The Tump and the tree

I’ve just finished a short run to Maes Knoll Tump from our holiday cottage. The Tump is a huge earthen wall nearly eight metres taller than the surrounding land, built to defend an Iron Age hillfort. It offers a panoramic view of Somerset including views to Bath and Bristol had there been no mist. As it was, there was nary a soul in sight. The sound of the birds was as arresting as the sight of the hills. As with many ancient sites, perhaps keenest was the sense of my own transience within the landscape. This is exacerbated when you think that what we consider ‘ancient’ really is not so old at all.

After sitting for a while I saw a grey tree standing in a green sward and decided to make my way down the steep sides of the hill to it. Tiny birds popped out of the grass and darted in the mist. As I was walking past a bush a muntjack startled, running under the fence and into the next field before flattering itself by stopping to see if I’d given chase. I might have shown it who’s boss but I was trying to keep my heart rate in zone two…

The dead tree was entirely hollow and open on one side. It was strange to stand inside. Bird calls were made dull. The air was completely still. There was a small echo, a closeness. The tree branches seemed to have small buds at their tips and were completely still against the grey sky. There was a metal spike in the back of the tree, perhaps what killed – or nearly killed – it. There was no evidence of the spike on the outside so bark must have grown over the wound.

After regaining the hill I made a quick descent back to the cottage to appraise my uneven split times.

 

The art of running slowly

I’m getting back into running after a few months’ break. In the meantime, my fitness has evaporated and I’m carrying some extra pounds. Not only that, but my Achilles tendon has been sore for a while, probably due to overtraining on these beautiful but brutal coastal trails. For example, last summer, my brother and I put together a half marathon training run that ended up with a total elevation of 2,500ft. It was a fantastic run. A sea fret filled the precipice off the coast path and only the faintest ghost of the rocks below could be seen through the fog. But the terrain is hard. I remember feeling broken two weeks into my last training cycle.

Dan suggested running with a heart rate monitor. The plan is not to overreach by keeping my exertion within training zones 2 and 3. In my current state of fitness, that means occasional walking, especially on hills, and crawling along at what should be an embarrassingly slow pace. Except I don’t find it a chore at all. In fact, the first run was a minor revelation. It wasn’t a slog or a struggle, I got to stop and admire the view frequently. It helps that I was running down to the beach, I suppose, but there are lots of other details to enjoy. Birds didn’t startle as soon as I came near them… I’m not saying that small woodland creatures flocked to me as I ran, like some kind of Disney princess. It’s just that there’s time to notice what’s there: whitecaps, sunlight in the branches, bitingly cold wind. At least, there is when I’m not compulsively checking my wrist monitor. Hopefully I’ll develop a better inuitive sense of what I can sustain in the long run, so to speak.

There is a method in this moderation, however. The idea is that by running slowly, you train type I (endurance) muscle fibres which are more fuel efficient and help to remove lactic acid. When you run hard, you’re relying on high power, low efficiency type II muscle fibres. This is fine for a while but you can only store so much high energy fuel in your legs. So this might be why I usually ‘bonk’ in the last three miles of a half marathon (…and why beer and a burger is always so appetising post-race). It will be interesting to see whether a gentle way can accomplish more than my usual ‘all or nothing’ approach.

In any case, there’s a nice contradiction in the idea of running slowly. It brings to mind festina lente (‘hurry slowly’ / ‘make haste slowly’), the old motto of the Medici’s and something Shakespeare riffed on from time to time. In English we say, ‘more haste, less speed’… but the lack of paradox makes our saying comparatively flat. Festina lente, to me, is the idea that the best way to accomplish something is to do it slowly, deliberately (but not by charging at it head-on) and perhaps persistently: by working with your fate rather than rashly against it; or perhaps to do something bold in a leisurely fashion. Hey, it worked for Augustus.

Running as creativity

I’m never sure what exactly is meant by ‘creativity’. The word brings to mind an off-hand, highly-strung activity: the artist thrashing out a masterpiece in one sitting before settling back into their neuroses. While they start with inspiration, most creative pursuits involve a process of continual craft and re-evaluation. In this respect, they resemble a lot of seemingly very ordinary things we do. Is it that creative tasks are actually very natural, or perhaps the ordinary things we do are fundamentally creative?

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

— Henry David Thoreau.

Take running. When you head out your door for a run, you’re crafting an experience. You choose the route, the time of day, whether you run alone or with friends, the effort, whether you push on a hill or amble up it, whether you stop to admire a view or maintain the flow. But as with all creative acts, there are many elements that will be decided for us: who we meet along the way, and – to some degree – how we perform: whether our Achilles tendon will be sore; whether the heavens will open up at the furthest point from home. The art is in balancing our intentions with what arrives.

Run

Across the beach at low tide. Wet trainers on shining sand. Around the back of the island, sharing the view where people block the path. Catching breath against the granite when cars inch by. Past the bowling green, onto the coast path. Over rubble, up hills. Round the headland, into a new bay. Uphill to the boulders, clambering with fingers and toes. Just sitting on the rock, watching thoughts and the boat halfway between the lighthouse and this weathered, lichened rock and me.

So long, Thomas Warton

As we’re about to leave Basingstoke after nearly seven happy years, it might be appropriate to mention Thomas Warton who was born on the site of Glebe Gardens, not far from here. Warton was poet laureate between 1785–1790. This sonnet is dedicated to the River Loddon, which, now culverted in places, is said to run below ground at the rear of our house.

To the River Loddon

Ah! what a weary race my feet have run
Since first I trod thy banks with alders crowned,
And thought my way was all thro’ fairy ground,
Beneath thy azure sky and golden sun;
Where first my muse to lisp her notes begun!
While pensive Memory traces back the round,
Which fills the varied interval between;
Much pleasure, more of sorrow, marks the scene.
Sweet native stream! those skies and suns so pure
No more return, to cheer my evening road!
Yet still one joy remains, that, not obscure,
Nor useless, all my vacant days have flowed,
From youth’s gay dawn to manhood’s prime mature;
Nor with the muse’s laurel unbestowed.

— Thomas Warton

I’ve run all over Basingstoke after work and on weekends. I’ll particularly miss jogging through Manydown Farm, where the fields begin, on summer evenings. My friends and I racked up some miles here. We ran the hills of Farleigh Wallop in the Basingstoke half marathon, so the first line at least rings true.

Warton’s long poem, ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy’, is an anthem for introverts and recluses. I quite like it.

These are delights unknown to minds profane,
And which alone the pensive soul can taste.

— Thomas Warton