In 1994 Alnwick hosted the first ever European Cross Country Championships below Alnwick Castle.
In 1915, some 79 years before, a training camp was constructed in the north demesne across the River Aln for the Tyneside Scottish Brigade and other regiments in training for the First World War and it was in this location that Alnwick claimed another first in the history of cross-country running in the North East.
This was the scene for the first of many military cross-country races sanctioned by the North East Counties Cross Country Association (NECCAA) during the conflict.
In 1915, the Army authorities wanting to encourage a spirit of athleticism amongst the men and young recruits in particular, were fully supported by Lieutenant Colonel WH Ritson and the officers of the 16th Service Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers in Alnwick.
The first of a series of cross-country runs between civilians and army battalions took place on February 20 1915, under the patronage of the NECCA.
A great number of runners in the battalion turned out nightly for practice. The committee who undertook the management involved military personnel and representatives from the NECCCA, the Northern Counties Athletics Association, Heaton Harriers, Benwell Harriers, Gateshead Congers Harriers and North Durham Cricket Club.
WT Rainbow was race referee and was assisted by team of officials.
Rainbow was no stranger to Alnwick, having been invited in the past to the annual dinner of the Alnwick Amateur Athletic Society and along with timekeeper George Todd had officiated on numerous occasions at the annual Alnwick Athletics Sports Festival.
In ideal weather conditions a very large attendance of local townspeople witnessed the start and finish. The pack of 50 runners lined up near the guard room at 4.25pm and was led by two hares that had been given a start of several minutes. The spectacle was witnessed enthusiastically by a large group of townspeople.
The pack included runners from Heaton, the Congers and Blaydon joining the 16th Northumberland Fusiliers, Army Service Corps, Tyneside Scottish and Durham F.R. Engineers, on this occasion running a route made popular pre-war by Alnwick Harriers (who had disbanded before the conflict), but on this time ran in reverse.
From the camp the runners ran through the town to Denwick, across to Heckley and home, a distance of approximately six-and-a-quarter miles. J Leach from Heaton Harriers won in 55mins 57secs and C Teasdale was first home for the local Northumberland Fusiliers, coming fifth overall.
In total, seven Heaton Harriers and four Blaydon Harriers finished in the top 20.
In the June of that year, the press reported another successful military run in Alnwick, describing the route over a judicious mixture of grassland, road and varied country, finishing in the Pastures.
The highlight was the runners negotiating the ford at Denwick (Peter’s) Mill.
The Morpeth Herald regularly reported on weekly runs of the Northumberland Fusilier battalions, mostly using the environs of Deer (Hulne) Park for its routes thanks to the support of the Duke of Northumberland. A legacy that survives to this day through the Alnwick Harriers’ Les Allcorn 10k promotion.
In March 1916, only a few days after arriving for training at Alnwick, the Tyneside Irish held their Battalion Sports. The 440 yards foot race alone attracted an entry of 200 with preliminary heats necessary in the morning.
All events took place with contestants wearing issue ammunition boots, an objection was raised if anyone tried to compete in pumps.
In the afternoon the whole battalion turned out as spectators, as did a large number of Alnwick townspeople.
These battalion sports days throughout the period were well attended by the appreciative townsfolk.
Following the war, Alnwick Harriers reformed and in 1922 E Peebles is reported winning their first organised race, a five-and-a-half mile run.
The spectacle of the military cross-country races in the town probably played a major role in the resurrection of athletics in the town following the war.
Nearly 100 years after the outbreak of war, none of the huge entry of North East Harrier League runners in the fixture hosted by Alnwick Harriers in March 2014 would know they were retracing the footsteps of the competitors in the early stages of the first ever military cross-country race in the North East during the conflict.