Warrington parkrun #88
Victoria Park and Black Bear Park, Warrington, WA4 1D
12th September 2015
Last night’s storm brought summer to a close. The weir’s massive discharge forms a huge waterfall. It’s hard to imagine the 67 acre park submerged, yet this land was reclaimed in the early eighteenth century when the river was diverted.
Sculpted banks and a neat, new wall along the front of the park are not just for show. In six months’ time, when the river is swollen with Pennine melt-waters, these defences could be keeping floods from Latchford’s living rooms.
I don’t see any football shirts, but running club kit is all around. Though we’re within 25 miles of four top Premiership grounds, the Park’s soccer pitches are hidden along its northern fringe. The oval ball takes pride of place in this enclave. Warrington, long known as ‘The Wire’, now ‘Wolves’ in the Super League era, is the only club with a continuous record of top flight Rugby League.
Warrington Running Club shares the Rugby League side’s primrose and blue. Warrington Athletic Club sports red vests. Warrington Road Runners wear blue and red quartered shirts.
Victoria Park Running Club uses black outfits with purple facings. There are clubs with similar names in London and Glasgow. Last Wednesday Queen Elizabeth II became our longest reigning monarch, but in numbers of parks bearing her name, her great, great grandmother remains way out in front. Like many others, this Victoria Park commemorates the Diamond Jubilee of 1897. It’s effectively on an island between Mersey and Manchester Ship Canal.
* * *
After three strides, I have to leap a puddle on the start line. My right arm catches someone in mid-air. Apologies are offered and accepted in a bizarre starting ritual. There are two more puddles before we can settle into a normal stride pattern. Concentrating where I’m putting my feet, I don’t even notice the skate park on the left.
After 40 yards we turn right between two evergreen bushes onto a better footpath. Further foliage on the left conceals allotments. Through a hedge-line, the path becomes an upward ramp.
A big, black dog barks excitedly. Or is it a Warrington Wolf in sheep’s clothing? It certainly isn’t “The Black Bear”. The old inn across Knutsford Road is a two-storey building, almost like a whole terrace of houses. Black name boards on white walls give a hint of Cheshire ‘magpie’ architecture.
Turning right, we pace along the flood defence bank at the front of the Park. The new surface is a luxury, but it doesn’t last. After applause from the core team, we double back the other side of the bushes on far rougher tarmac.
Completing the loop, near where the dog was barking, I hear a hound slavering at my heels. It’s a relief to discover it’s a terrier, rather than the wolf I’d feared. Though puffing hard from its exertions, it’s disconcertingly faster than me. A petite lady in a sky-blue cap moves through behind the white-shirted dog owner.
Across the main expanse of the park two parallel grandstands both face east. The Arena one is for the athletics track - the first time I’ve seen one sprayed blue. The brand new Stadium one is intended for Rugby and soccer. The dark-red sandstone spire of Warrington Parish Church adorns the skyline beyond.
A right turn by the two evergreens returns us to our original heading. On our right we’re passing ash, lime and sycamore trees. We reach a marshal and his young daughter at the first marker. I’ll be delighted if I can hold 4:47 pace.
* * *
“It doesn’t get any easier.” A tall man in white moves alongside me.
“Would we still come if it did?”
“Absolutely right,” he acknowledges.
I feel strained talking at this pace. His breathing’s far better than mine. After turning right inside me, he pulls away with every stride. I read the back of his shirt: ‘Hallé - Running in Manchester since 1858’. I wonder what tune’s playing in his head, and whether he’s woodwind or brass. It turns out Ewan Easton is the Orchestra’s principal tuba. What a vocation for oxygen uptake!
This corner of the park feels neglected. Brambles sprawl in front of the right-hand bushes. Down the left, nettles and thistles seem inconsistent with the picnic-table. Surging beneath Latchford Road Bridge, a stone construction with cream-painted balustrades, we exchange Victoria for Black Bear Park.
* * *
Clever landscaping conceals the fact we’re running down a corridor. This linear park is just 50 yards wide. Old Quay Canal opened in 1804 between Latchford and Runcorn, a more navigable, eight mile by-pass to a difficult stretch of the Mersey. 90 years later, the Ship Canal cut right through it. This easternmost mile was retained, becoming known as Black Bear Canal. Until the 1960s it transported South American hides to Howley Tannery. In 1981, Warrington Borough Council reclaimed the land as a park.
Though our course is flat, occasional glimpses to the right show we’re running up the property ladder. The first street is entirely terraced. A second is mostly semi-detached. We run beneath the Warrington-Stockport railway bridge with its robust stone abutments and metal trough for a track bed that’s no longer in use. Modern houses that never overlooked the canal give way to Victorian villas dated 1891.
There’s a warning that we’re on closed circuit television. Does some bored control room operator long for this Saturday morning excitement? Twenty Steps Bridge is busy with traffic. There’s The Ranger Hut on the left and an industrial plant with large storage tanks to the right. Once under the bridge, however, trees hem us in. A blue Chester Marathon shirt overtakes. We duck to avoid overhanging leaves.
Suddenly, a marshal directs us round a grassy corner and up a steep tarmac path. We emerge into bright sunshine for a clockwise half circuit of Lousher’s Lane Recreation Ground. A playground in a left-hand corner features a zip wire, as well as rope-based swings. Skirting a Rugby pitch, we run between the touch-line and a margin of young trees. Silver birches give way to twenty rowans, dazzlingly overburdened with red berries. It’s been a fruitful summer. Do they also suggest a hard winter on the way?
At the end a marshal directs us right onto the 207 mile Trans-Pennine Trail from Hornsea on the North Sea coast to Southport. We’re also on National Cycle Route 62 from Selby to Fleetwood.
It’s hard to see over bracken and gorse, but this is the ‘towpath’ of the Manchester Ship Canal. Quite unlike any ordinary narrow-boat canal, it’s a long, straight river 50 yards wide. We’re high up at bridge level, rather than on the waterside. 3km in 14:51 shows a second successive 5:02 kilometer, Over rougher ground this one may be an improvement on the last.
A pigeon coos. A fritillary flutters in the sun. I surge past two runners where shadowy trees have prevented the path from drying off. The yellow one regains his place as we turn back onto the old canal. Try as I might I can’t hold on. I’m isolated with a mile to run.
Blackcurrants and blackberries, redcurrants, haws, rose hips and sloes are all on offer. Black Bear Park could almost be the fruit aisle of a supermarket.
The last few runners are still on their outward leg. I finally spot a soccer player, a lad in a diminutive indigo Derby County away strip trotting along with his father. Once the tail runner comes past, my solitude is complete.
My watch clicks over to 20:01 as I pass the 4km marker. Just about on schedule, but my pace is slowing. I tick off the bridges as I pass. I’m trying hard, but there’s not much to play with.
* * *
My heart sinks as I realise we have to double back from the main park entrance once more. When I reach the finish straight at last, I find the play zone has a space rocket theme. It’s the man behind who finds the buzz, however. His coup de grace completes what Run Britain’s handicapper reckons the third worst parkrun of my career.
Why do I run badly in Cheshire? It’s my third failure to break 25 minutes in four attempts in my native county. (This area was ceded to Lancashire in 1894. It reverted to Cheshire 80 years later.) In the car park, a veteran who shared part of my warm-up asks if I enjoyed it. I have to admit my disappointment.
“Still, it’s a run out,” he consoles me. Unfortunately it feels as if I’ve been run out. Frustration that I didn’t perform reminds me of being sacrificed by a better batsman in a run chase without even facing a ball. Why did I run out of gas? Surely I should have found something extra so close to home? It wasn’t for want of trying.
I’m even slow to reach an explanation. On Monday I walked, jogged and ran twelve miles across the Purbeck Hills and along the Dorset Coastal Path. It was exhilarating in the sunshine, but it was my longest effort in twelve months. Perhaps I’m now so old, I haven’t fully recovered.
The tune “Things Can Only Get Better” pops into my head. Its optimistic message is welcome, but once in my brain the irritating ditty is impossible to shake off. There’s no immediate improvement. By the time I’ve walked the course again, the rain has resumed. I reach my car wet, to find the tune consigned to history by the Labour leadership election result.
Perhaps the message left beneath Stockport Bridge by an unknown graffiti artist is a less catchy, but more profound version: "History is written by those who know how to write. Is the future a shield, if history is a weapon?"
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1. Chris Stanford 17:24; 2. Chris Fance (Warrington AC) 17:25; 3. Daniel Evans (Warrington AC) 17:46
1. Louise Blizzard (Belgrave Harriers) 20:06; 2. Helen Whitby 20:11; 3. Sarah Davies (Oxford City AC) 20:24