The wonderful overgrown undergrowth
We were in the midst of head-high Himalayan balsam. Somewhere, at ground level, was a set of narrow descending steps, half-hidden by bracken. Brambles were playing the tripwire game. Nettles had joined the party, and slippery rocks were waiting to catch us out. A wooden stile proved this was a footpath, but nature was reclaiming it, and it was suggested we should perhaps have brought a strimmer along.
We’d reached this peculiarly British jungle after about 10k of varied terrain, and now the group had become strung out. We could hear shrieks of laughter, warning calls: feet, heads, eyes, watch that, mind this, careful just here and the essential ‘eyes on the trail.’ The pioneers at the front were only a few metres ahead but were near invisible through the trees. Those bringing up the rear were wondering where this crazy trail through the overgrown undergrowth could possibly be heading.
As it happens, it emerged by a ford, a substantial footbridge and the convergence of several well-trodden footpaths. We were, most likely, the only ones who’d used the trail since spring when nature put on a growth spurt.
This was a day for taking the minor routes. In two and a half hours on the trails, on a rare, glorious sunny morning, on a bank holiday weekend, we could have been exploring remote unpopulated areas. We were between major towns, on the fringes of the area’s noted beauty spots, yet we saw very few people. Those we saw seemed content to be walking or jogging around the perimeter of Turton and Entwistle reservoir, but that’s the way everyone goes, and the area offers much, much more. We peeled off into woodland, into the soft cool shade, clambering over fallen trees, pausing to watch a squirrel make his vertical charge up fifty feet of pine tree in just a few short seconds.
By the time we startled the squirrel, we’d already run from Egerton, along a stretch of the Rotary Way and over the moorland of Turton Heights, catching a glimpse of a deer at the head of a gulley. We’d dropped off the high ground, descending on a testing surface of roughly mown reeds, and then crossed easier terrain where grasshoppers chirruped from the long grass and butterflies took to flight. A path wound through birch saplings, through bilberry bushes, rowan trees and heather in its best August colours.
We’d run along a shaded path with gradients modelled on roller coaster principles, up and down, nattering away, talking about anything and everything, about barbecues and drinking beer and avoiding Saturday morning supermarket trips by sneaking off to run the trails.
We’d passed the red rocks of Cadshaw quarry and paddled across the brook at Yarnsdale, relishing the cool of the water. We’d made the short steep climb onto Fairy Battery outcrop by Lowe Hill and from there we’d seen views that would grace the pages of any travel guide. We also discovered that the rocky outcrop is an ideal place to eat Jaffa cakes and jelly babies.
From the head of the valley, there’s a nice broad track that leads to the reservoir. We ignored it, opting for the sporting route along the other riverbank, pushing through the trees, sinking into soft leaf litter, watching our heads on low branches, using tree trunks for support, up and down mossy slopes, jumping drainage ditches and balancing on the eroded bank.
And like I said, all that was before the squirrel.
After it we found another crazy section of woodland, twigs snapping beneath out feet, a footbridge being consumed by trees, a path that went on and up and eventually led out onto pasture that went on and up. It was getting warm by now, so instead of keeping to the sunny lane on which we emerged, we dived into the shade, down a stony track that was running with water. Beyond the track were bright green fields bordered by tall pines through which we could see the shining reservoir.
Later, after we’d trekked through the jungle, we returned to the reservoir. A few people were strolling across the dam and around the shoreline, but we didn’t see anyone stepping off the path, daring to venture into a different world. It’s a pity because they might just see the incredible root system of a tree or spot an iridescent beetle scurrying across the floor.
These trails, the jungle, the narrow lanes that link them are wonderfully quiet – although perhaps not so quiet when we choose to pay a visit. They have the special quality of being largely unused, and because of it, they retain a certain magic. A couple of miles before we finished the run, we crossed a road. The area by a layby was littered with laughing gas canisters. A few feet beyond – nothing, just nature again, more grasshoppers, more butterflies, more heather murmuring with the sound of bees. It saddens me that the natural high of being outdoors isn’t enough for some.
We returned to Egerton via Turton Heights again, heading for Cheetham Close. Although the same hill, we were on a different track. The area is full of them. Clearly visible on Google earth, the paths follow geometric lines, but when you’re on them, you can’t see the others. Cheetham Close itself is – or was – a megalithic stone circle. It was largely destroyed by a farmer in the 1870s and now just a few scattered rocks remain on the top of a hill hidden in the heather and scrub.
It makes me wonder what else we’ve lost. What’s disappeared, what’s been destroyed, what treasures have been forgotten. If everyone stays walking the same routes, running the same places, visiting the same spots, we’ll never know.
We went to Bakers Café after the run, and after all this talk of breaking new ground, I have to confess that we’ve been there before – and probably will again. The food was rather good, the milkshakes piled with cream, the pots of tea very welcome. Unfortunately, they make it hard to resist the comfort of what we already know.