Regular visitors to Blackburn’s Witton Country Park over the last few years will have noticed some big changes. The spectacular scenery and picturesque café and pavilion have remained the same, but the athletics arena, home to Blackburn Harriers and Athletics Club, has undergone considerable reinvention.
The all-weather track, so familiar to generations of athletes in the Northern League and YDL, has been re-laid, with a new indoor track and training facility built along the home straight in a new building that also houses fitness studios and a gym, all open to an appreciative Blackburn public.
England Athletics CEO Chris Jones visited the club recently and met with club Chair Tony Wood, Secretary George Davies, club President George Kirby and Claire Ramwell and Graham Harris of Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council to find out more.
To understand how the new facility was possible, it’s necessary to understand Blackburn Harriers’ long and fruitful partnership with the local authority. “We were founded in 1910, although the Harriers did have a presence in the area in the 1880s,” Tony explained. “After the war, we had some influential people, including the Mason family, who were involved with the local council on the committee.”
“We’ve kept that link to the Borough over the last 50-60 years and it was because of that connection we are where we are today. George Kirby came along in the 1950s and along with others worked with the council and the track was laid. In the 1960s, all the top athletes in the country came and competed at the famous invitation meetings held here. Lynn Davies came in 1967 as Olympic Champion. We had people like Barry Kelly and many fast sprint times were done here. Ron Hill and Bruce Tulloh came to race and later Seb Coe.”
The arena received various upgrades over the course of the next 40 years, but more recently everyone agreed that it needed a more substantial uplift and those strong links with the local authority proved decisive.
“When we started talking about enhancing these facilities 15 years ago, we weren’t starting from a base at the bottom,” said Tony. “Some money did become available so then it was all about how it would best be used, which is where the idea of creating an indoor training track, new club room and a gym came from.”
“We’ve got to be eternally grateful to the borough for all that they’ve done and it shows the importance of always being in touch with your local council and the local schools. The schools were an important factor in saying that it’s all about youth and it’s all about fitness and we’ve been able to combine the whole package.”
The club is understandably proud of the work that was carried out and the vision being realised: “We’re talking investment of 3 million plus in the end. It’s just fantastic. When this was built, we felt so good as a club and the inconvenience was worth it! You see the hurdles group and the sprinters go in there. In the technical events, the indoor facility has made such a difference. The squads are growing as a result of the indoor facility. The new throws cage outside and the ability to be able to use it all year round is a real boost to that squad also.”
The lead up to the final investment was encouraged by the success of the Harrier’s three Olympians at London 2012 Holly Bleasdale, Sophie Hitchon and silver medallist Samantha Murray. For the Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, the task was to figure out how the make any facility enhancements sustainable in the long term, with the inclusion of a gym on-site a key factor.
“We had to make the facility sustainable,” Graham confirmed. “Athletics wouldn’t make it sustainable on its own. But we’ve 1200 paying gym members now and the target was 700.”
“Investing in this facility, working with the Harriers, it’s been a strategic approach to making Witton Park a hub for participation,” added Claire. “We’ve got the gym, the Harriers and the athletics side of things, but we also have a cycle centre and we have a ‘couch to 5k’ programme with 200-300 people attending three times a week down here and a parkrun, plus informal running routes. We have the whole pathway all the way through. We see this building and the refurbishment of the track as the centrepiece.”
The club, of course, is not just a facility. Competing in the Northern League for seniors at track and field and in both upper and lower age groups of the YDL, Blackburn Harriers also participate in all off-track disciplines, and have hosted some of the country’s most important events, including the English Schools' Cross Country last March and the Northern Inter-Counties Track & Field Championships this August. According to Tony, the club is the strongest it’s been in its 105 year history.
The feel good factor is certainly felt by some of the athletes, coaches and officials at training on the night of Chris’s visit. Whilst a large endurance training session was ongoing the sprint squad including Dominic Bretherton, had just completed a hard early winter training session, summing up the club well: “It’s a great group of people. We come down, rip each other for a bit then go home! It’s a good atmosphere and a good group.”
Coach Joe Fleming, who has coached some of the North’s best high jumpers in a coaching career spanning 25 years, first got involved with the club following his children taking part by chance, while Jim Kerrigan, the Lancashire Official’s Secretary, joined the club four years ago after moving to the area.
Chris Jones commented, “The fantastic facility at Witton Park is testament to what can be achieved through collaboration by forward-thinking clubs and supportive local authorities. England Athletics through Sport England is proud to have made a contribution to the upgraded arena. At the same time, we recognise that such great facilities are nothing without the hard working volunteers who make everything happen on club nights throughout the year. Blackburn Harriers have done a superb job in all aspects and are doing great work. It was great to see the club in action.”
Last word, however, has to go to George Kirby. Now 93, the club named the main stand at Witton Park after him in recognition of the efforts he has made over 60 years. “Isn’t it lovely,” he beamed. “We’ve had some huge events here in my time including the Women’s International Cross Country Championships, the Women’s National twice, the Northern Men’s umpteen times and the English Schools on the track and on the country. I don’t know a better place in the country than this.”