An accidental run to Smalley Green Part 2
To discover what motivated this journey, read part one. For the journey itself, read on…
I like running, but not in the way some people like running. In the days before I set off on an unplanned run through the UK, footage appeared on social media and TV news of the two Brownlee brothers at the end of a triathlon so gruelling that just pondering it saps calories. In the video, one of the brothers pauses, reels on the spot, staggers, looks about as close to cardiac arrest as it’s possible to look without being attached to a defibrillator, and then his brother appears, throws his arm over his brother’s shoulder and aides him in an ungainly stumble, reminiscent of a three-legged race, towards the finish line where he swoons into pain, physical oblivion and post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a psychological aberration. People are sectioned for less.
But I do get the draw of pain and punishment. To some extent, far removed from the Brownlee’s limit of endurance, I enjoy exertion. I thought this as I began my run from my Mum’s house in Oxford, an unplanned jaunt to no destination, with no time-frame, route or objectives. I felt the light-headed buzz of breathlessness, the gush of endorphins. I passed a sign advertising a coming fun run. Fun. That was for wimps. This would be the unfunnest, unfunniest, most funless run of my life. But if I got really tired I’d stop and have a cup of tea in Subway.
With Ordinance Survey maps on my phone, my route was planned only as far as the screen or two allowed, and when I got to the edge of this known zone I’d have another look ahead, replan, run and repeat. That way I’d capture the spontaneous spirit of adventure I needed, and I’d have no idea where my unprimed legs would take me. But to avoid a soul-crushing epiphany that I’d been running circles around somewhere dreary, say, Northampton, I decided that I needed a vague course, and since more of the country lay up the map than in any other direction, this is the way I would head.
As it turned out, September is a sublime month for distance running in the UK. Not too cold, not too hot, 12 hours of daylight and that loamy scent of autumn on the wind. Even better: every hedgerow is speckled in blackberries. Their ubiquity is amazing once you get your eye in, and this meant I could carry less food, pausing hourly for childish, messy-faced plundering.
At first I felt a huge weight of relief in not having a goal, not mapping my route or counting miles. I had nothing to lose, failure wasn’t an option, not through determination, but because I refused to define success. I was relieved too that I hadn’t told anyone I was going… if I was home in half a day, there would be no face to save.
I knew the first bit… spritely now, I verily cantered through Hampton Poyle, rounded the green at Bletchingdon, my pace holding out to upper Heyford. This was the countryside of real ale festivals and vicarages, of fierce and pointless protests to new housing developments, of village ponds and duck crossings and particular women who looked a little like Theresa May.
I hadn’t done any training. My legs started to get sore, but I realised there was a simile: new saddles are sore too. Maybe my legs were behaving like a new saddle, and like a new saddle, I’d just have to break them in. Unfortunately, there is a tried and tested way to ‘break in’ legs, and it’s called training. And ideally, you should do some before running 40 miles a day. But I decided not to allow myself to complain about the predictable muscle aches, as long as I didn’t suffer the lancing pain of a buggered knee or ankle, in other words, unless I underwent Massive Leg Failure.
You notice more on foot than on bike. I jogged up to Parish council notice boards, which I wouldn’t have bothered to explore had I been cycling. They were stuck with twee and endearingly parochial announcements. In Plumpton it was hedgehog watch. There were the minutes of the type of meetings that would have been no less detailed if you recorded the timeline in hours. There was a band playing in one church hall called Holy Moly and the Crackers. I felt a sudden urge to join the Green Valley quilters, and get in some hardcore quilting.
The temptation to plan, which is a habit so embedded in my life, was enormous. I found myself thinking maybe I’ll run to Leicester, or Derby, and then No! And I’d try to clear my head, put myself on a new, foreign setting, feel the release of a truly aimless adventure. I only discovered I’d crossed county lines when the signs on the bins told me I was in Northamptonshire. On my OS map Fartington popped up. This was excellent, a suitably scatological place to have dinner. So imagine my disappointment when I came to the signpost pronouncing it Farthington. In the pub, it wasn’t long until the bar staff began asking questions. What was I up to? (not sure) Where was I going? (dunno) Where will you sleep? (some woods?) Word spread and I quickly gained celebrity. ‘He’s gonna sleep in the woods!’ I heard from the other side of the bar. Then the barmaid edged over to me ‘Hey, are you from that show Hunted?’
That night I found woodland and settled into my bivy bag, moonlight dappled the leaf litter, as brilliant as road markings. I had no clue how many miles I’d run, it didn’t matter. Unfortunately, my feet remembered quite clearly the next day. My soles felt bruised. I started the day in a limping trot, amusing the rare early morning motorists. The pain was excruciating, which of course is a warning sign, your body’s way of telling you to run through it until you break something.
I checked the next screen on my map and gasped. Leicester. It loomed, like the Battlestar Galactica. Fuck. I’d have to run around it. So I began edging west for a time, cutting through bridleways where I could. For most of the day the pain in my ankles especially was dramatic, I was getting sure I wouldn’t last much longer. Things took an even more baleful twist in Primethorpe, which seemed a prime place for something very bad to happen. This is because Primethorpe is populated overwhelmingly by people on remand for throwing kittens into reservoirs. Cautiously I slowed to ask directions from a burly character, etched by tattoos. The fact that he managed to offer half decent directions was a nice surprise, considering he was six pints and two ecstasy tablets deep into his Sunday morning.
My OS maps began to become littered with ovoid blemishes, a scribble of contour lines suggested they were granite quarries. I veered around a couple and then met Rugby at twilight, which meant trouble finding a rough sleeping spot. I prowled unsuitable bits of waste ground for too long, grass too high, thicketed by nettles, the kind of place you’d be unsurprised to uncover the mutilated corpse of a hitch-hiker. Eventually I settled on the fringe of a field as traffic thrummed beside me.
The next morning by feet remained a pair of spiteful and painful protrusions. But by lunch time, we were friends again. Miraculously, the pain had begun to settle. They had realized the futility of their protest. Which was good, because I could survive for only so long on blackberries and ibuprofen.
In Desford I ordered a sandwich in pub, and earned a sideways glance from a guy at the bar. ‘Come far?’ ‘Oxford!’ I chirped, hoping for kudos. Unfortunately for me, Nicky was an ultra-marathon athlete, fresh from the Marathon des Sables, which means running through places hotter and sandier than Desford. Nicky invited me back to his house for a cup of tea with his wife and trampolining kids, and made it clear that if I needed any additional kit, it was mine. I thanked him for his generosity, cadged a few snacks and set off again, to fuck knows where.
I gained some altitude, almost unknowingly, and found myself running through the enchanting sounding Charnwood Forest which broke into a barren rocky upland, where I fought my way through fern and brambles to reach an outcrop of rocks and gazed over a spread of fields: Nottinghamshire to the north east, Derbyshire ahead and Leicestershire behind me.
Scotland famously has ‘the right to roam’. England has this too, but it does mean ignoring the ‘Private Property’ and ‘No Entry’ signs and enduring the occasional mauling by a rabid farm dog. Villages came and went, often announced by their church spire, sticking up amid distant green hills. Pheasants were surprisingly rampant in this part of the world and I passed youths trekking their little socks off on Duke of Edinburgh expeditions.
In Belton I stopped in the Queens Head for a Sunday roast, there was a gentle flow of banter from barstaff, and taciturn men sitting around pints, ‘socialising’. I’d run so far now the accents had changed, which was satisfying. That night it rained, which is bad news for the bivy-dweller. Next day I set off again, my legs were less painful now, more adjusted, but I had developed an interesting sensation at the back of my ankle: it was as if I were being lashed intermittently with an elastic band. After checking my shoe laces were well fastened, I realised this was in fact my inflamed Achilles tendon. This confirmed, more than the of rollcall of counties, that I had run quite far.
I crossed the river Trent and into my fifth English county, Derbyshire, and the town of Shardow where I indulged my habit of pub dinner followed by breaking into a farmers field and setting out my bivy bag for a 4th night and a heavy sleep. There was something dystopian about the following morning: the silhouetted towers of the Radcliffe power station guffed steam into a magenta dawn. I ran on, into Stanley Common, Brexit heartlands. St George Cross flags everywhere and presumably people who says things like ‘there’s too many of ‘em’ and ‘I ain’t racist, but they ain’t like us are they? They’re different.’
And then I saw it… Smalley Green, a village just a few miles away. I knew then I had found a destination, because it was the ultimate non-destination. Somewhere small in name, size and significance. An apt end to a run unplanned from the outset, befitting that travellers cliché about the importance of the journey. It was that moment in Forest Gump when he slows and realises, for no apparent reason, that his journey is at an end, and it ends as spontaneously as it began.
Problem was: Smalley Green didn’t have much. Scattered homes, a green warehouse and a dog photographing business called Zoe’s Paws. Not even a signpost. But Smalley Village up the hill had one (I needed a photo), and it had bus stops. That would do.
I sat at the bus stop, on one of those benches formed of two metal bars, which must have been designed by a man with no concept of comfort and possibly without an actual arse and any experience of sitting. But as I took the weight off, it felt luxurious. I’d made it! To Smalley Green! Just like I always dreamed I… well, maybe not.
As I sat on a train darting back to Oxford, I’d knew that I’d achieved my only goal which was to embrace unpredictability, that mysterious substance so often leached from life in the city. I hate it when people say that everything happens for a reason, not just because they’re almost certainly wrong, but because of how boring life would be if it did. How much more exciting to know that literally anything could befall you, at any time, good or bad, outrageous or trivial. That’s amazing.
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