The history of the ‘National’ cross county

The history of the ‘National’ cross county
The history of the ‘National’ cross county

                                  

By Eamonn Martin, English Cross Country Association.

The amazement of the ‘National’ whether you have run in it or watched it will stay with you. The vision of the stampede at the start with the array of coloured club vests from all around the country, some more famous than others, is a site to behold.

Origins of Cross Country

Paper chasing or ‘hare and hounds’ started in England early in the 19th century. The ‘hares’ started a few minutes before the hounds and left a trail of paper scraps to be followed by the ‘hounds’. Cross country runners came to be known as harriers, after a small hound used to chase genuine hares.

Engraving showing a group of runners scattering paper to leave a trail for chasers to follow
Paper chasing: the ‘hares’ lay the trail for the ‘hounds’ to chase.
Image: ECCA

The Crick run from Rugby School in 1837, which is still run annually, is thought to be the start of competitive cross country although there is some evidence that Shrewsbury instituted their run in 1831. In 1867 the Thames Rowing Club organised cross country runs as a means of keeping fit during the winter months and around the country cross country clubs were formed, the first being Thames Hare and Hounds formed in 1868.

The first ‘National’

The National 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 staged in Roehampton near Wimbledon Common, England is most commonly acknowledged as that start of the championships. That race was won by P H Stenning of Thames Hare & Hounds, London.

National Cross Country Union

1883 saw the founding of the National Cross Country Union in order to control cross country running under the Laws of the Amateur Athletic Association. The founder of Thames Hares and Hounds, Walter Rye, was the Union’s first President. The first ‘National’ under the auspices of the English Cross Country Union was held on Saturday, 1st March 1884 in Sutton Coldfield on the Four Oaks Racecourse. Previously all races with the exception of the first had been held at Roehampton. It was decided that each of the three associations, North, Midlands and South, would take it in turn to host the race.

Venues

The ‘National’ has typically rotated around the country every 3 years to allow new locations to be found at venues large enough to host the event, though the requirements of a very large area of land to run on, along with the impact of thousands of runners on the terrain and managing large volumes of cars needing to park is making this more challenging as the event has grown.
There have been repeat venues, one very famous venue used on a regular 3 years rotation is Parliament Hill Fields, London. First used in 1950 for the Women’s National, followed by the men’s event in 1957 and used regularly since, it has recently been given the accolade of a World Athletics Heritage Award for Cross Country and a plaque stands proudly by the course.

Name Changes

In 1933 the National Cross Country Union was renamed the English Cross Country Union (ECCU), reflecting the fact that the constituent members of the United Kingdom had their own cross country bodies.

In 1992 the English Cross Country Union and the Women’s Cross Country and Road Running Association amalgamated to form the English Cross Country Association – as with other areas of athletics, the men’s and the women’s maintained separate governing bodies until the early 1990s. The amalgamation enabled the development of cross country running and saw the first combined championships for men and women.

In 1992 the English Cross Country Union and the Women’s Cross Country and Road Running Association amalgamated to form the English Cross Country Association – as with other areas of athletics, the men’s and the women’s maintained separate governing bodies until the early 1990s.

Women’s Senior Race, 2023 at Mansfield (Midlands).
Image: Mark Shearman

The amalgamation enabled the development of cross country running and saw the first combined championships for men and women.

Quick Facts

  • First Women’s race held at Hoo Park, Luton in February, 1927. First Junior Girls’ in 1932 at Heathfield, Selston.
  • First combined Men’s and Women’s National held in 1995 after the amalgamation of the English Cross Country Association (ECCA) and the Women’s Cross Country and Road Running Association.
  • 2003 Parliament Hill, London was the first year that a full age group race programme for men and women took place in one day. U13, U15, U17, U20 and Senior races made up the 10-race programme.
  • Largest event to date was Parliament Hill Fields, London 2018, with a total 9,565 entries across the 10-race programme. 6 444 finishers were recorded across the programme, with more than a third – 2 328 – recorded in the Senior Men’s race.
  • Largest entry for a single race was 4 712 for the Senior Men’s race in Newark, 1996.

For more information about the English Cross Country Association, and the history of the National Championships use the buttons below