The parkrun effect

Another runner stopped me in the park this morning to say “thank you”. We met a few months ago when she was asking staff in the Climbers’ Shop about local running clubs, and was turning a little pale at the exploits of Ambleside AC. I couldn’t help joining in. Try the new parkrun, I suggested. We’ve just started one at Fellfoot near Newby Bridge.

She told me today that she had gone along, very nervous, but had found everyone friendly, had loved it,  and it had transformed her running. Familiar story. “But I’m moving back to Lancashire. I miss my family and friends too much so I won’t be doing Fellfoot again.” Ah, sad. “But there’s a parkrun just nearby. I’ll be doing that one.” Good news!

The parkrun effect really has transformed exercise for millions of people, and the stories are well known and well told. Tributes to Paul Sinton-Hewitt, who started all this when a group of 13 pals ran round Bushy Park in London just over ten years ago, are gaining momentum.

My sister, who started running in her fifties, has now completed 210 parkruns (oh, and a handful of marathons). She sneered when I was a running fanatic years ago. “Smelly, sweaty habit,” she said then.

But me? Years of pounding downhill on flat feet and inadequate knees, along with the distractions of family life, diminished my own enthusiasm. When I came last in a fell race – so far off the pace that I wasn’t really part of the experience – a very significant part of my life was over. And was rediscovered through parkruns.

I still run on the fells, for the fun of it. But on Saturday mornings I am “competing” among others, reliving the thrill of the sprint finish, or overtaking someone half my age, and loving it. And loving it, too, when I’m beaten by a seven year old neighbour. The community we’re building at Fellfoot is a whole new friendship group of delightful people; the course we’ve created at Fellfoot is gaining accolades from visitors. We have the best views, for sure.

But parkrun enriches the experience of going anywhere, in Britain or the world. My sister went to Iceland to run the one in Reykjavik; I’ve managed Brockwell Park and Gunnersbury Park in London. My old home territory at Heaton Park has a grand route, so does Barrow – possibly the hilliest. Oddly, Keswick, in the heart of the Lake District, has one of the flattest.

All this talk of “competing” and “being beaten” is, apparently, not entirely in the spirit of parkrun. “It’s not a race, it’s just a run,” said a young lad lining up beside me one morning. “Oh yeah?” I said. “If there’s someone in front of you, it’s a race. If there’s no one in front of you, you’re winning the race.” He shot off. And beat me, well and truly.

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The top ten places to eat in the Lake District

Top ten places to eat in the Lake District: a personal selection

1: Flask of soup on top of Scafell Pike

2: Dinner at the Cedar Manor hotel in Windermere

3: Picnic on top Loughrigg

4: Lunch at Rattle Gill café in Ambleside

5: Supper on top of Latterbarrow

6: Cake at Chester’s by the river, Skelwith Bridge

7: Pizza at Zeffirellis

8: Fish and chips opposite the Moot Hall in Keswick

9: Bar meal at the Wasdale Head Inn

10: Breakfast at Buttermere Youth Hostel

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Keeping adventure alive in the Lake District

Wise words this week from Ian Boydon in the Westmorland Gazette, “Felltop trails must stay rugged and characterful”. He’s concerned about the over-engineering of repairs to footpaths and bridleways. Ian writes from the mountain-biking perspective, but wilderness adventures generally are under threat.

Ian says that the aims to establish Cumbria as the Adventure Capital of the UK are being undermined by “well-meaning but at times misguided” efforts to straighten and level once-rugged paths. Some rugged and characterful paths and byways have already been sanitised and are now “more at home in a London park”. Others have spoken of the urbanisation of our countryside.

At the same time, there are commercial developers hovering with plans such as the Glenridding zip-wire scheme. They are offering a “thrill” experience, which might well tempt those who used to bounce down the Garburn Pass or pick their way through boulder strewn paths.

But there’s a difference between thrill and adventure. You can have a “thrill” at Disneyland or Alton Towers. “Adventure” implies the need for some imagination, initiative, challenge and competence. (And it usually doesn’t cost anything, either, but that’s another argument.)

The Lake District is uniquely placed to offer accessible adventures to anyone prepared to step out of their comfort zone. Perfect example – my friends who ran up to Stickle Tarn yesterday morning to see the sunrise and have a swim just as the snow was starting to fall. Memorable? Thrilling? Adventurous? While the sensation of  challenging wilderness remains, we don’t need commercial operators to charge us for “thrills”. But if we continue to crush and flatten extreme routes, as Ian Boydon describes, then what price the Capital of Adventure?

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Feed me, Seymour, feed me all night long

Little shop of Horrors

Manchester: Royal Exchange Theatre

It’s hard to imagine, after many years and many productions, what it must be like to see Little Shop of Horrors for the first time. My sister, a timid theatregoer at the best of times, asked nervously at the interval at the Royal Exchange: “Who wrote THIS?”

But it seemed that most of the audience were acolytes at the altar of this most strange and wonderful of musicals. What they wanted to know was how the plant – Audrey Two – would grow. How mean and nasty would Orin Scrivello, the sadistic dentist be? (Almost endearingly nasty, as played by Ako Mitchell).

How dumb a blonde would Audrey be? Deliciously so, thank you Kelly Price. And would Seymour be quite gullible and naïve enough? Oh yes, Gunnar Cauthery, you were, perfectly.

This is not the sort of show for which a potted synopsis would be useful. This is surreal art on the stage, and no resume will prepare the newcomer, not so much for the outrageous atrocities, but for the audience’s gleeful appreciation of them. Dentist laughs himself to death with nitrous oxide? How we howled laughing with him. Florist feeds plant on drops of blood? (Only drops, to start with.) How we anticipated those hilarious rhymes:

I’ve given you sunshine, I’ve given you rain

Looks like you’re not happy, till I open a vein…

But it’s a show with some of the very best numbers in musical theatre , and the stars here were the three singers. Wrong to call them “backing” singers as they have the best songs: Downtown, They Say the Meek Shall Inherit. And they (Ellena Vincent, Joelle Moses and Ibinabo Jack) are called Crystal, Ronnette and Chiffon. No, you won’t get it unless you were into Tamla Motown in the sixties.

That’s another of the wonders of Little Shop, the wit.  The clever allusions. The zany lines (the motor-bike riding dentist is “leader of the plaque”. The cult following (Mushniks florists are on Twitter). And yes,  Sevan Stephan, you were brilliant. As was the plant, sung and propelled by Nuno Silva, with a bit of War Horse puppetry thrown in.

Do warn small children who might be of a nervous disposition. And sisters.  Otherwise, just prepare for one of the best shows ever at this most wonderful of theatres. Yep, I liked it.

Little Shop of Horrors runs at the Royal Exchange until January 31.

0161 833 9833

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Moving on to be a full time Cumbrian

Fond farewell to Huddersfield University, now to be a full-time Cumbrian


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Doing something new every day

If there is one legacy I could leave to my students at the University of Huddersfield, past and present , and indeed to young people everywhere, it’s to encourage the habit of doing one new thing every day. Of your life.

It’s been a mantra of mine with the Journalism and PR students (along with the dire warning that every time an apostrophe is misplaced, a kitten dies. Pedagogically unsound, but effective). It need not be a significant or major “new thing” but must be done consciously and with awareness. Choose a book from a different floor in the library. Go in a new pub. Use a new herb in cooking. Talk to a stranger. Listen to a new piece of music. Try saying a familiar phrase in a new language. Read a poem.

As a strategy for life, it encourages experimentation and observation, and the scale of such is unimportant. Those who want to be journalists need to be aware of what’s happening around them, to ask questions constantly. (Two men arrived in my street last week with surveying tools on a tripod. Why, I asked. They were from the Environment Agency, involved in flood defence planning.)

So every Monday morning I’d ask, what have you done that you’ve not done before. In term one, embarrassed shoulder shrugs and raised eyebrows. By term two they were having a go. “I went on a train to Liverpool because I’d never been there before” was one of my favourite replies. The student then went on to write a terrific travel piece about the experience. They began to acknowledge that they were developing into more rounded human beings, that their horizons were less narrow.

(I was always shocked by the sheltered lives that many students seemed to live. A great majority each year confessed that they had never been to a theatre. So it was built into the module programme; in order to fulfil the assessment criteria, they had to write a review of a theatre production. I made block bookings at the Lawrence Batley Theatre each October. What did they find more challenging? Barry Rutter’s Northern Broadsides’ fusion of the Brontes and Chekov’s Three Sisters, or Oklahoma?)

So as I step down from teaching after many happy years and many wonderful young people, here’s an example, a list I made on a recent visit to London. (I’ll be generous, and not mention the name of the show I left at the interval. It wasn’t a musical, by the way.)

Twenty things that you can do on a long weekend in London that you’ve never done before:

1: Go to a concert at the Royal Albert Hall

2: Watch a World Cup game at a pub in Leicester Square

3: Then eat at nearby Piazza

4: Leave a West End show at the interval, yawning.

5: Take a bus from Clapham Junction to Sloane Square

6: Talk to a 40-year-old parrot called Omar at a florists-cum-petshop on Tooting High Street

7: Get lost running round Tooting Common

8: Have breakfast with three wannabe actresses in Colliers Wood

9: Drink iced coffee in the basement bar of the Royal Court Theatre

10: Have Sunday lunch at the BBC – the Balham Bowls Club

11: Search for plectrons in Denmark Street

12: Read the Kent Messenger

13: Eat snapper

14: Shop at Wilkos at Tooting Broadway

15: Count the police on duty during a Free Palestine march near Knightsbridge

16: Watch a cellist busker outside High Street Kensington tube station

17: Test a drama student’s script reading in a Kensington bar

18: Travel by high speed train to Maidstone

19: Changing at Strood

20: Have a lift in a Mercedes sports car

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Choosing the best walks in the Lake District

Map and compass, say the purists. That’s all you need to go for a walk.

They’re not wrong, but they are probably walking in heavy boots and wearing knee-breeches, and hiking on their own, which isn’t wrong, either. But there are many other walkers who want to take a companion as well as a map and compass. A companion who knows the area, who can point out the landscape features, can identify trees and flowers, and can throw in a little bit of history.

Now here’s eight of them, but you won’t have to queue at a stile behind these companions. Eight neat, pocket-sized books with appropriate maps, excellent route descriptions, good photographs and plenty of local knowledge and history.

The Top 10 Walks: Lake District has eight titles in the series: High Fells, Low Fells, Lakeside, Tarns, Waterfalls, History, Woodland and Pub Walks. Each has clear information, expertly-written numbered directions, enhanced OS mapping, and interpretation points of interest along the way.

For example, Vivienne Crow’s history walks include Castlerigg stone circle, the Carrock Fell iron age hill fort, Catbells’ Elizabethan mines, and the Stott Park bobbin mill – a truly representative Cumbrian collection.

Small, neat and pocket-sized they may be, so that’s one little drawback – a tiny sized font, so there will be plenty of walkers who need to pack reading glasses as well. It’s a minor detail; in all other respects, these are excellent little companions.

Top Ten Walks series, £4.99 each, published by Northern Eye Books.


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