Bad winter weather meant one thing when the weekly “Sports” double period came around on the school calendar, when pitches were flooded or pitches were frozen there was just one activity left in the arsenal of a PE Instructor – a cross country run.
We hated it. These days its quite normal to see people running the streets in all weather at all times of the day and night clad only in vest and pants and no, they are not drunken pranksters who friends held them down and stole their clothes, they are “joggers” and they are “jogging”, an insane activity that grew to popularity in the 1980s , and the people who partake are under the impression that it will do them some good even though whilst partaking they look like death warmed up and indeed many of them die doing it every year, its a genuine paradox example in that it does you good and then kills you shortly thereafter.
Our school was located on a junction of two major routes, the Ring Road and Otley Road, a major artery out of the city centre, and located directly over Otley Road from the school was an area of woodland known as The Hollies. It had once been a private estate, the domain of a wealthy Victorian industrialist and if you want to know just how wealthy Victorian industrialists could become then you need to spend a day walking around The Hollies, its a big garden by anyones standards, I’ll guess at a hundred acres but it could be double, or half, being that I’m not quite sure how big an acre is, suffice to say The Hollies is a huge expanse of wood and parkland and it used to be someones back garden.
Its located in a steep sided valley and the wealthy Victorian industrialist used the south facing slope to plant hundreds of exotic trees and shrubs to the extent where the land is now in local authority ownership and classified as a valuable national arboretum.
None of which mattered to us, all that mattered to us was that it was a huge wood on a steep sided valley with paths meandering up and down and across the slope, and more importantly a path which simply skirted the whole perimeter – this was the path we were instructed to run around, three times, during our 80 minute cross country run and to make sure we stuck to the path and ran the whole circuit various PE teachers would be positioned around the path specifically to look out for shirkers, cheats and vagabonds, like myself for instance.
Most of us hated cross country but none so much as myself and several other shirkers, Patrick Stewart for one, no not the Star Trek actor, the farmer from Durham, yes I know you’ve never heard of him, he was my best mate at school lets leave it at that shall we, Sam Kirkbride who went on after school to become a successful hippie, user of recreational drugs and lived in a squat when I last saw him, Tony Bateson, the famous Masterbate-son who once served me in a motor parts shop and we ignored each other for a lack of something to say, Tim Knowles, the famous Tim Knowles Removal Man, Tim who will move your house contents to another house for a very reasonable rate and hardly break anything at all, and Andy Clarke, now famous classical musician, then, absolute wimp.
Our disparate group could not run the cross country distance if we did it in relay, 100 yards at a time and so as we huddled together outside the school changing rooms on a frozen winter afternoon clad only in vest and pants (it’ll make men of you promised Sinbad Simpson) we plotted an alternative route, or rather Patrick Stewart plotted an alternative route for he was always plotting alternative routes, even his farm in Durham is an alternative farm in that he only grows stuff for himself and only raises other peoples livestock, he was self sufficient the last time I heard of him but I think he’s dead now, anyhow…
“Follow me” said our Patrick Stewart, not the Star Trek actor, and we tagged on along behind a group of other boys who had already resigned themselves to running three times around The Hollies and henceforth onto total exhaustion. We followed them from the school, across the main road, down a narrow footpath and then into The Hollies and the first lap around its long perimeter path.
Suddenly our Patrick Stewart, not the Star Trek actor, disappeared into the laurel bushes that lined the perimeter path, literally just dived off the path and disappeared, our small group of skivers followed into the laurel bush and slid on our backsides down the steep valley floor until we came to rest inside a huge rhododendron bush where we all sat in a circle and asked him, “What now?” to which his reply was “Don’t know about you but I’m having a cig”.
We sat inside the undergrowth for the best part of an hour passing around his cigarettes, telling jokes, cursing Sinbad Simpson, occasionally peeking out to see if Sinbad or any other PE teacher could be seen in the vicinity for they were well versed in this sort of dodge, Leeds Modern boys had been using the old “we’ll hide in the undergrowth while the idiots run around in circles” ploy for decades but as demonstrated by Patrick Stewart, not the Star Trek actor, it could still pull the wool over the PE teachers eyes, lets face it, PE teachers aren’t exactly the brightest buttons in the staff room are they, PE and Geography were their usual choice of subjects to teach and even I bullshitted my way to a geography O level.
When we deemed it near to the time that the rest of our foolish classmates would be on their third lap we crawled back up the hillside and one at a time leaped out of the laurel bush to join the by now exhausted runners, it worked a treat, no-one grassed us up and we returned to the school looking fresh as a daisy and only slightly smelling of cigarette smoke.
There was however a slight problem, Sinbad was waiting with a stop watch outside the changing rooms and we found ourselves being congratulated by him for finishing in the first group home, then when he’d had a closer look at us and realised that there was not even one bead of sweat upon our brows he declared that we should easily have won the race if we’d only applied ourselves a bit harder and that next week he expected us to do better, this was indeed a blow as anonymity was paramount to our ruse and Sinbad looking out for us next week wasn’t going to be a lot of use at all, he was even talking of putting us through to the school cross country running team if we continued in this vein.