Back to the Running School

2 August 2018

Last week’s cancelled Running School session was rescheduled for today. Unfortunately, the weather was no cooler. By the time I reached the river I was so hot I looked as if I’d already had a gruelling workout. To make matters worse, a whole squadron of seagulls buzzed me as I started off along the river path. Walking through a mass of low flying gulls, their wings inches from your face, is not as much fun as you might think.

It wasn’t immediately obvious why all the gulls were gathering. There was no one about as far as I could see and, to the best of my knowledge, I didn’t have a loaf of bread in my rucksack or a pile of seed in my pocket. Then I noticed a man right down at the water’s edge, close to Cobden Bridge. He was emptying a big bag of something, almost certainly bread, onto the ground. Hence all the gulls.

Through a haze of wings and beaks, I saw someone rowing up stream. It looked a lot easier than tussling with gulls. All the way to the jetty, the blasted birds flew around me, occasionally making me flinch when they flew too close for comfort. In the distance I could see a group of swans taking to the air. If they flew over the path I was going to be in deep trouble. Luckily for me, their flight was short and sweet, culminating in the usual, rather ungainly, splash landing.

A single swan kept on flying and, as it got closer, I realised it was one of the black swans. The white of it’s flight feathers was clearly visible but the pictures on my phone were not as clear as the view with my eyes. It seemed to be flying straight at the poor man in the boat, who must have had a wonderful view although I doubt he relished the thought of sharing his little boat with a great big black swan. Fortunately for him, the swan landed a few feet before it reached the him.

When I reached the shady trees by the reedbeds, I was so hot I wondered if I’d actually make it all the way to the Running School and, if I did, whether I’d be in any state for a workout? Knowing it was going to be hot, I’d allowed extra time so I took advantage of the bench under the trees to stop for a drink and a chocolate salty ball to give me energy. This was when I discovered hot weather and chocolate salty balls do not necessarily go together all that well. Despite the name, there is no actual chocolate in chocolate salty balls, but my fingers were covered in a combination of cocoa powder, melted coconut oil and sticky dates. After a great deal of finger licking, I continued my walk.

A man was standing in the water fishing as I passed by Woodmill and a handful of coneoists were setting off across a mirror smooth river. There wasn’t even a hint of breeze to ripple the water and the air felt thick and heavy. Briefly, I considered sticking beside the river and crossing Mansbridge to get to Monks Brook, but the extra distance seemed to outweigh any cooling effect the water might have had.

Instead I walked through the mill and past the church to the green bridge. Here, at least, there was a little shade but it didn’t feel much cooler. The Brook seemed very low, much more heat and it looked as if it would dry up completely. Through the muddy water I could see an assortment of junk, bicycle wheels, large sticks and other unidentifiable items.

The little bit of recent rain meant the path was more overgrown than it had been last time I came this way. Nettles overhung the path and made me watch my footing closely. In other places the ground was littered with fallen leaves, still green but dry and crunchy underfoot. The discarded plastic pipe was still there although someone had moved it off the path and the parched earth was still crazed with deep cracks.

Just past the blue bridge a tree had fallen across the path. It was easy enough to step over but it seemed a sad sight. Whether it fell because of the heat and lack of rain I couldn’t tell but it made me a little nervous about the next part of the walk.

As I crossed the road I suddenly remembered the FGO Stuart photograph and did my best to recreate the shot. It was a poor attempt, hampered by a signpost. If I’d walked up the road a little further I might have done better but I was too hot to even contemplate it.

Back on the trail beside Monks Brook the shade took on a slightly sinister feel. Every creaking branch made me nervous. If trees were suddenly going to start toppling, I didn’t wasn’t to be underneath them when it happened. Now I hurried along, wanting to get to more open ground as quickly as possible. The Brook was so low here I could see the stones on the bottom.

At the railway arch I paused for a moment to sip some water and admire the variations in colour of the old bricks. At least here, I was safe from falling trees.  When the railways came to Hampshire in the 1800’s building all these bridges and viaducts must have been a huge undertaking. It seems a shame that most are hidden away, noticed by hardly anyone.

Despite my concerns about being hit on the head by a falling tree, I paused again to enjoy the way the sunlight slanting through the leaves illuminated the shallow water. The gently tinkling brook seemed to be a celebration of the colour green in all its various shades with a hint or two of reflected blue sky thrown in for good measure.

When I reached the first bridge the green over spilled onto the path and I had to push my way through it.  Now I was back in the heat of the sun. It seemed to sap what little energy I had left and my steps slowed as I crossed the second bridge, left the brook behind and headed up the steep slope into Monks Brook Meadows.

The path along the edge of the meadow was a festival of fruit. Everywhere I looked there were blackberries, sloes, rosehips and little cherry sized yellow plums. It was a forager’s paradise. In a few places the bounty threatened to block the path completely. Brambles caught at me as I passed but I managed to get through with minimal scratches.

The clump of tall teasels against the blue sky told me I was almost at the bridge under Stoneham Way. On the far side I could hear the rumble of the motorway traffic and I was surprised to see the odd metal barriers had disappeared. As I crossed the field of straw like grass I wondered whether to keep going straight ahead and leave the field through the gap in the hedge as I normally do, or whether to take the proper footpath I discovered on my way home the other day?

On a whim I decided on the latter. This turned out to be a mistake. The ‘proper’ footpath was so overgrown by brambles I almost had to turn back. In the end I just about managed to get through, although I got prickled for my trouble.

Since my last walk a new lay-by has sprung up. This, as far as I can tell, is something to do with the plans to build new sports fields and a pavilion here. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this. The right of way will remain but, somehow, I think floodlit sports pitches, car parks and pavilions will not be as nice to walk through as the grassy field.

There was one last brush with shade before I reached my destination. The tunnel under the motorway was probably the coolest place on the whole walk and I dawdled through it. In part this was a slight reluctance for what was to come.

For two weeks I’d been practising those tricky twisting stretches, the mat exercises and glute bridges, determined to do better. I’d stopped short at walking backwards on the treadmill in case Commando got up to find me with my head embedded in the wall but I had walked backwards up and down the gym. All in all I felt as prepared as I could be but the hot walk had warmed me up rather more than I’d expected and Paul had other tricks up his sleeve to surprise me.

Holding glute bridges and twisting stretches were the least of my worries and even walking backwards on the treadmill seemed relatively easy when compared to what came next. Each of Commando’s sessions had included lots of single leg squats and I’d seen him practising them using the decking rail for balance. Now I had the chance to experience them myself.

Before long every muscle in my body was screaming and my hands were so sweaty I thought I was going to lose my grip on the square pole and fall backwards. Stubbornness kept me going but there was a moment when I caught myself thinking longingly of glute bridges and hoping Paul was going to tell me to get back on the mat and do some. Right when my legs felt as if they couldn’t possibly handle any more, he did. The final challenge was more about balance. It involved standing on one leg and twisting to throw a ball at the wall then catch it. With my left leg this was relatively easy. With my right not so much but at least I didn’t manage to break any windows or fall over.

Despite all this torture, the hour sped by and, when it was finally over, I staggered out into the burning sun again feeling slightly shell shocked.  If Commando hadn’t been waiting outside in the car, I’m not sure my poor legs would have carried me home.

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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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