Monthly Archives: January 2010

wetrun11

16th Jan. 2010. As soon as I leave I know my knee is in trouble. But I want to try and track down the Great White Egret of yesterday, to see if he is still around and get a better sighting, so I keep going. It is damp and grey and blustery. I try a little running, but it is a kind of shuffling lope-along, so I mostly walk. Down the guided busway to the fields by Rampton Drift. It begins to rain, gently but steadily. It is cold. There is no sign of the bird. Only some mixed flocks of starlings, thrushes and fieldfares which rise up from the fields as soon as I approach.

Then, as I have almost begun to expect now, a little wondrous thing is shown me. A stoat! Wondrous because I have never seen one before in the wild, and wondrous because the existence of any wild thing at all in this sanitized, stripped down, and laid bare part of the country always surprises me. I turn a corner and a rabbit, white tail bouncing, disappears into a ditch at the same time as a silverish blur, long and very low, a shiver of light really, flashes across the track behind it and into the grass on the opposite side where there is a ditch of flowing water. I peer down into the ditch and he is coming towards me, slender and lithe, almost slithering, with a distinctly dark head and a distinctly dark tip to his tail. When he stops and pops his head up I see the redness of his coat, his inquisitive face, and little round ears. Too bad he is not in winter ermine. Then he is gone. I think he was stalking the rabbit when I disturbed him. Lucky rabbit, poor stoat. The rain has really set in and I am soaked through. The wind has picked up too, blowing from the south where it is much colder than here. I decide to abandon the run, and make my way back across the rain-soaked fields, slipping and sliding along the bank of a yellowish, swollen Beck Brook.

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wetrun10

15th Jan. 2010. A late start, after sun-up, grey and misty. There’s wet in the air, and wet on the ground. In the village there is no snow or ice or frost even, all has thawed; only on the edges of the further fields and on the higher part of the farm track does some thin ice and snow remain. I turn north up Cuckoo Lane through Lamb’s Cross Farm and set the dogs a-barking. The herd is in the pen, stock-still and silent. The track is muddy now and pooled with snowmelt. I walk up to its highest point and run down the further slope. I find it harder going today, my legs are heavy, calves taut. So I walk awhile. Visibility is poor, the air is damp and there are few birds about. Beck Brook is swollen with the snowmelt, running deep and steady 15 feet across, but is so entrenched between deep sloping banks there is little chance of flooding. Up ahead, a jay, white rump flashing, threads through the hedgerow trees, the first I’ve seen on these morning runs, and I fancy I spot my old friend the green woodpecker flying low across a field with its tell-tale undulating flight. A pack of starlings whirrs off from the ground as I approach. I take a new route, branching off along a path which runs on top of the high, grassy, open bank of the brook and then leads me through the back end of Rampton village – an edge-world of carbreaker’s yards, bungalows, overgrown paddocks, tin shacks, scruffy nurseries, and caravans propped up on bricks. There is no-one about. Along a tarred road now then onto the grassy track of Rampton Drift. The going easier but my knees are aching. I struggle to keep up my 200 running / 100 walking paces. It begins to spit and drizzle. It’s a miserable day. But up ahead a great white bird takes off from a ditch and slowly flaps away and circles down beyond the hedgerow. It’s almost as big as a heron, but it is pure white as far as I can see. Not a heron, I’m sure of that. What then? It rises again as I approach and flies lazily away, so I cannot see its head. It has to be a Great White Egret or a Spoonbill, both rarities, though not unknown in these parts. It’s a nice surprise, a little gift of sorts. I turn south down the guided busway track, homewards, into a steady cold wind blowing from the snowfields of southern England, and it begins to rain. Pretty soon I am soaked through and cold, with still a way to go. On days like this, I wonder why…..

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dawnrun9

13th Jan. 2010. 1½ hrs before sunrise. It is cold of course, but fairly benign. No sign of the Old Laughing Lady. I slip out of the village and, beyond the range of the last street lamp, I tunnel into blackness. I pull back the sprung lever that opens the gate into the sheep field and it shrieks like a stuck pig, clanging behind me. Bang goes the element of surprise then. The sky is uniformly indigo-black except for a murky sulfurous glow over Cambridge to the south. I can just make out the track ahead because its snow, being compacted, has outlasted the rest. I am running through a two-dimensional world of silhouettes. There is nothing to see so I focus on my footing and my breathing. Up to now I have counted my steps to keep going and can now gauge 100 or 200 paces pretty accurately so I switch to chanting a dhikr or mantra out loud. I try out various formulations but none meshes with my rhythm and breathing quite like the simple Al-lah. Perfect. If anybody’s out there, poachers or shooters or lead-roofing looters, they will know only a deep disembodied chug-chugging coming at them through the dark. I reach the Histon road and turn back along the track beside the still unopened guided-busway. Imperceptibly the sky lightens but there is no great effulgence coming from the south-east quarter. Snow is still lying in patches here and there, and in the long corrugations of the fields. A lone rook flies overhead and barks down a gruff good morning. Apart from him, there is not a single soul about, animal or human, and it is very quiet. Until I reach the Oakington road and turn homewards. A steady stream of commuter traffic with blinding lights is streaming both ways, and surprise, surprise, here comes the OLL on her beaten-up old bike, no lights or reflectors, out of the darkness, head down. I know she hasn’t seen me because she doesn’t burst out laughing. I reach home before the sun has risen and fancy I hear a faint cackling receding into the day.

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snowrun8

11th Jan, 2010. Route4 anticlockwise. Out well before sunrise so a real dawn run today. It is nicely cold, the sky is overcast again, surprisingly light. I stop to chat to a tough little 60ish woman of the village who is delivering the local paper on her old bike. “Out for a run then are ee?”, and then, inexplicably, she starts laughing, loudly. I am a little taken aback, and then I remember, back in the summer, when I was up a ladder clipping the front hedge, she did the same thing, bursting out into laughter when she saw me. I don’t know whether it is me that she finds so hilarious, or the world in general. I hope it is the latter. There was something of a thaw yesterday, and a refreeze last night, so conditions are icy. On the guided-busway track, there is a completely different feel and sound to the snow. It is crisper, and more crunchy underfoot, with a bite, and where it has been compacted by walkers, runners, cyclists, horses and even vehicles, it is slick and dangerous. ‘Do not refreeze after thawing!’. I run gingerly, with small steps. A couple of rabbits flee in front of me, squeezing under the metal paling just like Peter Rabbit squeezing under Mr McGregor’s kitchen-garden gate, a favourite childhood image that comes back to me after half a century. Away from the street lights now the snow in the fields has a definite bluish tinge.

I turn west onto the grassy drove towards Longstanton, and am surprised to find a pair of running shoes in the middle of the track, frozen into the snow, both facing the same way, a stride apart. I’m pretty certain they weren’t here a few days ago when I passed this way. They look fine, but it is difficult to tell. There is a story here. I find it hard to believe anyone would carry a spare pair of shoes on their walk or run, so someone must have abandoned them and continued barefoot or besocked through the snow. I look around for more clues, other items of clothing. I even look in the ditch. Was it that he (for they were definitely men’s trainers) simply decided that it would be fun to run barefoot in the snow, like a Tibetan monk, or was it that he was jogging so slowly that the snow froze round his feet, rendering him immobile mid-stride so that he lurched forward face-first into the snow and had to undo the laces and abandon the shoes. This is not so far-fetched as it seems, for there are reports that the feet of ducks on Canadian lakes and ponds sometimes get frozen into the water, rendering them helpless, flapping their wings, until someone comes along and hews them out of the ice, or hews them for supper.

Past the Detention Centre… no inmates to be seen out and about (do they lock down at night?), only security guards checking cleaners and workers in and out … up the greenway to Longstanton and past the thatched church, locked unfortunately, where I had hoped to sit in the silence awhile. Back on the no-through-road towards Oakington, tarmacadamed and slick with black ice, forcing me to run on the grassy verge, or rather walk. I was just thinking about the lack of life I had encountered this morning when at least 500 wood pigeons pass overhead, flying fairly high out of the west, casting a definite momentary shadow over the land, forcing me to look up. They are remarkably evenly spaced, covering a good portion of sky, flying steadily, like bombers over Dresden. A sight to see.

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snowrun7

10th Jan, 2010. Some days there is little to say. The sky is overcast, a dozen shades of grey. And not as cold; in fact, it seems the snow has thawed in places. There is surely less of it about. Perhaps it has just bedded in, snuggled down more closely to the earth, contracted a little under the weight of its own emptiness. I take route three, but anti-clockwise, and head up towards the village of Histon. The white fields are emptied of birds. The snow is studded with the prints of various creatures, mostly rabbits I guess, but they have blurred back into the snow and are indecipherable. Back on the road I pass a man carrying skis and poles, with a dog on a leash. Surely not? I am doubtful… there is barely enough snow, there is not a slope sufficient within several miles, and the dog does not look up to it. I would like to see how they get on, but it is too cold to tarry.

I take a slightly different route, and run through the old part of the village, up towards the squat church tower, with a bell on top. A gaggle of hard-core cyclists, heads down, all yellow and black, helmeted and lycra-legged, whirr past like a tight flock of birds on a mission. I walk through the snowy graveyard and the sound of an organ, then singing, drifts out of the church. It is Sunday after all. Choir practice. I nudge open the porch door, just an inch, to get a better listen, and release a wedge of sound into the freezing air.

I turn off the village street onto the old track, Gun’s Lane, heading for Ely to the north. A couple of grey squirrels, fluffed up in their winter furs, looking chic, bounce along the top of a wooden fence. The going is good to begin with, but the track soon breaks up into a jagged, rutted, volcanic mess of frozen mud churned up by tractors and horses, and I have to walk.

A horse, two fields away, sees me and whinnies in greeting as if I was a long-lost pal. I wave back. Apart from some small unidentifiable birds, little more than blurs at the edge of vision, flicking and flittering along the hedge, the land is empty – no congregations of rooks or seagulls or pigeons today, no animals, no people. I find this strange. It is relatively mild compared to the last few days, it is dry, only the lightest of breezes is blowing out of the east, and it is Sunday. White flags are fluttering in a large beet field… some kind of truce perhaps, a short-term ceasefire? Or a cunning ploy to fool the pigeons? I reach the B-road and it is so smooth and easy and snow-free to run on I positively bound back through the hamlet of Westwick, thinking of breakfast.

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snowblog6

8th Jan, 2010. The sun is well up before I manage to drag myself into the day, but it is nowhere to be seen, obscured by cloud that covers the entire sky. In fact the cloud is invisible too, seamless. It is just a lid of paleness, evenly coloured from east to west (a whiter shade of pale perhaps), reflecting back the whiteness of the land below, covered in snow, dissolving the horizon. Without sun the light is flat, and even the snow seems dull. This fell with some intensity two days ago, a real snowstorm, big flakes like pennies tumbling thickly out of the sky, followed by a lighter fall yesterday, and again last night. Apart from the tarmac’d roads, black and wet, pretty much everything is blanketed. It is cold, very cold, surely 3 or 5 or more degrees below, in fact I wonder if I should be out in such conditions, sucking in great lungfuls of freezing air, ingesting tiny ice crystals by the bucketload. I have, for the first time brought my mobile, just in case, and to keep K happy. In these conditions, with no one out and about, even in commuterland, a fall out in the further fields or tracks could result in hours (days even?) of lying in a ditch of freezing water. I begin to imagine all sorts of dramatic and scary scenarios. Then I remember that there would probably be no network coverage anyway, and the phone would no doubt die as soon as it hit water. But I am well-wrapped, with five layers on my upper half – a thermal underlayer, long-sleeved tee-shirt, another tee-shirt, a fleece, and one of my son’s  less offensive hoodies, topped off by my biking neck fleece worn as a balaclava, and a wooly hat.

I turn east as usual, to take the fifth of the shorter routes, marginally more challenging because it has a hill of sorts. I run in the roadway, through and out of the village, the pavements being too treacherously trampled. I turn northwards at the guided-busway, along the service track of pea-gravel that runs beside it. It will be safe to run on, because though covered in snow, I know it is flat and even, not yet ruined by vehicles and therefore unrutted, virgin. No hidden clods, stones, holes or hoofprints to waylay my ankles.

And then into a biting Arctic breeze – the cold penetrating to my chest in spite of all the layers. There is barely an inch of snow on the track, and my shoes leave neat crisp prints. Then I am surprised – someone has preceded me here. Some fellow runner has been foolhardy enough to run out into the freezing morning ahead of me. These are relatively small footprints, going in my direction, must be a size 5 or 6, and therefore surely a woman. Then I know exactly who it is, for our paths have crossed several times previously, and this fits her route. She is young, fit, grim, professional, training for the Olympics perhaps, and she never returns my greeting. I am distracted now by snow tracks, and begin following them off-piste – a great many bird prints, large and sharp, stamped into the snow like cuneiform wedges, each one connected to the succeeding one by a single line, a trailing hind claw perhaps or tail feather. These are evidently rooks, for a gang of them is rooting around on the track up ahead, and they are the most numerous bird around. They are accompanied by some jackdaws who seem to be sentinels rather than hangers-on, breaking the silence with their penetrating ‘chucks’ or ‘jacks’, which may have given them their name. Then there are the tracks of what I take to be the ubiquitous muntjac deer, and rabbits of course, and others I do not know. A single dark squirrel, almost black against the snow, who should be hibernating surely in this weather, bounds over the track with the undulations of an otter.

The northern sky takes on colour, bruised and brooding, and suddenly snow falls. It is coming at me from the north, face on, at 45 degrees, but it is strange stuff, tiny balls of fluff that cling to me like polystyrene pellets, perfectly round. No doubt the Inuit or Lapps have a hundred words for different kinds of snow but we are dumbfounded in this regard. It is falling thickly and soon obscures the snowprints, light diminishes, sounds are smothered, visibility contracts and the world closes in.

I turn east onto the bridle-way that runs from Longstanton, past an isolated remnant of apple orchard, only 5 rows deep and about 150 yards long, each row headed by a more upright and taller pear-tree. The snow stops after about ten minutes, as suddenly as it started and the sky brightens. Then I turn south into Cuckoo Lane, the medieval trackway that runs from Ely through to Cambridge, called Portway (‘Carrier’s Way’ or ‘Market Way’) in Rampton, and Gun’s Lane towards Histon. It is generally open and ditched rather than hedged, but here there are small trees on either side of no great age, saplings planted as a hedge no doubt, and then neglected. A tractor growls somewhere in the distance. We are alongside Beck Brook, here more of a tamed and straightened channel at the bottom of a deep wide ditch than any sort of natural stream, its banks deprived of everything but grass – no reeds, bushes, overhangs, saplings or stumps. A wildlife wasteland. So I am delighted when my muffled footfall flushes a green woodpecker from the bank, his dull yellow rump flashing unmistakably as he weaves away silently, without a single yaffle in greeting. He alights in one of the young trees edging the track, and I try to stalk him, but he is much too sharp, always keeping one flight ahead of me. It is a brief encounter, but one worth the pain of the run.

The track takes a turn and climbs a long gentle rise, barely a hill, but telling on my calf muscles, and I have to walk. At the top, the highest point hereabouts, the sun breaks through the cloud at last, and the land is lit. It is a spectacular transformation. I can see for miles over the huge white fields. I run into the sun renewed, downslope now towards the jumble of Lamb’s Cross Farm. At the bottom of the slope, where water has ponded on the track, a tractor has broken through the ice and thrown up jagged slabs of the stuff, three inches thick and gray like concrete slabs. The place is littered with trailers, bits of agricultural machinery, telephone poles, old caravans and cars, pallets, rusty bits and pieces, wire and fencing. The chained dogs set up a duet of paranoid barking. The sweet and lovely smell of cows pervades the air, and somewhere inside a barn a radio plays.

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dawnrunnin’ 5

6th Jan, 2010. On the road before 7 so a proper dawn outing today. Cold, cold air, my nostrils and throat begin to burn almost immediately, but strangely there is little frost compared to the previous few days, the roadway and pavement wet rather than frosty or icy. The great promised snow storm that has blanketed the south of the country has not yet reached Cambridgeshire. It is dark of course, with fairly low cloud, but not as dark as I expected. Still, off-road it is a little perilous cos I can’t see the details of the going, and one misplaced step could mean a twisted ankle.

I take Route2, to Histon and back. I have worked out 5 more or less circular short routes, which makes 10 if I do them backwards (well, that would be a feat, but you know what I mean), and there must be as many longer routes again, though I am a long way from tackling those.

The cloud cover over Cambridge itself, some 6 miles south, is underlit by the lights of the city, and over to the south-east a paleness above the horizon precedes the day. A very diaphanous and milky half-moon slips in and out of the cloud. On the roads there is a constant stream of commuter traffic, lights on, but out on the tracks and fields there is no-one, and few creatures about. Despite the virtually frost-free conditions, the water in the puddles and pools in the ruts and dips of the farm track is frozen solid. A single cock-pheasant trumpets briefly from the parkland of Westwick House, and a skittish blackbird dives for cover, but that is it. There is a gloomy feeling to the not-yet-day, and the sun has not even broken the horizon before I reach home. Daylight running, in the winter at least, is a lot more fun I must concede.

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