In praise of fell-running

“.. you like the free wind in your hair, life without care, flying up there where the air is rare.”

catbells_ian1 I got the seed of the idea years ago on Esk Hause when at 9.30am I’d met two fell runners coming from Grasmere. They’d already done almost twice the distance I had covered in the same time. Their secret? Travel light with trainer type shoes. The pair I bought the next week brought me blisters on the downhill runs and no ‘life without care’! But the desire for that free wind lingered on.

IMG_2353 Fast forward to 2006. I’m walking quickly, away from paths, up to Carlside below Skiddaw, when I’m overtaken slowly by a fell runner. Nearer the top I meet his partner. She explains as he tears down past us that he’s a contender for top places in national competitions. His secret? Make sure to get proper fell running shoes and touch the ground as lightly as possible on the descent. So maybe I could do it.

With a pair of new Innovate shoes (Top photo) from Keswick’s Needle Sports, I was soon testing out the fells round Thornthwaite, with the 2½ mile Barrow Round (Photo above) a favourite. Excluding the best part of two years for a prostate operation, I’ve now covered since my ‘conversion’ just under 90 miles on the fell tops

It’s not a lot and I’m not competing with anyone in races. My times are generally 40% to 65% of the walking times predicted by my Anquet mapping software. My best overall speeds are about five mph and for longer runs more like three mph. But it’s brought me a new freedom, the taste for a great sport and admiration for those, whose racing on the hills I read about in the local papers. Who needs football’s overpaid prima donnas when you have local icons like Joss Naylor and Billy Bland? These tough men and women are our real sporting heroes.

“Isn’t it dangerous and likely to do your knees in?”, Well you need to be fairly fit, have a good sense of balance and work up slowly. And go at a pace and for a distance that is OK for you. To enjoy this sport, you don’t need to do the gruelling races that Richard Askwith describes in his excellent book, Feet in the Clouds, A tale of fell-running and obsession.

P1010528 I hope by now you are tempted. Seven miles on the fells is a lot more strenuous than seven on the flat, but remember that no one runs uphill all the time and some rarely.

This last month I’ve had two of the best 90 minutes of running in a lifetime. First on the island of Mull, where I had a huge tract of sun-soaked, deer-roamed fells to myself with breathtaking views across Ulva island and down south to Iona. (Photo opposite)

Then last week a great five mile run over Cat Bells and up to Maiden Moor, with the Newlands Valley lit up and glowing in the late afternoon sun. (Photo below) The descent was a route I’d seen the hounds taking two years ago. It drops steeply off the path from the fell top in a NNE direction past an old sheepfold and down through bracken to the track to Little Town. Jazz pianist Chick Corea was playing on my iPod from his ‘Return to Forever’ album to the words below. Could I want for anything more?

Look around you my people
If you look then you will see
How to love, life is paradise all together
What game shall we play today?


Dig where you stand

IMG_9385e In Autumn 1979 a Swedish author Sven Lindqvist  wrote an article in Oral History (Vol 7, No 2), ‘Dig where you stand’, which became something of a slogan for local studies in the eighties. There was no need to travel long distances or seek out the extraordinary to understand the world.

By exploring your local community, its history and culture, its housing and workplaces and the relationships between people and places, you could learn not only about where you lived but also about society and politics more generally. The idea led to lots of local research and pamphlets in the Nordic countries and the UK.

‘Dig where you stand’ is advice as relevant to the Thornthwaite and Cumbria of today as anywhere. There are farms and cottages worked by generations of families, lead mines and mineral deposits all over the wooded fellsides and evidence – if you look – of the social and economic changes that have taken place over the years. What can you tell for instance from the etching above of Seldom Seen in the 1790s?

IMG_3172 One man who knows more about this local community than any was born in Braithwaite and moved to Seldom Seen when he was one year old. He lives still in the same house. 84 year old Victor Gardiner has been a forester, member of the Home Guard, naval gunner in the war, firefighter, taxi driver and parish councillor; and his grandfather was headmaster of the local primary school. He has one regret that he signed up for the navy only weeks before the land girls came to work in Thornthwaite Forest.

His knowledge of generations of local people, farming and land holdings, buildings, businesses and general gossip could fill volumes. (See his photo opposite with his dog Flossy). He has another distinction too.

IMG_3168 He and his brother Harry, who owns the adjoining house, inhabit the oldest buildings in Seldom Seen, Nos 3 and 4 The Ravine beside the fast running Comb Beck. They were initially an office, living space and woollen mill dating back to the 1780s.

The photo opposite shows the back of the house, where the remains of what was the original woollen weaving shed abut the dwelling. If you are interested in finding out some more of the history of the area, give Victor a ring (Tel: 017687 78284) and arrange to go round to see him. He’s always happy to have a chat.