Monday 29 March 2010

Voices of Spring

Because of dire predictions of forthcoming inclement weather - heavy rain, sleet and snow - I ran up the ghyll early this morning before the gentle precipitation turned far heavier. It was a delectable run when all the local bird population was of the same mind as me, to enjoy to the full what was apparently the best part of the day. By 8.30am the air was vibrant with their full blooded music.
Near the early flowering primroses a Blackbird was playing his boxwood flute in a garden by the bridge, a master musician. From its hidden shelter by the streamside a Mallard was quacking ever so softly as if talking in its sleep. A flashing white rump landed on a wall close by and materialized into a handsome Wheatear, one of the first of many summer visitors to grace our upland pastures. Loudest of all were the Curlews whose haunting call notes almost drowned those of the many acrobatic Lapwings and soaring Skylarks. Such a heavenly choir.
On the higher moor towards Yarnbury Grouse were calling their usual "Go back, Go back" but soon beat a hasty retreat when they realised I wasn't going to. Snipe were chipping away in a clump of smashed up reeds by the wall where I turned to take the middle path through sodden fields back towards the village. A pair of Partridge leap-frogged over the wall while Pheasant, poaching seeds around the farm buildings, briefly sported their gaudily painted plumage before clattering away to cover.
I jogged contentedly back down the ghyll with its primrose banks and chattering beck, past fields of new-born lambs, into the gathering gloom that was slowly enveloping the village. I'd 'run the gauntlet of eternity' and been a living part of all the sounds and movement and rhythms of the on-rushing Spring. Vixi, for one hour I had lived - abundantly.

Monday 22 March 2010

Spring has sprung

I'm not sure what the official temperature was yesterday. All I know is that for the first time this year I reckoned it was warm enough to run in shorts, and I did. After a poorly attended, yet inspiring service in our local Chapel, I decided to further top up my spiritual batteries with a little jog round Grassington Moor.
Around Hebden lambing time officially begins on the first day of Spring - March 21st - but I reckon one or two crafty tups must obviously have thought this is perhaps a bit late. Some of their ewes have already produced fluffy bundles a little before that specified date!
The pond at the bottom of Yarnbury zig-zags was heaving with frogs on their annual migration to their mating area. Two days earlier scores of the little green jumping creatures were trying to fit into a wee splash of water barely a foot in circumference but overnight rain had turned it into a swamp. The frogs ecstatically croaked their approval! Farther up the ghyll is another pond with an even larger population that entirely covered the surface, all croaking away happily as they went about their courtship rituals. Until I stuck my head over the wall. They promptly submerged, as if feeling a bit embarrassed about being caught in the act!
Heather burning had recently taken place and the acrid smell still lingered in the warm air. Grouse called "go-back, go-back, go-back". Cheeky blighters! I took no notice and ran on, my legs feeling stronger than they had for some months.
Approaching Gill House the air pulsed with the sound of Lapwings as they tumbled and wheeled and dived over their potential nesting sites. Curlews were calling too, that welcome harbinger of Spring whose beautiful bubbling notes cascade from the air like liquid music, what Ted Hughes referred to as 'A wobbling water-call, A wet-footed god of the horizons'. Wish I could write like that!
After about 700' of climbing I reached the high point. Turning for home there was a new spring in my step, an urge to run faster, something I haven't felt all winter. Sweeping downhill towards Hebden I felt to be almost floating. There's no doubt about it. Spring has most definitely sprung - and that's official!

P.S. A week after writing this I discovered that in my absence, whilst I'd been galivanting round the Dales, Longwood Harriers A.C. had presented me with the Bob Mathieson memorial trophy for the best performance by a veteran athlete throughout 2009. It was in recognition of my performances in the following races:

Meltham 10K road: 1st MV75
Grizedale 10 mile trail: 1st MV70
Wharfedale ½ marathon trail: 1st MV70
Burn Valley ½ marathon road: 1st MV70
Harrogate 10K road: 1st MV70 (48.04 gave me 2nd place in the 2009 British MV75 10K Rankings)
Lowther 13 mile fell run: 1st MV70
Burnsall 10 mile road: 1st local (1.21.36 gave me 1st place in the 2009 British MV75 10 mile Rankings)
Richmond 10K road: 1st MV70
Benidorm ½ marathon: Unofficially 1st MV75 (1.49.52 gave me 3rd place in the 2009 British MV75 ½ marathon Rankings)


Tuesday 16 March 2010

A good weekend in the Lake District

It was freezing cold when we arrived at Ullswater on Friday afternoon but we awoke to a warmer and more habitable environment on Saturday morning. After a hasty breakfast we drove to Pooley Bridge and parked by the Information Centre in the Square where we stripped down to our running gear for the start of one of our regular routes.
Ignoring red traffic lights we ran across the bridge and turned north along a path through the wood bordering the River Eamont. Beyond, in the fields around the man-made pond, it was a bit squidgy underfoot, but nothing Mudclaws and Sealskinz couldn't cope with. Startled Mallard sought sanctuary farther into the river and wild geese bugled across the benign sky. The Iona Community regard the wild goose as a symbol of the Holy Spirit and, strangely, I always feel uplifted by the sight and sound of these wandering birds.
We crossed the A592 Penrith road and took the grassy track over Flusco Hill towards Dalemain, a large and imposing red sandstone house recently featured on Radio 4's food programme promoting marmalade. They called it 'bottled sunshine'. In the lambing fields we've seen hares that had come to share mangolds put out to sustain pregnant ewes. In March the Dalemain gardens are smothered with shiny white Snowdrops and yellow Aconites, a brilliant sight to behold. A strutting grey cockerel was rounding up his wide-eyed hens, full of the joys of Spring. A field of Fallow Deer have become quite tame over the years and will readily pose for camera shots. This year they look drabber and less colourful than previously. Red squirrels regularly feed around a large tree in the courtyard but were missing on this occasion.
As we ran along the track towards Dacre a buzzard mewed in the distance. The old castle stood in bold relief, lit with warm sunshine, when we approached, but as I fumbled for the camera in my bumbag a car drove up and parked immediately in front of it. Typical! The driver did apologize when I mentioned it but we were running and couldn't hang around while he decided to move the offending object.
Dacre's roadside banks were smothered with snowdrops, nodding in the gentle breeze. We turned south, crossed the bridge over Dacre Beck and set off up the long hill towards Souland Gate. Bantam cocks crowed lustily from a garden near the summit where we turned right towards Soulby before taking a footpath through the fields for the final kilometre back to Pooley bridge. We re-crossed the A592, jogged steeply upwards into Dunmallard Wood before sweeping joyously downhill to finish our run in the Square. A very pleasant 5 miles in balmy Lakeland weather that effectively answers the question - "Why do I run?"

We parked by the old Church at Martindale, with its ancient yew tree, and set off behind Winter Crag farm to climb Beda Fell. But first we'd to rescue a sheep that had tried to jump a wall but got its horns fast in the wire netting at the top and was just hanging there helpless. It's friends must have assumed I was a shepherd and that the green KIMM sack I was carrying was full of nourishing nuts. They followed us in a long line up the fell bleating appealingly. As we crested the ridge we were struck by a fierce wind that almost bowled us off our feet. The sheep very sensibly turned back!
We struggled onwards and upwards, hoods up protecting our faces, occasionally blown off the path by an extra strong gust. Two watery eyed fell runners passed us, hardly able to maintain momentum against the viscious blast - and they were going DOWN hill! At least, we were being blown mainly upwards. A parcel of hinds, maybe a dozen or so, grazing a sheltered part of the hillside below us hardly raised their heads as we passed them by.
Mercifully, as we approached Angle Tarn down the lee side of Beda Fell Knot, we were sheltered from the wind and life became more pleasant. For the only time we can remember Angle Tarn was completely frozen over and made a wonderful foreground to the snow-capped mountain tops beyond. A pair of ravens cronked across the grey sky, the only signs of life in an otherwise deserted landscape.
We took the stalker's path below Heck Crag and descended into Bannerdale. Badgers had excavated a tidy hole under the long wall leading to Dale Head, but the wall remained perfectly intact. Now, if I tried that, I've no doubt the stones would collapsed on top of me and this Blog would come to an abrupt end.
As we strolled back down the road towards Winter Crag, where our car was parked, groups of walkers were setting off up the hill totally unaware of the horrors that would be unleashed upon them when they reached the top. Our day was finished and half an hour later were back at Ravencragg enjoying the first of many refreshing cups of reviving tea.

Before returning home we couldn't resist one of our favourite runs we always do when visiting this particular location. It starts along the road between Pooley Bridge and Howtown before turning up the track to Swarthbeck farm and following the path beneath Swarth Fell and Bonscale Pike to Mellguards at the back of Howtown. We crossed the bridge over Fusedale Beck and ran the path leading gently upwards, parallel to the zig-zag road, that brings us to the Church of St Peter at Martindale. We took photographs of the churchyard heavily dotted with snowdrops.
There was no way I could run all the way up Hallin Fell, as I have in the past, but was tempted upwards by the thought of the wonderful flowing run back down. So off we went, arriving at the obelisk to be greeted by the same terrible wind that struck us yesterday on Beda Fell. We didn't linger, running easily back down the fell's leeward side, to the ferry landing stage at Howtown where we hit the road. From thence it was an easy jog back to Ravencragg - and sustenance.
All in all, a very pleasant weekend without one drop of rain.

Tuesday 2 March 2010

Lounging around La Palma

During the last two weeks of February, while Britain shivered under yet more snow, my wonderful partner and I were savouring the heady delights of the colourful island of La Palma. We like a bit of excitement but getting there was not without incident and, at times, a little frightening. A violent blast of wind as we descended to land knocked the Boeing 737 a bit off course so we were no longer pointing down at the runway but at the foot of a ruddy great mountain. With all the breakfast paraphernalia crashing around in the galley behind us we managed to ascend and clear the tops before setting a course for Tenerife south. Seven hours later we were herded onto Fred Olsen's capacious boat for a 3½ sail to La Palma. - via La Gomera. We arrived at the tail end of some strange carnival where thousands of lads and lassies, all clad in white clothes with matching white hats, were singing and kicking up a heck of a noise while sprinkling everyone in sight with talcum powder!

It was well after midnight when we reached Las Olas Aparthotel at Los Cancajos where, instead of devoting all her time to us weary wanderers, the receptionist in charge was 'helping police with their enquiries'. A man was lying on the floor amidst splashes of runny red stuff that looked suspiciously like blood while emitting some rather painful noises and being comforted by a woman. Word went round he'd been stabbed. Being true Brits with stiff upper lips and all that, the incident left us totally unmoved. We stood in a quiet, orderly queue contemplating our surroundings, the all-glass doors, polished marble floor, plush leather seating, ornate chandelier, smugly patting ourselves on the back for having chosen such a wonderful place to stay. Soon, the moaning man was stretchered away, the receptionist returned to her duties and life went on, albeit a bit behind schedule!

Things got even more exciting two nights later when some monsoon weather lurking in the Atlantic decided it would be a good idea to pay us a visit. Maybe it was just paying homage to my Rain Goddess partner but the hotel staff were totally unprepared for it. All night long it roared and raged, blowing fuses at the electricity sub station, picking up pool side furniture and smashing it to pieces, tearing tiles from rooftops and scattering them on the road, smashing hotel doors into smithereens of glittering glass, lifting man-hole covers, tearing branches from trees and flooding the stairway down to the bar and restaurant areas. But of course, being true Brits, we picked our way through the wreckage next morning to enjoy a hearty breakfast as though nothing untoward had happened. After all, we were on holiday and we were jolly well going to enjoy ourselvers!

And enjoy ourselves we jolly well did. La Palma easily outshines the three other Canary islands we've visited - Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. It's green and lush with banana plantations encroaching into towns and villages. Lime, laurel, myrrtle and giant ferns form a huge rain forest area at the north end of the island. There are no straight roads. There are no signs proclaiming 'Full English All-day Breakfasts'. Very little English is spoken in bars, shops or on public transport, so a smattering of Spanish can be helpful. If there's any night-life on La Palma we never experienced it, so those who want all night rave-ups must go elsewhere.

Everything is so colourful and the quality of lighting enhances it all. None of your monotonous dull houses, but bright pastel shades bordering streets and dotting the verdant hill sides. All are enveloped in a mass of palm trees, blazing flowers, cacti and tropical shrubs. Lizards are everywhere; there must be millions of them on La Palma. A gentleman by the pool rested his coffee on the wall only to find a lizard in his saucer when he turned to it. They like coffee.

We walked some of the many trails drinking in the incredible views from lofty viewpoints and marvelling at some amazing engineering feats. They have this wonderful ability to bore a ruddy great long hole through a mountain, lay a bit of tarmac and drive buses through it! A 353m long bridge spanning a deep gorge at Los Sauces is one of the most mind-boggling structures I've ever seen. Old Isambard would have been proud of it.

Being a Runningfox, with a running partner, we pretty soon worked out a suitable route to run off the excesses of our exceedingly high calory diet. I'm afraid our pre-planned exercise programme went by the board though it's possible our regular splashes up and down the swimming pool partially compensated for this.

In spite of the weird welcomings at the beginning of our holiday we can't wait to get back. But next time we'll be more prepared, taking a more detailed map and suitable guide book to walk or run some of the hundreds of kilometres of marked trails we failed to find or appreciate on this, our initial visit.