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MICHAEL WELBANK: Heath is top venue for feet of endurance

PUBLISHED: 15:28 18 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:39 07 September 2010

Hampstead Heath is the home of English cross country running. This not just the arrogant claim of a local but is the consensus view of the cross country running community. The National Championships are held at a number of venues around the country but ru

Hampstead Heath is the home of English cross country running. This not just the arrogant claim of a local but is the consensus view of the cross country running community. The National Championships are held at a number of venues around the country but runners have a sense of coming home when it is Hampstead Heath's turn and the next time will be in 2012, although sadly not as part of the Olympic Games. The sport was included in the Olympics of 1912, 1920 and 1924 but was dropped as not being suitable for the summer.

English cross country running goes back a long way. There is an analogy with traditional horse steeple chasing with races between villages marked by their churches' steeples requiring riders to clear all manner of fences, hedges and ditches in between. These caused chaos in the countryside and they gradually became regularised into point-to-point racing over a set course. Running races through the countryside became popular through 'hare and hound' races but these too came to be regarded as a nuisance and they also became regularised with set courses.

Cross country running became established as a sport in 1868 with the Thames Rowing Club taking it up for winter training when there was no rowing and many of the 'harrier' clubs date from this period including our local heroes, Highgate Harriers, who started in 1879 and proudly proclaim that "members have enjoyed running over the beautiful surroundings of Hampstead Heath ever since". They are one of the top athletics club in the whole country with their club base actually on the Heath. It is little wonder that the National Championships come here.

It is an inspiring sight to watch 2,000 runners tearing straight up Parliament Hill from the start down at the Lido described in a 1973 newspaper report as "a flowing kaleidoscopic river of fit humanity". Cross country running on the Heath was supported by the London County Council and today the City of London Corporation backs the sport all the way.

The men's championship is over a 10k course which in its early days had the finish at the top of Parliament Hill, causing such congestion amongst runners on the last climb that this was abandoned in favour of the present final run in on the flat parallel with the Broad Walk. The present course has been selected to ensure minimum possible damage to the Heath and it is remarkable how quickly grassland recovers from the runners' footfall.

Cross country runners are a hardy race: not for them the luxurious facilities enjoyed by top footballers. The season runs from October to March, and so coping with wind. rain, cold and mud are a normal challenge; changing rooms are draughty bivouac tents; comforts are sparse. Perhaps it was worse 50 years ago, judging from organisers' reports of the time:

"As mobile bath equipment not available bathing facilities will have to be provided for 800 runners at the Lido using galvanised baths .The source of hot water is not decided but will see if the Gas Board will help."

And later on: "Arrangements consisted of two dozen galvanised baths fed by buckets from three boilers. Main objective of runners was to remove mud from their legs and few, if any, indulged in a thorough bath".

Other suggestions were that the Lido pool might be used for washing, that sponges were not to be provided because this might set a precedent and that cars could be parked in the surrounding streets.

Despite such hazards the Heath has seen some of cross country running's high spots. In 1973 first in was a New Zealander, Rod Dixon. However, he was classified as a guest and not eligible to win the championship, so the medal was awarded to the runner up David Bedford, who with magnificent sportsmanship refused to accept it.

In 1977 the championship was won by the greatest cross runner in the world, Brendon Foster. And so today, cross country running on the Heath thrives and the City of London Corporation continues to support this sport by providing its top venue.

q Michael Welbank is chairman of the Hampstead Heath management committee


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