Beach huts and fat squirrels – first published 6 October 2013

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On an autumn morning that was turning out far hotter than advertised I walked along Boscombe beach front worrying about Commando. He was running his first marathon. So far the Boscombe beach huts had been disappointing but, just before Boscombe pier, they became slightly more colourful and behind them some fetching metal screens festoned with seagulls made up for any shortfall.

6 October 2013

The marathon course went up one side of Boscombe peir and down the other so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go onto it but it turned out to be open, even if there were barriers ready in place for when the runners arrived. So far there were only marshals.

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The pier was longer than I’d expected and I walked up the grey deck boards right to the end, looking out at some optimistic surfers hanging around on a sea resembling a mill pond.  When I reached the end I turned and walked back down the other side. The sea front with its rows of surf shacks and not quite colourful enough beach huts was beginning to fill up. My view now was towards Bournemouth. I spotted the hot air baloon I’d seen last week rising slowly into the air. Did I dare take a ride when I got there? Probably not.

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Back on the promenade the beach huts looked a little more upmarket, with porches and glazed doors but they still didn’t satisfy my need for exciting colour combinations being alternately pinkish red and blue. Far too regimented for my liking, although I wouldn’t turn one down if you offered it to me. Here the cliff face, clear of grass and scrub looked delicate, as if it could tumble and slide at any time, maybe a beach hut along here wasn’t such a great idea after all.

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The next beach huts I came to were imaginary ones, painted on a blank wall along with a little train filled with imaginary children. I loved the quirkyness. Later Commando admitted he didn’t notice these any more than he had the goats. One small girl was sitting in the sand building sandcastles while her parents watched from a nearby bench.

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Another thing Commando didn’t notice was the cable car. I stood for a while watching the two cars going up and down remembering a journey many years ago in a similar cable car in Cornwall when the boys were young. Just after this I got my first sight of a runner, a slight young man, obviously way ahead of the rest of the field, accompanied only by a marshall on a bike. I wondered again how Commando was getting on?

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By this time I was in a kind of nomansland not knowing if I was in Boscombe or Bournemouth. When I came to the next row of beach huts though it was clear something had changed and, from that, I assume this was the point where regimented Boscombe became rainbow Bournemouth. I was beside myself, these were what I called beach huts. Row after row of graduated pastel colours, no two the same. I couldn’t stop taking photos and I make no apologies either, they really were wonderful. If I ever win the lottery I’m going to buy one of the purple ones just for Sirona.

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The rainbow beach huts enthralled me so much I almost forgot about the sun glinting off the lapping waves. I reached Bournemouth pier without seeing another runner although I did pass water staions and lots of marshals milling about waiting for the action to start. Turns out the runner I’d seen was the winner, twenty five year old Ethiopian Ebisa Merga, who finished in two hours sixteen minutes forty one seconds. On this occasion I think the unexpected heat might have been in his favour but what an achievement. Most normal mortals would count themselves lucky to finish a half marathon in that time!

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My original plan had been to walk to the end of Bournemouth Pier and back, just like the race course, but, by then it was too late. The place was crowded with spectators so tightly packed it was impossible to squeeze through. By this time I was wilting, most of my water was gone and I was hungry. I’d been walking for over two hours, well dawdling really with plenty of photo stops and I badly needed coffee, possibly chocolate too.

The race course ran through the centre of the plaza in front of the pier, effectively cutting me off from the gardens and shops that were next on what I remembered of my agenda. After a bit of aimless wandering up and down looking for a way through, I realised I’d have to walk up the steps over the finish line and down the other side. What with the crowds and the barriers it took me a while to find my bearings in what was, after all, a fairly unfamiliar place. In the end it was the tethered baloon that led me through the throng to the shopping centre. As I walked towards it I watched it rising slowly up into the air with another load of passengers.

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Confession time, there was a large skinny latte in the Costa I eventually found and I bought some lovely dark Green and Black’s chocolate, a pack of Snickers and some high protein bars. Admittedly the last two were for Commando and I hadn’t had any lunch. Also in my defense, I didn’t eat all the chocolate myself.

Sipping my coffee I walked through the thin ribbon of parks divided by the River Bourne trying to remember what had been on the route I’d planned. When I saw a sign saying ‘coy pond 1 1/2 miles’ it rang a bell so I headed in that direction. It made sense that the stream would eventually lead to the pond so I followed it. I passed some interesting looking trees, notably the tall redwoods, a tennis court, some bright dahlias and Michaelmas daisies. There were bridges, benches a climber covered archway and a few, non marathon connected, people milling about but no sign of a coy pond. Maybe I took a wrong turn or maybe I didn’t go far enough but the time was getting on and there was one more thing I simply had to do before I found myself a spot on the finish line to wait for Commando.

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My next mission was squirrels. On our pre marathon reconnasaince mission we’d seen the fat Bournemouth squirrels, so tame they would take a nut out of a small child’s hand. Originally I’d meant to bring some nuts with me but, in time honoured tradition, I’d forgotten so I thought I’d see if I could see any squirrels and maybe get close enough to take a few photos. The squirrels I’d seen were all in the park nearest the beach and, despite keeping my eyes peeled, I’d not seen a single one during my search for the coy pond.

When I reached the Pinewalk, where we’d seen the squirrels before, I did stop to peer through the bars of the aviary at the zebra finches, budgies, cockatiels and parrots but wire mesh does not make for very good photographs and, if I’m honest, I felt a little sorry for the birds. When I was a child we had a large aviary at the bottom of the garden. Back then I loved the birds and it never occured to me that they might not like living there. These days I think I’d rather see the birds flying free, even if it does mean I don’t really get to see much of them.

My first squirrel was just beyond the aviary on some pine needle strewn ground in the shrubbery. He stopped in his tracks when he saw me and, unlike the shy Southampton squirrels, when I bent down to take a photo, instead of running away he came towards me to see if I had anything for him. Moving very slowly, so as not to frighten him away, I opened my bag and rummaged around until I found the chocolate. I had no idea whether squirrels liked chocolate or not, or even if it was good for them, but I thought he’d reject it if he didn’t like it and I’m pretty sure he’d stolen far worse out of the plentful bins in his time. I’ve seen Southampton squirrels dashing up trees with doughnuts, half eaten burgers, and goodness knows what stolen from bins, a small piece of quality chocolate couldn’t do much harm, could it?

Breaking off a square of chocolate I slowly extended my hand towards the squirrel, trying to focus the iPhone camera at the same time. My squirrel didn’t need much persuasion, he snatched the chocolate and, instead of dashing off up a tree, calmly sat on the path in front of me eating it while I snapped away. Much as I usually begrudge sharing my chocolate, this would have been worth the whole bar! Thinking my mission was complete, I started off towards the marathon finish line.

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Then I saw another squirrel taking nuts from a little girl so I had to stop and see if I could get a few more photos. Seriously, this porky little fellow had no shame and no fear. He quite happly took nuts from the girl’s hand, he even let her stroke his head. When he noticed me crouching a little way off he abandoned the little girl for a while, just in case I had something more interesting than nuts. He jumped up on the railing where I’d been leaning and scampered towards me with a hopeful look in his eye, maybe the word was out on the squirrel grapevine that quality chocolate was on offer.

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As it was I didn’t give this particular squirrel any chocolate because someone else stooped down in front of him and the fickle little thing decided their hazlenuts were more interesting than someone rummaging around in a bag. Watching Mr Squirrel sitting on a branch munching away on his prize, I realised it was probably better he didn’t have any chocolate, the buldging spare tyre round his middle was so large I was surprised the low branch supported his weight. This wasn’t just a fat squirrel, he was obese, in fact he looked like he could do with the squirrel equivalent of Biggest Loser. Maybe feeding the squirrels isn’t such a good idea after all, even if it does make for some lovely photos.

So that was the end of my walk and, still smiling at the idea of a squirrel version of Biggest Loser, with a Jillian Michaels squirrel barking orders at all the blubbery Bournemouth squirrels and sending them off to bootcamp in Southampton where squirrels are slender agile creatures who can climb right to the tops of trees and gather their own nuts, I made my way back to the marathon finish line.

Somehow I managed to find a stone platform beside the track with a view just before the finish line. I was there way too early but I didn’t want to lose my place so I stayed, jostled as I was. Once I almost fell off when someone got a bit excited and shoved me. Even though I’d taken my coat off and tied it round my waist I was boiling. This was not good running weather! There was a commentary over the microphone as runners came towards the finish in a straggly stream.

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The people who design marathon courses don’t run as far as I can tell because they do silly things like put long steep hills at mile eighteen. On this occasion they also had runners approaching said long steep hill run under the finish arch, just to taunt them. The route was divided in two, on the side closest to me runners were just coming up to mile eighteen, on the far side there were finishers. This and the fact that the announcer seemed quite gleeful about telling people they had eight miles still to go seemed especially cruel given the heat.

Some people on both sides of the track were running, some walking, some limping. I felt so sorry for the limpers who still had eight miles to go, knowing exactly what it feels like to be in pain with a lot of marathon miles ahead of you. I hope they all finished. Some, seeing the finish line, managed to put on a sprint. One girl was all but carried over the line by St John’s Ambulance men. I’m glad she finished. A little way down the field, just out of my view I could see a flurry of activity, ambulance crew going to the aid of a collapsed runner. I hoped with all my heart it wasn’t Commando.

When I finally saw him I cried. The tears were pride mixed with relief. He may have been slower than he’d hoped but, with the hills (there were three big ones), the heat, and a missed water stop at a vital time, he did an amazing job! He was never going to be happy with his time unless he actually came first and even then he’d probably have found something to beat himself up with, but I think I was happy enough for both of us.

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Now it was my turn to run. You all know I don’t do running but the runners were funnelled out on the other side of the park, well away from the spectators area. I shoved my way through the crowds, ran up the steps over the finish tunnel then ran up the steps of the little bridge, past a cross official who was trying to stop non runners getting into the running area. No one was going to stop me. When I found him I couldn’t stop hugging him. I am so proud I could burst!

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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