Cross country running is a very British pastime traditionally  carried out in the dead of winter when cold weather, mud and rain conspire to attract only the hardiest of souls.

I hadn’t run a cross country race since I was a schoolboy but the intervening 30 years seemed like yesterday as I waited for the off in a muddy field in north east London.

London is not renowned  for its cross country but every spring its acolytes will find a stern test in the shape of Epping Forest’s Orion 15.

This historic race, which began as a 15 mile ‘constitutional’ run in 1923 by host club Orion Harriers, offers a lung bursting 15 mile course which twist and turns and slithers and slides  its way through London’s largest remaining tract of woodland.

It’s a real gathering of the tribes. The Mornington Chasers rub shoulders with the Springfield Striders, while the Fairlands Valley Spartans size up the threat posed by the Ipswich Jaffers and Thurrock Nomads.

The Orion 15 entry letter gives competitors fair warning of what they are letting themselves in for with an introductory ‘Dear runner, friend and lover of mud, hills and puddles’ together with a course description of  ’hills, forest trails, fields, hills, horse rides, some hills and not a little mud.’

It certainly lives up to its reputation as the starter’s gun lets loose a jostling mass of several hundred runners. No sooner have we slid around the first bend then the mud is upon us.

Is is, of course, worse for us slow coaches at the back who plough a furrow through the churning ankle deep morass  left by the rest of the field.

The mud claims victims straight away sucking off a shoe here and there  to howls of anguish while one  unfortunate lands on his knees only to be knocked down by the ensuing change .

Someone else grasps vainly at a tree branch before ending up on his back. An old hand ploughs through the thick of it  with a sage ‘you’re going to get muddy so get on with it son.’

The course certainly tips its hat to cross country’s equestrian roots when runners held the human equivalent of ‘horse and hound’ races with one or two athletes chased by a relentless pack.

The brief respite of firm ground offered by bridle-ways and snatches of road is replaced by an assault course of muddy trails, water filled ditches, stiles, ankle turning tree roots and hill after lung busting hill.

I’m feel surprisingly good after what I think is three miles only to turn the corner and see the luminous one mile marker. I feel the energy drain out of me  at the thought of another 14 miles as I’m elbowed into a bramble bush by a passing runner with a brisk ‘make way, make way.’

I settle for a slow jog trot and ignore the markers after that along with the forest’s rich history which including a hunting lodge used by Queen Elizabeth, highwayman Dick Turpin’s hideout, a grove of fruit trees nurtured by Lawrence of Arabia and a grand obelisk making the meridian line.

I thankfully make the nine mile cut-off of one hour and 30 minutes after which slower runners are asked to retire and only remember the remaining miles seeming to get slower and longer the closer I get to the finish.

I finally stagger across the line in 130h position – a solid half-an-hour  after the winner – to polite applause and a celebratory cup of Buck’s Fizz.

Never again? I’ll be back next year.

 

Ah, for those days… For many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes, listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.

If I’d stayed there, would I have always been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. it is now or never, we must snatch at happiness as it flies

A Month in the Country

 

A 50 mile cycle ride takes you from east London to Cambridge passing through some of the most picturesque countryside in the South East.

Head north of Chigwell and grey suburban streets are quickly replaced by a quiet network country lanes, wooded dells and gently rolling countryside fat with the bloom of late summer.

Essex’s patchwork of sleepy villages and single track roads are a pleasant discovery for those who associate the county with ugly satellite towns like Basildon.

The place names are equally rustic: Molehill Green, Duck End, Little Laver, Toot Hill, Radwinter and the wonderfully named Nasty.

There’s not a white stiletto or boy racer in sight as I follow the soft green folds of the Rodings northwards over forded roads, past signs warning of deer traffic and cricket teams playing off the baize of village greens.

The rural idyll extends to people leaving home-made jams and honey for sale outside their homes along with donation boxes. There are ‘for sale’ signs for ducks, hens and rabbits. Some saintly soul is even giving away free manure.

I half expect to hear the distant sound ‘Jerusalam’ carried on the breeze such is the Englishness of it all.

Summer’s last sigh is in the air and what better way to watch her slip into autumn than stopping off for a cone of Mr Whippy’s finest.  Today was a good day.

Anyone who has reached the end of this rambling rather self-indulgent blog may be wondering about the photo. Didn’t I tell you? Essex is awash with the living dead.

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