Eamonn Martin, Ian Byett, William Upton and Ian Beattie receive the English Cross Country Championships Heritage Plaque (© Mark Shearman)
The oldest national cross country championships in the world, whose 146-year history was recognised with the World Athletics Heritage Plaque in March 2019, was presented with its honour during the Night of the 10,000m PBs in Highgate, London, on Saturday (14).
The World Athletics Heritage Plaque is a location-based recognition, awarded for 'an outstanding contribution to the worldwide history and development of the sport of track and field athletics and of out-of-stadia athletics disciplines such as cross country, mountain, road, trail and ultra-running, and race walking'.
The official presentation of the plaque to the English National Cross Country Championships, which had been on hold due to the pandemic, took place at Parliament Hill Fields Athletics Track on the edge of Hampstead Heath, where the plaque will be permanently displayed.
Aerial view of the Night of the 10,000m PBs at Parliament Hill Athletics Track (© Getty Images)
Ian Beattie, the chair of UK Athletics, which is the national member federation of World Athletics, presented the plaque to John Temperton and Ian Byett, respectively the chair and secretary of the English Cross Country Association, the custodians of a cross country tradition which dates back to 1876.
'Null and void'
The history of the championships did not begin auspiciously. The first English Cross Country Championships was staged in 1876 in Buckhurst Hill, Epping Forest. However, the result was declared null and void. Over the decades a variety of reasons have been blamed, including a bad storm delaying the runners or more fundamentally the trail not being set properly, as reported at the time by the London and Sporting Chronicle.
As such, the 1877 edition is most commonly acknowledged as that start of the championships, staged in Roehampton near Wimbledon Common, England.
That race was won by P H Stenning of Thames Hare & Hounds, London, which in 1868 was established as the world’s first adult harrier club. The championships became formalised following the foundation of the English National Cross Country Union in 1883.
March 1913: Competitors in the English National Cross Country Championships climbing over a gate on the route (© Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
A French victory
The English Cross Country Association (ECCA), which today organises the championships, was established in 1992 following the amalgamation of the former men’s and women’s bodies: the English Cross Country Union and the Women’s Cross Country and Road Running Association.
Parliament Hill Fields as a venue for the championships is a relative newcomer. It first hosted 'The National', as the event is affectionally known, in 1957. This corner of Hampstead Heath has since been the venue for the championships on another dozen occasions. It is regarded by many as the modern spiritual home of the event.
The individual winners of the championships – whose names include Jack Holden, Sydney Wooderson, Gordon Pirie, Diane Leather, Basil Heatley, Dave Bedford, Brendan Foster, Joyce Smith, Mike McLeod, Tim Hutchings, Paula Fudge and Paula Radcliffe, to name but a very few – read like a who’s who of English distance running.
If you add France’s Joseph Guillemot, the 1920 Olympic 5000m champion who won that same year, to that pantheon of local greats then 'The National' is unquestionably a living distance running legend.
Chris Turner for World Athletics Heritage
Click here for history and results since 1876