For a frantic 24-hours or so, the last-minute cancellation of an Airbnb booking cast serious doubt as to whether the inaugural Ely Trail Runners weekend away to the Peak District would actually take place, but Kyle – whose idea it was to organise the w/e - was not to be deterred and, with St Michael’s Educational Centre in Hathersage coming up trumps, the trip was very much back up and running!
Lifts were arranged, pickups enacted and a small fleet of vehicles headed up the A1: Peter Royle catching a ride with James and Debbie Fisher; Kyle Armstrong hopping in with John Downs and Paul Sycamore; Emily Knight giving a lift to Janine Collier and Ben Cook; Caroline Brown and Lisa Long being chauffeured by Andy Thompson. Ross Payne, fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe and being fleet of foot and swift of Suzuki was first to arrive, showing his youthful age by immediately tapping into the wi-fi and hooking up the AV. Bang on time, the Tesco delivery driver (the aptly named ‘Jack’) appeared and we unloaded what felt like enough food to feed a small army - nice forward planning, Caroline!
Rooms were nabbed and top or bottom bunks were secured, with Kyle subtly maintaining his position as party leader by claiming one of the two single (ie: teacher’s) rooms, with Janine quickly following suit on the other. The accommodation was basic but ideal – lots of space, well equipped with tons of kit and the huge open plan kitchen/lounge/dining room had all the makings of a fun and very sociable weekend.
The rain that had been falling steadily all afternoon took on a new intensity and there was dangerous fair-weather talk of ‘maybe we should skip this evening’s run?’ as ‘there’s no point getting our shoes wet unnecessarily…’ but all thoughts of getting started on the beers early were quashed when Brian Emerson and Jerry the trail-running German Pointer (staying at a B&B locally) arrived, in full kit and ready to hit the hills.
FRIDAY PM - Friday evening’s run was billed as an ‘Introductory 5k’, and set off from the Centre, quickly leaving the quiet country lanes to locate the footpath, heading uphill through acres of purple heather following a tiny twisting rocky path that soon turned from a few puddles into a rushing torrent – we were more like salmon struggling upstream than trail runners! Wet through within minutes, after several km of gaining height we reached the turnaround point to head back on a surprisingly steep and fast downhill lane (that could have easily doubled as a theme-park log flume, such was the volume of rushing water off the hills) that saw us having to apply the brakes way before the valley floor, Brian working especially hard to keep Jerry on the waist-harness in check.
Back at basecamp some 10k later (were ALL the runs going to be double the distance billed, we wondered?) the main course of bangers and mash accompanied by Debbie’s onion gravy was followed by the biggest crumble going - full of Haddenham apples harvested that morning, and rhubarb freshly picked from Caroline’s plot - and even though generous helpings were had by all (and seconds by most), we still barely made a dent.
Dining tables were hastily rearranged and a net was erected to allow for a knockout tournament of competitive table tennis - Ben the Bat vs Table Thompson and so on - with Peter Pong taking it to the wire with his patented topspin but ultimately losing out by one point to Ross the Racket in the final.
SATURDAY AM - After a well-attended 0700 yoga session led by Caroline, the run singled out for Saturday morning was ‘The Great Ridge’, a 14.5km circular route of beautiful varied terrain that would get increasingly more technical as it went on.
We started in the village of Hope (with Caroline and Lisa in matching shorts note, adding a touch of professionalism to the team), gently wiggling through several farms and the village of Castleton to start the climb up through the lush green Cave Dale, a limestone valley where the almost perpendicular sides reach 50 metres plus. Quickly gaining height we were then on the top of the dales with far-reaching views of the peak and ridge that we were headed to and, behind us, the valley where we’d started and would ultimately finish.
A popular spot for visitors, for a short distance the path up to and across the Great Ridge was actually more of a pavement - a scenic superhighway - huge slabs of limestone cut and laid to keep the masses on track and the AONB unspoilt. Enjoying the easy ‘Trail Running for Dummies’ path, the route was quite busy but we took it at speed, dodging and darting around walkers, dogs and the odd cyclo-cross bike. Whichever way you looked, the views were far-reaching and stunning but as it was quite breezy at the top we didn’t stick around for too long, just enough time for some flapjack and a few photos.
The descent from the trig point gathered momentum as the terrain went from path to open grass to gravel before dropping into technical rocky paths under the tree line with definite ankle-turning potential (as James would later testify). Back on the B-road to Hope, leading the charge Kyle and Ben stopped off at The Cheshire Cheese pub for a cheeky but well-earned pint, quickly followed by the rest of the party… apart from Brian, who somehow managed to miss the pub, run past his own car, and - now officially MIA - put in several laps of Hope for good measure while we supped pints and swapped stories of running derring-do. Ross and Ben headed back the few miles to Hathersage to get the (pick of the showers and the) bacon going for several rounds of DIY BLT’s, just the ticket after a morning of hard exercise.
With Brian now safely located, back at the ranch fourteen pairs of damp running shoes, socks and insoles were carefully positioned on the picnic table to dry out in the glorious afternoon sun, looking like a low-rent, sporty bring & buy sale but signalling definite intent - we were here to run!
According to the itinerary for the weekend, Saturday afternoon was earmarked for ‘Swimming’. Pete and Caroline formed an advance party and headed directly to the Hathersage swimming pool, a 30-metre Victorian lido heated year-round to 28 degrees with beautiful views and once voted ‘The Best Lido in Britain’. The rest of the group headed to the pool via the Alpkit shop (‘hey, nice jacket Kyle, is that new?’), with a few visiting a new bar in town (that coincidentally boasted stocking 130 gins…) for some afternoon tea and Butterscotch cake. A few token lengths done and with leg muscles suitably refreshed, the arrival of a BBC film crew at the lido to interview folk in their togs to discuss ‘the benefits of outdoor swimming’ prompted us hardy trail runners to quickly exit the water and make a beeline for the pool café. Gloriously sunny, and now armed with a Feast of Cornettos, Slush Puppies and Calyppos, we sauntered back home with towel-rolls underarm like a group of kids on summer holidays kicking around looking for their next adventure.
SATURDAY PM Luckily, that next adventure wasn’t far away as for the Saturday early evening run several cars loaded up and headed over to Monsal Head (with Kyle and the sizable Jerry dog sitting upright in Brian’s soft-top Saab looking comically like an updated Turner & Hooch) to hit the Monsal Trail. The run immediately left the carpark and dropped down on a winding path through the trees to the base of the steep-sided valley.
Posing for a group photo with a rushing weir as a backdrop, Janine (fairly new to the club, but by now an old hand) behind the camera suggested that we do the obligatory jump shot and on a count of ‘3, 2, 1‘ we all leapt in the air, arms aloft and legs akimbo. Action shot captured, we pushed on and a short climb up to the viaduct got us on to the old Midland Railway path that carves through Derbyshire’s great limestone hills and has been described as the most scenic line in Britain. The 1 in 105 gradient allowed those that wanted to stretch the legs bash out a few fast flat miles and took us through the illuminated Cressbrook and Litton tunnels at 471 yards and 515 yards respectively – great fun! A hard left off the railway path through an easily overlooked gate saw our route turn immediately uphill and a lung-busting high-stepping ascent to crest the top of the hill and drop down on the other side back towards where we’d set off from.
The impressive Monsal Viaduct is now an accepted feature of the landscape but when the railway was built in the 1870s, John Ruskin campaigned against the damage done to the unique environment simply ‘so that any fool from Bakewell can be in Buxton by lunchtime’. Fast-forward 150 years and this group of fools from Ely were pleased that Ruskin’s protestations fell on deaf ears as the viaduct provided a great backdrop for a team photo before a short but strenuous climb through the woods back up the cars, an exhilarating 10.7 km enjoyed by all.
Back at base, St Michael’s Education Centre was proving to be an ideal booking, very comfortable and spacious, with loads of room to spread out maps and do lots of earnest pointing. After a team effort in the kitchen overseen by Pete in an apron brought from home (how keen?) and ably assisted by sous-chef James on chopping duties, the industrial size oven suddenly revealed four huge trays of lasagne (two beef, two vegan), with garlic bread and broccoli on the side, comfort food that went down a treat! Well-earned and suitably sizable appetites after a busy day of exercise saw conversation dip for a few minutes of re-fuelling. With glasses charged and plates cleared making way for dessert, photos were now being shared on the FB Messenger group, with Janine’s earlier Van Halen jump shot getting the most screen time (and belly laughs) as it seemed that everyone got good air apart from Ben who the photo revealed somehow stayed firmly rooted to the ground, possibly on the down stroke. Taking being the butt of the joke for a few minutes with good humour, it wasn’t long before Ben the Bat passed the baton on and the ski-chalet size Tiramisu prepared that morning was quickly devoured, before more ping pong was pung. Kyle’s earlier talk of an off-road night run with head torches was thankfully not revisited and all were in bed by midnight.
After a leisurely cooked breakfast with crumble chaser, Sunday morning’s run set off at 10.00 and was a 7.3km outing up to Stanage Edge, a hugely impressive gritstone escarpment that ran for miles. All squeezing into three cars, the intentional bumper-to-bumper parking of the red, white and blue of John’s Mazda, Ross’s Suzuki and Emily’s SEAT lent the Stanage car park a bit of an Italian Job feel. A gentle ascent along an easy wide path that lead up to the Edge proper, where the sheer drops and views grew more impressive at every turn. We then found ourselves not just running but dancing, skipping, and leaping from rock to rock, the gritstone affording great confidence as it felt like every boulder was covered in grip-tape. Onwards, forwards and upwards we went in our new parkour personas, our destination being the by now visible trig point at High Neb (458 metres above sea level) way off yonder. Ben, coming over all Neil Armstrong, insisted that a flag be planted and unfurled an ELY RUNNERS banner for an impromptu limited team photo of ER on Tour, with Paul and John breaking stride to get in on the club-promoting action. The final push to the top was mostly taken at high speed whilst soaking up the magnificent views, quite different to those found in the Fens.
Grabbing a quick group photo (note Andy hanging way back below, possibly experiencing mild vertigo and keen to not venture any further forward than absolutely necessary, unlike Pete positively flying by the seat of his shorts!), we used the trig point as our cue to head back and so turned 180 to run effortlessly back downhill using the grippy rocks as springboards to have some gazelle-like fun en route.
Four fantastic runs done and with 26.2 miles of superb navigation and beautiful trails behind us, we headed back to Hathersage to pack bags and polish off any leftovers, unanimously agreeing what a fun and all-round successful weekend it had been. ‘Maybe we should book this place again for next year?’ someone said. ‘Already done…’ replied Kyle, closing his laptop, ‘August Bank Holiday weekend 2020, keep it free!’