Thursday, 27 September 2012

How snobbish Walter created a sport for the masses!

Some cross-country races are wetter than others!
THE autumn equinox arrived last week to usher in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. 

It was the annual reminder I needed to dig out my battered New Balance cross-country shoes (faded blue uppers, but with bright orange laces). Inevitably they were encrusted with dried mud from a long-forgotten race of at least six months ago. They look a bit the worse for wear to be honest, but then so does their owner. 

Quite appropriate, then, that later in the week I should encounter the famous chap who first brought cross-country running to the masses. The man universally regarded as the founding father of the sport.

When I say I encountered Mr.Walter Rye - with his stern face, beard and bowler hat - I use the term loosely. Our confrontation was actually during the course of research for a book, rather than a face-to-face meeting. Walter has been dead and buried for 84 years after all.

So how come Walter can claim to have ‘invented’ cross-country running then? Well, apparently it all started after he read about public school steeplechases across fields in the novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays. He was enchanted by the tale of the ‘Barby Hill Steeplechase’ in that book and in 1867 decided to hold his own version, to help him and a few pals from Thames Rowing Club get fit for the next rowing season.

This form of running had irst been adopted in public schools in the 1830s and became known as ‘hare and hounds’ and 'paper chasing'. To help runners find their way, the ‘hare’ went off alone to lay a paper trail for the pack of ‘hounds’ to follow, carrying a large sausage-shaped canvas bag full of torn or cut paper, usually obtained from a local bookbinders. A small handful would be dropped every 20 yards or so to mark the route. Occasionally short false trails would be laid to make the competition harder!

Walter’s idea to take this sport outside of schools and into the public arena would ultimately prove a huge success. But initially he never intended it as an activity for ‘the common man’.  Far from it. In fact, our Walter was a real snob who restricted his races to ‘gentleman amateurs’ from privileged backgrounds only.

He set up the exclusive Thames Hare & Hounds club and staged a series of paper-chases for the privileged in the London area. Before long others would being copying the idea and eventually men from all walks of life were leaping over hedges and five-bar gates and crossing ploughed fields as if their lives depended on it. 

Walter was known as a tireless organiser, laying trails himself and competing too, also promoting the sport vigorously via his professional writing. Despite his views on class, he was the undisputed ‘father’ of a new craze that still thrives nearly 150 years later.

But for years he had no truck with working-class runners, regarding them as gamblers, fixers and scoundrels, only interested in making money.  Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a man being excluded from a run for coming from the wrong side of the tracks, but this situation existed thanks to Walter and his class-obsessed fellow Victorians. 

In time things improved after the England Cross-Country Association was formed, but Walter and his snobbish TH&H pals refused to sign up citing their concerns about the purity of the sport. Their isolation would last for 40 years!

Walter’s efforts at organising the world's first cross-country championship took place in Essex in 1876 and ended in disaster.  The event would ultimately flourish and become known as the iconic ‘English National’, but Walter's first staging certainly didn’t go according to plan. It was held at Buckhurst Hill, on the edge of Epping Forest and involved the three senior cross-country clubs from London (Thames Hare & Hounds, South London Harriers and Spartan Harriers). Thirty-two men assembled on a rain-soaked afternoon and watched as a civil servant called Sydenham Dixon set off to lay the paper trail (‘the bloodless scent’) over an 11-mile route.

The runners headed after him through the trees, finding the going very heavy. But barely five miles later, soon after passing the Old Crown Inn at Loughton, the leaders found the trail suddenly disappeared.  Freezing cold and drenched to the skin, they were not amused to be stranded in the forest, miles from anywhere and without a clue where to go.

What had happened?  An embarrassed Walter was furious when he found out. This is how the story was reported in one newspaper: “It appears a local idiot had been entrusted with an extra bag of scent [paper], with directions to take it to the Old Crown, but had taken it to some other house in mistake. How anyone could entrust any uninterested person with so important a mission passes our comprehension. We do not even see why a second supply of scent was needed at all. It is a common thing for hares to carry sufficient scent for a 15 miles run in the ordinary way, so why not for 11 on a special occasion? The whole thing is unpardonable . . . several weeks of careful training was thrown to the dogs.”

As they dithered around in the cold and wet, some runners began to feel unwell and at least one was given a massage with some brandy to get him warm again.  Another runner grabbed the brandy and put it to more conventional use – pouring it down his throat: “Next thing I remember is waking up in the Old Pavilion Music Hall!” he reported later.

This Epping Forest disaster was soon forgotten and an undaunted Walter organised a re-run of the championship a few weeks later on Wimbledon Common. This was won by Percy Stenning, who ran along smoking a pipe! It proved a big success and the sport of cross-country running has hardly looked back since.

Here in 2012, we don’t smoke pipes on the run, or bother with paper trails any more, but getting lost in the woods does sound distinctly familiar!

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s books on the history of running, at

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