Oliver Balch reports back on his Winter Weekend run with ‘Footnotes’ author Vybarr Cregan-Reid:
To the best of my knowledge, Francis Kilvert was not a runner. The Victorian diarist would be far happier in a pair of sturdy walking boots, staff in hand, than he ever would in jogging pants and base layers. Still, as we set off for a morning jog across the fields from Hay-on-Wye to the nearby village of Clyro, I had a palpable sense of following in Kilvert’s footsteps. It was a route the writer knew well, after all. Curate in Clyro from 1865 to 1872, Kilvert spent much of his time traversing his parish on foot to meet with parishioners – a practice he rather delightfully referred to as “villaging”. So when our little group of Hay Festival Winter Weekend joggers crossed the bridge out of Hay and branched right along the Wye, he’d have quickly recalled the river “surging broad yellow and storm” after one particularly tempestuous March night. A little later, meanwhile, as we turned to climb back up the hill to Boatside, I can well imagine his mind turning to the recent suicide of Meredith’s sister – the eddies of the scandal still swirling midstream.
From Boatside to Clyro was very much Kilvert's home turf. Ahead, over several sloping fields, lie the scattered rooftops of his one-time home. Forested hillsides swoop down upon the village from above as though in a celebratory bow. Kilvert thought Clyro at its prettiest from this easterly vantage, the church spire cushioned beneath an ocean of sky, the dotted houses washed by a ‘tender blue haze’. Once we reach the village itself, our gaggle of runners stops for a breather. Beside us, just across a brook that runs beneath the road, is Ashbrook House, Kilvert's old lodgings. We stop just long enough to clock the window of his bedroom and imagine him jotting down his day’s events by candlelight. And then we’re off again, past the church, the old vicarage, the castle tump and back down the road towards Hay. Just beyond Peter’s Pool, the village rubbish dump in Kilvert’s day, we swing right along a track that takes us back towards the Wye - Wordsworth's 'Wanderer in the Woods'. Before we reach its banks, however, we climb up through a steep copse along the Wye Valley Walk that eventually brings us back onto the Hay-Clyro road above the bridge. Burrowed among the trees above the far bank stands Hay, the Town of Books, framed by the bouldery bulk of the Black Mountains behind.
Running is a way of getting in touch with the complexity and super-connectivity of the natural world, argues Vybarr Cregan-Reid who, later the same day, would give an enthralling talk about his new book, ‘Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human’.
Cregan-Reid is, I sense, a Kilvertian at heart. A man who knows what it’s like to melt into the natural world, to feel kinship with its primeval throb, to have it prick his senses and enliven his mind. Kilvert walked, Cregan-Reid runs, but the pair embrace the same “kinetic empathy” with their surroundings. As the latter writes in his delightful new book:
“We runners know that once you settle down deeply into pace, you settle just as deeply into landscape; you huddle into it. The reason that the experience of landscape can be so intense is that you become part of it. What you are feeling is an analogue of what the place is feeling as it feels itself, and you.”
Kilvert couldn’t have said it better.