The Wisdom of Doctor Cresswell


Close your eyes and picture a table.

Any table will do; perhaps a long, imposing one with a shiny wooden top, mostly used for glaring down at board meetings.  Or maybe lightweight plastic with a hole in the middle, in the pretence of being sturdy enough to take a beer umbrella.  The table isn’t important, but what is important is that you see it clearly; the texture of its surface.  The number and style of its legs.  Whether or not there are initials carved on the underside, or rings left by hastily-poured mugs of coffee.

Now.  Onto the table goes a chopping-board.  It doesn’t have to be a posh one:  any white rectangle of wipeable plastic will be sufficient.  And on top of the chopping-board, somewhat off-centre, is a lemon.

Take a close look at that lemon. Enjoy the colour. The shape. Pick it up; weigh it in your hand. Go on. Wrap your fingers around it. Test its firmness. Feel the slightly cold smoothness and the little waxy pimples on its surface.

Now replace the lemon on the chopping-board on the table and take a knife, a good sharp one. In a single movement, I want you to chop that lemon in two. Decisively. In whichever plane seems most appropriate. Expose some of its glistening fruit and smell the sharpness in the air.

One last thing now: pick one part up. Study it for a moment and then, without thinking too hard about it, open your mouth and plunge your front teeth into its flesh.

I saw that! Yes, I saw. Your mouth puckered there: from the sourness, I presume.  No matter.  We’ll come back to that lemon later on.


If you ever go along Curbar Edge in Derbyshire (where incidentally, we Nine Edges Challengees will be running in just under fortnight’s time), you might notice a little plaque in memory of a dead person, on a gate. I am a reader of such plaques; they provide inguiging glimpses of humanity. I have been invited to stop for fish and chips with the ghost of Mary who loved Whitby. I have gazed over Rivelyn from a bench put there for Nigel, just a few years older than me on 07-11-01 when he was killed in the World Trade Centre, New York. Lower down the valley, a man whose name adorns a useful signpost is credited with sharing his love of walking with others. And when I first side-stepped to look at this one – the one on Curbar Edge – my eyes saw the central letters first:  The Doc. This invoked recognition immediately: there was a teacher at school we used to call ‘The Doc’…..

She was a Doctor of Botany: one of my favourites. A quote by Roald Dahl describing Matilda’s favourite teacher seems appropraite: Miss Honey possessed that rare gift for being adored by every small child under her care.

We weren’t small children, though: we were A-level biology students. We loved Doc Cresswell because she seemed to love us: she called us ‘Horrid Little Sprogs,’ but apparently with the highest affection.  She managed to tell us unpatronizingly that we could do well in our exams if we worked hard. She believed in us.  I was in the second year of my vet course when the news spread that she had died of cancer.

…..back on Curbar Edge, I suddenly put two and two together, let my eyes slide over the rest of the plaque and saw that it was indeed for Her. There was her name: Jill Cresswell. There was the name of my school.

We should have a brain-break there. A brain-break is where you stand up for a few seconds and turn about; mutter something to the person next to you; do a couple of star-jumps if you wish. Doc Cresswell’s brain-breaks were famous; she understood that you couldn’t do high-intensity listening or reading for an hour at a stretch and she never expected us to.

Doc Cresswell said that success comes in cans. As though you could buy it at the supermarket. I can hear her now: ‘Success comes in cans.  I CAN do it.  I CAN…..’

The Doc was one of the few teachers who encouraged my profoundly irritating habit of doodling in the margins, so I used to draw ‘success’ cans stacked up like cans of baked beans.  ‘I CAN do it,’ I used to mutter to myself, half-parodying The Doc but meaning it too.  I have done many times since.


“There’s a point, isn’t there, when you do your first proper long run and you think, ‘Actually, I probably CAN do this,’ ” says Naomi.

We are sitting in their dining room, comparing training notes. Naomi looks set to beat the rest of us: she is aiming to complete the Nine Edges Challenge in three and a half hours. Gareth has recently had a Tibial Band relapse but has purchased something called a ‘Pat Band,’ a velcro strap that apparently works wonders when wrapped around his upper thigh. It incurrs, says Gareth, a great advantage: ‘I feel morally obliged to tell you about it.’  (Perhaps I’ll get one. If it doesn’t improve my running performance, I can use it to keep one of my own horrid little sprogs in its chair at meal-times).

I am the weakest of our group, because I have been working too hard instead of training. When the others complain about their legs getting tired at greater distances, I pretend it’s because I am a mighty long-distance walker that I don’t share this problem, but in all likelihood it’s because I haven’t covered anything approaching the actual twenty-one miles yet.

The paragraph at the beginning of this, about lemons, was based on one of The Doc’s school assemblies. She said that if an imaginary lemon could bring such a taste to our mouths; if we felt it so sharply that we all puckered our lips, then we should consider the effect of imagining, picturing, believing positive things about ourselves, our revision and performances.

I took her advice then and I got the results I wanted in my exams. I am taking her advice again now. My plan for a week on Saturday is to start running and to keep running, right around the course.  It doesn’t matter how slowly: I am going to succeed. And I don’t expect it to make a massive difference to my overall time if I pause briefly by a certain gate on Curbar, to think a quick ‘Thankyou’ to The Doc.



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