Forget the watch, remember the run
In the post-run glow, feet up, brew at my side and frozen peas on my knee, I am trying to make sense of what Strava is telling me about this run. Despite a circular route, it seems we started 100 feet lower than we finished. Then I recall that at the start of the route, my watch threw a paddy and refused to play ball. Closer inspection reveals that the technology has drawn me a nice straight line, connecting our start point to somewhere 15 minutes further along.
It’s a shame the watch missed the route. I remember it as startlingly pretty running down through spindly, silver-grey trees towards Mill Croft Brook. There was warm sunlight filtering through and a handsome collie at the bottom. I remember a tapering field, a sun trap, where the ground had just the right amount of ‘give’ and then a bridge that reminded me of a spring. I remember stone walls, disguised with lichen, emerging from steep banks of earth, and the sudden whir of a drone as we crossed playing fields. There were flights of steps and cobblestones …
Wait a minute. Were the cobblestones there, or did they come later?
I’ve been asked how I remember where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. In truth, I’m often left not with a clear memory of the route, but an impression of it – it’s a trailer, not the whole movie. That’s why I try to track the route using the Garmin – looking back should help to put the pictures in my head into order and allow me to put a name to a place I’ve never seen before. But it’s not infallible, because watches refuse to play ball, and even 12 billion dollars’ worth of satellites don’t tell the whole story – they couldn’t see the frogs and their spawn in that pond. We could.
And that’s a rather long way of getting to my point that there is no substitute for being out there, just shifting, as nature intended, through constantly changing landscapes, getting up close to the sights, the sounds and the smells. And a watch – and your pace too for that matter – is, surely, irrelevant when you can stand on a grassy bank, fill your lungs with sweet and timeless air and see, way beyond Rochdale and its tower blocks, Saddleworth Moor and further still, blue in the distance, the brooding hills of the Dark Peak.
Looking at the photos from the route, I see a track following the path of a high angled wall, but I can’t recall the spot. Was I busy chatting? Was I absorbed in the rhythm of my breathing, concentrating on my footing or was I distracted by the call of a bird? I don’t know, but I suspect that we all store our own highlights from a run like this.
When we dropped into the deeply cut valley of Healey Dell, it’s possible some of us missed the sandstone chimney that rose like a truncated obelisk from the river bank or didn’t see the picture-book arched stone bridge across the Spodden, quietly waiting for the passage of fairy footsteps. We probably all felt the bounce of a wooden footbridge, but there was almost too much to take in. Everywhere you looked, right or left, there was evidence of the valley’s industrial past, including remnants of stone tanks – perhaps once used for wool processing, but now enmeshed in brambles. You would, however, have had to be sleeping to miss the magnificent viaduct that once carried the Rochdale to Bacup railway line. We passed underneath its arches and climbed a hundred feet to run along its top.
We stepped off the main trail, climbing through the woodland, past whip-thin beech saplings, and along winding paths, still strewn with autumn’s fallen leaves. We emerged onto a cobbled lane that led to a fishing pool. A young angler showed us a photo of his impressive catch, and we disturbed his tranquillity, temporarily ruining his chances of landing another fish. We shared a box of Maltesers before moving on.
There were lanes to follow and stiles to climb. There were barbed-wire fences, bedecked with shredded wool, where ewes had been having a good old scratch, and in one field, by a hedge, the ribcage and head of one unfortunate sheep who hadn’t made it through the winter. Nature is cruel, but it’s full of contrast – we crossed several fields where the season’s first daisies were smiling at the return of the sun.
And it was that sort of a day – pleasant, soft, gentle. Everyone we passed – and every horse we passed – seemed to be in a good humour, as if finally, at the start of British Summer Time, it really was spring. We trotted along sheep tracks without sinking into mud and ran down banks without fear of the slick and soaking conditions. Splashing through the boggy bits was a rare treat on this route, but we did find a field where water disobeyed the laws of gravity – it was as wet at the top as it was at the bottom, and the mud was black as coal.
We headed towards Greenbooth Reservoir. The hills and outcrops cradled the sparkling water and on the moors beyond, wind turbines counted their lazy revolutions. Legs were beginning to tire, but our route was now all downhill. A few twists and turns helped us avoid the roads and then it was into the last couple of fields. The brook to our right murmured to itself as we passed, the ground was churned by hooves, but other than us, the fields were deserted, and the grass was bright with lush new growth.
We’d returned to Millcroft Tea Gardens. It’s a tiny place, only open half the year, and hidden away amongst a stand of Monkey Puzzle trees, but it was packed to the rafters. We crammed inside, and under the watchful eye of a stuffed badger and a case of similarly preserved birds, refreshed ourselves with brews, beans and fish-finger butties.
The memory isn’t perfect, watches are unreliable, my knee is sore, but on days like this, life doesn’t get much better.