At the end of a week in which the running community got very excited about Jasmin Paris’s victory in the Spine Race, a group of trail runners set off from the Lancashire village of Weir on Sunday morning, ran to Portsmouth and were back in time for lunch.
We won’t make the news, but then again, we don’t deserve to. There’s a Portsmouth that’s only a few miles from Weir. You just need to run up a blinkin’ big hill to get there. And if you want lunch, which you’ll have earned, you’ll have to run up another blinkin’ big hill to get back. This route was possibly designed by the person responsible for Blackpool’s Big One. Up, up, up, up, whizz down to the bottom and repeat.
This rollercoaster run came with a bonus we discovered soon after leaving Weir. We followed a trail by the Irwell – black mud underfoot, russet beech leaves still clinging to the trees – and then started to head up the fields towards Heald Moor. Soon we were picking a route through clumps of wet snow, and as we continued to gain height, the ground became more and more covered until our world had been transformed from green to white. The cloud was low but thin, tantalising hints of the blue sky beyond. It was just possible to believe the sun might cut through, but there was no wind, nothing to disturb the mist.
Up on the moor, the path towards the high point was entertaining. You never knew whether the thin crust of snow would take your weight or whether you’d sink into the boggy ground below. A quad bike emerged from the clag. Not far behind the farmer, were the beasts he’d come up to feed. Strung along the path was a herd of Highland cattle all swathed in thick winter coats. We gave them a good wide berth, sank a bit more into the bog for our trouble and then ran off into the clouds. Soon, the path started to head downhill – rapidly.
A few cautious steps across uneven ground, a stile negotiated and a quick detour around three hardy horses and we were flying downhill. The snowline crossed, colour returned to the world. Trees in every shade of rust, brilliant greens, yellow mosses, the myriad hues of shale within the track. And such a surprise to leave the rough boggy moorland behind and be running through tall conifers just a couple of minutes later. When one runner reacted to the unfolding view with the word “awesome” it was no exaggeration. It was stunning.
But every valley has its bottom and we were soon there. The road and railway line crossed, the only way was up, past Dean Farm and up, up, up, up again. Pausing for breath, we looked back across the valley. The steading where we’d passed the horses was still far higher than where we stood now, but even so, it looked a long way down to the road. We’d passed a lodge, and the fishermen on its banks were tiny, only visible because of their shelters.
The narrow path wound around the hillside, up and down, but mainly up. A few scrappy hawthorn trees clung to the slope. In the spring they will be glorious, laden with leaves and heady blossom. Today they were sad and dripping. By the ruins of a building, we stopped for a drink and the first of this year’s mince pies (it’s always a good idea to enjoy them early on before you get fed up of the taste). It was a damp spot, high on the side of one of those slopes where there’s no gap between the contour lines. Far, far below a horn sounded as a dark red passenger train headed away from Cornholme and out towards Burnley. And then it was time to fly downhill again.
It seemed to take two ticks to arrive back in the valley in Portsmouth but getting back up the hill on the other side took a while longer. We were heading up the southern side of Beater Clough. The trail at the bottom was pretty, under the trees. Birds chattered in the branches above. In the cleft to our side, waterfalls spilled over rocks. The track was packed pine needles, threaded across with roots and the odd rock. Slow and steady running, and then even slower as the snow reappeared and the track became covered. All the way up, there were the neat hoofprints of deer. They must have been keeping a very low profile in the woods on our left.
We climbed a stile, stepped into the woods and even bent double couldn’t avoid brushing through low branches of the conifers. The trail contoured through Cock Hill Wood, in places white over with snow, in others simply soft black and boggy. A comment was made that we could be anywhere – the Lakes, the Dolomites – and it was the stuff of picture postcards, this spot that teeters on the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire. We climbed again, alongside deserted mountain bike trails and finally emerged onto the bright white edge of Carr and Craggs Moor.
The sun was still trying to punch through and still failing. Through the mist, the column of a wind turbine shone like a silvery ghost. We ran across the bumpy surface, feet slipping a little in the snow but thankful that there was no ice underfoot and still, amazingly, not a whisper of a breeze. Soon we made it onto the wind farm’s access roads and were flying downhill again in the beautiful brilliance of clean fresh snow.
And then we found a single snowball. It’s worth mentioning because it was huge. Similar in size to a tonne of hardcore in a bulk bag and no doubt carrying about half a tonne of hardcore within it. Whoever had rolled it down the hill gave up when they reached a gate. It was the wise decision because beyond the gate, conditions were turning a bit slushy. It was fabulous for splashing through but not for snowball rolling.
We had a few more fields to cross, a couple more stiles to climb, a path to follow that zigged and zagged through a small plantation, and finally, the sun did it. We made it to the outskirts of Weir in sunshine and followed the last half mile or so along old green lanes and bridle paths back towards the village and the little jewel that is Anna’s Café.
Anna had saved us the room upstairs. We piled in and spread ourselves out across every table, ordered toasties, bowls of piping-hot soup, beetroot and hummus sarnies and plates of samosas, and we nattered about the morning’s run. As we ate, the talk turned from how tough those rollercoaster hills had been to the magic of the snow cover, to the amazing woods and to the dramatic gash of Beater Clough.
And then, inevitably, the talk turned to where we would be running next. No doubt it’ll be different, but it could well be awesome.