Running: Avoiding many of the sheep droppings, I perform desultory stretching exercises

MIKE ROWBOTTOM on RUNNING TOWARDS CALMNESS
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The Independent Online
The style is the man, they say. And my running style, if such it can be termed, is a matter of low arms and pattering footsteps. It creates a false impression of ease; you might call it grace under no pressure.

Now a combination of age, sloth and family life has curtailed my footballing there isn't a pressing need for me to keep fit - although I do have this long-term project on the go concerning the avoidance of mortality.

I consult no timepiece on my outings. And until they fell apart recently, I have worn a pair of old Mitre running shoes shunned by my stepson.

Proper runners may now turn the page, or read on with a curling upper lip. But my excursions into exertion are not without value to me.

Bishop's Stortford, where I have lived for nearly 20 years, is described in older guidebooks as a sleepy market town. There is still a market on Thursdays and Saturdays where you can buy wickerwork animals, fresh whelks, shell suits - so many things you don't need. But the expansion of Stansted Airport and improved road and rail links with London have engendered large new developments on the town's perimeter.

Meanwhile the town centre, honoured with a Marks and Spencer, a WH Smith and a Pizza Express, has had to devise its own mini-bypass. Not so sleepy town.

There are nevertheless many pleasant ways through this intensely civic place to the compromised fields which surround it.

I have become proprietorial about my favoured route. So come with me now, round our way.

Pause by the house gate for a sniff of night air - same as it ever was. Then down to the main road past All Saints Church, with its silent congregation of gravestones. The seat built into the lych-gate, a favoured haunt for furtively proud under-age smokers, is empty.

Soon I am on the hedged footpath which runs down to the railway line. Over the bridge - up the steps, pump those arms, easy down the other side - and on into Grange Paddocks.

All the traditional civic features are hereabouts. Ornamental gardens, where pensioners bask on bright days. A war memorial engraved with names that still throng the local telephone directory - Sampford, Sapsford, Thurgood, Thurley.

Tennis courts, with booking forms hanging up in a hut alongside. A paddling pool; swings; football pitches still churned from Sunday morning's action. And Castle Mound, all that remains of what was once a prison for heretics during the Reformation, now fussily fenced off by the council. Warmingly, someone has forced a way through.

Winding through this suburban epitome of Nature Tamed is the River Stort. To run beside the river, sluggish and silted as it may be, is as irresistible as watching waves at the seaside.

Half-way down my riverside stretch, the track used to diverge around a willow. It always made me think of the Charles Adams cartoon of the skier proceeding downhill, his tracks having gone either side of a tree. Whether I went to the left or the right assumed a kind of wordless significance - but such vagaries have now been expunged following a shift in the line of the path.

On I go, metre after lonely metre, along Rye Street and up Barrellsdown Lane towards the waiting fields.

As the gradient increases, I ritually observe the names of four successive houses - Lernham Hall (retired schoolteacher, ha ha), Squirrels Close (closer to the top now), Haverbrack (resist this Nabokovian hint to stop and rest) and Greenmantle (vaguely medieval questish, this; fitting reward as the road starts to level out).

It is worrying how much of this nonsense fills my head.

The road bends back, and here is Whitehall Trade Union College, as visited by Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in his pomp, and formerly - so my retired matron neighbour tells me - a boarding school, whose headmistress had a dubious double-barrelled name and a propensity for dodging bills. Justice caught up with her after she did a runner to Eastbourne.

Here I leave the road and go down a gentle incline past a barley field. Sometimes I access a burst of energy on the way up the other side of this shallow valley.

Now, finally, the high point of the run approaches. I clamber over a stile and make my way to where three oak trees stand close together in a field. I place myself in the middle of them, avoiding as many of the sheep droppings as I can, and perform desultory stretching exercises.

A hundred metres or so away, cars sweep along the bypass; but they only emphasise the sense of solitude. By running to this point, I have earned a measure of calmness. I am concentrating on being exactly here.

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