United Kingdom

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.

Tom Wilson (right) competing in the Thames Hare & Hounds’ Second Sunday 5 race across Wimbledon Common © Marco Kesseler

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.”

Small piles of competitors’ shirt numbers on a table
Getting the numbers up: the Second Sunday 5 is popular with runners of all levels . . . 

Second Sunday 5 contestant Seb, 13
. . . and ages, such as 13-year-old Seb (above left) © Marco Kesseler (2)

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.

A black and white photo, framed by cream-coloured paper, of Roger Banister breaking the four-minute mile
Thames Hare and Hounds’ roll call of illustrious members includes Roger Bannister, the first athlete to break the four-minute mile © Marco Kesseler

Photographs of former members on the club house walls
Photographs of former members cover the club house walls © Marco Kesseler

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.

Runners on a muddy path bisecting woodland in the Second Sunday 5 race
The Second Sunday 5 is open to non-Thames Hare and Hound members 

Muddy legs of three male runners in the Second Sunday 5 race
Reflecting the increased popularity of recreational running, the club’s membership has steadily grown over the past few years © Marco Kesseler (2)

“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.

A stopwatch recording runners’ finishing times held by a gloved hand
Former Thames Hare and Hounds president Mike Farmery records runners’ finishing times © Marco Kesseler

Former club president Mike Farmery
Farmery (above) has been a Thames Hare and Hounds member for more than 35 years © Marco Kesseler

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.

A pair of muddy running shoes after the Second Sunday 5 race.
Tom Wilson’s running shoes after the race © Marco Kesseler

Three male runners after the Second Sunday 5 race
Farmery describes the club’s membership as ‘broad and eclectic’ © Marco Kesseler

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.

Richly deserved tea and cake await at the end of the race © Marco Kesseler
Groups of runners chatting at the end of the race
‘Cheap as chips to join and a great way of socialising,’ one runner says of the Second Sunday 5 © Marco Kesseler

“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

Cities with the FT

FT Globetrotter, our insider guides to some of the world’s greatest cities, offers expert advice on eating and drinking, exercise, art and culture — and much more

Find us in London, Tokyo, New York, Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Singapore, Hong Kong, Miami, Toronto and Madrid


Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button