Ever since I moved to North London eighteen years ago I’ve walked on Hampstead Heath several times a week; I never, ever, get bored with it. Apparently some runners want to run faster to get it over with as quickly as possible, but for me that would be completely missing the point - which is a really good excuse for running very slowly isn’t it?
After the brisk 5-minute warm-up walk from the car, I start running outside Kenwood House, a lovely neo-classical mansion, usually open to the public (and free) which means you can pop in and say ‘Hello’ to the Rembrandt self-portrait and the Turner seascape as often as you like. But not now - it is currently swathed in scaffolding and the art collection is off enjoying a gap year touring the States for duration of the refurbishment.
From the house you look down the gentle green slope which is covered in picnickers and concert-goers in summer, to a lake fringed by woodland, and a pretty white bridge, known as the Sham bridge, because on closer inspection it is just a façade. Then along an avenue of trees past Henry Moore’s Two Piece Reclining Figures (always a relief to see it’s still there and hasn’t been nicked for scrap) out through the gate and onto a meadow with a wide path that feels a bit like the Yellow Brick Road because of the way it stretches in front of you. Then into the beech wood and gently downhill through the mud and fallen leaves, out though the gate onto the Heath proper, past a huge fallen tree that’s covered with clambering children at weekends. Looking north from the top of the hill you can see the spire of St Michael’s, Highgate and Witanhurst, the second biggest house in London after Buckingham Palace, which a mystery buyer has been doing up for several years now. The owner is definitely not the ex-mayor of Moscow’s wife, who sued the Sunday Times for suggesting such a thing, but whoever it is doesn’t do shabby chic.
Then it’s down the hill, round the Men’s pond and past the boating pond where the fishermen sit with their heads poking out of their little tents like turtles. Three men were arrested last week for stealing American crayfish which seems a bit unfair as the crayfish are an invasive species and have been nipping swimmers’ extremities in the Men’s pond, so surely eating them should be encouraged. The final lap is along the stony lane that leads to the Ladies’ Pond for a quick dip in the icy waters.
It’s Week 8 and this route takes me 28 minutes which I’m perfectly happy with, even though it is nowhere near 5K. I’d decided that I would extend the route just for the 30-minute runs of Week 9 so I could graduate, but then go back to my usual run because I love it and it takes me exactly where I want to go.
And why am I telling you all this?
Because on the last run of week 8 something happened. I blame Obama; he’d kept me awake most of the previous night watching the US election results come in and I wasn’t quite as alert as I should have been.
I was running happily along the yellow brick road, enjoying Springsteen complaining about the parties on Bankers’ Hill and feeling a bit smug that what had seemed impossible a few weeks earlier wasn’t too far off. I left the meadow and suddenly realised that where the path should be curving round to the left and going down though the trees, there were three smaller paths in front of me, all leading down deeper into the woods.
I could have turned around then and I would have been back on my regular route in less than ten seconds, but there is something very unsatisfying about turning on your heel when you are running, isn’t there?
And the woods did look so inviting. It must be in something in our pysche, all those stories we heard when we are young: Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe. And these are benign English woods; no bears or wolves, hardly any witches, just the odd flasher or a dog owner encouraging his pit bull to hang by its teeth from a high branch (which I’m guessing isn’t training for Crufts). And a cappuccino is never more that twenty minutes away.
Now my whole schedule was out and it felt delicious. I carried on following the path down through the woods, which were eerily quiet, up a little hill and then found myself going over the Viaduct bridge; it was built by a Victorian property developer as the entrance to a high class housing development, the planning battle went on for forty years – he lost, thank goodness, and by that time he’d had to rebuild the bridge fifteen times thanks to all the springs and rivers that flow under the heath, so his money had run out.
I stopped briefly at a drinking fountain (I never pass one of those on my usual route), and to direct some lost walkers, and then turned left onto a wide tree-lined path running past the old duelling ground, up to the top of the hill where I rejoined my usual route and continued down to the ponds and my swim.
When I got home I added up the times on the track list of Wrecking Ball and found that the unexpected detour had made my run 43 minutes! The slightly disappointing news was that I had still only run for 3.45 kilometres but I really didn’t care - I knew I wasn’t running very fast when I still had enough breath to join in the chorus,
‘Hard times come and hard times go,’ over and over again.
So, Week 9 tomorrow. I can’t believe I will soon graduate from my personalised Couch 2 3.45k in 43 minutes programme. I might have to think of a catchier name, though.