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Event History

So, where did it all begin?

Until 2005, the history of how the Parish Walk came to be wasn't widely known. The main reason for this was because it had all started well over a century before and information pre 1960 wasn't readily available. There were websites detailing statistics and photographs of previous events back as far as 1974 (for statistics) and 2002 (for photographs) but there was no written testament of how, where and when it all started, how it evolved over time and how it eventually grew to become the island's largest mass participation event that it is today.

This all changed in 2005 when local man and perennial Parish Walk competitor Dermot O'Toole published his first book on the event, entitled "A Walk Through Time", detailing the definitive history of the Parish Walk from its origins upto and including the 2004 event.

Having completed the Parish Walk for a tenth consecutive time in 2004, his attention turned to researching the early history of the event - much of which had been lost with the passage of time.

It was on a sea crossing to Dublin in July 2004 that he started the ball rolling and penned the very first words to "A Walk Through Time". As the history of the event had never been compiled in writing, Dermot was keen to complete the book and go to publication before anyone else beat him to it! Unable to secure financial sponsorship from the Island's major publishing organisations - all of whom considered the material to be worthy of only 'limited local interest' - he was alone in a venture with an unknown outcome.

Very little had been written about the Parish Walk prior to 1960 so he faced an uphill struggle to learn of its origins. Trawling through Manx newspapers dating back to 1848 was the only method to establish the facts, however it must be realised that each newspaper had to be manually read in its entirety rather than electronically scanned like it is today. Visiting the library at the Manx Museum six days a week over a nine-month period was extremely time-consuming and on many occasions he would return home disappointed and often empty handed!

Unknown to the museum at the time of writing the book, the very first Parish Walk of the modern era (1960) had been photographed by the late Bill Peters of Manx Press Pictures. These high quality, celluloid monocolour negatives were donated to the museum by his widow following his death sometime during the 1980s. After numerous visits and many, many hours of trawling through the museum's unsystematic photographic archives, Dermot eventually located the classic pictures and used them in "A Walk Through Time" to illustrate how racewalking habits and attire have changed considerably over the years.

This is a fascinating read and it becomes apparent to the reader that he spent many thousands of hours researching facts and figures, compiling data from the walk's humble beginnings in 1852 upto and including the race in 2004. 

In 2013, Dermot published a subsequent book called "The Ultimate Challenge" which was a rewrite his 2005 book, included new information and photographs of the events upto and including 2004 but also added detailed information for the years 2005 - 2013 inclusive.

Although neither "A Walk Through Time" nor "The Ultimate Challenge" are available through the usual book outlets, copies can be obtained directly from the author. You can email Dermot directly here.

The information below is reproduced with the kind permission of Dermot O'toole but these are only the brief highlights of how the event started and became what it is today: to get the full details of the history of this fantastic event including photographs, newspaper articles, competitor lists and much more, we would recommend that you contact the author and obtain a copy of one or both of his books.

1852

The newspaper 'Manx Sun' published an article called "A summer's day journey" which told the story of John Cannell of Douglas who had the idea of touching the doors on all seventeen Parish churches of the island by heading round on horseback! He set off at 19:00 on July 23rd and headed north from Douglas calling at all of the church checkpoints in what was the reverse direction of the route taken today.
He completed his challenge and is estimated to have covered 90 miles in approximately fifteen hours. There is no mention of how his horse fared.
Later that same year, he attempted to walk the route but in the opposite direction and got as far as Laxey but there is no record of his actual time.

1853

John Cannell had a second attempt at walking to each of the Parish churches on September 17th in 1853. He set off just before midnight and headed south once again. This time he was successful and can therefore be credited with being the first person to walk to each of the seventeen Parish churches. The newspaper report at the time estimated that the "extraordinary distance walked by Mr Cannell" was 86 miles however, it is more likely that he actually travelled around 76 miles. His time was 23 hours 45 minutes.

1878

It was 25 years until the next attempt was undertaken, this time by a 48 year old member of the Manx parliament, William Anderson MHK, He was determined to emulate the exploits of John Cannell and he set off from Patrick church and did achieve the challenge within 24 hours, however his time wasn't recorded.

1890

Anderson, now 60, made another attempt when he covered 73 miles and 7 furlongs (7/8 of a mile). His time was recorded this time and he arrived back at his starting point of Patrick after 19 hours and 39 minutes. The distance he travelled was shorter than that of Cannell probably due to Anderson missing out the town centre of Douglas.

 

These are the only authenticated and documented sub-24 hour Parish Walks of the nineteenth century.

1913

The very first Parish Walk comparable to that of today took place in 1913.
In February 1913, the Isle of Man Examiner newspaper published an article which detailed the exploits of Anderson and Cannell 25 years earlier.
This newspaper article inspired a committee of Douglas men to promote a race under the same conditions which had goverened the walks of Anderson and Cannell. They found a sponsor to donate a trophy to the winner of the race and decided to give gold medals as second and third prizes. There were also commemorative medals for all those completing the course within the 24 hour time limit.

There was considerable interest shown all over the island and the walking match to the seventeen parish churches was held on Wednesday 28th and Thursday 29th May.
The walk initially headed south and the only  route specified was along the Promenade, up Broadway, past Avondale, down York Road to the Quarterbridge and on to Braddan. After Braddan, competitors could take whichever route they chose providing they touched the parish churches in order.

Of the twelve starters, only five made it to the finish line. The winner, Harry Bridson, finished on Douglas promenade after 18 hours and twenty-three minutes. In second place and over an hour later came E Garrett and the only other person to finish within 24 hours was Robert Quayle in just shy of twenty-two hours.
Two others finished but both were outside the time limit arriving in Douglas some 27½ hours after starting.

1923

The intervention of the First World War prevented any repitition of the events of 1913 and it wasn't intil 1923 that the Isle of Man Times decided to repeat the race. There were only two entrants; Harry Bridson and his namesake Gerald Bridson. Harry retired at Ramsey and Gerald wento on to finish in 20 hours and 23 minutes.

1924

The following year, Gerald was called to defend his "title" in another match but this time against a fifteen year old schoolboy called Marshall Braide. Braide took an early lead and continued to extend his lead until, by Kirk Michael, he was leading by some 29 minutes. By Ballaugh though, this gap was down to 15 minutes. At Bride the strain was beginning to tell on Braide and he had a massage and was given a walking stick to help him carry on. As the hours and parishes passed, Braide continued to show signs of tiredness and at Dhoon he had to give up at the behest of his father. Bridson continued on and finished the race in 20 hours.

1960

The first of the present day races took place in 1960. At a meeting of the Manx Amateur Athletics Association in March of that year, the committee announced plans to reintroduce the event following the route of the ancient seventeen parishes in a southerly, clockwise direction. Competitors would be required to touch the front door of each church to complete the overall distance of 85 miles within a twenty four hour time limit.
Competitors taking part in this revived "Parish Walk" were unaware of the demanding physical and mental requirements and for some, their training and preparation had been very limited. No-one had attempted a 'non stop' racewalk over 85 miles and no advice was readily available. Indeed, many were ill equiped for 24 hours on the road in all weathers and there was a lack of understanding about diet and clothing. There were no perfomance enhancing shoes, technical clothing or energy gels and yet the times recorded were comparable to those of today.
Interestingly, the minimum age to enter the race was 16 which is in contrast to today's requirements of 21 years old on race day if planning to go beyond Peel.  

Of the 35 starters, only four finished the entire race. In runner up position was Jim Harvey who was supposedly sixteen when he crossed the finish line however, he was two weeks short of his sixteenth birthday making him the youngest ever finisher of the parish walk. A record which will never be broken.

The the seeds had been sown and the Parish Walk became part of the Manx vocabulary and it has been held every year since with the exceptions of 1965 & 1966 when there were no races. This was due to there being unrest between the officials of the Manx Amateur Athletic Club because there was disagreement as to how the event should be run without it interfering with the club's other premier events. The club, which had dominated the Manx sporting scene for many years, was reluctant to continue its support of the event and Boundary Harriers took up the challenge in 1967.
In September 1991, Boundary Harriers and the Manx Amateur Athletic Club merged to become Manx Harriers and a sub committee of Manx Harriers has organised the Parish Walk ever since.

Sheadings and parishes

The Isle of Man is divided into six sheadings which are further divided into seventeen parishes each with its own parish church. The original Parish Walk involved touching the door (and then later the gate) at each parish church but this practice has been phased out. The course takes walkers from the National Sports Centre in Douglas past the first of the parish churches, Braddan, without recording their progress.

The first church at which you will be registered by electronic timing is Marown* (if you do not reach Marown you will not be included in the race results). The race number worn on the front by every walker has an electronic timing chip built into it which is detected by timing mats or masts at each church gate. The same process is repeated at Santon, Malew, Arbory, Rushen and Patrick. The next parish on the course is German where the parish church of St German in Peel became a cathedral in 1980. For many years the recording point has not been at the church/cathedral gates but on the other side of the road at Peel Town Hall. Peel is the furthest point to which under 21 year old entrants are allowed to compete.

If going beyond Peel, walkers continue on to the parishes of Michael, Ballaugh, Jurby, Bride, Andreas, Lezayre, Maughold, Lonan and finally, Onchan. Onchan is the 17th and final parish and so it would be assumed that getting there would be "mission accomplished", however to be a Parish Walk finisher, competitors will have to walk more than two miles further to the finish line next to the war memorial on Douglas promenade.

The start and finishing positions have also evolved over the years. In 1960 the start was at St Georges Church (not one of the 17 parish churches) and finished in the Villa Marina gardens hence it was almost a lap of the Isle of Man incorporating the seventeen parish churches. To improve safety, the course has been diverted (and extended) in places with a corresponding change in the starting position to the National Sports Centre in Douglas (to maintain the traditional 85 mile course length) with the finish on the opposite side of the road to the Villa Marina.

The Manx Telecom Parish Walk has for some time been the biggest mass participation event in the Isle of Man organised by the Island’s largest athletics club with the help of the best sponsors.

* This is since 2018. Prior to then, the first church checkpoint that electronically recorded competitors passing through was Santon.