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: