The beautiful south

Mark Rainsley, author of South West Trail Running and South East Trail Running, on exploring the trails of southern England

Isle of Wight

by Mark Rainsley |

I’m a trail runner living in Dorset on the south coast. My day job is teaching teenagers about history. I’m really into seeking out wild places in which to make challenging or adventurous journeys and I also love writing about and sharing my experiences. Combining these passions, I have just completed researching, writing and photographing two fairly hefty guidebooks to the trail running possibilities of southern England: South West Trail Running and South East Trail Running.

Five years ago, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with a genetic disorder called Marfan Syndrome, where your body lacks the collagen which sticks various bits together. In one surreal week I went from entering some ridiculous ultra-marathon, to a telephone call from a cardiologist in which he warned me to immediately cease strenuous activity and outlined heart surgery survival odds. This was quite a shock! So, that autumn I was laid up in bed, recovering from having my aorta replaced. It turns out that having your chest sawn open really hurts (who knew?) and the first fortnight after surgery passed in a painkiller-induced blur. Once I was lucid again, I was immediately bored silly and needed a project to save me from going stir crazy. I came up with the idea of getting out and researching two trail running guidebooks to recover fitness, stay sane and drag myself away from Netflix. When I met my surgeon after 10 weeks to discuss my recovery, after she asked if I had completed my ‘walk one mile’ rehab program. I told her that I was now running up to 10 miles, every couple of days. She visibly blanched…

Finding beauty

Some folk imagine that the south of England is a monocultural wasteland of suburbs and traffic junctions; until I moved here three decades ago, I felt the same! The reality is that both the south west and south east boast a remarkably diverse range of beautiful landscapes, shaped by their complex geology and history. Runners can choose from immersing themselves in ancient woodlands (such as Savernake and Epping Forest), winding chalk ridges (from the South Dorset Ridgeway to the Chilterns), meandering river banks (from the tiny Otter to the majestic Thames), dramatic sea cliffs (The Lizard and Beachy Head), wild moor and heath (from Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor to Ashdown Forest in East Sussex), lonely saltmarsh (the Solent and Essex’s Dengie Peninsula), remote islands (from the Isles of Scilly to secretive Foulness Island) and even landscaped parklands (Montacute House and Petworth Park are favourites). There are four National Parks and a great many more Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to explore, plus seven National Trails along which to stretch your running legs, linked to a huge and truly remarkable network of lesser-known long-distance trails and routes. Most runners will know of the fabulous South West Coast Path; fewer will be familiar with fabulous trails such as Wiltshire’s airy Imber Range Perimeter Path or Surrey’s wonderful rooty Greensand Way.

After exploring more than 2500km of the south’s trails, I’m now more used to running whilst holding a heavy SLR camera and zoom lens than without! I love this exploratory aspect of researching guidebooks: whilst you obviously visit famous and popular beauty spots (“what a hardship, I have to run around Land’s End today…”), you are forced to seek out places which you wouldn’t otherwise have visited; the gaps in the map you’ve previously driven past. The result is never disappointment; great examples of this included memorable days enjoying Devon and Somerset’s quiet Blackdown Hills, obscure hills on Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor and Kent’s lush Eden Valley. A lot of time has been spent living out of the car. This got a bit silly during a Cotswold Hills roadtrip (unwisely, days after eye surgery) to run in the snows of the ‘Beast from the East’, when the back of the car reached -7°C one night. Less gruelling explorations have been combined with family holidays (“Where did daddy go this morning, before dawn?”). Best of all, I’ve managed to drag a few good friends off on my explorations, sometimes for lightweight ‘fastpacking’ trips. These overnight mini-adventures have seen us emerge, bleary-eyed, from our bivvy bags atop the cliffs of North Cornwall, the tors of Dartmoor and the Needles Rocks on the Isle of Wight. Obviously, I was only off work due to heart stuff for a few months; after that, all of this has had to be squeezed in around normal family life and of course my day job. But this is not a chore; I love doing this ‘work’ and hopefully the outcome is of use to others.

I do think that some uninitiated folk can easily view trail running as a chore, though – a means to unexciting ends: becoming fitter, losing weight, achieving performance targets. Trail runners quickly realise that the activity is much greater than the sum of its parts; there are so many layers to it! A great trail run lets you have fun, share adventures and bond with your buddies. It helps you to clear your head, maintain mental wellbeing and a sense of mindfulness: you’ll be more resilient and when the printer jams or the photocopier breaks at work, it won’t be an apocalyptic scenario. Yet, I think that a great trail running route can be even more than all that. It can immerse you in beautiful and engaging landscapes and help you to ‘read’ the story they tell of nature, geology and history. With this in mind, in my guidebooks I have included routes which explore the prehistoric monuments of Stonehenge and Avebury, the views which inspired painter John Constable, the spectacular rock formations of the Jurassic Coast and the landscaped parklands engineered by Capability Brown. Trail running is so, so much more than Strava times.

It was all good, even the bad bits! Does that make any sense? Genetic weaknesses in my joints, along with my general clumsiness, meant that I repeatedly twisted my ankles and found myself staggering back to the car, or had to call my poor wife to be rescued. Additionally, trails did not always behave as hoped; I have grim memories of the New Forest’s soul-sucking bogs, thrashing through Dartmoor’s thigh-slashing gorse, and waist-high brambles and nettles in the South Downs (Ordnance Survey maps sometimes don’t show you the whole picture!) Yet, even these moments had a sort of masochistic charm to them, and regardless, they pale into insignificance next to so many incredible moments. Witnessing sunrise through drifting mist whilst running barefoot along the Broomway, a trail which crosses sand flats in the North Sea. Skipping from stone to stone along the rocky uneven trails to the lighthouse at Start Point. Ducking and weaving through jungly landslide trails in both Devon’s Undercliff and Folkestone Warren. Descending the endless steps from Box Hill in crisp snow. Being stopped in my tracks by the sight of huge Atlantic breakers smashing into the reefs around the Hartland Heritage Coast. I could and would go on, and on… but suffice to say, it was all good. I just hope that, now the research is all done, the resulting guidebooks will help trail runners to get out there and discover these amazing southern England landscapes and experiences for themselves, and to maybe to explore a bit further again.

South West Trail Running and South East Trail Running are available from Pesda Press Books. Main pic: Isle of Wight (credit: Mark Rainsley)

South West Trail Running
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