier long distance racer! Peter Taylor and I both agreed the Bridger loft visit was one of our most enjoyable!

John Wills of Frimley.

The members of the L&SECC sent well over 2,000 birds to the Tours classic held at the back end of May 2009 and were liberated at 05.30 hrs in a strong north east wind. With the head wind and very hot weather conditions promised for the race day, the convoy was liberated at good early time to give the birds a good start, but in spite of all these good efforts, the returns on the day were really bad and some fanciers had well over half their entries missing that night. On the Saturday of the race I had to visit my good friends, John and Linda Tyerman of Bracklesham Bay and with the sea front only 100 yards from their home, after looking at John’s pigeons we decided to have a walk along the sand with the grand children. The English Channel was perfect, with good visibility and the Isle of White was in full view, but that that north east wind was very strong, and has proved to be the main test for the Tours Classic pigeons.

Johnny Wills and his daughter, Sarah, of Frimley won 1st SW section, 2nd open, 1st Yearling Derby with their handsome natural blue chequer cock, now named ‘Del Boy’. John’s Yearling Derby winner had no races as a young bird, only being trained along the south coast and this season had two mid-week training races from Hamworthy with the ‘Lion Brewery’ club, before going in to the L&SECC Alencon race, and then in to the Tours Classic. John told me at the time, he had not reared a youngster, being sent to Tours driving his hen to nest and was getting very keen for some days before the race as he kept going in to the young bird section and feeding the youngsters in there. ‘Del Boy’s’ mother is John’s great pied hen, ‘Rose’s Girl’ and winner of 2004: 85th open NFC Saintes, 2005: 88th open NFC Tarbes, 5th open Greater Distance NFC and this whole winning line goes back to the great old red chequer cock, ‘Roller Coaster’, winner of 1st open BICC Pau.


When I met up with my ol’ mucker, Johnny Wills and asked him how he felt about winning the 2009 L&SECC Tours Yearling Derby, his reply was, ‘I’m highly delighted and with my recent personal problems this win has given me a good lift. Over the last few years the pigeons have had to go on the back burner and with no regular work my loft of pigeons has gone a bit stagnant. I’m in the processes of building a new team and this Classic win marks the start of a new era for the Wills loft. My great old family of Ian Benstead are still brilliant for the Barcelona job, but these days you need a faster type pigeon for the 550 mile races, so I’m creating a second family from gift birds from good friends, the late great Brian Long and Brian Ledbetter. These two gentlemen are two of the best pigeon fanciers I’ve ever met and they have gifted me pigeons from their very best. My late friend, Brian Long, left me some pigeons, including birds out of his famous £55,000 pigeon ‘Lucas’, but I still love my old Ian Benstead pigeons which are still winning well up to Barcelona’. I hadn’t seen John for a while, but he has given up the good life and lost a bit of weight and looked in top form. After his 25 years hard work on premier club committees John has made the decision to give ‘pigeon politics’ and start enjoying racing his pigeons again. With his new start Johnny had installed ETS in his loft and thinks it is brilliant, and would not be without it now. Mark Gilbert came to his Frimley home and installing the new system for him and did a great job.

John Wills is a man I have known since the early 1970's and who is now one of the most respected fanciers in the world of long distance pigeon racing. In the early 1970's he was a footloose and fancy free young lad, and was a “hot arse” trying to win sprint, club and federation races every week. John Wills lived in Feltham and raced in the West Middlesex Federation at that time. I can remember one snowy winter day in 1979, when I had arranged a meeting with John at his loft, for an article photo shoot, and had to bang on the front door to get him out of bed! He had enjoyed some good success with his good with his good blue pied Cattrysse cock, “Billy”, who had won the longest old bird race from Bergerac. This handsome cock was bred by Johnny's dad, Bill Wills of Ealing, who was a brilliant fancier for many years in the Middlesex area. I think Billy's Bergerac win changed John's whole outlook on pigeon racing and on that cold day in 1979, he told me that he had had enough of Federation sprint racing and was going to have a go at National long distance events only. John Wills has never looked back, with the rest being history! Johnny’s Frimley loft has won countless major prizes in the long distance National and International events, including 6 times 1st open British International Championship Club (British Section of the International), 10 times 1st East of England Continental Club and 4th open NFC Pau. The Surrey loft has been in the NFC Pau result every time they have sent since 1989 and John says his pigeon management is based on common sense.

John had a very good season racing in 2005 and the star birds were: ‘Uranus’, winner of 2005: 6th open BICC Barcelona, 1st open Greater Distance NFC, ‘Rose’s Girl’, winner of 2005: 88th open N.F.C. Tarbes, 5th open Greater Distance NFC, 2004: 85th open NFC Saintes, ‘Sarah’, winner of 2005: 9th open BICC Dax. John raced 25 old birds on the natural system, not including the yearlings, and hopper feed Beans for all races up to 700 miles. The Frimley set up was made up with two lofts, 24ft x 8ft for the old birds and 12ft x 5ft for young birds, and Johnny maintained that the main factor in good loft design is plenty of fresh air. He thinks deep litter is a good idea, but must be kept bone dry. John was a night worker, as a Market Porter and his pigeon system had to be kept plain and simple. John raced about 20 young birds to the perch each season and 10 latebreds were produced annually, which were not trained in the year of their birth, just left to grow. John told me these latebreds were trained and raced later on and usually turn out to be some of his best birds. Six pairs of stock birds were housed at the Frimley loft, which were mainly John's own family based on the Ian Benstead of Capel pigeons and a bit of the Burger, Galabank and Cattrysse bloodlines.

Johnny has been a pigeon fancier for over 40 years and says he can remember losing his first winner and his dad telling him he would have to learn that you lose good pigeons, because many get lost in the end. John has learnt a lot since those days when he started racing at the age of 15, winning top honours year after year. Johnny crowned his long distance racing career by winning 1st open BICC Pau National, by approx. 30 minutes in 1984. His winner, red chequer cock, “Roller Coaster”, was a six year old bred from stock obtained from Ian Benstead and the late, Ken Couch of Feltham. The Wills' loft was turned temporarily North Road in 1984 due to the Channel ban in 1993, but had the one race south race, the BICC Pau event, when he sent one pigeon, “Roller Coaster”. This cock's previous form was endless, including 1st club Dax (only bird in race time), 32nd open Combine Niort, 13th open Federation Bergerac and 47th open Combine Melle (smash). From the 1984 BICC Pau race he lifted £435 and recorded a velocity of 800 y.p.m., a brilliant pigeon! Another great winner for the Wills long distance loft was the blue hen, ‘Tommie’s Girl’ and she won 2004: 1st open BICC, 80th open International Biarritz and 130th open NFC Pau, 195 open NFC Pau. This wonderful hen is the daughter another of John’s best hens, ‘Ever Loyal’ and she won many premier prizes including, 5th open BICC Barcelona and 95th open NFC Pau.

John has had pigeons all his life, racing in the early years with his father in the Ealing Club. In later years Ian Benstead let him have birds off his best. Johnny says as a lad he used to watch Tubby Tate's pigeons whilst on his paper round and was inspired by this great fanciers performances. In the early 1980's his loft housed 20 pairs of racers and he bred as many youngsters each as he could, so he could keep his team young. The birds were raced on the natural system, with old birds going through the programme and youngsters treated lightly, with approximately three races each. Food was changed for different times of the year adding more beans as the longer races got nearer. John says he never goes on holiday as all his time is spent with his birds and the best race to win is the next one. In 1966 he bought some Cattrysse pigeons from S. Smith of Loudwater, Bucks, which won from 100 to 460 miles. In 1977 he bought a cock from Ian Benstead which bred winners straight away and since then he has obtained many birds from this long distance “master”, and founded his highly successful present day family on them. As I've previously stated John's pigeon management has no real hard and fast rules and is run on common sense. He says, he has always trained the pigeons when he thinks it is necessary, with single ups from the south coast. John likes eyesign and pairs pigeons up clashing all their eyes, but says he has seen many good pigeons with what he regards as not very good eyesign. He likes to pair his best birds to either a pigeon out of their brother or sister, and picks out stock pigeons on performance and type. John studies each bird separately and sends them in the condition they favour. He says he has respects for many of the present day long distance fanciers, but his mentor is Ian Benstead, who is no longer in the sport. John and his wife, Rose was once the secretaries of the BICC and John is now a Vice President, and has been on the Committee since 1984.

Ian Benstead of Capel.

The Dorking loft of Ian Benstead won 1st open BICC from Lourdes in 1986 and although he has been out of the sport many years, his name lives on, with many premier long distance fancier winning with his pigeon today. I first visited Ian in 1977 when my late good mate, Dick Brooker, took me to his Capel home to report on his Niort Combine win. When you visited his loft, which was set in the wonderful Surrey countryside, you were lucky to see the pigeons, as they had an open loft and roamed the fields all day. If the pigeons would stay in the trees, Ian said, he wouldn't bother with a loft. Ian Benstead was a natural flyer in the truest sense of the word, with his brilliant long distance team of pigeons spending most of their time in the trees and fields. I revisited Ian again in 1986 when he had a wonderful season racing in the British International Championship Club, recording 1st, 5th, 6th, 23rd, 25th and 26th open Lourdes (555 miles), 2nd and 13th open Perpignan (603 miles), 3rd and 19th open Pau (537 miles) and 4th and 11th open Marseilles (603 miles).

Ian started in the sport in 1949 with a stray blue chequer hen from a fancier in Carshalton and that game pigeon broke his novice status from Seaton the following year. Ian had trapped the hen, so he took it back to the man on his bike, who thanked him very much and gave him half a crown. On his return home, Ian found the hen had already returned there, waiting for him. Next day, he returned the pigeon once again to Carshalton but the man presented it to him and thus started him up in the sport. When Ian went into the army he gave the hen away and she bred many winners before she died at a ripe old age. He obtained 30 July bred, latebreds from Ron Sheppard in 1964 and these were the base of his champion long distance family.

Ian's best performances in the SMT Combine were 1st and 2nd open Niort in 1972 and 2nd open Nantes in 1975, although many other positions were won. He hadn't competed in very many Pau N.F.C. races, but recorded 2nd section,15th open, 9th section, 34th open, 4th section, 142nd open and 6th section, 259th open. Ian's Niort combine winner, “The Combine Cock”, was still in the loft at that time and looked fantastic for his 18 years of age. This handsome old white flight cock won the SMT Combine in only the second race of his life. Ian rated Eric and Pat Cannon of Godalming the best long distance fanciers in the Surrey area and had a lot of admiration for John Goodwin, the N.F.C. convoyer at that time. He said John was second to none and when he liberated you knew the birds would home well. He thought a good loft ventilation was most important and said a horse is likely to catch a cold when you bring it in and not when you put it out in a cold field. When the birds are exposed to the elements they come to hand naturally, with the seasons. He said he thought the old bird races started too early and finished too early. Ian had never introduced another bird into his loft since he started with the Sheppards in 1964. The loft was creosoted inside and out, and Ian thought there was nothing finer. He said it doesn't hurt pigeons, as a hen drunk some one day and she didn't bat an eyelid. Ian always said he would bet odds on a short flier in regard of over fly as the further the bird fly there is always another wire and another gun, and the further fliers have a hard job. His loft was 20ft.x 12ft. and the birds were trapped through open doors. Ian built the loft himself with wire floor and the droppings are cleaned out from under the loft. Wire windows were on all four sides so the wind blew right through the structure and the nest boxes had no fronts, so the intruders could be rejected without much fuss or damage. He liked the birds to be subjected to the weather and maintained they were better for it. He told me, one day he put a handful of grit on the nest boxes and the wind blew it straight out the window at the back of the loft. The birds had an open loft all day, in any weather, and nested in anything, including cardboard cartons.

The 1986 BICC Lourdes winner was a very nice blue chequer hen called, “The Lourdes Hen”, and was a classic long distance type, being medium sized, with good length in the body. This game hen won the Lourdes event in only the second race of her life. Ian's 5th open B.I.C.C. Lourdes winner was the blue cock, “Double One”, and he also won 3rd East of England Continental Club from Orleans (246 miles). Ian told me the cock was for the future. Another of Ian's stars was his blue chequer cock, “The Marseilles Cock”, which had flown Marseilles four times with the BICC, recording 4th, 7th and 9th open and Ian flew 603 miles from this race point in the south of France. He liked a medium apple-bodied pigeon and said it took three year for his to mature. Ian liked to see the eye placed in the centre of the head. He used to be a race horse trainer at Epsom and a lot of his pigeon management was based on his horse training days. He didn't race inland and the youngsters were not raced or trained in the year of their birth. One hen in the Benstead loft was sent over 600 miles for her first race of her life and returned safely. The birds were not parted in the winter months and were put down to breed in March. Training started the first week in May and was mostly from the south coast, including Bognor, Worthing or Brighton. Sixty old birds were housed and 30 youngsters were bred each season and if anything looked wrong with a squeaker or egg it was disposed of without delay. He said pigeons are easy enough to breed so why waste time on sub-standard goods?

The birds were hopper fed on beans in the winter and a good mixture when racing, but didn't like rearing on beans. A pigeon that caught my eye was the blue chequer cock, “The Bergerac Cock”, which had won in 500 mile show classes. This handsome cock was getting on in years, but had a wonderful racing record, winning 1st. club Bergerac and 6th open BICC Barcelona. One of Ian's favourites was the light blue chequer cock, “The Two Way Cock”, which won 1st club, 11th Federation Thurso (530 miles) north road, as a yearling. Ten days later he was sent to Lourdes (555 miles) south road and was recorded on the winning day. A wonderful family of long distance racing pigeons!

After my visit to Ian Benstead's loft in 1986, the loft went from strength to strength and Ian is one of the most respected long distance fancier in the sport. One of his best performances in later years was in 1992 when he won 1st open London & South East Classic Club Dax. A brilliant fancier!