From a distance

It’s about 7.30 pm on a mild but damp February night. A group of people are gathered on the side of a hill. Below them, down in the valley, lies Rawtenstall. They can see the illuminated driving range, a smudge across the hills on the opposite side. There’s the dual carriageway with cars beetling along in a never-ending procession of the busy. There’s the jade green of a traffic light, the yellow glow of street lighting tracing out the patterns of distant housing developments. it’s like looking down on a model village, where the only signs of people are the streaming traffic or the lamplight glowing in far-off windows.

If someone was standing in Rawtenstall, looking up, they’d puzzle at the lights against the black bulk of the hill. Mainly white lights, a couple of flashes of red, now clustered, now stretched out. People up there on the hill? On a night like this? Running around the moors in the dark? Why? 

The dogs don’t understand it either. At each farm the group passes, there’s a brief frenzy of barking because the group isn’t moving silently through the landscape, they’re laughing and joking, hooting and hollering because running like this, free from the constraints of the traffic and its yellow-lit roads, is liberating. Freedom found just above a town, just a few hundred yards from a bypass, through a gate, across a slick green stile.

Moving is liberating, but it’s not about speed or stealth. It’s not about grace either – some sections are so deep in mud that the only option is to wade through it and hope that the running shoes are still in place when you emerge on the other side. When you get to the boggy ground, high above Crawshawbooth, can you balance on top of all those tussocks, spring between them like a sure-footed goat? It’s probably simpler to accept the inevitable and bathe your feet early with the peat-stained brew. 

Nature won’t care. Up here, it’s our insignificance, that strikes home. The hills – and these are modest ones – dwarf us. Those roads, those street lights, that driving range – we may think we’ve tamed nature but give it a chance and it will show us who’s the boss. These slippery slopes, the rain-soaked cobbles or the fallen trees could prove our undoing, but we stick together. We offer hands to help each other clamber over the rickety stiles, we point out the hazards, we shrug and giggle if we blunder into a patch of brambles and, unpicking ourselves, we warn others not to do the same. 

We know we’re heading to a panopticon – that’s got to be high on a hilltop, right? But why take the direct route up the boring tarmac when you can charge down a dirt track and lose all the hard-win elevation? Why follow the lane when you can pick a zig-zagging route through clumps of rush grass, which swish and soak your knees with every uneven step. Each tiny adventure – the meandering stone-filled sheep track, the shallow streams you splash through, the friction-free slopes and the soft-sodden pasture is worth it. Every little bit of difficult terrain gives us a mini boost, a frisson of excitement that we’ve handled it. The time flies by in a rush of cloughs and footbridges, dripping branches and rain-scoured lanes. And then, emerging onto a metalled road, we squeeze through a stile, round a corner and it’s there. The Halo. Visible from miles away on a clear day, it’s remained hidden until the very last moment. 

It’s lit up. Concentric rings of blue light. It’s much bigger than it looks from afar, with strong but slender tripod legs supporting the dish, which sits open to the heavens as if waiting to hear a message from space. We wander beneath, between the steelwork, listening to the wind, beginning to feel the night’s chill. 

We move off. The bright lights in the valley below start to call – the siren call of civilisation, the promise of a meal, a shower, the realisation that it’s midweek and work tomorrow and alarm clocks need setting and the all-too-brief escape must draw to a close. And the party stretches out, a string of white lights bobbing along in the dark as we wind our way back through the trees and the tracks, past farms where the dogs inevitably bark and through gateways where the mud makes a last-ditch attempt to swallow us whole, down steep banks where the only possible mode of descent is to slither and slide. 

Too soon for some we’re descending the last slope, twigs and branches snapping underfoot, grouping back together as we fathom the best approach to a botched stile, and then we’re at the side of a dual carriageway, citizens, once again, of the model world we’d been gazing down on an hour before. 

We’d earned a feed, and the Haslingden Bar and Grill did the honours: a beer or two, a pizza, a pile of penne with chorizo and crumbled feta, followed up with a crème brulée. Running around the hills is tremendous fun, it’s invigorating to charge through the dark muddy night, but there is definitely a bright side to re-entering the civilised world. 

Next stop on the Panopticon Nightrunner Series is Colourfields on 20 March 2019.

The Halo, designed by John Kennedy of LandLab, is easily visible from the M66 and the A56. Its scale is, however, better appreciated up close. 18 metres across and appearing to hover 5 metres above ground, the sculpture is lit after dark with blue LEDs which are powered by a nearby wind turbine. 

You can drive up to the Panopticon, but it’s much more fun to run there. 

Kate Woodward