Coniston

After an attempt to get down to Coniston when the temperature was -5 and the handbrake froze on my car, allowing me to go nowhere, a couple of weeks later the appropriate day arrived. The weather had changed with temperatures in the mid-teens and a feeling of early spring, snowdrops, crocuses and even daffodils popping up all around.

Even with such warm temperatures, I had packed hat, buff, gloves, sheepskin boots and down coat ‘just in case’ and was wearing a long sleeved top and a running jacket which had a lightweight fleecy lining (I must get a lightweight fleece that I can wear for running… also some new running leggings as I only have one full-length pair, and my fab. Goretex shoes have developed holes). The weather forecast had said that temperatures were going to drop to feel like 4 degrees, and that there was a chance of rain… Penny’s weather forecast, on the other hand, was completely different. So who knew what we were going to encounter. Unlike me, who is a chilly body, Penny had debated whether to wear shorts, and had a vest top on under her running top and jacket.

We arrived in Coniston village and parked in the Sports and Social club car park – just away from the centre but only £4 for the whole day, and your fee contributes towards the sporting life of the village. From there we walked to the main car park to use the loos – which were in a disgusting state and not worth the 30p we had to pay. I felt sorry for the guy who was on-site ready to clean them, plunger in hand.

As we set off we hadn’t gone far before we felt hot. Jackets came off and were wrapped round our waists as we paused to take photos from the northern end of the lake. We were running around the lake clockwise, so uphill towards Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin, who built a dining room extension on to the previously relatively small house with superb views of the lake. Just before Brantwood we turned up a public footpath/bridleway which took us up into Forestry Commission owned land: the western edges of Grizedale Forest.

Grizedale is possibly my favourite of the forestry commission forests that I know, and as we ran along we were discussing this as it’s Penny’s favourite too. The others are great as well but there is something special about Grizedale. Maybe, for me, it’s because it was the first place I ever did ‘proper’ mountain biking on my first ever visit to the Lake District – when I fell headlong in love with the place – and maybe it’s also because over the years it’s somewhere I’ve frequently returned to with or without the children, exploring more of the forest as time has gone by. One of my favourite short runs (about 4 miles) takes you from the Visitor Centre up to Carron Crag – a run I wrote up for a running magazine several years ago but which still brings vivid picture memories to my head whenever I think about it.

We ran along the wall which bounds Brantwood and then uphill, passing the remains of one of the woodland sculptures – a seat – and then up past Lawson Park where Adam Sutherland’s Grizedale Arts is based. The house has as stunning a position as Brantwood, whilst being even less accessible and private, surrounded by the forest.

Running on uphill (if we had turned downhill at this point we would have ended up back on the road), some forestry operations had been in progress. I always think this makes the landscape look like one of those Paul Nash First World War paintings, although of course it looks like that for completely different reasons: for reasons of good tree management rather than death and destruction.

Turning off the forest road on to a single track path, Penny pointed out the lichen on the trees, demonstrating how clean the air is – unfortunately at this point my camera developed a problem with focussing and from this point on it was a bit hit and miss as to whether my photos were blurry or not, irritatingly. There were dark pools of clear water, and staring up through the denser parts of the forest I always imagine is like Mirk Wood, although again not as threatening.

Coming out on Park Moor (National Trust), we were treated to a magnificent view of Coniston water. Exposed and high up, it looked as if there was rain over to our west (the other side of Coniston Old Man), and Penny was glad that after all she hadn’t worn shorts.

There are unclassified old county roads up here and Penny was saying what a problem the motorbikes and 4x4s can be, as they’re perfectly entitled to use these old roads but don’t always help with their maintenance – as a result of which some have eroded in places to bare rock. As we dropped down the hill having gone past ‘the cottage in the clouds’ (stunning location, but how do you get there?) we met some motorcyclists coming up – or trying to come up – a particularly rocky section of track. As I bounced down the track while they waited, my eyes met those of one of the men – and there was that brief frisson of mutual attraction… and then we were gone and they were left to try to scramble their bikes up over the rocks.

The track comes out in the village of High Nibthwaite and a short jog along the road took us to a footpath which crossed a field to cut off a corner. The river Crake flows out of the lake here – and ultimately into Morecambe Bay – and was high and fast today. In places the field was below water level, as I particularly found out when I took a route which was slightly squishier than I had thought. Goretex trainers are great when they don’t have holes in and when the water level doesn’t go up above the tops of them………

We stopped on the bridge – repaired after floods in 2009 – ate flapjacks and checked whether Strava (me) and Penny’s Garmin thought we’d done the same mileage and time (they did, more or less). A bunch of 4×4 jeeps went past us, presumably heading for the same track that the motorcyclists had been struggling up. I had visions of the 4x4s going up meeting motorcyclists coming down: not a good combination as the unclassified road is not very wide.

There is then about 3.5km of run on the road, with no alternative other than miles up hill on to Blawith Fells. Tracks entice you off road but only lead down to the lakeshore, partly as so much of it is privately owned. We both commented how as drivers when we’re on roads like this we always wonder why on earth people walk or run along them – narrow, with blind bends and blind summits – but sometimes it is of course that there is no reasonable alternative. However at Sunny Bank – where there is a collection of houses alongside the Mere Beck, including at least one which looks like a former mill – several paths join and cross the road, including the Cumbria Way. This now was going to take us all the way back to Coniston.

It hugs the shore and you dodge rocks and tree roots as hard as rocks and wonder in places if it is going to erode from under your feet, winding amongst trees and with views of the lake and its clear waters lapping around the tree roots. It’s beautiful, and not surprisingly on this dry spring day, we met several walkers coming in the other direction and a man seated on the springy turf eating his sandwiches. Nearer to Coniston – you cross land owned by Birmingham University’s sports dept., and think what a fantastic place it would be to study Sports Science if they bring you here – families were playing, a large flock of geese had gathered in a field, and sheep ‘were safely grazing’. At Coniston Hall memories of the Lakeland Half and of the Lakeland Marathon (Penny ran the latter a few years ago in boiling hot weather; we both ran the half a few years earlier in hot weather but at least it was half the distance) came to mind; and from there it is a short, level run along a good quality path back into the centre of Coniston. In some ways it’s the worst part of the run as for both of us it brought back memories of blisteringly hot summer days and running along with the sun beating up from the path: it’s the last mile or so of the half marathon (other than an annoying run around the field before you get to the finish line), and is one of those times when you can see the finish and yet it’s irritatingly and hotly an effort to get there.

Today Penny was determined to run to the very point at which we had started and we ended up back at the car park and a minature model of the Bluebird.

We considered tea in Coniston but to be completely honest I’ve never been much of a fan of the place. I suggested Chesters at Skelwith Bridge, but it was heaving, with nowhere to park, so we went on to Ambleside where we were able to park on the street in a disc zone. Esquires served a delicious Brie, Avocado and Tomato ciabatta and after that and a drink it was time to get our by now stiffening-up legs home. We have now run around the 3rd biggest lake in the lake district – although ironically Bassenthwaite was further, due purely to where the footpaths go. Just Ullswater and Windermere still to do – and then Esthwaite Water and Brothers Water to finish off as a celebratory run, followed by prosecco somewhere.

Singing and (not) running

Coniston water early on 5th June

Just past 7 a.m. and I’m walking alongside Coniston Water, heading into the village centre in search of a cash point.  It’s already warm and heralds another day of holiday-feeling weather (this half term has been fantastic here in Cumbria: ironically, considering the flooding currently elsewhere and the floods over much of this part of the world only 6 months ago, some of the reservoirs are now at low levels, and running routes which are often boggy even throughout the summer are now hard, dry, crumbly mud instead of boggy, wet, squelchy mud).  My friend Penny has just started off on the Lakeland Trails marathon – her husband is down in the New Forest so I volunteered to drive her home, as I’m sure her legs won’t feel like driving, and also she has supported me in events often enough.

In fact it’s rather strange not running with her, as since moving to Cumbria she has been one of my main running partners, and at times we have done triathlon training together.  This includes one time when we paid for an annual pass each to swim in Talkin Tarn, in order to train for Talkin Tarn triathlon.  The weather was cold that year and remained cold right through April and May – the one time we went in the Tarn I put my feet in and quickly retreated, while Penny was actually brave enough to get in and swim a few metres.  As it turned out the triathlon became a duathlon that year as the water temperature was so cold (and – bragging rights here – we were both second in our respective age groups).

So today as the runners head off I feel rather strange – normally I’m one of the performers on the running stage, with however many miles of stunning scenery and adventure ahead of me, but today as the runners quickly disappear into the distance the lakeside field where the race starts seems rather quiet.  As I walk into Coniston past John Ruskin school I feel a slight tinge of sadness as well: this is the ‘HQ’ for the Lakeland 50/100 ultra trail races, which David has done so often.  Never again will I be involved in that event, and take my children to watch him start the L50 at Dalemain.  I’m not sad that my marriage is over so much as sad that once we loved each other and now we don’t, and that an entire part of my life has well and truly stepped back into memory.  In addition it was staying in the Lake District straight after the last time he did the L50, and picking him and a friend up from somewhere not far outside Kendal, which really marked the very last week of our marriage.  It was a strange week, that final family holiday.

I find a cash point and walk back through a field brightly green and sprinkled generously with glowing yellow buttercups.  A couple of hours later, with races starting every hour, the start/finish area has a completely different atmosphere.  Family members waiting for their own personal runner to return paddle, swim and throw sticks for dogs in the lake; children with fishing nets forage in the lake or use them for fencing practice; babies wriggle their toes in pleasure at the freedom of not having too many clothes on and watch all this activity fascinated (so many new experiences to take in!).  There is an almost-party atmosphere: at least a holiday atmosphere – everyone relaxed, the smell of Hog Roast and coffee; music playing; the splashing of dogs and people in the lake.  I sit, watch, contemplate and feel content.  The four, five or six hours it will take runners to return will pass quickly.

I haven’t been running for a couple of weeks and I’ve missed the outdoors, which I seem to yearn for more than ever at the moment.  In compensation I’ve had plenty of work to do (filthy lucre), including travelling around the north-west, and have been making sure that I get my time with the children (David has had them more than me over the past months, and I have missed them – the house has felt too big and too empty).  Then last night Two Red Heads and… had our debut performance at Wigton’s John Peel theatre.  It was great to sing on a real stage again, with a sound system (not that we used the mics) and spotlights, and one of my dreams of singing Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater in semi-darkness was finally realised.  Our 5-item slot seemed to go down really well and we’re looking forward to the next one: having initially said she couldn’t make next month’s Open Mic night, Deborah is now considering coming away early from the other engagement she has on so she can come to sing!  We may be expanding to become a trio as well – Catherynn Dunstan, who organises the evenings along with husband Hayden and their two sons, has a lovely voice and was enthusiastic when I suggested she could sing as a trio with us sometime.

I know I still have some potentially difficult times ahead before I reach calmer seas but I also feel that I’m truly on my ‘right path’.  I have to hold on to my singing and writing – to follow my dreams – neither of which requires a tight grasp, as they keep coming back to me anyway (in the sense that opportunities to do both keep presenting themselves) – as well as ensuring I have enough income coming in and that I see enough of my children.  I need to balance my dreams with the practical.

But meanwhile I’m going to take the laptop back to the car, fetch my camera, sit in the sun with a book… and perhaps paddle in the lake too…