Trees in Chopwell Woods

It was the world to me

One of the things I miss most about lockdown is getting out onto trails and mountains. As an introvert I’m wired pretty well to cope with the lack of socialising but lack of mountains? That’s cruel and unusual punishment.

I crave the sense of wonder found driving along winding roads, carved like glaciers through the majesty of tree lined slopes. The first sight of Sharp Edge, hovering over the shoulder of Blencathra on the drive to Keswick. The anticipation you get looking at the way the arête sweeps upwards, beckoning you to attempt it.

I miss the first few hurried paces up a fell, before settling into a slower and more sustainable rhythm. The moment you spot the cairn and surge towards it with a sense of achievement. The feeling when the rays of the sun break through the cloud to bathe some corner of a valley in their light.

I even miss the feeling of crouching in a shelter on a windswept summit, enveloped in cloud, sipping whatever drink you have. The kind words exchanged with fellow adventurers as you pass, fleetingly, before being embraced once again by the solitary magnitude of nature.

I miss how it feels to scan the ground a few metres in front of you, and the sense of wonder as what your eyes see somehow converts into muscle memory and your feet dance over the rocks and roots moments later.

Gibside's Liberty Column from Derwent Walk Gibside’s Liberty Column from Derwent Walk

Most of all, I miss the blissful abandonment that comes when the conditions and the terrain are perfect. The way you surge forwards, weightless, feeling with every step that all this was some kind of wonderful gift created for no other reason than your delight.

All that is to say, I’ve rather missed the hills. But on Saturday I had the kind of moments of pure joy usually reserved for the grand experiences in nature.

On Saturday, I’d entered the Ultra Trail Drakensberg lockdown edition. The rules were simple and it was a good reason to do something a little different to my normal runs along the river.

As I nursed a cuppa and some porridge in the morning, I opened the Suunto App and started to plot out a route. I pored over the trail running heatmap, encouraged by the news we’re allowed to drive a small distance to exercise. A quick swipe later and a new route was synced to my watch. I filled my soft flasks, threw a couple of gels into my running vest, and tightened up my S/Lab Ultra 2s. This was going to be fun.

I miss how it feels to scan the ground a few metres in front of you, and the sense of wonder as what your eyes see somehow converts into muscle memory and your feet dance over the rocks and roots moments later.

The car park is less than ten minutes drive from home, but starting from there made the world of difference. Instead of having to do a 10k round trip to access the trail, I was able to start straight out on it.

I passed through the near empty paths of the Derwenthaugh Park, drinking in the views of the river and the trees, before joining the Derwent Walk. I followed the route of the old railway line up through Rowland’s Gill to the long abandoned Lintz Green station, scene of an infamous unsolved murder.

From the station there’s a narrow path down into the village of Lintzford itself and there, just across the road, is Chopwell Woods. It’s the first time I’ve ran there and it was a great feeling to find myself once again faced with some hills, albeit nothing too big, and decent trails.

By the time I’d passed the half way point I was running downhills with my arms unashamedly stretched out like wings. This was what I’d came for. Then, after about nine miles or so, I took a slight wrong turn, baptised those beautiful red S/Labs in ankle-deep mud for the first time, and found myself alone by the riverside.

The River Derwent in Chopwell Woods The River Derwent in Chopwell Woods

To my left was a thirty foot wall of moss and tree roots, almost begging to be climbed. I reached above me and grabbed onto a branch, propelling myself onto a thin ledge and scanning the terrain for more holds.

It was at this point that I remembered the lockdown guidance to take no unnecessary risks. I’m sure I could’ve scrambled up no problem but I couldn’t see a definite route. Falling off things right now could put pressure on our already stretched health system. It’ll have to wait for another day.

I retraced my steps and joined the trail again but somewhere the navigation got confused and next thing you know I’m going back up the hill the way I’d came. I didn’t know the way back to the path without the watch so had no option but to follow it. What should have been 6k of fun in the woods became 11k, but you’ll hear no complaints from me on that score.

By the time I emerged from the woods and rejoined the main path at the old train station, I was past the half marathon mark. I sped up a little and coasted the five miles back to the car wearing a massive grin.

Chopwell Woods isn’t the wilderness and the hills enclosed there are neither Wainwrights nor Munros, but to be there was golden. After two months of seeing very little trail, they may just as well have been the forests of Yosemite or the mountains of Drakensberg. It was the world to me.

If I can get that kind of endorphin and adrenaline rush from some local trails, I can’t imagine how good it’ll feel to experience nature in all it’s glory when lockdown is over.

The trails may be empty, but my anticipation is overflowing.

Gear: Salomon S/Lab Ultra 2 shoes, Salomon S-Lab Sense Set 8 trail vest, Suunto 9 Baro, Maurten gels, SunGod Sierra sunglasses.