How to do Dartmoor on a Saturday morning in November
This newsletter was first published on Patreon, after a weekend of wild running, on 8 November 2021
This past weekend, I co-hosted a Running & Writing retreat with Feet in the Clouds author Richard Askwith. It's the third retreat we've done together, and each time we ask everyone in the group to write something about the same Saturday morning run, with the option to read it out to the group on Sunday evening.
It's always wonderful to get eight or nine different perspectives, different pieces of writing, all in different styes and coming from different angles, all about exactly the same run. I'm always amazed by how good they all are. Is it the conducive retreat atmosphere? Have we only attracted really great writers to the retreat? Or do we all somehow bounce off each other, like we do when we're running, gaining strength and courage from the others, feeding off the energy of the group? Running and writing are both in essence solitary pursuits, but here on the retreat we come together to do them both, and it seems to work.
I always feel some pressure for mine to be slightly better than those of the guests, but it rarely is. In any case, writing isn't a competition, and whether a piece is better or not is unimportant. Each one can be appreciated in its own way, for its own insights and moments of humour and poetry.
So for this week's Monday Musings, here is my little piece from the retreat about our little jaunt on Dartmoor on Saturday morning ...
There’s always that moment when you get out of the car, the shudder of cold bites at your ears, gets down your neck. Everything jars, and your first urge is to get straight back in the car and shut the door.
People walk by wrapped up in jackets and scarves, calling their dogs back. That’s the normal way to do this. To be on Dartmoor on a Saturday morning in November. We must look a little odd in our shorts and flimsy jackets. Like that time I saw those people in matching T-shirts being beasted by a man in Army uniform as they did press-ups on Goodrington beach. I thought they looked a little odd. Why would they want to do that?
Why would we want to be here, shivering, as Nigel gets us to warm up by wiggling our pelvis, our bare legs bristling in protest?
Even after we start running, it’s not instantly fun. My legs creak slowly into movement, my feet squelching in the mud. I try to tiptoe around the black puddles as though they may hide deep holes, my joie de vivre still back in the warmth off the car, the sleek holiday house we left behind this morning. I’m still not yet part of this barren, bleak landscape. I’m skating over it, buffeted by it, and gazing nervously at the stretching distance.
A mile in, up the hill to Haytor, my feet begin to feel some connection with the earth for the first time, finding some bounce in the soft grass, small steps in the stones. A faint warming begins to stir inside me.
The granite boulders of Haytor stand still in the choppy grayness of the day. Shall we climb to the top? The urge takes us and we’re scrambling up the well worn footholds in the rock, made over decades by millions of day-trippers taking a moment to scale Dartmoor’s mini, accessible summit.
At the top the wind is wild, flapping our jackets, inviting lift-off. We take selfies. Of course we do. We are on top of the world. All around us lies the browning, wintering moor, the sea cold and moody in the distance.
We’d best get on, down the rocks, out of the frantic wind, running down the soft, grassy Dartmoor hills, into ancient woodlands where clapper bridges lie sturdy and strong across excitable streams. Then back up, steep. But I’m in my flow now, back in the familiar groove of moving through this knotted, hulking landscape, wild, yet tame. Almost gentle today, out of the wind, no driving, squalling rain to blind my eyes. Even the mud seems reticent today.
With one last tor to pass, and the glint of the cars in sight, I let go of the brakes. We start rolling, a few picking up the whiff of a challenge as I rush by. Childish, I shout: “It’s a race.”
Hardly a fair race with my flying start, but I don’t care, I’m just loving the feel of my legs whirring away under me, the old burn on the lungs as I underestimate the size of the final hill. It’s partly nostalgia, from those cross-country days of my youth, when running meant pushing, pushing, always pushing. And partly just the fairground thrill of skipping and leaping over rocks and tuffets, especially on the final downward slope. Almost at the car now, I sense someone suddenly behind me. I speed up. Of course I do. It’s a race. And in a race, you have to race.
We stand doubled over by the cars as everyone regroups. We’re warm now. No longer shivering. Happy to be standing here. It’s the same old story: after the run, it all makes sense. Yes, this is the way to be on Dartmoor on a Saturday morning in November. At least, for me it is.