Mercia Hill Trial

By Rick Ansell

On Saturday it was sad to hear of the death of Thich Nhat Hahn the man who gave the world ‘Quitefulness’

Paul B had entered the Mercia Hill Trial and then, needing a lift, had told me I should too.  We picked him up at dusk after he had returned from Box Hill.  Paulette and I had booked to camp at the Green Dragon pub while Paul had booked into a glamping pod where he was provided with two duvets and a heater to stave off the bitter chill of the Welsh night.  I think the temperature went down to about +5C.  We had a convivial evening in the pub, though I’m not sure Paul has read too many of the teachings of the late ‘Thay’.

I’ve done the Mercia Hill Trial several times and usually enjoyed it.  It is supposed to be a sort of mountain navigation event, normally about 16 – 18 km over the relatively benign Shropshire Hills; a good winter’s day out without being epic.  It usually involves 6 – 8 checkpoints and a bit of genuine route choice and, if the cloud is in, a need to concentrate on the compass. 

This year the event was held on the Breidden Hills near Welshpool a new area for me.    They proved to be a fairly small area of steep hills, grassy at the very top but covered in thick brambles, bracken and gorse lower down with patches of forest.  To get in the necessary distance the route was going to have to be very convoluted and in fact was really a ‘Long ‘O’’ type of event rather than a proper hill run. 

Now, I very much enjoy navigating over the hills but traditional orienteering: rooting around in a forest for a tree stump or shallow pit ‘is not my cup of meat’ (to quote a nonVeganuary Dylan line)*.  At least when you do go orienteering you are usually given a very accurate map that clearly shows the tree stump or shallow pit you are required to find.  We were given an old OS 1:25,000 map that had been ‘blown up a bit’.  We never learned by how much so it was initially quite difficult to understand the scale and gauge how far one had to go before you could expect to find what you were looking for.  We were also told that there were no orienteering kites at the site and that the SI box where we had to dib had been ‘slightly hidden, so you might have to look around for it when you get to the spot’.  It didn’t take too long to discover that the ‘spot’ we were looking for was not usually a feature marked on the map.  The first one was ‘between two oaks’ in a wood where it was…difficult to see the oak from the trees…., the next was ‘lone tree’ on a slope covered in ‘lone’ trees.  We had ‘between two pines’ in a copse of pine trees, 2m boulder, large bush beside fence (which was essentially a hedgerow).  Not one of these features appeared on the map.  So you had to go to the rough sort of area and then cast about till you found the correct bush, lone tree, boulder, etc. There were quite a few features like buildings and tracks that did not appear on the map but were very clearly extant on the ground.  There were also a good few public rights of way marked on the map but as we all know from the small print of any OS map: public rights of way marked on the map do not necessarily indicate that any actual path or track exists on the ground.  And usually it didn’t.  Progress was halting at best and frustrating most of the time.  I know the old story about bad tools and bad workmen and I’ll certainly put my hand up for being a bad workman when it comes to proper orienteering but the tools really were none to clever either.  Still, when you look at the results it is clear that most people managed rather better than we did.

The organisers didn’t like the look of Paul’s fell running CV (or maybe it was just his Facebook page picture) and told him that he needed to run with a partner or run the Short Course.  After some discussion and much beer it was decided that he would be unlikely to come to too much harm in these hills and that we would both run as individuals with Paul starting just in front of me.  I’d only gone about 500m when I found him hiding behind a tree and we both realised that we were lost already.  It was Paul who worked out where we were and we were soon sailing past those two oak trees without seeing the control.  This set the tone for the day and I think we only actually got one of the 18 legs completely right.  For all the others we would over run or miss it or get lost and spend a while working out where we were and it did feel like there were quite a few others going through the same process. 

The views from the hill tops were nice and it was good to be out running in a new area but I did find my sense of humour rather ebbing away.  Some legs required us to climb or descend a 200m hill only to turn round and come all the way back down/up again.  Things weren’t improved when I suddenly developed a nose bleed.  I am prone to these but they are usually triggered by high altitude, dust and heat.  We didn’t quite reach 400m, it definitely wasn’t hot and was mostly pretty muddy so I put it down to repeatedly sticking a small plastic stick up my nose in the last week.  I could either lie down and wait for it to stop or keep going.  I was already worried about being benighted on the course with Paul and without a torch so I opted to keep going.  My beard which was last seen by a barber sometime before Christmas acted as a pretty good blood bank and judging by the reactions of families out for a Sunday stroll, I must have looked like something left over from Hallowe’en or a lost extra from a film set.  I tried stuffing it with wet moss but that made breathing difficult and did nothing much for my appearance.

Eventually we passed Rodney’s Pillar, a much more commanding feature than Paul’s Knob, as I mentioned to my companion, and were on our way home and we were both looking forward to a cup of tea.   When we got back mine was the only car left in the carpark and the organisers were looking for our emergency phone contacts.  There was no tea.

* Vegan alternative:

‘I got brown rice, seaweed and a dirty hotdog

I got a hole where my stomach disappeared’

(A pint to the first person to tell me the name of the two songs.)


1  Kristof Nowicki  2.06.19

25 Rick Ansell        3.53.06

27 Paul Bayley       3.54.41

34 started 2 never returned.