I wasn’t born or raised in Newcastle, but I did a lot of growing up there. I moved when I was 17 to study at university, and the nine following years formed me as much as the previous 17 in Edinburgh had. Weekends were usually spent driving out into Northumberland to climb on some of the many amazing sandstone outcrops: Bowden Doors, Kyloe in the Woods, Great Wanney’s. The climbing was much like your archetypal Northumbrian: stout, hard, high quality and full of character. It’s generally pretty quiet. The geography puts it just beyond the normal ventures of most, with people diverting to the Lake or Peak District, many even driving straight past on the way to Scotland. This leaves you with a real hidden treasure. It’s one that still feels like a closely guarded secret when I visit now, astonished (but glad) that there aren’t more people enjoying this beautiful place.
It may have been climbing that introduced me to Northumberland, but it was the slightly more esoteric sporting pursuit of Cumberland Westmorland Wrestling that really buried its place in my heart. One summer I found myself working on an exhibit that was to tour the County Fairs. It was an old horse wagon that had been converted into a museum of the history of the boxing booths that used to feature at fairs and show grounds. The basic premise of a boxing booth was “Go three rounds, win a pound!”, a seemingly achievable goal for a bounty of over a day’s wages. There was, as with every fairground challenge, a factor set to greatly diminish that illusion of achievability: a world-class boxer. And world-class is by no means an exaggeration. Jimmy Wilde “The Ghost with the Hammer in His Hand” was a well-known booth boxer who later became a World Featherweight Champion several years running. The cloak that concealed his dagger was his diminutive stature (5 foot 2 and 8 stone), which would draw hardy working-men into the ring, unable to perceive the danger they were finding themselves in. The slight but devastating Wilde provided great spectacle and income for the booth. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the sight of this small man knocking 16 stone monsters onto their arses must have been one to behold.
Unsurprisingly, this form of entertainment didn’t quite survive into the modern era, so the touring exhibit I worked on was more cultural than physical. We’d set up a marquee with a boxing ring inside, and different performers would come and do their acts on the theme of boxing in the ring. It would receive mixed praise with many coming to tell amazing stories of the booths, but an equal number voicing their disappointment at the lack of bloodsport.
Once we’d set up, we were free to walk around the County Fairs. Prize-winning vegetables, lovingly restored vintage tractors, pedigree sheep and competition cakes all had their appeal, but it was the wrestling that really caught my eye. I enquired to one of the local competitors (the meritorious Jack Brown of Hayden Bridge, for the interested) if the public ever entered, and was informed that it was highly common and often profitable, with prize money being offered to the top three or four of each weight category. The format appeared simple enough, left hand over, right hand under, clasp your hands behind your opponents back, don’t let go, and try and throw or trip them to the ground, best of three falls and that’s that. Either way, I fancied my chances much more favourably than trying to survive three rounds with an iron fisted world champion for a measly quid!
Name entered, weight checked on an antique set of counterbalance scales and I’m good to go. Soon enough I’m called into the foray – a circular ring defined by a line of sawdust – and I’m faced with my opponent. Fortunately for me, it is not a cold blooded knockout-artist world champion, but instead a cheery Northumbrian teenager called Archie Singer who had only minutes before been giving me pointers on how to wrestle. Also in my favour was the fact that unlike boxing, in wrestling, an amount of strength bereft of technique can occasionally leverage a victory. The referee, Jimmy Pringle, calls us into the middle and in his unmistakable deep Northumbrian accent instructs us “Wrestlers, tek hod”, “On yer guard”, “Wrassle!”. And with a good amount of tussle, I manage to unbalance and tumble down on top of Archie. A win! We gather ourselves up and shake hands – as is the tradition before and after every fall. Taking hold again, Archie launches a quick attack the second the bout commences – a quick push and a foot placed behind my own and I land flat on my arse. One all. Third time round, I’m a bit more prepared to fend off his attacks, and I manage to awkwardly tumble down on top of him again, to victory. A quick handshake, and a hand raised in the air to signal the win to the judges’ table and that’s that. It’s probably worth noting that I was ten years older, and several stone heavier than Archie at that moment – a momentous triumph it was not. My next opponent was from the other end of the wrestling scale, it was 6 foot 3, 15 stone and All Weights Champion, Andrew Ord. Informed of his accolades by Archie, he told me not to worry, “He’s dead gentle”. Slightly baffled by this apparent contradiction I enter the ring, shake hands and take hold as instructed. My feet leave the ground the instant the bout commences, as he spins me round for an inside-hipe. Using his leg, he tips my body horizontal in the air and lays me down as softly as a parent putting a baby to bed. I guess that was pretty gentle. He picks me up off the deck with a smile and repeats the exact same thing for the second round, sealing the set. As an aside, I ended up training at the same club as Andrew – Rothbury Wrestling Club – for years to come after this, and during that time and over hundreds of bouts, I can count the times I took a fall off him on one hand. Nicest bloke you’ll ever meet.
That’s Andrew with the beard. Losing.
Anyway, my efforts had given me a 4th place in the category, receiving £5 in an envelope. Definitely better than getting my head punched in over a pound. That summer I wrestled at every show I worked at, and then started traveling on my own just to wrestle, evening joining a club to train at weekly. I wrestled for about five years before I moved away, traveling all over Northumberland and Cumbria, even competing in Celtic Wrestling competitions in France and Iceland. But the point of this giant literary detour, was that the first show I ever wrestled at was in Allendale.
The Angus Tait Memorial Hexham Hobble, held at Allendale Primary School, is in its 25th year this year (I think?). It is named after the race’s first winner – the late Angus Tait – who died suddenly in 2010. He lives on not only through this eponymous race, but also in the form of the trophies. When he won the first race he was disappointed at the lack of a trophy for his efforts, so he found an old running shoe, spray-painted it gold, and attached it to a wooden plinth. A sentiment that the race organisers (Allen Valley Runners) have wonderfully recreated with new, professionally cast and mounted golden trainer trophies.
The course is a fast 10.5 miles and 1200ft ascent, on road, Landrover track and muddy path, over and round Hexham Common. With 220 entries it’s definitely a popular event and rightfully so. The cake selection alone merits the journey from Leeds.
As always, I’m glad to see some familiar faces: I spot an old climbing friend, Joe Spoor, who tells me he “does a bit of running in the winter,” before smashing his way home with a top 20 finish (classic Geordie understatement, eh).
With the weather looking good – cool and dry – everyone jostles over to the start, and we’re off. Joe shoots off at the front of the pack and my suspicions of his superior ability are confirmed. “See you in an hour and a half” I shout.
The race starts fast and stays that way. None of the inclines are steep enough to justify walking (a rarity for me), so much to my chagrin I run the whole lot.
The terrain might not be the most titillating, and you aren’t faced with beautiful vistas of great mountains. But the low mist sweeping across the Northumbrian moor is breathtaking. Definitely a secret I’m happy to keep. But as wonderful as is it, the landscape soon becomes irrelevant. My legs are working as hard as they can, and the spare thoughts and observations floating around in my head drop off one by one, until I’m consumed by bodily response. My thighs feel dull, unaccustomed to this steady high cadence, but they keep stamping out the beat. I speed up to nip past someone on a stretch of wide path and my proximity to my limit becomes apparent as this momentary overexertion makes my legs tremble for the next five minutes. We pass over the highpoint on Lilswood Moor, and it’s onto the slightly undulating but mostly downhill second half. Head down and keep spinning the legs. Up the blip of Stobb Cross and it’s tarmac hell to the finish. Almost two miles of ever steepening asphalt. You’ve got to keep your pace or you’ll find yourself flying headfirst down the hill – gravity forcing you to punt your legs underneath you to avoid full-body road rash. Back into town, pull a right and you’re pointed into the pen. Done. Absolutely burst. I even stagger my way past the other finishers, fearing some sort of internal bodily mutiny threatening to explode out of me.
20 minutes of bewildered staggering around later, I’m drinking a cup of tea and enjoying a giant wedge of coffee cake. Couldn’t be happier. I even won a pair of socks in the raffle. Quids in.
Massive thanks to the race organisers, marshals, cake and tea producers and suppliers, it was a proper quality day.
cover photo © Andy of Northumberland Fell Runners