Names can be so deceptive, can’t they? If you don’t know it, Beacon Fell could conjure up an image of a stretch of upland moor. The kind of place where the wind always howls and the grass clings on by its fingernails. It doesn’t suggest a gorgeous country park, with towering conifers, winding trails and space for the kids to explore. Mind you, a winter half doesn’t sound like the kind of run where you’ll be peeling off layers, sweating cobs, and grabbing every opportunity to top up your fluids. A time machine must have been in operation this morning, advancing the year by a few months. Set to late spring, it’s brought out a fat bumble bee and a lazy flitting butterfly. Every snowdrop is grabbing its last chance to show off. Daffodils are opening their trumpets. Curlews and lapwings are calling.
But of course, this is Britain and if we’re not familiar with the random nuttiness of the weather yet, we never will be. This time last year, we were in the icy grip of the Beast from the East and warning each other to watch for ice on our runs. This February, it’s ice-cream weather – and I dare say that if we’d spotted an ice-cream van en route it would have been very hard to run past it. Fifteen 99’s and a cider lolly, please, mister.
Would that have been daft? Not serious enough for the serious undertaking of running a trail half marathon? To some people, it would have been beyond the pale. An unforgivable slowing of pace that would embarrass them on Strava and make them look like slackers. Maybe stopping for a mid-run snack of any sort would be frowned upon and refuelling would be handled by choking down an energy gel on the move. Well, if that’s what being a serious runner is all about, I don’t want to be serious. I want to enjoy my runs and if that means eating gin and tonic gummy sweets and chocolate biscuits while standing around in the sunshine – great, bring it on.
Today’s run was serious – in terms of the challenge, the distance and the terrain, but not in terms of the atmosphere. Right from the off, when we were running through the trees that cover Beacon Fell, the mood was light-hearted. No jostling for position, no-one checking their pace, just a few people already regretting the extra layer of clothing. Soon we were out in the fields, firm enough underfoot after a few dry days, bright green grass, dotted with expectant ewes, some of whom could be bothered to run away. We ran past fishing lodges, through gates, followed the lines of hedgerows and picked our way through a building site. We nipped through a farmyard, teetered around the edge of a puddle of slurry and carried on.
With the glorious weather, this felt like a proper adventure – one of those days you enjoyed as a kid, tramping miles across meadows and through copses, splashing up the streams with no other purpose than to discover, to be free from constraints. Today, everything serious, sensible and dull had been put aside and exchanged for a wobbly stile, a cambered slope and a tree dripping with purple catkins.
About 5 miles in, we had the first pit stop. One of the LTR vehicles was tucked into a layby with a stash of drinks on board. The temperatures were climbing and some of us chose to abandon base-layers and buffs. It was a good idea because soon we were trotting along the side of Winsnape Brook, and sheltered by the trees the air was still. Blossom was hanging from the trees. Shoots were emerging from the earth, buds were swelling on every branch. February was at its most benign.
We headed north, following the brook. The path twisted and turned, snaked with tree roots to jump across and stones to skip around, solid footbridges and patches of well churned black mud. Take the left route around this sapling, then weave right. Watch your head. Watch your feet. If you could watch yourself, you’d see a grin from ear to ear.
Who cares where you are, how far you’ve come, how far you’ve still got to go? The sun is shining and you’re running, because you can. And you can cover mile after mile like this and only wish that every day could feel this good, could be so darned perfect.
And crikey, already, another pitstop.
With fig rolls and chocolate digestives and fudge.
You can keep your serious runs, I prefer those with a tuck shop.
And I quite like the entertainment provided by four 4-wheel drive owners attempting to ford the brook at the same time and trying to do three-point turns on a pile of moving clay. All jolly good fun. Still, our route out of the traffic jam was also across a steep slope of moving clay. Even with 4-wheel-drive trail shoes, it wasn’t a graceful manoeuvre.
It’s just possible, the time machine was still working because I’m was no longer an adult. I’m a nipper, climbing through branches and lowering myself off fallen tree trunks, catching my legs in brambles. I’m covered in muck, connected quite literally to nature, and it’s marvellous. When 9-year old me gets home, she’s going to cop it. ‘Just look at the state of you! Dirty, little oik!’
It’s worth it though. Every step of this is worth it. The rolling pastures. The sun-warmed posts on every stile. The woodland path that disappears into a troll’s lair of tangled roots but has a sneaky little diversion. The magnificent brown flank of Parlick Hill. The bed of round cobbles. The soft fragrant pine-strewn bed of the forest that leads us back – after thirteen amazing miles – to Beacon Fell’s highest point.
And it’s all downhill from there.
Well only in terms of the gradient, because there’s a smashing café at the visitors’ centre. The staff knows cake should be served in wedges – not slivers – and cheese must always be oozing from a toastie.
At ten when we set off, the site was quiet. Three hours later, it’s full of people, picnicking in the sunshine, carrying trays of tea things from the café – families, dogs, kids all enjoying the warmth. A few are eating ice-creams. I imagine most of them will go home having had a grand day out, but I don’t expect any of them will have had a ride in a time machine.