ONE of the features of modern life that we’re used to is to see people of all ages, abilities and sizes running on the streets and parks around where we live. Mass participation in marathons, and latterly park runs, is no longer remarkable. It was not always like this.

Growing up in Bradford in the 1950s and 1960s, I can hardly recall any such participation in running, unless you include ‘cross-country’ at school. There was, however, one athletic sport that was popular and has now died away - race walking. And for over 100 years Bradford hosted an event that gripped the city and surrounding towns and villages: the Bradford Whit Walk.

As a boy every Whitsuntide, the Christian holy day of Pentecost. Bank Holiday Monday at the end of May, the first celebration of summer, felt a significant moment in the calendar in a way that today’s secular Spring Bank Holiday doesn’t (the change in name came about in 1972).

My memory is walking down in the morning with my grandad and brother from where we lived in Kirklands Lane, Baildon, to the Half Way House on Otley Road to join crowds lining up to watch this famous event. From the Shipley direction you heard the murmur of expectation as walkers appeared into view. What a strange way of walking! Much faster than normal walking, men in running vests and shorts would be swinging their arms and kicking their heels as they walked past the cheering crowds. They had already done five or six miles.

We were told they had another 25 miles or so of this frantic pace that was nearly running, but not quite. The rule, we were told, was that your feet should always have to be in contact with the ground.

As they passed by, we were also told that they would be going to distant places such as Ilkley and Otley that normal people would drive, or catch buses and trains, to visit. Walking there within the day seemed an impossibility, yet they would be back in Bradford in, say, three hours’ time!

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Staff at Robin Wools and Emu turned out in a decorated van for the race in Peel Park, 1977Staff at Robin Wools and Emu turned out in a decorated van for the race in Peel Park, 1977 (Image: Newsquest)

The most famous walker of the day was Great Britain international Albert Johnson from Sheffield. He won it a record nine times - eight successive wins from 1954-1961 and in 1963. The 1959 race was a classic.

Over the first 14 miles to Ilkley he returned a record time of 1 hour 52 minutes 39 seconds, but slowed down dramatically on the seven-mile stretch to Otley, being overtaken before he got there. He collapsed but, attended by St John Ambulance men and fortified by three double brandies, Albert resumed the race and amazingly pulled back to win on the final stretch from Apperley Bridge to Peel Park.

An affordable sport, race walking was popular with increased leisure time among the working classes. Many Northern industrial towns formed walking clubs and there were regular race walking events. Bradford Whit Walk became the world’s ‘longest-running’ amateur race walking event; a gruelling route with enthusiastic public support. It took place every Whit Monday from 1903-2011, including two world wars.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: The 104th Bradford Whit WalkThe 104th Bradford Whit Walk (Image: Newsquest)

Its route and distance varied, but was almost always at least 32 miles. From 1950 it became 50 km, starting in the centre of Bradford to Shipley, Guiseley, Burley, Ilkley, Asquith, Otley, Leeds/Bradford Airport, Rawdon, Apperley Bridge, finishing in Peel Park.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Crowds turned out for the Whit Walk in 1993Crowds turned out for the Whit Walk in 1993 (Image: Newsquest)

It all started on Monday, June 1 in 1903, an auspicious year in Bradford sport when it embraced its first professional soccer team. An early race organiser was Tony Fattorini from celebrated local jewellers of Fattorinis. Heavily involved in local sport, he represented Manningham FC when it broke away from rugby union to league in 1895, and in 1903 when it switched to soccer as Bradford City AFC. His firm designed the FA Cup, won for the first time by the local club in 1911.

An enormous crowd gathered in Bradford to witness the start of the first Bradford Walk (39.5 miles). Its official history reports: ‘There were stirring scenes in front of the George Hotel when, at 6.35am the 92 competitors stepped smartly across the start line to head for the finish at the Windmill Hotel York, a distance of 30-nine miles by way of Shipley, Otley, Harewood and Tadcaster. Even at that early hour Cheapside and Manningham Lane were crowded with thousands of people at every available viewpoint.

An entourage of 250 cyclists turned out to support the walkers. Hundreds of spectators in Market Street for the start of the race dashed to Forster Square for the train taking enthusiasts to Esholt station, to follow the race and cheer the contestants up Hollins Hill.’

The first winner was Len Atkinson of Baildon. That race was open to amateurs residential or having business within six miles of Bradford. So successful were the first events that, in 1906, the walk was made open to all amateur walkers in the country. To attract top walkers, a North vs South team race was included.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Heading towards Shipley from John Street in 2006Heading towards Shipley from John Street in 2006 (Image: Newsquest)

The walk continued in the First World War and entries were swelled by teams from the armed services. After the war it was dominated by the Bradford-based Yorkshire Walking Club, formed in 1912. For many years it provided the winner. Local personalities like Tommy Payne (six times winner) and Frank Holt (five times), celebrated locally as the ‘Walking Postman’, were sporting heroes of the era.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Geoff Dowling, the last president of Bradford Walking Group Geoff Dowling, the last president of Bradford Walking Group (Image: Newsquest)

Probably the most famous race occurred on June 2, 1952, when for the only time in its long history the Bradford Walk ended in a dead heat. Joint winners were Harold Whitlock, 48, six-time winner and 1936 Olympic champion, and first-time winner Bradfordian Charlie Colman, 31. They shared a new record time of four hours, 51 minutes and 43.4 seconds.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Two walkers make their way along John Street in 2008Two walkers make their way along John Street in 2008 (Image: Newsquest)

* Martin Greenwood’s book Every Day Bradford has a story for each day of the year about people, places and events of Bradford’s history. Visit