Flashes of colour, signs of life

You’re standing on a hillside in January. At your feet, the soaking ground, the thick mud, long-dead grasses. You’re waiting to climb a stile. Its timbers are blackened, its steps greased, the uprights have begun to rot. It takes time for twenty people to get over safely, so you turn and look around. Below you, the town of Brierfield. A gasometer, its metalwork a fine filigree from this distance, appears shining and white. Nestled amongst the sandstone mills and chimneys, the startling blue dome of a mosque, its colour echoed in the smaller dome of the minaret that reaches for the heavens. 

But you’re being watched. At a ring feeder, three cows have lifted their heads from the silage and are staring. Teddy-bear faces, lethal horns. They’re Highlands, diminutive beasts, hardy enough to winter outdoors with their thick russet coats and probably, like you, sweating in the mildest of January weather. It’s good to take a breather.

You started this run on the solid macadamed paths of Nelson’s Victoria Park, but soon enough, you swapped those for the banks of a swollen Pendle Water. It was level ground, but heavy going. You’ve seen a flock of ducks take to flight, and around the back of a barn, you’ve passed an assortment of stoic mud-shod ponies.  You stopped trying to keep your feet dry. You realised that the mud was unavoidable. You’d been sinking and squelching for a good mile, as beside you, the river rushed on. You’ve seen that river’s determination – the rocks it’s carried, tumbled and beached, and you’ve seen the mighty defensive wall of stacked stone blocks. Leave the river behind, climb a hill, take in the view – and spot that tiny blast of brilliant blue. 

And now, up high, there are shorn fields to cross. Water pooled on the surface, you never know if you’re going to sink. When your feet emerge, will your shoes come too? And ridiculous though this is, the madness as you slide down a wooded bank and skitter across the algae green ancient bridge, the sounds you hear all around are of laughter, because this is the most amazing fun. 

The party has split. As if by magic, as you leave the woods, it regroups. How, you ask, did that happen?  You don’t see the planning, the effort that’s gone in, but you do feel its benefits. 

In the time it takes to cross a field, Mother Nature reminds you that it’s January and gives you a dose of the old-familiar wet and windy. You’re running uphill and heading to a corner where a horse is sheltering from the squall. It’s a quiet animal and cedes its position, trotting into the open field but its exposure can’t last long. As suddenly as the squall arrived, it moved on. A couple of minutes later, you’re passing clusters of snowdrops – surely the bravest of floral pioneers.   

You follow footpaths defended by wicket gates with hefty springs. You negotiate corridors between walls and wire netting which are bedecked by trailing brambles, thorn bushes and holly, and if you needed a reminder that nature can be cruel, you come across a small horned sheep – probably one of last spring’s lambs – lying dead across your path. It’s a brief but sobering moment. 

You stop for a drink by a deserted football field. Bare goal posts, empty dugouts. Nothing about the condition of the pitch suggests a recent match – let’s hope the team have an away fixture. Beyond the washed-out touchline, there’s an incongruous yellow-rendered clubhouse. 

There’s a dell to potter through, a slippery bridge and a steep bank to exit. Then you creep through a hawthorn hedge that almost obscures a stile, watching your eyes as you go, arriving at the side of a busy road. You follow lanes behind houses and then, quite suddenly. you’re in a graveyard. Row upon row of slabs of weathered sandstone and polished granite, marking the sadly missed and the dearly beloved. One grave has a burst of pink flowers, too bright to be entirely natural. 

The Inghamite chapel in Wheatley Lane is a gem. It’s simple, but the mason’s skill is evident in its windows and even the cast-iron rainwater hoppers are worth a second look. Down from the church, the gravestones continue. You feel so alive, and yet all those buried there must once have felt the same.  

At the bottom of the hill, you enter a different world. Paths snake between large, luxurious houses and one crosses straight through a garden where dogwoods in red and acid yellow arrest the eye. You’re fast approaching the end of the route, some tree-lined lanes to bomb down, then a new business park, deserted for the weekend. Finally, there’s the northern end of Victoria Park to trot through. Easy-going parkland where families are sharing sliced bread with ducks and trying to avoid the pushy Canada geese. 

Your run’s over. Your reward awaits. 

A few years ago, a disused pavilion in the park was converted into a community café. You change out of your filthy footwear and go inside. The welcome’s warm, the volunteer staff friendly. One wall is dominated by a riot of painted flowers. You drool at the array of homemade cakes. You order a slice, a coffee. You sit. You laugh some more, you share stories of the mud. You talk about the run.

On your journey home, you start to think about doing another. 

Kate Woodward