The first sunny Sunday for weeks finds me on an action replay of one of my favourite runs, along the banks of the River Wye. We’re in Monmouth, Wales, for the Bank Holiday weekend and the sun is out in full force to remind us that it’s Spring. I don my running kit and before stepping out along the riverbank path, I retrieve my phone from my daughter, who has been snapping a pair of extrovert ducks from every angle. They are very obliging models, realising that she is the same little girl who earlier dispensed half a loaf of Hobb’s House finest sliced amongst them.
The path alongside the River Wye offers a varied, scenic, level route with plenty to see along the way, distracting my brain from just how far I’m running. The sky is cornflower blue, the grass a lush Granny-Smith green after all the rainfall, and the river is rushing by high and fast.
There’s surprisingly little mud along the way, considering we’ve just emerged from the wettest April on record. Eager teams of rowers are issuing forth from the boathouse, alongside which we’ve parked our camper van. They are swept along at a ferocious pace. Their return journey will tax their arm muscles, for sure.
Watching the rowers is one of the great pleasures of this run. There are also plenty of creatures that are watching me. Sheep and cows turn their heads as if synchronised, as if to monitor my progress through their particular fields. Ducks and swans, gliding gently by, look slightly pityingly at my less graceful progress. Their silent sailing makes my running seem all too clumsy and energy-inefficient.
I know this route well, field by field, but, as ever, my run is not without surprises. As I enter a field that is usually empty of everything but pasture, I am startled to discover that since my last visit it’s been colonised by Red Indians. But then I spot an array of 4x4s nearby and I realise that these are not Pawnees but townies, following the latest camping trend. I wonder how they got their tent-poles in these cars.
This is indeed a timeless route, surrounded by a sense of genuine history, both cultural (I’m thinking of you, Mr Wordsworth) and imperial (pay attention, Offa, and Admiral Nelson). I cross bridges ancient and modern, running through the narrow gatehouse on the landmark Monnow Bridge. A blue plaque informs me that the Monnow Bridge was built in 1270 and is the only medieval bridge in Britain to support its own gatetower. And, my overseas readers, I mean Britain, not England: as the Welsh translation reminds me, we are in proudly Welsh territory here. (Yes, Owain Glyndwr, I haven’t forgotten you either.) I’m so overwhelmed that I add a few loops to my run so that I can cross this unique bridge several times more.
Beyond the Monnow Bridge, I travel further back in time, reaching a stretch of Offa’s Dyke Path. Very loosely speaking, this is Wales’ answer to Scotland’s Hadrian’s Wall, only a few hundred years newer.
In all, I think I cross the Monnow seven times, but with hindsight I think it must have been six or eight, or else I’d still be on the other side of it.
It beats me how an athletics track or treadmill can hold anyone’s interest when our countryside is awash (lately quite literally) with such scenic routes, all free to access. This run is satisfying on so many levels: luscious fresh air, stunning scenery, pensive solitude, and an inescapable feeling of being a part of national history. The whole experience is enormously life-affirming.
Except when I’m passing the beautiful, tiny medieval church whose churchyard borders the river the other side of the boathouse. Its whitewashed walls are luminous in the morning’s brilliant sunshine. If I were an artist, I’d want to whip out an easel and capture nature’s bright blues and greens that set it off so well. But then I notice, also glinting in the sun, two shiny new gravestones at my feet: these weren’t here last time I ran this route, less than a year ago. I pick up my pace and scarper. It feels very good to be alive.