Old, new, borrowed and blue

A couple of biggish events took place today. One involved two of the Premier League’s biggest clubs in a fight for silverware, the other two individuals exchanging vows. Both events were televised to huge audiences. There were pyrotechnics and strutting managers, pomp and pageantry, but events don’t have to be big to be wonderful. Choose a fine spring morning and take a tour around Tockholes near Darwen. If conditions are right, you’ll find something as spectacular as anything on show at Wembley or Windsor.

And for us, conditions were right. Never mind the old “ne’er cast a clout” saying – right now, it does feel safe to venture onto the trails without waterproofs. The shorts can come out of hibernation. Days are long, and clear skies are accompanied by a soft warmth. 

It’s growing season and although we might not be shooting up like the new grass or bounding about like a lamb, we’re all influenced by the weather. Just as winter running has, at times, a sense of grim determination about it, a run on a day like this, without the pressure of a race, feels playful. Wooden stiles that have been slick and greasy for months, now offer a firm footing to jump down from. Fields that you could have drowned in a couple of months ago have dried out. Streams beg to be paddled across. The birds are twittering, butterflies have returned.

This is how spring should be – bold and optimistic, with new shoots at every turn and life champing at the bit to get going, to make the most of it before the season turns. And perhaps that’s a message to us all: get out and make the most of every glorious day. 

Our route had a bit of everything. We passed pretty rows of cottages, ran along stretches of dusty track. We climbed banks of earth, slowly gained height on fresh green pasture land. We followed a succession of reservoirs, avoided shooting ranges, scooted through farmyards and across footbridges. We were barked at by dogs, neighed at by horses, ignored by sheep and stung by nettles. We also saw lots of blue – amazing skies, the steel structure of a motorway bridge and about a hundred million bluebells.  

We left the Tockholes Visitor Centre, headed down the lane, turned by the cottages, pausing just long enough for a nosey at the gardens and then ran back north across the fields, before heading into Tockholes Plantation where we stuck close to the edge of the woodland. Then we struck out across fields again, through a series of farms, cottages and tracks. We spotted a mare and her foal, a fine house with wonderful mullioned windows, flagstones standing vertical and guarding a green lane. We followed the course of Shaw Brook, and then into a wooded valley that had probably remained little changed for hundreds of years: ancient trees, wild garlic and bluebells fighting each other for space. Were it not for the swing hung from the trees – a tanalised fence post and blue polypropylene rope – it would have been easy to imagine this as the hideout of Robin Hood and his band of men. A sign as we left the woods suggested that archery was still practised there.  

We went underneath the motorway the first time via a tunnel. This chunk of engineered Britain, plonked into the rural landscape, managed to feel less like part of the motorway infrastructure and more like an art installation – concrete walls with an odd polished sheen, the inevitable graffiti. As we ran through, the cool air was a strange contrast to the warmth outside, the difference in the sounds of our voices marked. 

A few minutes later, after surviving a nettle-smothered stile, the rock-hard ruts of dried mud lurking under long grass and a scrape of brambles, we were heading back towards the motorway. High above us, in the clear blue, a parapent hung in the air, whilst at ground level, an orange-tip butterfly danced around hunting for nectar. This time our route was to pass under a bridge rather than through a tunnel. The earth beneath was dry as dust, blue cylindrical steel work, huge beams, bolts that appeared to be several inches in diameter and pre-formed sections which thudded every time a vehicle passed. A fascinating bit of construction standing just a few feet away from more bluebell woods. 

The sun must have been at the perfect angle, the gradient of the bank just right, for this was stunning: slender saplings with shining bark, emerald grass and an almost unbelievable carpet of violet-tinged blue, woven through with a tawny leaf-litter path, the odd silvery thread of a fallen branch and slivers of black, still moist earth.

We came out of the woods, ran along a lane, through a farmyard and across a fine flat field (cursed with an active mole or three). Then, ducking under trees, we dropped down to the dam at Abbey Village reservoir, where we stopped for drinks. The sun was warm. The water was placid. Across it, more woodland, more welcome shade, a well-made path, a few anglers and an awful lot of bluebells. 

We were heading towards the Rake Brook and Roddlesworth reservoirs. Footbridges, weirs and leats had been planned, built and dropped into the landscape. Nature was busy softening the edges, blending the stonework into the rock, adhering plant life to the slipways. We seemed to cross a waterway every minute or so. One minute we were running on the south bank, the next on the north, twisting and turning, picking our way through tree roots, up and down on a winding and undulating path, borrowing the great outdoors for our playground. 

It was hot work. We stopped for a photo under mature trees close to the water’s edge where a few Canada geese paddled slowly in the shallows. In every bit of the woodland, just feet away from the path were bluebells. The scent was heady. Great swathes of them stretched up every shaded bank and slope. They were popping up between tree roots, sneaking out of the shade and daring to join the burgeoning nettles in the sun.  

It was becoming too easy to become blasé about the spectacle, but these flowers are in decline and have protected status. This is May, and later in the year, the lanes will be filled with pink, not blue. In one of our forays into the woods this morning, alongside the bluebells, were seedlings of Himalayan balsam, the invasive plant that’s busy encroaching. As we came towards the end of our route, climbing up a last long hill, leaving the blue carpet behind, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would last. 

The blue above, meanwhile, looked set for the day. It had collected a bit of high hazy cloud, but nothing threatening. It was time to catch a brew at the café. Outside, the picnic benches were empty, indoors it was quiet. Anybody would have thought there was something on the telly.

Kate Woodward

 

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