Monday, 25 July 2016

Running up Warden Hill, Luton

Warden Hill, and the adjacent Galley Hill, are situated on the northern edge of Luton. They feature on both the recent Chiltern Way walking/running route and the ancient Icknield Way, and have been designated part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest as an example of chalk downland featuring some rare plants. Since 1993, they have been managed by Luton Borough Council as 'Galley Hill and Warden Hill Nature Reserve'.

They surely needed this protection as in the past 40 years the town has spread closer and closer to the hills with new housing developments replacing previous farmland. Yet immediately behind the houses on the local 'The Riddy Lane Trail' you are next to barley fields looking towards Warden Hill.
Riddy Lane Trail sign, located off Old Bedford Road near junction with Barnfield Avenue
 As a teenager I spent a lot of time on and around what we just called 'The Hill', as I lived nearby on one of the encroaching housing developments at the end of Old Bedford Road. And for a period when I was at Luton Sixth Form College me and my friend Nick ran up Warden Hill in the mornings. The healthy effect was perhaps slightly offset by stopping at the top of the hill each morning for Nick to have a roll up, but it was a good start to the day. 

I left Luton nearly 30 years ago, and my run up Warden Hill last week (in the course of an 8 mile run from Luton to Dunstable) was only the second time I've run up there since. Just as I remembered it, its trickiest feature is its false summit - running up the main pathway up you appear to be approaching the top but then find you are actually just at the start of the next section. Anyway it's quite runnable, maximum height  is 195m (there is a trig point on the top), and if you wish you can follow the path along the top of the hill and on to Galley Hill next door.


 From the top of the hill one direction faces over the town and the South Beds golf course  whereas the other way overlooks the open countryside towards the Bedfordshire/Hertfordshire border (as well as affording a view of the Stopsley hill that has figured in the town's cross country course, scene of national championships in the 1970s and 80s). Easy to imagine with your back to the town that you are in an ancient landscape. Neoltihic burials and the Drays ditches earthworks have been found in the vicinity, and Galley Hill apparently takes its name from Gallows that once stood on the hill top.

Amidst the wild flowers and bird life- swifts buzzing overhead, the song of yellowhammers - I was pleased to see evidence of modern teenage life, even if I wished that they had taken their rubbish home with them.  Schools had broken up for the summer a couple of days before, and burnt remains of exercise books scattered the hill top. But apart from a couple of dog walkers I passed on the way down I had the hill to myself.

'let them run riot and scream from the mountain tops'- creative writing burnt offering

Luton Wardown parkrun

While up in Luton at the weekend I also took part for the second time in Luton Wardown parkrun, which has now been running every Saturday since April 2015.  253 people took part this week, the highest number other than at their first birthday run in April. Great inclusive parkrun in a lovely park, this week it featured a group graduating from a Stopsley Striders beginners group to run their first 5k.


English National Cross Country Championships at Stopsley, Luton, 1975 -
won by Luton's Tony Simmons (founder of Stopsley Striders)

See previously:

Saturday, 16 July 2016

'These forms who hasten by' - ghosts and runners on the Pilgrims Way (1923)

The Pilgrims Way

Along the Pilgrims' way.
The yew trees sigh and sway,
They stand a lasting line,
On ancient days a sign.

The monk and minstrel gay
With prayer and roundelay;
The pedlar with his load;
They took the Pilgrims' road

And when the sun is low,
They sometimes seem to go
Along the same old track,
By yew trees, gnarled and black.

When folks say what they've seen,
Well, WE know what they mean;
These forms who hasten by,
Are really you and I!

(RMH, South London Harriers Gazette, November 1923)

Pilgrims Way,  Kent, 1950 - Bill Brandt
The Pilgrims Way is a route between Winchester and Canterbury, at least part of which follows ancient trackways on the North Downs even if its name and conception as a single continuous route probably goes back no further than the 1870s. It is popular with walkers and runners - including those taking part in  The Pilgrims Challenge 66 mile ultra marathon in the last couple of years.

The notion of following in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims is an evocative one, and in a certain light quite haunting. In the 1920s, when this poem was written, there was upsurge of interest in both the great outdoors and in ghosts. Robert Macfarlane notes that in this period 'people, traumatized by the war, took to the paths in search of ghosts  - setting out on the tracks of the lost and left-behind. Old paths became mediums in two senses: means of communion as well as means of motion. The convivial pilgrimages described by Chaucer became tinged with a morbid historicism: spectres stepped from the verge or hedge, offering brief address' (The Old Ways: a journey on foot, 2012).

This would seem to apply to this poem, which I found in an old South London Harriers newsletter, but  I like the twist  - that what others see as ghosts may in fact be runners hastening by.

I wonder who 'RMH' was?

[update - South London Harriers have identified an R.M. Harrison who ran for the club in this period, so he is possibly the poet]

Hamish Fulton's The Pilgrims Way features in the current 'Conceptual Art in Britain' exhibition at Tate Britain gallery in London. In  April 1971, Fulton conceived of  'A 165 mile walk' on 'Ancient paths forming a route between Winchester and Canterbury' as an art work leaving no trace other than this photograph of  'A hollow lane on the North Downs'.

More running related literature:

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Running on Screen (15): New Blood

BBC crime thriller series 'New Blood' features two young investigators from different agencies (the police and the Serious Fraud Office) whose paths cross in looking into cases of corruption and murder in London. Their competitive bromance includes some sporting rivalry, including in the first episode racing in a Duathlon at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Velopark.

Previously in the Running on Screen series:


Saturday, 9 July 2016

Sport and Kinetic Beauty - David Foster Wallace

From 'Federer, Both Flesh and Not'  by David Foster Wallace (2006):

'Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty... The human beauty we're talking about here is a beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body...

There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot.


Of course, in men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their “love” of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s'

(Wallace's comments can be applied to all sports, but here he was writing about tennis and Roger Federer in particular. Players pictured from the top: French 1920s stars Suzanne Lenglen and Rene Lacoste; Venus Williams and Roger Federer)
The full essay is included in 'String Theory: David Foster Wallace on tennis'

Monday, 4 July 2016

Running in a time of lowered flags and flowers

Running in a time
of lowered flags and flowers
Don't forget too soon

(photos taken while running on June 19th 2016, warming up for London City Mile. Top - rainbow flag at half mast on Southwark Council HQ, Tooley Street, London SE1 for 49 people murdered in a gay club in Orlando a week previously. Other photos taken at Hermitage Community Moorings, on River Thames at Wapping, with flowers for Jo Cox the Labour MP who lived there on a boat, and was murdered by a neo-nazi in Leeds on June 16th)