Leaving the deceptive calm at the heart of the small South Cotswold village of Biddestone, warm with Bath Stone cottages and the sunshine of an April morning, I ran west along a lane lined with the gardens of Spring, simmering in the fresh, liquid light and quiet of another day. The world holding its collective breath, suspended as under intensive care or isolation. The houses and their plots an idyll of an England that exists only in the nostalgia of our culture or the writings of Laurie Lee.
The lane I chose heads West climbing gently to reach a fork, one tine of which points South to the busy Bath Road. The other, “less travelled by” curves West through open fields of winter barley and spring wheat climbing gradually into the sky to look down from the Cotswold plateau onto the valley where Brunel forged his line to Bristol through rocks and woods to carve the great tunnel at Box. This part of the run is light and open, more sky than earth with views that gaze out to the gentle beauty of Bath basking in a soft, blue horizon and surrounded by the ancient countryside of Wiltshire and Somerset, a landscape far removed from the urban frenzy and crisis shaking our city hospitals and their weary staff.
The track soon descends, falling more steeply now into darkening woods and undergrowth, broken by the weight of farm machinery carving the wet winter ground into scars that pain the unwary and twist the ankles as you struggle for grip. Here the woods climb steeply on either side of a lonely trail. Birdsong dazzles like crystal, piercing the undergrowth, shattering the silent calm of a world waking to this new reality. It is as though nature has sensed the great change and the warm green of wild garlic and deeper colours of early bluebells consume a fresher air made free of fumes and fuels burnt in a world before the great virus stopped us in our tracks and made us think. The land to the South opens onto a grass covered meadow clinging to the valley sides and pierced by an ancient spring that bursts above open ground like a fresh wound and soaks into the bound and bandaged soil of the pasture, thirsty from weeks of dry skies even after the wet of winter.
The track climbs now steeply, though still wooded and bordered on either side by hazel, ash and oak. Trees still light and grey but showing the first signs of new life as though a signal of a younger time to come and the resilience of a world we lost sight of. We are as Hockney tells us part of nature and no more able to control it than to control the seasons that these trees root themselves in. The run here is hard, the severity of the path and roughness of the ground taking a toll on tired limbs, but it has a quality that only off road running and open, unspoilt places can bring. Clay and darkened woodland soils give way to limestone and sand where the trail turns part back upon itself and eases open through a gate to a meadow to the North and a gentle curve of ground with moss green and velvet grass covered fields above the Bye Brook, a brighter, cleaner arm of the River Avon as it rolls through lower lands on its journey to Bath, Bristol and beyond.
Here the run gets easier and as I begin to enjoy the extra air and energy that these gentle fields share, a pair of Little Egrets dance up into the light, lifting themselves in waves like paper on the breeze to settle and perch in the branches of an ancient oak. These exotic creatures are blown to us on the airs of climate change. Once foreign visitors they now frequent the creeks and rivers of the South, feeding in the margins of lakes and streams where once only herons held command. Their sword like bills stab at prey in the shallows and shadows of the wetlands and now in April they pair and plan the spread of their kind North into the wider lands of England and the West.
Running is special to all of us who, obsessed or trapped by its rhythms seek out the isolation and the special spaces to enjoy its sense of freedom, of accomplishment and above all in these strangest of times the health and vigour it endows upon the routine of our crowded lives. It is for me the ultimate in mindful escape. High intensity training demands an unlikely concentration but leaves space to think, to observe, to live in the moments when only the steady breathing deep within our core and the sounds and sights of the world around us invade our inner selves. It is a privilege and not, especially in these times, a right which health and happiness grant us. At this stage on the route I begin to think about this contrast and the freedom under lockdown I am gifted to enjoy in this serene and silent corner of the world. Stories of bigotry and envy fill the media as I recall reports of runners having things thrown at them or uncompromising ‘ordinary, decent people’ berate the panting and the sweating of runners who they say have no thought for their passing safety. I know many runners. Although as every class of person is drawn from and reflects the wider communities in which we live, they are by and large generous, open-minded people who value freedom, believe in a community of purpose and respect the world we live in.
Yet prejudice is a light sleeper, especially in this brittle Britain with its divisive politics and the toxic nature of its social media. But we do not run to dwell on the problems of the world, rather to navigate, and to gain respite from them.
Forced back into the challenge before me I take the right-hand track which splits here where a deserted farmhouse rests quietly in the flood plain of the river. Home only to barn owls and the scuttling of mice, its roof long gone but its stone walls and pillars reminding us of a time when the wool trade thrived and the wealth and plenty of an older England shaped the beauty of the Cotswold Hills and the farms and houses that rest within its generous arms. The route is pressed now on either side between thick hedges of blackthorn and elder, like a gorge in miniature no way out on either side as the path once more lifts and winds its way back North to the old Weavern Lane, a drovers track long since given over to hikers or the soft feet of roe deer out before the boots and dogs of walkers shatter the silence of their secretive world. These quiet creatures one of the few large mammals left in our woods, share our countryside moving in when our eyes are closed or our backs turned to stalk softly between the dusk and dawn of each working day.
Led up onto the tarmac of the road on which I started I can move more freely now and pick up the pace to push myself back along the final miles of the route and on entering the house once more reflect on the great pandemic. Whilst breathing hard in recovery, like Hardy I watch “morning harden upon the wall.” My thoughts go to my wife a key worker, tackling her essential role in the fabric of our struggling society and the daily salvo of risks she and thousands of NHS staff march towards, day in day out. Oblivious to the personal dangers they are all that stand between us, pain and an enemy we know little about and less of how to control.
I look at my Garmin and consider how the miles compare and split times stack up. Real speed endurance is something I left behind in younger, fitter days and now an older hopefully wiser runner I look back on those times of energy and ease and like Housman’s “land of lost content, I see it shining plain. The happy highways where I went and shall not come again.”
Nevertheless I like many struggling to find time and space under lockdown enjoy my running. I relish the places it takes me to, figuratively and literally and reflect on its joys. We will run through this crisis of that I am sure. But like any hard and exhausting session we will need time to recover and the good sense not to set out on the same route until we know we are fit enough to do so.