Great British Memories (Notes from a return home) #3
RUNNING WEST NORWOOD AND THE WESTWOOD, THE MERSEY AND THE M60
Somewhere in the last decade, as I became more dedicated to running, I realized that far from hindering my hobby, travel presented a beautiful opportunity. Cyclists, swimmers, football players, skiers (of which I am proudly one), golfers and whoever else are prevented from enjoying their chosen sports on their journeys by a need for equipment, clement weather, team-mates – or all three. We runners only have to pack our shoes and shorts, maybe a hat and gloves – and we’re free to explore a foreign or merely unfamiliar city or countryside in an entirely different way than when we either walk it, cab it, bus it or train it. We get to experience more of it, in terms of mileage, and from close-up, too, and by doing so faster than most other perambulators, we can almost convince ourselves that we’re watching, perhaps even directing, a movie of sorts.
In the process, we take on the role of the speed-tourist. I’ve packed my camera and done the ruins in both Athens and Nimes in the space of a single morning; I’ve gotten lost in the royal parks of Madrid in the midst of a royal hangover; I’ve found myself elated by the justly famous scenery of Paris on a sunny Sunday morning, and humbled by the number of other runners I encountered while jogging through Reims, the capital of Champagne. Jogging the Regent’s Canal from Warwick Avenue to Chalk Farm, and exploring the South Bank out to the Docklands from the Elephant and Castle, I’ve even discovered new parts of London.
My latest trip didn’t offer opportunities quite such memorable opportunities. South London’s Streatham Common has its qualities, or at least I recall it doing so when the sun shines upon it. But traversing the streets of neighboring West Norwood on a bitterly cold, wet, windy last day of March, wearing shorts because I’d left my thermals behind in the States where it was springtime, and with only one glove because I’d lost the other en route, bordered on the masochistic – and even the decision to run up to Crystal Palace and back to the old house failed to warm the soul. (The snarling traffic around the Palace triangle, the bleak London skyline from the top of Gypsy Hill, the muddy parks not yet warm or dry enough for young mothers and lovers, and the endless array of downtrodden off-licence-newsagents-cafes-cab firms surely played their parts.) About the only positive effect of this trek was the realization that what had seemed like impossibly long walks home in my youth, back in the days before plentiful night buses, could in fact be covered in ten or fiteen minutes’ steady jogging. Of course, try telling that to my 16-year old self at the end of his long night on the town and you would, rightly, be met with expletives.
Far better, all round, to run on trails, or in the country. As I’ve noted regularly in recent years, my mother now lives at the very edge of the Yorkshire town in which I was born, Beverley – the western edge, as evidenced by the fact that a short walk from her door brings us to the famed “Westwood,” a beautiful expanse of open land beloved by walkers, dogs, joggers, football and rugby players and patrons of the local public golf course alike. On this particular trip to the UK, I needed to bank one more long pre-Boston training run – a 20-miler – and opted, sensibly, to do so via two ten-mile countryside loops. I went through Walkington and Bishop Burton, as perfectly named, and archetypically beautiful, as English villages can be – each complete with duck pond, and the former with no less than three pubs in a 300-yard stretch. By taking the side roads between these villages, I got to see local farms, complete with baby lambs; stables with riding horses; the Mill House off the back of Bishop Burton, one of the most astonishingly des reses I’ve ever encountered (as you might imagine, it’s a mill adjoining a house, and I regret not having the camera on that leg to show you what I mean). I also got to see a couple of dead ducks, presumably hit by cars, carefully laid out on top of a public bin; a beautiful dead rabbit, certainly hit by a car, that, were I a carnivore, I might have brought home for dinner, given that it looked so freshly killed and perfectly preserved; a dead car that had managed to wedge itself between a couple of trees (carma, perhaps, for all the roadkill?); several other trees festooned with flowers, apparently in homage to a suicide victim; and more rubbish/garbage/trash along the roadsides than any rural area should ever be willing to put up with. People of East Yorkshire: yours is some of the most beautiful countryside you could ask for. Why would you want to desecrate it by throwing bags of rubbish out your car window?
And then there was the Mersey. Call me a moron – or just a southerner – but it wasn’t until I stayed in the outskirts of Manchester that I realized the river the Scousers like to call their own also runs along the periphery of Liverpool’s fiercest rival. But that’s the kind of information you (finally) learn, first hand, when it’s a Sunday in the suburbs, and you strap on your shoes and ask your hosts if there’s anywhere you can run away from the traffic. In this case, I was told to make for the motorway, but before I could reiterate my initial request I was assured that before I got there, I’d find myself at the mercy of the Mersey, on the famed Trans-Pennine Trail. This proved to be the case, and it would have been proved sooner, had I not gotten detoured by a younger jogger who had decided to run to his mate’s house, ten miles away, to watch the Liverpool-Man United game, and with whom I chatted happily as his own route took us through one of those quiet modern estates where men folk were out washing their cars and the kids… well the kids were nowhere to be seen, presumably inside playing with their Game Boxes and Wiis. Soon enough, the jogger’s route led me out to the M60 itself. Bizarrely, it was in fact an option on the trail.
Given this location, so close to the ring road and airport traffic, the short part of the Trans-Pennine trail I then properly covered alongside the Mersey, now something more of a stream than a river, was definitely not its most glamorous, but it was reassuring to see it heavily populated, like Beverley’s Westwood, by cyclists, walkers, dog-owners and the occasional other runner besides. At beginning and end, I also come across a woman wearing some form of Muslim clothing, which wouldn’t be notable were she not certainly Caucasian, and were she not jogging, despite the heavy clothing and what I figured to be particularly cumbersome shoes. I might have presumed she was just in a hurry to get somewhere, but when I came back from my 5-mile loop, she was still running in circles around the edge of the estate. It takes all sorts, as they say.
Now that, after 45 years, I’ve finally stepped foot on it, I see that the Trans-Pennine Trail goes from Manchester (it actually starts sixty miles west of there, in Southport, on the Irish Sea), all the way to Hull, barely by-passing Beverley as it heads up to the North Sea at Hornsea, a seaside town they forgot to close down, and which I know better than most people. The entire cross-country trek is 207 miles, or approximately eight marathons. Eddie Izzard, are you out there? I’ve got a challenge for you…. And I’ll keep you company if you’d like.