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History

The Early History of

AVON VALLEY RUNNERS

by Tim Northwood (Co-founder member)

1945?-2017

 

It’s impossible to offer a true account of the foundation of Avon Valley Runners without referring to our last year with Trowbridge Athletic Club, to which most AVR founder members belonged. Trowbridge AC was a fairly large and busy club with a full range of age groups participating in a comprehensive spread of athletic sub-sports : long- and middle-distance running, track and field athletics, and race-walking (with the small band engaged in the last activity enjoying particular success, especially in the person of the international Judy Farr).

            The large number of child members gave club excursions to track and cross-country league meetings a feeling of youthful enthusiasm and camaraderie. It was natural that parents took a close interest in the wellbeing and success of their children, and it followed as a matter of course that some parents carried their interest into the organization of the club.

            However, this caused the distance runners to become a minority group on the committee. When in late 1985 it was proposed that club training on Tuesday evenings be moved from Clarendon School in Trowbridge, where the surrounding area gave us a wide choice of interesting runs and we’d paid only 20p each for the use of the change-rooms and showers, to the Christie-Miller Centre in Melksham, where there was a new Tartan track but the road runs in the area didn’t appeal to us and we’d be paying 70p each for the dubious privilege, our objections were overruled.

            We had little choice but to resign en bloc and form our own club, and, not without regret, we gave Trowbridge AC secretary Vernon Cox notice of our intention in September of that year. Five of us marked the occasion after training on Tuesday 29 October with a drink in the nearby Anchor & Hope. From then till the end of the year our “out-of-club” runs took place from Stan and Judy Farr’s house in Victoria Gardens, while we discussed the practical and other details necessary for forming a new club.

            None of us was in the first flush of youth; in fact, I’ve calculated that the average age on 1 January 1986 of the ten founders with unbroken membership remaining today was 40·4 years. All the same, in our former club we were used to training hard and running well, learning from our own and one another’s experience — the best coach for distance running — along with the simple instruction, “Try harder!” And it worked: for men, six-minute-mile pace up to and including the half-marathon was considered no better than good enough, and three hours was the unofficial club-standard line for the marathon.

            Our main intention was clear : to keep things as informal as possible. As enthusiastic distance runners, we would avoid the complications of multi-activity track and field athletics, and this was to be reflected in our name: not “harriers” or “athletic club”, but simply “runners”. Our name therefore reflected our modest aspirations : a friendly, uncomplicated association of distance runners whose favourite stamping-ground was and would be the scenic and testing valley of the River Avon : Avon Valley Runners.

            It’s no exaggeration to say that the late Stan Farr was the founding father of the new club. His experience and selfless work as our secretary for twenty years, with the help of Judy, led us through all the formalities of dealing with the AAA. We were also fortunate to have the support of Mike Holland, who had been treasurer with Trowbridge, and showed his son Miles the ropes in keeping the finances of the new club in order. Mike was our first president, and in the beginning and for the next twenty years was a reliable adviser in constitutional matters on the rare occasions when we needed such advice. It’s worth recording here that our first chairman, Paul Morgan, owned a chair factory: it seemed a good idea to find the most appropriate person for any position. (Unfortunately Paul had to give up running for medical reasons, but went on to distinguish himself in local opera and drama.)

            We started the new year as we meant to continue, when a few of us competed as AVR for the first time on Sunday 1 January 1986 in the annual Melksham 15-kilometre road race. Word got about, and in no time at all our numbers rose from the initial dozen or score to several score by the end of the first year, and nearly a hundred at the end of the third year. It was obvious that there had always been a hidden army of enthusiasts who simply wanted to run but had been intimidated by the feeling that they weren’t “athletes”.

            From the start we continued much as before, with minor differences. Stan arranged an alternative Tuesday meeting-place for the first few years at the judo club in Innox Road, Trowbridge, from where we went either on speed sessions under street-lights in Southway Park, or the hilly Wingfield/Tellisford circuit in summer, until we returned to Clarendon, by then a “sports centre”; on Thursday evenings for a couple of years we shared Culver Close in a friendly spirit with our former Trowbridge AC clubmates until they ceased to use it; and of course Sunday-morning runs from Pound Lane were and still are a friendly and sociable fixture.

            Another activity of Trowbridge AC which we carried over into AVR was affiliation to the Wessex and Avalon cross-country leagues; after 1990 we left the former. In spite of the pleasure we’d derived from this healthy branch of the sport in our former club it was difficult to arouse enthusiasm in new members, and often only four or five of us would make the journey to one of an interesting variety of courses.

            As a new club we were keen to do our bit in contributing to the local calendar of races, and this began in 1998 with founder member Tom Roberts’s series of handicaps over the testing Jones Hill/Avoncliff course of about three miles, held on the last Thursdays of May, June and July, which lasted until 2000 and seems to have been revived recently. Our next venture was the AVR 10K road race in Trowbridge, which was popular and successful from 1991 until 1998. From 1997 we’d begun putting resources into a multi-terrain race which invited athletes from other areas to compete in the Avon and Frome valleys which we’d been enjoying for years; and the Over the Hills race, conceived by Bernie Hobbs and Colin Williamson, continues to attract capacity entries to the present day. The same two members also came up with the 3 × 1·36-mile BernCol Relay which took place every year from 1993 to 2001. A newer member, Paul Clark, was responsible in 2005 for devising the forbiddingly-named Conkwell Killer, in which the only tough part of the varied eight-mile course was a climb up the old miners’ track from Dundas to Conkwell; this event also continued till a year or two ago.

            I value the memory of my working relationship with Stan Farr over the first twenty years of the club’s existence. During the years when I maintained a membership list (updated quarterly in consultation with Stan, who judiciously struck out those who dropped out from time to time, to keep the number below the 100 which would have put us in a costlier bracket in terms of AAA affiliation), the ratio of men to women was fairly steady at around 60 : 40, and that of seniors to veterans was much the same.

            When in 1990 I acquired a wordprocessor (later replaced by a “proper” computer), I offered to relieve him of one of his many tasks : compiling the simple but invaluable newsletter which he’d typed out from the beginning, and to extend its content with the addition of accurate results, member profiles and other features. On a Sunday afternoon or evening Stan or Judy would call round with the weekend’s results for my press reports ; and I’d keep these bits of paper for inclusion of every member’s performances in the quarterly Valley News. Although it was necessary sometimes to draw on “Memory Lane” to fill four A4 pages, I greatly appreciated the contributions of members in the form of race reports from far-flung places, humorous efforts and poems, especially from Tony Bartlett, Joyce Field, and the indomitable Viv Toms, who found time both to travel the world looking for challenging races and to condense her pithy comments into catchy verse.

            Forgive me for introducing a sober note, but during the past twenty-five years we’ve seen many members come and go, and we owe it to them to remember a few who made the ultimate departure. Frank Allen, who died after a run from Culver Close in 1990, and whose name lives on in the trophy for the outstanding over-50 member; Vic Bull, 1992, after whom the over-50 marathon trophy is named; the irrepressible Alan Jonas, aged only 35, in a mountaineering accident in the Italian Alps in 1993; Brian Merrill, only 50, in 1997 ; Glaswegian Bill Howsego’s full life of running, swimming, sailing and classical guitar ended aged 76 in 2001; Pauline Sanger, one of our Warminster intake, succumbed to cancer aged only 52 in 2002; she wasn’t a member, but Cynthia Holland, wife of our longtime president Mike, died on 2 October 2006 — only a day before Ian Stanley Farr, who following a sudden collapse while accompanying the Sunday-morning pack on his bike from Culver Close, died in hospital two days later.

            In conclusion, I wish all members, old and young, continuing success in the healthy activity we all follow, and pleasure in the matchless surroundings of the Avon Valley.

 

Silver Jubilee Dinner at Cumberwell Golf Club, Bradford on Avon, 4 June 2011.