ARTICLE: The Lake District, Bob Graham and the Fells

Let me start this article by openly admitting it: I've been bitten by the Lakeland Bug!

Not without reason does the Lake District garner more attention than England's other spectacular natural reserves: The rugged Dartmoor, the Yorkshire Dales with its 3 peaks, and the Peak District with lowly Kinder Scout, at 636m, as its highest point, and the Pennine Peaks with Kinder Scout's parent peak: Cross Fell, England's highest mountain outside the Lakes (incidentally, the Peak District get's more visitors which I attribute to its more central location). And England, of course, has more to offer, such as the little known Cheviots, roamed by the Northumberland Fellrunner.

But for a foreign hill runner, the Lake District is invariably the most well-known and the most shrouded in myth and legend, first covered in books such as Bill Smith's "Studmarks on the Summits" and later given a public awakening by Richard Askwith's "Feet in the Clouds".

As covered in a previous article, we chose Keswick, probably the Capital of Fell Running, as our site of residence during our sojourn. Keswick is a lovely and friendly town of around 4000 inhabitants. It features more outdoor shops than Dublin (by some distance), lovely bed and breakfasts, the friendliest hospital I've ever been in and impressive surroundings: Over the town towers first "little Lattrig", a steep grassy fell at 367m, accessible through local "kissing gates", its Southside covered by forest, and then four more massive fells: Skiddaw Little Man (865m), Lonscale Fell (714m), and Skiddaw itself (931m).

A very popular fell race (simply called "Latrigg" is hosted here every year (this year in conjunction with the Keswick Mountain Festival: At 3 miles and 950' ft. of ascent this looks a fast race, and after having seen the descent while over there it's a race I'd love to try. If you feel similarly its on on the 13th of May.

To the South-East lies the island-dotted Derwent Water, one of the lakes that has given name to the area, and on the far side you can see the rugged green edge of Catbells (451m), a small fell that lends a powerful punch in terms of incline and is a walker's favourite due to the fine path on top of the ridge and the beautiful trees growing at its foot. Straight to the South you find "Great Wood", one of the many impressive woodland areas of the lakes. Unlike poor Ireland, whose lost forests are so beautifully lamented by the Dubliner's Sean Cannon in "Cill Cais", the Lakeland winds still caress the leaves of Sycamores, Beeches and Copper Beeches, mighty Oaks, and Chestnut trees with the odd foreign Maple blessing the landscape.

Beyond Great Wood lies Walla Crag (376) another fell featuring a long ridge running parallel with the B5289 from Kendal and Yorkshire, and beyond it again you can see South to Bleaberry Fell (589m) and High Seat (608m).

Bob Graham - The Dream Begins...
At the foot of Walla Crag on the outskirts of Ashness Wood stands a small stone, looking like a miniature trig point. This unseeming monument commemorates how Keswick hotelier Bob Graham, at the age of 42, completed a Round of 42 peaks, including all the Lakes 3000-footers (910m) (Scafell, Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, and Skiddaw).

This Round has left a lasting legacy and is now stewarded by the Bob Graham 24 Hour Club ( Public awareness was boosted immensely by "Feet in the Clouds" as one of the employees of the Keswick's famous outdoor shop "George Fisher" recounted to me ( ) . She, of course, had already completed the Round. Twice!

The Bob Graham starts and finishes at the Moot Hall in Keswick, now the town's tourist office. This lovely building is well worth a visit and as I walked the plaza in front of it, I visualised how it would be running those final steps up towards it, exhausted beyond reason, yet elated, after having completed the Round. And I knew I would leave life incomplete if I didn't attempt it within the next decade.

(interestingly, the "Bob Graham" generally run now is not the same Round that Bob Graham himself ran, but instead Alan Heaton's 1960 Round in which Alan made 4 amendments which were to become permanent).

From the Moot Hall, the hopeful Bob Grahamer ventures over Latrigg onto the main path to Skiddaw, lowest of the Lakes' 3000-footers. There is a big broad trail leading you onto the plateau of Jenkin Hill before you are led for a flat stretch around Skiddaw Little Man (another trail leads up over this steep outlier). The ground is very rocky and features great ascent grades.

The fell is often compared to Snowdon and this is a very fair description, the top, however, is not as conical as Snowdon but rather a long broad ridge almost 500m in length whose beginning seems like a false summit. Winds blowing from the East almost knocked me onto the hard rocks even as I was power-hiking, instead of running, due to my injury.

From here you can see the next two stops on the Bob Graham: heather-clad Great Calva (690m) to the North-West (no visible path leads there) and Blencathra (868m) to the West. Blencathra, also called Saddleback, was another fell I had hoped to do but alas, my injury prevented it.

The mountain indeed looks like a saddle and you can follow a worn trail from Keswick up along its sharp ridge leading you first to Blease Fell (804m), then Blencathra, before you can choose to take the "Sharp Ridge" along the crags over Scales Tarn. Here a fell-runner could choose to follow the path on to Bannerdale Crags (683m), but a runner doing the Bob Graham needs to find the safest direct descent to the village of Threlkeld, home of legendary fell-runner Kenny Stuart. Here you cross the main road arterie into the lakes: The A66 highway.

From beyond Threlkeld lies a massive ridge of hills all connected by a single bridleway. Every peak must be conquered on the Bob Graham: Clough Head (726m), Great Dodd (868m), Watson's Dodd (789m), Stybarrow Dodd (846m), Raise (884m), White Side (863m), Helvellyn Lower Man (925m), Helvellyn (950m), Nethermost Pike (891m), Dollywagon Pike (858m), Fairfield (873m), and Great Sandal (736m) before this part of the epic journey terminates at the crossing of the A591.

Small detours to nearlying Catstycam (890m) are ignored, while others like Calfhow Pike (661m), invariably passed on the way, don't get a mention, perhaps because this particular peak did not warrant mention in Wainwright famous books covering the 214 most notable Lakeland Pikes (which Joss Naylor ran in 7 days at the age of 50).

But Helvellyn itself is the jewel of this part of the Round, and another fel that myself and Aoife had planned to do doing our weekend. Again injury prevented me from undertaking this part, and so I missed the third highest mountain in England with its two famous ridges leading West: Swirral and Striding Edge, forming a horseshoe around the waters of Red Tarn.

Thus standing at the crossing of the Dunmail Raise the runner looks to the two lowest (and most controversial) peaks of the Bob Graham: Steel Fell and Calf Crag (both lower than 2000-ft, which caused some stir in the day. The "Wakefield Rule", named after the redoubtable dr. Wakefield of Keswick, who laid out the basic aim of the contest in 1904: "to ascend the greatest possible number of peaks over 2000 ft., and return to the starting point within 24 hours".

As an anecdote, I think this simple description would make an interesting twist to the Wicklow Round. Let people go out and run as many 2000 footers in Wicklow as they can in 24 hours and return to their starting point. The best possible Round should emerge from such attempt (although its very possible that Joe and Brian's current route will emerge as the most natural in any case).

Beyond the low peaks lies the might of the Sca fell (pronounced Scaw fell) massif, featuring the roof of England: Scafell Pike itself. Join me tomorrow as our journey continues along the Bob Graham Round before we look beyond to the other great sites of the Lakes such as the mighty fell "Old Man of Coniston", the beautiful villages of Grasmere and Ambleside, and busy Windermere, location of the largest body of water in the Lakes.