Cross Country Running

Cross Country Running

Mr William T Marsh, Headmaster 1927-31, introduced the School’s House system in 1928 and, at the same time, included a House Cross Country race as part of the Cock House competition. Marsh of Queens’ College represented Cambridge in the Varsity Athletics match, 1920-22 and, in the latter two years, had been Captain of Cambridge University Hare and Hounds Club. After coming down from Cambridge he became a member of the famous Achilles Club and of the South London Harriers. From its very inception Cross Country at the School was in safe and knowledgeable hands. On 8th January 1931 the Morning Post reported “criticism was levelled at Social’ sports days by Mr W T Marsh of HGS, in an address on ‘Athletics in Schools’ to the conference of the Incorporated Association of Headmasters. He emphasized the ‘dignity of sport’, but said that it was unfortunate that sports days in many schools were so much social events. The programme should be confined to genuine athletic events and there was no need to descend to the ridiculous to make the programme entertaining. The indiscriminate awarding of prizes must place athletics on a less healthy basis.” Standards had been set and the School has adhered to these precepts to this day, seventy years on. In 1928 L Partridge Esq FRIBA donated the House Cross Country Cup.

In 1928 there were two House races: a Senior race over 41/2 miles with teams of 12 from the four Houses, with 10 runners to count; a Junior race over 2114 miles with teams of 10 and 6 to count. Cowper House won both races, and the first Senior winner was D F Camp (Co) in 29 minutes, 4 seconds. In 1929 they were, again, successful in both. It is recorded “the race was won by A G Wesley Wright (W) who, making a great effort, beat H G Murton (Co) in a most exciting finish, their times being 30 minutes 24 seconds”. A fifth of a second separated them.

There was an innovation in 1930 when the School VIII entertained and defeated St Michael’s College, Hitchin, This was the first in a long tradition of inter school races. Page House ended Cowper’s run and tactics were developing. It is recorded of the winner, J W May (P) “in addition to a good personal performance was mainly responsible for getting home two of the Page team in second and third positions”. May later set a record 27 minutes, 393/4 seconds for the course. In 1931 both Queen Elizabeth’s, Barnet and St Michael’s were beaten and, in the house race, C H Hipgrave (Cr) triumphed. His enthusiasm resulted in an innovation in 1932 when an Old Hertfordian VIII lost to the School. It is recorded “It is hoped to hold a similar match next year when every OH who has done any cross country will be expected to do his share of ploughing through mud and water as he did in his schooldays.” It was noted that there was ‘a deplorable lack of training’ among Old Hertfordians ah, it was ever thus’ Hipgrave, 5th, was the first OH home, and it seems that the race was not repeated. In 1933, W H Thomas and J B White of Cowper ran in tandem, finishing in a dead heat.

In 1935 the Senior course was shortened. The previous course, after crossing the Brickendon lane, ran parallel with the railway for nearly a mile and bore east through a small wood and along a lane to the road. Now the railway line was left much earlier and the road was reached through the farmyard of Mr Vigus. It was estimated that about a mile was lost and, at this time, cross country running was confined to boys over 141/2 years. Now each House entered teams of 10 of which 8 were to count. Stcve Thomas (Co) was the winner of the House race. Times varied with conditions and a very wet winter, 1936-37, meant that runners ‘struggled round the miry track bringing home large sections of the unwilling countryside’.

Hostilities caused cancellation in 1938 and 1940 as did bad weather in 1941. In 1942 ‘for the first time since the outbreak of war it has been possible to run the House Cross~Country race’. There began a sequence of races dominated by two fine runners, E L Retallick and Malcolm Willey, both of Page. Also in this year an annual fixture began with Luton Modern School who had a hilly, very demanding course. During the war regular reports were not included in School magazines. Retallick left in the Spring term of 1945. Did he run in the 1945 race and win again? The 1948 season was one of the most successful. Geoff Goldstone (W) beat Derek Collins (P) by a half yard and in the inaugural Hertfordshire Schools Cross Country Race at St Albans, against strong competition from Watford GS (77 points) and QE, Barnet (82 points), the School was victorious with 56 points. The six runners to count were: Goldstone (3) Chris Elliott (4), Collins (5) John Bush (7), Lauric Carpenter (13) and P A T Barber (26).

In 1951 the School’s course was extended for the House race to give a three quarter lap of the track with the finish at the Pavilion. Tom Bunt used to start the House race at the beginning of Morgans Road at the drop of a handkerchief. David Kemp (1951 58) remembers J R Waters (W) as the finest runner of the 1950s. The Sunday Times hailed him as a ‘brilliant boy runner’ for his winning performance in the Ranclagh Harriers Inter Schools Cross Country race at Petersham, in which he beat the record. During this period Malcolm Willey was back at the School as Sports Master. Cross Country expanded in importance with many more fixtures; in 1954 there was another match v Old Hertfordians and a Junior School VIII was formed. By 1957 there were 11 Senior fixtures and 1960 61 was, perhaps, the School’s best season with 12 wins in 14 fixtures. It achieved second place to Haileybury in the County Schools’ race, the best position since 1948. In the late 1950s and 1960s Messrs P G Chapman and T Grundy were the masters in charge, followed by J S Dodd in 1970. The cross country season began in mid October and, sometimes, the Senior team suffered losses of its members to the Rugby XV. The numbers of boys at the School were increasing: in 1958 an Under 14 team was introduced, in 1964 an Under 15 team, in 1965 there were Senior A and B teams and, by 1967, an Under 12 team had been added. The 1960 fixtures included Hitchin GS, Writtle, Alleynes GS, QE Barnet, Watford GS, St Albans GS, Luton Modern, Royal Masonic, St Ignatius, Haileybury, Cheshunt GS and Bishop’s Stortford. The School Senior team competed in the County Schools’ race, the Ranelagh Harriers Schools’ race, the Enfield Cup, the Bishop’s Stortford Schools’ race and the Queens Park Harriers Road Relay. By 1967 Junior fixtures reflected changes in the educational system and included Sherardswood, Goffs, Dewhurst, Ravenscroft, Fanshaws, Marshallwick, Northwood and Simon Balle.

“An early realization that I lacked any co-ordination of hand and eye, or foot and eye even, meant that I was never to be a member of ‘Biff’ Clouting’s Cricket Coteric. Although frorn time to time I was allowed to join the more forbearing ‘Dickie’ Palmer’s Rugby elite, I even exhausted his patience at times. It was later on, when I discovered that nature had compensated by blessing me with a slow heart rate and something called ‘stamina’, that I took to long distance running.

When the opportunity came, I found that I quite enjoyed cross country running. For once it was a sport in which I was not consigned to the underclass, in this instance KA (Taxi) Baird’s ‘Trotters Club’. I enjoyed the running, but not the actual race, which was preceded by several days of nervous tension, rising to an almost unbearable pitch on the day of the race. Invariably it would be followed by abject despair that one had not done as well as one anticipated.

My first inter house race was not quite like that because, as a relative junior and newcomer to the event, I finished a creditable ninth, much to everyone’s surprise, including my own. However, being a novice, what I didn’t know at the time was that the simple method of selecting the tearn for the only inter schools race was to pick the first ten home, eight to run and two reserves. Inevitably someone dropped out and I was in the team. Fortunately it was a year when the race was run over our course. I forget who the visitors were, but, not knowing the course, several of them went the wrong way, got completely lost and we won easily. I don’t remember where I came home, but what I do remember is that I was coasting home behind ‘Taffy’ Morgan. He was wearing a white sweater and I just had to keep him in view. No point in overtaking a member of one’s own team. Turning into Morgan’s Walk the runner in front was wearing blue. Reluctantly summoning up a sprint I caught up with him, only to find it was ‘Taffy’. He had discarded his sweater!

The following year I was expected to do well. I was a year older and stronger and most of those who had led me the year before had left school. Now it was always rumoured that the Staff had a sweepstake on the cross country and that one of the prefects ran a book on the event. Now that I am older and wiser I realize that probably I was a ‘likely outsider’ and probably the ‘bookmaker’ had taken some large bets on me to win. Young and naive as I then was, on the day of the race I accepted an invitation from a senior prefect to go into town for lunch. He plied me with meat pie and chips, doubtless followed by a cigarette or two. AS a consequence, much to my own and others disgust, I was ninth for the second year running, I was, as I think they say in racing circles, ‘nobbled’. THB assumed I hadn’t been trying and told me so in no uncertain terms.

The one consolation was that, although reserve for the inter schools match once again, that year no one dropped out, so I didn’t have to run in the away match when it was our turn to get lost on their course’.
Derrick Dorken (1940-47)

Cowper House’s success in the Spring of 1952

Going through a very old photograph book I found reminders of the end results of what, I seem to recall, were many training runs over the School cross country course in normal school time and more runs in our own time.

Setting off from Morgans Road, opposite County Hall, we ran down it to the end, turned right along a track through a field downhill to the Horns Mill Brickendon road, crossing this road near the ford and running up the other side. Here the real cross country efforts began, running through seine four ploughed fields in the direction of Brickendon. Eventually we cut through the farmyard at Clements Farm which, I recall, was always very slimy, and not only with mud. It was not easy to get through (in fact in one race a plimsoll was sucked off my foot, which I did not realise for about a quarter of a mile, so I finished the race without it). This led us back onto the Brickendon road and we turned left towards Horns Mill, running downhill on the road for about half a mile, before turning right across a stile to pasture land up a gentle slope. (Editor my memory is of quite a steep slope.) Then we joined a bridleway, where we turned left into Morgans Walk and then to Morgans Road. Running back along this walk towards County Hall was always pleasant, as the agony was nearly over. However, I think the person who worked out the course must have had a ‘funny’ mind, making the race finish with a tempting fast burn up around three quarters of the running track in the Top Field, in a clockwise direction finishing in front of the pavilion. Whilst I had good staying power, I never could cope with those who still had a sprint finish in them, and never managed better than fifth place. I wonder what became of the fine bunch of athletes who brought success to Cowper House in 1952 I think that I must be a sadist, having pleasant memories of this after 46 years, but I really did find it enjoyable.
Colin Kidby (1948-52)