Dragons used to roam in St Leonard’s Forest, or so the local legend goes. Today it’s only runners, and me amongst them, burning with limbs afire in the 25th running of the Horsham 10 km.
We’re on my regular lunchtime route, or at least the tricky part of it, where the Lower Cretaceous clays of the lush Arun Valley rise eastwards towards the sandstone plateau of the forest.
We gather on Horsham Rugby Club’s playing fields in bright spring sunshine, and when the siren goes we head off dutifully around the touchline of the first team pitch.
The scrum has thinned out, and we ruck through a hedge to hit a pleasant, leafy stretch of lane beside St John’s Church. They say on dark, lonely nights the church is haunted, but for now the only cries come from two lone spectators in the graveyard.
It’s uphill here, and so I rein it back a bit. Try to breathe, and just relax as best I can.
I’ve found that works. Running too hard too early will kill your legs, I’ve found. Well, maybe not if you’re really a runner, but it kills mine.
My preparation for today? A little worse than nothing. Slowly around a 10km route of Lincolnshire hills last week, and a couple of lunchtime trots since then.
But yesterday I cycled 30 km of Surrey trails in training for the London to Brighton Bike Ride next month. That’s what I had to do, but now my legs remind me.
And so I let them cruise a bit. A minute’s plod brings us to the mighty Sun Oak, and a sandy bridleway for a gentle kilometre between the trees. I stop to take a picture, and pretend to take it easy. And perhaps I do, at least for now.
We find another lane, and follow it downhill. Past 2 km, and then past 3. Into a narrow valley, with rhododendrons pressing tight on every side. ‘What goes down, must come up,’ muses the lady runner by my side, and sure enough — a shortly steep and breathless climb arrives to test our lungs.
We keep going, through a housing estate and then down a fast descent to Doomsday Green.
It would be great to link this place to the Domesday Book, the census document compiled for William the Conqueror in 1086 which formed the basis of tax demands for centuries to follow.
Tempting because William landed in Sussex and defeated King Harold’s army in 1066 near Hastings, just an hour away from here. But although Horsham dates back to 947 AD, some 140 years before the Domesday Book was written, the town isn’t mentioned in it. And this hamlet isn’t either.
The fiscal ‘Domesday’ referred to was a day of reckoning, but I hope it won’t be one for me. Because from here, the course rises relentlessly towards the forest.
We climb along Hammerpond Road, and I ponder another intriguing name — describing the blacksmiths who used to work here. The Tilgate Stone which forms the ridge was mined for iron ore since the Romans’ day. The forest provided charcoal, and before the age of steam the headwaters of the River Arun were dammed to drive the bellows and hammers of the local forges.
It’s quiet today — this geologist is scarcely hammering up the hill. We pass the start and set out along a second loop. A two-loop course is good for fast times, I’ve heard. But maybe not this one with its ‘undulating’ (read: hilly) profile.
Eventually I reach the Sun Oak again, and walk ten steps to slug a drink. Then repeat the course, but with faster legs and much more rapid breathing.
Another ten minutes go by, and almost before I know it, I’m racing through Doomsday Green once more towards the doom of a final climb ahead. And from the 9 km marker, the road rises, exactly as it did before. I struggle, much the same, but louder.
Inside the final furlong, I save something for a last lap around the rugby field, but as we leave the road there’s just 100 m left to run. A last sprint takes me past four puzzled fellow-strugglers and then I’m in the funnel, and someone is handing me a mug. Not inappropriate, surely.
The time ? I didn’t check because it didn’t seem to matter. Something close to 54 minutes, perhaps. Not too fast, and not too slow.
It’s another race behind me, on local turf. A few hills survived, on a sunny day. Superb organisation within a friendly and warm event.
Ten kilometres of Sussex sandstones, ancient iron ore, and expiring hammers. Another landscape travelled and a distance run — and that’s the dragon slain today, for a happy mug like me.
196. In Shelley’s Sussex footsteps – running from Horsham to Warnham
197. The Hog’s Back Road Race, Guildford 2008 – It’s All About the Hill
83. Seven Bridges Road – the Wey floodplain
112. Forests of fire and iron – Surrey Hills 1
43. A sense of time – Earth history and the London Marathon
146. School cross-country – Clandon Park 10 km
170. The winds of doubt – Brighton 10 km 2007
This was a terrific read; as always I ran along (but switched to my bicycle upon mention of that) and even though it was a virtual journey I welcomed the word “downhill.”
I do hope you’re seriously considering that book mentioned a few months ago. We armchair travelers, runners and cyclists would lap it up.
I love the header image, btw. It makes me want to go there and stroll that street with its leafy trees.
Thanks as ever, Ella. I’m glad you enjoyed this article. There’s a lot to see in the English countryside at any time of year, and in May it’s simply serene around here. Even when you’re running at full pelt.
The header image has been updated to match some new writing today, but I’ve added it into the foot of this post so that you can continue to enjoy it. It’s wonderful, I agree — and Horsham’s Causeway is wonderful, too.
This Sussex town is just 36 miles from London Bridge and just 10 from the bustle of Gatwick Airport, yet it still manages to preserve a mediaeval feel. That’s no small achievement in the modern world.
It looks very good there! Thanks. Hard to believe it’s so close to London. Your countryside is indeed photogenic and atmospheric any time of the year.
That’s great, Ella. I just enjoyed The Causeway with my sandwich. And at a more sedate pace today.