The White Stuff

Let’s wait until the temperatures tumble and there’s a blanket of freezing fog. Let’s wait until the ground is coated with a few inches of powdery snow, night has fallen, and ice is no longer something you add to a drink but rather something that lies slick and black across the pavements. 

Ready? Now let’s go for a run.

There are some who would say it was madness, who wouldn’t get why 20-odd people would abandon parkas and bobble hats for a couple of layers of Lycra and a head torch. They’d watch the party leave the warmth of a pub’s porch, and see the clouds of condensing breath, buffs being tugged over exposed skin, the first tentative steps along a snow-dusted pavement, and they’d go back to their beers and their pies with a shake of their heads.

Those people wouldn’t see what happened just a few minutes later, when our party peeled off that pavement, went through a gate and headed across the fields to Nutshaw. Shivering and nerves gave way to the excitement of a night run in winter conditions. The spirit of adventure was strong, the sense of being on a mission – the objective another Panopticon, somewhere out there across the snow-covered moors. There was even a bear guarding the route.  What more do you want?

Down by Clowbridge, the trail was flat and firm, icy in places but nothing that two dozen head torches and a bit of nimble footwork couldn’t handle. But, turning the torch beam out across the reservoir showed nothing beyond the first few feet of rush and reed. The fog was dense, absorbing the light and muffling the sounds of waterfowl. Road noise deadened, the night became eerily quiet, save for the crunching sound of ice at a puddle’s margin, and the occasional gasp as freezing water seeped into a shoe. 

It was well below zero, but no one was cold – not then anyway. It’s hard to be chilly running up a hill, and we were heading for one of the highest points on the Rossendale Way. Although conversation does tend to suffer when there’s a climb in progress, it was especially quiet. We’d settled into a mode of fierce concentration as the track was barely visible under its white covering. Sometimes it evened out the bumps, cushioning the rocky path. At other times the snow merely hid the stones, but everyone coped, and our reward was a trip through a wood made fairyland by the night, by the snow, by the swirling mist. We had the trees, the footprints in the snow, the winding trail, but we were a bit lacking in wolves, woodcutters and towering castles. 

For a few hundred yards, we followed a trail that ran alongside the course of a road. Out of the gloom, headlights appeared, made yellow by the mist, the vehicles themselves near invisible. When we turned away from the road, the temperature dropped instantly. The tarmac was, somehow, on the coldest night of the winter so far, radiating heat. 

We went south, turned back north and picked our way carefully down towards the upper end of Easden Clough, and there, while trying to keep eyes on the rutted ice and snow of the bridleway, it was impossible not to see that the fog had lifted and that the stars were out in a sky of deep dark crystal. Far below, yellow sodium lights marked the outskirts of Burnley.

We lost all our height, but who cares. Coming down off the moors and dropping into a sheltered lane changed the route’s dynamic. The snow was gone, replaced by frost-bound mud, but even so, the running was easy, the gradient shallow and the skating potential only moderate. It was a swift chatty interval that ended with a stile and a field of the white stuff. Back up the hill, under the spreading arms of a ginormous tree, over the road and up the slope from hell.

I’m exaggerating. The slope from hell would have been slick with ice and doubly steep with the extra hazard of trident-wielding devils. This was merely an un-runnable slope that gave us time to slurp down a drink – thankfully not quite frozen – and prepare for the run up to the Singing Ringing Tree. The weather chose this moment for the mist to return along with an arctic blast and heading up to the panopticon, conditions were mighty nippy. It was cold enough for two pairs of shoelaces.

But, you know, that arctic blast got the tree singing (or moaning depending on your taste in music) and the strange notes drifted around in the bitterly cold night air and it was a touch magical to be on this snow-white hillside immersed in the elements and hearing the mournful song of the wind.

But, crikey, it was perishing. We didn’t hang around and high-tailed it off the hill. The visibility was getting worse. A white world, snow and mist and the ghostly figures of a group of runners heading downhill with frost clinging to hair and gloves. 

By Burnley golf club, we found the shelter of trees and went pushing through the branches, hearing the sounds of snow clumping onto the ground. The damp, woody scents were soft and fresh. Every tree root was delineated by its own trace of powdery snow. And then we were back on the Burnley Way heading over the high ground, back into the fog and towards the warmth of the pub. 

The New Waggoners does a fine plate of food, and we made short work of their pies, sausages and giant Yorkshire puds before we felt ready to brave the cold again and defrost the cars for our journeys home.  

It was a very chilly night, but it will be warmly remembered by everyone who was there.  

Next stop on the Panopticon Nightrunner Series is The Halo on 20 February 2019.

The Singing Ringing Tree is a musical sculpture located at Crown Point above Burnley. Built from stacked spiralling pipes and shaped like a windswept tree, the panopticon’s designers, Mike Tonkin and Anna Liu, received a National Award for Architectural Excellence from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Kate Woodward