Saturday, 25 March 2017

The Lark in the Morning - running over Blow's Downs in Dunstable

'In the golden lightning 
Of the sunken sun, 
O'er which clouds are bright'ning, 
Thou dost float and run; 
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun'

(To a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley)



I went for a run last week at Blow's Downs nature reserve, a hilltop unimproved chalk grassland 'site of special scientific interest' overlooking Dunstable in Bedfordshire. I say overlooking but on this particular morning there was nothing to be seen in all directions but fog, making superfluous the sign at the top pointing out other landmark hills which are normally visible including Luton's Warden Hill (which I wrote about here previously).



If the town was invisible there was the odd trace of nearby urban reality as a reminder, like the carving on this fallen tree...


Blow's Down, at the northern end of the Chiltern Hills, is known for its wildlife with its information board mentioning ring ousels, redstarts and wheatears. I had hoped that I might see something interesting – the day before I had watched a red kite circling over nearby down Dunstable Downs. On this morning though the birds too were hidden in the mist.


But I could still hear their songs - one in particular as a skylark floated overhead uttering its 'silver chain of sound, Of many links without a break, in chirrup, whistle, slur and shake' (George Meredith, The Lark Ascending, 1881). Yes the skylark is the poet's favourite bird, and maybe every runner too aspires to 'float and run... like an unbodied joy' as Shelley puts it.  Though while running in limited visibility on uneven ground the runner must not lose themselves too much in ethereal thoughts - there is a steep quarry on the hill, and last year a dog walker broke his leg falling down the slope. 'The lark in the morning she rises from her nest', but s/he never loses sight of the ground.


'Alas! my journey, rugged and uneven,
Through prickly moors or dusty ways must wind;
But hearing thee, or others of thy kind,
As full of gladness and as free of heaven,
I, with my fate contented, will plod on,
And hope for higher raptures, when life’s day is done'
(To a Skylark by William Wordsworth)



The Luton - Dunstable busway runs along the bottom of the downs, a bus only route with a track alongside it that is great for runners and cyclists.


(The Lark in the Morning is of course an Irish folk song, I used to be part of a folk music session that performed it every Sunday afternoon in a pub near Elephant and Castle back in the 1990s)

Sunday, 12 March 2017

English National Cross Country Championships 2017 in Nottingham


The 2017 English National Cross Country Championships took place on Saturday February 25th at Wollaton Park in Nottingham. I took part in the senior men's race, one of nearly 1800 who made it round the 12k course.


Front of senior women's race on first lap
The course itself was decidely 'interesting', a spiralling series of four loops each slightly longer and different from the previous. There were a number of photogenic water and mud features, a longish sticky patch on last lap being particulary tough, but provided you negotiated these without falling or losing a shoe you always knew that you would soon be on a long runnable stretch. In that respect I found it a lot more pleasant than the Parliament Hill course where the mud can sometimes seem to stretch on forever (the English nationals will be returning there for 2018)



The U20 men hit the mud - I think the guy falling is Ellis Cross who nevertheless went on to win for the second year in a row (photo from English Cross Country Association gallery)
There were two main uphill sections on the course- one just before the descent to the finish line (which the senior men covered four times), and one climbing up to towards Wollaton Hall (a feature of three of the men's laps - the women's course was shorter).  Trudging up that hill put me in mind of the old folk song 'In Nottingham town, not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down'.


The tail end of the senior women's race enjoying the hill
Wollaton Hall features in The Dark Knight Rises as Wayne Manor, but there were no batman costumes in this race - it was no fun run!

'there's a storm brewing Mr Wayne'

It was my third National and I improved slightly on last year at Castle Donington, finishing 28 places ahead in a similar sized field - making me in the 79th rather than 83rd percentile with a mere 1395 runners in front of me!

 

Obligatory Nationals muddy legs shot

As for the club, Kent AC finished 11th in the senior men's competition and 12th in the senior women, a good result. Well done to Tonbridge AC and Aldershot, Farnham & District AC for winning the men's and women's champs respectively.


Kent AC changing trains at Tamworth station.
A big group of us travelled up from London, with 40 runners competing across the various races, most of whom stayed over for post-race celebrations in Nottingham. We ended up in Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem (pictured below) built into the rocks by Nottingham Castle and purportedly the oldest pub in England. I'm sure it has seen worse than a few rounds of jager bombs with South London's finest. Hangovers were cleared with some early morning runs before heading home, I did 12 miles along the canal and the River Trent, passing near to Trent Bridge cricket ground and the City Ground of Nottm Forest.


End of the season

So that was the end of the cross country season, for me at least. The month before I ran in the South of England Cross Country Champs at Parliament Hill, finishing five minutes faster than at the Southerns last year on the same course - but it must be said conditions this year were a lot less wet and muddy than in 2016 (me below at end of first lap, didn't look quite so spy after nine miles).



Also last month I ran in the last fixture of the 2016-17 Surrey League, at Wimbledon Common on February 11th. I hotfooted there from Farthing Down near Coulsdon where South London Harriers hosted the final D1 women's race of the season on a snowy course along Happy Valley.

Surrey League women's race in the Coulsdon blizzard micro-climate, 11 February
Must admit I was a bit disappointed that there was no sign of snow at Wimbledon, though picturesque conditions aren't everything and Kent AC won the men's title for the 5th year in a row.

Start of Surrey League Division One Men's Race, Wimbledon Common, 11/2/2017
(photo by Pete Lighting)



Saturday, 11 March 2017

Norman Cook/Fatboy Slim runs Brighton Half

photo from Run247

Norman Cook aka DJ Fatboy Slim was the official starter at Brighton Half Marathon a couple of weeks ago (27 February 2017). After blowing the klaxon to set more than  8000 runners on their way, Norman ran the race himself, finishing in 1.49.22

Cook is a keen runner and has been a regular at the event in the past few years, think this was a PB for him, with previous times including:

2016 2.02
2015 1.53
2014 1.56

He's also run Royal Parks Half a couple of times to raise money for Young Epilepsy


There's always been a sporting side to Norman, I saw him DJ at Brixton Academy in 1999 when he and Armand Van Helden staged a soundclash from a boxing ring in the middle of the dancefloor



See previously:

Musicians in Motion -






Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Running London: South London Windmill Run

The few remaining windmills in the London area are a reminder of the capital's history of absorbing formerly separate rural villages into the expanding city's urban fabric. With a 17 mile long run target as part of my London marathon training I decided to set off last weekend on a windmill-themed run across South London, taking in Peckham, Brixton, Clapham and Wimbledon.

In Peckham, on the corner of Choumert and Bellenden roads, there is a 2014 mural featuring a windmill landscape. It does not, as I first thought, represent an image of Peckham past. In fact I have found no evidence of there ever having been a windmill in Peckham, though there were a number at different times in the Camberwell area. The local connection to this mural is rather more obscure - it was painted by Walter Kershaw as one of a number of works inspired by paintings in the Dulwich Picture Gallery collection.  The windmills are in fact reproduced from a John Constable painting at DPG, which is in itself a copy of 'Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem’ by Jacob Van Ruisdael (1650).


Heading on to Brixton we find a fine windmill at the end of Blenheim Gardens, off Brixton Hill. The Ashby Mill was built in 1816 and remained a working mill until 1935. It has been restored as a result of the efforts of the Friends of Windmill Gardens and others, and was officially reopened in 2011.



The windmill has its own mural nearby in Lyham Road. The lettering at the bottom reads ''The Windmill revamped by community love, will hold us together if push comes to shove'.


The nearby pub, The Windmill, is one of South London's great music venues. Have had some excellent nights there, folk sessions, punk gigs and alt country events. Particularly recall People's Republic of Disco club nights, seeing Art Brut when they were just breaking (Geoff Travis of Rough Trade was in the crowd, think he had just signed them or was about to), and Pine Valley Cosmonauts. 


On Clapham Common there is another landmark pub with the same name.


As the sign outside says, there has been a Windmill pub in that location since at least 1665. Clearly there must originally have been a windmill there too, but it doesn't seem to have lasted  too long as 'milling must have become less important, and beer selling more important'.


Running on to Wimbledon Common I passed near to the remains of another windmill on Wandsworth Common, but confess I didn't actually see it.

The mill on Wimbledon Common, at the end of Windmill Lane of course, is in good condition. It may not have its own pub, but it does have The Windmill tearooms next door.



A sign above the entrance to the windmill states that Baden-Powel wrote part of his book 'Scouting for Boys' (1908) in the mill house.


According to the information sign at the site, it was built by local carpenter Charles March in 1817 and remained open until 1864 when the Lord of the Manor, the fifth Earl Spencer proposed to enclose Wimbledon Common 'and build himself a new Manor House just south of the windmill'. Fortunately this scheme was successfully opposed by local residents, leading  to 'the Commons being protected by the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act 1971'.

As a result of these endeavours, the common remains open for all and among the many sporting associations using it are the Wimbledon Windmilers running club - I saw a group of them meeting up at the Windmill for a run on Sunday. 

Only the week before (11 February 2017) several hundred of us ran over the Common in the final race of the 2016-17 Surrey League men's cross country competition - did I mention that my club, South London's finest Kent AC, won the competition for the 5th year in a row?!



Start of the Surrey League finale on Wimbledon Common, 11 February 2017

My windmill route, which included exploring other parts of Wimbledon on the way back, and getting lost in Tooting, is on Strava.


Other Running London posts:





Thursday, 9 February 2017

Running London: tracking the city's first railway journey

As somebody reminded me on twitter, yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of the London railways. On 8 February 1836, the first section of the London and Greenwich Railway was opened, with trains between Deptford and Spa Road in Bermondsey - the first passenger steam trains in the capital. Over the next few years the line was extended to reach London Bridge at one end and Greenwich at the other.

Today I decided to retrace that first train journey, running as near as I could the track from Deptford to Spa Road and indeed beyond to Druid Street then Tooley Street.


The railway not only transformed transport but the architecture of the city. To avoid the need for lots of level crossings, the railway was elevated above street level on a viaduct with hundreds of brick arches. 

Arches in Deptford

The site of the original Spa Road station is marked by a plaque commemorating 'London's first railway terminus, opened 1836'.


There is also a large photo on display of the old station.


The bridge where the railway crosses Spa Road is a grand structure supported on pillars.


As I ran alongside the railway I reflected on all the ever changing uses of these railway arches, home over the decades to countless stables, workshops, scrap metal yards, churches, gyms, boxing clubs, nightclubs, studios and in their latest incarnation offices like the Neal's Yard Dairy HQ on Druid Street.  I thought of great nights out in railway arches like the Cross club at Kings Cross, Shunt at London Bridge or various arches in 1990s Brixton.  It's been a similar picture in other cities, such as Glasgow, where of course one of the most iconic clubs until it closed in 2015 was The Arches. As urban property has become more valuable and tightly policed, railway arches in some areas are losing their cheap/marginal/semi-outlaw status, but the history of these places isn't played out yet.

Many of these arches have their own distinct stories, some glorious, some tragic. In the latter category, a plaque on Druid Street recalls the Druid Street Arch Bombing when on 25 October 1940 a Nazi bomb killed 77 people sheltering in a railway arch. 



site of the Druid arch bomb, October 1940
(I ran alongside the track for about 3 miles, for most of it close to the line though there were a couple of points where it's not possible to do so - see run details on strava)





Sunday, 5 February 2017

Running on Screen (18): T2 Trainspotting


The opening scene of the original Trainspotting film (1996) famously features Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Spud (Ewen Bremner) running through the streets of Edinburgh being chased by store detectives, set to Iggy Pop's Lust for Life.

The follow up twenty years latter, T2 Trainspotting likewise starts with a run, but of a quite different kind. This time Renton is running on a treadmill in an Amsterdam gym before collapsing - his health shock prompting him to return to Edinburgh and  the heroin addict friends who he ripped off all those years before.


Finding Spud to be still struggling to kick the habit, Renton drags him out for a run to the top of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh's Holyrood Park, the highest point in the city (this time soundtracked by Young Fathers' Low).


Sitting on top of the hill, they talk about addiction.

Renton: 'you are an addict... so  be addicted to something else'

Spud 'Like running until you feel sick?'

Renton 'yes or something else, you've got to channel it, you've got to control it'.

Certainly not the first person, in fiction or real life, to take a lot more than 12 steps to recovery with the help of running.




Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh has done his share of running, including running London marathon twice, his first in London in 2001 I believe.

Update 10 February 2017:

This week's Athletics Weekly notes that it is Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy) who is the strongest runner of the Trainspotting crew, dating back to his teenage years when he was 4th in the Surrey under 17 1500m champs in 1988. He has run many marathons including the 2008 London Marathon in 3:01.and New York 2013 in 3:19. He has also taken part in some ultras, including 50 mile race through Bear Mountain, New York in 2015 for children's charity Jonah’s Just Begun. In fact in his twitter handle he describes himself as 'Professional pretender, ultrarunner, rare disease patient advocate, dad, ninja. But not in that order'.

Jonny Lee Miller at the finish of 2013 New York City Marathon

Previously in the Running on Screen series:


Running London: in praise of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel

The Greenwich Foot Tunnel is one of the most important routes for London runners on the East side of the city.  With no pedestrian friendly river crossings between it and Tower Bridge five miles upstream (I don't recommend running through the vehicle fumes of the Rotherhithe tunnel, though technically you could), the  370m tunnel connects the north and south banks of the Thames at a very useful point. 

Of course its entrance on the Greenwich side is an iconic running location in its own right, marking with the Cutty Sark ship Mile Seven of the London Marathon route. On Sunday mornings in particular in the lead up to the Spring Marathon season a seemingly never ending stream of runners pass through the tunnel during their long run training. For runners from South  London heading north, the tunnel gives access to parks and waterways of the Isle of Dogs and East London along which it is possible to run for miles with very little interruption from roads. For those heading north to south, the tunnel opens up the way to the hilly Greenwich Park and the green expanse of Blackheath, as well as to Thames-side routes around the Greenwich peninsula up to the 02/Dome and beyond.  


Last weekend for instance a group of us did a 14 mile run from Greenwich that included following the Regents Canal to Victoria Park, then the Hertford Union Canal up to the Olympic London Stadium and back. Yesterday my 16 mile route took me to Mile End, where I did the parkrun before heading back via Limehouse and Millwall Docks to the foot tunnel.


The tunnel was opened in 1902, and was originally intended to help dock workers from the South side get to work on the Isle of Dogs. It was commissioned by the London County Council, with former docker and later Labour MP Will Crooks having a key role as chair of the LCC's Bridges Committee. So runners can thank him and the workers who dug the tunnel through the chalk by hand.

For runners passing through today the main dilemma seems to be whether to use the lift or the stairs - 100 of them at the Greenwich end. Most seem to descend via the spiral staircase but get the lift back up.



(Running Past has written a bit more about the history and notes that  to mark the centenary of the tunnel in 2002, 100 people ran a Greenwich Foot Tunnel Centenary Marathon entirely inside the tunnel (58 laps). Hugh Jones, winner of the 1982 London Marathon, won the tunnel event in a time of 2.45.40).