The Houghton Trail Run, a test of resolve – first published 27 April 2014

The last Sunday in April 2014 started a little earlier than usual but, being the first day of my weekend, it felt like Saturday to me so I didn’t mind too much. The reason for rising early, even thought there wasn’t much shining going on, was the Houghton Trail Run. Houghton is a little village perched on the banks of the River Test close to Stockbridge and every year they hold a trail event for runners and cyclists. The entry fee goes to the village church and I was going in the capacity of blister technician, cheer leader and chief pinner on of race numbers.

27 April 2014

Last year sunglasses were the order of the day at the Houghton Trail Run. Unfortunately this year umbrellas, wellies and a waterproof coat were more the thing. It was pouring down and cold when we left home. Things had not improved when we parked up in the muddy field and set off for the church hall. Still, Houghton is a pretty little village even in the rain and there was a celebrity starting the race. A real celebrity too, not some here today gone tomorrow pop star, model or actor but a man we all watched on TV every Saturday from our childhoods through to our late twenties. Dickie Davies, the moustachioed presenter of World of Sport beloved by all and famous for the white streak in his dark hair.

After Commando had registered and picked up his race number we huddled for a while in the village hall. Once I’d finished my number pinning duties and a few more people had started to arrive we went out to brave the rain. There didn’t seem to be as many people about as there were last year and frankly I didn’t blame anyone for staying at home in the warm and dry. Outside things were getting wetter if anything, even the blossom petals, bedraggled by the rain, looked downcast. We took shelter under the fragile looking gazebo by the cake and coffee stand, crowded in with others trying to stay dry. Everywhere people were taking shelter where they could, under trees, under umbrellas, huddled and shivering.

Eventually the proceedings started. Dickie Davies took the microphone, thanked everyone for coming and gave a little pep talk. These days there is no more trademark white streak but the moustache is still there. Then it was time to get on the start line. Even with my wind proof waterproof coat I was cold, poor Commando, in just his running gear, looked frozen. The small crowd of runners seemed to shiver as one while Dickie prepared to start the race. Then they were off and I was on my own.

The rain was pouring down as I set off down the road past the old red telephone box. For some reason it is filled with books and there doesn’t seem to be a phone, maybe it serves as the village library. This lovely little village has more than its fair share of thatched cottages and even the bus stop is a pretty little brick shelter with a tiled roof. In fact the roof looked like it had an interesting crop of lichen so I went for a closer look.

On closer inspection the ramshackle collection of cracked and broken tiles were a veritable lichen garden. If it hadn’t been for the pouring rain and the cold I might have stayed longer taking photos. As it was my glasses were already so rain splattered I could hardly see and I needed to get moving to warm up.

Last year I found a footpath that crossed the River Test and my original idea had been to explore it a little further. With such heavy rain and huge puddles of standing water on the road I wasn’t sure that was going to be a good idea. Driving towards the village the River Test had looked full to bursting and I wondered if the footpath would be flooded. I stood by the bus stop, trying to dry my glasses and wondering what to do. With just four days of the month left and ten miles short of the hundred, I knew I needed to get walking but where? It’s not as if I know the area and WalkJogRun wouldn’t even load any maps so there was no help from that direction. In the end I didn’t really have much choice, it was either the footpath I found last year, taking a risk it would be flooded, or probably get hopelessly lost.

The beginning of the trail didn’t look too bad, a few puddles but at least the gravelly surface wasn’t muddy. So far so good. Last year there were horses and cows in the fields. This year there were just horses and they were huddled together in the distance looking as cold and sorry for themselves as I felt. Before long I reached the wooden bridge over the River Test. The river was high and flowing fast, spilling out onto the gravel beside the trail. I crossed, wondering what I’d find on the other side.

Safely over, I stopped for a moment to look back at the tumultuous waters wondering if I was making a big mistake. The blossom in the hedgerow drew me onwards though. The hawthorn flowers were doing their best to look jolly even though they were dripping with rain. So much for being able to leave my coat behind once they come out. Close by elderflowers mingled with the May, they make me sneeze so I took a quick photo and moved on, sneezing as I went.

Next I crossed a tributary, possibly Marshcourt River, it’s hard to tell from the maps. The rain was hammering down by this time, pockmarking the water. I pulled my phone out of my pocket, fumbled with wet fingers, took a quick snap and hurried on. The next bridge had thick metal railings strangely twisted and bent. As I crossed I wondered how they’d got that way. This was Park Stream, another Test tributary and, despite the heavy rain the green of the grass and the bright new leaves on the trees against the brooding sky had me fumbling for my phone again.

By this time water was dripping off my bright pink hat, I was peering over the top of my useless glasses and every bit of me was soaked. The rain came down harder than ever and I wondered how poor Commando was getting on with his run. The trail ahead was covered in big stones, hard to walk on and uncomfortable even through my boots. Standing water made big puddles in the ruts and there was a hill ahead. Everything, including me, was dripping and the photo I took captured raindrops in mid fall as white streaks heading towards the ground.

I pushed myself into the bushes as a Land Rover passed me, adding to the wetness, and I climbed the hill in its spray. At the top there was a crossroads of kinds, the Clarendon and Test Ways bisect the path and I didn’t know whether to keep going forwards, turn left or turn right. There was a little dithering and a silent curse that WalkJogRun wasn’t playing nicely so I couldn’t see what was ahead. None of this seemed familiar and I wondered if I’d missed some other turn somewhere along the way. The trails on either side were filled with deep puddles but the stones were smaller and there was no Land Rover kicking up water so I decided to take one.

Something made me turn left and I carefully edged my way round the first puddles noticing as I did the signs telling me cyclists would be coming this way at some point. All I could hope was that I would be long gone when they did. Apart from the rain and the puddles it was a pleasant walk. The trees provided a certain amount of shelter and occasional moments of brightness told me there must be breaks in the cloud above. Maybe there were rainbows but I couldn’t see through the canopy.

On another, drier, day I’d have been looking for fungi but, between mud and puddles, it was all I could do to stay on my feet. Nettles lined the trail edges and I had to bear those in mind too as I negotiated my way not to mention the water dripping down the back of my neck from the rain laden branches. Maybe there were wild flowers but all I saw was dripping green and squelchy brown.

From time to time the path widened, the canopy above opened up and the puddles were rippled and bubbled by raindrops. I gave up trying to go round and started walking through, slipping and sliding and once or twice throwing out my arms as I almost went down. Still, I couldn’t get much wetter could I? When I heard a splashing from behind I stopped and looked back to see a cyclist bearing down on me, mud and water spraying from his tyres. I might not get any wetter but I could get muddier so I made a dash for the driest place I could see and squished myself as close to the trees as possible. The cyclist, more mud than man, thanked me as he passed.

I stood and watched as he disappeared wondering what to do next. In the distance a beam of sunlight cut through the trees and everything brightened, gold added to the green and the world seemed to sparkle. The path ahead looked straight and I didn’t know where it would lead me although it must eventually go back to the village I supposed or the cyclists wouldn’t be going that way. If I stayed on it though there would be more cyclists and I’d be bound to be covered in mud sooner or later. If I went back there would probably be more cyclists too but at least I knew there would be an end to it when I turned back to the main trail and I knew I’d get back to the village.

A look at my watch told me I was about half way through the hour Commando thought he’d take with the race so I turned, half wishing I had time and solitude to explore further. Luckily the cyclist I’d seen was the front runner and it was a while before any more came by. All in all I had to jump into the bushes a handful more times before I reached the stony trail. Each time I was thanked by a smiling, muddy face and I escaped to relative safety unmuddied myself. The feeling of solitude and calm didn’t last long though. Quite soon I heard a rhythmic crunching of gravel from behind and a steady stream of runners came past splashing through the puddles legs and faces caked with dripping mud.

At the bent bridge I had to stand aside while a gaggle of runners crossed so I stopped and took a photo across the water, thankful that the rain seemed to have eased. Seeing the muddy legs in front of me made me wonder again about Commando. He isn’t fond of mess and dirt and I couldn’t see him being too happy about being coated by mud. There was one more stop to let runners pass at the bridge over the Test before I made it back to the road. The rain had started up again but just a gentle shower and I thought I detected a tiny triangle of blue above.

The blue sky was a false dawn though and, by the time I got back to the village hall the blue was gone. At least I didn’t have long to wait before Commando came running round the corner and across the finish line. He didn’t look as muddy as I’d expected and he smiled when he spotted my pink hat. In fact, such was the lack of crowds, I probably needn’t have bothered with bright pink as I was almost alone standing there in the rain waiting.

On closer inspection there was a fair bit of mud on those long legs but nowhere near as much as on some of the runners I’d seen. Commando says running through the puddles washed a lot of it off as he went and I suppose the length of his legs explains the clean face. The white socks he was wearing were unrecognisable though and the trainers are going to take some cleaning. It seems there was more mud to be found on the Houghton Trail run than the Muddy Beach Run at the end of February. Still, I have a feeling he could fall in a vat of mud and come out fairly clean.

Typically the sun started trying to shine about then. We hung around chatting to a few other runners and watching while more people crossed the finish line. Then it was back to the muddy car park and the pretty little thatched cottage. There were no PB’s, the weather and the mud was always going to make that unlikely, but Commando said the whole thing was great fun and that’s the main thing.

Back at home I managed to work out my route using the GPS tags on my photos and I’ve knocked another three miles off my hundred for the month. Just three days and five and a half miles to go. Wonder if I’ll make it?

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

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