The Confidence Trick


Driving home after this morning’s run, I passed a runner. I was on the top road that connects Helmshore to Holcombe Brook and couldn’t help but see his fluorescent vest heading towards me.  A man, running alone, along the crumbling, narrow pavement – on his left the rising bulk of Holcombe Moor, on his right the land falling away to the Irwell Valley. 

Just before I passed him, he stopped. There was a footpath marker. I saw him look down the fields. Then I saw him put a hand on the top of the stile. He took one step up and then stopped, returned to the pavement and continued along the road. 

The problem with being a writer is that your imagination doesn’t know when to shut up. A minute after I’d driven past, I’d invented a few scenarios that explained this man’s actions. The route across the fields was a lot longer and he was on orders to be back in time for his Sunday roast. He’d turned his ankle a few days earlier and was nervy about heading across the uneven ground. There was a ginormous bull just on the other side of the fence, pawing at the ground, waiting to charge. 

Trouble is, I don’t believe any of these stories.  I think he lacked the confidence to explore an alternative to the route he was on. He could see the start of the off-road route and was tempted, but his own imagination kicked in when he started up that ladder stile. It said, “You have no idea where this footpath comes out. You’ll end up lost or wading through a bog. Or you’ll be shot by a grumpy farmer, who’ll mount your head on a pike and throw your remains to the pigs.” Like I said, the imagination really doesn’t know when to pack in.

I should have abandoned the car, chased after him, caught up and told him about Love Trail Running, but it’s probably not the done thing to pursue solitary runners in isolated places. Besides I’d just run 16k and had eaten a massive plateful of beans on toast. 

A year or so ago, I’d have done exactly what he did and stayed on the pavement. The lone runner does have to exercise a degree of caution, of course, but it saddened me, particularly because we had had such a wonderful morning. Great company, a refreshing shower – rain’s lovely unless it outstays its welcome – and a route that got us up close and personal with nature.

Reflecting on today’s experience, I can see that running with LTR has boosted my confidence. Although I’ll probably always prefer to run with company, now I wouldn’t be fazed by following a little-used path or picking my way along a sheep track through head-high ferns. I’ve remembered what it’s like to clamber over tree trunks and slither down banks. And I’ve discovered that there’s no better way to cool your feet than by ignoring the bridge when you get to the river. 

To me, the LTR Confidence Trick is a little bit of magic. You’re exploring, heading to places you’ve never been before, but the adrenaline rush is not because you’re lost. It’s because it’s fun. Having said that, my surprise looking at the route my Garmin tracked today suggests that I had no idea where we were going and would struggle to tell you without the technology. 

I know we started with a gentle trot along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, easing into it. I know the heavens opened and the rain was warm and the earth smelled sweet and was soft underfoot. I know that the blackberries were ripe and juicy and that the nettles were mostly unavoidable. I know that we followed lanes that snuck around the backs of houses and led into woodland, which reminded me of being a kid, building dens in the undergrowth, a kettle full of Vimto on an open fire, poking potatoes into the embers and pretending that the blackened results were edible. 

The rain eased, the tree canopy dripped. We chatted with people we’d not seen for a while, talked about the summer, the events we’d done, the minor niggles we’re all trying to manage and pondered on the attraction of fishing as we passed a series of three reservoirs on our way out to White Coppice. 

We followed a route heading north along the side of The Goit, a reservoir feeder which, through the trees, looked as natural as any waterway, a broad stretch of cobbled road providing the clue that the landscape had been engineered. When we arrived at Brinscall, the Jelly Babies and drinks were devoured within a couple of minutes and a watery sun threatened to make an appearance. 

Heading back south, we were under the trees, playing a game of guess which path and usually getting it wrong. The damp conditions had made tree roots slippery and puddles were appearing, just ripe for splashing through. The summer is drawing to a close. Hawthorns are filled with unripe berries. Rowans are already hung with clusters of orange fruit. Himalayan Balsam plants are preparing their seed pods, getting ready to fire.

A technical bit of trail demanded concentration: gritstone jutting through the path, twisting and turning, pushing through wet bracken – soaked by it, but pleasantly so. It was warm and sticky and the heart rate climbed as we ran up to White Coppice Quarry from where we could see all the way to Blackpool Tower. Or so I am told – I remain challenged in the eyesight department. 

Downhill then, through the pale purple heather, past skinny ewes whose fleece is just beginning to grow again, and along a broad trail to the top of Anglezarke. The water level had dropped so low, one could have easily not recognised it as a reservoir. A plump white goose sat on the bed of it, rather than swimming. 

Our next stop involved another climb, up onto Healey Nab, through birches and whimberry bushes and we paused for a drink near a patch of blackened earth where recent wildfires had consumed the heather. A tree, scorched at the base, its lower leaves crisped, still had bright green amongst its topmost branches. 

Downhill now, and easy, through woodland again, dodging nettles, holding the stout brambles aside and emerging into fields, swishing through rushes, and suddenly finding that the grass had grown to six feet. Pale seed heads swayed at eye level and we pushed through.

The noise of a road nearby signalled we were almost done. The meandering through green spaces was swapped for a potter along a ginnel, and then we were back. A quick change of footwear and we headed to The Village Tea Room at Wheelton for another round of refreshments and to carry on nattering. Milkshakes and pots of tea, toasted cheese and teacakes, poached eggs and coffee were scoffed in no time. 

We’d enjoyed a brilliant run – immersed in glorious damp, sweaty, stingy, scratchy, slippy nature – with a bunch of great people and we’d followed up with a cracking plate of food. And that, I think, is why that solitary runner bothered me so much. I’m sure he’ll have arrived home satisfied with his run. He might be happy with his pace or the distance he covered. He might be relieved that the ankle he turned last week seems okay, but I doubt he’s raving about his run.  

And I imagine he’s still wondering where that footpath might have taken him. 

Kate Woodward