Running through the field

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Preview of “All or Nothing at All – The Life of Billy Bland”, by Steve Chilton

You could be forgiven for asking whether a fellrunner, any fellrunner, merits a biography. Fellrunning is an obscure sport, largely unknown outside its mountainous heartlands. And despite a host of revered characters going back through the decades, no individual fellrunner has ever broken through to wider public awareness. As such, I’m not aware of a conventional, widely-read fellrunning biography.

Perhaps this is looking at things the wrong way. Previous fellrunning-themed books have communicated the essence of the sport by patching together its various elements – races, challenges, records, rivalries, personal experiences of the author and its humbler participants… as well as brief profiles of elite performers. So perhaps a fuller length biography of one-such elite performer can provide us with a refreshing new angle on the sport?

The signs are promising from my sneak preview of “All or Nothing at All”. Employing a technique successfully used in his previous book about the Bob Graham Round, the author faithfully records interviews with its former record holder – Billy Bland. And we get a pleasant surprise – in the one chapter I’ve seen, in this biography of a fellrunner, fellrunning isn’t mentioned.

The gist of Billy’s running career is already well-recorded. Now in his early 70s, he’s lived all his life in Borrowdale (one of the most dramatic, and visited, valleys in the Lake District), where he worked locally as a stonemason. His running on the local fells combined an obsessive training regime, meticulous knowledge of the landscape, an ability to move quickly over difficult terrain, and innovative race tactics (such as deliberately going the wrong way to elude trailing runners, or hanging back at the start line then running through the field to avoid being followed!). The reward was a decade of race wins, including some astonishing records. That his 1981 time for his local Borrowdale Fell Race still stands as the quickest today says it all.

So much, so good. But what does this biography reveal that we don’t already know?

If people want to come up here to walk then fine. But I would put a traffic barrier at the bottom end of Borrowdale….. and bus people in, or let them cycle in or walk in. It would work I am sure it would. People would still want to come up here, especially if it was different to other valleys. The locals could have a pass for the barrier.

A typical quote from the interviews with Billy. Apart from traffic, we hear his views on various topics of Borrowdale interest – wildlife, agriculture, tourism, second homes, fox-hunting, local services….. he’s got a strong opinion on all of them. But why should a former sportsman care about stuff like this?

This is perhaps the key to why this biography may be worth your attention. It is somehow dissatisfactory to describe fellrunning simply as a “sport”. Sport, as we generally experience it (whether as a participant or spectator), normally takes place in a separate, dedicated arena, designed for the purpose. By contrast, fellrunning takes place in a natural landscape, with races often organised by local communities. Its roots make it as much part of upland culture and tradition as a sport.

Agree or disagree with Billy’s views as you wish, but it’s just great to know that someone who made their name running through Borrowdale actually cares about the issues affecting it today. Well-publicised post-Lockdown scenes of overcrowding and littering have included Borrowdale, where the tension between dramatic scenery and relative accessibility has always been acute. For example, when I lived in Borrowdale in 2019, at the YHA, I would despair at the sight of the overwhelmed car park at weekends in summer. Cars parked on the verges and camping field, tyre tracks left behind…. soon to be followed by a drive skirting dozens of pedestrians and cyclists alongside Derwent Water (no fun for them either) and a long queue to get through Keswick. Billy’s suggestion of a traffic barrier may seem extreme, but it seems reasonable that the events of 2020 should at least allow radical ideas like this to be discussed.

As we emerge from Lockdown, we look for suitable ways forward in all aspects of life. For fellrunners, Billy’s story – the connection with his local patch during his running career, and his abiding interest in it after – seems like a good example to follow. If, like me, your local library is still shut, and you’re on the lookout for a decent book to buy, this new biography looks like a good bet.

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‘All or nothing at all’ will be published on Thursday 20th August and can be obtained from all good bookshops and online at Amazon. Live book launch, Thu 20 Aug 6.30pm

About the book

All or nothing at all: the life of Billy Bland. Sandstone Press. Format: Hardback. ISBN: 9781913207229. Publication Date: 20/08/2020 RRP: £19.99

All or Nothing At All is the life story of Billy Bland, fellrunner extraordinaire and holder of many records including that of the Bob Graham Round until it was broken by the foreword author of this book, Kilian Jornet. It is also the story of Borrowdale in the English Lake District, describing its people, their character and their lifestyle, into which fellrunning is unmistakably woven.

About the author

Steve Chilton is a runner and coach with considerable experience of fell running. He is a long-time member of the Fell Runners Association (FRA). He formerly worked at Middlesex University as Lead Academic Developer. He has written three other books: It’s a Hill, Get Over It; The Round: In Bob Graham’s footsteps; and Running Hard: the story of a rivalry. He has written articles for The Fellrunner, Compass Sport, Like the Wind and Cumbria magazines. He blogs at: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/

13 Pillars of Wisdom

In my last blog I mentioned I’d started “collecting” 13 local trig points (“pillars”, strictly speaking), as one of many ways of keeping running interesting during Lockdown. Well, all 13 are now in the bag. So, I thought I should “report back” on what I’ve found. Both to give a flavour of the current condition of these iconic (but sadly redundant) landmarks, and also to reflect on whether the act of searching for them was worth all the bother.

I list the pillars below in alphabetical order. All were visited on a run from home and appear on the 2000 edition of the OS 1:25000 map of Leeds South (slightly trimmed to fit into a frame).

img_20200330_183725I live somewhere near the centre of the map and, on average, it took around an hour to run to each pillar (well within my comfort zone). Of course, physical distancing was observed at all times. More information about the pillars – location, reference number, visits by others etc – can be found on the TrigpointingUK website.

  1. Barnbow Wood – Destroyed. Although I passed near the site of this one after searching for nearby Brown Moor (see below), I confess I didn’t actually go looking for it, as it was recently reported destroyed for agriculture.
  2. Brown Moor – Inaccessible. The obvious route to the pillar is blocked by ongoing works at the new Thorpe Park development. Plans do suggest though that a new path will be built that passes right next to the trig.
  3. Crow Nest – Good. You can’t actually touch it because it’s in school grounds, but it’s easily seen from the other side of a fence (probably best visited outside school hours then). It has the best view from these 13, perched over the city centre with the football ground prominent in the foreground.
  4. Field Head – Inaccessible. It’s in the grounds of a hospital. I got to the entrance but judged it not a good time to go beyond that point just now.
  5. Garforth Cliff – Good. Tucked out of sight behind a water tower. Saying that, the farmer couldn’t have ploughed any closer without damaging it.
  6. Halton Moor – Destroyed. Got to where the pillar should be to find it’s just the embankment of a road serving a new business park.
  7. Holywell Wood – Inaccessible. Quite a tricky one this. I had to go a little bit off-piste and after some searching saw it in thick undergrowth the other side of a barbed-wire fence. I wasn’t going any further than that.
  8. Hook Moor – Toppled. The pillar is located close to the junction of the M1 and A1(M) and was “unseated” as part of the road construction a few years ago. At least the roadbuilders left it close by (and in good condition) as it reveals the full “anatomy” of a pillar – ie that it is iceberg-like, with as much below the surface as above.
  9. Peter Lane – Good. Tucked into a hedge next to a quiet footpath.
  10. Robin Hood Hill – Inaccessible. It’s at the top of the embankment of a main road and separated from it by killer thorn bushes. All I got for my attempted visit was a shoe-full of spikes. I’ll take my machete next time.
  11. Scotthall – Good. The most visible of all the pillars, being in the central reservation of a main dual carriageway into Leeds. It’s almost possible, on a quiet day, to pull the car up alongside it, wind down the window, and touch it from the drivers’ seat (don’t ask me how I know this).
  12. Tingley Hill – Good. My favourite of the 13. It was actually recently re-located a few yards as part of a housing development. Bless them, the developers made it the central feature of a circular garden, giving it the air of a stone circle or some other ancient sacred site. The only shame is that, now it’s been relocated, it no longer appears on the current OS map.
  13. Thorpe – Good. Similar to Scotthall – right next to a road with distant views.

Well, the obvious sad fact is that only 6 of these 13 are in good condition and accessible. The remainder are either toppled, inaccessible or destroyed. And now that pillars no longer fulfil their original function – OS mapping has been done digitally since the 1990s – there is little that can be done, legally, to protect any under threat. Indeed nationally, there are only around 7,000 pillars left out of the original 10,000. A shame, because they have historic and educational as well as sentimental value. I guess the best suggestion is to continue logging visits on TrigpointingUK, sharing photos on social media etc, to at least keep their profile up. The COVID Trig Point Challenge! group on Facebook does this admirably.

On a more positive note – and while it’s of course disheartening to run several miles to visit a pillar only to find it’s disappeared under a bulldozer – the act of hunting down the trigs has been a real find under Lockdown. Mainly because, it’s made me visit places I would never otherwise have gone to. I don’t think I would have thought of going for a run around Castleford or Belle Isle, for instance, but I got to visit the birthplace of Henry Moore in the former, and the wide roadside verges of the latter were perfect for physical distancing. The abandoned golf course in Middleton Park was another good find for the same reason, plus I got to see the park’s famous carpet of bluebells. One of the more eccentric discoveries was the curved, pitch-black 100-yard tunnel by Parlington Hall, built by the rich nobs in the 19th Century to keep the hoi polloi out of sight as they passed the hall. Next time I’ll remember my head-torch!

Only problem now is – all 13 done, so what next? Lockdown looks likely to continue. Maybe Blue Plaques – there’s 171 of them in Leeds. Follow me on Strava to see my latest bright ideas.

Meanwhile, while tackling the pillars of south Leeds, there’s been some renewed interest during Lockdown in a north Leeds trig challenge I come up with 18 months ago, when I lived on that side of the city. Including an appearance on local radio! Read to find out more about the Meanwood Valley 3 Trigs Challenge.

Exiled from the fells

img_20200412_152103Closed landfill sites. Spoil heaps. Abandoned 4×4 off-road tracks. Wasteland. This has been my running “scenery” for the last month.

Back in February – when the world was a different place – my last running blog looked at how to keep the spirit of low-key fellrunning alive when confined to the city. That was inspired simply by the normal limitations of living in town over winter – distance from the fells, bad weather, limited daylight.

We have new normals now, of course. In terms of running, we run from the door. We maintain social distance. We run within our limits. But we can, at least, run; in fact, we have official blessing to do so (once a day). And it turns out some of the tips from that previous blog have come in handy.

Lockdown brought overnight adjustments. Planned races and trips to the fells abandoned. The entire map collection shunned in favour of the one, local OS 1:25000 (in my case, Leeds South). A first glance of the map to find the obvious open spaces and rights of way within reasonable distance of home.

img_20200330_183725Then you get out there and find everyone else has had the same idea! Even at what you thought would be the quieter times. Pick a narrow footpath and sod’s law there’s someone already on it, and an awkward “passing” to be negotiated. Social distancing is not as easy as it seems.

A second, obsessive scour of the OS map (and, I confess, of Google Maps too). This time my eye is drawn to the obscure footpaths that don’t really go anywhere, to “Disused Workings” and “Spoil Heap (dis)”, to the unclassified rough ground and the totally white squares that just seem to be a blank.

At least here you can feel relaxed about hardly seeing anyone (funny how these areas used to feel “dodgy” for exactly the same reason?). And you get to go “beyond the map” by finding features not marked. A decent hill training area, courtesy of an abandoned quarry face. An up-and-down cross country circuit, previously a banger-racing course. Abandoned ground next to a landfill site, as “wild” an area as any you’ll find on the fells (with an added whiff of methane to boot).

As a kind of sideline to keep those long-lost fells in mind, I’ve also located 13 trig points on my map and started “collecting” them. The contrast between these urban trigs and the iconic hilltop pillars so familiar to the fellrunner is mildly amusing. So far I’ve visited one on a busy roadside verge and another tucked behind a water tower. I’ve failed to access 3, due to development, overgrown vegetation and hospital walls respectively. I visited the site of another that had recently been swept away by a business park development. Still on my list is one that is no longer on the map…. because it’s been re-located 50 yards away as part of a housing development and given its own “feature garden”(!). The key thing is that trigs are not confined to the fells – they are everywhere, and I recommend the TrigpointingUK website accordingly (an absolute goldmine of useless information to help you while away the hours).

These are tough times no doubt and it’s easy to get demoralised….. but there are some positives. Running has been officially endorsed by the government as a good thing, something we can do every day. Less traffic, pollution down, more wildlife to be seen. Many (like me) are on furlough, with more time and energy on our hands – we can go running when it suits us, rather than “fitting it in”. And we’re getting to visit places we wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

And we know the fells will still be there for us in time.

 

Home composting advice page

This is a short blog to say that if anyone in Leeds has any questions about home composting just now, I’d be happy to try and answer them.

Particularly if you’re just starting out but are not sure how to do so, I’d be happy to offer a few tips.

Leeds City Council has suspended the brown bin service, and closed the Household Waste Sites, so we need to find something else to do with our garden waste this summer.

I wouldn’t call myself a massive “technical” expert in composting, but I have been giving it a go at home for the last 25 years. I also used to run a composting project on a city farm, and also worked with other composting groups elsewhere in the UK. So, I may have some idea of what might or might not work for you.

I’m also on furlough from my current employer at the moment, so have some time on my hands! I’d be happy to help if I can.

I’ve written a couple of previous blogs about home composting, which provide a bit of background:

Stay at home, compost at home

Home composting in a small garden

I’ve also recorded a 15-minute “demo” Composting Podcast (a Com-Post-Cast!), on the subject of how to manage your garden waste during Lockdown. Listen here:

So, if you have any composting queries, you are welcome to contact me using the Comments box below, or on Twitter. Alternatively, visit the Zero Waste Leeds Facebook page

Hope that’s useful!

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Stay at home, compost at home

Every aspect of our lives just now is being challenged, and although our absolute focus currently is to slow the spread of a deadly virus, we are also having to adapt to the consequences of this. One area where we are already feeling the pinch in Leeds is with Council waste services. The household waste sites are now closed. The fortnightly brown-bin collection of garden waste has been suspended. Litter bins are not being emptied. You can imagine more services being put under pressure, and before long the risk of uncollected wheelie bins, burning and dumping, litter, smells, flies and vermin.

It’s been good to see the Council recognising the risk early, and they and other agencies such as Zero Waste Leeds are already circulating useful information. The key point being – householders will not be able to rely on their usual services for waste collection, so everyone needs to minimise the amount of waste they produce in the first place. I just want to add some additional thoughts to those already circulated, the key one being:

Every household in Leeds with a garden can significantly reduce its garden waste and food waste.

Obviously, we don’t all have gardens. Leeds is famous for its back-to-backs (some of which have no outdoor space at all), and many people live in flats. However, it’s a reasonable guess that a slight majority of households in the city have a garden. And (funnily enough!), these are the households that produce garden waste – a type of waste usually produced in huge quantities, but unnecessarily so. So let’s start there.

Turns out Lockdown has hit us in early spring. The weather is improving. People would normally be starting to mow their lawns again. And we now have all this time on our hands at home to fill, and we all want to be outside. You can imagine some people thinking now is the time for that massive garden project they’ve been putting off for ages.

In fact, there is definitely something useful we can do with this time. Something that we probably always thought we should do, but it was easier to say “I’ll take it to the tip” or “I’ll put it in the brown wheelie bin”. We can compost our garden (and food) waste at home. It’s not as difficult as it seems, and now is a good time to learn this great life skill.

A few years ago I wrote a blog about how to compost at home. Reading it again, I realise I described a “best practice” method of home composting, for more normal times. But we are in exceptional times now, so here are some thoughts about how households with gardens can start composting and minimising their garden/food waste at home now:

  • Firstly, do you need to produce garden waste at all? Do you really need to mow the lawn, trim the hedge, or prune those shrubs? Will it really matter if you don’t? It might be for the greater good if you can accept that your garden might look a bit different to usual this year.
  • But it’s understandable that it may be necessary to do these things. Saying that, if you do mow the lawn, you don’t necessarily need to gather the cuttings. For example, it’s not much extra effort to run over the cuttings with the mower a second time and see them disappear into the lawn.
  • If you do gather lawn mowings, clippings, cuttings etc, you can easily make a compost heap from them. It’s just a simple case of chucking them in a pile, ideally combining a mixture of “wetter” materials like grass cuttings with “dryer” materials like hedge clippings and woody plant stems. It’s a bit like baking (a mixture of “wet” ingredients like butter and “dry” ones like flour), and like baking you should mix the ingredients together – in the case of composting, with a garden fork or shovel. (Note that before long hedges will start overhanging pavements, so it’s certainly sociable to your neighbours to give these a trim, but do add the clippings to your compost heap).
  • And if you do have a garden waste compost heap, you are giving yourself the option of being able to responsibly compost your uncooked food waste at home too – fruit and veg peel, teabags/coffee grounds, eggshells etc – but do bury your food waste well inside the compost heap rather than just chucking it on top.
  • Turning your compost heap over from time to time helps the process along, and if you wait long enough you can get a nice crumbly, soil-like compost to chuck on the garden. And this helps explain why home composting is the No. 1 waste minimisation tip. Not only can it divert a huge amount of material from your black bin (both saving space in your bin and reducing the environmental impact of disposal) but your garden provides the ideal home for the compost itself.
  • Finally, bulkier materials like twigs and branches that don’t easily rot down can be  put in piles, providing great habitats for wildlife.

To summarise:

  • Do you really need to mow or prune in the first place?
  • If so, don’t put your garden waste in your black or brown bin, or burn/dump it.
  • Instead, either build a compost heap (and add your uncooked food waste to it), or do something else useful with it in your garden.

Or to put it another way – while we have to Stay at Home, take the time to Compost at Home.

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Rural running, in the city

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View of Leeds from Rothwell Country Park, on the site of the former Rothwell colliery

Picked up one of my favourite running books the other day – Running Free, by Richard Askwith. First read it a couple of years ago, and no doubt it’s been a big influence on how I’ve gone about my running since. It shuns the conventional, “urban” style of running – based on roads, gyms, times, expensive kit, big events etc – in favour of a “rural” style emphasising the sheer joy and fun of running: inexpensive, off-road and closer to nature.

I spent much of 2019 putting this into practice when living and working in Borrowdale in the Lake District, a fantasy-land for the “rural” runner, as outlined in my most recent blogs. Equally, the author describes similar experiences running through the fields and woods close to his home in rural Northamptonshire.

There seems to me a logical next step from this. Some people live in the countryside permanently, others temporarily, and most of us will visit from time to time. However, fact is that 80-90% of us live in towns and cities, so day-to-day are not able to practice “rural” running in a rural setting. It would seem pretty important, then, to establish whether it’s possible to practice rural running in an urban setting, so that it’s theoretically available to most.

This is only too apparent to me. Having finished my summer job in Borrowdale in October, I moved back to Leeds, where I’d previously lived since 2005. Over these last 3 months, I haven’t gone out and bought a pair of road shoes, or joined many of my running club’s road interval sessions or signed up for the Leeds Half Marathon. Instead, I’ve been trying to find various weird and wonderful ways of keeping my running varied, interesting, low-cost (I’m not currently blessed with a well-paid job) and, perhaps most importantly for me (a creaky 47 year-old with dodgy knees), off-road. It’s been particularly challenging in these cold, dark winter months, but I’ve given it a go!

Here, then, are 10 top tips for “rural” running when living in a big city, based on my experience of running in Leeds:

  1. Don’t run in road-shoes, run in trail shoes. Road shoes are only good for tarmac (and some will question even that), so if you wear them, you won’t go anywhere else. Whereas, trail shoes allow you to run on all surfaces – paths, grass, mud, and the occasional unavoidable stretch of tarmac – giving you the choice to wander at will.
  2. Seek out the green space. Every town or city has some green or wild space. Parks, woods, fields, nature reserves, accessible reclaimed land, cemeteries, estates, canal towpaths etc. Edinburgh even gets its own city-centre mountain (Arthur’s Seat). Get a decent map and start linking it all up. I’ve recently moved to the Woodlesford area of Leeds which is blessed with enormous stretches of accessible open space, mainly reclaimed from old collieries. Exploring it has been a great way of getting to know the local history of my new patch.
  3. Join a club that does trail/fell running. At my count there are 8 running clubs in Leeds affiliated to the Fell Runners Association (FRA). Indeed many FRA-affiliated clubs are urban-based. An obvious way of finding out about suitable training sessions and races and meeting like-minded people.
  4. If it’s dark, you don’t just have to stick to well-lit pavements (or retreat to the gym). Grassy verges and central reservations are not bad options. In Leeds, the outer ring road, Easterly Road and Leeds Road through Rothwell provide some good well-lit grassy runs. And a decent head-torch gives you the option of getting off the roads at night if you wish.
  5. Find a “green wedge” into the city and run out into the countryside. In Leeds, the obvious example is the Meanwood Valley Trail, which links up with the Dales Way. It’s possible to run mainly off-road from Leeds city centre to the Lake District! (I’ve blogged about this in the past). Our other good option here is the River Aire and accompanying canal, in both directions. Sheffield, I know, has even more options.
  6. Urban ultras. In Leeds we are blessed with a 64-mile continuous trail circling the city – the Leeds Country Way. Many other places have something similar. I jogged round the LCW in 2 days over January, and it was a great way of exploring the varied but, to me, largely unfamiliar edge of the city. And of recce-ing the route of Leeds’ equivalent of the Bob Graham Round. And unlike the real BGR, there are plenty of shops, pubs and cafes en route!
  7. Invent challenges and other running “games”. I had some good fun last year inventing the so-called Meanwood Valley 3 Trigs Challenge, based on that icon of the wild places, the trig point, and was flattered that a few people gave it a go. Also, particularly runnable stretches of ground can be made into Strava segments and then be “raced” – I found a fast 2k, all downhill, through Gledhow Valley woods that I enjoyed running flat-out a few times. I’ve heard of night orienteering in city woods too, which sounds like a laugh.
  8. Run the urban fell and trail races. As far as I’m aware, there are 2 races in the FRA calendar within the City of Leeds boundaries – Otley Chevin and Danefield Relay. Local clubs organise a number of trail races, such as Boxing Day’s famous Chevin Chase, the Meanwood Valley Trail race, Guiseley Gallop etc etc. And, increasingly, there are some commercial trail races too – Holly Hustle, St Aidan’s Winter Beast etc – just a google search away. Some of the city’s many parkruns are more interesting than others….
  9. Seek out the mud. There will be stretches of muddy path in every town or city in winter time. So, instead of avoiding it just enjoy the fun of running through it! There is a particularly good 10-minute muddy loop at the top of the Meanwood Valley Trail near Stairfoot Lane car park, incidentally.
  10. Spoil tips. I had a few fun experiences in Borrowdale running down the spoil tips of the old mines at Honister and Seathwaite, so was pleased to find something similar from an old coal mine on the outskirts of Rothwell. A bit like scree-running on a damp sponge, but without any environmental guilt (see below).

Well, there’s probably more on this theme, and I’d be interested to hear anyone else’s ideas. Elsewhere on this site can be found lengthy discourse about my attempts to help save just a small wild space in Leeds from development a few years ago. Returning to the city after almost a year in Borrowdale, which is blessed with wilderness aplenty, has reminded me of the essential need for wild space close to where the majority of people live as well.

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Soft Graham Round

A quick write-up of my first dip into the world of long-distance fellrunning, should anyone feel suitably inspired to follow in my footsteps.

This idea occurred to me earlier this year when I thought I could never do a Bob Graham Round. Not ever – just totally impossible. I’d never be fit enough, nor organised enough, never even be able to stay awake that long! Then I thought – well, would I at least be able to link the 5 leg handover points in a single run? Perhaps I could do that – in half a day maybe? – and I could do it on my own and in my own time.

Six months later and I’ve now done it twice. And although there would be several months of hard training ahead, plus all the planning of pacers and other logistics (and a lot of luck!), I now think a Bob Graham is theoretically in me. Theoretically….

Anyway, in the punning vein of the Frog Graham Round, Puddle Buckley etc, this is the Soft Graham Round. The 5 points you must touch, in any direction and by any route (and return to your starting point, of course), are:

  1. Keswick – Moot Hall
  2. Threlkeld – road sign at junction opposite cricket club
  3. Dunmail Raise – stile leading onto Steel Fell
  4. Wasdale Head – bridge at entrance to NT campsite (don’t be tempted to cut a corner at Wasdale – you must visit the NT campsite!)
  5. Honister – door of cafe

For my first attempt in May, I was based in Borrowdale, so chose to start up the road at Honister. I also felt I needed a tea and chips stop half way round, so decided to run anti-clockwise and rest at the Old Dungeon Ghyll in Langdale. This did add extra miles on to the route and also had the disadvantage of giving me an uphill at the end –  the Allerdale Ramble between Grange and Honister, round the back of Castle Crag. That last bit turned out not very pretty! 78km, 2500m of ascent, elapsed time 12 hours 24 minutes (see my Strava).

That experience slightly nagged at me, so the other day I gave it all another go. This time, in more conventional BGR fashion, I started at the Moot Hall at 7.30am and went clockwise (it was nice to delude myself I was doing the real thing!). Daylight was limited, and conditions were icy cold. This time, I went “direct” between Dunmail and Wasdale which did save time, although the section between Steel Fell and Stake Pass was proper fellrunning – rough (and icy) underfoot and tricky nav. Generally though, much went pretty smoothly – refreshment stops at Wasdale and Honister came at the right time, and going up the side of Great Gable I had the added bonus of the sun on my back as it set over Wast Water. Darkness finally came just before I came off the fells at Grange, so the headtorch came out on the final road section from here. The one snag was that at this point the temperature plummeted, and much as I’d hoped to just jog or even walk this last bit I was actually forced to try and run to keep warm. Arrival at the Moot Hall was very welcome! 67km, 2900m of ascent, elapsed time 10 hours 6 minutes:

strava4939807185659877919So, if anyone else wants to give the “SGR” a go, let me know and I can compile a list of completions. To start with, 10.06 is your target!

Meanwhile, however knackered I may currently feel, it was rather humbling to see, 2 days later and in similarly icy conditions, the real thing run in under 16 hours – the winter BGR record smashed by 2 and a half hours! Well run Kim Collison. By comparison, this version really is a Soft Graham Round.

Free adventures from YHA Borrowdale

I was lucky enough to live and work at YHA Borrowdale in the Lake District for most of 2019. Lucky because there was so much adventure on the doorstep – so much to see, do and explore. Of course, some of this (such as rock climbing) would have required specialist skills or equipment, or some kind of financial cost (entry fees, guides etc). However, most was free and accessible to the average adventurous type (like me), and in-between shifts I didn’t miss out. So, in alphabetical order, here are my top free adventures from the door of the hostel:

Bothies

Go up to Honister from the hostel, then along the old tramway for a mile and you come to Dub’s Hut, a large but basic shelter. I usually preferred however to press on a further half a mile to the more characterful Warnscale Bothy. Only a couple of people could comfortably stretch out in here overnight, but you could cram in many for temporary shelter. It boasts the most magnificent view over Buttermere:

img_20190405_115150Caves

Somewhere half-way between a bothy and a cave is the climber’s shelter under Cam Crag, which is fun to try and locate amongst the rocks. Rather larger, a mile’s ramble along the river from the hostel and tucked underneath Castle Crag, is Millican’s Cave. Big enough for several woolly mammoths to live in, it was actually the home of Millican Dalton in the 1930’s – the era’s equivalent of Ray Mears. Totally contrasting, but equally intriguing, is Dove’s Nest Cave, high up on Glaramara. Less a cave, more a geological fault, it’s well worth the rough 3-miles on foot up Comb Gill. Headtorches can be useful at all.

Night running

Indeed, the best £50 I spent all year was on a decent headtorch. It opened up a whole new world of possibilities, particularly in the dark winter months. Suddenly, going out on foot at night in your own bubble of light became a possibility, then a norm. On a clear night, don’t forget to turn it off from time to time and look up to the stars.

Race recce-ing

My previous blog focused on Borrowdale’s 5 fell races, and much fun can be had recce-ing race lines, over and over again. So much time can be won in races simply by finding the fastest lines downhill. We must have come down Glaramara and Dale Head 5 times each before their respective races, and a different way each time! Very satisfying to find yourself way ahead of much faster runners on race day, just because of your local knowledge.

Scrambling

ie progress on foot where use of the hands is required. The best scrambles I found were up ghylls during dry periods – endless possibilities here. I also enjoyed some simple scrambles on more exposed terrain, such as the summit of Glaramara and alongside Cam Spout in Eskdale, plus a bit of bouldering at Honister. The more serious stuff I left to the climbers.

Scree-running

You probably shouldn’t do too much of this, but the occasional scree-run can be great fun. The classic is the descent from the summit of Scafell Pike to the Corridor Route, taken during the Borrowdale Fell Race. Various spoil tips from old mines can provide a more ethical alternative.

Segments 

Fell races are fun but they don’t always take place when you want them to. However, runners now have Strava – their favourite app – and its segments allow you to “race” various routes whenever you want, and compare your times against others’. Of course, there are loads of segments around Borrowdale, including the hostel’s very own challenge – King of the Castle – from the bar to the top of Castle Crag. I rather liked the downhill-only segments too, such as from Honister to Borrowdale YHAs.

Stravaiging

ie ” to wander about aimlessly”. The routes of so many of my explorations on foot this year I made up as I went along. You can do that in Borrowdale – hardly any of the land is off-limits. If I saw something interesting – a crag, a waterfall, a viewpoint, a sunny patch(!), I’d follow my nose in its direction. I rarely stuck to the beaten track. With time, I built up an ever-increasing mental map of the valley, and got to see and experience it from every angle. My stravaigs were a combination of walking, running, scrambling etc – as the ground dictated. I travelled as lightly as possible – minimal gear, and light fell shoes – and felt that this was the best way of moving around Borrowdale’s rough terrain.

Swimming

Or strictly speaking, any dips in rivers and lakes. I tended to paddle, particularly on hot days. My favourite spots were the pool just next to the hostel (below), Stockley Bridge and much of Langstrath. My favourite spot for a decent swim though was the famous Black Moss Pot, 2 miles on foot from the hostel. Jump in the pool and let the current take you a further 50 yards down the gorge – fantastic. I never had the guts to jump off the notorious 10 foot-high ledge though….img_20190621_152602Ultras

I’d never run more than 25km in one go before 2019, but once in the Lakes I soon found myself caught up in chat about the longer stuff. I helped a friend with her attempt on the Bob Graham Round, and although I found the BGR would be way beyond me, I did start doing longer expeditions. This culminated with me coming up with an abbreviated version of the Bob Graham, which linked the 5 leg handover points by my own route. Although I christened it A Soft Graham Round, it was still 77km and 12 hours of my life I won’t forget in a hurry!

Viewpoints

In decent weather, Borrowdale is spoilt for great views. It was fun to find the well-known chocolate-box ones too and get the camera out. Dale Head, Fleetwith Pike, Ashness Bridge and below – Wasdale from Westmoreland Cairn below the summit of Great Gable.cropped-img_20190226_142450.jpgWaterfalls

Sour Milk Ghyll in Seathwaite and pretty much everything down Langstrath were my favourites, but after heavy rain there are waterfalls everywhere in Borrowdale. On a wet day (and there are many), don’t mope in the hostel – get the waterproofs on and get out and see the falls and rapids at their best!

Winter

On a Saturday afternoon in February I thrashed through the snow drifts from Honister to the summit of Dale Head and back. Probably took an hour in total, which was as much as my freezing cold feet could stand. But so worth it for the view below. In a year of countless memorable adventures, this is the one that stands out most of all.img_20190202_143110

Five fell races in Borrowdale

(20 March 2020 update: Well, obviously the last 4 of these races aren’t going to happen now, but it was a good idea at the time. Who knows, maybe 2021?)

 

I’ve just returned to Leeds after 9 months in the Lake District – living and working at YHA Borrowdale, and indulging in my passion for fellrunning in-between. In which time – apart from serving countless meals and scrubbing countless bogs – I really did rather a lot of running. Looking back on my Strava feed, I recorded over 100 activities, covering over 1000km in distance and climbing around 50,000 metres. But I probably did as much again which I didn’t record – various rambles, jogs, scrambles, stravaigs and other explorations on foot.

The vast majority of my trips out were directly from the YHA. I rarely got into the car first. The hostel, in the hamlet of Longthwaite, is perfectly located to explore Borrowdale’s famous fells, crags, valleys, waterfalls and more. I got to know my patch pretty well, and never got bored of it. Quite the opposite in fact – the more I explored, the more I found to explore.

In amongst all this I quite liked to race. I did 22 fell races in these 9 months, and 4 of them began no more than a 10-minute jog from the hostel. In fact, 5 races in the FRA calendar start within half a mile of YHA Borrowdale. So, in tribute to these few but esteemed square miles of the country, I shamelessly plug these 5 races below. Why not give one, or more (or all 5!) a try in 2020?

1. King of the Castle

1pm, Sun 5 January

Start: YHA Borrowdale, Longthwaite

2.5km, 200m – AS

Organised by: YHA Borrowdale

Early January – crap weather, short days, Christmas & New Year done – we all need a boost. Hence YHA Borrowdale’s very own dash to the top of Castle Crag. Uphill-only time trial, so scope for a leisurely descent before returning to the waiting cake (and drying room). A great way to start the fellrunning year. I hope to be back in 2020 to defend the coveted MV40 trophy I won in 2019 (a plastic YHA water bottle, no less).

2. Glaramara

1pm, Sun 24 May

Start: Glaramara House, Seatoller

8km, 700m – AS

Organised by: Borrowdale Fell Runners

The climb up is strenuous but straightforward, but this race is all about picking the right line on the descent. Can you locate the alleged grassy ramps, that send you hurtling down the fell while normally-faster runners trail in your wake? Local knowledge and repeated recce-ing is a massive advantage here. And bear in mind that the bit you can’t recce (the final part of the descent, which is out of bounds except on race-day) is a potential ankle-breaker of rocks hidden in the bracken. Oh, and from my experience this year, don’t run it the day after supporting a Bob Graham Round – it might kill you.

3. Langstrath

7.15pm, Wed 17 June

Start: Langstrath Hotel, Stonethwaite

7.5km, 430m – AS

Organised by: Borrowdale Fell Runners

Well, this is the one race of the 5 that I didn’t get to run in 2019 (due to pot washing responsibilities) but I ran the route often enough. Up the interminable stone staircase of Lingy End, then a rough trail by Dock Tarn to Watendlath (quicker but boggier lines across the moor are potentially available), then back down the main track to Stonethwaite. An evening race at midsummer – one of the best times to run in the Lakes.

4. Borrowdale

11am, Sat 1 August

Start: opposite Scafell Hotel, Rosthwaite

27km, 2000m – AL

Organised by: Borrowdale Fell Runners

The distance and ascent don’t even begin to tell the story of the Borrowdale Fell Race, one of the classic events on the FRA calendar. Indeed “fellrunning” is a potentially misleading term here, as so little of the race involves conventional running. From the walks up Bessyboot, Great Gable and Dale Head, the invisible trods around Glaramara & Brandreth, the boulders up Scafell Pike and the scree-run down it, the technical descents of Gable & Dale Head…. factor in the weather, food & water considerations (the only “feeding station” is a murky trough of juice at Honister) and the challenging cut-offs and you have more an exercise in self-reliance and mountaincraft than a running race. I was just glad to get round within those cut-offs and avoid the “bus of shame” this year.

5. Dale Head

2pm, Sun 20 September

Start: opposite Scafell Hotel, Rosthwaite

8km, 675m – AS

Organised by: Keswick AC

Much like Glaramara – a steep climb up the track, but what is the best line down? The best I can say is – it depends on what kind of runner you are. Better descenders can take the steeper, rougher lines; more workmanlike downhillers like me have to take the longer ways round. Still, in 2019 I ran this race in 57 minutes – 9 minutes quicker than I did in 2018 – a testament to what being in Borrowdale for nearly a year can do for your running!

Well, at the end of October my summer contract at the hostel ended, although I’m glad to say I’m moving on to a job at another YHA, albeit outside the Lakes. I’m sure I’ll be returning to Borrowdale often enough in 2020 though, only this time as a visitor, and giving as many of these races as I can another go.Version 2

A day and 7 minutes in the life of a Bob Graham supporter

bg departureFriday 17 May 2019

2000 (8pm): I set off running from the Moot Hall in Keswick, pacing my Valley Striders clubmate Amanda on Leg 1 of her attempt on the Bob Graham Round. We are accompanied by Paul, who is navigating the leg, and boosted by the cheers of a small group of wellwishers who have gathered to see us off. Amanda’s schedule, based on completing in 23 hours 10 minutes, anticipates us on top of Skiddaw at 2125, Great Calva at 2210 and Blencathra at 2320, completing the leg at Threlkeld at 2353. Paul has accompanied dozens of BGR legs over the years, whereas I’m a first timer. I ran the whole leg around 6 weeks ago, and have revisited a couple of sections of it since, but that was all in daylight and the second half tonight will be in the dark, so fingers crossed.

2119: We arrive on top of Skiddaw 6 minutes ahead of schedule after a brisk walk up in fine weather.

2200: Headtorches are on as we touch the cairn on Great Calva.

2315: Conditions remain good on the long drag up the back of Blencathra, in fact the full moon on the horizon matches the compass bearing exactly. With time in hand I make a deliberate effort to slow the pace. But there is a sudden deterioration on reaching the summit plateau, with the mist reducing visibility to a yard and the wind howling. After 30 seconds lost quite literally walking round in a circle, compasses and devices are checked and 10 minutes later – as if we are searching for a dropped £10 note – we find the flat circular stone on the summit of Blencathra. It’s not a place to linger tonight though, and seconds later we are dashing down Doddick Fell and back to civilization.

2345: Arrive at Threlkeld car park, 7 minutes ahead of schedule. It’s been a very enjoyable evening run, with Amanda very chatty, Paul good company, and a nice sense of team-work at the beginning of a long haul. Saying that, I’m only too glad to get straight into the car (which I’d parked there earlier) and head off back to a warm bed. Amanda, by contrast, pauses for just 5 minutes (refreshments provided by fellow Strider Steve, working a dedicated night shift) and is straight off into the gloaming with her support runners for Leg 2.

Saturday 18 May

0130: Having dropped Paul off at his caravan near Keswick, back to my base in Borrowdale where (unusually for the Lake District) I enjoy a decent wifi connection. Upload a few Leg 1 photos onto social media and finally off to bed.

0900: Check Steve’s Facebook update and Amanda’s live tracker. She has lost around 40 minutes in the mist on Leg 2, and is now running very close to a 24 hour schedule. Bad news for her, but it does spark a greater sense of urgency in me. This could be a close-run thing!

1000: Jump into the car and make the 90-minute drive from Borrowdale to Wasdale Head. A crazy enterprise – 6 miles as the crow flies, 40 miles by road – I could have run it quicker.

1130: The National Trust car park at Wasdale is full but support driver Tom and the Leg 4 runners are there, anticipating Amanda’s arrival shortly. Just enough time for me to drive half a mile up the road, dump the car then leg it back to see Amanda come in.

1205: After a decent 10 minute break, Amanda is off on Leg 4, two thirds of the round done in two thirds of the time. It’s going to be a fun next 8 hours! I am very pleased to be able to offer Alex, one of Amanda’s Leg 3 support runners, a lift back to his van at Dunmail Raise.

1630: Back to Borrowdale, upload photos and a clip from Wasdale, have a bite to eat and check on Amanda’s progress. Likely to arrive at Honister just after 5. It’s still on!

1700: Make the short drive up the pass and find the support team at Honister. Anxious necks are craned up the trod from Grey Knotts, searching for figures. After what seems an eternity, a fast runner dashes down the slope. Sadly, it’s not Amanda, but her Leg 4 support runner Tom, who gives us a breathless update. Amanda is on her way, still with a fighting chance of a sub-24 hour round.

1723: Amanda arrives in Honister car park, muttering about it being no good, she’s lost her chance etc etc, but still runs straight past the refreshments table lovingly laid out for her and is straight up Dale Head. The Leg 5 support gather up their stuff and dash after her, and I tag along, thinking it might be useful….

1803: Amanda touches the cairn on Dale Head with 1 hour 57 minutes left and 2 peaks and 8 miles to go. I think about continuing on the whole of the final leg, but in fact decide that she already has enough people around her, and frankly I don’t want to have to traipse up to Honister later to pick up the motor! So, dash back down to the car, then pop into base to upload a final clip from Dale Head. It’s obvious from a quick glance at Facebook that many people are keenly following Amanda’s progress on the tracker, willing her on. Back into the car and round to Portinscale.

1855: Start jogging up the road from Portinscale, hoping to rendezvous with Amanda and the group somewhere on the run-in.

1922: Meet the group at Little Town. It’s taken me 27 minutes to jog here from Portinscale. Portinscale to Keswick is a 10-minute jog. If Amanda can jog in from here at the same pace I’ve just done so she can still do it! But although Amanda, after 23 and a half hours on the go, is indeed remarkably still jogging, she isn’t doing so fast enough for a sub-24 round! Somehow she needs to up her pace. Cue increasingly desperate attempts by the support team to somehow cajole her legs into moving more quickly. Every crass motivational cliche is spouted – “You can do this!”, “Dig deep Amanda!”, “It’s there for you, just reach out and grab it!” etc etc etc – but the road seems never-ending…

1957: We cross the bridge at Portinscale, and only now all begin to accept that she isn’t going to make it by 8.

2007: Amanda touches the door of the Moot Hall. Then we all go to the pub. To commiserate, but also to celebrate a most memorable day. And 7 minutes. A surprisingly philisophical Amanda is already talking about giving it another crack later this summer…

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