In the North West of England are two eminent and frequently tourist-trod areas: the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales.
To get there, most visitors drive up from Manchester and skirt left, or right, around the Forest of Bowland. They may almost be forgiven for doing so because the Lakes and the Dales are, in themselves, delightful.
Almost forgiven, that is because in this skirting around the Bowland to get to their delightful destination quickly, most visitors deny themselves. It is not without merit that this mixture of hill and fell, moorland and river, wood and pasture has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty since 1964.
But we don’t need to worry about making this mistake, you and I, fellow trail runner. We are not prone to skirting around. No, we go into the forest. We go uphill and down. Show us a quick, easy road around versus an alternative slow muddy path, and we don’t hesitate. Through is how we roll. We prefer to arrive later, muddier, sweatier and infinitely happier for having gone in.
It is this attitude of going in, rather than around, that leads us to discoveries of self and life. And it is this same spirit that caused me to learn the fabulous fact that, amongst the many trails to run in this 500 square kilometres, there are 17 fantastic footpaths ranging between 10km and 18 km long. Each is circular so you can get back to your car easily. And each is planned around a traditional pub so you can fuel, and refuel!
Who wouldn’t be tempted by a traditional pub to stop and sustain themselves whilst trotting on the trails? With names like The Three Fishes, Hark to Bounty Inn, The Pendle Witch, and The Barley Mow it seems sinful not to pop in for a little sustenance.
But if you’re looking for something more challenging, the Forest of Bowland has some tough terrain which is not often walked or run. It was used for military training in World War Two.
Unexploded bombs are still discovered from time to time by intrepid travelers exploring seldom-visited corners.
Overlooking the deep, thickly wooded valleys and pretty farms, the hills form a large horseshoe shape so you can run a rollercoaster to your quads content. Clougha Pike, Grit Fell, Ward's Stone, Wolfhole Crag, White Hill, Whins Brow, Totridge, Parlick, Fair Snape Fell, Bleasdale Moor, and Hawthornthwaite Fell are all between 413m and 544m.
Recently, when I went into the Forest of Bowland instead of skirting around it, I spent a while at The Inn at Whitewell. In medieval times it acted as the courthouse where forest tenants and forest keepers met to decide local issues. I decided a few local issues of my own there – over a pint of crisp cider and some freshly prepared organic local produce.
The Inn is not too far from the picturesque village of Dunsop Bridge, where the Forest of Bowland Trail Marathon and Half Marathon starts and finishes. Organised every December, it seems to be a grand way to celebrate another year passed.
One of the local issues I decided while overlooking a pretty river from the terrace, was that I prefer this going into the forest over skirting around it. I mean in life as well as in running.
I prefer to look beneath the surface and try to find the root-stock of meaning. I choose to pay attention to the significance of things. Words and figures of speech, images and symbols, slights of hand and slips of the tongue, all invite the student of life to uncover the idea or experience that gave birth to them.
I like doing this uncovering. I value going into. I don’t want to skirt around. I don’t want to take those symbols literally and superficially. I want to pay attention to the essence of what it, and you, are really all about.
Intense? Maybe. But I don’t fancy life as a one megapixel camera skirting around the edge of the forest. I choose a high-res image with all its authentic flaws and messy details.
Don’t get me wrong. When Lazy Kev kicks in, I feel jealous of those who seem adept at avoiding life’s complicated bits. But the truth is that I well know that skirting around is not an easier life than going into. No, it’s just a different kind of hard work.
Being superficial and overly simplistic takes a special effort. You have to overlook all the evidence that there is more. You have to be constantly vigilant to dodge the deeper tides and undertones. You have to avoid people who threaten your thin thesis that everything is self-evident. And you have to keep up a very tight set of defences against the full, muddy, sweaty reality of life.
We run trails because we love the undulations, the epic ascents and the deranged drops. We’re empowered by knowing that we can go in there, and come out healthier from our contact with untamed, unsanitised nature.
Life calls for this same, untamed spirit of adventure.