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Sunday 15 December 2013

Running The Essex Way: Giraffes, Mulled Wine & Fear of Grouse

I sat on the train feeling sleepy. I was on my way back from Birmingham to Rugby and after a brief stop at home I would be heading via car to the fields of Essex. It had seemed a brilliant idea when we’d planned this several months ago, but now after a girl’s night out and an accident involving my high heeled shoes, a revolving dancefloor and a certain amount of “being catapulted” it wasn’t feeling quite so appealing. 

However, Angela had promised a 17 mile run. Across fields, hills and there had been whisperings of a giraffe and a vineyard. Hmmm ... sounded interesting. After a brief stop at the services in Braintree where you’d have thought people had never seen a girl wearing lycra running gear before. In neon pink. In public. In daylight. I finally got to Colchester without getting eaten alive or burned inside some sort of wicker creation. 

I called Angela to say I’d arrived and she immediately warned me that she didn’t see the point of being a running ninja and was therefore dressed in some nice bright colours so as to be seen. Indeed she was. You had difficulty un-seeing her. And you could certainly have spotted her from a couple of miles away. However, as I unsheathed my new pink arm warmers and favourite pink socks it seemed that we were to be running as a highly visible matching pair. 

We were dropped at the Shoulder of Mutton pub and I strapped on my running pack and tightened my laces. It was time to start the Essex Adventure. I’d been promised mud and hills. Bring them on. 

The start of the path was marked by 3 wooden signs showing the route, telling us we’d entered ‘Fordham Hall Estate’ and giving us information on the wildlife we might see. Angela decided that I might miss these massive wooden posts and felt the best way of demonstrating these to a non-local was to do a Wheel of Fortune style welcome. Maybe it’s an Essex custom. 

The trail started by taking us over fields covered with long grass and with sticks tangled in it. A bit of an obstacle-course-style warm up. There was a lot of evidence of the strong winds of a few weeks ago with trees with fallen branches and split limbs. On one section of the path we passed a fallen giant but we managed to edge around it to stay on the path. 

We’d both worn our trail shoes and we soon appreciated the extra grip and the ‘let-the-water-out’ features of these as we paddled across some muddy patches on the path. At least the mud made a nice soft surface to run on. And good ET-walking noises. And it doesn’t count as trail running if there’s no mud? Right? 

At one point we had to cross a road by a tight corner. We listened hard for vehicles as we had no intention of joining the roadkill and ending up on some mad toothless hillbilly’s dinner tale. Or worse in his Rape-Shed. We avoided the traffic and made a mad dash up some stone steps on the other side into a field of long grass. 

Up a rough lane which turned into a hill with muddy puddles and a stream of rainwater running down the middle. I decided I was bound to get wet feet eventually and that part of the fun on a trail run is running through the water. So I did. Enthusiastically. I paddled my way up the hill and stopped at the top with my shoes leaking a damp little puddle around me.  

We paused briefly to take in the gorgeous red and gold sunset. It looked as though the entire western horizon had been set on fire. 

We followed a muddy path up through fields of things that smelled strongly of sprouts. May possibly have been sprouts. I was brought up as a country girl but anything that smelled of sprouts this strongly was to be avoided. And kept away from naked flames. 

At the top of the muddy path was a beautiful church. We couldn’t tell the age but a lady passing told us it was over 1000 years old. I would have loved to stop for a look around but we were losing the daylight and I had been promised mulled wine and giraffes. Hopefully not both in the same glass. 

We followed the trail and it was nice to be able to look around and enjoy the run without having to worry about pace and traffic. It was lovely. Good company and great trails. We briefly skirted a the edge of a village and had a brief run on a pavement before turning down a lane past a half-timbered house and back onto the grassy track. We were losing the light now and the countryside was turning grey-blue. 

Angela had been organised and printed out instructions from the site but the Way Markers were well maintained and the posts we were looking for – black arrow outlines with 2 red poppies - were clear and in mainly obvious places. However we didn’t want to run past one in the dusk and end up in Suffolk.  

Photo from

We went past an orchard with the odd apple still lying on the ground and hay bales, large circles of darkness against the dusk.  

Running through a ploughed field across the lumped mud and furrows, I turned my ankle over. It made an interesting crunching noise but didn’t hurt so after a quick rotation I carried on. My ankles seem to be getting more resilient the more cross country running I do. Either that or they’ve just given up and decided that crunchy and bendy is the way forward for ankles in 2014.

After a while we stopped for snacks. The beauty of running and not worrying about time and pace is that there’s always time for snacks.

I’d also wanted to practise eating proper food rather than gels on the move so I was ready for 2014 – my year of the ultras. I’d brought some flapjacks and seed bars along for this run. Had decided on a 9 Bar which was something I’d found in the supermarket a few weeks earlier. It was labelled as ‘pumpkin’ which sounded strange but it tasted delicious and didn’t appear to be packed full of processed ingedients. The ultra was also the reason I’d brought my Camelbak rather than a handheld bottle. It was time to practise carrying a couple of litres of water on my back rather than relying on pubs every few miles. I’d put High5 zero in my water bladder as I’d used this at TR24 without any ill effects. Seemed a shame to rely on flavoured water rather than beer to get me through but I wasn’t sure that alcohol as a fuelling method was entirely reliable. More fun than run. And I was pretty sure that vomit would have figured largely in the future.    

Very soon, the darkness settled enough for it to become difficult to see and it was headtorch time. I was wearing my trusty Cree which is the best one I’ve found. £25 from eBay a couple of years ago and just can’t fault it. I’ve worn it for all of my night races and multi lap races and it’s been great. Very bright and the rechargeable battery lasts for ages. 

However, had a bit of a panic and we inadvertently added a speed interval when Angela said we had only 10 minutes to get to vineyard before it closed. What?! I had been promised mulled wine! This was the incentive for my 3 hour drive! I had liked the idea of running with a good friend. I liked the idea of running a new trail. I liked the idea of a 15 mile run. But the mulled wine was what had clinched the deal. 

We upped the pace and after navigating a dark farmyard and what felt like acres of muddy, clotted, rutted ploughed fields we spotted a sign for Dedham Vale Vineyard.

Despite leaving a trail of mud on the nice clean floors and it being near closing time, we were welcomed warmly. We followed our noses to the vat of mulled wine goodness and soon we were sipping on something heavenly. It’s amazing how good you feel when you are standing in a nice warm room with a glass of nice warm wine in your hand. Ahhhh. The vineyard owners were more than happy to stop for a chat even with stinky runners who have just tracked in half a ploughed field. Even better, they liked the idea of running a Marathon Du Medoc style race around the estate with wine tasting stations!! Who needs gels when you can load up on wine? 

The only downside was that we’d probably run MUCH further than marathon distance when you take into account all the meandering and wobbling that legs may do after stopping at several wine drinking - tasting, TASTING! I mean tasting! - stations. Anyway, watch this space! 

We left the vineyard after a brief squint at the giraffe standing alone outside, guarding the vineyard from grape thieves. The giraffe has an interesting history. It was made to celebrate 50 years of Colchester Zoo and is on loan from Ardleigh Car Boot Sale who won him at a charity auction! A lovely landmark.   

Picture by Angela Isherwood in the daylight!
We crossed yet another dark ploughed field. We ran through watching our feet, trying not to twist our ankles or fall down a ditch. There was a sudden loud whirr of wings as several grouse flew up from the field. We may have been halfway through a 15 mile nighttime run across a dark field but Angela has an impressive turn of speed when she thinks she is going to be attacked by wildlife. Just wave a pigeon at her and she’ll be at the front of any race. 

The trail wound through a forest, which was black and white in our lights. The head torch lit up the branches stretching across the path as we sped through the winding trails and the tree limbs across the paths were leaps of faith into the darkness beyond. 

We ran past several large, dark hulking barns, silent in the darkness and past some old-style house, decrepit and rotting. Their timber frames falling into disrepair and the wooden porches were sagging and wet with damp. It was spooky. ... as though we had stumbled upon the set of a horror film which was just awaiting the monsters. We sped up and put the houses behind us and soon we were several fields away.

We turned onto a lane, quiet and still and with shaggy trees overhanging the road, dark and crooked against the night sky. We turned down a narrow path and heard dogs barking as we passed a dark house. They sounded huge, like Rottweilers or doberman dogs and we sped up and hoped madly that they didn’t manage to slip their chains and escape. We didn’t fancy being eaten. However when we’d put a safe distance between ourselves and the barking monsters, we decided they were probably Jack Russells or Chihuahuas, scared and whimpering in the dark making their voices hoarse and low in the hope we wouldn’t break in. They were putting it on in order to sound more intimidating. We weren’t inclined to put this theory to the test however. 

We continued onto another lane and stopped at a triangle of grass with a tree in the middle. Confirming the direction, we continued down the hill with high hedges on either side, looking for a Way Marker. We passed a tree that looked like a twisted person. Branches like arms thrown up and a broken trunk, a mouth howling. It stretched across the night sky as though it might crash down to ensnare us as we passed beneath its branches. We spotted the Way Marker in the hedge and managed an undignified duck under a fence, knocking our heads on the bars. 

We continued across the fields, enjoying the smoothness of the grass under our feet and suddenly two deer bounded across the path. Out of the darkness, illuminated briefly by the headtorches and then gone, across the meadow.

The path doubled back on itself coming along the field. After reassuring Angela that deer don’t tend to eat runners (apparently the neon gives them indigestion) we started the climb up to the top of the hill, where a church tower could be identified as a darker area of blackness against the dark sky. The church loomed on our left surrounded by a stone wall which was intersected by a wooden entry gate set in a porch. Glowing green eyes peered out of the porch at head height. Luckily I hadn’t had anything to eat recently so my lycra was saved embarrassing stains and a moment’s reflection showed me it was in fact a cat rather than a runner-eating churchyard-dwelling monster. 

We turned left at the top and down a steep lane, sheltered by trees and covered with leaves and beechnuts. We walked down this to save falling in the darkness and to give my knee a rest as turning my ankle over had made it grumpy The lane ended suddenly at some heavy iron ornate gates which we pushed open and continued down the hill. 

We were looking for a right turn but were trotting along quite happily chatting when we saw a sign telling us we were entering Suffolk.  Ooh lovely. Another county. I stopped for a quick pic of the sign and we carried on for a few minutes before Angela remembered that the route was called The ESSEX Way ... 

Steps retraced we found ourselves in the ground of a posh restaurant where we were intercepted by a woman who clearly didn’t want stinky, mud bespattered runners dirtying up the drive. We explained our predicament and looked at her beseechingly in the hope there might be mulled wine going spare but instead she directed us back to the Essex Way. Mulled wine-less. Sulk. Am sure there is something about giving succour e.g. wine to tired travellers. Runners. 

However we soon found our path and continued on into National Trust land. The land appeared flat as far as we could see which was a bonus as there were large signs on the gates warning of a bull. Angela thought this was highly amusing and did her best bull impression. She may have been terrified of grouse but a bull wasn’t going to worry Angela. I was slightly more concerned and kept my eyes open for climbable trees should a bull-avoiding emergency occur. 

After a wrong turn where I ended up in ankle deep mud having read the Way Marker wrong, we could see the church tower in the distance. This was the end of our route. Our speed increased as we realised that our dinner reservation at the pub awaited and we could get a nice big drink. 

However upon arriving at the pub we hit a snag. Our Garmins read 14.78 miles. Now what sort of runners leave a Garmin at 14.78 miles? After a couple of laps of the war memorial looking like muddy neon fireflies we were on a round number and it was time to claim our reward. A crackling fire, good food and great company in the Sun Inn.

The Essex Way: 
We started at the shoulder of Mutton in Ford Street and finished at the War Memorial in Dedham. A cracking run in the dark or light with well marked paths, rough in some places but all parts were accessible. Great for hiking, walking with dogs or running! Make sure you visit the vineyard! More information here 


  1. Thanks Paul! Was a brilliant run! I'd love to do it all in the daylight too! Expect it would be completely different and it would be great seeing all the views!

  2. We ran the Bacchus half marathon in September at Denbies vineyard, Surrey. Great event. Wine tasting every two miles. Was running at 7:45 pace when moving, but took us over 4 hours total! We drank a lot of wine! :-)

    1. Ha ha! That's BRILLIANT!! I'm definitely going to be wine tasting along the way for this one! And 7:45 is an AMAZING pace with wine inside you!!