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Setting My Sights Higher

My local parkrun, Gateshead, is organised (with the help of most of her family!) by a lovely lady called Hilary Shaw, and I’ve got to know her over the last few months or so during my volunteering stints there. She has often talked of her love of fell running, having done it for over a year now, and is so enthusiastic about it that I felt compelled to give it a go myself. Hilary also recently founded a fell running club called High Fell Hill Runners which now has a small but steadily growing membership. She kindly invited me to go on one of her more local jaunts last weekend, and so I found myself in a car with Hilary and a couple of her friends, Gillian and Sarah, heading up the A1 towards Rothbury, on a chilly but sunny Saturday afternoon. Hilary explained that they always car share for these journeys, as it makes financial sense as well as being good for the planet – we ended up paying £2.50 each, which was more than reasonable for the journey involved (roughly an hour each way).

Setting My Sights Higher Pic 2I got my first glimpse of the fells as we drove into the outskirts of Rothbury, and I remember thinking they didn’t look that high…little did I know! We parked up in a small car park just outside of town (I won’t say where in case we shouldn’t have been there, but it was free) and then we all got out of the car and started sorting our gear out. I say our gear, but in truth I didn’t have any, not having the first idea what to bring or wear – I’d dressed in my normal running gear of knee-length lycra leggings, a t-shirt under a vest top, a hoodie and a very lightweight waterproof jacket. I’d brought gloves and some jelly beans, but that was it as far as being equipped for the conditions went! The other ladies had proper backpacks, bumbags, and decent quality jackets, and as we set off at a very gentle pace up the road, I felt decidedly underdressed! However, as the sun was shining and the road was fairly sheltered, the outer layers were soon stripped off and stuffed into the bags, while my jacket and hoodie ended up being tied around my waist for the duration of the run.

After heading uphill on the road for a short while, we took an unpaved lane off to the right, and Sharpe’s tower soon loomed up on one side of the lane as we ran along. This is a folly that was built for Dr Thomas Sharpe, the rector of Rothbury in the mid 1700’s, and he claimed that it was built primarily to relieve unemployment amonst the local stonemasons. It’s quite well preserved and was worth a look as we ran past, though I may have missed some of its finer features! Looking at the overhead map afterwards, I was amazed that at that point we’d also been in close proximity to a large caravan site and a golf course and hadn’t been aware of either, it just felt really quiet and peaceful.

After a mile, we took another lane off to the left that headed towards a farmhouse, and we had to go through a gate at the side of the house to access the path which led to the fells. After crossing a bit of grassland we came to a stile in a wall, and this marked the start of the trail. Here was my first proper challenge (or so I thought!) – a good two thirds of a mile jog up a grassy slope that seemed to go on for ever! I tried to run the whole way without stopping, but had to take a couple of walking breaks to enable me to breathe! We eventually reached the top and headed downhill towards a small car park for a short while, a welcome breather since I felt a bit tired already. However, I’d already spotted what was across the road from us, and it made the last hill look like a bump! The fells of the Simonside Hills were a magnificent sight, covered in heather and with a clearly defined path making its way straight up the side, which started off pretty steeply (I ran this section) and swiftly turned into a series of steps formed from rocks – I attempted to “run” up the first few steps but quickly conceded defeat. Hilary informed me that it’s usual form to walk briskly up this sort of terrain and save your strength for the other sections, so that’s what we did! The path seemed to go on and on, ever higher and even steeper in places, and it was hard to know which was more uncomfortable, my thighs or my lungs! We finally made the crest of the ridge, where the path levelled out nicely, and was almost paved with flat natural stones laid at regular intervals. At the end of this flat section we came to the summit of Simonside, which is marked by a pile of rocks perched over a col. At this point the view was absolutely glorious, with the Cheviots being clearly visible in the distance and a 360o view of the surrounding countryside. We were now 4 miles into our run, and things became a little easier as we started to gradually head downhill.

We passed a lone fir tree on the left, which Hilary informed me had been placed there the previous year at Christmas, and had been fully decorated, complete with fairy lights! I have NO idea how they managed to get it up there, or indeed why! After a brief hail shower (yes, really) the sun came back out, and we soon came to a rocky escarpment which involved some fairly nifty footwork to navigate down (we climbed rather than ran). This was followed by a flattish section for a while before a long drag uphill along a track, followed by a descent again through some boggy and heather covered slopes. We eventually came out on the road which led to the car park we’d crossed earlier, and we then made our return the same way we’d come. The best bit of the run for me was just after the car park, as there was a huge long run down a grassy slope back towards the farmhouse, where it was safe to run at full tilt – and I did! With tired legs we then did the last mile and a half, mainly downhill, back to where we’d parked the car, and drove home with a fantastic sense of achievement at having completed almost 9 miles of what was, for me, quite challenging terrain.

Would I do it again? Yes, but probably not in the depths of winter, unlike the true die-hards who relish the challenge of battling the elements as well as the terrain. The lovely weather we had on the day probably made this a much nicer first experience than it might have been, and I definitely see myself as a fair weather fell runner – I’d be willing to do it in the rain, but hail and snow? Not a chance!

Val Baxter Signature

About Val Baxter

Val is a middle-aged mother of two boys, and gradually got into athletics via her eldest’s involvement with Birtley AC. Following a slow start which involved power-walking and a gradual move to jogging, she was persuaded to enter a local Harrier league cross-country event, and despite coming almost last, developed a taste for cold muddy slogs through the countryside.

Author: Val Baxter

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