A day in the life of a parkrun tourist visiting Bolton

85 – Better Soon


Bolton parkrun #383

Nigel Harding visited Bolton parkrun on 15th September. Nigel, home run down in Poole, gives his account of his day and visit - thanks for stopping by Nigel, hope you enjoyed your visit.

‘Things will look better soon.’ The label catches my eye. Several hundred messages are tied to the barrier. As I realise the flyover doubles as an unlikely shrine, the lights change to green.


I had a slight spasm in my back as I loaded the car. I’m not sure I’ll be fit to run when I arrive. Am I doomed not to run this parkrun? I came here in April, but everything was wrong during warm-up so I didn’t start.


It was clear when I set out, but now there’s heavy rain - so stereotypical of this area.

That message might be right, though. Within minutes of reaching the park, drizzle is clearing.


Warming-up gingerly, I come through a steep descent to a river and a stiff climb through woodland without ill effect. I cross a grassy clearing, called ‘Our Back Field’. This was a drift mine in the 1800s. A long, but finally successful campaign has prevented it becoming a car dump. Beyond allotments, I spill out of the park into cobbled streets of terraced houses. How far is Weatherfield? I glance at my watch and double back. I mustn’t miss the start.


*                       *                       *


‘Bolton United Harriers & Athletic Club – Running, Jumping and Throwing since 1908,’ proclaim banners surrounding the running track. I’d rather run further than battle for position. I stand in the outside lane halfway round the bend. The run director catches me unawares. I fumble with my watch. I have missed the start!


I ease down the back straight, conscious that I mustn’t begin too quickly just because this is my first parkrun on a running track. Running anti-clockwise feels like a warm-up. Conventional racing is clockwise - ‘left hand inside’ as the rule book prosaically puts it.


Gradually I move inwards. By the bottom bend, I’m neatly tucked into lane two. A lady in pink adeptly squeezes past on my right, scarcely infringing the coned-off inner lane. The local ‘keep left’ rule can’t be intended for the track. Mental arithmetic seems strangely taxing, but 2:06 for 400m is close to 25 minute pace. It’s unsustainable on this course, but I’ve started well.


The surrounds of the gateway are padded, but it chicane barely impedes my flow. I turn right onto tarmac. Curving left beyond five-a-side soccer pitches onto a narrower stony path, I’ve switched from track to road run, then to cross-country, all within a hundred yards. The purple figure-of-eight flowers could be Himalayan balsam – very pretty, but highly invasive. Small sycamores and hawthorns laden with bright-red berries hem us in on the right. I can’t avoid all the puddles.


Our route darkens beyond a chicane of bollards swathed in high-visibility yellow. There’s a silver birch among taller trees shading us. After ducking beneath an arching hawthorn branch, I begin overtaking as the path widens and steepens. There are a few purple rhododendrons left near the bottom.


A right turn at a T-junction and suddenly, we’re in the open. On the right there’s a bank with more purple flowers, nettles and a rowan tree. The left is dank grassland with dock leaves and spiky clumps of drier grass. An orienteering point and a post with Run England 3,2,1 logos mark the corner. We turn left and take the left-hand track. A right fork makes for the strong, stone buttresses and delicate-looking metal span and railings across Bradshaw Brook.


I dodge the larger stones in the rough pathway. Past some metalwork which might have once been winding gear for a sluice gate, we emerge into a second field. The brook, at its highest level for months, meanders off behind willow trees to the right. We run past a metal bench, crossing the base of a triangle of grassland. We skirt to the right of two aspens and a sycamore. Two oaks are screening a narrow pond.


The stream along our left is barely a trickle after the long summer. A green-painted, metal railing guards a steep drop where the meandering water has returned from our right. The River Tonge, which Bradshaw Brook has joined beyond the trees, plunges loudly over a weir.


Tall beech trees dominate the track as I sense the turning point is close. A marshal in blue and yellow directs us.


‘Careful on the steps. They’re slippery.’ There are a handful of wooden-faced risers. The last, highest and most hazardous, is painted yellow. Out onto a tarmac track, there’s a brief glimpse of six cottages in a terrace and the massive stone piers of a viaduct. A tall, redbrick factory chimney scarcely seems to reach from the valley floor to the top of the plateau. It has survived Fred Dibnah. The steeplejack and demolition expert is interred in Tonge Cemetery, just north of here.


I lurch to the left and continue the sharp climb. I hug the left-hand gutter. Runners spread across the wide tarmac track. Overtaking is difficult for those few who can find the energy. More than half-way up, the road through the woods turns right. At last I can see what’s passing for daylight near the top of the climb. A lady in a red 50 club shirt resumes her run after a walk to catch her breath.


Nearing the top, the trees open out. Smaller bushes line the lane. A number of different species demonstrate a wide spectrum of colours. The top leaves of a maple have turned purple, while lower ones remain green. A century from now this will be a magnificent avenue. Though the gradient is easing, we’re still climbing. Looking left, beyond the redbrick village I reached during warm-up, I view a distant Pennine ridge, slate gray against a slightly lighter sky.

We turn left at a cross path, then curve right just before the lane reaches a more mature avenue of trees. Darcy Lever Hall, a half-timbered sandstone building dating from about 1641, stood at the other end, where the car park is now.


Lever has been both a place and a family name in this area since the Middle Ages. William Hesketh Lever was the son of a Bolton grocer, who with his brother James, diversified into soap manufacturing and founded the model village of Port Sunlight on the Wirral.


As Lord Leverhulme, he bought land to form the park as a gift to the town just before the First World War. In 1919, he was co-opted as Mayor of Bolton and opened the initial 68 acres. Thomas Mawson was engaged as landscaper and garden designer, but not all his plans had been completed when the benefactor died in 1925.


*                       *                       *


Ash trees front the solid woodland on our left. Horse chestnuts dot the open parkland to our right, where there’s a slide and a climbing frame. A marshal yells for us to keep left. We’re overtaken by a swift stream of pink-clad cyclists on a charity ride.


Almost back at the track, we turn left and plunge downhill. The lane is narrower between beeches on the left and sycamores right. I make up a few places down the right before we emerge near the brook to start our second loop.


A white logo shows we’re on the Kingfisher Trail, which extends 14 miles from Salford to Jumbles Reservoir, five miles north of here. The blue and orange birds seem to be having a lie in today. One hawthorn is a mass of berries, but the next has scarcely any at all.


The 30 minute pacer passes me. Have I been taking it too easy? I’m not having that.


‘Come on, Lass, make him work,’ the marshal encourages. The lady in black responds. The man in blue falters on the top step. I almost run into the back of him. The climb is even more gruelling and relief at the top is short-lived.


*                       *                       *


‘The third hill is the easiest,’ he told us at briefing. In theory, that’s true. Up through the woods to the five-a-side courts isn’t as steep or as far as the long drag by the viaduct. With the first two climbs still in my legs, though, it’s every bit as demanding. Several people I’ve overtaken downhill surge back past me. One brave lady I catch has her rhythm affected by a plaster cast on one arm.


Some of the footballers remembered by names on the courts, Moore, Pele and Best, have gone. In contrast the endurance athlete whose feats dominate the honours board in the leisure centre will turn eighty in ten days’ time.


I remember a BBC television report of the 1970 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games Marathon, which Ron Hill won in his career best 2:09:28 ahead of Scotland’s Jim Alder. No pictures in those unsophisticated days. It seemed miraculous when they patched through a reporter in a telephone box beside the course. Maybe a seed was sown that one day I’d try that.


I barely ran within an hour of Hill’s fastest marathon, but he continued to race into old age, so I beat him on both our encounters: Dorset’s equivalent of a fell race and the memorable day in 2011 when the English National Cross-Country Champion of 1966 and 1968 turned out for one final championship appearance.


Hill celebrated running every day for 50 years by completing Heaton parkrun on 20th December 2014, finally breaking his sequence at 52 years and 39 days. He has 66 parkruns to his credit, his best was 25:11 at age 73 and his sole visit here took 29:12.


Hill wasn’t just a role model as an athlete. His alter ego, a materials technologist, determined what we wore, pioneering synthetic fabrics for running gear; and helped keep us safe with reflective strips developed initially for his personal use.


*                       *                       *


The final stage would be enjoyable if I had anything left to give. Turning left across a bridge we aim for a rocket-like spire, its base hidden by trees. Reaching a bowls pavilion after a few hundred yards, we retrace our steps, now with slower runners chasing us.


The grandstand gradually comes closer. Through the gate and onto the track, I’m trying to hold on, but a lady in the black and grey of Ramsbottom Running Club outsprints me.


*                       *                       *


Walking the course afterwards, I realise the viaduct is caged in as if it has a walkway. Exploring the south edge of the park I follow a lane along the edge of the old Bolton-Bury railway cutting. Beyond ‘Top o’ th’ Gorses’, a couple of isolated terraces, I find my way onto one of England’s oldest lattice girder bridges to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the park. From here I can see stone stepping beside the weir which was used for washing and bleaching some of the cotton from three adjacent mills.


No wonder it was my third slowest parkrun. I climbed to this height twice from way down there. As an opener for my cross-country season, though, things do look better from here.

© 2018 Nigel Harding