Better than a beer garden and a barbecue
We had a beautiful summery day when we ran our Winter Half in February. The Spring Half was dry with blue skies, clear views and tracks baked to dust. Conditions on the Summer Half suggest that the British weather understands irony. But the downpours didn’t dampen the spirit, and I discovered that it is still perfectly possible to have a great run even if the rain is filling up your lugholes.
On a day when organisers across the North West were busy cancelling their summer-themed events, we got out there. And I’m glad we did because the most uncomfortable parts of the experience were a couple of minutes before we set off when we had the briefing – huddled in the shelter of a building – and post-run, trying to get my clammy skin into some dry gear.
When we were on the move the rain wasn’t an issue. It was warm enough and although you wouldn’t want to be hanging around in it for hours, it was a bit of a giggle. One of the major downpours happened when we stopped for the first of three pitstops. We were gathered under some trees, drinking tea and coffee, stuffing down mini-muffins at the time, everyone smiling and happy to be sharing the experience. If there had been anyone else out, they might have thought we were crackers, but there’s something quite fun about trying to catch the rainwater in your brew to help it cool down.
The route was a bit of a toughie, with around 500 metres of ascent and some very rough terrain. Even when the trails were relatively straightforward, the sodden ground and the run-off made them more of a challenge, and you needed to be on the ball. In Roddlesworth Woods, where we started our run, new streams were bubbling up from the forest floor. When we returned, some of those new streams were more like rivers. Patches of mud were unpredictable. You could skip across the surface or find yourself sinking. Keeping dry feet was an impossible goal, but despite the weather, we got about halfway through before visibility became poor. From the top of Great Hill and on the descent to White Coppice the views were amazing with Blackpool Tower a distinct spike on a blurred horizon. There were wind farms, and church spires, smudgy blue hills in the distance, the local landmarks of Rivington Pike and Darwen Tower.
There was a cloud of purple heather, a scrambling descent to the side of Black Brook, pink-fleeced sheep where the rain had washed through their red flock markings. The bracken was strong, dense. We pushed through it to find a woodland trail: black tree roots, lime coloured moss, the soft russet colours of pine needles. Anglezarke reservoir looked deserted from our vantage point beyond the trees, its surface shining like steel. Steps and steeply climbing paths through the woodland led us out to Manor Farm, past a cow grooming a new calf, a docile bull, and another flock of pinkish sheep.
Veering off the track, across on fields we came to the top of Lead Mines Clough and the memorial to the crew of a Wellington bomber, which crashed in the mist in November 1943. Looking into the distance, the masts on top of Winter Hill were being obscured by cloud, the weather was worsening. We followed the track above the River Yarrow, paddled across Green Withins Brook and then headed into real off-road territory, wading through reeds, bogs and springy moss. When we found solid ground again, we made swifter progress, and with the support vehicle visible on the road below we charged downhill to tuck into more supplies.
The route originally planned had an ascent of Winter Hill included, but the cloud had come down, the deluge had begun in earnest and the alternative route back via Belmont was chosen. Conditions were still tricky but instead of a monster climb, we had a modest one and a path that contoured around the hillside. It was pouring steadily by now, but the mood was still brilliant and the group still moving strongly along the trails, through the mud and occasionally through the mire.
We crossed the main road by Belmont reservoir, followed the dam wall to its opposite shore and about ten miles in we were heading back towards Roddlesworth on the Witton Weavers Way. The trail here was wide, but stony, becoming more and more like the bed of a shallow stream as we headed along it, but we still stopped to say hello to a herd of goats as we passed through a farm and the laughs didn’t stop all the way back. Another quick pitstop, and we were back in the woods, exploring the dark, dripping heart of nature, more soft earth, more of the black mud, more saplings to push through, brooks to cross, a random flight of wooden steps, winding through, heading up and around massive trees, dropping onto the last wide trail that climbed back up to the road.
After 14-ish miles of sogginess and running, at the finish, there were smiles all around – not just because we’d finished, but because we’d had a morning of sheer exhilaration. Hard work for sure. Wet definitely, but great fun too. Wet days like these are part of the character of this part of the world and, dare I say it, character-building too. I wouldn’t have wanted to be out there in those conditions on my own, but I ran with a group of people who were willing to embrace the stuff life throws at us, to get outdoors, to get off-road and to get happy. Some people might say the perfect summer’s day is a beer-garden and a barbecue. Horses for courses, but I think they’re missing something.