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

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Oxford Outdoor Swimming

The rivers of Oxford and its surrounding countryside must have nearly as much literary history flowing in them as water, perhaps nowhere more so than at Port Meadow to the north/west of the city. Most famously Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) is said to have begun telling what became the Alice in Wonderland stories on a boat to Port Meadow with Alice Liddell and her sisters in 1862.

Gerard Manley Hopkins bemoaned the 1879 felling of trees overlooking Port Meadow in his early environmentalist poem 'Binsey Poplars': 'All felled, felled, are all felled...Not spared, not one / That dandled a sandalled / Shadow that swam or sank / On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank'. Most recently, Philip Pulman has recently centred his Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage '3 miles up the river Thames from the centre of Oxford, some distance from where the great colleges… contended for mastery in the boat races, out where the city was only a collection of towers and spires in the distance over the misty levels of Port Meadow'.

In fact the hero of the novel lives, in a different version of our universe, at the Trout Inn - an actual pub next to the Thames at Wolvercote dating back to the 17th century. And it was here back in September that we parked in the car park to swim in the river (as it turned out we could also have parked at the Port Meadow Godstow Car Park a few hundred metres away across the bridge on the meadow side of the river).

This is the first year I've embraced outdoor swimming, trying to keep up with Jools who has led me round the country in search of wild water adventures. At Port Meadow we had a quick dip in the river - at its north west corner it is actually the Wolvercote Mill Stream next to the meadow, flowing to rejoin the Thames from which it draws it water (it once powered the paper mill at Wolvercote which supplied paper to the Oxford University Press).

Just across the old Wolvercote toll bridge there is a rope swing on the stream. We actually got in just a bit further along. The stream was shallow in September, but suitable for breast stroke.

We also checked out Oxford's fine heated outdoor pool - Hinksey Pool dates back to the 1930s and began life as the filter beds of the city waterworks. It's about twenty minutes walk from the city centre, where we went afterwards to check out the 'Spellbound: magic, ritual and witchcraft' exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Running on Screen: A Discovery of Witches

'A Discovery of Witches' is a tale of witches, vampires and daemons, starting out in contemporary Oxford where witch-in-denial Diana Bishop is doing research into alchemy in the library. In episode one of the recent TV adaption, we see Diana (played by Teresa Palmer) running and rowing along the river. In a later episode - spoiler alert - we see her being kidnapped by another witch while out for a run and tortured upside down in her best Sweaty Betty gear.

The TV series is an adaptation of the the novel by Deborah Harkness, in which Diana explains that all this exercise helps her manage her anixety - and no doubt burn up some of her excess energy as she initially denies her magical powers. She goes for runs, her feet pounding 'on familiar dirt paths through the fields and marshes north of the city', and takes a yoga class especially for supernatural creatures (a scene not included in TV version).

But it is rowing that is her first love: 'I’d tried medication and meditation, but nothing was better for keeping panic at bay then physical activity. In Oxford it was rowing each morning before the college crews turned the narrow river into a thoroughfare… Rowing was a religion for me, composed of a set of rituals and movements repeated until they became a meditation... as my movements flowed into a seamless cadence, it felt as though I were flying. During these blissful moments, I was suspended in time and space, nothing but a weightless body on a moving river'.

Previously in the Running on Screen series:

Thursday, 11 October 2018

A.S. Gispert, Hash House Harriers and the Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries Mile

Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries are two adjoining Victorian burial grounds near to me in SE London. The distance around the outside is pretty much exactly a mile, so yes for better or worse somebody has created a Strava segment called 'Death Mile'. 

And so it came to pass that during the summer a group of us did an unofficial 'Death Mile' time trial. The paths are mostly too narrow for more than one person at a time, and even first thing on a Sunday morning there are dog walkers and other cemetery lovers so taking turns to run was really the only way to go (one of the dog walkers told us we were the politest runners they'd met, we were all being double friendly).

The cemetery has some interesting graves, including those of  the pioneering educationalists Rachel and Margaret McMillan, Cuban anarchist Fernando Del Marmol and the poet Ernest Dowson who memorably wrote this reminder to runners:

'They are not long, the days of wine and roses,
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream'.

But perhaps most pertinently for runners, in the Roman Catholic section of the cemetery there is a monument to the family of Albert Stephen Ignatius Gispert. Born in 1903 to Arthur and Remedio Gispert of 80 Breakspears Road, Brockley, 'G' (as he became known) was of Spanish/Catalan background. While stationed in Malaysia in the 1930s he helped found a running club which he christened the 'Hash House Harriers' (HHH - derived from the nickname of the colonial era Selangor Club Chambers)  The club events involved a non-competitive cross country paper chase with a strong emphasis on socialising afterwards. 

Gispert was killed in February 1942 in the Battle of Singapore during the Japanese invasion, but 'hashing' flourished after the war. Today there are still hundreds of  HHH groups around the world, their popular slogan of 'a drinking club with a running problem' giving you a flavour of their culture.

So after our run we made our way to Gispert's memorial...

And it seemed entirely appropriate to have a drink there, even if it was still morning.

In fact one of our number had brewed a very fine Black IPA especially

(*not 100% sure if Gispert is buried in the grave, or just remembered there - the bodies of many of those who died overseas were never recovered and repatriated)

Thursday, 27 September 2018

When Kent AC were based at the Brockley Jack (1900s)

Like most sporting bodies, my running club Kent AC has an association with certain watering holes. We have our annual general meeting at the Blythe Hill Tavern in Catford, we gather each year after the London Marathon at the Chandos by Trafalgar Square, and lately we've had social events at The Station Hotel in Hither Green and the Blackheath Wanderers club house on Eltham Road.

Still in the old days Kent AC, like many clubs, not only gathered in pubs but had their headquarters there. This headed paper is from the 1900s (it is from the club's archives held at Lewisham Local Studies Centre) and shows that the club's headquarters at that point were at the 'The Brockley Jack Hotel, Crofton Park'.

The Brockley Jack had just been rebuilt at this point, the current building from 1898 replacing an older inn once known as The Castle on the same site (see history at Transpontine).  Writing in the 1890s, Walter Besant claimed rather dubiously that  'It was named after Jack Cade and was formerly frequented by Dick Turpin and other highwaymen' (London South of the Thames).

The Brockley Jack in 1905, looking much the same as it does now
The Jack on Brockley Road is no longer a club HQ, but it is still very much in Kent AC's London Borough of Lewisham heartland, just a mile or so away from our track at Ladywell Arena. Interestingly Kent AC's headed paper from this period also mentions somewhere further away - 'Country Quarters' at 'The Tiger's Head, Bromley'.

With Lewisham becoming increasingly urbanised by the 1900s, the club no doubt had to go further out for cross country races, hence a Bromley HQ perhaps. Not sure what pub this refers to though. There is a still standing Tigers Head on Masons Hill BR2 in Bromley proper, but there was also a now demolished pub of this name on the Bromley Road, Bellingham which would have been closer to to Kent AC territory.

Still have a plan for a run between pubs associated with the club at some point, would be good to find out more about this and the people mentioned - the honorary secretary is named as Carl Wallace, 94 Lewisham Road, with his deputy 'F. Till, 10 Chesterfield Grove, East Dulwich'.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Running Islay (6): Port Ellen to Kilnaughton and Singing Sands (10k there & back)

The bay at Kilnaughton has one of the finest beaches on the south of Islay, and also includes historic cemeteries, a lighthouse and the hidden 'Singing Sands' beach. And its an easy run from Port Ellen.

Heading out from Port Ellen towards Bowmore there is a side road going off to the left towards the Port Ellen Maltings. Take this road and follow it as goes out of town and towards the Oa, basically just taking the left turns which keep you closest to the coast.

After about two miles you will see a number of cemeteries on the left side of the road, run past the last one and take the track to the left down to the sea.  

After passing the Kilnaughton Old Churchyard with its ruined chapel (above), you will come to the beach. This is worth exploring as is the churchyard and the adjacent Kilnaughton Military Cemetery
 This was made to bury the dead of the SS Tuscania, a ship sunk off Islay by a German torpedo in 1918 with more than 200 deaths - though most of the American dead buried there were later removed to the USA.

The beach at Kilnaughton
Running round to the right you come to the 1830s Carraig Fhada Lighthouse. You can go right up to it via a footbridge. I have seen seals there, others have seen sea otters, so look out for wildlife.

Doubling back, near to the lighthouse you will see a sign to the Singing Sands. If you follow this short path behind the houses and over the hill you will come to the secluded beach of this name (known in Gaelic though as Traigh Bhan = white beach).

Singing Sands
From Port Ellen to here and back is around 10k, mostly on road (strava of my run here)

This area has a special significance to me, having spent many happy hours on the beach from childhood. My grandparents Neil Orr (1906-1980) and Janet MacTaggart (d.1990) are buried in the Churchyard, and you can also take a rest there on a bench dedicated to my dad, Dugald Orr (1935-1997).

My grandparents with my dad and my auntie Jessie,
this must have been taken in Islay in late 1930s

See other Islay runs:

Running Islay: Bridgend Woods

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

SOAR Mile 2018

The SOAR Mile 2018, held on Friday 27th July, was a great event with more than 200 runners taking part in 12 races at the London Marathon Community Track in Olympic Park.  After several weeks of relentless sunshine, the weather burst just before the event began with a big wet thunderstorm but the rain and the air had cleared by the time the races started, making for much improved running conditions.

As with other events such as Night of 10,000m PBs, the Milton Keynes MK 5000 PB Special, the Orion Harriers' FAST Friday races and the Kent AC 10,000m, this is part of a move in grassroots athletics to put on exciting events with a dusting of razmattazz alongside top quality racing. In this case the venue was adjacent to the iconic former Olympic stadium which added to the sense of occasion, and there was free beer!

As with some of the events mentioned above, spectators were encouraged to stand on the track and cheer from the outside lanes, here in lane three. This does make for a good atmosphere, my only suggestion for next year would be to maybe pull people back a lane to leave three lanes completely clear. In one of the races I watched people in lane three began to lean and step into lane two making it difficult to overtake in the closing stretch.

Hannah Viner (Highgate Harriers) was the fastest woman on the night, winning the £150 cash prize for her 4:47 mile.  The elite men's race was won by Dale King-Clutterbuck (Newham & Essex Beagles) in 4:05:37. He has gone under 4 minutes before,  but the windy conditions on the night probably cost him a few seconds.

Kent AC coach Ken Pike gives out final instructions
I ran in one of the earlier races. I was in two minds about taking part as I haven't been running much recently let alone racing (insert tedious achilles injury excuses), but really didn't want to miss the event as I hadn't run this distance on track before. Ended up with 6:02, so slightly annoyed for not pushing a little harder in middle of race as I have run faster on the road. 

Sunday, 8 July 2018

That Summer Feeling - 'when you run for love, not because you oughtta'

On one of the hottest nights of the year a couple of hundred people meet up to run round a sun baked patch of ground in north London. It's the Assembly League race on Tottenham marshes - 'marsh' may conjure up images of moisture and soft ground but this is more like the dry grasslands of the tropical savannah. To add to the discomfort most of us do not realise until the last lap that what was supposed to be a roughly 5K race is actually an extra 800m long. A finish line of lungs gasping for breath and dry throats in urgent need of water or something stronger, the sting of our own salt in our eyes. Still once the immediate pain recedes we remember that we are happy to be here, a pleasant stroll back along the canal and somewhere a pub is calling… ah that summer feeling.

Jonathan Richman's song of that name reminds us of some of the joys of summer – ‘the cool of the pond, the smell of the lawn', sun, water, ripening fields, desire… yes and running not as a duty but as a pleasure: “when you run for love not because you oughta”. OK not everybody enjoys running in the heat, but compared with dragging yourself out of bed on a cold, wet morning for a training run there's no contest is there?

But he also reminds us that that summer feeling can include a strong current of melancholy. Summers don’t last for ever, holidays end, passionate moments can be fleeting. We will always be drawn back to the memories of summers past and Richman suggests that even in the midst of these pleasures we are aware that one day we will be looking back on them with longing: "that summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life".

Nostalgia plays tricks with us too, the summer glow can make us misremember, even terrible school days can seem okay: “Some things look good before and some things never were... You pick these things apart, they're not that appealing”.

There’s nothing wrong with that summer feeling. It’s one of life’s great pleasures but it can become pathological if we are not careful. If we don’t want our summer reminiscences to be tortured by regret we need to seize the moment – “if you wait until you’re older, a sad resentment will smolder one-day“. So run while you can, even if it means a long journey to the other side of the city for a poor time, summer's always almost gone!

The best version of 'That Summer Feeling' is on the 1992 Jonathan Richman album, 'I, Jonathan' (unfortunately currently unavailable on Spotify) 

Assembly League, Tottenham Marshes, 5 July 2018: The race was won by Adam Kirk-Smith (Eton Manor) for the men and Amy Clements (Kent AC) for the women. Around 30 of us made the journey from SE London to run for Kent AC and won both the men's and women's team races (based on four to score).

Previous Go Feet music-related running posts\;

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Westminster Mile 2018

The Vitality Westminster Mile last month (27 May 2018) was apparently the biggest ever timed mile event,  with a total of 8,048  runners in 39 waves taking part compared to the previous record of 7,664 set at the New York Fifth Avenue Mile last year. It was a pretty diverse crowd, more so even than your average parkrun - maybe runnng a mile is less daunting than 5k.

The race took place on a course around London's St James's Park, starting at approximately the point where the London Marathon ends, and finishing in front of Buckingham Palace.

There were various waves including for parkrunners and Masters, I obviously messed up  booking my place online as I ended up in one of the family waves.  Still it was started by Mo Farah which was cool enough, and once I'd squeezed past the toddlers and parents I had quite a race against some fast teenagers. Coming back from injury I was way off my PB but 6:11 is still top 40 for age on power of 10 so whatevs.

Running down Birdcage Walk was a strange experience, my previous efforts along there being in the last few hundred metres of the Marathon. I wasn't quite so exhausted, but running flat out for a mile brings a different kind of pain.

A fast and flat enough course with a well organised operation, my only criticism was that the combination of mass race and major tourist destination in current security climate made it quite difficult for spectators. I really wanted to get to Birdcage Walk to cheer on some of my clubmates in the  final stretch, but I ended up in a huge bottleneck of people trying to get in/out of the area in front of Buckingham Palace.

Wandering around Green Park afterwards, who should I see but Seb Coe, president of the International Association of Athletics Associations. Maybe not somebody I would always see eye to eye with politically, but nobody can deny that he cares about the sport and obviously he is a running legend.

After commenting on my Kent AC vest ('great old club') we had a brief chat about the previous week's Night of 10,000m PBs at Highgate, which we had both attended. Always a good night out, this year featured the added excitement of clubmate Alex Yee winning the British 10,000m Champs, cheered on by a Kent AC contingent on the final bend chanting 'Yee, Yee, Yee'.

Up on Parliament Hill I had a go at running round the cross country course, famed for its cold muddy challenge during National and Southern champs. It was much easier going on a sunny afternoon, but I got very lost in the woods and ended up, as you do on Hampstead Heath, next to some random pond or other. 

Women's A Race at Night of 10,000m PBs

Monday, 28 May 2018

Stadium Crimes (1): Fenway Park in The Handmaid's Tale & the history of stadium atrocities

Some of the most memorable, joyous and life affirming moments are to be had in sports stadiums - the concentration of the crowd on the action unfolding in front of it, the noise, the physical proximity, the energy and emotions...

Watching the new second series of The Handmaid's Tale got me thinking though about the flipside of this.  As I'm sure you will know the premise of the series, and Margaret Atwood's novel that inspired it, is that in a near future USA power has been seized by a religious fundamentalist/fascist/patriarchal elite. In Gilead, as the new republic terms itself, women are excluded from public life and  subject to all kinds of horrors. [Spoiler Alert] At the start of series two a group of women are being punished for refusing orders to stone one of their friends to death. They are taken to an empty stadium where mass gallows have been set up, and we see from the signage that it is in fact Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. The baseball diamond is overgrown,  it is now a field of nightmares rather than dreams.

Of course this is fiction, but mass executions and other atrocities have taken place in sports stadiums across the world. The use of the Paris Velodrome in the rounding up of Jews in 1942; Estadio Nacional, the Chilean national football stadium where many were tortured and killed during the 1973 military coup;  the football stadium in Bratunac where Bosnian Muslims were held during the 1992 masscares; the mass killing at the Cyangugu football stadium during the 1994 Rwandan genocide...

If sports stadiums have lent them themselves to bloody repression as well as collective joy it is because of their design. The architectural form of the modern stadium has been developed to serve two purposes. Firstly to be able to concentrate as many people as possible into a limited space in sight of the playing surface, secondly to restrict access so that only those paying an entrance can get in. It is not difficult to see how these same features can be readily utilised for incarceration  - the concentration camp as the malignant twin of the sports stadium.

I see from Malcolm MacLean on Twitter that there were some papers related to this theme at the North American Society for Sports History conference this week (May 2018), will be interesting to see some of this research.

See previously at this blog: Running in the Handmaid's Tale

Saturday, 28 April 2018

First Catford parkrun in Mountsfield Park

The inaugural Catford parkrun took place in Mountsfield Park this morning, with just over 200 runners taking part. Joe Hartley (Kent AC) set the men's course record of 17:43, no doubt he could go faster when he's properly over the London Marathon where he ran a 2:41 PB. Vicky Boyle set the women's course record of 21:26.  

Joe Hartley, first finisher (photo from @freyathlon)

It's an interesting course, undulating rather than hilly, with a psychological plus point that it feels like there's more down hill than up. Unlike many London parkruns much of it is on grass/trail rather than tarmac and with my ongoing achilles issues I certainly welcomed the softer surfaces. My run was slow and a bit sore, but hey I am currently the V55 course record holder with 23:45! Yes this time last year I could still occasionally manage a sub-20 5k, whether I will get back to that or nor I've accepted that it is a privilege just to be able to keep running. 

 The start and finish points are by the park's bandstand, and the three lap course also features a circuit of a field in park that has the distinction of briefly being  the home of Charlton Athletic FC in the 1920s as well as the long defunct Catford Southend FC (see more at Running Past on this).

don't worry, you don't have to run up these steps...

watch out for the cat -  the start of Mountsfield parkrun is a 15 minute
walk from the centre of Catford

This is the third parkrun in a Lewisham park, the others being at Beckenham Place and at Hilly Fields, my home parkrun. I went along there last week for its 300th event. As it was also the day before the London Marathon there were a lot of tourists in town, so Hilly Fields had its second largest ever attendance of 341. As numbers grow, the new Catford event should take some of the pressure off it. 

Hilly Fields parkrun 300 cake

the end of Hilly Fields parkrun 300

'welcome to the 300th Hilly Fields parkrun'