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Harry Potter and the Stinging Nettle of Doom

June 11, 2013

After a full-on two days in Oxford, I decided to go for a head-clearing run before battling the Friday rush-hour traffic back to London.

One of the things I love about Oxford is the combination of city life and the ease of access to the countryside. The Oxford office is on a faceless industrial estate to the north of the city, but within somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes (depending on traffic at the biggest road crossing of the whole run) you can be on the Oxford canal. It’s quiet, thronging with greenery, and affords some nice views into the back gardens of some unaffordably splendid houses.

The canal comes to an end after a couple of miles, and you’re in the centre of the city. Hang a left, and cross through Gloucester Green and you pass the Ashmolean Museum and Martyr’s Memorial before heading past the iconic honey-coloured college buildings, before sneaking a right and into University Parks. Off the pavement, follow the gravel path round the outside of the park, until you come to the steeply arched bridge that crosses the Cherwell River, and turn left on to the dirt track and trace the course of the river back through North Oxford to the sound of cows, birdsong and haplessly steered punts.

Ducking through the green fronds of over-hanging trees and dodging the sporadic persistent pools of mud, all the stresses of the week fell away. This, I noted to myself, was going to become a regular running route – mostly off-road, peaceful, beautiful. Just what I needed.

And then, with a twist and a short sharp hill, I stumbled across a pack of three kids – one of whom was brandishing a particularly large stick. He pointed it at me as I registered the situation. Years of running in North London had prepared me to look for escape routes, assess the likelihood they were carrying serious weapons, or at least the likely trajectory of a spit. ‘Expelliarmus!’ He shouted.

Oh, I realised with relief, it’s a wand. Possibly an elder wand, but a wand nonetheless.

But how should I respond?

Crucio! I thought, dredging my mind for Harry Potter spells. But, no, that’s a torturing spell. Perhaps not.

Avada cadaver! Oh, no – no – not the ‘unforgivable’ spell that has a 99.9% mortality rate.

Out of spells, I thought about a jolly ‘Alright there Rincewind.’ But these were pre-teens. The chances of them knowing anything about Terry Pratchett seemed pretty slim.

Of course, by the time these thoughts had run through my head, I was through the beer garden of the Victoria Arms and bareleg-first into a bracing selection of nettles and thistles that were concealed by the long grass. (This, it should be noted, is not a brag about how fast I was running. If anything, it’s a confession about how slowly my mind was working.)

With the way ahead thick with jabby and stingy undergrowth, I decided that was probably enough countryside for one day and found my way on to the path that runs alongside the ring road. The final flourish of the route needs to be refined, but there’s a very decent trail run to be added to my selection of regular routes here.

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