On Sunday I did the Great North Run. It was the second time I’ve run it but I’ve also enjoyed the event as a supporter in the past. And it gets me every time. It is truly the most uplifting, exhilarating, good feeling, supportive event that I’ve had the privilege to participate in. Many of you will have watched the coverage on the BBC and been swept up in the atmosphere – it’s palpable through the TV screen – but actually being there is very special indeed.
I’ve run in plenty of events in recent times and – by and large – they all feel good, so what’s so special about the GNR?
It’s that the people of Newcastle, Gateshead and South Shields own this race. They adopt you for the day and their generosity of spirit knows no bounds. You aren’t just a visitor – you’re one of theirs. It’s their gift to you – freely bestowed, gladly and humbly received. It’s the sea of smiling faces and the friendly calling out to you when you need that extra boost as you run past and they read your name from your bib. They aren’t your own Mum or Dad – but today they could be. Your own folks might be hundreds of miles away – but someone calling for you makes them family.
It’s the children all the way along the route with their permanently outstretched arms waiting for you to high-five them as you run past (I reckon I’d be at least five minutes faster on my finish time if I didn’t do this – but I don’t care – it’s every bit as important to me as running). It’s the feeling of familiarity – of ‘home’ – as you reach regular markers along the way; the kids of Felling handing out ice pops, the glorious women at mile nine offering plates of biscuits (just when you’re feeling desperate and have raised a wry eyebrow at the sign for the crematorium!) , or those a bit further on with trays piled high with orange segments – the smell of which alone keeps you going for a mile. Or the sticky handfuls of jelly babies (just in the nick of time when your sugar level has gone through the floor). Then – just when you regret not running through the shower station and are about to overheat – there’s some wonderful bloke with his garden hose standing at the end of his yard ready to spray you if you raise your hand as you run past. And when you think you can’t run anymore a lovely woman shouts ‘C’mon Pet – make the North proud’ and so you keep going (even though you’re now sobbing at her kindness) because you can’t let her AND THE WHOLE OF THE NORTH down – let alone yourself now can you?!
And when you aren’t smiling and laughing at all of the good humour and support, you’re running with tears streaming down your face for every message that you read on the back of your fellow runners’ shirts that make you pause for thought: ‘For Mum’, ‘Miss You Dad’, ‘Little Jamie’, ‘We love you Bex’. Hoping that aside from your own charity, on some level you’re showing your support for everyone’s personal cause, private tragedy and hope for the future just through the solidarity of joining other runners on the start line and sweating your way through the 13.2 miles while willing everyone else to do the same. And for all the well-known national charities with teams of runners raising much needed funds, there are hundreds of small charities too for causes you’ve never heard of and this absolutely makes you feel ashamed so you promise yourself to Google them afterwards and raise your own awareness in a bid to somehow show your respect for everyone who has challenged themselves to raise funds on this day. And it’s a promise you absolutely keep.
It’s the volunteers along the way. The reassuring St John Ambulance folk spending hours dolloping Vaseline into grabbing hands of chafed and sore runners as they pass with a cheery question ‘one lump or two Love?!’. It’s the bands on the run who give you back your rhythm when your legs begin to feel like they don’t belong to you anymore (and either I only run at one speed or they only have one song – but that fabulous band on the roundabout at the turning for the Tyne Tunnel were playing Mustang Sally when I got to them last year too!).
It’s the fact that when you trip or stumble, someone you’ve never met before, and won’t ever see again picks you up and checks you’re ok, despite the fact they’ve just added 5 seconds to their time. Or that when you’re desperately trying to gain some speed and dodging through the crowd banging elbows and scuffing heels – no-one minds because you’re all doing the same thing – so a smile and a ‘sorry mate’ – is all it takes. It’s the effort put into the cheeky, funny homemade signs along the way that keep you going – ‘There’s a Pint at the End’ was my favourite this year.
And at the end of the race standing in line to get your medal – this year the woman doing the honours for my queue wasn’t just handing them out, she was presenting them to each and every runner as though we were on a podium. It didn’t bother her a jot that it was taking her twice as long – it just mattered to her that we had our own moment. And we did – each of us felt every bit as triumphant as Mo Farrah in a fleeting moment of recognition that WE’D DONE IT TOO!
My Dad said after I’d got home – that ‘this is what sport is really about’, and he’s right. Yes – essentially it’s a bloody big running race for all abilities, all shapes and sizes but it’s so much more than that. While the elite compete for records, the rest of us compete as a collective – it’s about finishing as one – for sure it’s our own personal day, our own personal cause, our own personal result – but not at the expense of someone else’s. In a sense it’s only because you’re achieving your goal that I’m able to achieve mine. We do it together. Your goal might be running, it might be volunteering, it might be baking biscuits, giving out jelly babies or just shouting out names until you’re hoarse and smiling until your cheeks ache. But the goals are achieved together and that’s what makes it special. It’s community in the biggest sense of the word. And while I’m sure this is replicated in lots of similar events around the country and I applaud them all – this is the one where my heart lies. It’s a day that reminds me what it is to be part of something. And it’s the best feeling to be part of something. And that shared experience is simply – humanity. And we lose sight of that all too often in our daily lives. The people of Newcastle, Gateshead and South Shields I salute you for setting us such a great example, it’s an honour to take part in the Great North Run.
Sarah has enormous cauliflowers. Simply gigantic. You can’t see her if she stands behind them. They’re too big for the vegetable rack, and would cause chaos if we just kept them in the kitchen which is, as I am sure you know, an oasis of tidiness. Although since we embarked on building an extension which will more or less double the size of the kitchen, we’ve given up worrying so the kitchen is littered with tupperware that won’t fit in cupboards, a lot of Sarah’s wellingtons, my work stuff, off-cuts of oak from the builders, and often Tonka the tortoise.
The extension has created its own problems not least of which was removing large parts of the roof. Once the builders had successfully done this they went away and then it rained. It rained in a way that would have pleased Noah. His ark would have floated in 12 hours rather than 40 days. It rained so hard it hurt. And the kitchen ceiling poured water. So I spent a large part of this deluge dominated day on the roof struggling with tarpaulins and bits of lead to try to stem the Niagara that was gushing into the house.
Since most of it came down through the light fittings, we now also live in the dark.
But back to vegetables. Sarah’s cauliflowers may be colossal but her tomatoes are tiny, and there is one cucumber about the size of a small carrot. Our horticultural expertise doesn’t extend to knowing why the veg has remained determinedly dwarf or suffers from gigantism but nothing is normal about any of it. We even have spherical courgettes.
Meanwhile in the animal world, we now also provide the country’s most expensive eggs. I worked out that, if we produce 25,000 a year they cost about 50p each since in order counter the continued assaults by most of the local badger population, we had to install six foot double fencing dug into the ground another 18 inches, coupled with a double strand of electric fence at badger nose height.
The badgers ate 11 of our chickens, including most of next year’s adults, which meant that the remaining chicks had to grow up in the house. And guess where, specifically, that was. Yes, my study. The conservatory had been knocked down to make room for the extension; it’s obviously a health hazard to us having chickens in the kitchen, and a health hazard to them having a dog there too. Bedrooms are not appropriate. So it was my study. Where they grew up accompanied by Tonka.
The badger problem did have one ray of light which was that we met Martin from the East Kent Badger Group. Martin is a cornucopia of knowledge about badgers and gave me several handy hints about keeping them at bay, one of which is to get a cheap transistor radio, put it in an upturned bucket, and play Radio 1 all night.
If I was a badger, I’d definitely move to the next farm.
Add some punctuation, and you have the sense of it – this is not about a badger drunk on bluebells. Although it is about a badger who looks hammered. He comes out early every evening – 7.30ish – and makes straight for the easy pickings the chickens have left. He falls over a lot, and doesn’t run but lurches. It’s horribly sad. We cannot work out what happened to him. Speculation is that he was hit by a car and has brain damage; ate something poisonous but not fatal; is very old (Sarah’s favourite, because she thinks he’s a bit like me – eats anything and trips up a lot); or just disabled.
Over a few days, I’ve left out more corn for him. He stumbles away when I’m around but I think he’s actually getting better. I’ll know he’s fine when he snatches a chicken, so I have to time it right.
The Swallows came back on the same day the first bluebells came out. If I was a Druid I’d read some augury into that, and it would become a well known phrase or saying, passed down through the ages mother to daughter, father to son. ‘When the Swallow come and the Bluebell flower and it be the same rising of the sun, then there be….’ What? I wonder if I could weave the staggering badger into it somehow.
Answers on a postcard please.
I’ll start with the funeral. A month ago we buried our beloved, beautiful and so loving boxer dog Dottie. To lose such an important member of our animal family was absolutely devastating, and the tears continue. She is buried under a mound at Dot’s Spot – the patch of grass outside our kitchen door where she used to sit in the sunshine and check out the view. She’ll be there for ever in our memories and in spirit.
The weddings are looming – James and Hannah have chosen Swallowtail Hill as the venue for their festival style wedding with glamping guests here this summer. The other bride will be Annie – my daughter and Sarah’s step daughter – who has decided to take the entire farm over for a week in September to marry her fiancé Tim. This is as it should be. Annie was one of the very first animals to live at Swallowtail Hill, being only four when it first became our family home.
Meanwhile Spring is springing, albeit with tantalising slowness. The hedges are touched with tiny green buds here and there, the tips of the bluebells and wood anemones are emerging in the woodland, the glutinous mud of winter is showing signs of hardening up, and the cabins and cottages have been painted, cleaned, chimney swept and generally refreshed for the start of glamping season. Mandy the Gardening Goddess and her new assistant Young George have worked wonders with the veg garden, while Chloe the Chef has delivered vast quantities of the new range of Swallowtail Hill preserves, which are of course cluttering up the kitchen. That is an overt commercial break – we don’t normally accept advertising in this blog, but we make an exception for goods and services of unusual quality.
On the animal front, Tonka spent the whole winter in the fridge. This worked really well, except for Sarah, who had to share his hibernation accommodation in her office. I don’t mean, of course, that Sarah also spent the winter in the fridge. That’s just silly. The fridge lives in her office. Tonka woke up last week. The encouraging sign was that a) his working eye opened (sometime tortoise eyes get frostbitten during hibernation – that’s how Tonka lost the use of his other eye prior to moving in with us), b) he ate, and c) he peed copiously (so would you after three months). The disappointment is that he hasn’t had a poo yet, and woken up tortoises are supposed to. He is, instead, walking in a way we can only describe as constipated. To understand how a constipated tortoise walks, close your eyes, imagine you haven’t been for 90 days, get on all fours, put a large box on your back, and use your imagination. I will report back, with photographs.
One of the pet rabbits also had tapeworm. This is apparently highly unusual. At least a tapeworm with a rabbit as a definitive host rather than an intermediate host (I’ve no idea what this means but Anna-the-vet and Sarah appear to have a range of disgusting photos to support their findings and Sarah has spent way too long on some veterinary websites). As a consequence the rabbits have been wormed extensively. Sarah then decided to worm everyone else just to be belt and braces about it. I’m pretty sure she wormed me too – there were copious amounts of medicine around and dinner tasted funny one night last week….. Anna-the-vet – worn out with Sarah’s endless questions – has suggested I put some kind of parental-lock on the computer to prevent Sarah spending too much time feeding her obsession for all things veterinary.
Back to dogs. Mabel, Dottie’s companion for life, was badly confused by Dottie’s death. How do you explain that to a dog? So we’ve been as normal as is possible under the circumstances, and I’m glad to report she’s getting back on form. Dogs do grieve; we’re both certain of it. However, when the Anna-the-vet vet decided it was time for Mabel’s anal glands to be dealt with, I suddenly had urgent business in London. There are limits, even to my compassion.
Anna-the-vet is in a permanent state of near hysteria in dealing with Sarah. Sarah is unapologetic – she says Anna-the-vet likes the variety of conditions she’s presented with on a single visit to Swallowtail Hill. Where else could she enjoy an afternoon of dealing with Mabel’s anal glands, rabbits with tapeworm and a constipated tortoise!
Tonka is in the fridge. Actually, he’s in his own fridge, bought specially for him. He’s the only tortoise in the world who spends his nine waking months in a conservatory, and the other three in a custom fridge. We’ve never put him in a fridge to hibernate before and the research was substantial. But hey, we’ve all got to adapt to climate change, and Tonka is no exception. Unusually wild temperature fluctuations in winter mean his normal hibernation quarters – a large box with torn up newspaper in the unheated utility room – mean he wakes up when he shouldn’t. I won’t go into all the details, but basically he has to sleep for three months at a temperature of no more than 10 degrees and no less than five. This is much more easily achieved by using a fridge otherwise – we’ve discovered – you end up moving his box around the house in an endless search for a warmer/cooler place. So he’s got a fridge. And a customised Tupperware box to rest in, surrounded by newspaper.
The donkeys are not in a fridge, but they might as well be. We’ve had two weeks of zero at night so Sarah undertook (with the expert help of our local donkey-whisperer – Mandy) to get them used to wearing rugs. You’d think they’d appreciate that but they were distinctly unimpressed and it took about a fortnight to get them used to thermals. And my bank account about a month to get used to the cost of three pairs of different tog level rugs – one for rain, one for quite cold, one for freezing. The barn – space for man stuff in which, as you will remember, has been slowly been eroded by Sarah’s ever expanding need for camping kit – now has a very good workbench completely dominated by donkey blankets, donkey treats, halters, lead reins, chaff, oh, and the cat food for some reason.
On the positive side, we are now close to being able to have our own nativity. We have a stable, which the donkeys stand in when it’s truly perishing. And they live with the sheep. The shepherd pops in every now and then. I am not a hugely skilled carpenter but I could pass for one with my plane and my saw. Sarah would make a good virgin. All we need is a crib, a baby, and some wise men. We could find the first two, but Beckley is short of wise men.
So happy Christmas from the Swallowtail Hill menagerie.