Durham is vying for the title of sporting capital of the North East
PUBLISHED: 00:06 25 June 2013
There's a new challenger for the title of sporting capital of the North East. And it's not where you might think, says Chris Titley
The city of Durham is many things. First and foremost it is known as a place of remarkable history, with the Norman cathedral and ancient castle protected by World Heritage status.
Durham is also renowned for learning: the university is usually ranked among the top ten in the country for its research and teaching. Among its alumni are many big names in the media, such as broadcaster Jeremy Vine, David Sproxton, who co-founded Wallace & Gromit studio Aardman Animations, and the first ever female controller of BBC One, Lorraine Heggessey.
The city is known for its beauty, with the River Wear nearly lassoing the city, whose streets are lined with architectural gems. Astonishingly there are more than 600 listed buildings here.
But one thing not readily associated with Durham is first-class sport. The city never goes football crazy, football mad like neighbours Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough.
True, the Benedictine monks at Durham Cathedral enjoyed playing a game or two using their outdoor bowling alley. But that was in medieval times.
More recently Durham Wasps were a success in the unlikely sport of ice hockey for a time – no longer, unfortunately. And yes there is the racecourse. But Durham Racecourse is unique in that it boasts neither race track nor race meeting.
In general, then, this is not a city indelibly associated in the public mind with athletic endeavour. But that could be about to change.
This summer Durham will host two sporting events which are of undoubted international class. One is part of a tradition which stretches back nearly two centuries. The other is a first for the area. Both will see some of the leading proponents of their sport compete for coveted honours.
Let’s start with that amazing first. On the morning of Friday August 9, a ball will be bowled to start the inaugural Ashes Test Match at the Emirates Durham International Cricket Ground at Chester-le-Street. This is a climatic moment in the history of cricket in the county.
That can be traced back to 1882 when Durham County Cricket Club was born. But it only moved up into the big league 21 years ago when it became a first class county.
The arrival of the Aussies for the fourth Test match will be a huge moment for the club, the city and the county – it is arguably the biggest sporting event ever held here. By then, of course, England may well be in an unassailable lead… Well, we can dream.
For the club it is reward for years of investment and hard work which has earned it respect around the cricketing world.
For the people and businesses of Durham it could be bonanza time: it is thought hosting the Test could bring in £20 million to the region’s economy this year.
The event should forge closer ties within the community too. A volunteer workforce is being recruited to provide the warmest of North East welcomes to the visitors drawn by the fixture.
But what of that ongoing sporting tradition? The Durham Regatta is the second oldest in Britain. Known as the ‘Henley of the North’ the event, staged on the River Wear in the city, celebrates its 180th year this June.
The two-day event, on Saturday June 8 and Sunday June 9, draws a top class field of rowers and spectators from the North East and beyond.
Last year, freak rainfall meant the river rose to a level where it was no longer safe to hold the regatta, and it was cancelled for the first time in its history. So the 2013 event is more eagerly anticipated than ever.
‘It’s always been a big social occasion for the city,’ says Nigel van Zwanenberg, chairman of Durham Regatta.
‘It’s not just a rowing regatta, although that’s its central purpose, but it’s always been an occasion where people can come and watch the rowing and see the other activities on the bank.’
Nigel used to cox at school and university ‘back in the mists of time when Noah used to come sailing past’, and his children – now grown up – also enjoyed rowing when they were younger. He’s been regatta chairman for nearly three years.
‘It’s very interesting in the sense it’s a unique organisation. Most regattas are organised by rowing clubs. This regatta is independent, it organises itself, and it has built up its own way of doing things over a long period of time.’
He likes the fact that this is a particularly inclusive sport. ‘One of the things about rowing is that it’s almost ageless so there will be competitors who are at school and others who are probably retired.
‘We have in the past had a crew which included a 90-year-old from Norway. They won.’
New events are planned for this year, including invitation Row Ability races for rowers with disabilities. ‘That was based around the Paralympics and a recognition that the regatta hasn’t in the past really offered opportunities for adaptive rowing or Row Ability,’ Nigel said. ‘In the future we hope to put it into the full calendar of the regatta.’
The event has also announced a new sponsor, local company Corepeople Recruitment, and a beer festival run with CAMRA on the Friday and Saturday nights.
This is the perfect time for anyone in the North East to come along and experience one of its longest-running sporting events, Nigel said.
‘Whether or not you’re familiar with rowing, it’s very easy to understand. It’s side-by-side racing so there are only two crews ever involved.’
And the location, of course, cannot be improved upon. ‘You can’t get a better setting. You’ve got a really interesting windy river, you’ve got the bridges, you’ve got the cathedral in the background, you’ve got a very compact city and it’s at the racecourse which is nice open space and very easy to get to.’