Spires and SteeplesIt was not the most promising of starts for a 26 mile cross country plod. As I drove along the A52 in complete darkness, the rain kept an unrelenting splatter against the windscreen and I desperately tried to coax some warmth out of the ancient heating system. The thought of walking for hours against driving rain was rapidly losing its appeal and I started to question why I hadn’t just rolled over after being woken by the strident call of the alarm clock and drifted back into sleep.

But I am a bit of a purist at heart, and I had entered this event so I was bloody well going to walk it. That and the fact that I’m also a bit of a tight wad and couldn’t bear the thought of my entry fee going to waste. It was mainly this that kept my car on the road towards Sleaford and the pick up point for the Spires and Steeples challenge.

The Spires and Steeples is quite an unusual challenge event in that it is a linear route, taking in 26 miles of gentle, flat countryside between Lincoln and Sleaford. A bus is available to transport walkers and runners from Sleaford to the start and you basically walk through the fields and villages of Lincolnshire back to your car. This event is another one that usually attracts glorious Autumnal sunshine, but sadly not this year. The day before it had poured virtually all day, and the forecast was for more of the same today.

As I drove into the car park at Sleaford, I first thought that the event had been cancelled as it appeared to be deserted. However my headlights picked out several parked cars complete with occupants huddled inside, peering out at the rain. There seemed to be very few people on the bus, so I suspect that there were many who had decided that bed was the far better option and, as we drove through sodden villages lit by the grudging light of a wet dawn, I started to envy them.

The start is in the grounds of Lincoln Castle, and passes the magnificent cathedral before sweeping downhill through the narrow, cobbled streets of the medieval city, past ancient timbered shops towards the modern day town centre. More people had swelled the ranks at Lincoln, and although it was still raining, everyone seemed to be in quite good spirits as we left Lincoln behind by way of the Water Rail Way to Washingborough.

Heading through the rain towards Washingborough

Heading through the rain towards Washingborough

After Washingborough the route crosses the railway and heads across fields towards Branston and the first checkpoint near the church. Now the Spires and Steeples is usually an easy, flat route on good paths and I usually put in quite a fast time- for me anyway… let’s just say it showed its teeth today in the form of my old enemy- mud!

Crossing wet fields towards the first checkpoint

Crossing wet fields towards the first checkpoint

Food is not available at checkpoints, just cups and bottles of water, so you need to take snacks with you although there are shops at the half way point. It was still raining as I left the checkpoint for Potterhanworth, being passed almost constantly by runners, who had set off an hour after us.

I soon discovered that there were lots of large, ploughed fields on this stretch, but instead of the usual good firm paths across them they had been turned into wet, muddy morasses that clung to the legs, took the balance away and generally sucked all the energy from the muscles. In previous years I have jogged this part, but today I was doing well to average 1 mph!

Huge muddy ploughed field of misery!

Huge muddy ploughed field of misery!

I always like Potterhanworth, mainly because the route quaintly goes through a kissing gate set in an archway cut out of a tall hedge, and we pass a huge impressive water tower overshadowing the church.

The water tower at Potterhanworth

The water tower at Potterhanworth

The village of Nocton is only 1 ½ miles away, but along a very slippery muddy path, and it was a relief to find firmer footing on the tarmac track towards Dunston. There is an amazing piece of artwork on a wall opposite Nocton Post Office- a cow made out of spanners painted black, white and pink! Now that’s one cow I don’t mind meeting…

The cow at Nocton

The cow at Nocton

As I left Dunston I realised that it had stopped raining, although the clouds still gathered dark and menacing so I kept my waterproof on. Walkers must reach the half way checkpoint at Metheringham by 1:30pm or be forced to retire, and as I walked down the road into the village I was well ahead of the cut off, so took the opportunity of having a coffee from my flask at the checkpoint.

I dove into a shop to buy a snickers, but as I pulled my wallet out my rucksack I realised it was completely soaked. The guy behind the counter impassively regarded the limp £10 note dangling from my fingers.

’It’s got a bit wet’ I said, optimistically.

’You can say that again!’ he replied.

Blankney is reached by an easy walk along a good track, and at the old stables of Blankney Hall the route takes a left turn, along tracks towards Scopwick.

The sun made a rare appearance and I was force to take off my waterproof, in fact the rain had now stopped for the day. Scopwick is lovely… an idyllic little village, with a tiny clapper bridge over a beck running through the wide main street complete with hungry ducks. There is a seat here and the temptation to linger is always very strong…

Spires and Steeples

Scopwick

Scopwick

But I still had a way to go so turned my back on sunny Scopwick and set off across more muddy fields and tracks towards Digby. There is quite a stretch of road into Digby and the checkpoint opposite the Red Lion Inn, passing the hamlet of Rowston, but I welcomed it- at least it was easy walking and the legs were aching quite a bit now. This event is well supported by St Johns Ambulance volunteers, and a couple of them passed me on bikes- I think they were finding it tough going in the mud.

Our next objective- Dorrington- was only 1 ¼ miles further on, but oh- how gutting was it to be confronted by more wet, muddy ploughed fields! It turned into a real heart breaking trudge, and I was more than ready to stop for a cuppa on the stone bench in the company of the ‘Dorrington Demons’ sculpture.

Unfortunately the path to Ruskington was more of the same and at one point I thought I may have pulled a muscle in my leg but luckily the pain went off. I was feeling pretty fed up and my language had become quite colourful but as I reached the checkpoint at Ruskington one of the volunteers told me ‘I’ve got good news- we have cereal bars here!’

‘That is good news’ I replied.

‘And’, she continued, ‘there are no more ploughed fields!’

‘That’s even better news!’.

The section from Ruskington to Sleaford always feels a bit of a drag. There are no more pretty villages to pass through; instead the route crosses over a blue metal railway bridge and across fields to the path by the Sleaford Navigation (apparently it‘s a Navigation and not a canal because it utilises an existing river- the River Slea- rather than digging out a new channel). This path is usually delightful; winding along by the water through trees, but not today. It was a slippery slidey mess and I nearly ended up in the navigation more than once.

The path by the Navigation

The path by the Navigation

After the last checkpoint the path follows a raised bank by the Navigation to Sleaford, passing several locks and rows of impressively tall trees on the way. This stretch seemed endless, and my legs were refusing to play ball any longer. It felt like a real effort to walk and I went from slow plodder to slow crawler! I would have killed for a couple of nurofen… but all things must pass and eventually I reached the tarmac path back to the Centre for Art and Design and the finish, and dog walkers I passed started to congratulate me, saying ’well done!’ and ‘only yards to go!’ which I thought was a nice touch.

Spires and Steeples

Mosaics on the path by the river in Sleaford

Mosaics on the path by the river in Sleaford

This year a time clock had been erected at the finish line and as I stumbled towards it (I thought I’d better put in a sprint finish) I saw with some amazement that it said 7 hours 13 minutes. I was quite impressed with myself- until I spotted the small sign that said the clock had been started at 9:30am… and I had started at 8:30am. Ho hum…

I accepted a bottle of water, certificate and a t-shirt and despite the fact that I was muddy, damp and completely knackered, I suddenly felt quite pleased I had made the effort to get out of bed after all.

Interested in doing the Spires and Steeples Challenge? It’s an annual event which follows the route of the 26 mile Spires and Steeples Arts and Heritage trail created in 2008, and takes place every October. There’s also a 13 mile option along the second half of the route from Metheringham to Sleaford. The challenge route is well signed and there are marshalls at major road crossings and junctions. There are also sculptures and works of art to spot along the way. Find out more from the official website.

Typical signs along the route

Typical signs along the route

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