A friend of mine, Peter Cusick, is doing the Piece of String Fun Run (PoSFR), which is based in Streatley-on-Thames, on 24th November. I’ll let you read the linked page to get the idea of what it’s about: suffice to say the use of ‘fun’ in the title is a little cavalier. I’d told a few people that I wanted to do a 50 km day in the 5×50 Challenge, which you will be familiar with if you’ve read earlier posts, and I’d mentioned this to Peter, who is a ‘special needs’ runner like me. We decided to buddy up on my ’50 km’ day, on 21st October, and base it in Streatley to help him familiarise himself with the paths round there.
Streatley is an excellent venue for running and walking, because The Ridgeway (RW) and Thames Path (TP) national trails cross there. I am very familiar with the Ridgeway and we presumed that, although it doesn’t follow the riverbank all the time, the Thames Path would be well signed and therefore easy to follow. The Thames flows west-east, but it has huge meanders and its general flow past Streatley is north-south.
Heading ‘easterly’ on The RW out of Streatley, you cross over to Goring and follow the east side of the Thames north for about five miles, before taking a sharp turn east to follow the South Oxfordshire Grim’s Ditch, a prehistoric earthwork. In the other direction, it climbs the chalk downs and follows them west for c23 miles, before you join a minor road to cross the M4 east of Swindon.
North out of Streatley, the TP is on the opposite (west) bank of the river to the Ridgeway. In the other direction, it crosses over to Goring and follows the east bank.
With a 50 km target, it would be feasible to get a good run in on each section of the RW and TP, with stops back at Peter’s car to replenish and re-stock. We set off after 3 pm, with the intention pushing well into the hours of darkness, as the PoSFR starts at midnight (part of the fun, obviously) and this would further aid his familiarisation! Peter’s Garmin GPS watch, which we would use to measure our progress, is set to ‘miles’: 50 km is a little over 31 miles, so I started thinking of us doing a 31 mile run instead.
Our first leg took us north along the Thames, following The Ridgeway. I’d assured Peter that the path wouldn’t be that muddy, despite the wet autumn: I was mostly right; just a few early sections were muddy. I had to be careful with my route finding, as I’d only run that part of the RW in the opposite direction the 3 times I’d done the Ridgeway Challenge race, but it is well signed, so it was never a problem. We ran all of the Thames section and then followed Grim’s Ditch for about 2.5 miles, covering about 7.5 miles in total. After running back down Grim’s Ditch, we crossed the Thames and ran on the TP back south to Streatley, new territory for both of us. There was some more serious mud to contend with, but nothing worse than that: the signposting kept us right when we weren’t on the riverbank, as hoped for.
By this time the weather had gone from dull to dull with light rain, although my modern clothing seemed to keep the moisture at bay, and I didn’t feel damp under my top layers, despite not wearing a water/shower proof jacket. We got back to Peter’s car nearly half way to my 31 mile target and enjoyed a brief stop and some food.
Our next leg was the TP south, which could not be combined with the RW at all and so would need to make up only around a quarter of our total. Turning around when the path met the road on the outskirts of Whitchurch would give us about right distance for this.
The first half of the TP south leg was very much what you would expect: it followed the riverbank, out of Goring and then through rough pasture, with plenty of mud around the gateways.
I’d noticed from the map that the second half of this leg not only left the river, but also climbed onto some significant slopes. This added to the challenge, and also proved to be rather attractive, contouring through woods and giving us a ‘roller-coaster’ dip and climb that took concentration and effort to negotiate in the dark on tiring legs. This part of our run was the most interesting and I was happy to have to reverse it after our turnaround.
Back at Peter’s car, we mustered once more. The first 2.5 miles of the RW west out of Streatley follows main and then minor roads, then there is a car park were the tarmac ends and it becomes a dirt track. The road sections would be boring to run, so it seemed sensible to drive to the car park and run from there.
We were heading back into familiar territory for me, and worked out that a turnaround at or just beyond an obvious sharp right turn in the RW on Compton Down would give us the distance of 8.6 miles we needed to safely get our 31 miles. I found it easier to leave the comfort of the car than the last time because we were ‘nearly there’, with just a modest distance to do.
The climb onto the downs was a long, steady one. It was still wet, and a little breezy, and I wondered how exposed we would feel when we got up on the plateau. It did feel rather bleak once we got high up, but it was mild and the wind wasn’t that much stronger. I was glad I knew the trail well: you feel like you’re a long way from civilisation up there in the dark, and would be intimidating if it was unfamiliar. After the big climb came a descent, which was very slick, as chalk tracks tend to be when wet. We were careful with our footing and only had a couple of small slips.
At the right turn, I decided another couple of hundred meters was needed to be absolutely sure I’d gone far enough. The 50 km was just a ‘symbolic’ distance, but once I committed to the idea, I didn’t want to miss it by a small margin. As soon as we turned around to head back, I felt the wind in my face, but I was fairly sure once we were heading east again after the turn it would be more at our backs and less bothersome.
Just before the turn, a 4×4 vehicle roared towards us from the south, up the track we’d joined when we’d made the turn. Someone was swinging a powerful searchlight out of one of the windows. It slowed and swung around in a tight arc, then stopped. They seemed to be looking for something, and sped off again through a gate off the track. This was a little disconcerting.
A few minutes later we saw what was probably another 4×4 speeding across the RW just near us, bouncing madly as it crossed the ruts. We wondered what was going on: some sort of treasure hunt perhaps?
About ten minutes after that, a 4×4 that may have been one of the previous ones careened up the RW towards us from the east. We got off the track and waited for them to pass, but they stopped when they were level with us. A window wound down and we saw the steamed up interior, with 4 occupants. We were wearing head torches, which probably dazzled them as we looked in, which is perhaps why a searchlight was swung in our faces, but it was a bit much! One of them asked us if we’d seen another vehicle. I spluttered something about the last vehicle we’d seen and they were off.
Peter and I wondered, half-jokingly, if we could have got involved in a ‘Deliverance’ scenario with Oxfordshire red-necks, and hoped we’d have a quiet time until we got back to his car. We saw and heard nothing else. I was still feeling fairly strong and enjoyed the challenge of negotiating the rough track, downhill, in the dark, at a fair speed back to the car.
As we readied ourselves for the drive home, we had that lovely tired, happy, satisfaction you get from completing an endurance challenge. The Garmin showed 31.4 miles, which is about 50.5 km. Peter was happy to have gained a lot of familiarity with the Streatley trails for the PoSFR and I was happy to have gone over my ‘magic’ distance.