Wednesday, 11 October 2017
Running Through Autumn Fields
After four days off running to recover from the Clarendon, I was eager to get back to the fields, with only the badgers and the buzzards for company (and the dogs too, of course).
We set off around the edge of the resting field long since denuded of crops, enjoying the crunching sounds of acorns beneath the old oak. Blood red berries have appeared on the holly, a stark contrast to the haw berries which have matured beyond their plump, ruby red youthfulness into the leathery look of past-their-sell-by-date age.
We went on, past the small pits dug in the sandy soil marking the extent of the badgers nightly boundary patrols; past the hazel hedges hung with the frolicking tails of young male catkins; on round the corner where the remnants of this year's crab apples lie discarded in the soil, split from receiving the pressure of feet and wheels, slowly fermenting as they rot back into the earth.
Uphill now, and my breathing changes, deepening and tightening at the same time, as my lungs work harder to power me up the gradient and over the rutted ground. Sometimes, I wish for the simple lack of thought that road running offers; the ability not to concentrate on every single step. But not often, and not today.
A bird is singing somewhere in the hedge; I mark the song because it is different to the summer calls I've been hearing these past months. This one descends with a steady stream of even notes. I can't place it. Some newly arrived visitor perhaps, come to spend the winter.
We reach the hole in the hedge that marks the crest of the hill. I am grateful: my legs are tired. But I am also happy that we ran all the way. We duck through the hedge, coming out on the other side into a world where the plough has turned the earth from green to brown. The field before me is littered with shredded yellow petals; corn chamomile, which sprung up as the crop was harvested; a vibrant fragment of the living seed bed lying dormant beneath our feet. It looks like confetti scattered at some bucolic wedding.
We put our feet to the wet grass of the margins of the field, coming closer to the strip of ancient woodland where in springtime wild daffodils spill and tumble. Pop has shot on ahead but Teddy remains a little behind me, shepherding me safely down the hill. I pause mid-way and squat down to see whether the Ivy Mining Bees (who each September make this small borderland of field and wood their home), have survived the silver turning of the plough. At first I am concerned: all evidence of their holes in the sandy soil has gone. But then a crawling movement takes my eyes and I find one of them, then another, then a third. Eventually, I locate the small, neat spoil heaps that form outside their tunnels. They are still here; they are re-building. I smile, and make a mental note to tell the farmer next year so he can decide to avoid their nesting place. It's only a very small area to him, after all.
At the bottom of the hill the air is colder, the valley a tunnel trapped between two hills, funnelling chilled air left over from the night. We run on through it, me glad of my woolly hat and gloves, because last week when I ran this way without them it took fifteen minutes for the feeling to return to my fingers. Ted runs up beside me now, confident that he won't lose me, while I whistle for Pop, who emerges at the gallop out of the green lane, small brown face wet, leaping like a deer over tall grasses.
The dogs run on together up ahead, past where a small flock of skylarks are displaying over the Chalk. I count fifteen of them, soaring up above the ploughed land, singing and chasing one another. The dogs, eyes on the ash tree where squirrels tease them safe in the knowledge that dogs can't climb trees, miss completely the hare who is sitting folded up in silent stillness beside the path. He looks so much like a lumpen thing of soil that for a heartbeat I doubt the evidence of my own eyes. But as I get closer he unfolds; long ears rise from his back, long legs stretch out in strength and certainty, and he is no longer a creature made of earth and flint, but a living being of fur and blood and bone and muscle and sinew. He turns and sees me, and for one long moment our eyes connect and I am drawn into his world, into the wild where people don't belong anymore, and then he is off. Running slowly at first, as if testing the necessity, his paws sure and steady and certain on the earth. The dogs, with their backs to him, have still not seen him, so it is only I who stands and watches, spell-bound, as this creature of myth holding the magic of the ancient land in his paws, accelerates away up the flint chipped hill with breath-taking speed and simple ease.
It takes me a few moments to gather myself and then I call the dogs and we run on, past Badgers Wood where excavations have been taking place in preparation for a winter passed largely underground. I smile, as I always do, at the thought of the black-and-white bears of the night tucked up safely beneath the ground, warm and gently snoring in their carefully constructed subterranean chambers.
The path turns right past their sett up a long, long, long hill. It isn't steep but it challenges lungs and legs to just keep going. I know it well by now; I consider it my friend, although it was a friendship that exacted a price. It is my familiarity with this hill that enabled me to overtake people on the hills at Club on Monday. It is this hill that means I can accelerate on the inclines in races. It is this hill that enables improvements in my fitness even when I don't feel them. And always, the reward comes at the top, where the ground levels out and you can look back and see how far you've come.
Trudging up it, trying to find my breathing rhythm, I nod to the buzzard who sits on a low branch of an ash tree dipping over the track. He watches me carefully. We see each other most days when I come this way and if he ever isn't here I find myself wondering why not and where he might have got to. As I pass beneath his branch, his amber eyes still rest on me and he rightly judges that there is no need to move.
The dogs dip into the wood that runs parallel to the path as I push on up the hill. They re-emerge as I knew they would at the top where they pause, waiting for me to catch up. Pop is looking for a sign as to which way we are going. Ted is following Pop. Because sometimes we run on, tracking the line of the ancient hedge that weaves across the Chalk, an echo of the wood that once stretched right across this land. And sometimes we turn right through the hedge, back along the Roman road and down into the fields.
Today, I am feeling weary, so we cut through the hedge and run on down the farm track before turning right into more fields. Here, more pheasants scatter and stutter as Pop runs through them. She isn't interested in actually catching any; she simply enjoys watching them fly up squawking into the wind-tumbled air at her approach.
Ted has little time for pheasants, however; he runs on ahead of me, occasionally looking back over his shoulder to be sure I am still there. This is easy running now; a steady downhill on comfortable tracks where acorns pop and snap beneath our feet. The morning light strobes through the branches, glittering in the dew gathered on spiders' webs strung up along the hedgerows like threads left out to dry.
I have warmed up and my breath has evened out. My feet are falling onto the ground in a steady rhythm I feel I could keep up for hours and hours and hours. This is the simple joy of running; of freedom, of wildness, of light. This is the half hour that sets me up for the whole of the rest of the day, and all the days beyond it.
We pass through a gateway and track right, Ted following, Pop ahead. More pheasants explode into the air, flustered. At the bottom of the track the entrance to the Green Lane is marked with a stile: depending on whether you have two legs or four, you either go over or under it. A fallen tree blocks the way immediately after the stile. It's been there for years and we all three jump over it. The dogs go on down the green lane, I turn out into the field and run along the margin, beneath the collective boughs of oak, ash, sycamore, cherry, feet wet now but not caring, just enjoying being outside and feeling my heart pumping and my blood flowing.
The three of us meet up again at the bottom of the hill; the dogs emerge from the darkness of the ancient lane with their tongues lolling and tails wagging in joyful greeting. This is a routine we know well, the three of us: it's what we always do and none of us ever tire of it. It's a game- will we time our descent perfectly and all come out together, or will they get there before me?
Together, we turn right and whoosh up the final hill, the heaviness in my legs a pleasing testament to effort and achievement. From inside the old lane a Tawny Owl, unseen, hoots. The dogs pause to listen to this sound that isn't ordinary for the day, and he calls again, the sentinel of the night bidding farewell as light floods through his trees.
We reach the top of the hill, duck back through the hole in the hedge, run down the hill, back past the badger pits, back over the crunching acorns, back along the field's edge where summer's vegetation lies desiccating into winter, back to where the car waits to take us home.