It’s a steep descent from the Cathedral to the Quay. Past the oldest Customs House in the country, the river is lapping the footpath in front of a public house. The snow that wiped out all but 97 of the 506 UK parkruns last weekend has melted and is well on its way to the sea.
Walking to the start, we pass various small sailing boats laid up for the winter. parkrun is inclusive, but if you’re over 6’6” wide, or 2.5 tons, you can’t cross the bridge to this one.
A red and white buoy denotes the briefing area, as it once marked the channel down river. After refastening my shoes, I spot Mike Feighan, a vastly experienced veteran, tall and gaunt, wearing the 25 minute pacer’s tabard. He’s trying to establish his global positioning system. I doubt I’ll stick with him, but it will help if I can track him through the early stages.
We’re nowhere near Iraq, but you could call this a mesopotamian parkrun. Normally it runs between two rivers, but today there are three. The flood-gates are open. River Exe melt-water is roaring, pouring over the barrier and spraying from openings within it. The capacity of Trew’s Flood Relief Channel was expanded in 2015 to a one in 100 year flood, rather than just one in 40. Its flooded valley forms the left-hand margin for much of our run.
From the start, we follow the right-hand waterway, which is placid by comparison. A two-man kayak paddles upstream towards the top lock of the Exeter Ship Canal. Begun by John Trew in 1563, it re-established the city’s port, by-passing weirs on the lower river. Across the cut, a terrace of four, small brick houses is inscribed ‘Exe View Cottages 1887’.
We fork left before the lone angler, diverging from the towpath at kayak marker 4. Passing a footbridge over the flood channel, I’m struggling for rhythm in a pack of runners.
‘Splash!’ I didn’t see the puddle in time. We’re on the right of two tarmac path-ways separated by a thin reservation of grass. National Cycle Route 34, a spur from Exeter onto Route 2 from St. Austell to Dover occupies the left track.
Three-storey houses with steep-sloping roofs are newly-built beyond the canal. Some have arches on their facades, others have rounded windows. Allotments to our right seem over-run by outsize milk churns, until I realise they’re plastic compost bins. A watering can dangles from the ‘arm’ of a sopping wet scarecrow. The ochre-coloured superstructure of a tug-boat appears incongruously above a hedge.
A right-hand curve reveals a junction of pathways and a footbridge beyond. The pacer is getting away. I surge past three women who have just overtaken me. Up ahead, runners are moving onto the cycleway to avoid puddles. I’m so soaked it won’t make much difference. I splash through three inches of water. A lady in blue, also undeterred, overtakes me on the right.
A blue sign points the main track right: ‘Exe Cycle Route Marsh Barton ½ Double Lock ½’. We follow a narrower path straight ahead. It’s heading for ‘St. Leonards ¾ Wonford 1’, but both are across the river.
I recall running cross-country at Wonford in Ludwell Valley Park, when the South-West Championships augmented a Westward League match. We ran fast along a flat string of playing fields beside Northbrook. Then the long, curving climb was worth it for the panoramic view of the city, with the sun dipping toward Dartmoor’s distant horizon. We waded through the stream before more playing fields completed the lap.
There are catkins in the left-hand bushes before brambles take over. Down the right, a rail fence separates us from a long paddock of tussocky grass. We’re keeping right of blue, hemispherical markers. It’s soon apparent why. The leading trio rush towards us. Our path climbs suddenly, sweeping left onto the footbridge. Shoulder-high, grey-brown metal railings separate us from the flood waters. It’s almost 100 paces across. Blossom and gorse adorn the far bank. A forest of plastic tubes protects a nursery of saplings.
There is no corresponding curve as we descend to an island of parkland. We run straight ahead with a line of ten oak trees on our left. On the other side, a ditch and barbed wire separates us from Duckes Meadow’s University hockey pitches and more distant Rugby posts. The preferred course would circle the playing fields, but this is forbidden until it dries out. The students are faring no better. A whiteboard showing the pitch allocation for 21st February suggests there’s been no play since.
A runner in front lurches suddenly left. Alerted, I call ‘Post!’ dodging the metal obstruction which bars the path to vehicles. Left turn puts us on a muddy lane, but it’s safe enough despite its slippery surface, Bushes now screen us from the little park. An arm of the river and the changing rooms beyond are masked by trees to our right.
After 100 yards, we emerge to a view of St. James’ Weir and the rushing river, with a distant spire dwarfed by a crane. Turning sharp left, a sign identifies Duckes Marsh. It’s a good place for ducks. Our path completes a wobbly triangle, winding back to the bridge via an artwork of four stepped tree trunks; several saplings and a pollarded tree.
The pacer has removed his orange hat. He’s 30 yards in front, climbing back over the river. The central pier of the bridge has black and white graffiti on a green background - the colours of the new Devon flag.
Back on land, I sneak a place, dodging back in quickly to avoid a runner coming the other way. Emerging from the narrow path, a sign advertises Phase Two of the Exeter Flood Defence Scheme with new barriers downstream from Cowley Bridge to Countess Wear.
We’ve run up-river as far as a marshal, then U-turned into the unwelcome headwind. Afterwards I discover the bench by the junction is dedicated to: ‘Professor W.G. Hoskins, 1908-92, Landscape Historian’. How would the author of ‘The Making of the English Landscape’ regard the re-sculpting of these channels?
Runners seem to be plodding stoically on. Enjoyment is in short supply. A young dark-haired man in a 50 Club shirt passes me on Duckes Marsh. I spurt past him descending from the bridge, but once out on the riverbank, he overtakes again. Shortly afterwards he’s joined by a black-shirted, blond youth. They’re set for a ding-dong battle. It’s a shame I can’t maintain contact.
The rain seems heavier. At least it’s a tail-wind now. I just miss lapping the tail-ender and her high-visibility marshal. It’s a long run-in, lonely as the gaps lengthen. The pacer must be 200 yards in front. If he’s on target, I’ll struggle to beat 26 minutes, though I’m running hard to make up lost time.
Across the channel the land is wooded. Weeping willows and evergreens provide a touch of colour in a dull landscape. There’s a modern clock tower in the middle distance; dark, green conifers on the skyline. I’ve run over there, into the city from Countess Wear, with early, autumnal mist along the river before spending a day in the county archives.
Two paths slant down the far side of the channel. Posts suggest there are bridges, but each is completely submerged, marked only by linear ripples in the fast-flowing, brown water.
Rising in the Blackdown Hills, across the Somerset border, the River Culm is one tributary to the Exe’s 800 square mile drainage basin. How much of its water has flowed down past Cullompton from Uffculme and Willand since 1844? It was an awful year for my maternal grandmother’s maternal grandmother, Martha Dunster. She wasn’t yet two years of age when she lost her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all within nine months.
I conjecture a teenager’s tension with her step-mother. Next I know for sure, Martha had become a servant in the household of a Devonport lieutenant-commander.
The river draws my gaze. Cream and ochre buildings suggest I’m heading for a fishing village. When I break its hypnotic spell, glancing further right reveals more. There’s a spire, then the twin towers of the cathedral squatting on the hill.
Did Sir Francis Drake really sail this way? I first saw his endorsement in a tavern just off the Cathedral green in 1975 when I came here on a student field trip.
Archaeologists have evidence of a trading port as early as 200 B.C..
The distinctive buoy is more visible than the finish. I’m closing in, but so is a young woman. I’ve worked hard to keep maintain this pace, but I can’t find any more. With 50 yards to go, she’s beaten me.
The base of the buoy quotes from The Exeter Book, an Anglo-Saxon anthology dated 965-975 A.D.. The poem tells how a sailor realises he prefers his hard, maritime life to an easier one on land. Today’s parkrunners may share his choice. Why are the runs that are most unpleasant at the time, the ones I look back on with greatest fondness?
Exeter Light and Power Station, built in 1903, has a long facade of red brick with concrete lintels. Two Greek goddesses recline on reliefs near the top, one holding an anachronistic light bulb. Rather like entering a mosque. I’m supposed to take my shoes off. Ironically, they’ve been cleaned by the puddles, whereas my socks are oozing muddy water at every step.
The hall which once powered the city has been rejuvenated as The Climbing Centre. It is busy. There are even tiny children, harnessed to the ceiling and ascending steep walls via tenuous hand- and foot-holds. Climbing the stairs to the scanning desk is enough for me. I restore myself for the descent with tea and apricot crumble.
Nigel Harding, Poole
Men: 1. Sam Hopton 17:08; 2. Oliver Thorogood (Aberystwyth AC) 17:13; 3. Unknown Runner
Women: 1. Cecily Day (Ranelagh Harriers) 21:10; 2 Jennifer Withers (Walton AC) 21:55; 3 Jo Pearce (South-West Road Runners) 21:59
Age Gradings: 1. Karen Cook (South-West Road Runners) W60 22:37 84.60%; 2. Mary Humphries (Tiverton Harriers) W65 25:58 81.71%; 3. Edward Pickering (South-West Road Runners) M45 18:41 75.91%