The good stuff is closer than you think
If my nan had been with us today, standing by Alfred Wainwright’s memorial on Pleasington’s Yellow Hills, she’d have come out with one of her quotations: ‘And God said, Let there be light, and there was light, and you could see for ruddy miles.’ My nan was fond of misquoting the scriptures, but she’d have been bang on about the view.
I doubt you’d have got her up onto that hill, though. She ran – but only a corner shop. She played a bit of bingo and enjoyed a trip over to Blackpool to see the lights. I don’t remember her venturing into the “great outdoors” much at all, but when my nan was young, most people didn’t, or at least not for fun. She was born around the same time as Wainwright, a Blackburn lad who, one day, walked along the footpath where his memorial now stands and realised he could see the Lake District’s fells.
Although conditions weren’t clear enough for that today, Blackpool Tower was visible – and after Blackpool, there’s not a lot else to see until you hit the Isle of Man. But what was brilliant about today’s view was the way it allowed you to see how the North West fits together. Its towns – our towns – so sprawling, busy and industrial when you’re in them are just islands in a green landscape. Seeing Preston from above transforms it. The blue hills to the North East are Yorkshire’s Dales. It’s amazing. Distances become hard to fathom because places that seem to take ages to reach in a vehicle look so near – almost as if you could just carry on running and be there in no time. Perhaps that’s what Wainwright saw. If the Old Man of Coniston was visible, it wasn’t impossible to reach. It was accessible, and it was, therefore, somewhere he could explore.
Since I’ve been running with LTR, I’ve gained more knowledge of Lancashire, but I’m building the overall picture from small snapshots. Each circular route reveals another aspect. Each hill shows another fascinating view. There are rivers I’ve never heard of. Villages and hamlets that are startlingly pretty. There are primitive chapels and fine churches, ancient stone bridges and trees gnarled by the wind. And just as Wainwright discovered when he spied the fells, beautiful countryside is closer than many of us think.
Witton Country Park is just outside Blackburn and provided a convenient start for today’s route. It was busy, but we soon left behind the gym goers, the dog walkers and the kids on bikes and nipped off the tarmac, picking up a trail through the trees. Nearby, several football matches were in progress. A few supporters were shouting from the sidelines and stamping their feet against the cold. We, meanwhile, were trotting across a deserted pitch, going straight for an attack on an empty goal and had warmed up nicely. Behind the goals, a narrow lane led us up to Pleasington and past its Gothic priory.
Soon we were in the fields. The ground was soft but not too soft, the stiles were solid, the cows were placid, and the sun was threatening to make an appearance. It was pretty much perfect – even the conduit that carries sewage from Blackburn was looking like modern minimalist architecture. We popped into and out of a newish plantation, found a little mud to splash through and then ran down to the River Darwen where we headed north along the riverside path.
Where the river took an unnecessarily long course around a headland, we carried straight on, beating the water to a ford that looked rather deep and uninviting. We stopped on the eastern side and started to climb. As we gained height, the river disappeared into a deep wooded cleft. All we could see were the trunks of bare trees and a carpet of pale russet leaves.
After a quick breather, a drink and the essential fig roll, we were off again, running through bright fields, still lush with grass. Although the gradients were gentle, we were getting higher all the time. We crossed fields that bore warnings of non-existent bulls. We passed trees clinging to a few golden leaves. In the far distance, the clouds were ominous and grey, but we were in sunshine – beautiful, kind, late November sunshine.
The climbing carried on, but the nattering never ceased. We didn’t have deadlines to meet, a pace to set or a race to win, and when we finally reached Wainwright’s memorial we stopped and took in all we could see.
There was one compass point, roughly north east, where the ground was still higher than we were: Billinge Hill and its woods. We ran across to it, then around and through it, having a bit of fun as we descended along an empty, twisting, turning, up-and-downy mountain bike route.
With Witton Park below us now and no chance of any more hills, we crossed the last open fields and went back into the park’s woodland, heading downhill on wide stepped paths that wound through the trees. The sun was still managing to push through the canopy – those ominous clouds had, thankfully, stayed further east, and we made it back to the start point without being troubled by a single drop of rain.
This was another smashing route. I should have learnt by now, but I’m still surprised by what happens when you venture somewhere different. When a hidden valley appears or when you reach the top of a climb and see a marvellous patchwork of fields below, it’s simply magical. I always think to myself that I should get off-road more and do more exploring. And then I realise, that’s exactly what I am doing.