Freelance writer/sub-editor/graphic designer based in the lovely village of Helmshore, deepest Lancashire.
Published April 2nd 2013
We've lived in Helmshore in Lancashire for just over a year. When we moved here, we were invited to have a health check-up at our new doctors.
My 'bad' cholesterol was okay but my 'good' cholesterol was too low. My blood pressure was also too high for a skinny bloke.
I explained that I had a stressful job (well, more the boss than the job itself) and that it was possibly hereditary, with several other family members suffering from similar complaints.
In an attempt to extend my life, therefore, I decided to take up running. I'd tried it once before, when I was about 21 and thinking of a career in the police force (poor eyesight meant this was not to be, and I dare say a diet of Judge Dredd had also made me a little right-wing, although this may have been to my advantage) but it made me even skinnier, which mattered more to me then than it does these days (sunken cheeks and haunted eyes are so 'on-trend', I find).
I started with a few short runs around Helmshore – along an old railway viaduct and past the Textile Museum (see my previous piece for more on this) – a 3.2-mile circuit, which, after initially finding incredibly difficult, I have come to thoroughly enjoy.
I then decided to try something more challenging and set off in the other direction, through local beauty spot Snig Hole (it's much nicer than it sounds) and into Irwell Vale. The East Lancs Railway runs through here and, if timed correctly, it is possible to have a preserved steam locomotive, complete with passengers, for company.
The path climbs here up to the level of another section of the previously mentioned viaduct, which runs parallel to the preserved railway. A steady run along this brings me to the village of Stubbins and from there it's another half-mile trot to Ramsbottom, the pretty market town named after the wild ransom (garlic) which grows along the valley bottom (it's nothing to do with sheep and their nether-regions).
Turning right up Carr Street, the first of several hundred (if not a thousand) feet of serious climbing begins. This is relentless. The road twists its way up through attractive, elevated stone houses and eventually comes to Rawsons Rake, a one-in-four climb which is, unbelievably, even steeper. It's so steep there's a handrail for pedestrians.
Not for the faint-hearted: Rawsons Rake, a one-in-four climb
I tend to shuffle up here, my eyes firmly fixed on the tarmac. Looking up merely fills me with dread – it's like running up a wall.
The Rake is also notorious in the world of cycling, and features in the national Hill Climb Championships.
I sometimes hear walkers coming downhill asking one another: "How can anyone run up here?" It's a good question.
Once conquered, The Rake becomes Chapel Lane and meets Helmshore Road. There's a very interesting property here; it's a stone cottage, which used to be the village post office. The stonework is clearly pockmarked, with chips of various sizes peppering the façade.
Still standing: The old Post Office's stonework is peppered with shrapnel damage from a 1916 Zeppelin raid
The cause of this damage was a Zeppelin, which passed overhead on September 25, 1916, dropping five of its bombs as it went. One of these bombs hit the road in front of the post office and showered it with shrapnel. I'd love to buy the house, which is for sale, just so I could relate the tale.
Various other properties over this stretch of road were also damaged – the Shoulder of Mutton pub had its front door blown off and the local school caught fire, but all have been repaired so there is little physical evidence left.
Interestingly, the only casualty was a song thrush, which was stuffed and kept in a case in the school as a reminder of the attack.
Cross Lane and Moorbottom Lane are next, and then it's the climb up to the top of Holcombe Hill, which is 1,100ft above sea level. This is also a nasty climb, made worse by loose gravel and an uneven surface.
It's at about this point that the voices in my head begin to make themselves heard. One of them tells me that it wouldn't do any harm to stop, just for a moment, and catch my breath. It tells me that the hill is too steep, that the climb has just begun. It tells me to look at my stopwatch and realise that I'm not going fast enough to crack my PB (personal best).
The other voice tells me that it's pointless to consider the distance I have left to travel; that it's best to concentrate on what I've done, not what I've yet to do. It tells me that it's best to let the time take care of itself and to just concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
This is the voice I listen to, except for once, when I first tackled The Rake and found it too much for me.
I try to set off early, otherwise this track is often filled with families and their dogs (I'm not a dog-lover – quite the opposite in fact). Once these people, along with their children and pets, have sensed my presence, they seem to do everything in their power to impede my progress, by moving into the gap through which I was about to run or by standing stock-still, gawping at me.
Again, vanity precludes me from appearing to suffer from my exertions at this point, and I stupidly redouble my efforts in order to look good.
Once the summit is reached, it is possible to gaze down into Manchester (some 15 or so miles away), make out the hills of Derbyshire on the horizon and even, on a clear day, see Blackpool Tower.
I then pass local landmark the Peel Monument, which was built in1852 to commemorate Bury's most famous son, Prime Minister Robert Peel, who famously introduced the first police force to the world – London's 'Peelers'.
By now I'm on my way home, leaping the cattle grids of Moor Road as I go. I pass various farms along the track, high on Holcombe Moor, and skirt the edge of Buckden Wood, which is National Trust property and very old indeed. I haven't seen any Hobbits peeping out of there yet, but that's where I'd go if I were looking for some.
Moor Road turns into Alden Road, although these aren't roads in the true sense, more pack-mule tracks and pilgrim byways from days gone. Indeed, Holcombe Moor has its own pilgrim cross which, although now a stone obelisk dating from the early years of the 20th century, stands near the site of the original, which is said to have dated from the 12th century.
This would have pointed the way for travellers heading for Whalley Abbey, near the pretty Lancashire town of Clitheroe.
Holcombe Moor is also the location of TV's famous Krypton Factor assault course, which used to be required viewing back in the 80s and 90s (the assault course bit was good, anyway).
The Army holds exercises up here and if the warning flags are flying, or troops tell you not to venture any further, it's best to take heed as live ammunition is used. This all adds a little spice to the proceedings.
A gateway opens onto a rough descent into Helmshore itself. Robin Hood's Well is situated just through the gate, and is topped by a strange old mushroom-shaped rock.
From here, the track descends to a tarmaced road, which passes several spectacular local properties, and then joins Holcombe Road. Free Lane lies just across the road and then it's about a half-mile climb to home.
It's an hour and twenty minutes of hard going but the feeling of wellbeing at the end, after a hot shower, cup of tea and bacon butty, is hard to beat.
Needless to say, the rest of the day is a write-off, and a nice sit-down easily turns into a lie-down, and then a little sleep in front of the telly, sometimes with chocolate around my mouth.
I've no idea as to the state of my blood pressure – I've never been back to the doctors.