Happy birthday to me – again

There’s the official birthday, the one where we count the years, blow out an increasing number of candles and eat cake. Then there’s the parkrun birthday, the one where we puff and blow as we run around 5km on a Saturday morning, then eat cake. Birthdays always have a cake theme.

It’s my eighth birthday, eight years of parkrunning, jogging and more recently limping, along with quite a bit of volunteering, there’s also been cake in abundance.

I had no idea what to expect when I turned up for my first pakrun. Someone at the climbing wall said it was good fun and free, which had a massive appeal to my Yorkshire pocket. As Noel was on a first aid course that weekend, rather than lig around in bed, I donned my running layers and headed for Woodhouse Moor, just five miles away, but somewhere I’d never been before. This park was destined to become part of me, and me it as I’ve left lots of shoe rubber, the odd bit of skin where I’ve fallen, and quite a bit of sweat there.

I wasn’t completely new to running, but it was all a bit hit and miss and I wanted to improve, believe me, there was room for improvement. That day in March 2011, parkrun 117, I lined up with 274 others to do my first of what would become many laps over the following years, some definitely faster than others.

Over the next weeks, I dragged Noel along, who turned out to be rather handy at that distance, in his youth he was a 1500m runner and keen footballer so was quickly up to speeds I’ll never be able to do. Running became volunteering and post-parkrun coffee drinking. I’d be bouncing off the ceiling when I got home on a Saturday and only some of that was down to the caffeine.

We both became regular volunteers, then run directors, I’m now the event director, would you believe, though it’s definitely all about the team and teamwork, no-one does anything along at parkrun, unless they want to of course.

I always marvel at the parkrun mix, getting soaked or sweaty, or both, in the regular company of 500 or so runners is a great leveller. We all look pretty much the same in our running kit, all equal, all parkrunners. Yet we rub shoulders (in no particular order) with doctors, nurses, pop stars, sports stars, teachers, clerics, politicians, academics, students, stay-at-home mums, stay-at-home dads, shop workers and those without work to name but a few. And we wouldn’t know unless someone points it out. Sometimes, when I’m out and about, I’ll get someone calling to me, ‘Hey, Mrs parkrun’. ‘Yes,’ I answer, ‘that’s me’.

In just eight years I’ve made so many new friends, found myself when I’ve been lost in worry, sadness or depression, and, whatever the weather, enjoyed running around the park once described as Leeds’ Green Lungs. I’ve no idea what I did on a Saturday before that date in March 2011, but I know that come Saturday, there’s no place I’d rather be than at parkrun, any parkrun, anywhere in the world. Though of course there’s only one Woodhouse Moor and that will always be home.

If I could capture the essence of parkrun, pop it in a bottle and spray it around for all to enjoy, it would be a base of friendship, with tones of encouragement and healthy competitiveness, along with high notes of laughter and support, with hints of hard work and a whiff of cake, lemon polenta cake in case you were wondering. See you Saturday!

A parkrun Christmas

Photo: Lizzie Coombes , another parkrun friend!

As I enjoyed my Christmas dinner, paper hat at a jaunty angle, basking in the warmth of friendship and good conversation, I couldn’t help reflecting that was it not for parkrun, I would never have met my special guests.

The day had started early, so early that we saw not one single excited child wobbling away on a shiny new bike. We arrived at Woodhouse Moor with nearly 400 others, most of us in Santa hats, tinsel and something sparkly, to run three laps around the park for the Christmas Day parkrun. If you think we were daft in Leeds, we weren’t alone, there were more than 93,000 parkrunners doing the same in 400 venues worldwide.

Our two guests were among the runners. Maika had been with us last Christmas. Our Japanese friend, who we have grown to know and love more and more since we first met at parkrun three years ago and now consider part of the family, stayed with us for a couple of days. She’s an expert in nutrition and loves all food, except mayonnaise, and who can blame her for that, so wanted to help make the meal – and I was happy to let her! Our other guest is also a parkrunner, she let slip that she would be alone on Christmas Day, so we invited her to join us.

So there we were, four parkrunners and James, my father-in-law, who in his day could have shown any of us, including Noel, a clean pair of heels. The conversation was interesting, exciting, stimulating and fun. Gifts were exchanged, food eaten and we celebrated the wonder that is parkrun. Who’d have thought getting up at stupid o’clock on a Saturday morning in all weathers to run around a park could lead to such friendships – and many many more? Thank you parkrun!

Everything hurts. Everything. 

Well, when I say everything hurts, my eyelids are fine. And my left earlobe, that’s not too bad either, though my right one is throbbing a bit. But everything else? Bloody agony. 

Cross country skiers have god-like bodies, slim, elegant movers and as fit as a butcher’s dog.  That wasn’t my sole reason for signing up for a three-day course, but I have to confess it was at the back of my mind and I have already ordered clothes two sizes smaller, just in case.

We found ourselves with six other like-minded debutants and two of these god-like creatures who were tasked with transforming us into maybe not skiing gods, but hopefully minor deities. Very minor deities. 

I’m a reasonable downhill skier, falls are usually in the single figures, by the second day at least. I was lulled into a false sense of security as I put on the comfortable boots, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a martyr to my feet. But then came the skis, long, thin, light and no edges. I immediately fell over, it wasn’t the last time that day, or even that hour. 

Oh my goodness it was tough going.  The only progress is under your own ski power, no lifts, tows or satisfying long carves down corduroy pistes. Just hard physical work.

I used muscles I didn’t know I had, my legs stretched further than they’ve ever stretched before and I am very bendy. After day one, I ached, day two and I couldn’t walk up the stairs, day three and I crawled up the stairs, it took a while.

No pain, no gain, and I gained a lot. I learned to move on horizontal-ish snow, gliding and falling less and less until the tally was in single figures, thanks to our cross country skiing gods, Richard and Emma. 

Now it’s back to the downhill stuff for the next few days, just to make sure the aching continues, different aches in different places, but at least my eyelids are fine. 

I love the smell of fir sap in the morning….

The Sierra Nevada today

I’m not blessed with a particularly good sense of smell, which can be an advantage  in a house with two flatulent cats. At least Noel says it’s the cats, I  have my doubts when there is a farty whiff, but no cats in sight. Noel says catty smells linger. Yeah, right. 

It all goes back to a childhood of allergies and blocked sinuses, years of inhaling industrial nasties from factory chimneys, dust and pollen and being deprived of exposure to the Great Outdoors. Playing hide and seek in the street where I lived didn’t count, it was outside but it wasn’t great. 

So a smell has to be strong to get my olifactory attention  (back to the cats again). And it has to be linked to something memorable for me to want to file it in my ‘this makes me happy’ folder. I have one of those in my head, doesn’t everyone?

It took a few years, but I found the Great Outdoors, not that they were ever lost, just undiscovered as far as I was concerned. The Lake District smells of wet air, even when it’s dry. The Peak District has the scent of gritstone and sweat, sometimes fear, but that comes from climbing routes that are too hard for me! 

America, or at least those bits I’ve been to out west, smells of baked cinnamon. 

But best of all is the sweet scent of the high mountains. Any high mountains where the sun warms the sap in the fir trees, the air is absolutely heavenly. It doesn’t matter which country, anywhere with mountains, fir trees and sunshine any time of year. Oh yes, I love the smell of fir sap. It smells of happy times I’ve had and those yet to come.

Always a friend

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I remember seeing Wendy tearing open a pile of little brown envelopes and money tumbling out. These were her winnings from the Harrogate Flower Show, where her daffodils and tulips had come first, second and third. There was even a trophy to add to the other trophies she’s had over the years.
Her flowers were always amazing, but she was quite modest about it, as if anyone could cultivate such perfection and beauty. She not only grew flowers, she knew them, Latin or common names, show her a plant and she could tell you what it was, give her a palette and a brush and she could paint it for you too.
Wendy, who passed away on Saturday, was my mother-in-law, she was also my friend. I’ve known her for about 18 years and the more I got to know her, the more I admired her.
We’d regularly turn up at their Wakefield home to find it full of their friends and family, eating something delicious that she would whip up, just like that. She was used to mass catering with five children and their families. Though more often than not they were not at home, usually not in the country, gallivanting off to foreign parts in pursuit of something horticultural.  We’d find out where they were when we got a postcard.
They’d head for the mountains, seeking out rare daffodils and tulips in their native habitat. With James, her husband, not being that keen on heights, she’d trot off up something scary to investigate and report back. Or they’d be at the Chelsea Flower Show, or giving talks just about anywhere in the country, or visiting friends, or having yet another adventure.
She was a voracious reader and writer, penning many articles particularly for horticultural publications. She was interested in everything, with eclectic tastes, including classical and rock music and old Mr Chuckletrousers himself Leonard Cohen.
We’d regularly get an envelope through the mail, addressed in her beautiful flowing hand, inside would be a newspaper clipping, or recipe, or article she thought we’d be interested in, we always were.
She also delighted in the world around her. I remember us taking the pair of them to the French Alps via the beautiful floral town of Yvoire. She walked around smiling serenely at the blaze of colours and heady perfumes of the flowers.
They have lived in the Wakefield house for nearly 50 years, spending thousands of hours on the massive, sloping garden, it was hard work. I remember once seeing Wendy yank up something with a huge tap root, it took some doing, but came up twisted through a dog’s skull. Ah yes, she said, it was a neighbour’s dog buried there many years ago, adding matter-of-factly that it was good for the soil.
The last time I saw Wendy, it was a couple of weeks ago, we’d called in to help with the gardening, which she always found amusing as the gardening gene certainly missed Noel, he says it brings him out in hives, I think it’s just an excuse. She was sitting reading, making plans, looking forward to yet more adventures.
Yes, she was my mother-in-law, but she was always my friend. I can’t believe she’s gone, I’ll miss her terribly.

Yorkshireness on Yorkshire Day

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Atop Malham Cove

August 1 is Yorkshire Day. It’s not an official holiday, not yet anyway, but it’s only a matter of time. When that happens, the white rose flag will be flying from every pole in the county and saluted by the doffing of flat caps and exclamation of ‘sithee’ before retiring to a local hostelry in the hope of someone else buying the first round.

Yorkshire is the largest county in the UK, nudging County Durham in the north and Derbyshire in the south, with the Pennines, the spine of England, separating us from rainy Lancashire. We have two national parks of our own, the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, and a share of the Peak District National Park. We have two World Heritage Sites at Fountains Abbey and Saltaire and an Area of Outstanding National Beauty in Nidderdale. The Museums of the Year this year (the Hepworth) and 2014 (Yorkshire Sculpture Park). Not that I’m bragging or anything.

There’s a lot of Yorkshire on the large and small screen, including Harry Potter, Calendar Girls and the Full Monty and of course the popular Emmerdale, Heartbeat and Downton Abbey. Famous Tykes include the Brownlee brothers, Geoff Boycott (that’s Sir Geoffery to you) , David Hockney, Henry Moore, Dame Barbara Hepworth, Corinne Bailey Rae, Ed Sheeran and the Arctic Monkeys. Not forgetting Dame Judy Dench, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sean Bean. Oh I could go on – it’s a Yorkshire trait, but I won’t show off too much, because we’re humble, us Yorkshire folk. But you get the picture, and what a picture it is.

Yorkshire Day isn’t really that ancient, it only started in 1975 as a way of cocking a snook to the re-organisation of local government which tried to tell us that Yorkshire wasn’t one big county. Now, each year, there’s a bit of a do with every expense spared, we like to look after our pennies, we do and then chunter about the cost, one of our mottos is ‘how much?’ repeated at least twice, getting louder each time.

My friend Maika now proudly tells anyone who cares to ask that she’s from Yorkshire. Rightly so, she’s thinking of establishing a Yorkshire enclave in her second home of Japan. To celebrate this transition to Tykeness, we presented her with a white rose Buff, Yorkshire flag and copy of The Dalesman, the quaint publication that used to be found in doctors’ waiting rooms and took her to the Yorkshire Dales.

As we picked her up, she dodged the raindrops and announced it was ‘coming down like stair rods’, adding, with that dour Yorkshire tone we have taught her so well, ‘but it’ll burn off’. And so it did and we celebrated in style, with a mug of tea and slice of cake on top of Malham Cove. Yorkshire, there’s nowhere like it.

Who’s the coolest?

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The Dutch, the coolest at RIAT?

Even before we reached the showground the sky was blasted by the sounds of screeching and ripping, aviation fumes permeated the air and there was a strong whiff of testosterone. While I never actually heard anyone say, ‘Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast’, I know that’s what they were thinking, in many languages.

The Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) at RAF Fairford is one of the biggest displays of air power, hardware, software, one-piece flight suits and embroidered squadron badges this side of Moscow. Air forces from all over the world come to strut their stuff on the ground and in the air. It’s an impressive and rather scary sight.

If Noel was to appear on Mastermind, his specialist subject would be aircraft. Any aircraft, any era, any country. His knowledge is encyclopaedic, he can tell an aircraft just by the smell. Given that he has spent many any hour accompanying me in pursuit of my specialist subject, shopping (any era, any country), I couldn’t say no to a day looking at planes, plus there was a rumour that Maverick may be there.

We went with a couple of friends, Chris is a former RAF engineer, another self-confessed lover of all things aviation, and his wife Jane, who, on balance, probably prefers shopping, but she’d heard the Maverick rumour.

While the boys talked planes, we compared the different airmen to determine who was the coolest, purely in the interest of research, there may be a PhD in it. Somewhere along the line there will be a Coolness Scale, but at this evidence-gathering stage, we were just observing and taking notes. Here’s our findings.

The Americans were garrulous and polite, they had great teeth and top-of-the-range Ray-Bans, their F-16s where rather impressive, but very showy. The Brits were chatty, helpful and frightfully polite. The French had that Gallic shrug after screeching through the sky in their Mirages, but no, none of these were the coolest. The Danes came close to being the coolest, they were based in Greenland and had a very shiny plane. The Germans had magnificent helicopters which were very cool indeed. The Belgians got a special award from us for the uncoolest hats, red, white and blue berets balanced on their heads to outshine the regulation khaki, what WERE they thinking?

Anyone piloting a Spitfire or a Lancaster is automatically cool and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight must have blown up some fine dust as I certainly had something in my eye…The Red Arrows knocked everything else into the Vauxhall Conference League, they are pure class, there is no better flying team, anywhere. Fact. But they weren’t the coolest, not quite.

On the ground, the coolness award went to the Dutch, they sat on the top of their plane and played rock music through loudspeakers, they clearly know how to party.

But Top of the Cool Pops was the Italian Air Force whose C27-J Spartan took to the skies and did things an unwieldy propeller plane had no business doing,  Looping the loop, banking, and all without spilling their rather fine espresso. Yes, Italian Air Force, it’s official, you are the coolest, well, in my book anyway.

Unfortunately, Maverick didn’t show, he was buzzing the tower somewhere, so I had to make do with coming home and watching Top Gun, for the 50th time, I’ve certainly not lost that lovin’ feeling…..