Walking, Hiking & Trail Running

Dark Matters | How Dystopian Sculptures And Night Running Can Lift Your Winter Mood

We went up north for the Love Trail Running collective's Panoptican Nightrunner Series

Featured Image: Richard Tierney



“Low branch!”


I’m running through a pitch-black forest with no actual thoughts in my head, beyond the urge to echo and obey the voice in front. Like a character in a video game, I jump, swerve, even leap sometimes, over obstacles on command. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so focused nor so free.

“Tonight… would be a good setting for War of the Worlds or Black Mirror”

I’m wearing a head torch, but the light it’s providing on the path ahead is scant; it’s my ears that are doing the lion’s share of the sensory work here. It’s starting to rain, making the mud slippery and giving the stones a sheen, but I don’t fall, none of our group of twelve does, and before long we emerge from the trees and continue up the hill into the misty dark.

Lots of us vow to exercise more at the start of a new year, in the bleak months of January and February, but when night falls in the middle of the day, and the weather further hammers the point home, it can be easier to seek indoor sanctuary at a yoga class or treadmill session than to consider doing anything outside.

Pictured: View from Pendle Hill in Lancashire

Which is exactly why Love Trail Running (LTR), a Lancashire-based collective, launched the Panoptican Nightrunner Series. To encourage us to embrace deep winter in all guises. The series includes four trail runs of around 12-15km, which each involve an ascent to one of four sculptures, known as Pennine Lancashire’s Panopticans. The sculptures all sit upon a regional high pont and have a distinctly dystopian vibe about them. I mean that in a good way.

The Panopticans, taken to mean: “structures providing a comprehensive view” rather than: “circular prisons built with cells around a central all-seeing guard”, thankfully, were built in the mid-noughties by the East Lancashire Environmental Arts Network (ELEAN). Inspired by Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North and other public art installations which enhanced the countryside and brought new visitors to underappreciated landscapes, they were controversial at the time but are now seen as unique 21st century landmarks.

“It’s escapism. I don’t think we’re really supposed to live in cities”

Tonight, I’m running up to the ‘Atom’, which sits above Wycoller Country Park, through a conservation area of brooding moorland that was once popular with the Bronte sisters, but tonight feels more like it would be a good setting for War of the Worlds or Black Mirror even, especially when the concrete sphere of the Atom looms into view. My imagination is getting its own run-out this evening, as is often the way when strong winds combine with empty fields and dark skies. “We’re near Pendle Hill, where witches used to roam,” says one of our three guides, as if reading my internal monologue. Witches often get a bad rap but I still quicken my pace to make sure I’m not running anywhere near the back.

This winter LTR is also guiding runs up to the ‘Halo’, which looks like an eerie Cold War-era radar, and theSinging Ringing Tree’, which is the most popular of the Panopticans. It won an award from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), and is designed in the shape of a wind-blown tree. Like the Atom, it sounds like a spooky place to be at night as it makes a makes a haunting, melodious sound as the wind goes through it.

Pictured: The Ringing Tree. Photo: Richard Tierney

I’d never heard of the Panopticans before, but then I haven’t ever been to this part of Lancashire, which looks rugged and beautiful even at night. Though Rodger Wilkins, LTR’s founder and lead guide tells me lots of local people don’t even know the sculptures are here. He says: “Some people’s only focal points are the motorways and the road signs, but it can be quite satisfying to know your environment, it makes you connect with it more. There are so many famous local spots around here. You might get some local people who know them, but others will say: ‘Oh no we’ve never heard of it,’ yet they live just up the road.”

“I’ve run a lot around the north west in the last 15 years. Sometimes I’ll run 60k all off road just to get somewhere…and that sense of adventure is what we’re trying to bottle and take to people.”

“I want to experience running while doing it and not just thinking about my time”

Rodger was inspired to set up LTR after witnessing the public enthusiasm for the London Olympics in 2012. But even though he’s also a triathlon coach, his focus for LTR was always trail running at an enjoyable pace, and LTR’s ethos is very much the antithesis of race running.

“In the last 10 years, Instagram, Twitter and other social media have fuelled the ego of the individual,” says Rodger. “Every Monday people post photos of their medals [from weekend races] and the culture is very much: ‘What time did you get?’ And not: ‘How many amazing things did you see or how much did you enjoy it?’ I find it quite blinkered. We’re trying to give people another option from doing a competitive race. To help them meet new people, go somewhere they’ve never been and learn something, rather than just being head down and racing.”

One of my fellow runners, Maxine, tells me that’s a big part of her motivation for joining these runs. She says: “I want to experience running while doing it and not just thinking about my time.”

I’m not a remotely serious runner, but I do go two or three times a week and have a Garmin watch to keep a vague eye on my pace, which I’ve brought along tonight. But in the excitement before the run, where we all gathered in the car park of the Trawden Arms, which kept making me think of the pub in American Werewolf in London, I forgot to synch it. A few minutes into the run I tried to set it, but we were on slippery cobbles by an old railway track, and it felt too sketchy to be constantly looking at my watch. I tried a few minutes later but we were climbing over some moss-covered rocks.

And then I totally forgot about it, as the pace I was running at seemed a complete irrelevance to the bigger picture of what I was doing. Rodger tells me competitive runners sometimes find his trail runs hard as they’re so used to running at a certain speed, thanks to Strava and the constant data feedback we get in the digital age. He says: “It’s definitely kudos-focused, people might have a threshold speed that they don’t want to go under, it does infiltrate people’s mentality. People want data, how is that run going to have benefited me? I would say simply you were on your feet for almost three hours, that benefits you.”

“Apart from the sense that we’re heading vaguely uphill, it feels like a maze, with no pattern at all”

There’s also some inevitable stopping on these kind of runs, such as when you’re waiting to pass through a gate or over a style or a frost-covered bridge. Which gives you time to get your breath back, so you can run longer than you might normally. And it frees you from that frantic both-my-shoelaces-are-untied-but-I-can’t-stop-to-do-them-up-or-I-won’t-make-my-race-target-mindset.

The social aspect of these group trail runs was a draw for several of the other runners I chatted to as well. “That shared experience is important,” Rodger says, “because the numbers are small, and we’re on the trail for sometimes over two hours, if you sit down in a pub or café afterwards you should be able to recognise the people you’ve been on the run with. Whereas after a 10k you might not recognise anyone.”

“There are speed mating nights in Manchester to help people make friends and that’s indicative of how stuck in our little boxes we are. It’s very easy to think everyone has a friend but some people really haven’t got friends, or they know a lot of people but really haven’t got any friends. And certainly, trail running, and talking, socialising and nature is a massive way to help with that.”

Pictured: The Atom. Photo: Richard Tierney

“It’s escapism. I don’t think we’re really supposed to live in cities. If you go to Central Park in New York it’s unbelievably busy and it’s no wonder because it’s just like a haven within the city. But people don’t have time or the local knowledge, so with this we put the planning and the organisation in.”

Running on roads in a city is one thing, but there’s something special about knowing you’re out in the fields, scrambling up stony walls, making eyes at bewildered sheep, while the closest other people are miles away tucked up in their stone cottages with a roaring fire. What’s even better is that we’re not having to worry about getting lost. Rodger estimates the lead guide has to make a direction choice at 150 points during the night’s run. I have no idea how they’re doing that without GPS in the dark, as apart from the sense that we’re heading vaguely uphill, it feels like a maze, with no pattern at all. It’s not a run I’d contemplate going on by myself at night, even if this was my neighbourhood.

And it’s incredibly atmospheric to watch a chain of torchlights run off into the distance while you’re waiting to cross a bridge. LTR do guided runs in the day but Rodger admits there is a different vibe to the night runs. “More people fall in the day,” he tells me. “As they’ll see a sparrow, or something then boom.” But at night you get that hyper-focused attention that I’ve so enjoyed.

As we approach the Atom, the rain stops, and the wind blows the clouds clear to reveal the moon. We shelter inside the sculpture’s smooth concrete walls, chatting excitedly, taking in the wild views and drinking the hot Vimto brought to us by a support crew. And then off we bomb, back downhill on sticky mud and rocky trails to complete our loop back to the twinkling lights of Trawden. A few steps in and my imagination starts to fire again.

Do It Yourself

To join the next run in the Nightrunner Series, from £12.50, head to the EventBrite website.

To find out more about Love Trail Running, check out their website. They can help you out with a variety of guided runs, and also help you with local accommodation.

Discover more about Lancashire’s Panopticans on Visit Lancashire.

Virgin Trains run several daily services from London to Preston from £39 each way off-peak. You’ll then need to take a short cross-country service, with Northern Railway, to get you closer to the Panopticans.

Also, you’ll definitely be wanting a decent pair of shoes for a run like this. I wore the adidas Terrex Agravic XT GTX shoes and the grip was insanely good.

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