Top Ten running books in 2018

It is coming to the end of the year and I noticed that I had read 10 running-related books this year. So here are short reviews of them all, taken from my Good Reads website. It is NOT my top ten running books published in 2018, just some thoughts on those I have read this year. In fact only four are from 2018. There is always catching up to do!

The figures after the author are the grade (1-5) given by me, and the year of publication.
I hope it might inspire some readers to pick up something ‘new’ to read.

Armistice Runner, by Tom Palmer (5, 2018)
armisticeThis was something of a surprise. I am a sucker for running books anyway, and this was a delight. Although ostensibly written for the younger reader, the themes were very adult. It caught my emotions as the story unfolded, both the war detail and that of the gran’s Alzheimer’s. Subsequently found that the author is doing a lot for literacy in schools, which is brilliant.

The Mountains Are Calling, by Jonny Muir (5, 2018)
muircoverThe first point to make about Jonny Muir’s book is the clarity and quality of his writing. The book’s subject is ‘running in the high places of Scotland’ which gives him a huge scope, range and landscape to cover. It is significant that he lives in this environment, and runs in it, for pleasure and competition. But it is the people that he meets and their stories that give such a great counterpoint to his own experiences that fascinated me most. Muir considers the origins of running in the hills, the beauty of it, and also the recent commercialisation of the sport (which definitely grates with him and some with whom he speaks). Running through the narrative, but not dominating it, is the Charlie Ramsay Round, which he seems fated to attempt – and finally does. The storyline does jump about a bit, and visits Scottish mountains some readers may not know so well, but his writing is so crisp and engaging that it draws you on and into what may be the unknown. His chapter titles are well chosen and three will suffice to give both a feel for the subject (Mountain Madness) and yet Muir’s feeling for hill running (Beautiful Madness; and Epiphany). Read and be inspired.

North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail, by Scott Jurek (4, 2018)
northI warmed to Jurek as I read this. He certainly put himself into a deep place in his AT endeavours. He describes the journey well and I liked his discursive writing but found the sections where his partner Jenny’s gives her thoughts rather less satisfactory. Looking back thought, it is a fascinating insight into the challenge that something like chasing a 50-mile a day FKT on the Appalachian Trail entails.

A Life Without Limits, by Chrissie Wellington (4, 2012)
lifewithoutThis is a well written biography of a great athlete containing a nice balance between her personal and her sporting challenges and achievements. I particularly liked the frankness of the ‘issues’ that are talked of – pooing and relationships, etc. The constant reference back to the coach with a past and his influence are an intriguing narrative running throughout the book.

The Pants of Perspective, by Anna McNuff (4, 2017)
pantsA very enjoyable read, easy, informative, and sometimes funny. In travel books like this I always like to see at least a simple map of the route taken, but to no avail.

The best part, as perhaps it should be, are the people met on the way. Overall, a very enjoyable book.


This Mum Runs, by Jo Pavey (3, 2016)
thismumI chose this book as a light read after a major operation. It was fascinating to hear about Jo’s early  success, injury years, and slightly left-field fightback. She is certainly a role model for athletes seeking a long career, and describes her achievements in a modest and appealing way.


Twin Tracks: The Autobiography, by Roger Bannister (3, 2014)
twintracksI know it is the twin tracks of his life, but the first half on his running was very good but the second was rather tedious, as it wound its way through his medical and sports administration work. A good book about an amazing athlete, who was also an outstanding and very special human being.


Pre: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Legend, Steve Prefontaine, by Tom Jordan (3, 1977)
Apre great insight into a great runner. He comes across as tough and hard working, with a bloody mindedness that rubbed some up the wrong way. To beat him you had to run hard and fast, none of this sprint out at the end stuff. Sadly he died very young in a car crash. Although a good read, I still could have done with more of the man and less of the races.

Running the Red Line, by Julie Carter (3, 2018)
redlineMixed feelings on this one. The author is a doctor/psychologist and tries to analyse herself and also explore the physiology and psychology that comes into play when we push ourselves (the ‘red zone’). It had some interesting stuff on resilience and motivation.


Run or Die, by Kilian Jornet (2, 2011)
runordieUnquestionably an amazing athlete and something of a free-spirit, Jornet certainly seems passionate about his sport and the environment it takes place in. The book is part diary, part personal philosophy, with just a little on technique and nutrition. It is written like a blog which makes it quite disjointed. An entertaining read, despite his high-blown language at times, which may have lost something in the translation.

For a further list of 20 books that I feel show something of the range and depth of the running book genre, see my earlier blog:
Good reads : running books

And if you are looking for presents to give, look no further than:
Books: ideal Christmas pressies!


“I don’t much like the limelight”

colin12It was a great gig at the Buxton Adventure Festival last week, where I interviewed hill runner Colin Donnelly in the second half of the evening, after we had been charmed and entertained by Judith Jepson’s account of her running career. Having audio recorded the talk, I have some great material, from which I plan to write a profile of Colin for a future edition of The Fellrunner. I will just share here two responses to questions I asked. I feel they give an insight into this fascinating, and I think under-rated, endurance runner. He has had an amazingly long career, still running well as he approaches 60, having won the Ben Nevis race as a teenager (photo below).

What would you say was your most satisfying performance? I loved all the big rounds I have done, the Bob Graham, Charlie Ramsay, Paddy Buckley, and South Wales Traverse. One year I heard of an ultra-race in Reunion, that was like running the Bob Graham, slightly more distance but the same amount of climbing. I did that race and it gave me an immense amount of satisfaction. I didn’t do particularly great.

BenNevissmallAnother one I was very pleased about, as I didn’t think I was going to finish it, was when I had a crack at doing the Scottish 4000s one year. I set off from Fort William and my dad was supporting me at the road sections. I got to Glen Feshie and I was limping badly. I was going to carry on anyway as I was ahead of the record schedule. I may not get the record, but I am going to finish it. I will crawl over that finish line if necessary. I got to the roads off Cairngorm and my dad was there. I had five miles or so down the road. He said, “well you have done all the 4000s now son. You are limping along and in real pain. Just finish here and we will be in the car and off.” I said, “dad, I am going down to Loch Morlich and I am going to touch that hostel door, whether I manage it within the 24 hours or not. I have come here to do it and I will.” And I did. But I suffered for that for quite a while afterwards. You have got to keep up your standards and do things properly.

How would you like to be remembered? Interesting. I am not really bothered about people remembering me at all. I don’t much like the limelight, even sitting here I am a bit uneasy.

I was just a guy that was good in his day and got a few records and did a few things, and that was that.

My youngest girl runs, and she was complaining that she didn’t do well in some cross-country race. I said, “it is not about how well you do, it is the taking part.” It is not about winning, and it is not about sitting back on the couch and saying, “I am 60 I am too old for all this”. It is about trying to explore your horizons, and never giving up.

That is the thing I would like to leave people with, it is about challenging yourself.

We also showed the video ‘re-enactment’ of Colin’s Welsh 3000m runIf you haven’t seen it you should, it is poetry in motion.

Colin Donnelly and Judith Jepson at Buxton Adventure Fest

ColinDonnellyPostercopyThere is a terrific double bill at the Buxton Adventure Festival this coming Tuesday (13th Nov). It will feature two top fell runners, Colin Donnelly (Cambuslang) and Judith Jepson (Dark Peak). TICKETS AVAILABLE

Colin will talk about his record-breaking running career, as well as showing a short award-winning film of his Welsh 3,000s run. I will be interviewing him on stage, talking (amongst other things) about his Buckden Pike race record (not beaten since 1988), solo Bob Graham Round, three British Fell Championship wins, and his amazing career longevity (he is still in contention in races as he runs strongly in his mid-50s, and was second in the World Mountain Running champs last year for over 55s).

Now, I have written about some keen trainers in my books, and Colin has always been something of an obsessive about getting the training in. Jonny Muir records these feats in an exchange with him in his excellent book ‘The Mountains are Calling’:

Colin once said in an interview he sought to climb a cumulative 365,000 feet every year. The maths is staggering. That figure (or 110 000 metres) amounts to 9,200 metres every month. ‘Is that true?’ I ask. He nodded. ‘The whole idea is to get 1,000 feet (300 metres) a day ……… I keep logs and some years there have been getting towards 500,000’

BenNevisColin has an incredible range of achievements, of which the following are just a few:

  • He won the Ben Nevis race at his first attempt – as a teenager (image above)
  • He won the British Fell Running Championships three consecutive times from 1987 to 1989
  • In 1986 he had another victory at Ben Nevis in one of the fastest times ever recorded for the race, and in 1988 he won the Snowdon Race
  • Also in 1988, he set a still-standing record for the traverse of the Welsh 3000s with a time of 4:19 and he has won the Welsh 1000 m Peaks Race several times.
  • Donnelly finished second in the short race at the World Mountain Running Trophy in 1989 and as a vet he won the over-40 title at the World Masters Mountain Running Championships in 2001.
  • He still holds the course records for the Buckden Pike Race, set in 1988, and the Shelf Moor Race, set in 1989.
  • He continued to win races as late as 2017, thirty-eight years after his first Ben Nevis win.
  • He has completed the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Ramsay Rounds, as well as the Scottish 4,000ers, South Wales 2,000ers traverse, the Manx 1,000ers and the Nant Gwrtherin to Conwy Traverse.
  • He’s competed the Munros, Donalds, Corbetts and Wainrights (not all at once).
  • He is currently (2018) the UK Cross Country campion for the 55-60 age group.

jepsonJudith Jepson is multiple times British and English Vet Fellrunning Champion. Her talk will a light hearted and motivating account of her life and running career, with her philosophy being that anyone can do it and have lots of fun on the way.

I will also have a few of all three of my fell running books (which all have more on Colin Donnelly) for sale, so do come and see me if interested in a signed copy of any of them.


Got them navigation blues

Walking up the lane through Jonny Bland’s farm I bumped into Billy Bland and Carl Bell, as we all variously watched the finishing stages of the Dale Head fell race. The ensuing conversation covered nearly as much ground as the runners had, and eventually turned to upcoming races. I suggested to Carl that his Keswick AC team were a shoe-in for the British Fell Relays the following month. Carl replied with a surprising statement that made Billy splutter, “but no-one can navigate in our team.”

Move on a month and Keswick have won the Hodgson Brothers Relay, having never been headed, and are surely favourites for those British Fell Relays. But things don’t always work like out like that, and favourites do not always win. On the first leg Keswick came in equal first, with Edinburgh University Hare and Hounds. By the end of leg two [photo: Mountain Fuel] they were leading by 1-22 from eventual winners Pudsey and Bramley.

Keswickleg2Then came the navigation leg, with its 5 checkpoints that are not known in advance. By the end of the leg Keswick had slipped dramatically down the field, coming home in 71st place, now 31-29 down. To put it bluntly they had a ‘navmare’ finding the second checkpoint. At that 2nd checkpoint they were 201st (being only 231st fastest on that sector), then recovered to be 3rd, 12th, 3rd and 6th fastest on the sectors to the leg’s finish. The team ‘won’ the fourth leg by 1-27, managing to finishing 10th overall, 20-31 behind the winners.

This is all by way of illustration. It demonstrates that margins of error are very small. Even within that navigation leg it was only one sector that caused such a huge problem for the team. I asked one of the pair of Keswick athletes on this nav leg for their thoughts on what had happened. They are recorded anonymously, as it is in no way my intention to lay any blame for how events turned out.

If you are involved in the sport you will probably know who they are anyway, but thanks are due to them having the guts to share their pain

We found checkpoint one with no problem, with my partner taking the navigational lead. He had put in his homework and had been out and about on the fells on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday familiarising himself with the area, and was committed to doing his best for the team. Full credit to him for taking the initiative to work on his knowledge of the area and also his navigation skills in the run up to the relays, whereas the rest of us have only really focused on getting as running fit as possible. Admittedly I failed to make any effort to improve my navigation skills before the relays and didn’t get a chance to run in the area, so that decreased our map and compass literacy levels somewhat.


Between checkpoints one and two we took a contouring line around and ran across rough ground into a thickening fog. It was soon disorientating, but I had vowed not to interfere with the nav, as I would have been guessing and didn’t want a too many cooks situation. After longer than expected, we hit the fence and stream we were looking for, but not at the place that we thought we had in relation to the map. We went up and down the stream looking through the fog for the sheepfold, but it just wasn’t materialising. We tried moving along the hillside to see if we could find another stream, and listened out for the sound of the falls marked on the map, following a couple of false leads.

At this point it crept up on us that we may be a bit lost. A couple of runners passed lower down, we dropped towards them and then some more appeared. ‘Checkpoint two is way back that way,’ said the next pair. It was disappointing, but we ran against the now steady flow of runners, who shared some sympathies when they realised what we had done. Once we found the sheepfold it was pretty straightforward, but the first misjudgement had set us back a fair way.

We were able to make up some places, and Jacob had an exceptional final leg, to run the fastest time and make up 60 places I think. We were really gutted with what had happened.

Thinking about the above story brought to mind that the best runners have all had navigation issues at some point or other. A swift trawl through my book research notes came up with an example each for the three guys that I consider the finest of all fell runners.

Ken_NIMRABilly Bland was renowned for his ability to route-find in the Cumbrian races but wasn’t so sure about both Kenny Stuart and John Wild’s natural abilities in that area. “Kenny couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag if the top was open! I have said it many a time. To a certain extent John was the same. They were both racers and a lot better runners than I ever was, but they weren’t mountain men if you know what I am saying.” And yet Billy chose Kenny as his sole pacer on his leg 1 for his Bob Graham Round record in 1982.

BlandLangdaleBilly Bland admits that if he went out of Lakes he might not be so good at finding his way. On one occasion at the Chew Valley Skyline race he admits he followed somebody: I remember in particular going down there and I was very fit and I went up the first hill and down into the ghyll and Bob Ashworth had broken free and there were 4 or 5 other pretty good runners and I said, ‘does he know where he is going?’, and they said ‘yeh, think he does’. So, I set off after him. In the mist Bob could have run me to Manchester, I didn’t have a clue where I was going.

Towards the end it was possible for Bland to leave a tiring Ashworth, but in recognition of his path-finding, he sportingly held back and let the Rossendale man take the honours. Billy adds:

we came off last top together and because he had showed me the way round, but I had let him know that I could beat him, we still came over the line right together. Someone like Kenny Stuart would just sit on you, then beat you at the finish. Fair play to him, it didn’t bother me, in some ways he was a better runner than me.

josswithbookJoss Naylor won the Mountain Trial 10 times, but got well lost on his second one, in his home valley at that. In 1961 Joss was just 22 years old, and ran in his second Mountain Trial, which was based in Wasdale. He was in the lead all the way and finished fifteen minutes in front of the next man, George Brass. Unfortunately, Joss had got lost after the third checkpoint, and thus didn’t win as he had missed the last two checkpoints. Joss claimed that his sheep didn’t range that far!

Footnote: If you want to read about my navigational inadequacies, and also a bit about how some top fell runners approach navigation then you might like to read an earlier blog posting: Bob the navigator: thoughts on maps and navigation.

NB: if you want a nav course there are various ones around. See for example: Nav4/Due North and Fellrunningguide.

10% discount at Splashmaps

splashmapsI have been working with Splashmaps, and can now offer a 10% discount code to readers of this blog – which is valid for ALL Splashmaps products.

One of the best-selling products (5th on their list at the last count) has been the Bob Graham Round Map. Full details of the map can be seen at: Ordering from this link will give you 10% discount if you add steve8 in the coupon box on the ‘Cart’ page. In fact, add that code in for ANY of Splashmaps products you wish to purchase and you will get 10% discount (let me know if it doesn’t work).

About the Bob Graham Round map

BGRmapLike all Splashmaps products it is wearable and washable. It has a combination of Ordnance Survey and OpenStreetMap data, with an overprint that clearly shows the 42 peaks, plus the normal circular route of the round, plus variants, at the 1:40,00 scale.

For more details of the Bob Graham Round see: The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps. There is also a freely usable (with due credit) black and white Bob Graham Round map included within the book which is freely copiable and available in PDF format from my Resources page. The map data is from the OpenStreetMap project and is released under an ODBL licence.


Men’s fell race course records

Blogger Meanwood Rambler recently wrote an interesting piece about Victoria Wilkinson’s record breaking spree, and the (relative) stagnation in men’s fell race course records [Link to his blog post]. It prompted me to look back at the situation, and I decided to share my thoughts from my research for ‘It’s a hill, get over it’. The following is an extract from the relevant chapter in the book:

Record breakers and champions

“My whole feeling in terms of racing is that you have to be very bold. You sometimes have to be aggressive and gamble”
Bill Rogers

This chapter covers some of the male fell champions and the records they set. Mind you, analysing fastest times for fell races is a somewhat tricky area, as there is so much that can change, not least the conditions that an event is run in. Even more important is the fact that courses necessarily have to change, due often to access issues, or changes in start points due to facilities/parking etc.

Over time who have been the top record breakers? Three of them have been Billy Bland, John Wild and Kenny Stuart. In 1980 Billy Bland won his only British title and had a record breaking spree, which was followed by the next two champions over the next five years – John Wild and Kenny Stuart, who hold ten records between them still, with Bland holding two still.

However, these three record breakers have quite different racing profiles. Bland’s two records are both categorised as long and are both in the Lakes – Borrowdale at seventeen miles and Wasdale at twenty-one. Wild’s three are all short and in Northern England – Wrekin (5.5 miles), Rivington Pike (3.25 miles) and Burnsall (1.5 miles). Stuart by contrast has seven records, or which three are short, three are medium and one is long, and they are in Wales, Scotland and the Lakes. They are Wansfell (2.5 miles), Latrigg (3 miles), Eildon 2 Hills (3.5 miles), Skiddaw (9 miles), Snowdon and Ben Nevis (both 10 miles) and Ennerdale (23 miles).

Obviously records get beaten, and those above are ones that have held up. An interesting comparison is given by figures produced by a statistician in 1989. He counted the number of course records held at that time for all races in that year’s FRA calendar. The results are pretty startling. For the men, Colin Donnelly, who was in his triple British title winning spree at the time, had sixteen, to Kenny Stuart’s twelve and John Wild’s nine. For the women Carol Haigh, who never actually won the British title, had a staggering forty-three, to Angela Carson’s seventeen and Vanessa Brindle’s eleven.

However, many of the major races, for example Wasdale and Fairfield, have had significant changes to their courses. Sadly, when change like this happens the holders of the records for a previous course are then down-graded when a new record is subsequently set on a shorter or longer course. Who is to say that in some cases they wouldn’t still be the record holder if the change hadn’t happened? Having said that, there is a certain fascination in knowing who has set the fastest time for a course and in which year. The list of men’s records for the ‘classic’ courses (see Appendix 3) shows three that have lasted from 1977 – Langdale, Lantern Pike and Eldwick. For the women the oldest are four that date from 1984 – Ben Nevis, Pendleton, Saddleworth and Lantern Pike.

In the Sept/Oct 1990 issue of Up and Down magazine Neil Shuttleworth speculated on improving standards in an article entitled ‘The Record Has Stood …’. He noted that fell runners have only a once a year opportunity to break records, unlike track and marathon runners (when comparing records for the distance, not the particular marathon). Shuttleworth concluded that race conditions were probably the most important factor to consider, that is to say both the weather and the underfoot conditions. Popularity of events also has an effect, in that a more popular event will attract more, and better, runners and possibly increase the likelihood of records. Shuttleworth also felt that neither improved footwear or better diet were likely to have a significant effect, but that competition (i.e. intense rivalry between top athletes) was likely to be a big factor.

There are many instances where it can be shown that records were broken due to close rivalries, both in individual races and throughout seasons. One of the examples noted above is the Langdale record from 1977. It is held by Andy Styan, and when asked by Shuttleworth about it (in the article just quoted), he reckoned it was so fast for two reasons: good conditions and a very strong field. Styan commented:

Billy Bland, Alan McGee, Mike Short and myself pulled clear off Thunacar Knott, and the four of us pushed each all the way. Billy and I got away on the descents, and Alan and Mike would pull us back on the climbs until we got away off the Crinkles and held it over Blisco. I left Billy by the cattle grid and that was that.

Even so, these four all finished between 1 hr 55 mins 3 secs and 1 hr 56 mins 8 secs, and it was the first time four runners had finished inside two hours for the course.

Similarly, John Wild set a record of 12 mins 48 secs (by two seconds) for the Burnsall Classic in August 1983. Kenny Stuart was first to the top but was overtaken by a speedily descending Wild, who in Kenny’s view was “taking risks he just wasn’t prepared to take, including leapfrogging the wall”. Two weeks later at Ben Nevis they met again, and faced strong challenges from Sean Livesey and Jack Maitland. Strong winds and mist made for a difficult race. Maitland led Stuart to the summit, with Wild and Livesey close behind. Somehow Wild took the lead on the way down to the burn in heavy mist and had a lead of twenty seconds there, holding Stuart off by seventeen seconds at the end. Despite the foul weather these two, and third placed Livesey, beat Dave Cannon’s 1976 record, with Wild taking 1 min 20 secs off it. John Wild credited the record to Maitland’s pushing so hard on the ascent against a known climber such as Stuart.


My main conclusion was that it was the number of absolutely top quality athletes that there were running the fells in the 1980s, and the way they raced so hard against each other, that were the two main factors in these records being set, and still in many cases not yet beaten. This is explored further in ‘Running Hard: the story of a rivalry’, which tracks Kenny Stuart and John Wild’s careers, and their rivals, such as Billy Bland.

recordsThe table is a list of the course records* that are still held by those three brilliant runners.

Not forgetting, of course, Andy Styan’s Langdale record which has resisted all challenges, including Billy Bland’s (who came within 14 secs), since way back in 1977.

* according to the FRA race page for each race

LINK: Information on my writing on fell running at Sandstone Press.

Upland hay meadows – the work of Friends of the Lake District

My latest book manuscript delves into the changes that have happened (and are happening) in the Lake District over the years. As part of my research, I recently visited the High Borrowdale site owned and managed by the Friends of the Lake District to interview Jan Darrall about their environmental work, as she supervised some volunteers protecting newly planted trees. Taking a break, we sat on the grass at the edge of the meadow, and discussed topics ranging from their upland hay meadow re-creation project there, to campaigning work across Cumbria.
[The interview transcript is reproduced here with permission.]


Tell me a little about Friends of the Lake District and your role there?

JanDarrallI am a Policy Officer at Friends of the Lake District (FoLD). The organisation was established in 1934 ‘to campaign to create a national park to protect the Lake District landscape for future generations’. Friends of the Lake District was launched that year at a public rally in Fitz Park, Keswick. The Lakes (along with Peaks) was the first National Parks to be setup in 1951. Back in 1936 there was a separate company to Friends of the Lake District established that was called Lake District Farm Estates. At that time the National Trust didn’t have money and they weren’t into real land ownership. Lake District Farm Estates went around buying up hill farms to look after them. The reason they felt it was so important was because when you look at the landscape here you have got open fells, walls, inbye land, and the culture of communing, which are all the essence of the Lake District. Lake District Farm Estates got up to 22 farms eventually, including some important ones like Nook Farm (Borrowdale), and several in the Duddon Valley. But, they found they didn’t have a large enough number of shareholders or the capital, so in the end by one vote they wrapped up the company in 1977 and gave the remaining 11 farms to the National Trust with covenants.

What at Friends of the Lake District’s aims and ambitions?

The aims and ambitions have changed over the years. So, after National Park status was achieved in 1951 some were saying, “we have got it now, do we just pack up and go home?”. However, it was decided that there was still work to be done. Between 1934 and 1951 Friends of the Lake District had campaigned hard for undergrounding of wires in Borrowdale and keeping afforestation in check. In 1978 Friends of the Lake District widened out their remit to include the whole of Cumbria, and also took on the remit for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), but independently.

Would you say FoLD was more active or political?

It is predominantly a campaigning organisation, but you can campaign through lots of different mediums. In Sept 2002 FoLD started back into land ownership with the purchase of the land in High Borrowdale (east Cumbria). That marked a period of healthy finances. The National Park boundary at that time was the A6 (to the west of High Borrowdale valley). The land was sold by auction and it was from somebody that had farmed it but hadn’t lived here. This was the beginning of positive actions from FoLD, to campaign through that. We wanted to try things other people can’t. We can set best practice, put what we say into practice, and learn from it. You get a circle: put policy into practice on the ground, then you work on the ground things into your policy. From my point of view, it has been a brilliant thing to have done.

Is this High Borrowdale project wider than the meadow work?

HBorrowdale2Yes. Down here we have been ahead of the game, not especially through intelligence and judgement, more through luck really. We bought the property, decided what we wanted to do and then we started looking at larger landscapes. We were looking at ecological links, so you can see a strip of land going right the way round. If you go down to the other end of the valley you will see a lot of ancient oak and ash semi-natural woodland. Coming back to this end it felt very bare. We thought we would do tree planting on the ‘allotment’ behind us, but immediately put in this strip right the way down to connect to the landscapes at the other end of the valley. We were thinking of slowing the flow of the river, beck stabilisation, and a wildlife habitat corridor. This is now, after Storm Desmond, what everyone is talking about. But we weren’t thinking of it in those terms then, we were just thinking it would deliver lots of good things. Then we thought about trying to show if it is possible to recreate this rapidly declining habitat of upland hay meadow.

So, is that the nub of this particular roject?

Yes, we re-created a hay meadow and monitor it, after taking a baseline survey at the beginning. The second thing was to re-create another hay meadow with a completely different technique, so we can compare and contrast the two. This first one cost £20,000 and the second one cost £500. The first was done with donor seed from various different sites and spread on with a lot more ground prep, and a lot more after-care. The other one was just an all in one day thing, rather than three weeks, taking our own green hay and putting it on the top.

What other actions are involved here?

We have repaired every single wall on the property. The inbye land has been put in the agri-environment agreement, you know where you are paid to manage in a more environmentally friendly way. All the woodland we have put into a Forestry Commission grant, and what we found was that on this land we were being paid to take away say metal gates and put wooden ones back, because they were traditional. We were paid to repair our drystone walls.


You have the same status as farms when it comes to grants?

Yes. On the land behind us the Forestry Commission weren’t interested in the landscape of walls, they just wanted a deer fence. We said, “we don’t want a deer fence, we want to fix our walls”. “Well you will have to do that yourself, then”, they said. We were able to start making some political points to the grant authorities about these aspects. Sometimes they were going against their own policies. We have had Forestry Commission here, DEFRA, Natural England, all manner of people. What we didn’t really realise with the hay meadow, was that we were re-creating habitats which no-one really knew how to do at that time. But since then there is a lot more knowledge and we know more about techniques.

Why not let everything go back to trees?

We are doing that, but selectively. That is a trial too. It is interesting because we planted that allotment in 2005, putting 10,000 trees in, and the idea was to plant the bluffs and the rest would re-gen up to the top. Nearly 15 years later and you might be saying, “where are the trees?”. So, now I sit on a lot of post-Desmond flood groups and am hearing, “you need to slow the flow, you need to plant, you need to rough up”. You need to do all these things, and I am thinking we did all of that and where are the trees?

What has happened?

We have tried to ascertain what the reason was for that failure. I think it is lots of things coming together here on this site. We have got high winds, heavy rainfall, shallow soils, and the biggest population of voles in the whole of the world. We have also got deer even though we deer fence. It all just comes together, but what I have been saying, particularly to people like the Forestry Commission, is why each time you are doing a big public scheme are we not logging height, aspect, slope, and soil, because I can virtually look at things now and say that is not going to work on there, because of that, but it will work elsewhere.

What is your profile, would you say?

We are known in DEFRA for the hay meadow re-creation, and we are known for the public work we do, engaging the public. The number of people that come down in the summer is huge. We will talk to anyone who will listen. We have done TV, radio, and have written stuff. All our properties are dedicated as open access to people. The other property I manage is 464 hectares of common land. Again, we try and set best practice for the common.

The other thing we did was we felt that in our submissions before 1951 about the National Park boundary we always claimed this [Borrowdale] and Bretherdale over the top there should be in, because it is the same landscape. So, we spent 10 years getting our act together, building our evidence and this is now part of the extension of the Lake District National Park, together with the bit down near Sizergh. We have got land in the extension zones.

Where might this project lead next?

HBorrowdale6It is long-term. We are taking a 20-year view. The latest thing is we had four landslides at the back end of last year. We had a significant one in Desmond that nearly wiped out the field barn and came into the hay meadow. It did the same again last November. We are currently involved in a trial project with the University of Cumbria.


We have laid out three types of matting with the aim of trying to get vegetation back on eroded slopes as fast as possible to stabilise it. With the volunteers this summer we have been pegging out three types of matting and will leave that there for three years and monitor it. It will not stop the landslip, but it may help the landscape repair itself. We are trying to assess, with others, why we are having all these landslips because this valley is really like a Lake District in miniature. Everything in it is extreme and intense so we have the fell land, the inbye, fast flowing beck, huge winds, high rainfall, as I mentioned.

Is it scalable in money and manpower terms?

We are looking at that. We knew full well, for instance, that after the first hay meadow re-creation your normal famers are not going to spend £20,000 to get grass that they think is a poorer quality. But they might spend £500 if they are in a grant scheme. When we first started we did shut-up (excluding livestock) from the 1st April but we knew most Lakes farmers were still lambing then. So, we have put the shut-up back to the first of May now. All the time you are trying to make it as relevant or replicable as possible to a normal land manager.

What else would you like to see FoLD doing?

Well, everything is changing. Agendas change, new things come up, like the post Storm Desmond stuff threw up whole new questions for us and the landscape. It may be a question of where are we prepared to compromise.

What about the World Heritage Status and its effect on the Lake District?

I am not sure how much a difference the Heritage Status for the Lakes will make. It is great in that it has got a lot more focus on the cultural heritage side of it, but it isn’t as some organisations think a fight or argument between natural heritage and cultural heritage. It is all one. The chief worry that we have is that it is already bringing in more people and areas of the Lake District are suffering. There is traffic congestion, there is footpath erosion, more commercialism, and at what point do you say enough. That is what we are talking about with LDNPA now.


The basic problem is we have so many businesses that depend on tourism, they don’t want the word to go out that the place is full. One of the worst aspects is the travel. Until there is a realistic and viable option what can you do? We have input to the consultation the National Park are doing because it is far too tourism-led. There is not enough for the residents. One of the big concerns is they want to set up what they are calling showcase areas. So, for example, Keswick would be a hub, and the showcase area would be all the way down Borrowdale. But the showcase areas are going to have more lenient planning rules. Borrowdale has small roads. It can only take so much traffic. Its quality is its setting. With these big hotel extensions, are they after the conference market? They don’t need to be.

Any other specific issues?

The zip wire proposal in Thirlmere is really interesting because it is almost led to a feeling for the re-birth of the role for the National Park. People have been coming out very emotionally about ‘National Park not Theme Park’. It has shown to many people that things have started to go wrong. When change is slow and incremental you don’t notice, but when you stand back you suddenly think hang on a minute, do we really want this. Do we really want the whole of Thirlmere and Borrowdale to be like Windermere and Bowness?

The government have said that from 2021 to 2027 will be the transitional period (post-Brexit). Payments just for your land will be phased out over that time and they will bring in this pilot called Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), whereby you will be paid for public benefits. That could be bio-diversity in a hay meadow, landscaping (e.g. stone walls), tree for carbon, etc. But, perhaps the agricultural organisations will say, where is the food in all this?

What should the other stakeholders be doing?

I think there are some fundamental questions. World Heritage status has shown this. What level of visitor interaction do we really want? LDNPA seem to be saying bring in even more people. It is 19 million visitors a year, compared to 44,000 residents. Where do the residents and their daily lives fit in? Where does the culture of commoning and upland farming fit in? Where is the balance between them? Where is the spiritual refreshment and physical enjoyment that was part of the original National Park ethos? There is too much instant gratification in society now.


Friends of the Lake District —– High Borrowdale —– PDF about the project

Photos 1,2, 3, 5 and 6 courtesy of Friends of the Lake District. Photos 4, 7, 8 are the author’s.