The story of how the music of Nick Drake’s and a train journey between Newcastle and Glasgow has inspired a new collection of creative writing #26UnderANorthernSky
Connections. That’s what a group of writers were making as we travelled north this weekend.
The reason for our journey was to launch the latest 26 project, 26 Under A Northern Sky – a collection of creative writing inspired by the music of Nick Drake and a railway journey between Newcastle upon Tyne and Glasgow.
We were making real connections with trains and timetables, to get where we needed to be at the appointed time and make our way back again. But through the creative writing process and the journey itself, many more connections were revealed.
Each writer was given a brief. Take the name of one of the 26 stations along the line and the title of a Nick Drake track, chosen at random and write something in response. The final constraint was that the piece should be able to be read aloud comfortably in 3 mins 44 seconds or less – the duration of Nick Drake’s Northern Sky, which provides the title for the whole collection.
The resulting pieces were wide ranging in style and tone. We had poems and short stories, a sonnet, folk tales, histories and ghost stories. Each one was read along the journey. And each writer had found a different way to connect to their brief.
Some responded to the place, its location, history or a claim to fame. Others took the songs, their lyrics, form and rhythm as inspiration. And many combined the two, to come up with something that touched on both, but that was made new and different by being reflected through the prism of each writer’s own experience.
It’s the same in business writing. There is a brief from a client, that often comes with rules and constraints. As a writer I have to find a way to connect to that brief and interpret it in a way that will connect with a customer. That may mean digging deeper to discover how a customer thinks and feels and finding the words that make that connection. And the final creative piece is always a collaboration between writer, designer and client.
The 26 Under a Northern Sky project similarly came with deadlines and timetables, with writers asked to submit first and then final drafts after feedback from a small team of editors.
As Editor in Chief, I had the privilege of being the first to read the entire collection. And it was a joy.
In this project I acted as both client and creative; contributing my own piece, while making sure the whole collaboration remained on track. It’s taught me a lot about setting a brief and then allowing creative people the freedom to explore it in their own way.
Each piece in 26 Under a Northern Sky is unique, but each writer has found a way to connect to the brief and through that created a piece of work that connects with a wider audience.
I’m very proud to have been part of something very special.
26 is a diverse group of people who share a love of words. Many of us work with words for a living, as writers, language specialists, editors, designers or publishers, but anyone who cares about words is welcome to join. Together, we hope to raise the profile and value of words not only in business, but also in everyday life.
Thanks to all the writers, editors and readers of 26 Under A Northern Sky:
Anna Jauncey, Sue Evans, Fiona Thompson, June Mong, Sharon Jones, Joan Lennon, Tony Balazs, Laura Waddell, Faye Sharpe, Simon Parsons, John Simmons, Kenneth Stirling, Justina Hart, Stephen Potts, Alastair Creamer, Colette Davis, Jo Matthews, Stuart Delves, Aidan Baker, Irene Lofthouse, Mike Benson, Marianne Powell, Elaine Gibb, Sophie Gordon, Martin Lee, Tom Collins and especially to my co-editor, Sandy Wilkie. Thanks also to Rachel Marshall and Elen Lewis for promoting the project through the 26 website and newsletter.
Special thanks to Michael Burdett of The Strange Face Project for introducing me to the music of Nick Drake and providing the initial spark that lead to this crazy writing project.
This is a fabulous triathlon. It was a great race when it was the QE2 triathlon. But this year, when the powers that be decided that an iconic race through the centre of Newcastle was not to be, providing an alternative venue for any race with just four weeks notice was a big ask. Woodhorn Colliery Museum stepped in gracefully. And the guys from V02 Max Racing Events, already well known for their terrific, well organised events in the North East, stepped up, put the disappointment of losing so much of their hard work behind them and made it their best event to date.
When they announced there wouldn’t be a Newcastle based race – no river swim, no closed city roads, no run along the Quayside, they rightly gave competitors the option to get their money back. Or take part in the new race, in the alternative venue and get a partial refund. I think they expected many would drop out.
But we came. Triathletes like me, knowing the course from previous races. Triathletes who travelled from far away. And beginners, who were faced with a 24km bike ride rather than the original 10km. I don’t know what the turn out was compared to the numbers who had booked for the original race, but there were around 600 competitors who took part.
There were four swim starts. I was in the second sprint wave and anxious to get in the water so that I could manage my usual race nerves and calm myself before the start. Lake rules dictate that is a wetsuit compulsory swim, but the water was 18C, so not shockingly cold. I got in and floated on my back, letting water into my suit. Then I splashed my face a couple of times and tried breathing out with it in the water. I was a bit too hyped to get a good clear out breath, but I was okay and ready to get going.
The countdown started, the hooter sounded and we were off. I was determined not to be a wuss and hang back too much, but to put myself in the mix, albeit not right up the front. I had been frustrated with my last tri start where a bit of a panic meant I stopped and watched the entire field swim away from me.
I struck out into front crawl. My breathing was a bit ragged, but I knew I could live with that for a bit, until I found a more settled pace. Although there was a good wide starting area, swimmers were bunched together and I found myself swimming a good bit water polo style to avoid too many crashes. At the start, you really couldn’t see other swimmers under the water.
I’d gone maybe 200m and the water was starting to clear, so I could see the plants and weeds at the bottom of the lake and bubbles off the feet of swimmers in front. There was a swimmer to my right side, so I tried to draft a little off their hip. But I soon found myself caught in a bit of a pincer movement as another swimmer cut across me from the left.
And then I got a proper bash on the side of my head. It was a real thump, I guess from a hand, elbow, or possibly a kick. Not deliberate, I’m sure, just that my head was in the wrong pace at the wrong time. It floundered me, sent me gasping and desperately trying not to take in a gob full of water. I trod water and gathered my thoughts.
I knew it was enough to unsettle me if I let it. I knew I hadn’t really given myself enough time to calm down and relax in the water, hoping I could tough it out until the field spread out a little. I turned onto my back and floated, taking a couple of deep breaths, once again, being conscious of the field moving ahead of me.
But I gathered myself more quickly and ploughed back on into front crawl. A bit more heads up than I’d have liked, but gradually regaining confidence, getting my breathing calm and just thinking smooth and steady. The first buoy seemed far distant, but I made it and turned easily across to the second.
I was back among the other white capped swimmers now, but with more space and less jostling. I swam beside another girl who felt like she was at a similar speed for a while. But then sighting back to the bank, I thought she was swimming rather wide, so I adjusted my course.
Smooth and steady, I was in my swimming flow now and starting to overtake swimmers around me. In the last few hundred metres I kicked hard, stayed largely out of the scrum for the bank and headed up the hill to transition, conscious that I was far from the last of my wave out of the water.
I had a great position in the bike rack, near the end of the row. A girl with a beautiful Bianchi racked next to mine came through into transition just after me, so the race was on to make sure I got out ahead of her.
Off onto the bike course and I was feeling good. There’s a bit of a downhill start, so I was up through the gears quickly and out onto the main road. Sure, I always get passed on the bike, but I was able to get a fair way before I started being over taken.
Whether it was because I was further up the swim, or it’s just the nature of this course, but I was never out of sight of other bikes on this course. That’s really nice for a slower cyclist like me. Within ten minutes I was overtaken by my pal Ged from work, another one I recruited to the dark side, taking part in his first open water event.
I managed a few overtakes myself, most likely from the beginners race, but still giving me the impetus to keep the pace up. At Cresswell, the course turns alongside a beautiful stretch of sand dunes, with the sea just metres away. In the last couple of years, it’s been stunning – bright blues and golds. Today, everything was grey and shrouded in a fine sea mist. Still, at least the forecast thunderstorms and torrential down pours had held off.
The girl on the Bianchi passed me just beside the caravan park. But by now I was holding my own and managed to make it through Lynemouth before the first of the speedy standard competitors came roaring past on their carbon and solid wheels.
I’d been drinking High 5 juice throughout the bike, but hadn’t taken anything to eat, thinking ‘it’s just a sprint’. But actually it’s a long sprint, with a 24km bike and a 6.05km run. I got a sudden rush of cramp in my right leg at one point, totally out of the blue. Just the one crippling jolt and then it was gone, but leaving me wondering if it was going to happen again. I made sure I kept drinking for the rest of the course.
I was starting to fade towards the end. There may have been a little uphill gradient, or it may just have been me getting fed up with it, but it felt like I dropped my cadence and began to pootle a little. Fortunately, it wasn’t far to the final left turn into the museum grounds and along a long road to the dismount point.
No real issues in transition and I was off and away on the run around the paths beside the lake. My legs felt good, not too stiff or wobbly. I went off a bit too fast and had to ease it back a bit to find my rhythm.
I concentrated on my form, counted steps, thought about, feet, knees, hips and shoulders. And I waved and smiled to my parkrun friends who were out on the course marshaling or supporting. Claire was out on the run course, practising for her important role helping out at the triathlon in the Commonwealth Games next week. And my lovely friends Tove and Jules from parkrun were out round by the end of the lap where we run across a small gauge railway line.
Two laps round the lake, up a small slope around the back of the museum buildings, down a grassy slope and sprint to the finish line. I’d finished with a flourish and felt fantastic 🙂 I do love my triathlons.
I cleared my bike and stuff from transition as some of the standard competitors were coming through to start their run. And I was very grateful I wasn’t doing the standard distance. The long sprint was enough for me and my training this time.
There was a massive, well-attended prize giving. I’ve never known so many cups and awards at an event, with lots of age category prizes, as well as a corporate challenge, team challenge and relay races. There were also some amazing spot prizes including tri suits, wet suits and one guy walked away with a brand new Merida bike.
I had such a good race on this course last time I did it, that I hadn’t expected much from my performance. I haven’t done anything like the number of bike miles this year and my running’s not on form either. But I ended up only a minute slower overall than last year, taking 2 mins 30 off my swim, shaving 9 seconds off my bike time and only losing out on transitions and about 3 mins on the run. So I was pretty surprised and pleased about that. I think it shows I can still improve and have something to ficus on next year.
I’d still love this city to have an iconic race – one that would look great against the background of the river and its bridges. But there’s something quite special about a tribe of triathletes descending on a visitor attraction in a country park and taking it over with our carnival for the day. Woodhorn Colliery Museum did a great job of hosting at short notice and ensuring there was an event we could all enjoy. Three cheers, bravo to everyone who made it happen.
With a cold snap in the air, there were understandable doubts about parkrun being safe to run on 1 December. Indeed, a number of north east runs had to cancel due to icy paths, but Newcastle was still on.
The race director reported the run to be marginal, but made the decision to keep it on, with the extra help of the marshalls who did double duty directing runners away from the iciest sections and over onto the soggy grass, then came back to the finish to take numbers and scan tokens. It was bitingly cold on the moor, and the volunteers were in for a cold job.
I went to do my usual warm up in all my layers, including my Fetch hoodie and had a quick chat with a runner visiting from Edinburgh and staying nearby. And then it was time to line up at the start.
Some quick steps over the grass and negotiating the turns and icy sections kept the pace steady through the first kilometre, but I was able to pick it up again through the gate and out along the road. I felt good and strong when my footing was sure, even over the rough path back onto the moor, where the low sun provided another challenge, making it hard to see the icy ground.
The new running style has definitely started to stick. The only times it dropped during this run were when I had to divert over the grass and I found myself plodging or when I was skipping over the ice, uncertain of my footing.
I was out on my own between 3-4kms and felt my pace drop over this tricky section. But once back on the path, I gave it a good kick in the last km and tried to keep the pace up even over the grass. The final sprint to the finish line was painful and I needed a few minutes once over the line to stop the spinning feeling in my head. But I was pleased with my time which was only 7 seconds slower than last week. Without the ice, I feel it would have been faster.
So when this Saturday dawned ice cold again and ice threatened to make the Town Moor course a cross country fest, I opted for parkrun at Whitley Bay. It’s a long time since I ran this course, and in fact, they’ve changed the finish, so I hadn’t run this version before.
I warmed up as usual and found myself a spot, ready to give it a good run. Not knowing the field, I very much ran to feel, finding my own pace and enjoying the steady footing of the tarmac paths and the drop down onto the promenade.
Not too windy or too cold, I was on a mission to improve my run time after an encouraging chat with my PT. I’m enjoying my new running style and feel like it’s working, so I wanted to prove that and I’m using parkrun as my push it session in the week.
I made the mistake of glancing at my Garmin after 1k and noticed the pace was hot for me. In truth I was feeling it a little in my breathing and trying to relax into the run. The next part of the route has a couple of sharp inclines, that weren’t as long or as steep as I remembered, but I cut my stride and eased up them and onwards.
I was on my own for much of the run, with few targets to chase, but after the initial surge I tried to cling on to anyone that overtook me and I managed to outpace a couple of guys just by keeping my rhythm and reeling them in.
Back round past the starting point, I knew there was less than a lap to go and started mentally calculating the time left to run to distract me from the effort. 10 minutes of bright winter sunshine and clear skies, then less than six and keep pushing, keep the head, keep the desire.
It was tough, but I knew there wasn’t much further to go, even though my head hadn’t quite got the measure of the new course. Once more over the little bridge and up the incline, then back round along the road and onto the cliff top path down to the promenade for the finishing stretch.
A male runner in a blue top had run beside me for a while and I’d stuck with him, pushing my pace, but here he showed his form and stretched ahead. I knew I still had a kick, but it’s a short and fast one, so I picked my spot to really pick it up, all the time willing my legs into a faster turnover. Just after the Rendezvous I hammered it down, less than 100m to the finish.
Token collected, watch stopped, I stuttered away from the line, head down to catch my breath and it felt like minutes before I could look at my time. Target for today was faster than 27:25 which I’d run in Newcastle two weeks ago on a dry course. The figures on the watch face read 26:26 (official time 26:32)
Not only is that the best part of a minute faster, it’s my best time of the year so far, beating the 27:02 I ran in August. So, I think I can safely say that I’m seeing improvements from my new running style.
I haven’t run since I did the double parkrun on 26 November when the post-run pain in the base of my left foot made it obvious that I needed to take some time out to rest and investigate the problem.
Plenty of rolling and some stretching seemed to ease it and I managed all my other training, including a tough PT session that really worked my quads and glutes on Thursday morning. I went for a sports massage on Thursday afternoon. Roz did some intensive treatment on my foot and calves and advised me to ice my foot to help with the inflammation.
So I spent a couple of evenings with an ice pack or rolling a glass bottle full of ice under the arch of my foot. I even took the ice pack to work (well no one can see under my desk and it’s the best chance to catch me sitting down). And it’s definitely improved. In fact, by Friday I was suffering more from post workout aches in my glutes, quads and hips after Thursday’s training.
The work Christmas party on Friday night had me in my sparkly dancing shoes and another chance to wear the beautiful dress my sister chose for me to wear as a bridesmaid at her wedding. I wouldn’t say I’ve put on weight since then, but I’ve probably stretched out across my back and shoulders, so it was a bit of a challenge to zip it up! But it went on and I felt gorgeous in it.
On Saturday we went up to Christmas Farm for a festive feast and had great fun helping get the place ready and decorated for all the organic box scheme customers. I decided not to risk a Sunday run and made do with a swim, spin and body balance class instead.
I’d managed to get an appointment with my podiatrist first thing on Monday. Part of me thought this was overkill as I was confident I was well on my way to sorting out my niggle. But she took a good look at me, watched me bend my knees and honed in on my pelvis which was jinking out of line.
I then spent a good 20 minutes with her elbowing accupressure points around my hips and calves. I wouldn’t have said there was any tightness in either, but boy, she found the tight spots. And she’s given me some stretches to do.
She suggests that speed work may have caused the problem. That changing my gait a little has unbalanced my pelvis and that the problems in my foot is linked to the nerves rather than the muscles. I haven’t been running huge mileage or more sessions. But I had been doing hill and flat sprints with the running club untiil a couple of weeks ago.
She also recommended new trainers (the heels are rather worn and softening up). And thankfully I got some vouchers for my birthday that I can put to good use. I think it may also be time to get a foam roller to massage out the muscles.
I’m glad I went if I’ve managed to treat the source rather than just the symptoms of the problem. I count myself pretty lucky that I haven’t had to struggle through long term injuries and niggles and now is a good time for me to ease back. But my eye remains on the future and if good habits now can keep me running into my 70s, I’ll take that over any amount of pushing myself to breaking point.
I’d like to run at Newcastle’s 100th parkrun on Saturday, but I’ll still be taking it easy if I do. And next weekend I’ve entered a 10k. I already know I won’t be able to blast that out as fast as I would have done a couple of weeks ago. I’ll give it another few days and decide whether it’s sensible to run it at all.