It's a truism that people form relationships with landscape in very different ways. The north of England is a stark reminder of this. From the almost cute landscapes of the Lake District valleys to the impossibly stark and empty lands farther north-east, it's a clear case of voting with one's feet. Non-challenging versus challenging. One, a multi-million pound tourist attraction and parking nightmare, the other, a multi-million pound rocket test site.
I am, of course, talking about a recent mountain-bike ride round Spadeadam, on the south-west corner of the large and uncompromisingly bleak moorland of Kielder Forest. Yes, it reminded us of the film, Deliverance. Miles of empty heath and evergreen forest, stamped now and then with farms, hidden, reclusive houses that only Google Earth could illuminate. And then, in a clearing, a car containing a few shifty looking men. You know, not the sort that are easy on the eye, squinting, big nosed. Dare I say it, hicks. It is no surprise that this place was chosen to be a rocket test site in the 50's. A twin location to Woomera in outback Australia, it too is an outcast. Nobody goes here: that'll do nicely.
But strangely, the comely Lake District vales had less pull than this place. The more we became enveloped in this simple landscape, the more I felt at home. This raw place had something different to say. What it was, I couldn't put my finger on, but it wasn't about humans or their history. It was about a time before man. I shall (hopefully) return.
Perhaps we're a little weird, a little unconventional. But to us, it's just as likely to be the accidental meetings, happenings, eddies in the current, that make our days. Yes, we climb, we go sea kayaking, biking or fell running. We are lucky enough to get to some fantastic places, in a way that makes us happy. But it's often the things that happen by chance that leave us smirking. Last weekend, we found ourselves camping in a field of alpacas. They had a canny ability to display "formation curiosity". All in a line, each with a palpably questioning look on their hairy little faces.We had gone to the Peak District to sneak some climbing in under autumn's door. As it turned out, a layer of frost on the ground early on Saturday alerted us that we may have cut it a bit fine...In the end, a walk over the gritstone edges was the best option. There was an extraordinary quality to the light in the Peak. It was as faint and golden as I'd experienced. Sunday saw us heaving desperately on Curbar's unforgiving cliffs. Definitely a hard man's crag, that, and perhaps not the most appropriate for our needs, soft and crusty as we were. It's been an atrocious year for climbing, and it's sad to think that our climbing year might already be over. Dreams of hot rock (and dare I say it, bolts) are haunting us, though, and we may yet make that Easyjet booking. And so, it may not have been the climbing that captured our attention this weekend, but the things we saw along the way.
The New Balance RX, Montrail Highlander, Inov-8 Flyroc, and an old pair of Salomons (L to R).
If there's one thing that's guaranteed to ignite the fellrunning populace into an uncharacteristically animated discussion, it's shoes. The eponymous Mrs Marcos would be proud of the attention we give to these things. Indeed, we, as fellrunners, share the same level of obsession as the dear Imelda did.
But perhaps it's more complicated than Imelda's compulsion: if she didn't like a pair, she would just buy something else. Fellrunners are between a rock and a hard place with shoes. We're caught in a Goldilocks-porridge situation of nothing "being quite right" and if, on the rare occasion it is, then the company usually stops making it.
Take my little collection. The New Balance RX Terrain is the perfect fell shoe. As comfortable as a Marks and Spencer's furry leopardskin mule, yet as robust as a tank. And cheap. Thirty Pounds. Then there's the Montrail Highlander, the perfect mountain marathon shoe: more support than the RX, and contours better for those long outings. And still cheap due to an over-ambitious stock management issue at a now defunct adventure gear outlet (alas, Planet Fear is no more). And then there's the Inov-8. Looks good enough to eat, but plagued with strange, technical faults and issues of robustness that saw me writing an uncharacteristically irate letter to the managing director, Wayne Edy. These Flyrocs cost 65 pounds. Twice my RXs. And just for comparison, a pair of well-abused Salomon trail shoes bought in a sale for 40 pounds.
The issue is bizarre, and complex. Consumerism has swept it's hand over unlikely activities such as climbing, and now fell-running like a blunt instrument: you can't shoe-horn the things we need into a mass market scenario. We don't need something to look like a street shoe, because when it's covered in mud (i.e. after the first 5 mins of use) it doesn't matter a hoot. We don't need the things to spontaneously combust after 6 months so's we can buy something flashier. We want continuity.
Some people rave about the Inov-8s. But I just can't bring myself to buy something that I fear I'll have to send back to be replaced, or that will only last 200 miles. Or worse still, cause strange heel blisters that wouldn't look out of place on the Marathon des Sables. Admittedly, I haven't stepped into a Walsh since 1994. But even Walsh, that bastion of all that was good in the fell shoe world are plagued with issues about changing the shape of the last, and quality problems...and even they are making flash suede "street" Walshes in taupe now.
Where is an honest fell runner to look for inspiration? New Balance have discontinued the RX, their most successful fell shoe, in favour of the new RX, a heavy weight monstrosity, clamped tight with ribs of shiny plastic, too much cushioning, and blatantly not a fell shoe any more. Salomon seem to produce shoes that are at least robust, but yet again, they've discontinued the Speedcross, their fell-ish model.
I guess we're a sport in transition. And since there are only about 15 000 of us buying shoes (and we're probably quite stingy), perhaps we are destined to be unhappy customers in the modern world. Gone are the days of seeing a row of Walshes tied onto rusty, six-inch nails above the door to Joss Naylor's Lakeland farm...sadly, it's a different world out there now.
One of the last fell racing events of the year is also one of the biggest. With some 300 runners covering a 25 mile course, the Ian Hodgson Mountain Relay is a veritable classic. More than this, it's one of the most mellow, sociable events in the calendar. Penny and I took over the baton from fellow Eden Runners Sally and Gill, who had taken on the heavy responsibility of Leg 1 over Red Screes, a mighty descent now littered with skin. It all went well, given mild, windless conditions, with a heavy mist on top of High Street. A magnificent run over, we retired to the refreshment tent, abundantly festooned with high calorie comestibles from the hands of Patterdale's finest cakemongers. A fine event, and one I will look forward to participating in next year.
It isn't always a good thing that in this internet age, we can achieve some things at the click of a button... That was all it took to find myself at the start line of the Rab Mountain Marathon with a lot of flimsy gear and running partner, Penny. Preparation had been OK, but not stunning, and Penny had popped an ankle a few weeks previously, so we decided to pace ourselves. Not only that, but this was a completely different animal: a point-scoring course. Where strategy can win out over speed... where the brain...oxygen-deprived though it is...has as much to do with it as lung capacity.
With an air of finality, we chose the day's route. It wasn't a bad choice in the end, although from the comfort of an armchair, there were many other creative paths through the maze. All in all, we had a good, solid day and didn't feel too tired at the end. We were somehow in second place in our class.
It was all to play for, then, as I awoke the next morning to the awful realisation that I wasn't at all well. Three spoons of something related to oats went down, but that was it. This wasn't good. We decided to start the second day, at any rate, but having to rest on a rock while choosing a route wasn't a promising start. After only a few metres of climbing I was way behind Penny, and was retching behind a wall.
We turned back, and the race organisers drove us round to Coniston. The journey home was a long one.