Serpentine Unwound – The Origins of Our Running Club

Hilary-Walker-London-to-Brighton-1988-Serpentine-History
Hilary Walker in the 1988 London to Brighton race in Serpie vest

We explore the history of Serpentine Running Club and how the London Marathon inspired the club we love today.

Despite being probably the largest running and triathlon club in the UK, Serpentine has a surprisingly recent history and the way in which a small group of runners came together to form such a significant organisation seems almost remarkably casual.

The early 1980s saw a tremendous explosion of interest in endurance running in the UK, spurred on by the first London marathon, which itself was inspired by the New York version a few years earlier.

Suddenly almost every city and town had a half or full marathon and this fundamentally changed the nature of endurance running in ways that were replicated across the world, with large numbers of people taking part despite having done little or no running since leaving school.

Many of these new runners, along with their more established compatriots, soon realised that the training commitment required for these races was a lot more manageable, and indeed fun, if done in the company of like-minded others. As a result, many new running clubs were formed during this time, with Mornington Chasers and Dulwich Runners being two such examples.

Against this backdrop there came a message posted by Geoffrey Cannon in the Fun Runner column of Running magazine – which has since become Runners World. Straight after completing the inaugural marathon in 1981, Geoffrey appealed for volunteers to form a team to take part in the following year’s race.

A grand total of 50 people – aged between 22 and 63 and including both new and experienced runners – responded to this appeal and met at a car park next to a long-since demolished restaurant by the bridge over the Serpentine lake at 9:45am on Saturday May 30th, 1981. The group decided to split into four teams in different parts of London for their mid-week runs, coming together each Saturday to train in Hyde Park.

From the original group of 50 runners, 42, including Geoffrey Cannon, went on to complete the 1982 marathon and decided to carry on running afterwards. There was also a clear majority wanting to form their own club, with the Serpentine name emerging after some discussion. The south-west London training group broke away to form the Stragglers Running Club based in Kingston.

Although Serpentine’s initial affiliation with the Amateur Athletics Association described their kit as a red and black “V” on a gold background, by November 1982 the first set of red vests had arrived with the now traditional two gold hoops.

Derek Paterson in a 1988 race in Battersea Park

The runners continued their pattern of meeting every Saturday at 9:45am, with the monthly handicap run beginning very soon after on a course that remains largely unchanged of two laps around the lake. The club used Alexandra Lodge in the park as its base from November 1983 until 1997, when the Seymour Centre was first used.

Soon after, the club started to consider what other external events it could take part in. In 1986 it helped lead the establishment of the London League, which since became the Summer League, and then the Sunday Cross-Country League and the club has continued to compete in the League ever since. Its first entry in the National Cross-Country championship was as early as 1983 and five years later Serpentine achieved its first top 100 team finish. For many years the club had the ambition of having both the fastest and the slowest team in any race!

When the London Road Runners Club closed down in 1989/90, Serpentine took responsibility for the New Years Day 10K race, as well as the Last Friday of the Month 5K series, converting the latter from a handicap event to the open race it remains today.

Despite this progress, the club almost closed down in the late 1990s before undergoing rapid expansion soon after, growing from around 300 members in 2000 to over 2,500 just seven years later on the back of a renewed interest in running and the excellent development of the club’s website.

Looking back to the first few years of the club, whilst it was clearly much smaller, without its multi-sport dimension, nor the wide range of training sessions across the capital, it is striking how many key features of the club remain today – such as the lake Handicap, the Summer and Cross-Country Leagues, and the warm welcome for runners of any range of abilities and ambitions.

And we’ve still got those two gold hoops!

Ros Young, Ann Dex and Leigh Dron in the Women's Own 10k 1985

Tom Poynton has been running since 2008 and a Serpentine member since December 2011. When not running, he enjoys food and drink and exploring the countryside.

Liz Wynn started running ten years ago as an alternative to a tedious district line commute and joined Serpentine shortly after, discovering a love of mud, mountains and post run beer. Liz lives within minutes of Richmond park, where she can be found dodging deer and baby strollers most weekends.