Saturday, 18 October 2014
A Jog Around The Water Towers (4)
Old Leake - Sibsey - Cowbridge - Boston - Cut End - Freiston Shore - Leverton - Old Leake
After expressing a desire to listen to more music and less news a while back, Tammy bought me an mp3 player for my birthday in June. Put off by the vast black hole that 'synchronisation' means, however, it's sat, unused, in its little, white plastic box until I dug it out last Sunday night and faced my fear of the unknown head-on.
Two frustrating hours later, I'd not managed to add any songs, but I had succeeded in downloading a few free episodes of my favourite podcasts - The Dirtbag Diaries, Answer Me This and Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode's Film Reviews. (I don't tend to watch many films, but I do find their show most entertaining. Any 50-odd year old who can pull off a quiff and Buddy Holly glasses whilst professing a love of skiffle is someone worth listening to in my book.) I'd also stumbled across something new to me - Sodajerker On Songwriting - and added episodes dedicated to Paddy McAloon and Johnny Marr to spice up a couple of my daily 75 minute one-way cycle commutes during the week.
We live in a world where news is omnipresent. It's clear, though, that there's not nearly enough news worth knowing to flesh out 24 hour coverage. My default setting of listening to 5Live, with its rolling programme of repeated news stories, whilst on my bike had begun to do my head in recently. Adding in the fact that most modern news tends to be bad news (and generally not the type of bad news that excites me - stock markets free-falling, Tesco in crisis, a member of the Royal family being accidentally killed by a run-away Range Rover on the Sandringham Estate, etc.- that sort of stuff's fine), I'd begun to find that a constant 75 minute bombardment of it was spoiling the enjoyment of my cycling. An informative, irreverent or interesting podcast, in contrast - I figured - would surely have the opposite effect.
Which, unsurprisingly, it has.
So, what's all this got to do with running between two water towers in the backwaters of rural England? Not a great deal, to be honest, but a little bit.
In the excellent Sodajerker episode on Paddy McAloon (It really is a superb listen. If you like music and are interested in the craft of creating a song, this podcast will, almost certainly, transform your dreary commute into something worthwhile), he talked, at length, of the prolific amount of work he'd recorded since the general public forgot about Prefab Sprout straight after they'd hot-dogged-jumping-frogged their way into the pop charts at the back end of the '80s. The idea that intrigued me the most was his explanation of the motivation for his songwriting. He worked best, and most creatively, he explained, when he'd an idea to hang a song or a set of songs upon. This might take the shape of a theme, around which he'd compose a series of songs, or, most simply, a title - a single word, a few words perhaps - which would stimulate the creation of three and a bit minutes of beauty.
On listening to this, it immediately struck a chord with me. I've always loved bands who have great song titles. I've always more than loved bands that have great song titles which seemingly have no relevance to the songs themselves. (New Order's 'Technique' LP is a fine example of this.) I've often found, also, that a lot of the time I'll just start with a title when thinking of writing a story or a blog post. 'Good title,' I'll think, 'Better write some old shit to go with it.'
It's a similar habit to my preferred method for creating a long run. To get motivated to do something slightly less monotonous that run the same old roads that I've shuffled down a thousand times before, I'll start with something physical to hang a run around. Usually this will lead me to pastures new. Sometimes it'll transform what could have been a slog into an adventure worth remembering. The 90 mile '50 Chuches' route I put together a couple of years ago for my running club's summer relay started off like this. Earlier this year, I spent a good few hours linking together the pillar trigs in East Lindsey by foot. A few months back, also, inspired by a fine water tower in Fulletby that I seemed to be passing regularly, I'd embarked on a mission to plan a series of runs linking all the existing water towers in Lincolnshire, each run visiting at least two different ones. This project had started promisingly, but once I'd eye-balled the most local ones and the continuation of the task involved more driving and a little more non-running effort, things had waned somewhat.
At the start of last week, having finally decided to shelve The Plogsland Round until longer days grace us again next summer, I was at a loss at what to do on my next Free Friday. Inspired by Paddy McAloon and heart lifted by a smattering of fine Prefab tunes on Wednesday, however, the long-redundant idea of water tower bagging re-emerged. I now had a plan of attack for my day-off that was more appealing than mowing the grass for the final time this year.
Parking by the church at just gone 9, my chosen route takes me out of Old Leake and into the heart of the best agricultural land in the UK. It's warm. Mid October, and still in shorts and T-shirt.
The Old Leake water tower is a belter - a fine example of a classic design that can be seen for miles around. Having drove the A52 between Skegness and Boston any number of times, it's a tower I'm familiar with. Indeed, when I'd first thought of Lincolnshire water towers all those months ago, this was the one that immediately sprung to mind.
Moghal's Auto's now occupies a commercial unit that sits directly under the tower. I pull out the phone that I left charging all night, to take a photo, but the display briefly reads 'Battery low', before the phone turns off. 'Never mind,' I console myself, 'There'll be plenty of pictures on the internet.' Without photographic evidence though, I ponder, there goes my proof that I've actually been here. Suffice to say that you'll just have to take my word for it. I'm fond of lying and tend to embellish most of the slightly interesting things I've ever done into something more, but who-on-Earth is going to be bothered whether I really visited a god-forsaken ancient water tower in a dead-end Lincolnshire village, for Christ's sake?
It's all road till Boston. I'm in Sibsey before too long. A side-street that I've not been down for 21 years revives a lost memory. In the dank and dingy days of 1993, I'd visited a shop here with my Australian fiancee. It had been recommended by my mother's good pal, Janice Sutton - Skegness dancing school impresario - as somewhere we could buy a wedding dress for next to nothing. After walking one drizzly Sunday afternoon in the middle of winter to Sibsey (a trek of a couple of hours - neither of us had a UK driving license, or a car for that matter, we only had one bike between us, and buses didn't run that way at the weekend), we eventually located this tiny, run-down place that specialised in theatrical costumes and fancy dress. Amongst the rails of tat were a couple of passable wedding dresses. Lucky for me - each one was only £50. Not so lucky for my beau - both were a bit old-fashioned, the better of the two being at least a couple of sizes too big. We left the shop with that one. My powers of persuasion had been working a treat that particular afternoon. Mind you, I suppose she got her revenge a few months later. (I noticed that when she returned to Perth after deciding that she didn't want to marry me after all, she didn't take the dress with her.)
Passing the spectacular windmill on the other side of the village, I follow the Sibsey Trader to Boston Golf Club - Jaguars in the car park, bad slacks in the clubhouse - and onto the Horncastle Road at Cowbridge. It must be over 20 years ago too since I'd last run down this road - a staple training route in my Boston days.
The Horncastle Road water tower is slightly set back from the road and as impressive as its Old Leake counterpart, but in a different way. Lose concentration and you'd run straight past it without noticing. Reaching my destination, I take a mental picture - always the longest lasting - and head over the main road, down Windsor Bank and onto the Seabank.
Whilst the majority of my running colleagues hate the Seabank - it's rough underfoot, desolate, lonely and just goes on forever - I find myself constantly drawn to it. In planning this Free Friday run, I'd been keen to get on it. Indeed, the two big adventures I've got planned before Christmas both involve lengthy sections on the bank.
The Seabank had been a big thing when I was a kid. Although never accurately measured, the Seabank Marathon, run over around 26 miles, had captured my 14 year old kid's imagination at the start of the '80s. Roy Marshall - a moustachioed local long-distance legend who was a member of Holbeach AC - was my first big running hero. Regularly trouncing the opposition over the route, he'd become the first person to win the race three times. I often wonder what became of that Goliath of the Seabank.
My first marathon - aged 15 or so - was over the Seabank course. Traditionally, the race was run in different directions on alternate years (a tradition that, sadly, no longer holds true - the race always starting in Boston nowadays), and that particular year, a massive group of us from the Skegness Grammar School set off from the Clock Tower, Boston-bound, ready to do battle with a distance that was unimaginable back then. 5 hours later, Our Kid and I arrived as first back from the school, nearly 2 hours behind the race winner, starting off strongly, but having been reduced to a walk through the long grass of the last 10 miles.
Ending up in Boston at the start of the '90s after a couple of years of doing the global-traveller-thing, the Seabank still held me in its spell. As a club runner, however, participation was frowned upon. Never having possessed an official AAA race license, the threat bandied about was that taking part in the Seabank Marathon could result in severe disciplinary action, such as being banned from competing for your club.
In 1995, though, having just gone under 2.40 for the first (and only) time in the London, and feeling flush with a ton of training miles put in for an up-coming John O'Groats to Land's End run, I decided to throw caution to the wind. Jogging to the start, incognito in yellow T-shirt and Hawaiian shorts, I'd entered on the day, run the race, and jogged the 5 miles from Skegness to my mum's house in Ingoldmells after finishing. Running with Shaun North, who later became a local runner of some note (and still nowadays could whip my butt over most distances), I'd taken advantage of a dog attacking him as we passed the half-way point and put on a surge that lengthened to a gap of 14 minutes by the end. Coming in first at Skeggy's Clock Tower, my winning tme of 2.59 was the first under 3 hours since the heady days of the mid-'80s and my old hero, Roy Marshall. It's still one of my proudest moments.
Fifteen years later, returning to running after a few years of working too hard, raising a family and generally arsing about, I decided to have another go. In a stroke of luck which played straight to my strengths, the weather was bloody awful. Early June felt more like February. After only a handful of runners had finished, the race would later be abandoned over health and safety concerns, with runners and walkers removed from the Seabank and minibused to safety. I'd run the first 17 miles with Mark Sands and the previous year's winner - a gobby bloke from Sheffield who regaled us with constant stories of his distance-running prowess whilst he tucked in at the back as Mark and myself gallantly took it in turns to front up into a particularly vicious head-wind. Mark had eventually conked out at the RAF Wainfleet watch tower at Friskney, and I'd had to endure 6 more miles listening to Yorky telling me how good the winner's cup would look over his fireplace for the second year running. At Gibraltar Point, with 3 miles to go, my ears could take it no more and I took off, feeling both relieved and full of running, to open up a 6 minute gap by the finish. My time of 3.01 was the fastest on the 'new' route, adopted after the flooding of the marsh at Frieston Shore for wading bird habitats had forced the traditional route to be substantially diverted.
Pleased again with my victory (I've had very, very few in 30 years of running), I was, nevertheless, aware that my finishing time was a soft one compared to the days of yore. The Garmin I wore that year confirmed my gut feelings. The new course was over a mile short of true marathon distance. (The old route had been up to a mile longer than 26.2 miles, depending on the position of the start or finish at the Boston end, which seemed to change every couple of years.) I was sure a decent runner could hammer home well under 3 hours. My suspicions were confirmed the very next year when Our Kid, off the back of his 'Trial of Miles' winter months of 200+ miles a week, clocked the Seabank Marathon's fastest ever time of 2.52 in a run that stands as one of the most impressive in its 30-odd year history. The bastard.
Last year, I was due to be in Scotland for a mate's Ramsey Round over the Seabank weekend. It was unfortunate that an e-mail pinged through on Thursday lunch-time postponing the attempt, and leaving the forthcoming Sunday free. If I had migrated north, as planned, my unbeaten record in my favourite race would still have stood intact. But, hey-ho. With a sudden rush to the head, I'd told Tam that I'd have a third go at my own personal big-one. Becoming the first person to win the Seabank three times since the days of Roy Marshall was the clincher here. Once I'd done that, I could leave it alone.
Come the Sunday, I did my best to hold onto Mark Sands, who'd won the race the previous year, for a good 19 miles, before he broke me. Not by a lot. But enough. He crossed the line in 3.01 (a change in the start line in Boston had added over a mile to the 'new' course distance, making it a little longer than 26.2 miles again), whilst I arrived in 3.02, knackered but surprisingly upbeat in the knowledge that a better man than me had deservedly won the race that day. Mark added another victory to his belt this summer, to win 3 Seabanks on the bounce. He is now, undeniably, a Seabank legend.
That's the beauty of the Seabank. The wide-open landscape encourages a wide-open mindscape. Lost in reminiscence of past glories, I'm soon at Cut End - the point at which the River Haven joins the sea, and where the bank takes a sharp left in the direction of Skegness. I sit for 5 minutes, back resting against a pillar trig, and enjoy a drink and a sandwich. The wind makes patterns through the long grass. Out at sea, a container ship lurks, bound for King's Lynn perhaps, whilst a fishing boat chugs in the opposite direction closer to land. On the wide, muddy banks of the river, huge flocks of birds I don't know the name of settle and scatter in endless, swooping repeat. I think of my usual working-week lunch-break - sat at a desk, hurried, distracted, scrolling through shite on Facebook - take a final drink of water, and jog off slowly, buoyed by a feeling of freedom and the knowledge that, today, I've got all this to myself.
Pushed by a strong back-wind, the miles pass quickly. And with them, memories, stories and future plans - soaring kites tethered to terra-firma by ropes wove from the recognition of the beauty of Now.
I drop off the bank at the Leverton pumping station and head inland in the general direction of Old Leake. Carrying no map, I figure I'll just keep running west on the muddy back lanes until the water tower appears and I've something to aim for. It's a section of my run that I'd not been looking forward to, but today I'm courting fortune's favours. Footpath signs keep appearing and I just keep following them. Drain-sides, dyke-edges, heavy tracks through plough - a rights-of-way jigsaw that leads me, by total fluke, straight to the A52.
A arrive back at the car a couple of minutes later, almost done in, but not quite. At 4 and a half hours, it's my longest run for a while. I change my shoes, walk over to the village shop to buy some pop. Then, sitting on the church wall in the afternoon sun, sipping Irn Bru from a plastic bottle and humming Prefab Sprout's 'Faron Young', I reflect on a perfect and pointless way to spend a day.