Monthly Archives: January 2010

jogblog4

04/01/10.  I down a potent little espresso, sweet and hot, and, breaking norms, decide to head north. Another brilliant winter’s morn, with a clear, bright sky and heavy frost. Very cold, well below freezing, but mercifully wind-free. Every twig and leaf is silvered, the fields are sheets of white, but quite unlike snow. The verges and pavements slick with ice, and I am extra careful, running in the roadway. People are scraping away at their iced-up windshields, and pouring kettles of hot water over wiper mechanisms and locks. Through the village and up the no-through-road to Longstanton (which all the locals use and know to be very much a through-road) skirting the old airbase. A black cat crosses my path, he is a long way from any house, but doesn’t stop for company, and then a single magpie settles on the road…one for sorrow. I look around for its mate but it really is alone. A double omen, I think twice… but I am not a superstitious man, and push on.

The air is so crisp and crystal I can see for miles across the fields, across the A14, and up onto the high ground on the western border of Cambridgeshire, with surprising clarity. A heron lifts off from a field, barely able to beat its big heavy wings against the weight of frozen air, and in this light, it appears enormous, perhaps three times normal size. The road takes me round the former airfield, bristling with warning notices … ‘Entry Forbidden under the Official Secrets Act. Trespasses May be Arrested and Prosecuted’, and ‘Protected by Armalite Securities. Keep Out’. Under other circumstances, I’d take these as open challenges ….

I reach the edge of Longstanton, a long straggly village indeed, originally Stanton and Stantone ‘The Farm of the Stone Enclosure’ apparently, and turn right and eastwards down St Michael’s Lane with the old thatched church on the corner, surely a rarity, and in front, under a great chestnut, St Michael’s holy well, vaulted and used for immersion baptism until the 1880s [actually there are some 100 extant thatched churches in the land, many dating from the Middle Ages, most of them in Norfolk and Suffolk; Sherborne Abbey in Dorset had a thatched roof in the 15th century, and even Gloucester cathedral was thatched until a fire in 1122]

The lane leads on past one of those most curious of English residential developments, a neat and respectable mobile-home park of tiny gable-ended prefab chalets, one room wide, with porches and porticos, for retired Romanies I guess, bright and kitsch, called ‘Badger’s Holt’. Must be settled travellers surely with a name like that? Do badgers have holts? I must ask Ayesha, the authority on all things badger. Holt is apparently, ‘a piece of woodland, especially a wooded hill’ and Chaucer has “every holt and heath”; it is also ‘a deep hole in a river where there is protection for fish; also a cover, hole or hiding-place’ [But see holt on Land-Words page]. No mention of badgers so not apparently exclusive to them. I thought badgers lived in setts, no? So it must mean simply Badger’s Wood, but where’s the wood?  There is anyway a distinct and delicious smell of horseshit here.

At last I am off the tarmacadam, and on to real ground as I strike north again onto a wide and grassy lane, treed on both sides, an avenue of sorts, that runs along one side of the old Oakington barracks now Immigration Reception Centre in what must be one of the most blatant perversions of the English language ever, Orwellian Newspeak in fact, for it is in reality a high security, dog-patrolled, barbed-wire fenced holding camp/detention centre for failed asylum seekers who are about to be sent back to wherever they have risked their skins to flee from – back to corruption, poverty, hopelessness, and in some cases no doubt, torture and death. No reception here then. Shame, shame on you, you miserable bureaucrats and paltry politicians! Anyone who has demonstrated as much guts, ingenuity, determination and patience as these poor souls (more than most Brits I’ll wager) surely deserves instant citizenship, a job at Tesco’s, and a bus pass, at least. As I pass the main entrance I notice they have a rugby field. Do they teach the Afghans, Iraqis, Sudanese and Somalis to play rugby then, before they send them back to the warzones? I half hope to see a mob scaling the 8-foot high fence, tossing mattresses over the upper strands of barbed wire, and throwing pork chops to the Alsatians, but I am disappointed in this.

I am heading east again down Rampton Drift, another wide, grassy and hedged old drove road, like so many in the fens, for driving cattle, but from where to where and why I don’t know, for they seem so random. The ground is frozen underfoot and the grass crunches like broken glass. I am still skirting the old airfield (soon to be transformed into Northstowe eco-commuter town –  aspirational mock-Georgian houses set in a pedestrianised wasteland around a massive Superstore). I reach and pass over the new (mis)guided-busway, still not yet in operation, that has replaced the old,wild, branch-line railway track, overgrown with brambles, the haunt of foxes and badgers and snakes and lizards and all things wild (where have they all gone now?), and turn south and homewards along the pea-gravel service track that runs beside the busway. I notice several wartime pill-box gun emplacements nosing their domed heads just above the surface, still intact and serviceable should the good citizens of the future Northstowe ever decide that enough is enough and rise up against so much comfort and banality.

My trick in running, in order to keep going, is to adopt a 200/100 strategy, which is to run 200 paces, and then power-(yeah!) walk 100, counting all the time. This doesn’t seem to be working so well today, and I quickly slip into a 100/100 routine, then, quite unconsciously, it becomes more like 50/150. I find I am ambling along, watching a cloud of rooks, some 200 strong, take off quite suddenly from a field behind a hedge, swirl up and around in several interpenetrating choreographies, drawing Venn diagrams in the sky, and then settling as fast as they had risen. I saunter on, having quite forgotten that I am supposed to be running. In front, on every horizon, on the slightest of gravel ridges which rise out of the ancient now drained fens I can see the bunched trees that mark the ring of fen-edge villages of this very flat piece of England – Rampton, Cottenham, Histon, Girton, Oakington, Long Stanton. To the south, a great bank of cloud is underlit by the sun, still very low in the sky. It is windless and almost warm. Reaching the Cottenham-Oakington road, I break into a trot, and manage a 30/300 back home. I am surprised to find that my pulled-down-over-the-ears woolly hat is quite covered in frost.

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winterrunning3

Jan 2, 2010. Up later today, the sun higher, and a brilliant bright morning it is, frost on the verges and the fields. A peerless sky. Wonderful. I head east again, into the promise of the day. I’ve wondered about this. If I ran in the evening would I head west, to catch the sun? I think so, probably. Annie Dillard has something to say about those who look upstream and those who look downstream…the difference between hope and regret perhaps. I must look it up. Anyway I’ve become more aware of direction these days, in relation to wind and sun and shelter. It seems natural, and therefore right and proper, to run into the day not away from it.

I go further today before heading south. Past the old railway-workers cottages at Westwick, and then it hits me like a wonderful surprise, that most evocative of English winter smells, as roses are to summer, woodsmoke drifting on the air. O perfect day! I let out a whoop, and startle blackbirds in the hedge. Am on the B-road now, without verge, footpath or pavement, running on the asphalt into oncoming steady traffic, and at Lamb’s Cross swing onto the old hedged track to Histon, not as straight as Watkins’, but old indeed for it has a name, Gun’s Lane, and goes on northwards to Rampton to become a two-mile causeway across what was the great fen of these parts. Probably as far as Ely. The track is cut up though by tractors and what looks like a cavalry of horse, the frozen mud like clinker underfoot. The water in the field ditch is frozen in layers like terraces along the contour of a hill. I come across the last melting snow bank, as forlorn as the last Antarctic ice-shelf. Blanketed horses in a paddock snuff warm breath at me.

The track is treed as I get towards the village but I dodge the edge estate and dive through an opening in the hedge through wasteland, along an unofficial path, more a parting of the grass, towards a remarkable for these parts circular and secret wood of large trees completely hidden from any road, but well-known it seems to local lads, for it opens out into a glade that they have fashioned into the craziest BMX and off-road biking place I’ve ever seen, littered with old crashed bikes and rusty off-roaders that have come a cropper on the sheer drop-offs and suicidal ramps. Deserted now of course, and I head back northwards, homeward, over open fields of beans just poking through and drooping under frost, gunshots banging at the sky in the distance. As I turn into Water Lane the day turns too, rapidly, dark and purple to the north and a sudden flood of sleet descends and turns into a shower of snow, with thick fat flakes falling straight down. Remarkable. And I’m just in time for breakfast. Ha.

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winterun 2

New Year’s Day, 2010. It’s cold but brilliant. I head east up Water Lane. It’s already 8.30 but no-one is about to greet me, except the rooks below the vicarage that call down their rough and crusty craa-craas. South now, along the guided-busway again, towards Histon. The snowmelt pools and puddles from recent rains are frozen over, opaque round the edges like trachoma eyes, and the sod is frozen hard and jagged, difficult to run on, dangerous to fall on. The sun is straight ahead now, almost south I’d say at this season, and low on the horizon, even at this time of day, a little above eye-height and sending my enormous shadow back to where I’ve come from, exposing strange long regular swales and rises across the parkland opposite, the fossilized remains of a medieval open field, no? Some way off in the middle of a winter-wheat field, just showing through, sits a flock of seagulls, huddled and motionless, taking in the first warmth.

I reach the crossing, turning east again, with the lightest flecks of snow, diamond dust, floating past horizontally, more like pollen, and then north up the bridle-way and farm-track into the face of a freezing wind blowing steadily down from the North Sea. It’s cold, very cold, and I am forced to keep running just to stay warm. On one side of the track is a line of squat but mature horse-chestnuts, pink-flowered in the summer, half an avenue leading nowhere, but now every third tree dead with disease and one indeed now crashed to the ground, split straight through the bole. I race for shelter where the track runs beside a hedge as a huge flock of wood-pigeons, perhaps 500 strong, rise up over the horizon, surprisingly lithe and fast in high flight.

Back through the park of Westwick House, ignored by the sheep, grubby in their winter coats, plastic tags hanging from both ears like embarrassed revelers the morning after, except for one that eyes me suspiciously all the way. Then onto the road back home, passed by a single iced-up car, and a plucky girl delivering newspapers on a bike. I am, not surprisingly, knackered. Happy New Year.

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