mundane adventures in running
This morning was beautiful for running. We were blessed with blue skies alternating with squally showers. It was breezy, warmish, not hot… invigorating: enough to feel a bit challenging without becoming horrible. I set out with the idea of doing a longish run, and investigating some of the suggestions I’ve been given for wild places in London. I traced out a vague plan on Google Maps before I started: to Dulwich park, through the College playing grounds to Sydenham woods, and then North, looping through Nunhead and back home through Peckham. No headphones: I didn’t want to be distracted by music, and I wanted to be able to experience the difference in how the woods sound compared to the streets. The woods are a frequent stomping ground for me. The Green Chain Walk passes through as it meanders on to Crystal Palace. There’s a nice, long gradual hill with a dry, well kept trail which is good for hill intervals. While I know these woods, to enter with a mindset of exploration, treating them as a stop along the way, not a place to pass through, changes the experience. It’s always a calm and interesting place and somewhere I want to be, but trying to engage with it on its own terms, actively trying to become part of it rather than passively travelling through pays: it’s easy to feel part of the wood, to feel more really there. The city is scared of these woods. There are six foot, spiked iron railings around all of the park, occasionally broken with barbed wire topped chain link fences. From the surrounding suburban streets, the dark and light of the wood and the city stand in sharp contrast. The wood is obscure and impenetrable. It grows thick right up to the fence. You can’t see in, not really, it’s thick, deep green and black from the bright grey of the roads. As you stand and stare from the city things move imperceptibly, spirits blink at you. Entrances are few, and most guarded by industrial powder coasted kissing gates, or approached through paths tracing boundaries of estates, or hidden at the backs of rows of houses. As I entered the wood, the heavens opened. Ominous sounding thunder claps warned me as I started to pick out a mud track on the forest floor. The wind picked up. As I ran, slowly, the wood felt alive. The wind was blowing away the chaff that had collected over the summer, the smaller branches and twigs, the yellowing leaves. The woods felt vertical: the trees rose up, the rain and the trees’ debris came down. I stopped a few times to look up, to enjoy the sensation of the canopy collapsing in readiness for Winter. The sound was distinct from the city. The pitter of rain made a white noisish drone, accented with the clicks and snaps of twigs and branches shifting under the weight of the rain, falling and snapping. The sound deadened any noise from outside of the woods. It was an audio blinker, limiting what I could hear to my breathing, my footsteps and the sounds of the immediately visible landscape around me. I felt cosseted by the wood, sucked in and embraced. Despite the rain, despite the thunder, I felt protected and loved. I ran like this for a few kilometres, looping round and back, playing a game of not crossing my path. I was alone in the wood. At that moment, in that storm, it must have been one of the least densely populated places in London. And it felt like that. To be alone in such a vast and busy city can feel transgressive. It’s not something your meant to do, it’s an antisocial, defiant act; it’s an up yours to the citizenry of London, an up yours to community and humanity and what makes a city a city. There’s a strong sense of gradient in these woods. The paths rise and dip. Up and down railway sidings, areas excavated for forgotten reasons. They are littered with smooth polished bricks, fancifully plastered bits of derelict building left over from god knows what. Roots, fallen trees and branches are to be navigated, jumped over, ducked under. It’s easy in London to run in two dimensions, back and forth, left and right. These woods make you think in three dimensions: the vertical becomes part of the journey. Another part of propreception comes into play, another consideration of your position in space and how you sit in relation to the ground. After a while the rain stopped, the sun came out. It felt like the rhythm of the weather was leading me on, on to the rest of my run. I let it take me on, and continued, running out of the woods, and back into the streets of South East London. Dulwich and Sydenham Woods is close to that wild experience. I did feel, at moments, like I’d returned to the countryside of my youth. Even in the wilds of my ancestors. Today, for a few minutes in the pissing down rain, I got to in a part of the city that wasn’t the city anymore.