On nature and the March winds
Between Longridge and the fell that shares its name, the area is dotted with small farms. Each has a cluster of barns and shippons where, at this time of year, youngstock nestle on beds of straw. Ewes and their lambs are already out on grass. It is beginning to grow, but the ground is soaking, and farmers are waiting for drier conditions before starting their groundwork – the rolling, harrowing and fertilising that keeps the land productive.
When we ran through these fields on the Longridge route, along Written Stone Lane and out towards Knowle Green, I was thinking about our natural environment. It is, in fact, anything but. Remove the sheep and cattle from this land, stop managing it and it will be overtaken by weed, then scrub and bracken. The charming shaded lanes that we trot along are there to connect the producer to his market. They are for carting churns to the dairy using a horse and trap, or today, for the bulk milk tanker to collect thousands of litres.
That little sunken track we drop into, running in cold, silted water is a drainage ditch, dug decades ago, long before the arrival of the JCB. The gapstone stile we squeeze through is an ancient livestock barrier, muscled into place and still working when, all around, today’s timber stiles rot away.
We’re playing out, paddling across streams, and loving the freedom. We’re feeling the buffeting wind for the joy of it, not because we have to. When we cross a field, it’s because our route takes us to the brook and its footbridge, not because we’re carrying a bale of hay to a feeder, or out looking for a stray.
Our playground is another man’s workplace, it’s part of our culture and our heritage, and it’s as near to nature as we’ll get, but it’s not natural. On the southern flanks of Longridge Fell, we stopped to take on a drink. There was a sheltered spot, a bowl-shaped depression in the land with a steep bank behind. Centuries ago, it could have been a site where stone was quarried, but now it was lost to bracken. Fifty feet away, across a wall, a field was bright green with new cultivated grass. The ecosystem had started the same, but its divergence was marked.
Getting up to that spot wasn’t easy. For about three miles we were climbing. The ground wanted to swallow our feet, and rushes hid blackened pools of water. A farm track became a luxury, a brief stretch of tarmac was, for once, light relief. The wind tried to push us back, but there’s a stubborn streak in anyone who loves to run off-road and we didn’t listen – although for some of us, progress became slow.
When we crossed a road and headed onto the moor, we exchanged the soft ground for firmer going, but the landscape was almost alien. Sheep tracks wound their way through the bottle-blonde tresses of dead grass. Feet snagged and tangled with the silver wire stems of desiccated heather. Rushes reached waist height. There was a little welcome bounce from the peaty earth which oozed oily brown water with every footstep, but the wind refused to let up. The quick drink and Creme Egg were very welcome. And yes, all the finest athletes indulge at Easter. It’s a well-recognised part of a balanced training programme which some say helps you run up the remaining 100 metres to the top of Longridge Fell.
Confession time: I didn’t do that last hundred metres. Part way through it, the option of skirting the top of the hill was presented and seemed devilish attractive. As a few of us turned left, others headed into the dark of the plantation.
It would make a good story to say they were never seen again, but this isn’t Brothers’ Grimm territory, this is Lancashire, and as we finished our traverse and began the downhill part of our route, we could hear voices. Looking back, we spied bright colours against the dark of the conifers. And then it dawned – we could hear them because we had turned, and the wind was at last at our backs. There were superb views across the valley towards Beacon Fell and far beyond, and as we ran along a broad sweeping path I heard the first skylark of my spring.
I kept expecting the other part of our group to close the gap, but while we made our way back almost to the valley floor and then ran west along a contour line, they decided they needed a bit more ascent and turned back uphill. Looking at the photos, I’m jealous. Their eventual descent through another plantation looked magical. Everyone is smiling. If I close my eyes, I can smell resin, I can feel the soft carpet of needles and hear the crisp snap of a fine, fallen branch.
And then because I’m a contrary sort, I remember that these woodlands are not native, and start to wonder what they’ve displaced. But this way of thinking is crazy because this is a small island. Forestry and agriculture are industries, but across much of Britain, they are the closest thing we have to a natural environment. Was the pheasant we saw any less striking because it was possibly hatched for the shoot? We have the green fields to run through only because they are grazed by animals that many of us choose to eat.
And yes, we start and finish this challenging route at a working farm. We run through the yard, past Yorkshire boarded sheds filled with cattle. Milking is a round-the-clock operation – largely automated – and a few tonnes of carrots await the bucket of a Bobcat which will pile them into a feed passage. As we emerge from the path through the farm buildings, I spot a hawk hovering – on the lookout for its next meal.
We head into the Little Town Dairy Café to top up our own reserves. There’s good hot coffee, eggs with rich orange yolks, sausages, piles of toasted crumpets and as usual a lot of talk about running adventures.
We’ve covered about ten miles – fields, moor and forest. We’ve paddled through bogs and sunk into mud. We’ve picked our way along stony tracks by hedgerows filled with nest-building birds. We’ve seen signs of spring and felt the still-wintry bite of the wind. It wasn’t an easy run, but it was a good one and whatever I might think about the nature of our landscapes, it was real. When I try to imagine a ten-miler on the road, I can feel the shock of the pavement, not the give of the earth. I can smell diesel fumes, not gorse. I can hear traffic noise, not the bleat of a lamb.