‘It’s a love letter to adventure’: the British musical about jogging

Daniel Bye is twisting in his seat, recalling the day he set out from his home in Lancaster, ran through the city’s streets and then up the nearby peak of Clougha Pike. “It was like I’d left one world, and entered another,” he says. Cue a song from Boff Whalley – the former guitarist of anarcho-punk band Chumbawamba – who is sitting in the chair next to him: a wistful, lilting melody about the joys of running out in the hills.

“We’d worked together doing other shows in the past,” Whalley tells me later, “and we realised we always ended up talking about running. So we thought, let’s do a show about running.”

The pair were originally going to call it Escaping the City, and the show is in part about seeking out the calming joys of nature amid the harsh edges and noise of urban life. It is a call for people to run away from the entrapments of consumerism, at least temporarily, to go and get wet and muddy and lost in the countryside. “It’s a love letter to adventure,” says Bye.

Yet the more they talked and wrote, sometimes re-editing the script midway through runs together, the more they realised how much they owed to the Kinder trespassers of 1932 – and the many right-to-roam activists who followed – who played a pivotal role in opening up access to vast swathes of England that until then had been fenced off to the public. And so it became a show as much about land access as anything, and they called it These Hills Are Ours.

To celebrate the hard-won rights to roam that we enjoy today, Bye decided to run 90 miles from his front door in Lancaster to the summit of Kinder Scout in the Peak District, the scene of the mass trespass in 1932, in which 400 young communists and ramblers were confronted by police, leading to six arrests and a fuse being lit under the whole issue of public access to the land. “A 90-mile journey to the source of our freedom to make this journey,” as he puts it.

The show, which combines scripted storytelling, ad-libbing, lots of humour and Whalley’s melodious songs, is centred around the story of Bye’s running pilgrimage to Kinder Scout. Yet while it pays fitting tribute to those who fought for the right of land access, and goes off in several intriguing digressions – from the works of the French philosopher Guy Debord to the shape of the sound waves produced by Whalley’s wah-wah pedal – it is Bye’s personal struggles in the story of that 90-mile run that really hook you in.

Bye does all the running alone, while Whalley, because of an injury, acts as the support crew, driving ahead along the route in a campervan and feeding Bye pasta whenever he descends from the hills and back to the road. Whalley spends a lot of the story watching Bye’s digital tracker on his malfunctioning laptop, trying to work out whether his friend has run the wrong way, and what to do about it if he has.

Things go well, for a while. But as Bye begins to slowly fall apart near the end of his run, the songs turn a little darker and we get to feel the despair as he has to retrace his steps, at night, in the snow, in the middle of the Peak District, for the third time.

I watched a performance of the show in Moorhaven in Devon, as part of an outdoor audience that was small because of Covid restrictions. As the audience members’ feet started to go numb from the cold, we could understand when Bye decides that he no longer cares about Kinder Scout and land access but just wants to find the path again and get off the mountain.

Each performance of These Hills Are Ours comes with a unique added extra: an invite to join Whalley and Bye on a run the next morning, from the venue to the nearest peak or place of natural beauty, running along public access trails as much as possible. After the Moorhaven show, I was one of only two audience members to take up their offer, pootling along with them for about five miles the next morning. I’m glad I did. It was a pleasant chance to relive the show, hear the behind-the-scenes stories and just to laugh again at the best bits with the two protagonists, while running along muddy countryside trails. It was the show brought to real life, albeit without the getting-lost-on-a-mountain-in-the-snow-at-night bit.

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