MARKET town Morpeth’s links to the Olympic Games will be celebrated when an annual cultural festival showcasing all things Northumbrian gets under way today.
North East athletics star Steve Cram - who went on to lift a silver medal in the 1500 metres at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles – won the boys’ hill race at the Morpeth Northumbrian Gathering in 1976 as a teenager.
In addition, the town had its very own version of the Olympic Games, which were held every year from the 1870s to 1958, to give local competitors the opportunity to showcase their athletic talents.
Now Morpeth’s sporting heritage will be remembered during the 45th Gathering, which takes place from today to Sunday and celebrates Northumbrian music, dance, crafts, dialect and customs.
This year’s theme is A Good Sport and the event will also celebrate the 150th anniversary of the famous Blaydon Races song, with its characters portrayed by actors from Morpeth Theatre Club and St George’s Community Players among the costumed groups in Saturday morning’s showpiece pageant and procession.
Over the decades the Gathering has included sporting events such as hill races, tug of war, wrestling and orienteering, with this year’s orienteering competition taking place on Sunday morning.
Tomorrow night the Olympic Games link will see a world premiere held of a song all about the Morpeth Olympics, written by North East folk artist Jez Lowe, at a concert in the Town Hall.
Gathering committee chairman Kim Bibby-Wilson said: “We heard that Jez Lowe was writing songs on the modern Olympics for the BBC Radio Ballads collection and thought, with his track record, there was nobody better placed to create a modern folk song about our own local games.
“Like the Blaydon Races, it brings to life the characters involved, and some of the scenes to be seen during Sunday’s archive film show. Jez actually wrote the song on tour in Australia and has done us proud.
“Jez can’t be at the Gathering himself, but the song will be premiered by another local singer, Benny Graham, who headlines the Saturday winners’ concert at the Town Hall.”
Sunday evening is also devoted to sporting history, with national expert Dr Martin Polley of Southampton University giving an illustrated talk on the Morpeth Olympics. Among the audience will be family members of some of the athletes featured, including the grandson of champion wrestler Jack Little of Carlisle, who has promised to bring along the trophy won in 1897.
Afterwards Keith Hartnell will show archive films from the 1930s Morpeth Games and other rare footage of local sporting champions.
The Gathering starts this morning and features scores of events, workshops, competitions, concerts and activities over the three days.
Organisers are delighted that they can again offer a free park and ride facility for tomorrow’s big day. Vintage buses will run a shuttle service from 10am to 4pm between County Hall and the bus station.
Kim said: “From 10.45am there’ll be the usual hour-long road closures in the town centre to allow the pageant to arrive for the speeches of welcome at the Town Hall at 11am, but diversions will operate to allow through traffic to continue to flow.”