Sunday, 2 December 2012

Love Letters


There's a yellow document wallet at the bottom of the box. Its cardboard edges are dog-eared and scruffy. There's a white sticker stuck to the top flap with a word and a date written in faded felt-tip pen. 'AUSTRALIA 2000.'

I try to avoid digging through the past nowadays, but the contents of this wallet, stuck in the bottom of a box on a top shelf in a garage for the last decade, intrigue me. I'm curious, so I take a look.

There's a few momentos from a long-ago bike ride across a continent. No photographs, but bits and bobs I'd collected on my way as reminders of my journey. Leaflets from tourist attractions. Receipts from Outback roadhouses. A sew-on patch from Border Village. A certificate picked up in Norseman saying, 'I CROSSED THE NULLABOR!' I'm glad I looked through these things. For a while, I'm back there.

Eventually, all these little pieces of my life are scattered around me on the fire-side rug, and there's only one more thing remaining in the wallet. I take out the bulging brown foolscap envelope and rest it on my lap, wondering what it contains. Removing the contents, I'm pleasantly surprised. They're letters. Love letters. Love letters to someone I'd only just met. Love letters that I never sent. Love letters that only myself have ever read.

We pull up at the remote car-park, get out and stretch our legs. It's been a long drive from Saleby - not far off two hours. I guess it's this drive that's always put me off. It seems so far to come for such a short run.

It's easy to put things off till another time. Sometimes, it's only the action of others that make things happen. Without them, there's certain things you'd always save for another time, until, eventually, your time runs out and you've still not got round to them.

I'm glad Spurn Point wasn't one of these things.

Leon and myself had talked about running the Point for a while. I'd spent summer evenings on the Cleethorpes' seafront looking out to the remote headland thinking, 'I'd love to run along there some day.' I'd talked excitedly about the passage in Mike Parker's excellent book 'Map Addict', when he realises a long-held ambition to visit the Point since buying his first OS map - Grimsby and Cleethorpes, 1:50,000 - at the age of 7, simply because it contained this bizarre geographical anomoly :

"Driving down this tiny thread of land is like walking a tightrope in a gale. The concrete road is poor and rutted, with drifts of sand blocking the way and sea spume whacking your windscreen like a scorned lover. At times, the road is virtually all there is between the two banks of angry, choppy sea falling away on either side. There is no safety net. At the end of the spit are a few brutal government outposts: a lifeboat station, with Britain's only permanently sited crew, a lighthouse and the Vessel Traffic Service Centre, tracking the lumbering great tankers heading up the Humber to Immingham, whose Meccano-like gas terminals can be seen blazing across the muddy estuary. All are blasted by gale-force winds for most of the time. When Jim and I pitched up, it was a fine, calm day in dear old Brid, but by the time we got to the end of the Spurn, it took every ounce of shoulder power just to get the car doors open. We stood around on the beach for a while, until our eyeballs started to pop and tears were flowing from the whipping, sand-blasting laceration of the wind - all in all, about five minutes. It is one of the ugliest, rawest places of beauty I've ever experienced. And it is quite wonderful. Twenty years it had taken  from running my eager finger along my first Ordnance Survey to standing on the point itself, but it was worth every minute of the wait. We headed back to Brid, and I was a man fulfilled."

But that was as far as it went. It was just another thing that we'd, no doubt, get round to sometime.

Leon's phone-call on Friday night, however, had changed all that.
'What you doing on Sunday?' he said.
'Nothing now. The cross-country at Scunny's been cancelled,' I replied.
'Right. We're going to run Spurn Point,' he continued, 'I'll pick you up at 9.'

That was it, and now here we are.

There's a fierce excitement inside me as I pull on my running shoes and grab my camera. Like Mike Parker, I've waited a long time for this too.

We walk across the car-park, go through the gate to a sandy path and jog into a beautiful October morning.

I lean back against the legs of the settee and begin to read. 'Dear Tammy...'

I'd met Tammy in the middle of July. We'd spent five months wrapped up in a world where little else mattered outside the two of us. We'd talked, laughed, danced, shared ourselves, become half of each other.

And then I was gone.

Saying goodbye to Tammy at Heathrow was the hardest thing to do, but a two-month long solo bike trip across Australia beckoned. It was something I needed to do, and Tammy understood. She'd fly out to meet me at the end, but for eight long weeks we would be apart.

The letters are sentimental, romantic and embarrasing. Words best kept to myself. And as I read them, I'm aware that I never intended to send them, never intended for them to be read.

They weren't meant to be.

No- they served a different purpose. For an hour each night, as I lay in my one-man Terra Nova, the act of letter-writing brought Tammy into the tent with me. Whilst I wrote, she was real. She was there with me. For a short time each day, even though we were a world away, these love letters brought us together. A conversation, a fleeting hug and a lasting kiss fashioned from pen and paper.

Spurn Point is a narrow sand spit on the tip of the coast of the East Riding of Yorkshire that reaches into the North Sea and forms the north bank of the mouth of the Humber Estuary. It's nearly 4 miles in length, almost half the width of the estuary at that point, and as little as 50 yards wide in places.

Formed by materials washed down the coast by longshore drift and accumulating into a long, narrow embankment, Spurn Point's structure is maintained by plants, especially marram grass, which hold the sand and shingle banks together. Perpetually existing in a cycle of destruction and reconstruction, the Point is owned by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and is a designated National Nature Reserve. Renowned for its rich bird life, Spurn is unique - a fragile, beautiful natural wonder.


We run easily along a narrow path. On our left, the North Sea laps tamely against the shore. A fisherman maintains a lonely vigil, sitting on a box of equipment whilst attaching bait to a hook. On our right, the marram grass recedes, opening views of the Humber Estuary. The vast expenses of mud flats visible now, at low tide, are scarred by a channel of deep, black water. On the far shore, the ugly living monuments to the industrial heartland of North-East Lincolnshire - the gas refineries of Immingham, the cargo terminals of Killingholme - reflect the sun and seem strangely beautiful.



We're soon on the narrow, metalled road that runs the length of the Point. In the distance, the picture-postcard perfection of the Spurn's lighthouse is visible. Further still, a jetty extends into the estuary, lifeboats moored beside it. After that, there's nothing.


As I run, I sense, with a certain regret, that my year of dedicating myself to the byways of Lincolnshire is almost at an end. I look across the waters to my county and briefly reminisce on the adventures I've experienced that will stay with me forever. There's this feeling inside. This is more than running. I try to find the words that express the deep communion I've shared in the last months with the places that I've moved through. The feeling I've got right now. The words elude me for the moment - what is this I'm doing if it's more than running? - but I know that, in time, they'll come.

I chat for a while with Leon as we make our way towards the lighthouse. It seems fitting that my companion on so many of my Lincolnshire travels is with me today, I've grown, as a runner and a person, in his company this year, and I know that the forthcoming years will hold the promise of many more runs together.

We pause for a while at the lighthouse, abandoned since it was closed down at dawn on the 31st October 1986 to be replaced by Spurn's only remain lights - a flashing green starboard light on the very end of the point and the fixed green lights marking the end of the Pilot's jetty. We take some pictures, take in the architectural grandeur of this dying piece of Maritime history, and then continue our journey.

Towards the end of the Point, I'm surprised by the small settlement of dwellings nestled against the dunes near the jetty. I knew that Spurn was the UK's last remaining permanantly-manned lifeboat station, but I'd been unprepared for this neat, functional hamlet in this most isolated of locations. I wonder what life must be like for the six families that call this their home. The days when the spit's road is impassable due to the high tides or accumulations of wind-blown sand. The sixteen mile round trip to the nearest shop. Then, I look again at the panoramic views, the wild desolation of this beautiful place, and I realise that these families probably wouldn't have it any other way.

We lean against the jetty gate for a while and watch a lifeboat escort a nearby tanker into the estuary's channel. Then we jog through shallow dunes to the very tip of Spurn Point. There, we stand by the sea's edge. We feel the fierce salt-laced wind against our faces. We watch as strong currents create Van Gogh swirls on the water's surface. Then we stand some more, until, eventually, we look at each other and acknowledge that we're going to have to leave this most special of special places.





After I've read the letters, I carefully put them back in the envelope. Sliding it back in the cardboard wallet, I gather the reminders of this time and put them in too. I place the wallet in the box and take it back outside to the garage. Who knows when the love letters will be read again?

It's a beautiful October morning. While everyone's out, I sit on the patio with a mug of tea and enjoy the silence. I think of the box in the garage and wonder when was the last time I wrote a letter? In these days of web cams, social media, e-mails and texting, I struggle to remember. I used to be a great letter writer and, maybe for this reason, it makes me sad. It's something so special that has just been lost. I really didn't realise until now.

The camera's on the patio table. Idly, I call up its image store and flick through the photographs that I took on last weekend's Spurn Point run. As I look back on an amazing morning, an awareness grows in me. I sit back, take a swig of tea and smile.

I've spent the whole year writing love letters.

We run back along Spurn's northern shore. Past the lighthouse, birthday balloons, crumbling Victorian sea defences and playfully-scrawled messages in the sand.

Away from the tip of the Point, the wind subsides and I feel the heat of the Autumn sun. We move slowly, effortlessly, and I can't help but acknowledge that this, surely, is running in its purest form. Not once have I thought of time, pace or miles covered. Not once have I thought about 'aerobic endurance', 'oxygen debt' or 'lactic threshold'. Not once have I thought about the gadgets and gear that I seem to be forcefed every time I want to read about running on the internet or in a magazine.

No. I've just run.

And as I've run, I've been a part of my surroundings. As significant, as insignificant as the branches washed up on the shore, the beach's chalk boulders worn smooth by  a thousand years of the sea's carress, the shingle cliffs continually created and destroyed by the brutal and beautiful hands of this fierce friend we call Nature.

And as I've run, the words have come, like they always do on days like this. Words for the amazing, immediate world I move through. Sub-conscious. Stream of consciousness. Words that drift in, linger and then fade away. Words that will never be read, like letters to a lover.

I set out on January 1st to run the Tennyson Twenty, the first of Lincolnshire's long-distance paths in my grand plan - The Sixth Statement. As 2012 draws to a close, it would be easy to reflect on a year when my ambitions were frustrated and my dreams unrealised. It would be easy, but I don't. I can't.

The pessimism that's always been a part of me is, somehow, not quite there. It's been a year in which I've learnt valuable lessons. A year of balls of string, woodsheds, pivots and question marks. A year in which, for a change, the things I've achieved have not been outweighed by the things I've not. 1999 was the year I found the girl without whom I'd be nothing. 2012 was the year I found my home.

There's always new corners to explore, and explore them I shall, but can they ever be as special as the places you call home? I doubt it. I picture Spurn Point on a fine Autumn morning, the Nettleton valley on a snowy Winter's day, the paths between Hatcliffe and Rothwell on a frosty February evening, the sky clear, the moon just a crescent. I remember the runs through the Wolds, the two hours running into a blizzard at the end of the Lindsey Trail and the sun rising after a long night on the Viking Way. I think, not of the handful of paths I've still to run, but of the 23 it's been my privilege to complete. And as I do, I think of the love letters I've written.

For, as I ran each path, I composed a love letter. Words, not written. Words that only existed in my head. Words that came as I moved through my surroundings, drifting in, lingering and fading away. Sub-conscious. Stream of consciousness. Words in praise of the fields, the hedgerows and the rolling hills. Love letters to the footpaths, farm tracks and country roads that make my home.

I'll need no envelope for these letters. No cardboard boxes on dusty garage shelves. Instead, I'll carry them with me - a part of me - binding me to my favourite places - words of love for these places that mean the world to me.


On January 1st, I held an image of what the year's last day would bring. I'd run wearily up Rose Lane and reach my door, a mid-winter Lindsey Loop trip at an end. I'd wallow in the glorious discomfort that 96 miles had rewarded me with and be filled with the pride that finishing the last of the planned LDP's had brought. The Sixth Statement complete.

Now I know the scene is going to play out differently.

On New Year's Eve, there's no doubt I'll run my favourite paths. I'll jog up Rose Lane, alive as the day dies. I might sit on the step for a bit. Listen to the sounds of the superheroes' games and the hum of a happy family inside.

And then, I think, I might get up and do something that I never do. Instead of going indoors, I'll walk to the end of the drive. I'll lean on the gate and watch 2012's last daylight moments. I'll watch as the sun sets behind the Wolds and colours the sky a deep shade of red. A red as bold as a love heart. I'll remember the good times I've had whilst moving through these places so simply. One foot in front of the other. A breath. A heartbeat.

Then, just before the night takes hold and smothers out the year like extinguishing a candle, I'll cherish the love letters I've written in the months gone by, and savour the expectation of the ones I've still to write.


  1. Lovely stuff SJC, an enthralling read and, as usual, so much I can relate to.
    Letters are much missed aren't they? We have a friend who lives up north (but originally from Yorkshire) who still writes to his parents every week or two. When he left home, his Dad gave him some paper, envelopes and a book of stamps and told him the only rule left from his parents was that he had to write.
    How about, in 2013, resolve to write some letters?

  2. I think this is my favourite post so far.