After 140 years, Highgate Harriers 'can weather any storm'

Highgate Harriers' Richard Cox (786) and Alastair Aitken (784) in 1970

Highgate Harriers' Richard Cox (786) and Alastair Aitken (784) in the National Cross Country Championships at Stanley Park, Blackpool in 1970 - Credit: Courtesy of Richard Cox

Highgate Harriers have long been a staple of Parliament Hill, based at the athletics track and nestled into Hampstead Heath.

They have welcomed athletes of all ages to track and field, cross-country, road running, and competitive walking since 1879. 

Alastair Aitken is one of the club’s longest-standing members. His first contact with the Highgate Harriers dates back to 1957, and he returned in 1964 to become their dedicated press secretary. He hasn’t left the club since.  

When he came back to the Highgate Harriers, he said, it was with every intention of improving his running. He remembers most fondly the encouragement he received from his friends to get back into the swing of club life – as well as  the progress he made, moving from the bottom end of the leader board towards the top.  

The 81-year-old said: "I’ve watched a lot of things change. I’ve watched a lot of very nice runners come and go over the years, and we’ve had some very good runners.” 

The years have not been without their challenges. During the war, some of the sections of the club “were still competing, even though the bombs were falling".  

Since then, the Highgate Harriers have developed a strong reputation.

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“Even if they don’t do well, they’ve got quite a historical name," said Alastair. 

“With the cross country and the road running, we’ve come to compete at a national level, against the very best clubs, and we hold our own against the very top clubs in the country.” 

Highgate Harriers men celebrate their Met League title double

Highgate Harriers men celebrate their Met League title double in 2020, with captain Rob Wilson (front row, centre) leading the cheers - Credit: Archant

He credits those working behind the scenes with the club's success.

“One must remember that there were grassroots people in the club, who actually do things over a long period of time. It’s these people, these grassroots people, who keep the club going – until they pop their clogs,” he laughed.  

Important to the Highgate Harriers – despite the often individual nature of competing and training – is the social aspect.

Community involvement has been a large part of how the next generation of Highgate Harriers has always been recruited. 

"The wider community sometimes sees something by accident on a sunny day,” remarked Aitken.

“They go by the track, and people go over and they see people doing things, and they wonder about it. And then they tell their sons and daughters to try join the club, to enjoy doing athletics, and some of them do.” 

Highgate Harriers runners

Highgate Harriers runners in 2011 - Credit: Archant

The athletes of the Highgate Harriers have had to adapt to the pandemic creatively. For some, this has meant training together, while physically apart. 

“I don’t think there has ever been a greater challenge than this virus, except in the last war,” said Alastair. “It does become quite difficult to remain tremendously enthusiastic, and it is amazing that Highgate has got Strava.” 

The Strava phone app allows runners to track performance, including distance and speed, meaning solo training can still be competitive, away from the Parliament Hill training ground.

“A lot of these guys go and run around the countryside and then they send in their times, and people are interested - there’s still a strong interest there," said Alastair. 

"But it has very difficult to be very keen on doing something where you’ve got no racing. That is what has been so difficult."

Looking to the future, he said the club can weather any storm, as long as they “look for people who are going to do things”.

“Highgate Harriers has meant an awful lot to me,” he said.