Lions had a Roman romp

Morpeth Lions' Roman Romp.
Morpeth Lions' Roman Romp.

Last month Lion CHRIS OFFORD looked at the involvement of the Lions on past Fair Days. This month he looks at a forerunner of this event — the Lions’ Roman Romp.

There were two Roman Romps, one in 1978 and one in 1979. The second took place about two weeks before I moved to Morpeth and it was a hot topic of conversation when I arrived. As I was not there I have to rely on the memories of long-serving Lions, most notably Les Sage.

The Roman Romps were main events in the Presidential years of Bill Rouse and George Bell, but the planning for each started in earnest 12 months beforehand. This article looks principally at the first of the Romps.

The basic concept was to have Roman Games and a Chariot Race. As the event grew in momentum a lot more attractions were added. However, it started with a call for teams to build a chariot and be prepared to race it on a course around Morpeth Common.

Lions Clubs and other organisations and firms built and entered chariots for the race. Alnwick Lions even ran their chariot down from Alnwick to Morpeth Common in relays. Health and Safety would have a fit nowadays. The Alnwick Lions must have been pretty tired when they reached the Common. The contestants had, of course, to dress as Roman soldiers.

As with similar Lions events, it was designed to raise money for a charity. This was to raise £5,000 for a Lamina airbed for a sterile unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Both the chariot concept and that it was for charity guaranteed a great deal of publicity.

This included appearances on local television. On one occasion, Bill Rouse and Les Sage took the chariot to the TV studios. The make-up people thought Les’s legs were not brown enough for a Roman and so the make-up artist got to work on them, in spite of Les protesting he was standing in the chariot and would be only seen from the waist up in the shots. It transpired that the studio crew had set Les up and it was days before the make-up washed off.

There was also another TV shot in Jesmond Dene. This involved Eddie Gebhard and a horse. Unfortunately Eddie’s whip got caught in the wheel of the chariot and it flipped over sending Eddie sprawling. The camera kept rolling and followed the chariot careering downhill followed by a bunch of exuberant schoolchildren. Eddie’s dignity suffered, but it was great television.

For several months before the Roman Romp, the Lions sold event programmes throughout Northumberland and Tyneside. They dressed as Roman soldiers and sold the programmes at every social and working men’s club they could find. These only cost 10p, but could win you £250 and by selling these the £5,000 was raised weeks before the Roman Romp.

One big concern for the organisers was what the weather was going to be on the day. The Lions contacted the Meteorological Office to pick a day when it might be sunny. In those days the Met Office could forecast some months ahead which were likely to have sunny spells — how times change. Anyway, October 1 was chosen. It rained the days beforehand, but the Lions woke up at 4am on the morning to find it dry and it turned out to be a lovely sunny day. Their luck was in as the next day it poured again.

As I have said, the chariots were only a part of the Roman Romp. There were five marquees with a whole range of charities and organisations with stalls. Jim Alder started the ‘Olympics’ by running onto the Common and lighting the Games’ Flame. He did not know then how useful the experience would be for his recent Olympic torchbearer role.

There was a fun run, Roman games, fancy dress, slaves for sale, a gigantic mining figure on an articulated lorry and a dog display. Other charities took space for their own fundraising efforts.

One highlight was the Red Devils parachute display. The plane came over and disappeared to the west where the parachutist jumped above what was formerly Searles.

The crowd was wondering where the parachutists had got to, but suddenly they appeared over the trees and landed perfectly in an marked area in the centre of the Common.

This area had been marked off in grid squares which people could purchase, with a prize going to the owner of the square in which the first parachutist landed.

The borough council had stipulated that there was to be no parking on the football and rugby pitches. This meant cars had to be directed to certain areas only and this took time. The Lions kept to their word until the police arrived. Unknown to the Lions, the Roman Romp was causing gridlock on all roads around the Common and even into and out of town.

They were told in no uncertain terms to get the cars parked anywhere, which they did. Unfortunately, later that night it rained again and some people had left vehicles on the Common which were stuck in soggy ground for a few days until conditions improved.

Financially for our charities and as a social fun event it was a great success. It was very hard work though and took a great deal of man hours for several months.

The next year the effort was scaled down somewhat with the main attraction being a stunt biplane. It was great to do, but time moves on and now the whole community is involved in Fair Day which spreads the hard work around more. Furthermore we are spared the sight of Les Sage having his legs made up again.

We do lack good photographs of the event, particularly colour photographs. If any of you reading this have photographs of the Romp, the Lions would love to borrow them to scan for our records.

These can be dropped in at the Herald office in Newgate Street and we will return them to you.