To make life seem less repetitive and mechanical it’s good to have adventures, to keep doing new things for the first time. I spent this weekend visiting my mum in Liverpool, which is mainly a comforting nostalgic break from the cumulative rigours of routine, but I decided to deliberately explore two new experiences.
Last year when visiting I brought my bike with me and as I was riding back from the southern suburbs to Lime Street station, cycled past an enticing deep sunken garden behind the Anglican cathedral. And unexplored place! I found that this was St James’ Garden, excavated when much of the stone that the city is built from was hewn, that it hosts a spring, and that it’s a graveyard. So this time, quivering with the elective power of taking a weekday off work, I went to explore. It felt like entering a secret kingdom, and a quiet one too - apart from its own sepulchral calm, it has all the peace of a walled garden (but a biblical rather than a Victorian one) and bathes in the stillness from the cathedral that towers above, floating in the air like a gothic mothership.
There were a few other explorers, exploring the garden quietly with cameras like me, or sitting and exploring their own inner landscapes.
I stayed for about forty minutes. The place will stay with me for life. I can close my eyes and retreat there any time I choose.
Don’t worry, blokey readers. This will get a bit less poncey now.
My sister and her husband live with their three young daughters in Formby, a quiet coastal town about twenty miles north of the Liverpool suburb where we come from and where my mum lives. After having followed a training plan for two marathons this year which stipulates a twenty-miler every couple of weekends, I’m ready to run that distance at the drop of any proverbial hat that I might hear fluttering earthwards. Inevitably, I resolved to run from Mum’s to Rachel’s next time I was down.
Twenty miles should take three hours at a leisurely nine minutes per mile I reasoned. The only risk was the weather. I’d be running up the Mersey coast and winds of up to 45 mph were forecast. This was the weekend of Storm Desmond. (On behalf of all Pink Floyd fans can I entreat that when they get up to T, we can have Storm Thorgerson?) But they seemed to be from the south east. I wore a windproof jacket and gloves and set off. My mum lives half a mile from the banks of the Mersey at Otterspool Promenade, and as I approached it, my iPod played “Stanlow” by OMD, their solemn hymn to the oil refinery over the river whose lights I could see as I ran. And as the OMD boys hail from “over the water” as they say in Liverpool, i kept them playing as a surveyed the towns of the Wirral on the other side of the choppy river. The wind propelled me forward from behind and as I passed the spot where I collapsed with cramp on the Liverpool Marathon in June, I felt happy. When I was a boy, the promenade just stopped here, at the landfill sight, but over the decades that’s become a garden festival and then housing and even marinas. It’s an impressive rebirth and as I headed north I felt a sense not just of the Irish Sea ahead of me but the Atlantic and Liverpool’s historic links with the new world. This fired my imagination as a boy and did again as I ran. I love landscapes, history, movement, and the absence of crowds. This is where I’m most alive.
And so, now it’s all joined up, I can run from the house I grew up it to the Pier Head, with all it’s new developments and the Liver Buildings. Here’s I turned inland, going east for what was an optimistic piece of memorised navigating, up Water Street, where my father worked for Bibby Brothers shipping when I was a boy, and along Dale Street, barely changed since then. I soon found myself where I’d never been before, looking for Vauxhall (Lots of planets have a Vauxhall) where I joined the Leeds-Liverpool canal.
Here I managed a serendipitous error. Thrown off by the domestic labyrinth and shearing wind, I turned the wrong way on the canal, and heading west towards the docks was treated to an astonsihing ladder of locks, as the canal descended between enormous dark brick warehouses over a century old. The scale of this intrusion of historic industry into the landscape was breathtaking and as I regained my bearings and headed northeast again I was grateful for the happy accident.
Up then along the well maintained towpath. There was a kind of grim beauty to the landscape I passed through, countless scrap yards and businesses where blowtorch and swarfega are always to hand. A fire in a skip added to the sense of ruin. In the whole section along the canal, I didn’t see a single vessel on the water, a stark reminder that I live in a genteel varsity town where rowing teams and longboat holiday makers revel in life on the water. Beyond the canal were places I’d only had the most fleeting engagement with in my youth. My father had an uncle and aunt in Bootle, and it hadn’t ever been a place I’d imagined visiting on foot.
At Crosby I left the canal and tacked back over to the coast. I’d missed some sleep during the week and was starting to feel it. But I was over half way and on schedule. As I headed towards the sand dunes at Crosby I realised how fierce the wind was. I was enjoying the novelty of running where I’d never run before but feeling apprehensive about the conditions. The promenade seems to run through the middle of the dunes and had accumulated blown-in deposits almost too high to jump over. The wind coming in from Liverpool Bay was whipping in from my side and found the best way was to run with one eye closed to keep the sand out. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had my calves blasted by sand like this. In such circumstances, the thing to do is grit your teeth (although the wind was actually doing this for me) put your head down and get on with it.
I’s been going for about two hours by now and although I didn’t know it at the time, made a catastrophic mistake. I turned inland again too early rather than continuing north along the coast and found myself passing through well-to-do residential areas. I now realise that after two hours, my reasoning and planning had gone to pot, and even when I referred to the mapping app on my phone I wasn’t looking for the big picture.
I had a point to aim for that my sister had told me about at Hightown station where I could catch an off-road path all the way up to Formby, but I ended up taking an insane dangerous route to it along a busy road with no pavement, hardly any verge, and tight corners which meant that I had to keep changing side just to be seen. Common sense commanded me to take my earphones out and stop and leave the road when oncoming cars approached. This I later learned is a notorious place just for motorists. As a pedestrian I had no business being there. And I still hadn’t worked out that this wasn’t the route I’d been planning. I was becoming exhausting and angry that that run seemed to be longer than the twenty miles I had planned.
I finally made it to Hightown, tired and angry, but at least pleased that I was off-road again and could put my earbuds back in an bask in the stadium rock anthems of Asia. If you’re not allowed a guilty pleasure in these circumstances, when are you?
I phoned my sister, who is one of the most chatty and loquacious people I know. I think I may have cut her dead slightly with my just-the-facts-ma’am progress update.
I arrived, via this odd little sub-space wormhole, in the middle of a residential part of Formby and felt my spirits lift as I trotted the last few streets to the house. The numbers on my watch just didn’t make sense. I’d maintained a pace of about 08:45 a mile and yet was arriving half an hour late. It dawned on me that I’d run far more than I’d planned, well over twenty-three miles. Another half hour and I’d have covered a marathon.
My nieces excitedly cheered my arrival. I handed my phone to their mum and lingered outside the front door for two minutes, stretched and relishing the last solitude I’d enjoy for several hours.
The first two hours of the run had been exquisite mental and physical nourishment. The last hour and a half had been tough. I was glad it was over.
Now, a day later, I appreciate it a bit more. I’ve created a link between two places. Whenever I think of the two houses my family live in I’ll be able to contemplate a continuous path of footsteps linking them.
Human-powered transport joins places up. It’s a deliberate way of weaving something valuable.