Driving across to the Royal Oak in Riley Green yesterday, my car radio was filled with stories about the destructive effects of the heavy rainfall. Embankments and bridges had been washed away, rail lines were closed, homes flooded. Although the area where we were planning to run had escaped the worst of it, my windscreen wipers were still struggling to cope with the monsoon-like conditions. It seemed inevitable that we’d catch one of these fierce showers when we were out on the trails.
Somehow – let’s assume the weather gods were smiling on us – we got away with it, but there was no shortage of the wet stuff. Within five minutes, everyone had soaking feet. You splashed through puddles, collected a bit of mud and then charged across a field of sodden grass – your shoes clean again, until the next stile and the next bit of the squelchy stuff.
We’d taken a narrow, overgrown trail down to the canal. The warmth and wet had caused every stinging plant and snaking bramble to put on a growth spurt, but running through the scratchiness it felt brilliant, almost feral, to embrace the sensations rather than fearing them.
The towpath was tame in comparison, the sun came out, the narrowboats rested quietly at their moorings, and only the water level indicated that this summer’s day had been a bit of a washout.
Spirits were high as we set off across the fields, but in the first couple, the grass itself was the obstacle. Flattened by the rain, the length of it was still enough to require a high stepping gait. It was either hard work or good training but getting across there with the group was so much easier than it would have been going it alone.
We crossed the M65 by Brimicroft Farm and then headed south across some gently climbing fields. Going through the buildings at the kennels and cattery caused a brief storm of barking, but we were moving swiftly and were soon on the other side of the road, over a slippery stile and contouring around another hillside. A herd of cattle, safely on the other side of a wall watched us pass. A show-dipped lamb – his fleece stained the colour of mustard – cudded in the long grass as his flock-mates grazed nearby.
We stayed high on the track towards Stanworth Farm. The motorway seemed close and noisy because of the wind direction, but as we got closer, dropping down and nipping underneath it, its noise almost seemed to disappear. The area underneath the carriageway had been used to pen sheep in recent days. It was just a wee bit on the whiffy side, and the mud down there was probably quite high in organic matter. Still, the long grass back on the north side of the road cleaned the shoes up a treat.
We headed down a field, crossed the canal, through the site of an old works and came out onto a road where guide Sarah was waiting with drinks, jelly babies and a big pile of cashews. The pit stop done, we crossed the road, ducked under some striking blue buddleia and arrived at the side of a fast-moving River Darwen.
The water didn’t look inviting. It looked mighty powerful. It was easy to imagine tumbling down the bank and ending up several miles downstream, but the path was sound, and we called out warnings about roots and soon enough we were out on the easy flat grassy fields again. A second patch of woodland beckoned, we went in, up and down the steep slopes, through the ancient trees, skipping over hazards and tiny streams, bathing in the rich earthy scents and the constant sound of the river below.
Soon we were in a jungle of butterbur and Himalayan balsam, pushing aside the foliage to see the trail, stomping through the puddles, jumping the rocks, pausing to stare at the power of water as it roared over the weir.
A little further on, we passed under the massive railway viaduct, its stone almost as green as the trees that camouflaged its bulk. We ran back up to the level of the track, crossed the line and then circuited a stand of enormous trees on the edge of the Hoghton estate. The height of the wall we followed around the perimeter of the Tower’s grounds was no less impressive than the Tower itself, which we spied from the gatehouse halfway up its arrow-straight drive.
We had one last hill to climb, and then from the top, we could see the gentle green slopes that would lead us back down to the white-painted pub. The sun was thinking about peeking between the clouds but didn’t quite have the confidence and shied away from showing its face.
Some of us had to head off, others popped into the pub for a drink, another group stopped for food, but everyone seemed to be buzzing. It was a cracking run. We’d avoided the showers. We’d tackled mudbaths by the slipperiest stiles, we’d seen the incredible power of the river, and we’d refused to be beaten by countless encounters with stinging nettles. Then again, it could be that that was the reason everyone was buzzing.