Running in London with the world’s oldest cross-country club
This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to London
On a crisp winter morning I line up with one hundred other runners on the edge of Wimbledon Common, a sprawling ancient heathland on the south-west fringe of London.
The race, organised by Thames Hare and Hounds on the second Sunday of every month, is five miles of classic cross-country running, along rutted tracks and slippery paths, over gnarled tree roots and frigid puddles.
A low sun breaks through the trees as we set off and memories of dozens of freezing schoolboy races come flooding back: the bustle of the pack, the sound of feet on gravel, the mud, it’s all there.
It is my first time running with Thames but I sense it won’t be the last. This is no ordinary club.
Established in 1868 — before the telephone, Manchester United and even the Financial Times — it is the oldest adult cross-country running club in the world, and to run with Thames is to run in the footsteps of 155 years of history.
“Most members feel they are part of something quite special,” Mike Farmery, a former club president who is now one of three club trustees, tells me before the race. “I feel like a custodian of the club, charged with keeping the traditions going.”
Founded by members of a local rowing team who were looking for a way to keep fit during the winter, Thames is the oldest of several historic London running clubs that trace their roots to the second half of the 19th century, when Victorian Britons, blessed with newfound wealth and leisure time, first codified many sports. Blackheath and Bromley Harriers was founded in 1869 (as Peckham Hare and Hounds), South London Harriers in 1871, Highgate Harriers in 1879 and Ranelagh Harriers in 1881.
Dozens of other amateur cross-country and athletics clubs were founded up and down the country in the following decades and still provide the backbone for British running today. In contrast to the US, where wealthy universities generally train the next generation of American athletes, the local club structure is the dominant force in the UK, creating unique spaces where those keeping fit can rub shoulders with elite runners.
But even among some notable peers, Thames stands out. Previous members include Roger Bannister, the first person to break the four-minute-mile, and Chris Brasher, who paced Bannister to that record in 1954 and went on to co-found the London Marathon.
In the unassuming club house — above a block of ageing changing rooms on the edge of the common — engraved wooden boards display the winners of the club’s annual races back to 1872, and black and white photographs of former members fill the walls. As I change before my run, I spy the Irish runner Sonia O’Sullivan collecting her 5,000m gold medal at the 1995 World Championships, and Chris Chataway, the British athlete, broadcaster and politician, setting a men’s world record over the same distance in 1954.
“We are very proud of our history,” says club archivist Simon Molden, who recently helped update the club’s official history and has written a book on the annual varsity race between Oxford and Cambridge universities, which Thames has hosted since 1896.
Molden dates modern cross-country running to the 1819, when one of Britain’s oldest schools, Shrewsbury, rejected a request from pupils to form a mounted fox-hunting club and started to organise foot races for them across the countryside instead.
The second part of Thames’ name — Hare and Hounds — stems from the fact that into the 20th century many such races involved two runners, known as “the hares”, setting off first and laying a trail of paper for the other runners, known has “the hounds”, to follow.
“That’s also why a lot of cross-country and athletics clubs are called ‘harriers’ because that means a hare hunter,” Molden explains.
Thames’ races no longer involve one group hunting another, but many other traditions survive.
Club vests are emblazoned with a simple black cross, or saltire, that members once made at home using two pieces of ribbon. Maureen Poole, in charge of the club’s social events and refreshments, is still known as the Carver and Commissary-General. “First woman in the club’s history to do it,” she tells me.
As interest in recreational running has boomed in the past decade, Thames’ membership has grown, not as quickly as some clubs, but “steadily”, says Farmery, helped by events like its Sunday races, which are open to anyone and attract runners of all standards.
“History and tradition can be a trap,” he says. “We’ve got to keep reinventing ourselves . . . you don’t want to be a museum.”
At the top end of the club, its men’s and women’s teams compete in county, regional and national championships. But the membership is broad and “eclectic”, says Farmery, who joined Thames in 1986. About half of the 450 members are social runners, there for the relaxed Wednesday training runs and to make friends.
“Nice buzz, nice atmosphere, nice people,” says Richard Kirschner, who at 76 appears to be the oldest runner at the Sunday race. The youngest, Seb, 13, tells me the hill was longer than that he expected but that he still beat his dad.
“Cheap as chips to join and a great way of socialising,” says another runner, covered in mud.
Often managed by volunteers, London’s running clubs offer refreshingly affordable recreation in an increasingly expensive city. Annual membership at Thames costs £25, after which club runs and training sessions are free. For non-members like me, the Sunday race costs £5, and even that includes post-run tea and cake.
So as, with tired legs, we chat and eat banana loaf, I find myself thinking about all the Hares and Hounds, fast and slow, who have pounded the common’s paths since 1868, and all those who will run them in the future.
“It’s a sport where you can keep going, even when you’re old and a bit knackered,” says Molden. “You can keep plodding round.”
Thames Hare and Hounds’ next Second Sunday 5 race is on March 12; secondsunday5.com
London’s historic running clubs: where and when
Thames Hare and Hounds, founded 1868
Location: Wimbledon Common Clubhouse; nearest train station, Putney
Membership fees: £25 a year
Training sessions: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday
Blackheath and Bromley Harriers, founded 1869
Location: Norman Park Track, Bromley; nearest train station, Hayes
Membership fees: £92 a year
Training sessions: Wednesday and Sunday
South London Harriers, founded 1871
Location: 194a Brighton Road, Coulsdon; nearest train station, Coulsdon South
Membership fees: £50 a year
Training sessions: Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday
Highgate Harriers, founded 1879
Location: Parliament Hill Fields Athletics Track; nearest train station, Gospel Oak
Membership fees: £60 a year
Training sessions: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday
Ranelagh Harriers, founded 1881
Location: Petersham Road, Richmond; nearest train station, Richmond
Membership fees: £50 a year
Training sessions: Tuesday and Thursday
Which London running clubs would you recommend? Tell us in the comments
Follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter