The North East Harrier League is the oldest cross country league in the country, it evolved from the Northumberland and Durham Paperchase League and it was 1950/51 before it changed from the old hare and hounds` tradition using a `whipper in` and a `sprint in` to an `all-out` race. In the north east, pedestrianism, had been popular since the early 1800s, and throughout the century, the region had many rowing and pedestrian heroes. However, compared to the growth of football and harrier running nationally, the area lagged behind in the development of harrier running clubs. Monumental industrial growth and an extraordinary building programme saw Newcastle expand eastwards and westwards and it is no coincidence that new harrier clubs were formed in the new parishes forging community loyalty. Elsewhere harrier clubs such as Thames Hare and Hounds, Birchfield Harriers and Cheshire Tally Ho were well established, but it was 1887 before Newcastle Harriers, `the pioneer club` was formed. Their local `missionary` work soon saw the birth of Elswick, Heaton and Saltwell Harriers. Male harrier clubs attracted all classes, as they were not exclusive and annual subscriptions were low.

The North Eastern Counties Cross Country Association (NECCCA) was founded as the local governing body in 1894 and with a rise in inter-club runs it was no surprise they were soon discussing the possibility of creating a structured league competition. With its own rules and regulations, it functioned under the assumption that runners, club helpers and officials had time off work at the same time, the first race was held from the Victory Inn, Gosforth on Saturday November 7th 1896. The Newcastle Journal reported `in connection with the North Eastern Counties Cross Country Association, a league has been formed comprising clubs affiliated to the association. The idea is not only to promote cross country runs, but to hold more inter-club runs in the North of England. It is expected that this League will have the desired effect`. The league followed the format of public school hare and hounds, with a paper trail laid by hares. The pacemaker usually the club captain was assisted by the whipper in, whose primary role was to keep the pack together. At an arranged point the whipper in having waited at a point for the last man to arrive, brought the packs together and with the help of a `distance judge`, lined everyone up to race over the final mile or so.


Pre-viewing the first race, the Newcastle Journal emphasises the traditional terms. `Two hares will be despatched with the necessary scent to lay a good cross country trail of four miles or thereabouts. The paper will lead on to the main road at a distance of one mile from the finishing point, and the runners will be marshalled in line, preparatory to being started for the run in`. The post-race report describes, `Sadler and Buckham, two smart pedestrians belonging to Newcastle Harriers, were elected as hares, and they laid a capital trail over about four miles of country across Low Gosforth estate, and 16½ minutes later the pack went off in pursuit paced by Wakefield and whipped in by Stokoe. Near the lake gates of Gosforth Park on the route for home, the pack lined up for the sprint in, which after a magnificent struggle for supremacy amongst the leading clubs, resulted in premier honours being carried off Heaton Harriers`. The part played by the railways in revolutionising and popularising sports is emphasised in the Journal preview, `all who intend being present will find the 3.20pm train from Bridge Street Station the most convenient for the 3.45 start`.


One year later in the south of the NECCCA region, the North Yorkshire and South Durham Harrier League became the second oldest cross country league in the country. Throughout the next fifty years the Northumberland and Durham League evolved and the never ending talking point was whether the league should be all-out as opposed to the traditional sprint in. Matters came to a head in 1948, the same year the league changed its name to the Northumberland and Durham Harrier League. John Kennedy, the new President, emphasised that all-out races were a means of encouraging and preparing athletes for championships, as was the need to host races on grass and agricultural land. So it was no surprise when the Sunderland Daily Echo reported that `Elswick and Heaton have converted their courses into cross country events, so that runners can hardly complain nowadays that they are unable to obtain adequate cross country practice before the annual cross country championships`. Kennedy also stated many athletes got a shock when going to the Northern and National with the severity of the courses and hoped the clubs understood the first aim of the paperchase league was for cross country purposes. Finding suitable courses was a stumbling block. The Gateshead clubs even complained they were at a disadvantage, failing to obtain suitable courses to train for all-out. Despite all the arguments and practicalities, two years later in 1950/51 the hare and hounds` tradition and the days of sprint ins vanished into history.


Defending the traditional races, Falcon in the Sunderland Echo reports `modest in its pretentions, yet undoubtedly the rock on which the sport of cross country and road running in the north east has been reinforced, the N&D Harrier League opens the 1950 season at Blaydon on Saturday. This year will be remembered as the one in which all-out races replace the go-easy sprint in runs which in my opinion, were the foundations of the league`s popularity. Two to three hundred runners have been seen in action at these events. The experiment of staging two all-out races last season must be admitted to be a fair measure of success. The new type of run will provide the right type of training for those with ambitions to gain cross country honours, but those-and they were the majority-found the sprinting runs just the recreation they required. `Harriering` is a combination of running and racing. Running is the lighter side; the happy-go-lucky, go-as-you-please canters which all, novice and champions can enjoy. Racing is the serious side`. Falcon again writing in the Sunderland Echo in 1952 however states `over the last two seasons a decline has taken place in the league`s popularity. For me this lessening started when all-out races were tried in favour of the sprint in`.


In 1976 the league changed its name to the North East Harrier League and with record numbers of finishers in 2015/16 it remains as popular as ever, with all age groups using the unique handicapping system. Falcon way back in 1951 summed up `there is not a sign of senile trembling about the N&D Harrier League. It is alive and active as never before. Its value lies as much in its social as its athletic activity. The system of handicapping, bringing as it does the weaker clubs into the contest, adds considerable interest`. Using an extant minute book, the league inaccurately celebrated its centenary in 2009. However, excluding suspension during the worlds wars, doubts about it taking place between 1901-05 and an unofficial series during 1939/40, 2009 may not be far off the anniversary mark.

Article © Archie Jenkins 


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