Saddleworth Runners; A Drinking Club with a Running Problem
Author: Bruce Bridgestock
Saddleworth Running Club, like many fell running clubs, is a collection of slightly eccentric people who enjoy a range of activities in the great outdoors, come from a wide range of social backgrounds and jobs, are of all ages and income brackets but have a common interest that draws them all together – BEER ! However it seems we also have a drive to run, maybe it is to avoid a guilt complex by feeling that at least we did something to deserve the ale.
The origins, continued existence of, and many of the events and activities of SRC revolve around pubs. One pub and one event in particular stand out as central to the club organisation and culture in many ways. The Cross Keys pub above Uppermill in Saddleworth is a traditional English inn, dating from 1745. The pub is in a wonderful position high above Uppermill village and just below the Pots and Pans obelisk at the end of the Saddleworth Moors. The pub has for many years been owned by Lees brewery of Oldham. In 1979 Phil and Pat Kay moved back from Anglesey to manage the Cross Keys.
Also around this time Frank Sykes of Dobcross was running with East Cheshire Harriers but was more interested in fell running. Frank had developed some particular views about race organisation and had become intent on organising some races in Saddleworth. Frank set out to put on races that would be safe, well organised, good value for money, as well as fun and challenging.
Cross Keys Inn
Sometime in 1980 Frank had been out running on the moors and was dehydrated whilst running home past the Cross Keys. It was mid afternoon and the pub was shut but this was no barrier. He knocked up Pat Kay and, after some persuasion, Frank was given a drink (just orange squash as Pat recalls). This was to be the start of a relationship which hugely influenced fell running in Saddleworth.
Sadly, both Frank and Phil have now passed away but the innovative annual road and fell relay which they initiated continues. Frank and Phil and the contribution they both made to local life, not just running, are often remembered.
In 1981 the Saddleworth Running Club was formed. Ian Brierley was a local runner and one evening sat with Roger Devy and Roger Jones in the Diggle Hotel. Over a few pints the SRC was created. The two Rogers continued with other clubs for a while, but Ian, along with people such as Gerry Royle, Harry and Bob Waterhouse, began to run together and then take refreshment in “The Kitchen” at the Cross Keys.
Chew Valley Skyline
In March 1981, before the formation of SRC, Frank put on the first Chew Valley Skyline event. This event went very well and set the standard for future Saddleworth races, focus on safety, smooth organisation, good routes, refreshments and lots of prizes, low entry fees fast results service (Well maybe the latter took a while to get going !).
Cross Keys Road and Fell Relay
Sometime around then Frank and Phil enjoyed an evening in the company of John Willie Lees and had a conversation which led to the Cross Keys Road and Fell Relay race. The conversation may have gone something like this.
FS. Well Phil, this pub’s not bad, but it could do with some events to liven it up and bring in some more people, something a bit different, that uses its position on cusp of town and moor and involves the local community.
FS. You know runners like to drink a bit, especially if they get thirsty by running on a hot summer’s day, and if they have to hang around a bit for other runners, and they might bring friends and family along to watch as well.
FS. Fell runners and road runners don’t mix much so a race that brings them together would be good, and road races are expensive and not very well organised, so we should show them how a race can be organised at low cost, with safety, good prizes, a social event afterwards and fun for all.
PK. Oh er
FS. So we could organise a road and fell relay, get the brewery to sponsor it, have the race and then a disco in the barn afterwards, on the August Bank holiday weekend. What do you think Phil ?
FS. Well that’s agreed then, the first Cross Keys Road and Fell Relay will take place this August. Come on Phil, drink up, it’s your round.
Around this time Frank and the newly born SRC came together and by the time the first Cross Keys Road and Fell relay took place it was an SRC organised event. Lees brewery really came up trumps and the winning team from Holmfirth had so much beer to take home they could not get it all in the car. The event was well supported and families and friends did indeed come along.
Three teams of local women turned out to run for the first and in most cases the last, time. Pat Kay and the pub staff were kept very busy making sandwiches and serving beer all afternoon.
The tradition of a class for Local Pub Team was started and so the teams became balanced as road running clubs, fell running clubs and local community teams based in pubs. This is pretty much a reflection of the club culture today.
Memories of the early years of the events are that the sun always shone, lots of beer was drunk and won, the disco in the evenings was really well attended, teams came from far and wide, including the mighty Wolverhampton and Bilston Harriers. East Cheshire Harriers have always given great support, mainly due to the enthusiasm of Harry Kelly, who would bring over several teams, often a lot of young lions. He would run them all round the course to warm up and then give terrific vocal support to all the runners and often a vote of thanks to the organising team. Holmfirth have also been a great supporting club and over the years Holmfirth and ECH have had some great battles for the Cross Keys trophy.
The event was truly a partnership between the running club and the pub. Phil and Pat put in a lot of effort and the Lees brewery gave great support. The event is integral to the Cross Keys and is one of the most unusual and enjoyable events on the SRC calendar, though sadly the team numbers entering have declined and the evening disco no longer runs.
We also hold the annual Christmas Handicap from the Cross Keys, using the barn building which has become the HQ of the Oldham Mountain Rescue Team. The Handicap event is an exercise in the bizarre performed by the ridiculous with the serious intent of trying to understand the rules. Often we are to be seen returning to the pub from the moors, cross dressed, pushing prams, bouncing huge balls, or maybe having played a game of massive rugby across the Saddleworth Moors. The pub takes it all in its stride; it has seen it all over the years.
Saddleworth Runners continue to meet in “The Kitchen” of the Cross Keys, every Tuesday evening. The walls of the pub have many photographs of runners, in particular there are several taken at the first Road and Fell Relay back in 1981, with the sun shining down on the local mayor handing over a large trophy to Holmfirth, the local women jogging around in tennis skirts and the runners on the start line. According to Frank’s race report the starter pulled the trigger on his starting gun three times, with no effect, before just shouting out BANG !! The runners on that first event set off from the Cross Keys with big smiles on their faces, and today the runners who meet there are still smiling.
With thanks to Pat Kay and Ian Brierley for information and memories. And with eternal thanks to Frank Sykes and Phil Kay.