Friday, June 27, 2008

A Slight Pause

This blog will be taking a slight pause for about 11 days as we are off to France for a holiday.

When I return I will complete the photothon (I am determined to do 26) and then just continue with general wittering

In the meantime happy running everyone.


My figures for June so far are: 21 runs, total running time 19 hours 34 minutes, average run 56 minutes.

No Juneathon but not too shabby

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Photothon 19: War Memorial

This run is to the war memorial on Berkhamsted Common. I expected to take a fairly straightforward shot of the memorial but was attracted by this solitary wreath.

I used to think poppy wreaths were only laid on Remembrance Day and memorials were bare the rest of the year - but that is obviously not the case. This wreath is fresh and I have seen a number of other memorials with fresh wreaths. Has there been a change of practice? Is there now a policy to honour the war dead more frequently.?

I find it disturbing that I do not know. It is another example of not paying full attention. I pass this memorial moderately frequently and the memorial in Hemel very frequently but have no idea how often they are bare and how often they have poppies. I see them without fully seeing.

This also applies to the inscription. I have run or cycled past here many times, without taking the time to look at what it says. I always thought it a bit strange to have a memorial in the middle of the Common away from any community, apart from a golf club, but never investigated it further. Today I did.

It s for the Inns of Court Officer Training Corps who trained 12,000 officers for the Great War on Berkhamsted Common, 2,000 of whom were killed. One in six is a high number, on average 13% of the British soldiers mobilised were killed (source here)

I looked at the memorial and then I looked at the land around and pictured it swarming with soldiers, digging, drilling, shooting, practising for the Front.

How fortunate we are to be born of this era, in a wealthy country, where we can take our leisure for granted. I can run this landscape without a thought in my head except how tired my body is feeling. I can enjoy being here without worry. It is a privileged I should never take for granted

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Photothon 18: more cattle

Working on the assumption that you cannot have too many cattle on a running site I ran to the meadow where the belted galloways graze. I had hoped they would be spread-out, so that I could get a nice clear picture of one or two, but they had no intention of being cooperative and all grouped under the shade of the trees in a big jumble. They showed no signs of wanting to move.

They seem very laid back. I walked right up to them and they took not the slightest notice. Maybe they are just contented bovines, happy that they are no longer an endangered breed. Still rare but no longer endangered.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Photothon 17: wilderness and order

After the lapse of yesterday it is time to be strict. My plan is to run to bridge 156 and so my photograph will have to be of something very close to this bridge. In the event it could not be closer – it is a small detail of the bridge's fabric.

It is not that I am obsessed by brickwork but in just looking closely at something you begin to notice all sots of oddities. In this case a brick is missing, somehow soil has been carried into the gap (by wind, by birds, who knows) and plants have started to grow. It is amazing how life can survive in the cracks and no matter how much we create order wilderness will always manage to poke through.

After looking at the bridge and thinking these thoughts I wandered along a little and sat down by the water, just looking at the lush greenery, feeling content. I had run there and was now resting, taking it easy, knowing the run back would be done at an easy pace.

These days I feel like a running tourist.- it is my version of base training, I am putting some miles in my legs – getting out regularly, looking around and not worrying about much else. I am being patient, content that it is not very ordred

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Photothon 16: Grazing

Now this is cheating. My self imposed rule says that I take a photo at the furthest point of my run. But this is on the way.

The only excuse is that I wanted a picture of cows grazing on Boxmoor. I especially like the way the calf looks suspiciously, if not a little disapprovingly, at the stupid runner. It is after all bad manners to interrupt lunch

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Photothon 15: traces of the past

Running is meant to be about being in the moment, where your attention is focused on what you are doing. The thoughts might be able to float free but they always come back to what you are doing at that time. Your physical effort anchors them. It is a refreshing mixture of empty mindedness and particular thoughts.

That is still the case most of the time when I am running but more and more I am thinking of the past. Not my own; I am not reviewing all of my missteps and working out how I got here. No I am looking at my surroundings, a town I have never previously paid much attention to, a place I live in but with which I have no great emotional attachment. However my current running is also is trying to remedy that. It is an exercise in paying more attention and looking for traces – trying to see the continuity between the past and the way we now live

It is focussed on the canal. Firstly, and most importantly it is a pleasant environment for running but secondly it is a ribbon of history. Along it you can see the changes from industry to services and leisure. Most of the people in the barges are out for relaxation and refreshment and by the water and the factories have given way to houses and shopping parks.

Now it is undoubtedly cleaner, more pleasant, and more fun but I like the factories and the old brickwork. I enjoy looking at the back of Nash Mills for example. I can see a part of the history of the industrial revolution and be reminded of the role of the canals. With the surrounding houses you can see how the works were central to the local community. I like the idea that John Dickinson invented a process for the continuous manufacture of paper and he did it from here. Because it would be hard to overestimate the importance of the availability of cheap paper in forming our lives, this is a significant strip of land.

But there is no more paper making. The main Apsley Mill was closed in 1999 and the site has been redeveloped. Nash Mills was bought by Sappi in 1990 and made paper until 2006 but is now empty and I think there are plans for housing

The photo is a tiny trace of that past . These gates to Nash Mills have not been used for many a long year. The notice is a simple piece of stamped metal: “NO PARKING BY ORDER J.D. & CO”. Firm and authoritative then but now painted over and invisible, with J.D & CO long gone.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Photothon 14: not quite the Bozeman Opera House

This is from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distress that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn’t think of anything to say, and couldn’t understand why, if she couldn’t think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street.

He was furious. "You’re not looking!" he said. A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn’t looking and yet somehow didn’t understand this.

He told her angrily, "Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick."

Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide. She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana. "I sat in the hamburger stand across the street," she said, "and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don’t understand it."

Neither did he, but on long walks through the streets of town he thought about it and concluded she was evidently stopped with the same kind of blockage that had paralyzed him on his first day of teaching. She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn’t think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn’t recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before. The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.

The quote relates to the post on Michael Pollan’s essay, about how relying on the expertise of others can hinder acting on our own judgements. As I suggested running could be an antidote, I thought I would tie things together with a picture of some brickwork.

There is nothing remarkable about bridge 158a but you can see the weathering, patching and changes. There is the implication of a story – time passing and its effect, but no specifics. You can see the steel girders and concrete plinths showing that it had to be strengthened. Renovated rather than replaced; continuity with the past. You can start to let your mind associate and I look at it with renewed attention

No matter how many times you have run a route, you can still see things afresh and unfiltered. There is something about running that puts you in that frame of mind

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Photothon 13: Rain

Today's run was in the rain, so instead of looking around for an object to photograph I thought I would show the wettness. The first idea was just the obvious one of rain spattering the surface of the canal but water droplets on leaves is more fun.

However there is nothing to stop me putting both pictures in the one photothon. So here you have it two for the price of one.

Photothon 12: Kodak town no more

This is yesterday's photothon. I went to the gym for a bit of strengthening and resistance training but I have no interest in presenting a photo of a weight machine. They are dull and cannot lift the spirits but I still use them once or twice a week. As you get older you have to work harder. on muscle-tone.

I have mixed feelings about gyms and, referring back to my last post, they are an example of the way you can split what you think and what you do to contain a degree of conflict. I do not like the way they are activity factories and institutionalise fitness. (It really annoys me when people conflate getting fit with going to the gym and when you hear people talking about them as the default solution to problems of lack of exercise and obesity. They are not, they might help,but getting out and about more, for longer periods of time is likely to have a much greater effect). But they are a convenient way of doing certain exercises and I use them for that..

Anyway along a bit from the gym is this.

It used to be the Kodak Building, which loomed tall over the entrance to Hemel Hempstead, guarding the Magic Roundabout. At one time Kodak was important to the town. It was their European marketing headquarters and there was a big film processing plant in the industrial area. Film processing, of course, has long gone and a few years ago they closed their offices, which are now being converted into flats.

So what you see is a skeleton that at some time in the future will have a shiny new skin. Gradually they have reduced the height, so it is not so out of scale with the rest of the town. It will be interesting to see what this development will look like, especially as the market for this type of accommodation has gone haywire.

I hope it turns out well and the project is not frozen. The entrance to any town is an important site and should not be marked by a skeleton.

Monday, June 16, 2008

More Gardening, More Running

I have a great admiration for the journalism of Michael Pollan and have written about one of his books before.

His book, In Defence of Food is nicely summarised in an article he wrote for the New York Times. It is well worth reading and contains his famous motto that tells you everything you need to know about diet: “eat food, not very much, mostly plants”. To make those shelves of diet books redundant with just seven words is genius.

This ability to get to the heart of an issue that has been overlayed with too much conflicting information is again displayed in an essay about what to do when faced with a problem as overwhelming as global warming. Would changes in individual behaviour make any difference? If so what would be the best things to do? The helpless logic that says that any carbon reduction I make will be nullified by other people is potent and there is truth in the statement that such a big problem needs to be tackled by national and global institutions. However to get political change in our societies it needs to be shown that the mass of the people are willing to change. It is impossible for political leaders to go too much out on a limb. They can cajole and persuade but that cannot fully act without demonstrable support.

That is why it is important for us all to do something and through that action inspire other people to make changes. Momentum will come through aggregating all of our actions.

One thing he suggests, which can have a big impact, is for us to grow more of our own food. Dig up lawns for vegetables, take on an allotment. If we all did it , it would have a profound effect as it did in the last World War. (Monty Don is saying similar things here and here).

This makes a lot of sense but this is not a gardening blog, it is a running blog and there is something in the essay that I can relate to running

He talks about the mindset which has been formed by 250 years of cheap energy. The industrial model, which has lead to specialisation in work and then in our homes, so that we now outsource many areas of our lives. This leads to internal uncertainty, dependency and the breaking of the link between actions and consequences. Things become the responsibility of others and there can be conflict between underlying beliefs and actions

He cites Wendell Berry:

Nothing was likely to change until we healed the "split between what we think and what we do ... Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognising our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live."

Now this is profound and difficult. Consistency in thinking and doing, and changing the way we live are difficult and daunting projects So difficult it is easier to park them in the 'get round to it when I feel stronger file'. This is where running comes in. Now I am not going to make grand claims that running of itself can heal the soul and solve our problems. No it is just one thing, a little thing that can help put us on the path of looking at such issues.

When we run we directly respond to our own body. We are the only ones who know how it is feeling and what it is capable of doing. We look for advice from others (that is only sensible) but we test it out and either accept it or reject based on our own evidence. After all it only takes a couple of weeks to show that a plan is beginning to work and we can evaluate our own evidence. We are not outsourcing, we make our own decisions and we see how good we are at following-through. We learn more about our body and how it works, more about our motivation and what makes it work. It involves our mind as well as our body and it extends us. In so doing it brings together number of fragments of our personalities. In one small, discrete area it gives us the opportunity of being a complete person

I do not claim uniqueness for running in all those things – there are all sorts of activities (such as the gardening Pollan talks of) that can have the same effect. But they are all activities that need to be done regularly - an occasional run, or an occasional dig means nothing. The continuity means there is a thread that runs through our lives. That thread can make us more self reliant and help us organise the bigger stuff like the coherence (or lack of it) between what we think and what we do.

But then of course it is back to the important question of what we do in the face of climate change and expensive energy.

Photothon 11: island ornaments

The hedgerow alongside the canal is usually overgrown and raggedy. Sometimes behind it are houses this tremendously neat gardens. The glimpse through a fringe of nettles can be a pleasing contrast. This bit of garden is interesting. They have a wonderful feature of their own private island but they have filled it with a miscellaneous collection of objects. It includes a rather nice stone. If everything else was removed and this was put in the centre with the gravel raked around it, it would make a nice Zen garden.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Photothon 10: Sunday morning

I remember a time when Sunday mornings were like this: getting up fairly late, down to the newsagent for the papers and then a leisurely read before lunch, dinner, the pub, whatever.

Now it is possible to revive that pattern – I don’t. I don’t even buy Sunday papers (I prefer the Saturday Guardian to the Observer). Instead I am out on a longish run, trying to build up my stamina. It is mildly paradoxical that when I was at, what should have been, my physical peak I enjoyed those lazy days, now I am past it I am engaged in this futile quest for lost conditioning. Ho hum, never was that good at timing.

But I like this picture because it reminds me that we all need days where we are at our ease.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Photothon 9: just slightly odd

When I am running I like to be aware of my surroundings and pay attention to the world. Before this photothon I used to think I looked quite closely at what was passing but I now realise that half the time I did not see too much at all. Partly this is because I switch between inward and outward looking, i.e. some of the time I pay attention to how I am feeling, how the muscles are moving, my gait, and my breath. At such times I know that my eyes are open but I see very little. At other times when I get into a rhythm and stare straight ahead and only really see what is in front of me – mostly where I need to put my feet.

With the photothon I get to the furthest point, pause my watch and then wander around – just looking. Everything is focused outwards and it makes a refreshing break because it makes you appreciate what is around you just that little bit more.

You never know what you will see. I think I would have missed this is I had been running up the lane as I would have been looking straight ahead.

It just looks ever so slightly odd: a chair and a funny roller contraption in the middle of a field.

I have no idea why the chair is there but the contraption is a scrummaging machine and therefore belongs on a rugby ground. I looked it up on the internet and was told that 'The company prides itself on designs of unchanging superiority'

Somehow it adds a pinch of absurdity to think that this is a picture of unchanging superiority

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Photothon 8: model (wind) farm

In my last post I mentioned that I seemed to be a bit fixated on nineteenth century engineering, so today I ran to the future. RES is an engineering firm concerned with wind farms and other green technologies. Its headquarters are Beaufort Court, in what was the Ovaltine model poultry farm.

Model farms were farms designed by architects rather than built in the vernacular style. You can see how splendid these chicken houses were from these photos on the Beaufort Court website. The aim was to be an example and it is hard to imagine anything further from the huts in which we intensively rear chickens now. Similarly RES have wanted to make their offices an example of environmental engineering. The aim is that all of its energy needs are met from on-site renewable installations and the offices have won a number of awards. The architects have a nice aerial shot of the complex here.

Today was fairly windy so I expected the turbine to be turning round at a good speed. I was a bit puzzled when I saw it was still. As I got closer I could see it was undergoing maintenance. My you need a good head for heights to do this

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Photothon 7: Dark Elf

It is quite common to see graffiti written on bridges. I still don't know how they do it. Dark Elf, Dark Angel - probably a pair of the graffiti goths.

This is another example of me looking at two things: transport as this area is on the main routes between London, the Midlands, and then the North West; and the nineteenth century lagacy. This is the land of the Grand union Canal and the West Coast Mainline - infrastructure that was started 200 hundred years ago

Most of the photos are pastoral, as if I am editing out the new town. Perhaps that is true but the fact is I prefer to run where there are trees, grasses and water. It may be psychological but it feels like you open your lungs more and it feels fresher. You feel more connected.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Photothon 6: iron sundae

The photothon is having an interesting effect on my runs. I no longer head straight back when I reach the furthest point. I take a few sips of water and start to look around, wandering up and down seeing what takes my attention. It is very relaxing, my heart rate drops and I love paying a different type of attention.

The break has also made me more aware of how a run by the canal is broken into bitesized chunks. There are bridges, roads, and of course locks. Sometimes I use these breaks as target and speed up to reach them, other times I just carry along in my own sweet way. The bridges and roads are clear dividers that I tend to walk. The bridges have steep gradients I used to treat with bravado but they knackered my knees, so now I am cautious and cross them slowly. The little break is a nice change of rhythm and a small recovery.

Anyway to this picture. I like the heft of nineteenth century engineering and there is something wonderfully tactile and solid about these mooring posts. The other important thing with is that you can see how things work. You only have to look at a lock gate to know how it operates With modern engineering this is gone. So much is hidden inside chips and black boxes there is little left you are able to fix. If it goes wrong you throw away and replace. Perhaps that is what I like about bicycles: they a still, basically nineteenth century machines. They are open and you can tinker with them.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Photothon 5a: Boxmoor

This would have been yesterday's photo if I had not been distracted by the dog club - hence the strange numbering.

Just look at this path. Doesn't it look as soft as an Impressionist painting? Doesn't it invite you to put one foot in front of another and run?

If it doesn't go very far and it is not a route in its own right, then that doesn't matter. It is a section and a place to make you feel good.

For this we have to thank a quirk of history and the generosity of someone in 1594 who bequeathed this area of land around the Bulborne and Gade rivers to the 67 inhabitants of Hemel Hempstead and Bovingdon. The aim was to preserve grazing and fishing rights on land that was once part of the Monastery at Ashridge. Since that time it has remained Common Land administered by a trust (now governed by and Act of 1809) and used for the recreation of the people, a wildlife sanctuary and the grazing of some rare breeds.

Over the years it has adapted and changed, taking on a farm and a disused brickworks here, giving up land for the railway and canal there, yet it always maintains its character. When you arrive at Hemel Hempstead station and beyond the forecourt it is the first thing you see.

Parts of it are given over to sport: there is a golf club, rugby club and two cricket pitches. So it is entirely appropriate to run. It is part of the spirit of the place

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Photothon 5: Boxmoor Dogs

This was not quite the furthest point of my run, so I have cheated a little, but this was very strange and so I wanted to record it.

A group of people were standing around watching their dogs (and there were a lot more dogs out of shot) run around, chasing each other and jumping in the water. Thats all, they were completely oblivious to other people passing. They obviously have their own Sunday morning rowdy dog club

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Photothon 4: Winkwell

Instead of turning left and going to Nash Mills I turned right and ran to Winkwell, to the pretty pub by the canal.

I can remember sitting here with my neice, when she was younger. We were talking about the canal and how barges used to be pulled by horses. She thought hard and said that the water must be very shallow for the horse to be able to walk along the bottom. Perfectly logical.

In the same spirit you can see that the bridge is very low and a barge would have to be very flat to get under it.

Although it is pretty I tend not to run this way so much because the tow path is quite rocky, uneven and harder on the feet. Last year a sharp flint, shaped like an axehead, worked its way into the grooves of my trainers and punctured right through the midsole.

You see running by the canal is not all about tranquility there are hazards as well, even if they are very, very tiny hazards.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Photothon 3: Nash Mills

This is pretty much my stock run, down to Nash Mills and back, so on other days I will have to seek out different things to photograph.

This shows that not all of my runs are rural loveliness, yet these old works are what I like about canals. They show their history and function. John Dickinson was important in the history of paper making and he made paper here.

The barge in the forefront is loaded with rubbish. I saw it on Wednesday, being used by men from British Waterways who were cleaning-up rubbish from he side of the canal. It is amazing how much there was. I had never before thought of the effort involved in keeping the canal in good cosmetic condition as well as structurally sound.

I really hate all the litter that is thoughtlessly left around.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Photothon 2 - Limehouse

Today I was in London and my furthest point was Limehouse. It was remarkably peaceful, like a Sunday, with a few people jogging by the river and others just looking at the water. But presumably a few minutes away in the glass towers of Canary Wharf there was the cut and thrust of all sorts of financial activity.

This is a rather fine herring gull by Jane Ackroyd.

It is in Narrow Street almost opposite an old pub: The Grapes. In 'Our Mutual Friend' the pub is called the The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters and is the location of a number of important events, including a coroners inquest. It is strange to think of holding an inquest in a pub but apparently it used to happen. (By the way fellowship porters were regulated porters who carried measurable goods like grain or coal).

The novel contains some of Dickens' bleakest descriptions of London and of this stretch of the river he said:

...where accumulated scum of humanity seemed to be washed from higher grounds, like so much moral sewage, and to be pausing until its own weight forced it over the bank and sunk it into the river. In and out among the vessels that seemed to have got ashore and the houses that seemed to have got afloat...

Things are not quite the same now.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Photothon 1

A number of very fine people have decided to run every day in June i.e. participate in the Juneathon. I'm not sure I am up to that as I believe in rest days. However I feel I ought to do something and so have decided on a photothon. At the furthest point from the start of my run/walk/cycle I will find something to photograph. With any luck this will help me to look around with more attention.

I had not looked closely these lock gates before. They are almost like giant, overgrown filing cabinets. So, if you like, this is a picture of my outdoor office.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Going Slow

Today was a day to celebrate slow and for this I have to thank my wife.

We don't usually run together, differing schedules, and programmes get in the way but today was an opportunity we could take. We ran the canal tow paths around Berkhamsted, which are nicely surfaced (i.e. like a clay tennis court rather than flinty and uneven), as well as being flat, and we ran at a very easy pace. In fact it was all very pleasant: the vegetation was verdant, ducklings were little bundles of fluff bobbing around on the canal, barge owners were fettling about in their boats, carrying out tasks of minor maintenance. The weather was overcast but was warm enough and carried the atmosphere of calm mistiness. In fact if you asked me to present a picture of England in repose I would give you this canal, right here.

We ran at a pace to talk easily both to ourselves and some people on the barges, or stop to help a lady get her pushchair up some steps. We could take time to look at the passing scenery. I ran a bit longer but the combined result was that we both felt refreshed after we finished.

It was especially good because I had quite forgotten about the virtues of the recovery-run. They seem to have dropped out of my repertoire and I tend to do too many runs at the same sort of middling pace. I always remember Mike Gratton saying that he thought most people ran too fast on their slow runs and too slow on their faster runs; and I know I that is me. Things seem to bunch up in the middle and almost all runs are steady.

Sometimes I just have to step back and relearn the basic lessons - again and again. Today was such a day and I will now do more of this type of session. However they are easy. The other side of the bargain means I will have to do other sessions at greater intensity. Gosh that is almost getting a bit hardcore.

I will console myself with something I learnt from Joe Beer at the Algarve training camp two years ago. He said you don't need to do too many hard sessions. Research with successful athletes showed they did a surprisingly high proportion of their mileage at an easy pace. If you think of an 80:20 distribution and you do 30 miles a week then you should only by doing 6 miles hard (and even that was not strictly necessary – and certainly not at my standard).