Category Archives: winter

203. Dream beneath a desert sky – Pechina Canyon, Almería, Spain

desert-palms-sierra-de-alhamilla-above-pechina-almeria-spain-by-roadsofstoneLos Baños de Sierra Alhamilla stands grey and forlorn beneath palm trees in a February mizzle. It’s Hotel California, on a rainier day.

There’s a faded, nonchalant elegance here in this mountain spa. On the main street, a goofily smiling old bloke sits outside the baths, trousers rolled up and feet dangling in the hot stream. We smile and wave, because frankly, we’re more mad than him.

canyon-run-sierra-de-alhamilla-almeria-spain-by-roadsofstoneThe unforgiving Andalucían desert stretches far and wide below us. Scattered plantations, yucca, palm trees. Grey gravel, scrub and miles and miles of waste, magnificent in their desolation. Far in the distance beneath low-hanging cloud lies the city of Almería and the steely Mediterranean Sea beyond.
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202. A snowy sunset on St Martha’s Hill

snow sunset st marthas hill chilworth guildford england feb 2009 roadsofstoneThe snow was half a metre thick in Guildford when I returned from Spain last week.

That’s the most snow we’ve had in England for twenty years or more, and easily the thickest fall I can remember anywhere outside the Alps.
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201. To hold the hand of Spain – Almería Half Marathon 2009

tarde tormenta cabo de gata lluvia almeria spain trebola flickrA cool, soft and forgiving kind of Spanish rain is falling.

I drift down the hill, easing into my pace and gently exploring that warm sense of anticipation which the early miles of a race can sometimes bring. There’s elation beneath my feet today. It’s hard to explain, but it fills the morning all the same.

This is the longest race I’ve run for two years, and my preparation has been meticulously disorganised. Steady, shortish lunchtime runs through Horsham. A nine miler every fortnight throughout the autumn. A 10km in November. Eight miles of the hilly Hogs Back Road Race in December. A two hour outing across the sunny Surrey Hills just two weeks ago.

My journey to the start line didn’t bode too well. A far too lazy start yesterday morning, followed inevitably by a wheezing mile-long dash hauling a heavy holdall at full pelt across the park at 5am to catch my airport train.

night-of-love-on-the-promenade-almeria-spain-by-roadsofstoneA long walk into Almería last night to buy the running socks I’d so rashly left at home.

At one time, I’d surely have worried about all those things. But today it doesn’t matter. I’m here to run, but it’s not about the running.

I’ve come to hold the hand of Spain.
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198. This bank and shoal of time – beside the river in Stratford-upon-Avon

stratford-upon-avon-england-christmas-lights-on-clopton-bridge-dec-2008-by-roadsofstoneBut here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.
Macbeth, Act 1, Sc. 7.

Why then the world’s mine oyster.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 2, Sc 2.

The Roman road crossed the river at its widest and shallowest point, and gave this town its name: Strat-ford-upon-Avon.

The Clopton Bridge stands at the same spot today – five hundred years old, and still carrying all the traffic across the river. Beneath the bridge, the Avon flows both chill and slow. I know the feeling.

I run past the boathouse, the Tramway Bridge and the Rowing Club. The Avon is full of rowers out bright and early. A couple of fours, a sculler or two. There are no canal boats today, but the river is navigable all the way from the sea.

stratford-upon-avon-england-monument-at-new-lock-dec-2008-by-roadsofstoneThe navigation works were authorised by King Charles I in 1635, and by 1641 the river was open to within four miles of Warwick. But by 1874, the upper section had fallen into disuse.

It was the vision of David Hutchings and the Upper Avon Navigation Trust to re-open the river between the Severn and the Birmingham Canal. Stratford New Lock was the last link in that chain, finally completed in 1971.

The lock was built by volunteers from Gloucester Gaol, and Stratford’s Shawshank offered a tough kind of redemption. Continue reading

197. The Hog’s Back Road Race, Guildford 2008 – It’s All About the Hill

hogs-back-road-race-2008-two-hundred-million-years-of-fog-guildford-surrey-england-by-roadsofstone“Upon the whole it was an excellent journey & very thoroughly enjoyed by me; the weather was delightful the greatest part of the day…  to my capacity it was perfection. I never saw the country from the Hogsback so advantageously.”

So wrote Jane Austen of her trip along the Hog’s Back, in 1813. But today is a different kind of day. The view from the top shows nothing but fog. A December morning, chill, damp and misty. That’s how we live.

And yet, I can’t complain. An hour ago, I was still tucked up and fast asleep in bed. Thirty minutes of muesli, tea and fast driving delivered me to the start in Artington. Five minutes to jog to the start, another five minutes to score a race number, and I almost arrived too early for my geological odyssey. But not quite.

hogs-back-road-race-2008-the-climb-begins-mount-pleasant-guildford-surrey-england-by-roadsofstoneTime at the start line is always good. A few minutes to share notes on the course, and establish credentials.

A woman next to me is wearing London Marathon leggings from 2006. I ran it that year, too. Her son is a huge rower from Belfast. He’ll struggle on the hill, as will I.

And yes, the Hogs Back Race — it’s all about the hill.
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196. In Shelley’s Sussex footsteps – running from Horsham to Warnham

autumn-on-the-causeway-horsham-sussex-england-by-yoshi-san-virtual-tourist-comO Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing

Ode to the West Wind, Percy Bysshe Shelley — 1819

A new season in a new town. Autumn has come and gone here in Horsham, scattering her falling leaves behind new footsteps across the park.

September laid a blank canvas all around this pretty Sussex town, and running set me free to paint. It’s invigorating, exciting and refreshing to explore anew.

Horsham is over a thousand years old. Standing calm beside the River Arun, amid green fields atop the Wealden Clay, historically this town gave birth to bricks, and beer and Catherine Howard.

Two centuries ago, Percy Bysshe Shelley set forth upon his life from here — a journey cut short before his 30th birthday in a shipwreck off the Italian coast. One of the great lyric poets and an unconventional and uncompromising radical, Shelley was expelled from Oxford for his atheist and anti-monarchist views.
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180. Mountains of food – la cuisine savoyarde

fresh-powder-flaine-france-april-2008-by-roadsofstone.jpg

I was in Haute-Savoie last week – part of the ancient kingdom of Savoy – that mountainous corner of France around Mont Blanc and south of the Swiss city of Geneva. The name Savoy comes from the latin sapaudia – fir forest – an origin still heard in the French word sapin (fir tree).

Long an independent duchy, the area was occupied by Napoleon’s troops from 1792-1815. After a period as part of Sardinia, Savoy was annexed by France in 1860.

en-avril-hiver-commence-flaine-france-by-roadsofstone

The region has strong associations with Piedmont in Italy, and with French-speaking Switzerland (Turin and Geneva are both much nearer than Paris). The local dialects reflect old mountain French with a smattering of Italian.

But the food doesn’t reflect Italy or France. Savoie is a stronghold of Alpine cuisine. Don’t expect delicate French dishes – this is the home of solidly calorific monster feasts to fuel any long day on the slopes.
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