The lane is old, that much is certain. A few miles further east lies the Salter Track, driven across the Bowland Fells by Rome’s legions, and the lane is likely of a similar vintage, perhaps even older. By the medieval period it was an important thorough-fare, part of the ‘Earlsgate’, a much-used ridgeway travelled by drovers heading north over the scarp to the ancient ford across the Lune at Halton. Now largely forgotten, I run the lane whenever I need space to think. I run it to be reminded of time and transience, of paths taken and of those lost. I run it in wind and rain, and in snow and ice (skirting and skating the frozen pot-hole puddles which drift down the lane like Lilliputian glaciers). Today, after two months of life in lockdown, I run the lane in the heat of summer, the mercury already climbing as the dawn sun clears the rocky outpost of Clougha Pike.
At the point where my feet first leave tarmac for stone and gravel, the land is under the sway of the two towers. To the south, a domed Edwardian folly – the Ashton Memorial – dominates the city’s outskirts, seen by all who journey north on the M6. The other tower, eyeing the lane itself, is the ‘Annex’ of the old Moor Hospital, a product of the great age of nineteenth century confinement. On a wet and windy November day not even the recent redevelopment work (which has converted cold asylum into plush apartments) can distract me from the troubling thoughts this tower always provokes. Why, within sight of where the Pendle witches were hanged, on moorland both barren and bleak, did the architect Arnold Kershaw opt for such a brooding brand of Gothic?
Under the gaze of the Annex my pace unconsciously quickens, a gentle descent now lengthening my stride. I kick up clouds of dust, the gravelled lane baked hard by a week of fine weather which has burnt brown the usual lush green of hedgerow and meadow. Although only a couple of miles into the run, I have my rhythm – lungs, legs and arms finding their form. Hot and hard work, but of the sort I enjoy. To run is to seek and suffer and, often, to get exactly no-where, for I end where I start.
Just as the old asylum disappears into the distance, a more recent place of imprisonment reveals itself: Her Majesty’s Young Offenders Institute, Lancaster Farms. Don’t let the name fool you - this is no rustic idyll where youthful miscreants are returned to the soil and made into good yeoman. Different century, but still conversion through confinement. I push hard again, keen to flee from the Farms’ razored walls, an easy climb leading to a bank overlooking the M6, cut through the countryside in 1960. Here, the lane was turned from its old course and channelled over a bridge, a river of road below.
As I crest the lane’s high point the view opens out to the faraway fells, the Langdale Pikes bristling against the skyline. The sun is burning brightly now and the heat drives the moisture from my body. I sweat, wiping the salt tears from my eyes, and sigh relief when I finally reach the start of the tree line. Oak, stunted by long exposure to the wind, line either side of the lane, and I weave amongst and between the patches of shade they provide, startling three roe deer grazing the verge. They gallop and glide down the track, hurdling a field gate, before disappearing from view. Looking up, the high country of the Lakes is now obscured. But Ingleborough arrives in the east, standing proud and aloof. On its summit are the remains of an Iron Age Hill Fort; was the lane here when the fort’s residents looked out to the shining sea on the far horizon?
I run on. The lane sinks deeper, a holloway flowing into the folds of the nearby fields. More time passes, more memories lost. Somewhere, amidst the tangled roots of the ivy-clad oak and overwhelmed on this hot June day by great swathes of fern (unchanged for a mere 180 million years), sits a ‘plague stone’. This was the spot at which provisions were placed for afflicted communities, a medieval quarantine intended to stop the disease in its (and on this) track.
I descend further and oak now recedes before willow, a sure sign that the river is close (in the winter months, this part of the lane is often drowned, and I wade rather than run). I’m moving well, pace and path synchronised, my breathing fast but controlled. I could run like this all day. At Denny Beck, a flood-prone tributary of the Lune, the lane meets a busy road and I cross quickly before finally reaching the old ford at Halton, the far bank of the river still guarded by the remains of a motte and baily. But this is not my destination and turning east I follow the line of a disused railway, one of the many axed long-ago by Dr Beeching and now shaded by alder and birch.
After a mile or so the old railway line bridges a long and lazy meander in the Lune – the ‘crook’ – from where Turner painted the valley not long after Waterloo. Taking the river’s northern bank, I head out into the pasture which rolls down to the water. I’ve been running for half an hour now; soaked in sweat and eager for my destination. Cattle observe me disinterestedly; sheep slumber in the shade; an oystercatcher calls above.
Soon I’m amongst the trees again, grateful for the cover, placing footfall carefully amongst roots and rotting branches. An iron bridge hoves into view, built to carry Lakeland water from Thirlmere to thirsty Manchester and looking for all the world like something of which Brunel would have been proud. I cross to the southern bank and, once again turning east, begin to sprint. Just a few hundred yards to go now, skipping over thistle and nettles towards a widening beach of sand and shingle. And then I’m there, at my own bend in the Lune, a large oak behind me, its leaves sailing in the light breeze, Ingleborough imperious on the horizon. No-one to be seen. No-one to be heard. Hot and bothered, I slip off my running shoes and slip into the cool water. I drift into the deep centre and the gentle current takes me slowly downstream. Swallow – unfazed by my presence – dart and play, and a grey heron, wings spread wide, flies towards the distant dales.