14 July 2019
As we set off for the Wyvern 10k this morning I felt unusually light of heart. Previous versions of this event have felt a little like hell on Earth, standing in blistering heat, camera in hand, desperately trying to get photos of runners crossing the finish line. They had to be good photos too, no funny faces or wobbly flesh, just flying feet and smiles. There was never any time to go wandering, just an aching back, arms and legs from standing still for so long and maybe a bit of sunburn.
Today though, I didn’t even have the fancy pants camera with me and there was just one runner to take a photo of. Ok, two if you count Tony, who we stumbled upon when we arrived. The three of us lounged about chatting until it was time for the race to start then Commando and Tony went one way and I went the other. While I was cheering the runners out of the gate I did take a couple of pictures. Then my job was more or less done and I could go for a walk.
The whole thing reminded me a little of the days when Commando first started running. He wasn’t in a club and only knew a handful of other runners. All I had to do was go along, carry his stuff while he ran and try to get a picture of him finishing. The time between start and finish was my own back then, just like today really.
Behind Wyvern College, where the race starts and ends, there are playing fields and woods with interesting trails. Years ago, when I only knew one runner and that was Commando, I explored them a little while he was running this race. Today I finally had the chance to revisit them.
On the far side of the playing field I found the entrance to the trail, half concealed behind a large blackberry bush. If you didn’t know it was there it would be easy to miss. The sun was quite strong, even though it was still early in the day so I was glad to step onto the path and into the shade.
Quite a bit of the trail is actually a boardwalk. The ground here gets boggy because streams run through the woods and there are several small ponds. The largest of these is called Quobleigh Pond and the woodland I was walking through used to be part of the estate of Fair Oak Lodge. Once it covered a hundred and twenty acres and the pond itself covered seven acres. Fair Oak Lodge was originally a convent, built in the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century it was extended and now houses The Kings School. Sadly much of the estate has now been built on and I wasn’t sure exactly where the lake was. Maybe with a few hours I might have found it?
Walking along the creaky boardwalk through tunnels of trees was more than enough to keep me smiling. After a while I came to a small wooden bridge, barely distinguishable from the boardwalk at first. Looking over the side I saw a narrow stream. Following it might have led me to the pond but I was stuck on the boardwalk. At least there I couldn’t really get lost.
When I came to a fork in the path I decided to go left, mostly because it took me off the boardwalk and, by this time, I was beginning to feel a little hemmed in. The dirt path took me upwards briefly, then out into a field.
Vague memories of the last time I walked here told me there was a permissive path on the other side of the field somewhere and an orchard. For a moment or two I dithered, thinking about trying to find the path and the orchard again. Part of me wasn’t too keen though. Something about permissive paths always makes me feel uneasy, besides, the path I hadn’t taken in the woods might lead me to the lake.
Right when I’d decided to turn back, I noticed a sign to my right. It had an arrow pointing towards a gap in the hedge. A closer look showed it led to trail running alongside a field of wheat, or maybe barley, some kind of grain anyway.
Of course I went through the hedge. How could I resist? The corner of the field nearest me was filled with chamomile and something with strappy leaves I couldn’t identify. Beyond this, the crop stretched into the distance, a mass of swaying gold.
The footpath ran along the edge of the field. It was narrow and ran between the crop and a line of rough grass bordered by trees. At first I was fascinated by the golden field, stopping every few steps to take photographs from different angles. When the sun peeked out from behind a cloud the field seemed to glow. Whatever the crop was it looked almost ready to harvest.
On the far side of the field the path swung round to my left. There was more hesitation while I decided whether to keep following it. Fascinating as it was, walking round the edge of a field was going to get boring fairly quickly. Then a woman with a dog appeared through another gap in the hedge.
The lady said good morning to me, then she and her dog walked the way I’d just come. Obviously I couldn’t resist going to see what lay on the other side of the hedge. The first thing I discovered was a style. Styles are not my favourite things. My legs are short and I’m not, as Commando often reminds me, a mountain goat.
Luckily there was no one to see my rather inelegant style climbing. On the other side there was another field, just rough grass and not especially interesting. There may have been another footpath leading into the trees somewhere there but I couldn’t see it. The dog walker must have come from somewhere but I didn’t fancy a wild goose chase that might have led me nowhere at all.
In the end I climbed back over the style into the first field and retraced my steps. Although I had far more time and freedom than I’d have had if I was being a running photographer I still needed to be back before Commando finished the race so getting hopelessly lost wasn’t a good idea.
Back on the woodland trail I dithered a little. Did I go back the way I’d come, knowing I’d get back to the field in plenty of time or did I risk the other fork in the trail? In the end I plumped for the latter, hoping it wouldn’t be a terrible mistake.
The boardwalk led me deep into the wood and was, in places, quite overgrown. From time to time I had to dodge nettles and brambles. Obviously not many people used this trail. After a while I began to wonder if I’d made the wrong choice but I kept going forwards, hoping the path would take me somewhere interesting eventually. Then the boards ran out and I found myself in a small clearing. The canopy of green and the cool light was rather beautiful and the ground was surprisingly firm. A tiny clump of pink Himalayan balsam told me the water wasn’t far away but I couldn’t actually see it.
So I kept following the trail, still thinking I might find the pond, but the trees got less and less dense and soon I was walking beside a wire fence. When I came to a gap in the greenery I could see the playing fields and the finish line on the other side. Somehow I’d gone around in a big circle to the opposite side of the playing fields where my journey had begun.
At this point I didn’t know if I’d be able to get off the trail and onto the fields but still I kept going forward. Before very long the path opened up and there were marshals ahead of me. The runners were just about to start coming past. The kindly marshal directed me right, through the entrance to the top of the college playing field. I ducked under the tape and found myself a spot at the edge of the course. Moments later the first runner whizzed past. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.
By sheer chance I’d found the perfect spot to watch the end of the race and I even had soft dry grass to sit on. It wasn’t quite the finish line but it was the last stretch of the race and one of the toughest parts of the course. As the hot and tired runners came though the gate they had to face a final hill and I was there at the top cheering them on. Tony spitted me and gave me the thumbs up as he passed.
A little while later I spotted Steve, the chairman of Lordshill Road Runners. He saw me too and gave me a smile. Just after he passed Tony appeared by my side. He’d crossed the finish line and dashed up the hill to cheer Commando on for those last few yards.
This was his first race since the disaster of the marathon. He wasn’t on his best form so it was never going to be a PB kind of race. He looked hot but still strong as he powered up the hill and, once he’d passed, Tony and I ran down the hill to meet him at the finish.