Neil Featherby: Memories of the city's first ever running club...
Very recently I saw a post on Facebook with some pictures of the old Norwich & Norfolk AC club badge.
Norwich & Norfolk AC are, as far as I am aware, Norwich’s first ever running and athletics club, being formed in 1902 which of course ironically is the same year as when Norwich City FC were also formed.
As a youngster at school apart from PE lessons, history was about the only classroom subject which grabbed my attention, even to this day I am still very interested in the subject, especially sporting history and particularly that relating to running.
My introduction to running clubs was also when I was still at school as I joined the Norfolk Olympiads in 1973 to compete on the track and Norfolk Gazelles who back then were a club amalgamated by many of Norfolk’s others clubs to be able to compete as a force at a high level in National competitions during the winter months.
However, the only thing I can remember about what was Norwich’s oldest athletics club, was seeing this very distinguished athlete by the name of Alan Huggins, who just happened to more often than not turn up on Olympiads club nights at the old Lakenham Track.
I never really asked too many questions, especially as I was only 15 at the time and anyone with the slightest grey hair appeared to be really old and I just assumed that he, like many other members of Norwich & Norfolk, were moving over to the much newer Norwich club, the Olympiads.
Then about five years ago I met a lady who was well into her 80s who told me that her father had been the secretary of Norwich & Norfolk AC during the 1930s and she would bring in some photographs and letters to show me.
Needless to say I was pretty excited by this, but unfortunately I never did see her again. However, that may have had something to do with me making her have a go on one of the treadmills at Sportlink although I am pretty sure she did enjoy the experience at the time.
Anyway, after the recent Facebook post I decided to do a bit more digging only to find that two very good friends in Steve Huntington and Mike Wilkinson were also members back in the 1960s and 70s for which they both emailed me their memories of belonging to the club which in truth was the predecessor to not only Norfolk Olympiads but possibly Duke Street Runners too and of course what is now The City of Norwich Athletics Club after Olympiads and Duke St amalgamated in 1997.
Mike joined the club in 1955 competing on the track mainly at 800 yards and the mile with the club coach for those distances being none other than Alan Huggins.
The club would meet and train and compete at what was known as the Henderson cinder track in Bowthorpe which just happens to be the other track in the city which many athletes still use to this day for training.
However, once Mike joined the Royal Navy in 1958, it was a further 10 years before he returned back to Norwich to rejoin the club.
By this time though, two of the main stalwarts Ed and Cyril Comber had left to help set up Norfolk Olympiads leaving Norwich & Norfolk to mainly be run by Alan.
Whilst Mike competed for the club as a senior athlete, this second time around his two eldest sons had also become members of the junior squad. Unfortunately and due to work commitments he then didn’t compete between the years 1969 and 1973 and then when he did return to competitive running, the club was already on the downwards slope for which he, like many others, joined the Olympiads and Norfolk Gazelles.
Mike of course also then went on to help form the Duke Street Running Club as well as organising many races in the city and around the county.
As for Steve, well firstly and most importantly, he met what was to be his future wife Angie at the club after joining whilst still at school in 1969. Like me and Mike, the most stand-out person was that man Alan Huggins who he says was not only a veteran athlete by that time, but also the main club coach.
“I just remember doing lots of 400s pretty fast as well as 200s which probably didn’t suit my physiology. Then for some reason I stopped going during 1971 before returning again in ‘73 which is when I met Angie. The club had by this point unfortunately started to decline because from what I remember was a disagreement amongst some of the officials which caused a split whereby some of them went off to either form or join what was the new emerging club at Olympiads,” he said.
Steve and Angela both remember going on the club coach to athletics meetings all around Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, but one place which stands out really well for them were the meetings at HMS Ganges where there was also a track.
“We remember those meetings as just being more fun and sociable excursions rather than overly serious athletics competitions. However by 1974, so many people had left the club I ended up becoming secretary and Angie the treasurer for a year or so. I am not exactly sure when the club folded, but I think it was around 1980. Yes, lots of memories which will never be forgotten, particularly of what was truly a superb setting for athletics with the club track being situated in what was a natural amphitheatre at the Gurney/Henderson school.”
I am sure there are plenty of other former club members out there who will have lots more information on what appears to sadly almost be a forgotten era.
However, and so very pleasing to hear is that the man himself, Alan Huggins, is still alive and well now aged 97 and living in Norwich. As we all know, history is passed down from those who were there at the time for which it would be so good if someone could compile as much information on what was Norwich’s athletics past before it is too late and all those first hand memories are lost forever.
As for those many athletes and runners who are still regularly pounding out lap after lap around what they just know as the old Henderson track, I wonder how many of them also realise just how much history is embedded under their feet?