Sunday, 21 July 2019

The View from a Hill - getting lost in the Sierra Cabrera



I recently had a family holiday in the semi-desert landscape of Almeria in Spain - an area where many classic 'western' films were made, such as Sergio Leone's 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' and 'Once upon a time in the West'. We stayed in Los Matreros, a tiny village on the edge of the Sierra Cabrera mountains, with lots of great running trails if you don't mind hills... and more hills stretching in all directions.


The best feature of where we were staying was a swimming pool where we all spent lots of time. In the evening swallows would dive around it - one flew in to the house and got trapped there (eventually it got tired and I was able to gently cover it in a sheet then released it outside).

The pool was oriented towards a striking hill on the other side of a dried up river valley so I was determined to run up it. It seemed easy enough, I could see that there was a track that wound around and up the lower part of it at least.


So I set off one morning, following the track as it headed behind the hill and then clambering up towards the top - my legs getting scratched by bushes as I did so. Of course I wanted to look back at where we were staying and I could see the small village of white buildings nestled into the hills opposite. But I could not see our house at all and it should have been easy to spot as it was next to the only high trees in the village. There was no sign of the trees or the house.

After a while I concluded that I must have been looking at a different village altogether but I couldn't work out how it could be in apparently the same place. If I was standing on top of this hill surely I must be able to see the house as from the house there was such a clear view of the hill. I had a spooky sensation that brought to mind M R James' classic ghost story 'A View from a Hill' (1925). 


James sets up the story by making it clear that a traveller is heading into unknown (to him) and sparsely populated territory: 'How pleasant it can be, alone in a first-class railway carriage, on the first day of a holiday that is to be fairly long, to dawdle through a bit of English country that is unfamiliar, stopping at every station. You have a map open on your knee, and you pick out the villages that lie to right and left by their church towers. You marvel at the complete stillness that attends your stoppage at the stations, broken only by a footstep crunching the gravel...He was in the depths of the country. I need not particularise further than to say that if you divided the map of England into four quarters, he would have been found in the south-western of them'

Stopping at his destination, the local Squire accompanies him on a walk - 'it was hot, climbing a slippery grass slope that evening.... A small clump of old Scotch firs crowned the top of the hill; and, at the edge of it, commanding the cream of the view, was a wide and solid seat, on which the two disposed themselves, and wiped their brows, and regained breath. ‘Now, then,’ said the Squire, as soon as he was in a condition to talk connectedly, ‘this is where your glasses come in. But you’d better take a general look round first. My word! I’ve never seen the view look better.’

Looking through the binoculars that he has been lent, the protagonist spots buildings in the distance that he cannot see with the naked eye and which his companion cannot see either. There is a gallows and a large church. The explanation in this case is that the binoculars have been manufactured with some act of sorcery that enables people using them to see what was there in the past.

In my case the explanation was more prosaic - it dawned on me that I must in fact be on a different hill to the one I thought I was on. I ran down and up the similar shaped adjacent hill and yes there was our village and house, with my son waving at me from by the pool. 

It was a reminder to me of just how quickly and easily you can become lost and disorientated in hills. You take a wrong path, imagine you are somewhere when in fact you are somewhere else, and if you continue you could find yourself in trouble in some circumstances.   When I hear about people doing solo running feats in hills and mountains  I am impressed by the endurance of endless ascent and descent but most of all I am impressed by how people can navigate in such landscapes, often in dark and/or harsh weather conditions. The potential dangers are the reason, for instance, why the Bob Graham club discourage unaccompanied solo attempts to run the famous round of Lake District mountains in 24 hours. 

My little run in Spain was certainly no Bob Graham round and I was not in any danger but it was a reminder not to take the lonely hills lightly. 


The sun rises over the hills while running on the Summer Solstice 2019

Monday, 27 May 2019

Off our Blocks - 1990s women's sport zine with a guide to running London parks

I recently came a couple of issues of  'Off our Blocks' a 'women's team sports zine' published in London in the mid 1990s, a time when women's sport had very little media recognition. This seems to have been a modest attempt to redress this in the DIY photocopied zine format more commonly used for music and politics at this time. The name of course refers to the starting blocks in running and swimming but was presumably also referencing the US feminist magazine 'Off our Backs' which was quite influential in this period. 


Anyway issue number one from 1994 includes a hand written guide to 'Running the parks of London' with tips on 'things to contemplate while training'. Runners in Holland Park are advised to 'watch out for slow moving nannies and elderly gentleman feeding the squirrels' and 'secondary kids smoking in the bushes at lunchtime', while Kensington Gardens comes with a warning to watch out for 'duck shit, picnicking tourists, rollerbladers, exploding embassies'.

As the contact address for 'Off our Blocks' was in London SE7 (Charlton) no surprise to see Blackheath featured with things to contemplate including 'lots of Georgian houses and BMW’s' and 'why Canary Wharf seems to keep changing position'. As well as 'whether or not to extend the run to nearby Greenwich Park' described as having the 'best views over London at any park. Very up-and-down, so good for endurance but bad if you’ve not done much for a while'.

25 years later these parks are still full of runners, not sure if much has changed from these descriptions. Is there still a marked out 'Peace mile' in Finsbury Park? In terms of running parklife in London the biggest change of course has been the advent of parkrun, a guide to which would take a whole book.






According to a note in Issue 2, the editors of Off Our Blocks were Cress Rolfe and Jen Strang. I came across these zines in 'Still I rise: feminisms, gender, resistance, Act 2' at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill on Sea. The exhibition closed on 27 May 2019.

Thursday, 18 April 2019

Running Songs: The Blackleg Miner

During the nineteenth century, and indeed earlier, a competitive run was often referred to as a 'foot race', presumably to distinguish the human event from a horse race. Foot races, even before the birth of modern athletics, were sometimes a big deal attracting thousands of spectators (see examples here). Still extensive research (OK I just looked at the considerable archive of folk songs at  Traditional Songs and similar sites) has only uncovered one song that specifically mentions a foot race.

Surprizingly (to me) it is the famous strike song, The Blackleg Miner, which includes the lines:

'Oh, Delaval is a terrible place.
They rub wet clay in the blackleg's face,
And aroond the heaps they run a foot race,
To catch the blackleg miner!'

The song apparently dates back to a miners strike in 1844, undermined by 'scab' strikebreakers who in mining areas became known as blacklegs - those who ignored strike calls to work in the mines were of course identifiable by coal dust on their legs and elsewhere. Stakes were high in this period with thousands of strikers and their families evicted from their homes in Northumberland (Seaton Delavel is a village in this area which had a colliery), and violent threats to those undermining the strikes. Hence the threat to 'rub wet clay in the blackleg's face' (or worse) and to 'run a foot race,
To catch the blackleg miner'.

Local records document the popularity of foot racing in this period in the North East of England. On July 18 1842, 'A foot race, for £150 aside, took place at Butcher Race, near Durham, between two men, named Atkinson and Whitehead. Nearly 15,000 persons were present, the event exciting great interest. Atkinson fell about 20 yards from the goal' (Local records; or, Historical register of remarkable events, which have occurred in Northumberland & Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-tweed, 1832-1857). No doubt events like this were in the mind of the anonymous songwriter when they coined the image of miners racing to catch the strikebreaker.

Incidentally, I heard this song performed last week by folk band 'A Grande Scheme', playing atthe Free Woodland Folk Music Festival in Brockley Nature Reserve as part of the Telegraph Hill Festival in South East London.




Sunday, 14 April 2019

Dunstable Downs parkrun

Dunstable Downs rise in Bedfordshire on the edge of the Chiltern Hills. The chalk grassland landscape is partially managed by the National Trust, and is famous for gliders and kite flyers making the most of the air currents at this highest spot in the county. I grew up nearby and have spent many happy hours there walking, running, and taking in the great views of the surrounding countryside, so I was delighted to hear that a parkrun had started there in February.

Delighted but also daunted - the Downs rise to 203m above sea level. I am pleased to report that the course stays at the top of the escarpment rather than requiring a steep descent/ascent, though there is a short uphill section near the start and some undulations along the way.


I ran the 6th event (6/4/19) and I have to say this was one of the best parkrun courses I have run. It is a single lap out and back across the hilltop, heading through some woodland and around a couple of fields, almost entirely on grass/trail. The start is right next to the National Trust cafe/car park at the Downs' highest point with the finish at the beacon nearby.


115 runners took part when I ran, with local clubs represented including Dunstable Road Runners, Dacorum and Tring AC and St Albans Striders. First finisher - as he has been for most of the parkruns there so far - was St Albans' Steve Buckle in 17:35.


The course heads along part of the Icknield Way, so you are following some ancient footsteps not to mention those of Robert Macfarlane who describes a walk along this route in his great book 'The Old Ways: a Journey of Foot' (2012): 'I was soon on the summit ridge of Dunstable Downs, where scores of people were having fun. I sat and rested in a cooling wind and watched children flying kites. My legs preserved a ghost sense of stride, a muscle memory of repeated action, and twitched forward even as I rested'.  

Macfarlane was himself following the footsteps of Edward Thomas who describes his walk in 'The Icknield Way' (1913). Looking back over the Downs he is struck, like many visitors, by the grandeur of the skies as much as the hills: ' The air was now still and the earth growing dark and already very quiet. But the sky was light and its clouds of utmost whiteness were very wildly and even fiercely shaped, so that it seemed the playground of powerful and wanton spirits knowing nothing of earth. And this dark earth appeared a small though also a kingly and brave place in comparison with the infinite heavens now so joyous and so bright and out of reach'.


I drove to the Downs this time, on other occasions I have run up from Dunstable. Coming in that direction a chalk pathway passes over Five Knolls, a series of burial mounds dating back to the Neolithic but with burials from other times too, including the Medieval period when a gallows was located there.




Other Bedfordshire runs:

Monday, 18 February 2019

The Ponds and the Southerns: Swimming and running in the Hampstead Heath sporting landscape

I enjoyed 'The Ponds' (2018),  Patrick McLennan and Samuel Smith's documentary following a year in the life of the famous outdoor men's, women's and mixed swimming ponds on London's Hampstead Heath. Much of what was said about the joys of this kind of swimming can be translated to running - the therapeutic effects of exercise, the appreciation of being outdoors in all weathers, the companionship of the intrepid band of enthusiasts.



I was particularly struck by one of the swimmers referring to what he referred to as a Russian concept of  living water ('Zhivaya voda'), with the pools somehow infused with some of the life force of all who have swam in them before- something continually renewed by each swimmer returning to the water.

I sometimes have a similar sensation running over historic courses in the footsteps of thousands who have run them before. This is nowhere more so than on Hampstead Heath where I ran in the South of England Cross Country Championships last month. Athletics shares the sporting landscape of the Heath with swimming, with its cross country courses and of course the Highgate Harriers running track at the bottom of Parliament Hill  - in recent years home to the iconic 'Night of 10,000m PBs' races.

The cross country races start by another swimming landmark on the Heath - the Parliament Fields Lido -from where so many runners have charged up to the top of the hill at the start of the National and Southern Champs. Most of the greats of English athletics have run that course, including David Bedford who incidentally features briefly in 'The Ponds' as a sometime swimmer.

The start of the senior women's race in South of England Cross Country Championships,
Parliament Hill, 26 January 2019
The Southerns have been happening on the Heath since 1954 and the Nationals since 1957, but as the even longer history of the Ponds shows we should not take this for granted. As recently as 2004 the City of London Corporation, which is responsible for the Heath, tried to close down the Ponds but backed down after a successful campaign. I saw 'The Ponds' last month at a screening at the Phoenix Cinema (East Finchley) with a Q&A afterwards with the directors and a representative of the Kenwood Ladies Pond Association. The latter mentioned that the Ponds have got increasingly busy with the current outdoor swimming boom, something that some of those used to the previous early morning solitude may be ambivalent about - but which helps build the case that stopping swimming there would be unthinkable. Likewise there were nearly 6,000 entries for the Southern cross country champs this year. Long may running and swimming continue on the living tracks and waters of Hampstead Heath.

See previously:

Back to Parliament Hill: South of England Cross Country Championships 2016
National Cross Country Champs, Parliament Hill 2015




Sunday, 30 December 2018

Islay: walking to Solam and seeing an Eagle

One of the outdoor highlights of my year was a walk I did on Islay back in May with my son/long distance walking companion Billy. We have previously walked up to the island's highest point (Beinn Bheigier), as well as walking to the highest point on England’s south coast (Golden Cap in in West Dorset) among other places.

But our most difficult walk so far was in search of Solam, an abandoned settlement in the hills north of  Ardbeg. It is a walk I have done a number of times and have always found both frustrating and rewarding. I’ve never managed to locate the same places each time and I’ve always got lost at some point.

My first visit was way back in 1984 when my dad, who came  from that part of Islay, led my family over the hills from Callumkill – the farm where my grandparents lived and worked. My memory of that visit is trekking through boggy ground on a hot summer’s day while my dad kept promising “It must be over that next hill”. What we did find eventually, concealed in a hillside, was Tobar  na Dabhaich (well of the hollow). Also known as Saint Michael's Well, my father told me that it was a place where people visited for good luck when they got married, and indeed there were at least two horseshoes above in the rock when we found it, one old and rusted and one seemingly fairly recent with ribbon attached. I believe there were also coins in the water. The well also seems to have been the water supply for a nearby settlement reputed in Islay folklore to have been an abandoned plague village. Some trace of its buildings can apparently be seen near the well... if you can find it.

Me and my sister at the well in 1984 - you can just about make out horseshoes in rock above

In 2005 I tried to find the well again with 'clear' directions from my uncle who lives nearby. Not wanting to repeat my dad’s experience of searching in the company of increasingly tired children, I thought it would be best if I went exploring on my own first. The idea was that having found the well and remembered the route I would then return with the rest of the family later on – it would be so easy! I had the ordinance survey map for the area in my back pocket but unbeknownst to me it fell out as I was climbing over the first gate. The weather turned from sunny to cloudy and I found myself lost in bracken that was as tall as me. I had no map and no phone signal, I failed to find the well or any ruins but I did end up at a lonely Loch Larnan with just me and a couple of swans. The Loch feeds Ardbeg distillery with fresh water via the Ardbeg Burn, a stream which you will need to cross to get to Solam - there is a bridge but if you can't even find that you may not get far. When I stumbled across a dead cow lying across the path I took it as a sign to return home

This year with Billy I had the advantage of GPS with the OS map on my phone. The first part is easy enough anyway - you start at the crossroads where the road into Ardbeg diverges from the main road (you can park car/bike in distillery car park). On the north east corner of this there is a single house with a track to its right which you follow for as far as it goes.



After a field, the track turns left, and ends up at the bottom of a hill with a ruin on top of it You can either follow the track round to the left to skirt the hill or climb over it via the ruin.



We did the latter. This is marked on the map as 'Airigh Nam Beist' (Shelter of the beast) - the name given to a popular bottling of Ardbeg whisky.



From the bottom of this hill you head across to the bridge across the Ardbeg Burn. After this things got very muddy and we soon got lost. The phone ran out of power eventually and of course in the hills the signal was patchy. The Strava map for this part of our walk before the phone gave out shows that we were walking round in circles some of the time. The low ground there is very marshy, it’s difficult – probably impossible – to avoid getting your feet wet. Once again I failed to find the well!

What we did stumble across was remarkable though. Between us we saw three Adders, recognisable by the zigzag pattern on their backs. That was slightly alarming as you would clearly be in trouble up in the hills with a poisonous snake bite. But as we were scouring the hills for the well a Golden Eagle flew out a few metres in front of us. I believe it was nesting in the rocks, we could hear the young ones in the nest. I’ve only ever seen a (presumed) eagle in the distance before, up close there is nothing like it with its a huge wingspan.



We ended up at the ruin of a house at Solam. This is not one of the supposed 'plague village' remains near the well, but there is a sign here telling its story.


The sign telling the story of the 'plague village' - the legend is that the villagers became infected as a result of a gift of a mother of pearl necklace from a shipwrecked sailor. Food was left out for the quarantined villagers until they all died (see here for more discussion about this story - there may be truth in it but very unlikely that this happened in 18th century.

The way back was not so bad. The ruined house is next to the boundary wall for the Callumkill estate, you can see the building marked on the map next to the letter 'm' in Solam on OS Map (extract below). From there there is a fairly direct path back though not as easy as it looks on map - we got our feet wet again but were passed caring by then.

Sometimes the best journeys are those which don’t reach their intended destination but which find something unexpected along the way. I can't leave detailed instructions for this walk. My various misadventures have made me wonder if we are really meant to find everything there- out in the lonely country it’s not hard to believe in fairies or other mysteries! So do go and explore but take care... and maybe wear wellies.


See also-


Islay running posts:

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Record Sleeve Athletics (13): Rodney Franklin

It's been a while since I discovered an athletics-themed album sleeve, but stumbled across another one this week while browsing through a record stall in Shoreditch..

American jazz/funk pianist and composer Rodney Franklin is best known in the UK for his 1980 top ten hit 'The Groove'. His 1984 album Marathon has him running through a rocky landscape, albeit with a somewhat unorthodox stride.


The title track is an electro-funk instrumental