Monday 23 November 2020

Aykley Heads Review

Aykley Heads Cross Country 2014-2019


As in previous years Harrier League fixtures in 2013/14 included a race just over the border in Gateshead but no running in County Durham. Venues which had previously been used in Consett and Chester-Le-Street were no longer viable. A suitable site needed a course and a large parking area. Three local clubs Elvet Striders, Durham City Harriers and Derwentside A.C. decided bringing a race back to Durham was a good idea and investigated a variety of sites settling on Aykley Heads. A suggestion was made at the 2014 Harrier League A.G.M. and we had a date of 22nd November 2014 for the first race.

Pre-race Planning

Now the easy part was over. The event needed the course to be mowed, new gates to be added, 60 volunteers to be recruited and most importantly signed agreements with landowners to allow access. Throughout the events the core team stayed the same Geoff Davis (Elvet Striders) volunteer recruitment and course clearance, Geoff Watson (Durham City Harriers) course building and dismantling and Mark Davinson (Derwentside A.C.) leases, landowners and general organisation. We were also indebted to Andy Niven volunteer Countryside Ranger who mowed the grass each year and helped develop the course while protecting the nature reserve we ran through. The fixture couldn’t have become a reality without the support of our masses of volunteers mostly from Elvet Striders who ensured everyone was parked safely, didn’t get lost and events ran smoothly.

Photographs show car park and course marshals from 2014

2014 The Chair And Crazy Corner   

When the original route was designed it went all the way round the edge of the land. On Facebook after the race the most discussed course features were the hairpin bend at the end of the course, which we called crazy corner, and the 3ft step 100 metres before that, the Chair named after the jump on the Grand National. As a new course replacing Blaydon runners didn’t know what to expect but most posts described it as brutal, muddy fun and one of the hardest courses. It was a proper cross country course was the consensus which was exactly what the organisers were looking for. All three organisers were determined to copy Saltwell’s Keith Wood and run. A trend which would continue in future years.

Innovative dance move on crazy corner

Juniors in the haze

Women approach crazy corner with the very helpful tree in photograph

All three by Hippie Nixon

2015 Tweaking The Beast

A second fixture was agreed for 21st November 2015. Any thoughts the course was too difficult were erased with approximately 40 extra runners in both the men’s and women’s races. In a couple of places where the paths had taken a battering new routes were cut through the grassland adding a different type of underfoot surface and a bit more elevation. Heavy rain leading up to the fixture made the top of the big hill very sticky with several shoes coming off.


Shoes in hand photograph by Darren Fairclough

Laura Weightman winning the women’s race

Men halfway up the big hill Paulo’s Running Pics

2016 NECAA Championships Adding Length

Aykley Heads was lucky enough to host the NECAA Championships on 10th December 2016. A longer course was needed so a few new innovations were introduced including the woodland and removing the chair which were both retained for future events. The route through the sticky, deep mud to the right of the trees at the top of the bank wasn’t used and did not return. In the senior championship races Olympian Laura Weightman won the women’s race and GB cross country international Jonathan Taylor the men’s.

Chairman of Durham County Council Eddie Bell helps George Patterson start some of the championship races

For the last six years we have had the best maps in cross country beautifully illustrated by Juliet Percival

Footage from the men’s race at the NECAA Championships 2016 from Ian Twaddle

2017/18 Maintaining The Challenge

By 2017 the fixture was a regular fixture in the cross country calendar and hosting was by now maintaining the same blueprint which had been previously successful. Alterations from the NECAA Championships which had been popular were retained and the course reverted to its previous Harrier League length. In 2018 the course stayed the same. Both years were dry for November and numbers remained similar with a record of 416 finishers in the women’s race in 2018.

2017 A new way to watch the race by stationary train Dougie Nisbet

2017 A new way to watch the race by stationary train Dougie Nisbet

2018 women on the downhill John Jobson

2018 men near the start Stuart Whitman

2019 A Final Mudbath?

By 2019 Durham County Council had planning permission to develop a new headquarters and progressed plans to turn County Hall into an industrial estate. Northern Athletics had agreed to hold their 2021 Championships at Aykley Heads. With the new building expected in Spring 2021 the car park would be a building site by the Summer. Heavy rain throughout the Autumn had already led to postponements. In previous years thick, sticky mud had slowed runners down. In 2019 wet, slippy mud covered the course and made cornering difficult. Some runners hoped the crazy corner would be reinstated but the course remained the same as the previous year.

Club colours? Ben Heathcote

Juniors in the mist Stuart Whitman

2020 The Future

At the time of writing the Northern Championships has been postponed but may take place in March if restrictions permit. Building of the council HQ remains on schedule making it unlikely car parks will be available in November 2021. Thanks to all the volunteers, race officials, league officials and runners who helped make Aykley Heads cross county a great event. Durham County Council and Durham Police Authority have both been amazingly supportive of our cross country community ripping up their land. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as the organising team have.

Written by Mark Davinson.

2019 mudfest by Paul Dunlop

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