Sunday, 11 November 2012

Six Dales Circuit 2012

I last did the Six Dales Circuit in 2009 when I arrived at the start late and had to chase the field to catch up. This year I allowed an extra hour to travel from Grantham. My new sat nav seemed to help no end and I arrived with a two hours to spare. I pondered how the extra time could have been spent in bed. A 5.15am start was a challenge in itself. I spent the extra time walking a small section of the route near Hartington to remind myself of the way across some fields and to take some pictures to illustrate this post.    
Lathkill Dale
This event is a firm favourite. The 25 mile route passes through some spectacular parts of the white peak and the six dales of Biggin Dale, Wolfscote Dale, Beresford Dale,  Lathkill Dale, Bradford Dale and Long Dale are only more enhanced by the golden colours of the season. This year we were blessed with cool November sunshine that made the autumnal colours glisten even more.
After my mini recce I returned to the sleepy and probably still sleeping village of Biggin  to watch the walkers start. The village church bells struck at 8am and a noticeably large field of walkers passed the car parking field where I stood. I made my own final preparations before walking to the village hall to chat with other runners who were also milling around waiting for the same church bells to strike an extra time an hour later. It was good to be reunited with other folk from previous events. Arriving in Biggin with two hours to spare had left me feeling relaxed, obviously too relaxed because, as I lined up at the start and glanced to the right I noticed a tally card attached to another runner's back pack. "I haven't got one of those" I thought sleeply before the spark lit. In my laid back state, although I had pre entered, I had forgotten to register at the start. Thereafter followed my more usual pre race routine of panic as I rushed back into the village hall with seconds to spare until the bells tolled. Thankfully, seconds later I was back outside complete with tally card clutched in my hand. A normal relaxed start just wouldn't have been fashionable.
The path after Hartington
The bells rang nine times and we cantered out of the village and down into Biggin Dale. The dale contains plenty of slippery lime stone and I cut some colourful shapes as I tried to keep my self upright. The white cliffs of Wolfscote Dale dominated the side of the valley and the clear water stream running through the middle of it far below. I ran alongside the stream with only Fraser Hirst in front. I knew Fraser was a stronger runner than I and I was surprised to have kept up with his pace. I needn't have worried, after the first checkpoint at Hartington, Fraser fired the afterburners and ran on out of sight. I was still running strong as I crossed the moor towards the midshires way. This was the part that I had recceed earlier in the morning. By now I had caught up with the 8am walkers and they provided a handy line in front to aid my navigation across a few tricky fields.
A stiff climb to the midshires way challenged the lungs but there was no time to rest. I glanced back and noticed plenty of chasing runners. I ran fast along perhaps two miles of the disused railway. For some trail runners this part is too hard underfoot and monotonous. I used the opportunity to run faster and put to use my seasons training on the roads. Another climb to the Bull in' thorn leads to a easier downhill section more or less all the way to Monyash. The checkpoint at Monyash offers a fine selection of food. I was ready for replenishment and ate malt loaf and sweets washed down with cordial. The checkpoint at Monyash even offers Staffordshire oatcakes with cheese, appreciated by walkers and runners with cast iron stomachs. I reluctantly turned down the oatcake offer and ran out into perhaps the most beautiful dale of the route, Lathkill Dale.
The upper part of Lathkill  Dale is a national nature reserve and apparently English writer Izaak Walton declared the stream which flows through it as the purest and most transparent stream he had ever seen. I've never heard of Izaak Walton but I can confirm that the stream this year flowed strong and clear passing occasional waterfalls which add to the beauty of this picturesque dale. I noticed occasional 'twitchers' perched on the dale side with tripods ready to photograph the plentiful local wildlife. This is a great place to run. The initial rocky stage gives way to an easily runnable river bank all the way through to Over Haddon and on to Conksbury Bridge. The sun continued to shine and it was an invigorating stage all the way to the next checkpoint at Milldale.
Conksbury Bridge
Just before Milldale I crossed the wrong bridge but realised my mistake as the track at the other side  looked unfamiliar. I had remembered the route so far but now had to resort to the route description which confirmed that I had crossed a bridge too early. I retraced my steps and carried on. Just before the track up to Milldale I noticed a fluorescent jacket flash in woods ahead, it was Fraser, I hadn't seen him since leaving Hartington earlier in the morning. Fraser had already visited the checkpoint and was disappearing through the woods on the final stage to the finish. I shouted some encouragement which was hopelessly lost between the trees. The climb up the track to Milldale is stiff and I had to walk in parts. After Milldale I would only have about six miles left to run. I thought I was still second in the event field but I had started to tire. I didn't dwell at the checkpoint it was time to get this thing done. I wasn't going to catch Fraser but it would be nice to be second home.  The route from Milldale involves a retrace of steps back down the steep track to the river before negotiating fields and a wood towards the final dale, Long Dale.
On the descent of the track I met perhaps four or five other runners. I was surprised that they had caught up as I hadn't seen anyone behind for quite some time. Perhaps my bridge error had cost me time. I struggled in the final stage. My energy ran out and I resorted to the emergency provisions which I had carried in my back pack. I staggered up towards the descent to Long Dale. My pace had slowed dramatically and I was sure my chasing comrades would catch up. These events aren't super competitive but its nice to run as fast as you can, challenge your previous times and hold your place in the field. Long Dale is usually very boggy and I wasn't looking forward to wading through the mud, the energy from the emergency provisions had yet to kick in. This year surprisingly the Dale wasn't too bad and I was able to shuffle at a reasonable pace to the road. The final climb to Friden and on to Newhaven went on for ages as the later stages of these events always seem to.
Pork Pie Den
I was glad to cross the A515, mostly downhill from here. I noticed that if I kept pace I could break four hours. The rations kicked in and I galloped ahead. I took a direct line up and over the disused railway. From the top I could see the buildings in Biggin nestling temptingly less than a mile away. I kept a strong pace to enter the village and on to the village hall arriving back in 3 hours 55minutes before shaking hands with Fraser who had come home perhaps seven minutes earlier.  
This was a great day out across an inspiring route. Staffordshire Long Distance Walkers Association put on a brilliant, good value event. The comparatively nominal entry fee includes a three course meal at the finish. Soup, stewed meat with vegetables and rice pudding is offered along with tea or coffee and there is a vegetarian option available. Each finisher is awarded a printed certificate. It was good to eat with the other folk that continued to arrive all with their own tales of their 25 mile adventures.
After the event I drove out to Conksbury Bridge and wandered back through Lathkill Dale to appreciate the views at a slower pace and take some photos to further illustrate this post. A great day finished with a half a pork pie and pickle in the excellent Lathkill Hotel.