I got an email last week from a fellow runner who lives in my neck of the woods, and who also happens to read this spectacular blog. He mentioned a few of the local routes he uses, one of which is the Brampton Valley Way. I’d never heard of it before, but a quick chat with Mr Google told me that the BVW is a 14 mile “linear park” (fancy term for a stretch of disused railway line) running from Market Harborough to Northampton. A disused railway will always be my running route of choice, neatly occupying a gap in the market by having neither the grey monotony that you sometimes get with a road run or the pitfalls associated with hardcore trail running (in no particular order: muddy shoes, being chased by badgers and actual pitfalls). And to top it off, it seemed that the BVW came complete with a couple of great big tubey poggles in the form of two old train tunnels that were still open to the public. The prospect of this new playground filled me with optimism – lately I’ve been idly wondering where I’ll do my LSRs when they finally reach the point where they’re getting a bit marathon-y. It’s still waaaaaaay off in the future, but I’m not keen on laps and wasn’t relishing the thought of doing tons of them just to fit a hefty long run in. So the BVW and all of its 28-miles-there-and-back awesomeness might be just the ticket. Ha! Ticket! Cheeky little train reference there. Crikey, I’m good.
I had some time off work mid-week so, having used google maps to find a start point close to the Northants/Leics border, I set off for a chilly Wednesday morning LSR. Getting started wasn’t quite as easy as I’d hoped though, and instead of the nice dry picturesque trail I’d imagined, I found myself trudging through a bridleway-cum-sheep-field, deep mud slurping at my beloved new Brooks trainers while the field’s woolly occupants gathered round to have a look at the mentalist who was swearing his way across their home. From what I could see of the track before me, it seemed to be getting muddier and muddier, and I very nearly called the whole thing off. The only thing keeping my spirits up was a mysterious poggle that I’d spotted in the middle of the field – a brick tower approximately 20ft high and 10ft across which bizarrely had no doors or windows. So there I was, miles of muddy misery stretching out in front of me, and feeling a bit short-changed about this supposedly great route. And then I got bored of looking out in front of me and decided I’d have a little glance to my right, because sometimes you’ve just got to live the dream and treat yourself. And lo and behold, over to my right hand side was a steep downward slope. A steep downward slope leading to this…
Scrabbling down to the track, I realised that the reason I hadn’t been able to see the Brampton Valley Way was that I’d been standing on top of it all along. Or more precisely, I’d been standing on top of the Great Oxenden Tunnel; the aforementioned doorless tower being some sort of ventilation shaft and light well*.
I had a peer down the tunnel, but as my route was off in the opposite direction I decided to crack on with my run first and maybe go exploring later. I’ve been building the mileage back up gradually since my post-Xmas slump, adding no more than 10% every week in an attempt to be sensible (stop laughing!) and the plan for today was a slow 10.5 miles. The first four miles slipped by in an effortless daydream and I was enjoying my tranquil surroundings, although not so much the icy winds that were trying their damnedest to beat me up and steal my dinner money. And then I saw tunnel number 2.
Any poggle is an added bonus on a run, but any one that is half a kilometre in length deserves a special mention. I noticed a sign directing more cautious travellers to a detour around the tunnel, but obviously that wasn’t intended for fearless adventurers such as myself, and I pressed on into the tunnel mouth. It couldn’t be that bad anyway, because I could see all the way through to the other end.
And then a few feet in my whole world went black. I can’t explain the physics of it, but as soon as the tunnel entrance moved out of my peripheral vision it was as if daylight had been a world away. It’s difficult to describe just how dark it was in there, but after thinking long and hard and consulting my thesaurus, I’d go as far as to say it was really really really dark. I know I banged on about the spookiness of running in the dark in a previous blog post, “Paranormal(ish) Activity”, but compared to this bloody tunnel, that was like being taken on a guided tour around the sunshine factory by the Care Bears to see how cuddles are made.
I briefly considered stopping and turning back, deciding that maybe the detour was suitable for fearless adventurers after all. But I soon thought better of it. I’ve seen enough horror films in my time to know for a fact that if I turned around there’d be the silhouette of something horrible coming down the tunnel after me, perhaps some sort of feral man-fox** with pointy teeth and really long fingernails that scrape across the floor when he runs. And of course, when I turned back to carry on running (away from aforementioned man-fox) there’d be another one coming towards me from the other direction too.
At the risk of coming over too grandiose, It wasn’t just an absence of light in there. For those few hundred metres it was as if all of the light in the world was being sucked out. At that point I was less concerned with murderous vulpine mutants and more with the prospect of falling over something. Did I mention that it was dark? It was so bad that I literally couldn’t see a thing other than the (seemingly much more distant than when I’d started) tunnel exit ahead. The walls either side of me could have been an inch from my face or a hundred miles away for all I knew, which meant that if there was something (or someone. No… mustn’t think that) on the ground in front of me waiting to be tripped over, the first I’d know of it would be when I was lying in a broken heap on the floor. Praying for an absence of great big holes in the ground, I fished my phone out of my pocket and switched it on in the hope that the light from the screen would help me see where I was going. No such luck. The floodlight I’d been hoping for turned out to be no match for this inky black bastard, and had as much effect as spitting on a forest fire. There must have been another ventilation tower thingy above this tunnel, similar to the one I’d seen earlier, but although it cast a comforting pool of light on the floor halfway along, it quickly reverted to impenetrable blackness the moment you stepped past and so I didn’t hang about to enjoy it. As I drew ever nearer to the exit, I kept expecting to hear a gravelly voice right next to me say “dark in here, isn’t it?” but thankfully it never happened and I burst out into the morning sunlight, alive, unscathed and approaching Mach 2. As I exited the tunnel I was voicing my relief by muttering “thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou” which, judging by the perplexed and slightly terrified look on their faces, must have come as something of a shock to the two elderly ramblers standing outside reading their map. As I sped past I glanced at them and offered a cheery “good morning”, which was of course an excuse to check for any obvious signs of whiskers or clumsily concealed bushy tails.
The rest of the outward journey passed in a pleasant blur, interspersed with the occasional pause to look at stuff. Although my plan had been to head out for 5¼ miles and then turn around (making a 10½ mile journey, maths fans) my slow steady pace was paying off, and I felt like I could run forever. I decided to round it up to 11 miles, and so pressed on for just a teensy bit further. The thing about “out-and-back” routes is that they’re magic. By twisting the very laws of space and time, an out-and-back route lets you do one whole mile for every half mile you do; “I’ve done four and a half miles, which means if I were to turn around now and head back it’ll be a nine mile run in total. But if I just do one extra half mile before turning around it’ll add an entire mile to my final result”. Clearly, my maths is flawless and I am nothing less than a genius.
And it was this probably-not-flawed genius that saw me trot out to six miles before turning and heading for home. It was only as I got closer to mile 13 (I got a bit lost***) that my legs started to grumble that this wasn’t what they’d signed up for. As I wiped the salty sweat-crust from my forehead I silently cursed my stupid definitely-not-genius brain and told it that if it ever pulled a stunt like that again I’d make it listen to Justin Bieber. The last few hundred yards were unpleasant, but by the time I got back to my car I’d clocked up just over 13.5 miles – an impromptu half marathon and a bit left over for good luck.
And yes, I had taken the detour on the way back.