Hampshire is a county of contrasts. In the space of a few miles one can be transported from the bustling container port of Southampton, where the horizon is dominated by massive cruise ships, interminable rows of cars and IKEA; to the peaceful, ancient and sylvan vistas of the New Forest, where extensive tracts of woodland dominate – the dominion of deer, wild pigs, fungi, ancient oaks and endless tracts of perilous marsh.
Their proximity presents a perfect opportunity for orienteers to test their skills, firstly in the busy streets and alleyways of a buzzing southern city, complete with revelling football fans; and secondly to don their studs and gaiters for a soggy tramp through some of the toughest navigational terrain in the south, complete with herds of rutting deer.
The city centre event location presented the chance to travel by train, which we gladly accepted. Southampton is dominated by the extensive Victorian parks in the cultural quarter, which made for interesting orienteering, especially for the junior courses. There is a concern for any planner of an urban event that roads present serious hazards for 10 year old children, and often the urban courses are so simple that some whip around in 7 minutes, hardly justifying the long road journey, or the post-race feast. However this event was an exception, with great use of parkland features and some quiet back streets to give the children one of their more complex urban runs of the year. Urban events for the grown-ups are really a test of the fastest and fittest road runners, but there is always scope to mess up in the city walls or miss the hidden stairwells, where every lost second counts. Whether this is a test of navigation or eyesight for those of us with hyperopia is questionable.
Sunday morning for the November Classic at Highland Water was an early start. We had to be back in the village early for a junior amateur dramatics dress rehearsal at 1330, so the alarm was set for 0630, and in spite of sore legs from the previous day, we were on site at 0815. Rebecca and I were first out, which has its perils and positives. Running alone in a sunlit ancient forest on a Sunday morning in autumn, knowing that 1000 competitors were still to run (and many millions were still in bed) was a treat. In fact for much of my course I only saw two other runners. On one occasion, close to my first control, I looked up from my map to see a huge red deer stag hurtling towards me, followed by six bouncing hinds, shortly followed by a BKO orienteer jumping over an earthbank behind them with a big grin on his face. What other sport gives you that experience!
Running so early in the morning means there are no human tracks to controls, no bingo controls, but most importantly, no distractions. I must have scared off 3-4 herds of deer, but otherwise it was peaceful, and it was a pity to have to rush around, particularly over the high plateau of Acres Down with its far reaching views of the forest. The sunlit forest and orange and red woodland floor were so delightful that at one point I literally forgot to navigate and had no idea where I was, and no one to ask. The testing part of the New Forest is that for the most part this is 1000+ year old woodland, and unlike many secondary woodlands, which have evidence of previous land use in the form of earthwalls, pits, dug ditches and old ruins, the runnable woodland in the NF is simply mapped as blank white. This makes handrails largely non existent, and attack points limited. Navigation is by glades, holly bushes, ring contours, shallow re-entrants and marshes, testing bearings and necessitating accurate pacing. Even the ancient trees are too numerous to map. Thankfully the weather held out and everyone revelled in a perfectly organised event, excellent planning, and some great O-community post-race debate with tales of surviving the treacherous marshes. At least one WSX member was hauled out of a waist deep quagmire. Another great Southern Championships and November Classic from SOC, with a great turn out from WSX members as you can see from the photos courtesy of Steve Rush BOK.