If there’s one thing the British are good at, it’s eccentricity. We’re so good at it we would be able to export it, if only the rest of the world got what it’s all about.
One of the key bits of our national oddness is tradition of the the village show – where else can you find horse trials, dog obedience, humorous vegetables, country crafts, a parade of tractors, agricultural supplies and cut-price Tweed (not that I own any Tweed, being vegan and all). And fell racing, don’t forget the fell racing.
Fell racing originates in the idea that the fit young folk of the village should like nothing better than running up to the highest hill about the village then descending as limb-disjointingly quickly as can be achieved in order to be judged maddest fool at the show. It goes without saying that it was invented before TV, which explains why the field of runners are not the green-limbed youths of the village in the main, but a more veteran and philosophical crowd.
The Europeans have recently caught on that it might be a bit of a lark to do this, but christened it the much more respectably named “sky running”. But don’t let that fool you, it’s probably just as barking.
So, to Thropton, the third show I’ve been to this year and the only one I’ve run at. Thropton Show holds a special place in my heart for a few reasons.
- I used to live along the road from Thropton at Elsdon and quite liked it thank you.
- I ran my first fell race at Thropton last year and it remains the maddest race I’ve ever taken part in, beating any ultra, any Christmas-pudding run and all the stupid “let’s see what happens when I eat x while running” experiments.
- I know one of the organisers, Mary, who I work with and her husband, Ian, who I also used to work with.
- This year, my friend Mike brought along the region’s only mobile bell-tower for a display of campanology. See, eccentric, I told you – none of the other shows had a bell-tower and I can only suggest it was a mighty addition to an already quintessentially British affair.
- I got to have a go on the bell-tower – it’s pretty difficult, you know, I was fairly rubbish, but left with a new-found respect for bell ringers everywhere.
- The quality of mud in the bogs of Simonside is unparalleled in any other murky quagmire I’ve ever found myself wading through. Proper clag, they should be proud.
- There was also Cumberland Wrestling – that looks bizarre too, I mean, you do it in your socks, what’s that about? Brilliant!
I arrived at the show, dumped the car in the adjacent field (without thoughts of getting it out again later, some things can wait) and headed into the show field. Finding the registration cabin I handed over my £2 and in time-honoured fashion pretended to read the safety guidance before signing my name on the sheet. I suspect the guidance is a bit like small print in a contract, if I look hard enough I’ve probably just signed away my spleen for posterity.
An amble about before the kick off unearthed Mike and his bell-tower, looking mighty fine and a chap I was sure I must know – I recognised him, but then it was time to toe the line. Hang on, he’s running too – it’s Stephen, right? I wandered over and said hello to Stephen, looking decidedly more trim and sportier than when I’d last seen him, which must be four or five years ago I guess, when I used to live here. I walked up Simonside with Stephen and some folk on an organised wander at a time when our paths had crossed due to locality and a shared interest in photography and geocaching. It was great to catch up briefly and then we were off!
Mike grabbed a shot:
If you look closely I’m left of the centre, yellow vest with green band and an orange long-sleeve underneath. If that doesn’t help, I’m the one smiling like an idiot.
This year I was ready for the river crossing at the end of the road, it really is only ankle deep (ish) but just as cold as I remember. Splosh, splash, splash, out the other side and you’re heading up the gentle incline of a well-cropped field. Up to the top gate and out onto the road.
It gets steeper.
And then a bit more.
Up the deceptively steep road past Great Tosson (still my candidate for best named place in Northumberland) and through a farm yard. Turn left, through someone’s garden and up onto the hill itself (sorry, but it turns out that the bit before this was the gentle foothill before the real work begins). A bit of walking as the first bit of grass is actually a series of steps cut into the hillside then it starts to level off as you hit the trees. Along the edge and the views are good – then into the trees and a narrow track cutting up through the wood.
Since last year there’s clearly been a bit of logging going on in the woods – there were large bare areas with stumps and ma-hooo-sive tire tracks. The path gets steeper, and rockier – proper boulder pathway and I always worry about slipping on the damp rocks and somehow, inexplicably, killing myself. It isn’t enough of a worry, or sufficiently likely to happen that I’ve given it much thought, and the roister-doister trail running alter ego doesn’t like to admit to worrying about anything so mundane, so on I plod. A bit slower now, and with a bit of a walk when it gets too uneven to run (or maybe when I’m a bit pooped, you know).
One of the things I remember from last year the bit where you break out of the trees and can see the stony massif of the crags above you. It was a bit of a revelation last year, and it didn’t disappoint this year either. Big, rocky, stony, bouldery – they really need a good few more adjectives to cover the marvellousness of the crags.
Along the fire road, and then the slow walk up the twisty ascent to the top of the crags. I got overtaken by a few people going up here, I really need to work on my hills, and I think Jedburgh will be a bit of a slog up the volcano. Eventually, nearly to the top, and one of the marshals asked how it was going. “I’ll be better once I’m up there on the top” – he replied that it was hard on the way down, but I wasn’t fooled – I know where my worst weaknesses lie, and they’re up the hill.
The view from the top of the crags if fantastic – last year I took a camera, but this year I was travelling light, so no shots. It’s so worth the trip up there, a marvellous panorama around Northumberland. I may have stopped for a moment, or at least bumbled along slowly, and there was no way it was because I was tired, Scout’s honour…
Part way along the crags you turn down to a fissure and then, for want of a better word, scramble or perhaps climb all the way back down – the mud between the rocks was thick, wet and had already been churned up by 50-60 runners. A bit of skidding, but I only had one mishap, wedging my foot against a sharp rock, but no-one was hurt, thank goodness. The mud got thicker, the pools a little deeper and through the heather back to the woods.
It’s worth pausing here for a moment before the descent through the woods, and asking you to consider the effect of trees that hold a lot of moisture in the ground, overhead cover that means the water doesn’t evaporate off and years of decomposing needles and leaves to fuel the creation of darkly perfumed uber-mud. Maybe churn the ground up a bit with planting in order to form deep pools and lethal slopes down which to careen. That sounds about right.
So, into the woods and into the mud. It was ankle deep, calf deep, in one place knee deep, it was lovely. It stank, it stuck to shoes, it tanned the leg – honestly, if I was a poet I’d write a poem to that mud.
It was also like the worst ice you’ve even inched across, every step an uncertain future.
You just can’t take it easy, or you’d be there all day. Crash on, cross fingers and hope to die. Well, not literally.
Then, after a while we come to Church Rock, a local landmark in the woods, a huge monolith sunk into the side of a near-vertical hillside and here we go down the side of it on an almost-path that falls alway below you, coated in the Teflon-mud.
At the bottom I realised Stephen was behind me, and we ran for a while chatting – through the woods and back out to the farm yard, running and chatting, it was like being in the middle of an ultra-marathon, only the desperate attempts to force feed ourselves were missing.
Back down the road, which was becoming less steep with each step and I made a bit of a break for it, madly hoping to beat my time from last year where I came in around 1:20 for the just-short-of-7-mile route. That was in much drier conditions, but you can hope, right?
I went back over the bridge rather than the river, mainly because everyone else in front was going that way – the guy behind me opted for the river and finished in front of me – he came over for a chat at the end – I don’t really mind about the time, but I really enjoyed the river the first time, so I was a bit gutted. The legality of heading back through the river is still not something I’m clear on, I’ve got a feeling you’re supposed to head over the bridge, but I’m not sure.
Back along the bottom of the field and up into the finish and the marvellous folk at the show were hanging by to clap and cheer – I ran past Mike, who nabbed another photo…
A grand time, a few minutes slower than the year before, but that doesn’t really matter. Got my breath back, drank a bottle of water Mary kindly brought over and then wandered around talking to folk I knew – Mary, Ian, Fiona, Stephen (a different Stephen), Mike and had a bag of chips and a go of the bell-tower after watching the wrestling. How could the day be any more cosy and eccentric? Perhaps a steam-powered time machine?
This year was the 99th Thropton Show, which means next year is likely to be something special. I’ll be there, I reckon, which gives me a whole year to practise the hills. Why don’t you come, we can wallow together…
Bring on the mud!