I’m six miles into the run when a heron stops me in my tracks. Perhaps it shouldn’t – I see at least one every time I come along here, but it’s still fascinating to to see something so large living a wild life in such an urban area. I grunt to a halt and stop to watch it for a minute before shifting back into my slow trot.
I don’t know where I am. I’m not lost. I could easily get home or back to my car, I just couldn’t pull out a map and easily put a finger on my location. I think I might be in Bradford now, but it’s hard to be sure. When the later Georgians and early Victorians were building Britain’s network of canals they weren’t too hot on putting up place signs. Or, if they were, their successors weren’t very good at keeping them there. Every now and then the living, breathing parts of the cities that intersect with the Leeds and Liverpool canal throw up a clue. I know where Rodley is because The Rodley Barge likes to taunt me with promises of cold beer. Then, at times, a brief glimpse of some fragment of the city, which I’ve seen previously from my car, fills in a little more of the topography in my head. But, for the most part, I’m happily unaware of wherever the hell I’ve got to.
That’s part of what makes canals and Britain’s other navigable waterways such good places for runners. You can get lost in a space that’s both part of the city and apart from it, without ever really being unable to find your way.
There are good, solid, practical reasons for running along our canals, particularly if you’re going long. While you might be surprised by the amount of elevation gain you get from travelling up a number of locks, canals are mostly pretty flat. If you’ve got 20 miles to run, that can be quite appealing. And while you might, at any given point, not know where the hell you are, there’s never any question about how you got there, how to get back or which direction to point yourself in if you want to keep going. Coupled with that is the fact that you can easily control your distance. You just run until you’ve racked up half your desired mileage then turn around and go back. The chances of having misjudged the length of your route and accidentally finding yourself running an unwanted extra couple of miles are roughly zero.
But the better reason is that for city runners canals are a space where we can escape the confines of brick and concrete. It’s been over a hundred years since canals and navigable waterways were useful parts of our cities. Now, these blue lines that were once the great arteries of our society have been forgotten by the institutions that keep our country lumbering along. They’re given over to hobbyists, fishermen, runners, the occasional murderer, and to nature. They’re edgelands, but instead of marking the border between town and country, they mark a boundary between past and present. And, in these largely abandoned spaces, nature has a chance to proceed unencumbered by urban designers or farmers. Things like herons can carve out a space for themselves.
And we, as runners, can interact with that. We can get a shot of nature without having to head for the hills, the ‘countryside’. And we can see the ancient exposed guts of our cities in places, too. The decayed infrastructure of a version of our society long gone. Canals are places given over to nature and to people, often un-interfered with by the forces of economics and modern design that dictate the texture of our urban lives. They’re a different way to see our cities, and a different way to be apart from them.
They’re places we can get a little bit lost in.