Borrowdale Fell Race 2022

Long races in the Lakes are very challenging for lots of reasons, not least length, ascent/descent, the terrain underfoot, weather + the need for detailed route knowledge. I’ve only ever got my head around doing one – Borrowdale – and then only because I spent a recent summer living there and getting to know the fells well. This came in handy during last week’s race.

The other challenge I’ve been grappling with of late is getting my eating & drinking (sorry, “fuelling strategy”) right. I’m bad enough in day-to-day life, let alone a long fell race. The day started with breakfast at 6am, and the plan was for that to be it until after the race. (Pleased to say this worked pretty well, and all that passed my lips during the race was the bottle of water I carried, 4 jelly babies handed out by spectators + some extra juice/water from the “trough” at Honister).

Conditions seemed ideal at the start line at 11am. About 18 degrees, dry, no wind, tops clear. In traditional last-minute-kit-change fashion, I ditched the base layer and just ran in the Striders vest the whole way round (cag in bag of course), and this turned out fine.

The previous time I ran the race (2019) I’d set off quite fast, not least to avoid the bottleneck onto the Cumbria Way, just a couple of minutes in. The plan yesterday, by comparison, was to start slowly and hope I always had something left in the tank for the later climbs & descents. It’s a bit odd standing around for a minute or two 200 yards into a race but I tried to see it as a positive.

After a gentle mile or two from the start in Rosthwaite we passed through the fell wall (saying hi to Billy Bland, who is always stationed there) & immediately the race began in earnest with the direct 1500ft climb of Bessyboot, straight up. A reminder that Borrowdale is not a conventional running race – you spend as much time walking, scrambling, boulder-hopping & scree-running as you do running.

With Bessyboot boxed off it was a relief to get onto the trod that skirts round Glaramara. It was a little damp underfoot on this section due to recent rain but this helped keep me in check and not go too fast. Esk Hause is checkpoint 2, then we joined the tourist path up to the top of Scafell Pike, finding a few minor variations to the side. At this point, as befits the highest mountain in the country, the drizzle started falling and the nature of the race changed; initially, hopping the boulders on the way up to the summit needed extra care. Still, got to the top at 1pm, 2 hours in, which felt about right.

Rarely on Borrowdale do you get the chance to get into any kind of rhythm, due to the ever-changing nature of the terrain. After the climb of the Pike, it’s straight onto the (in)famous scree-run to join the Corridor Route. I actually found this a little easier than last time, I think because I was further down the field – it meant that the zig-zag line through the scree was a bit clearer, also fewer faster scree-runners coming hurtling past. Still, it was as much as I could do to stay on my feet and I did have to let one rolling boulder pass harmlessly by. I did get overtaken a few times & I can only marvel at those that turn scree-running into an effortless art. It took me over 3 minutes to complete the segment, the CR is 1:04!

I got to the bottom of the scree and decided it was worth the time to empty my shoes of rubble. Always a bit frustrating to see loads of people overtake but I think it was worth it overall.

It was then back to more conventional running down the Corridor Route to Sty Head. However, it was pretty greasy underfoot by now and extra care was needed. There are some faster, grassier lines to the left and at some point you need to decide where to short-cut across to the checkpoint. I played it safe and stayed on the path longer than most.

Sty Head is the first of 2 cut-offs, you need to be there in 3 and a half hours. I was there in 2:26 so no worries; saying that, it’s galling to think that after going up and halfway down the highest mountain in the country you’ve still got the business part of the race in front of you. Initially, it was the long slog up to the top of Great Gable, helped by a few jelly babies handed out at Sty Head. The climb, of course, seemed to go on forever. On top, the clag had really come down thick. I trusted previous knowledge, headed right, followed a few cairns and fortunately came in sight of a few runners making the awkward descent down to Windy Gap.

At this point, I followed the trod around to the right, which saves the short climb up Green Gable. In clear conditions, it pretty obviously brings you round to the path up Brandreth and saves you a couple of minutes. But right now it was misty and I soon realised I was heading downhill too soon and must have veered too far to the right. Others around seemed to agree and by some instinct we swung left and back uphill, finding the Brandreth path with some relief a couple of minutes later. Someone mentioned that in clag it’s your best bet just to go over the top of Green Gable and this seems sensible advice.

Fortunately, we came out of the mist at this point making the run down to Honister more straightforward. Legs were getting pretty achy by now though and still the thought of one more climb and descent to go….

The best that can be said about the climb up Dale Head is that it’s not difficult, just long, you get juice & jelly babies before it at Honister, you know you’re through the second cut-off and there are no more climbs to do after it! I’ve done this climb loads, but never has it felt more drawn-out than this time.

Eventually got to the top, dibbed the final checkpoint…. and then the sting in the tail. You’ve done 15 miles over rough terrain, climbed 2000 metres, only 2 miles to go….. but it’s the steep and rough 2000ft descent of Dale Head, a challenge in itself. I always take a curved line off the top here to avoid the worst steepness and rocks; yesterday, my curve was even more exaggerated than usual, but by this point all thought of times and positions were out of the window, it was just about finishing. Once over the stile halfway down I took the slightly quicker line to the left avoiding the main path through the quarries, but either way it was pretty awkward over those damp rocks.

Finally, I got to the bottom and just the flat-half mile along the track back to the finish to go. Legs pretty much gave up at this point and it ended up a pretty undignified shuffle. Fortunately, others were the same and I didn’t lose any places. Part of the folklore of Borrowdale is that this half-mile is the toughest of all! Some nice encouragement from other runners and spectators coming through Rosthwaite got me over the line.

I came in 104th out of 228 finishers + 27 DNFs. Time was 4hr 22mins, 3 minutes slower than my previous time in 2019. But really it’s just about getting round, finishing is winning. Got back to the car and a bit gutted to find I hadn’t packed the camping chair; I did have a picnic rug though so just laid it out on the grass, collapsed onto it for 10 minutes & waited to feel human again.

A thought for future years – the car parking field doubles as a camping field where (I believe) you can camp the night before & after the race. A large flat field with loads of space to spread out. An idea for a future Striders camping weekend perhaps. Many say Borrowdale is the best race on the calendar and who’d disagree?

In the Trespassers’ footsteps

In the Trespassers’ footsteps

The campaign for access to fells and moors has been ongoing since the 19th Century and, thanks to a combination of direct actions and more formal negotiations, we now enjoy much-improved rights than before. But it’s the Kinder Mass Trespass of 24 April 1932, when 400 ramblers gathered outside Hayfield in the Peak District and marched on the then-forbidden land of Kinder Scout, that stands out as the most symbolic event in the campaign for the right to roam. Its 90th anniversary is coming up later this month.

Today, it seems unthinkable that you couldn’t just go for a walk or run on Kinder. A magnificent sweep of upland territory, so close to major conurbations, just begging to be explored. Particularly for us fellrunners, who don’t just stick to the main paths but like to wander and stravaig off-piste at will. So I thought it would be fitting to pay a small tribute to the Trespassers’ legacy by having a run on Kinder sometime this April – yesterday, I got the chance.

I drove round to Hayfield and parked at the Bowden Bridge car park. How convenient that back in 1932 this was the quarry where the Trespassers gathered and began their walk, recognised now by a memorial plaque.

From here, I went along the road and then beside Kinder Reservoir to the bottom of William Clough, as had the Trespassers. They then headed up the clough, where they were confronted by a dozen of the landowner’s men, arrayed on the slopes of Sandy Heys above. After a brief skirmish, they continued to the top of the clough, where they met up with other groups arriving from Edale and the Snake, before returning to Hayfield.

William Clough is a decent little vale to explore, but I chose a slightly different route yesterday, more in keeping with my current tastes. Last year I spent much time in the Peaks doing some simple Grade 1 scrambling; I’m also quite partial to fast-but-not-too-technical descents, so here was a chance to do one of my favorite circuits. First though, I had time to have a short dart up the ravine towards Kinder Downfall, which I’d not visited before. As you progress upwards, you feel increasingly hemmed-in by the spectacular rocky amphitheatre – an awesome and overpowering place. Amazing to think Manchester city centre is only 20 miles away! I got to a point where three difficult Grade 3 scrambles prong out in front of you like a fork. To the left Square Chimney, straight ahead the Downfall itself, to the right Arpeggio Gully. All three looked terrifying and there was no chance I was going to progress further on my own – you need to be experienced, well-equipped and in company to give these a crack.

I was happy to head back down the ravine and instead ascend by one of my favourite Grade 1 scrambles from last year, Red Brook. In late summer it’s quite difficult to access the stream bed due to bracken; no such problems yesterday, plus from halfway up it was dry as a bone. Often I’m happy to take plenty of time over scrambles and savour them, but given good conditions I occasionally do a “speed-scramble”, mimicking a fell race. Well, 13:36 yesterday, third on the Strava segment, maybe I can improve on that later in the summer.

Red Brook

Once on top the wind kicked in big time. Great views on the jog around the Downfall but I made sure I didn’t get too close to the edge. Once at Sandy Heys I was literally leaning into the wind. I thought this might give me a jet-propelled advantage on the fast descent off here. In fact, I was buffeted from all directions so it turned out the slowest of my 3 efforts on the segment so far. Still, dropping almost 1000 feet in a mile is a pretty lively way of spending 6 minutes. There’s much more fun to be had on Sandy Heys than facing men with sticks. At the bottom I rejoined the outward route and retraced my steps back to the car.

Unlike the leaders of the Trespass, when I got back to Hayfield I didn’t get dibbed into the cops, locked up for months and then sentenced to prison. It’s easy to take the way things are now – like our access to fells and moors – so much for granted. But we are where we are thanks to the actions and campaigning of folk in the past, and I was glad to have made a simple acknowledgement of the Trespassers of 1932. Why not take a walk or run on Kinder sometime this April?

Hoofstones Fell Race

Another fell race, another write-up. Why don’t I think of something else to blog about? Perhaps it’s just a natural cycle with racing – you prepare, you race, you reflect – and particularly so in winter when conditions are so much tougher. Write-ups can be pretty therapeutic, and help you learn & move on to the next big idea…

This race – Hoofstones – usually takes place in mid-January and is a low-key event with a field of under 100. Low-key it may be but straightforward it is not. It’s the combination of a number of things – distance, climb, navigation, underfoot conditions, plus dealing with the January weather – that makes it appealing.

The race starts in the valley bottom just outside Todmorden and follows a lollipop-shaped route via the lonely summit of Hoof Stones Height (479m). This year’s race took place on the pleasingly-palindromic 22nd of January, 22.1.22.

This was 3 years since my one previous go at the race, 2019, and how that went was part of the reason I entered this year. In those pre-COVID times I was racing a lot and just thought here’s another local race to try. I remember being a bit tentative as the weather had been wintry in the lead-up…. but no matter I’ll rely on the classic fellrunning technique of following everyone else and trusting I’ll get round. Turned out to be something of a harsh lesson, as once on the tops we disappeared into full white-out conditions – snow on the ground and thick mist – and the only thing on my mind was sod this race, just get off this hill asap & back to safety. Others thought the same, so a gaggle of us headed straight down towards the road (which is out of bounds), then followed walls and fences through some pretty dire bogs until bumping into runners heading the other way – retracing their footsteps eventually led us to the final checkpoint and finish. Not very clever really – surely there’s a better, and much quicker, way round?

I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance this time, so for Jan 2022 I decided to recce the course beforehand. Plus conditions seemed OK so it would just be nice to see what it all looked like up there – I’d only ever seen white the previous time. So 11 Jan drove out to Tod and parked by the Staff of Life pub, where the race starts. Jogged up the course route, recognising little landmarks and the increasingly heavy underfoot conditions, until eventually reaching the trig pillar at Hoofstones. The view I’d missed out on last time turned out to be pretty bleak and wild, with not many obvious features. Time for some compass-navigation – took a bearing and headed off across the featureless moor directly towards the next checkpoint, a mile distant. Route finding was OK but underfoot things pretty atrocious. All heavy bogs and tussocks, not very runnable at all. Feet very cold by now so, once through the bogs, headed back down to the car to chew things over.

Back home, decided I’d need to go back out there again and try a Plan B. So a week later, 17 Jan, parked by the road halfway up and started sketching out an alternative line. This roughly followed the descent route I’d taken in 2019, but this time I found some trods which seemed to knock off a few minutes. It was more runnable as well than the slip-fest through the bogs. Overall, it felt like doing a second recce had been well worthwhile.

Race day, Sat 22 Jan. It’s been a dry week and it’s not too cold in the valley. Still, I reckon it will be Arctic on top, so get the full winter gear on. More local runners in just vest & shorts look at me with some disdain – fair enough. Once underway I get into a rhythm on the initially decent tracks and am in about 10th place 2 miles in. I find it much tougher going on the heavy ground up to the trig; still, am in about 15th at the top with a group of 3 or 4 just ahead. Would normally back myself to pick up a few places on the descent, so start wondering about a top 10 finish…… Shortly after, I see the main line of runners heading directly across the moor, where the bogs and tussocks await, while I stick to my longer, but hopefully quicker alternative.

About 15 minutes later I reconnect with the main field, hoping to recognise a few of the vests that overtook me earlier. Nope, it’s an entirely different bunch altogether. Now back on the quick descent I comfortably overtake a few and arrive at the finish to find it’s well populated by a fair crowd of tired but elated runners. Overall, I’ve enjoyed the race, keeping warm and on the move the whole time. On the watch I’ve finished 10 minutes quicker than in 2019, so some obvious improvement there. But I ask the finishing marshall where I’ve come and the answer is 32nd. Somehow in that crucial mile I lost about 20 places. Had the bogs miraculously dried out in less than a week? Is there a quicker line that I fractionally missed on my recce? Did the clear conditons and line of runners, removing the need to navigate, save so much time? Or does Hoofstones just attract the kind of runner that is particularly adept at getting across bogs, a lot better than me?

Always a few minutes or seconds to be gained, here and there, from accumulated experience in races and recces. I guess that’s why fellrunners keep going back to the same races, year after year. Many thanks to everyone involved in organising this one, and the spectators and photographers that braved the cold out on the course.

We don’t do electronic

Six weeks ago I’d pretty much resigned myself to not running this year’s Tour of Pendle, and just sharing a few tips instead. In fact, I’ve now got a second successful completion under my belt, but I did have to work pretty hard for it and learn a few sharp lessons on the way.

I work at a YHA and things have been so busy this year I’ve not got out running as much as I’d have liked. Finally though, a quieter period came just after October half-term, and a chance to recce the course and see if it was worth entering the race. I’d not been on Pendle since the previous time I’d raced – 2018 – so it was good to re-familiarise myself with things. I didn’t rush – checked some points of navigation, admired the views, took a few photos…. got through the cut-off point comfortably enough and fully round in 4 hours. So, 20 November booked off work and entry form & cheque in the post.

The hardest part of this was actually locating my chequebook, and it was amusing to find that the last time I had written a cheque was 3 years ago…. to enter the 2018 Tour of Pendle! As it says on the race website, “We don’t do electronic”. It did make me wonder, now that almost all races can be entered online, if it’s totally fair to limit entry to those that can pay by cheque. Surely not everyone has a chequebook these days? It turned out my experience of the race would have me slightly reconsidering this.

Three weeks to the race and I was hoping to get at least one additional long run in beforehand. Slightly depressingly, the lull at work turned out to be all too brief and I never got the chance. Also felt a bit under the weather in the week leading up to the race. It was only on the morning of the 20th that I knew for sure I was going to give it a crack. Not exactly ideal preparation.

At least the weather in Barley was decent, and it was great to be back on the start line in a big field – saying hello to a few familiar faces, including club-mates Tim, Mick & Mark (who’ve all done the race before) and Dinesh (here for the first time). At 10.30 we were underway and I felt pretty comfortable on the initial steady climb up to the trig. Just below the summit, I made a point of studying the ground closely for the crucial trod junction that you take on the return. I knew I’d missed it slightly on my recce, and even now in clear conditions it was barely discernable.

Descending from the trig towards CP1 a familiar voice is thanking me for acting as such an effective wind-break. It’s Mick, and we start chatting about the course ahead & is it tougher than the 3 Peaks even though it’s 8 miles shorter? (probably). CP1 has moved 100 yards from previous years to a new stile in the wall, and to my surprise the whole field is heading straight ahead rather than cutting across the moor as before. With about a second’s thought I rudely curtail the conversation with Mick and go for the short-cut on my own. It was quite good fun briefly running solo during a big race and dreaming that the rest were heading off in completely the wrong direction and that I was going to win the Tour of Pendle…. in fact I rejoin the main field about 15 minutes later (and the next I see of Mick is in the car park at the end to find he’s finished 10 minutes in front of me – so much for dreaming).

For the moment though things were continuing comfortably enough. Navigation not a problem early on as it’s such a large field. Approaching the Geronimo descent, I was happy to follow a line to the right – steep grass with a bit of bum-sliding, but so preferable to the diabolical stony gully that’s the main path. At the bottom, a gaggle of cowbell-ringing, jellybaby-chucking spectators that really lifts the spirits. And so on, briefly revisiting an earlier stretch of the course on this loosely figure-of-8 route, and down to the stream at the foot of Mearley Moor.

1hr 45min in. Two thirds of the race distance covered. The mind plays tricks on you that you are well in to this race. That the finish is within reach. You can almost smell the tea & flapjack in the village hall…..

But I well knew that everything up to this point had really just been a preamble. That the Tour of Pendle is in effect a 2-hour undulating jog from Barley to the real start line below Mearley Moor. That two thirds of the climbing come in this last third of the distance, in 3 big climbs – Mearley Moor, The Big Dipper and Big End. That it’s these 3 late climbs that make the Tour of Pendle the challenging race that it is.

I shove a muesli-bar down, take my first step up Mearley Moor and wait for the energy and adrenalin to kick in. Nothing. Plod on a bit. Still no reaction, in fact I can barely put one foot ahead of the other. Surely something must happen soon? People start getting stuck behind me. The path widens and they begin to drift past, making encouraging comments. Have I ever gone up a climb as slow as this? I stop thinking about the race ahead and switch to survival mode. Will I be able to get up this climb and back to Barley at all? This is getting embarrassing, I thought I was meant to be a fellrunner….

Then I remember another thing that’s meant to define fellrunners. Something about mental resilience and all that. Without really registering it, I’ve ignored the sensible direct route back to Barley and begun the descent towards The Big Dipper. Even though The Big Dipper is an even tougher climb than Mearley Moor. One look at it is enough to break anyone’s heart, even on a good day. I knowingly keep my eyes to the floor.

Somehow I got up that climb, even at snail’s pace, even though I knew I was causing a massive queue behind me (precious few overtaking opportunities here). Equally, the fifth and final climb, Big End, the top bit of which isn’t even blessed with steps cut in the turf, you just have to zig-zag/cling on to heather etc as best you can. There is a marshalling point either side of Big End, with biccies and jelly-babies laid out. These were an absolute godsend and bless the marshalls here (and elsewhere on the course), not least as the weather had now taken a turn for the worse. Clag down and the wind whipping up. Just need to get down now and off this bloody hill. At least the legs have started moving again. Am thankful I scrutinised the trod junction earlier as visibility is minimal, the field has thinned out and there are few other runners about. The trod widens into a path and feels right, leading me safely to the final CP. From here it’s a mile to the finish along the tarmac, which feels surprisingly comfortable after what I’ve gone through just 20 minutes earlier.

I’m back to the finish in just over 3hr 30, more than half an hour slower than 2018. “What kept you?” asks Tim, who’s been here 20 minutes and has kindly waited to hand me my race t-shirt. But all thoughts are on the spread laid out in the village hall – tea, cake, soup. After what we’ve just put ourselves through, this is our reward.

“Yes you do have to pay” I’m politely informed at the hatch, and no I don’t have any cash on me. I can’t really summon an answer and just head back to the car, half a mile away, where I have just frugal supplies of nuts & water to get me home. Why had I thought the spread would be free? It was only £9 to enter the race, including the t-shirt. And I’ve actually spent much of my career prior to YHA working with voluntary & community groups – if you hire a village hall for an event, they’re going to charge you a small amount for tea & cake whether you’re here to play dominoes or run a 16 mile fell race. And no, they probably don’t take contactless. We don’t do electronic.

It’s coming up to 20 years now since my first fell race, and I’ve done over 100 of them, but you never stop learning. Learning that if you come into a tough race underprepared then it’s going to be difficult. That just because you’re familiar with a course doesn’t mean it’s going to be straightforward. That fell races are organised by voluntary Race Organisers, often with the support and co-operation of other volunteers, so runners have to fit in with whatever the RO is willing and able to pull together.

The Tour of Pendle is a unique, knowingly-difficult event. It’s worth knowing that before you enter, so perhaps it’s for the best that it takes more than a few clicks to do so. If you don’t have a chequebook, perhaps find a friend or club-mate who does. Many thanks to Kieran and his team for the 37 Tours so far, and hopefully many more to come.

Tour of Pendle

I’m reluctantly accepting that due to a busy period at work I’m not going to run the Tour of Pendle on 20 November. Shame, because it’s a great AL (27km/1473m) at this time of year. Otherwise, I’d be preparing for it from about now, so here’s a few tips for anyone thinking of tackling it for the first time.

Conditions on Pendle in late November can be pretty interesting, so it’s worth being as prepared as possible. Before I raced it in 2018, I did a couple of recces – the first a half-circuit of around 10 miles, the second the full course. This helped me get familiar with the route and also made sure I could make the crucial cut-off (Checkpoint 4, in 2 hours). I was then able to complete the race successfully a few weeks later. From that experience, I’d say it’s worth knowing in advance that:

  • There are 5 significant climbs, each one progressively harder than the previous one. The penultimate one, The Big Dipper, is tough enough, but the final one up Big End is the real heartbreaker. Be warned.
  • Three quarters of the climbing comes in the second half of the race. Maybe don’t set off too fast.
  • The route is roughly a figure of 8, and it will almost certainly be windy on the day. So, if you get a backwind on some stretches, you’re going to get it in the face later on. I remember doing the Half Tour back in 2004 and the headwind being so strong on Spence Moor that I “ran” for about 5 minutes without making any progress at all.
  • You’ll probably be able to follow the field in the first half. However, there are some crucial trods and landmarks that are worth knowing in the second half when the field has thinned out. Particularly if it’s misty (likely). On my first (foggy) recce, I ended half a mile up Ogden Clough before realising I was heading in totally the wrong direction. Good to make these mistakes before race-day.

It’s a big field (600 max) so it takes a while for the field to sort itself out. Also, it means parking in Barley can be a bit of an issue, so be prepared for a long walk to registration, and take all your race kit with you.

Latest update (17 Oct) is 316 entries received so far, so still plenty of room. Time to dig out your chequebook (or find a friend who has one). Not bad for £9 – pre-enter here.

Descending Geronimo, 2018. Photo: Phil Donlan

He did it his way

Review of “Faster! Louder! How a punk rocker from Yorkshire became British champion fell runner”, by Boff Whalley

Fellrunners looking for 4 hours’ continual entertainment may look towards tomorrow’s 3 Peaks Race or Langdale Horseshoe; equally, they could just spend a tenner on this latest book by Boff Whalley. I picked it up and breezed through it in one sitting it was that good.

On the face of it, it’s a straight biography of one of the leading fellrunners of the late 80s/early 90s – Gary Devine, from Leeds. But the appeal of the book – in addition to how easy it is to read – is that Gary’s story gets to the heart of what fellrunning is really about. It’s not a tale of striving for athletic perfection, careful preparations, sensible training plans, healthy diets or early-to-bed. It’s about how a young guy worked out a lifestyle that suited him, of which fellrunning was an essential part. Despite the other elements of this lifestyle including ear-splitting punk records and gigs, the full-on punk look, excessive cider consumption, living in squats, police raids, fights and hospital visits – he still became British fellrunning champion. While this could easily be seen as a miracle, I was left with the impression that this overall “package” was in fact the key to Gary’s success on the fells.

A few years ago I read Boff’s previous book – the equally good Run Wild – which is structured around the contrast between his impulsive, thrill-seeking “wild” running and the plodding, corporate beast of the New York Marathon. Similarly, “Faster! Louder!” invited me to question just how much all the sensible running advice out there really applies in practice. Gary’s total embracing of the punk lifestyle in Leeds only really made sense because twice a day he quietly sneaked out the squat, shook off the hangover and headed out down the Meanwood Valley Trail….. but equally the running only really made sense if he did it sporting a pink mohican and if it didn’t stop him going out the night before. This isn’t a biography about a runner’s running, it’s about a runner’s overall life.

One of the more touching passages is when Gary has a bit of a Road to Damascus moment in a hospital bed, the morning after a fracas at a gig. He realises that the balance of his chosen lifestyle has to change slightly, and he will be better off getting into mischief with his fellow Pudsey & Bramley fellrunners than the Leeds punks. So, more piling into the van to some distant rain-lashed start line with smelly kit, a slab of tinnies and the rest of the P&B crew (the author included – part of what makes the book flow so easily is that it’s a knowingly first-hand, fly-on-the-wall account). Once fully immersed in the close-knit scene of the club, Gary’s running goes to the next level.

The “biography” ends in 1990 but in a footnote it’s good to see that Gary is still involved in fellrunning, organising his own race (and indeed supporting tomorrow’s 3 Peaks).

I suppose I could have saved my tenner and used it as 1% of the entry fee for the Spine or something (!) but in fact I was much better off just buying this book.

Scrambles in the Dark Peak

As well as running I quite like a rocky scramble, ie a route where you have to use your hands to progress. These can be fun during a dry spell in summer, so recently I’ve been exploring some lines new to me in the northern Peak District. For this, I’ve been grateful for Cicerone’s handy “Scrambles in the Dark Peak” book (from which the title of the blog is shamelessly taken):

Still working my way through the book, but here are a few reports/tips from what I’ve done so far. Obviously, scrambling has a few potential risks, so the routes in this book are helpfully graded 1, 2 and 3. Grade 1 are OK to do on your own. Grade 2 you might want to take a friend. Grade 3 you might want to take a rope and a friend. As I’ve been on my own so far I’ve stuck religiously to the Grade 1s and yes, generally they’ve been perfectly comfortable to tackle solo.

As most of these routes are actually up the beds of small rivers they are particularly suitable for dry periods. Nevertheless, accept the fact that you’re going to get wet feet sooner or later. I went in fell shoes and shorts and this worked well, although given the risk of ticks at this time of year leggings could be an option.

I’ve been exploring 3 main areas of the Dark Peak – Kinder, Bleaklow and the Chew Valley. Ideal parking spots as described, though note you will need to “get lucky” at some of the lay-bys:

Blackden Brook (Kinder)

Start: lay-by on A57 near Wood Cottage

This is an entry-level scramble up a narrowing valley rising to the plateau edge. There is a collapsing path of-sorts most of the way until you join the riverbed nearer the top. It feels like a hidden vale and the scenery is charming, so you could take your time with this one…. saying that I also found it fun to do as a “speed scramble” and race its Strava segment. Not so good as a descent, but there’s a fast way down The Wicken just adjacent.

Nether Red Brook / Upper Red Brook (Kinder)

Start: lay-by on A57 near Snake Inn

A little bit along from Blackden Brook are these adjacent scrambles, both a bit more taxing. For Nether Red Brook, you break off the Snake Path about a mile from the road and follow the stream bed up. Interest increases with height and there is a step at the top that requires a bit of thought but is in fact perfectly doable. I did a nice run east along the plateau edge from here, visiting some crazy rock formations on Fairbrook Naze before descending down Fairbrook itself, another fast descent. Upper Red Brook is just a few minutes further along, with a slightly more serious feel than its neighbour, and another “interesting” finish that requires a bit of thought.

Alport Castles (Bleaklow)

Start: lay-by on A57 at Alport Bridge

While in the area I thought I’d visit Alport Castles for the first time in years. There is parking for literally 1 car at Alport Bridge and seeing the lay-by unusually empty was too good an opportunity to miss! I’ve seen Alport Castles described as “the biggest landslip in the country” and as you approach from the bottom (ie Alport Farm) you get a sense of the massive geological forces at work. I picked my way up various folds in the landscape and headed for the central “Tower” which involves a minor scramble to sit on the top. From which you see how the surrounding shale cliff has collapsed in some previous era. Although it was all perfectly doable solo the overwhelming sense of nature’s power had me rather missing a companion. Good if you want to feel very, very insignificant in the overall scheme of the universe.

Torside Clough (Bleaklow)

Start: lay-by on B6105 near Reaps Farm

This was a real discovery. I’ve walked the Pennine Way to the top of Bleaklow along Clough Edge often enough without realising there was a hidden gem right below. As you begin the climb break off the main path and just follow the river. Much of the way you walk straight up the smooth rocky bed of the stream, the water never more than ankle deep. In places the rock is covered in a pleasant spongy moss; in fact going barefoot could be an option here! All around the soothing tinkle and crazy patterns of running water, and before long the mind has disappeared into fairyland. Occasionally there are boulders to circumvent which add to the interest. Numerous pools provide ample opportunities for a paddle or even a swim. Eventually the dream ends and you hit the Pennine Way which provides a fast descent route back.

Lawrence Edge (Bleaklow)

Start: car-park on B6105 by Woodhead Resevoir

This was a little different, but nothing wrong with a bit of variety. Very rough underfoot, firstly through an old quarry then though the heather & braken. Two gullies to choose from, one a little rockier than the other. A very quiet area, and good to see the world from a different angle. Again, a place to sit and feel immersed in nature.

Birchen Clough (Chew Valley)

Start: lay-by on A635 at SE 051 063

I don’t know the area around Saddleworth at all well, but this first excursion will have me back soon enough. I started by descending Rimmon Pit Clough and Holme Clough, which are decent enough scrambles in their own right. But the climb up Birchen Clough was even better, essentially a long gradual scramble alongside a waterfall. At the top it’s easy to visit the three-pronged rock tower known as The Trinnacle – apparently it’s possible to sit on top but I wasn’t getting that close on my own! My visit was made all the more memorable by coinciding with the England v Germany match which meant I had the hills to myself – all rather magical.

Crowden Clough (Kinder)

Start: lay-by between Barber Booth and Upper Booth

This popular route up the south side of Kinder is more a bouldery walk, but does have a couple of interesting scrambling sections near the top, one of which graces the front cover of the book above.

Red Brook (Kinder)

Start: Hayfield

This route alongside Kinder Downfall is the best pure scramble I’ve done so far, 30 minutes or so on smooth, dry rock. A bit of bracken-bashing to get to it but good stuff once you’re in the dried-out stream bed. It’s all so engaging that time just passes – it doesn’t really feel like you’re putting effort into climbing a mountain.

Charnel Clough (Chew Valley)

Start: car park at Dove Stones Reservoir

A straightforward but enjoyable boulder-hop up a stream-bed off the main Chew Valley.

Wilderness Gully West (Chew Valley)

Start: car park at Dove Stones Reservoir (alternatively Crowden, and approach via Laddow Rocks)

There are 5 Wilderness Gullies at the head of Chew Valley, and these north-facing slopes have a pretty serious feel. I tackled the most westerly of them and found it at the more challenging end of Grade 1. The entry to the gully is across tricky terrain with many hidden holes…. things improve once in the stream-bed itself, but some thought is still required to successfully exit at the top. I will leave its Grade 3 neighbour, Wilderness Gully East, to more serious scramblers!

Yellowslacks Brook (Bleaklow)

Start: top of Snake Pass, or Glossop, or lay-by on B6105 near Reaps Farm

This area has a remote feel, yet the skyscrapers of Manchester city centre are clearly visible to the west. The scramble initially skirts an attractive waterfall, then takes a smaller cascade more directly, before finally heading towards the summit of Bleaklow along the rocky bed of Dowstone Clough.

So, a fair few of the routes in the book done, but still many more to do. It’s amazing how much interest you can find within just an hour or so’s drive from home.

Jack Bloor Maprun Challenge

On Saturday I tried out a 5-mile virtual fell race on Ilkley Moor – the Jack Bloor Race 2021 Maprun Challenge. It turned out a fun circuit, with navigational choices over varied running terrain. So, definitely one to consider while the event is open during the month of May.

The Jack Bloor Races normally take place on a Tuesday evening in early May, attracting around 300 runners, both seniors and juniors. The race dates from 1985 and is named after a pioneering climber and fell runner. All monies raised support the work of the Jack Bloor Fund, which awards grants to young sportspeople from Yorkshire who want to improve their skills in an outdoor adventure sport. Past illustrious winners include Greg Hull, Victoria Wilkinson, Dave Woodhead and Boff Whalley.

Last year’s race was obviously cancelled, but this year there’s a virtual equivalent, using the MapRun orienteering app. I’ve posted previously about my positive impression of MapRun for virtual fell races. In particular, with the event open for a whole month, you get the chance to properly recce a course and attempt it as many times as you wish – trying different route options, times of day, conditions etc. This suits this course, which is semi-navigational anyway, with 6 checkpoints to be visited in order but by any line:

So, I started out with a slow 2-hour jog round last Monday, with the course map, OS map and compass to hand. The initial climb, from Darwin Gardens up to the Badger Stone (CP1), was a bit of a pull but straightforward enough. You then lose some of that height down to the Swastika Stone (CP2), but it’s a fun descent. It’s then a long, gradual climb up to Cowper Cross (CP3) – I plotted the direct line across the featureless moor, but found it pretty rough underfoot. I then stuck to the main paths to visit the trig at CP4 and the ruin at CP5, while noting that more direct lines were possible in these dry conditions. It was fun to discover the “poetry box” at CP5 and have time to read a few of the witty contributions (why not post your own?). It was then the exciting descent from the top of Ilkley Crags to the finish, via CP6 on the knoll near White Wells. There must be a million and one variations available here – I tried to be clever by going off-piste straightaway and ended up going down several blind alleys. Lesson learned perhaps…

Returned on Saturday, this time with the event now live on the new version of the app – MapRun6. The phone beeped successfully at the start point (the stone bridge), and indeed at all the checkpoints thereafter. I decided to stick to the main paths, rather than trying many fancy short cuts. So, I returned to Keighley Road along the path after CP2 and ran up the track to CP3. I took the main stone-flagged path between CP3 and CP4. And I ran around the back of White Wells before visiting CP6. Whether this made any difference I won’t know until I try out alternatives, which I hope to do before the end of the month.

I’d like to give it another go anyway as I was mildly disappointed with my time of 57 minutes. I could probably go under 50 at best, but have been out of the habit of running competitively over lockdown (a local adventure I took on a month ago may also have something to do with it…). Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable and varied circuit, mainly on the springy turf of the moor, a fast descent to the finish and all those route options to ponder. Back home, I was pleased to donate the usual race fee to the Fund and support this good cause.

Why not give it a try (or tries) anytime during May? All the details are at

A way round Skelton Grange bridge

Earlier this week, Leeds City Council confirmed there will shortly be a feasibility study into re-routing the south Leeds canalside cycle path through Thwaite Mills museum. This would bypass the notorious barrier of Skelton Grange bridge, which significantly limits access along the route. As a resident of Woodlesford and member of Leeds Cycling Campaign, I found much to be encouraged by this news.

For the first time in the long-running saga of Skelton Grange bridge, there is now a firm proposal on the table. Many alternative options have been mooted – such as a new bridge, a long diversion or making adjustments to the existing bridge. But none of these could be implemented soon and guarantee full access. There is now a way forward, and one that already has some momentum behind it. This is most welcome – the big increase in usage of the path in the last 2 years means that a resolution has never been more urgent.

In the first instance, a fully-accessible path through Thwaite Mills would be best for existing users of the route (both on foot and wheel). Not only would it bypass both sides of Skelton Grange bridge, but also the awkward bridge on Thwaite Lane. It would also take the most efficient line, cutting around 100 metres off the current route. Plus it would create a pleasant public space, introducing the important heritage assets of Thwaite Mills to users of the path.

But perhaps just as important, there are significant opportunities for Thwaite Mills itself. Prior to COVID, access to the site was carefully controlled, with the museum’s income primarily coming from school groups, guided tours and booked events (such as weddings). But during COVID the museum has been closed, and considerable uncertainty remains regarding the return of groups and gatherings to venues like this. Meanwhile, as part of its efforts to address its £119m budget gap, the Council has recently consulted on reducing public opening hours at Thwaite Mills. Opening up access could provide new income streams from “passing trade”, such as a cafe and visitors to the museum itself.

In addition, security of the site could be improved. Having people regularly passing through would provide informal vigilance, and minimise any risks to these historic buildings. Clearly, the design of any route should take security and heritage issues (plus the moorings along the canalside) into account.

Thwaite Mills’ website describes it as being “set on an island of its very own, hidden away in the south of Leeds”. In fact, much of the riverside between Leeds and Woodlesford was “hidden away” until recently. But the extensive improvements to the cycle path – and the hugely increased usage of it during the 12 months of COVID – has quite literally opened up a side of Leeds previously unknown to many of its residents. It’s now a pleasant and popular route, taking in many points of interest such as Leeds Dock, Knostrop Weir, Skelton Lake and Woodlesford Lock. Providing access through Thwaite Mills would complete a long-running programme of bringing Leeds’ canalside into the public domain. Of benefit to public and museum alike.

To show your support for this proposal, sign the petition for a fully accessible path at Skelton Grange bridge, or flag up the issue on either the Commonplace or WYCA interactive maps (postcode LS10 1RP).

Tetley Field timeline

Between 2015 and 2019, local residents successfully campaigned to oppose a housing development on a site in NW Leeds known as Tetley Field. The campaign was twofold – opposing both a planning application in the Green Belt, and the threat of the site being removed from the Green Belt altogether. Many of the posts in the “Environment” section of this blog outline my involvement in the campaign during 2016-17. By way of introduction, below is (to the best of my knowledge) a summary timeline of events.


Leeds City Council (LCC) begins a review of its Site Allocations Plan (SAP) for proposed new housing developments.

Leeds Rugby Ltd proposes a 4.5 hectare Green Belt site in Weetwood – in its ownership since the 1990s – for inclusion in the SAP. The site, known locally as Tetley Field, adjoins Meanwood Park and is much valued by local residents as part of the Green Belt and for walking, wildlife etc.

LCC assesses the site and reaffirms it as being unsuitable for housing.


Leeds Rugby informs LCC that the proceeds of any sale of Tetley Field would be used to fund the redevelopment of stands at Headingley Stadium in its ownership.

LCC overturns its initial assessment and includes Tetley Field in the draft SAP as site HG2-49, stating that it “no longer performs a Green Belt function”.

Weetwood Residents Association initiates a campaign of its members to oppose the allocation.

Leeds Rugby unveils plans to redevelop 2 stands at Headingley Stadium – the pre-war “Shared Stand” between the cricket and rugby grounds, and the “South Stand” of the rugby ground – and to finance the work through the sale of Tetley Field (and another Green Belt site in Tingley).


January: Leeds Rugby submits a planning application for 42 houses on Tetley Field, arguing that the “exceptional circumstances” required to justify development in the Green Belt are that unless permission is granted, Headingley will lose its Test Cricket status.

May: Weetwood Residents Association, with the support of other local organisations and residents, launches a Save Tetley Field Campaign. As a result of the campaign, over 1000 formal objections to the application are made, and residents are able to take legal advice.

December: The England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) confirms there is no risk to Headingley’s Test status. Soon after, Leeds Rugby withdraws the planning application.


LCC announces it has facilitated a £40m finance scheme to fund the redevelopment of the stadium.


January: Tetley Field is deleted from the SAP (see p.37 of the Modifications Document).

July: SAP adopted by LCC.

August: The stadium redevelopment is completed in time for Headingley to host a memorable Ashes Test Match, featuring a match-winning 135* by Ben Stokes.


COVID-19 pandemic. Access to local green spaces provides a life-saver for locked-down residents across the UK. Major stadia stand empty.