My Walk of Life with Simon Barnett

The Ramblers director recently took some time off to walk all 214 Wainwright fells in just 15 days – covering 326 miles and over 35,000m of ascent.

Interview by Matthew Jones

Simon Barnett walking
Photo by John Shedwick

What’s your personal motivation for fell walking?

Quite simply I love spending time outside, especially the sense of freedom and pleasure that comes from being outdoors on foot. I get a unique sense of calmness, and I love the feel of the breeze on my face and the rain on my back – the wilder it is the better! It’s not just fell walking though – I love walking anywhere. It’s a huge part of what I do both personally and professionally – whether that’s walking my kids to school or climbing a mountain, where I can really get away from it all.

What’s your earliest memory of being on the hills?

I grew up in a family that spent a lot of time outdoors. I grew up in East Devon and most Sundays we’d go somewhere like Beer or Branscombe and walk a stretch of the South West Coast Path. We also had a camper van, which my dad would take for an annual service at Seaton – which always meant a walk through the undercliff to Lyme Regis and back, while it was in the garage. We used that camper for regular holidays to the Scottish Highlands too, so I climbed a fair few of the Torridon Munros at a relatively early age. And although I have no recollection of this myself, my parents tell a story that at the age of 2¾, I walked from Pen-y-Pass to the summit of Snowdon without being carried. It must have taken all day – my parents must have been very patient. 

Why do you think people become ‘hillbaggers’?

As a teenager I did the Ten Tors challenge on Dartmoor every year for five years. That’s probably where my own desire to tick things off lists came from – there’s quite a sense of satisfaction that comes from doing something like that, particularly from actually being able to complete a list.

Why did you decide to give this particular challenge a go?

I have a young family, which means that I’d been away from the hills for some time, so I felt I needed a challenge like this to reconnect. Walking all the Wainwrights has always been a personal aspiration. I’d probably done about 40% of the Wainwrights before taking this particular challenge on, so this seemed a good way to bag them all. 

Why do you love the Lake District?

I came fairly late in life to the Lake District – in our family camper we’d always bypass it on the way up to Scotland, as Dad thought it was too busy! So I really discovered the Lakes as a fell runner in my late twenties, when I fell in love with the variety of the landscape, and especially the fact that it’s possible to experience all its different facets over the course of a long day’s run – or walk.

What is special about Wainwright’s guidebooks?

Wainwright’s books were always on the shelf at home, so I grew up with them. As someone who struggles to draw a stick man, I’m full of admiration for someone who can draw the fells in such exquisite detail, and write so informatively and interestingly about each one.

Two people are principally associated with the Wainwright round – Joss Naylor and Steve Birkinshaw. Were they inspirations to you?

For anyone who enjoys running in the hills, especially in the Lake District, Joss Naylor is a legend. The story of the Wasdale sheep farmer, who had a difficult childhood – he had to wear a special corset for many years – and grew up to became a champion fell runner is remarkable. Indeed, it was Iron Joss’s account of his 1985 Wainwright round that inspired my challenge. I remember stumbling across his little pamphlet about the feat, Joss Naylor Was Here, in Keswick one day and thought ‘I’d like to try that for myself’.

I’ve known of Steve Birkinshaw for some years, largely due to his feats in the fells, including his victory in the 2012 Dragon’s Back Race in Wales. Then, travelling up the M6 with a friend – who is, incidentally, also a well known fell runner – one Friday night, on the way to the Lakes, I discovered that Steve was shortly planning his own Wainwright Round, and attempting to beat Joss’ longstanding record. When I got home I looked it up. Steve had published his planned schedule on a blog, and revealed he’d be wearing an online tracker so you could follow his progress. I happened to be back up in the Lakes the day Steve started, and made an effort to be see him between Great Gable and Kirk Fell – and luckily he was right on schedule. I very much enjoyed seeing him run past, although it was early in his challenge. I then got somewhat obsessed by Steve’s tracker for the next 6 days. I was checking how he was doing at all times of the day and night, watching the flashing marker on the map connect all the fells together like a dot-to-dot puzzle.

Steve later joined me for some of my round. He met me on top of Souther Fell and accompanied me – navigated me, in fact – to Blencathra and Mungrisdale Common. It’s  bleak up there at the best of times, so I was glad to have his company through the cloud, wind and rain. It was fantastic to spend some time with him and talk to him about his record Wainwright Round. He told me that although many people think it is unbreakable, he thinks it’s entirely possible that someone might beat it in future, particularly since he rested longer than he actually intended, because his feet were in such a bad way. Although it certainly won’t be broken by me!

I’m particularly grateful to Steve, because if he hadn’t worked out all the logistics involved in doing the round and left it all online, it’s unlikely that I’d have ever got round to plotting it.

It’s also where I got the inspiration to wear a tracker of my own. Of course, Steve went far quicker than me – what he was doing in 24 hours took me about two and a half days  – but one of my friends still said it was strangely satisfying to watch my progress live, via the Ramblers website.

What preparation and training was involved prior to taking on the challenge?

Even with the groundwork that Steve had already done, I still had to work out what was sensible for me to accomplish. Doing the full round in 15 days seemed a challenging but realistic target that would still be enjoyable, both for me and for my family and friends, who were supporting me. I made the necessary arrangements accordingly, booking campsites and accommodation, and trying to get myself fit enough. I’ve got a good base level of fitness, but built on that by training in North Wales and also locally. I did one 30-mile walk round the Surrey Hills in thick mud, which helped strengthen my legs.  

What sort of support did you have along the way?

My mum and dad were there for the first week, and they were great. Dad pitched my tent every night for seven days, while Mum cooked lots of food to keep me going. If I’d been backpacking and looking after myself, it would have been a different undertaking altogether, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it in 15 days. Kirsty, my long-suffering and very patient wife was key the second week - doing lots of drop offs and getting on the fells when she could. Seventeen friends and family came out on the fells at various times – many from Tring Running Club. One actually clocked up 50 Wainwrights himself! We had a celebration on top of Cat Bells – my last Wainwright.  And then again at the Moot Hall back in Keswick once I’d closed the loop from back where it had all started.  And of course there was a lot of online support from the Ramblers, including generous donations from colleagues, volunteers and members.

In some ways it was very different from my day job.  That involves leading a small staff team to support thousands of wonderful Ramblers volunteers, who give their time freely to help create a country where everyone enjoys the outdoors and benefits from the experience. This includes those volunteers who lead walks, whether that’s a very short free health walk around a local park, or a hike to the top of a remote mountain.  I love it when we hear someone say, ‘I’ve lived here for years and never knew all this was on my doorstep’ – and the Ramblers has both helped them to discover it and to make walking a habit. For an outdoors organisation I spend a lot of time indoors! So it was great to have an extended period of time in a place I love, just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, soaking up the views and savouring the experience.  

Simon Barnett walking
Photo by John Shedwick

What was the biggest challenge?

There were a couple of particularly tough moments. The first happened two days before I was due to start. I was just about to leave the Ramblers office and experienced terrible back pain – worse than anything I’ve ever had before. I was crouching down in agony every five minutes or so just to relieve the pain. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to start this thing, let alone finish it. For the first time in my life I went to see a chiropractor, who took one look and told me my hip was misaligned. He put me on a bench and cracked my vertebrae in about six different places. I felt remarkably better after that, but for the first few days there was still some pain. Fortunately my back straightened itself out, and then other things began to hurt!

The other challenge was sleeping. I’m a fairly light sleeper, and in the first week I was woken most mornings by the dawn chorus – including a very persistent cuckoo in Borrowdale! So lack of sleep made it quite tough.

The weather was of course mixed – from heavy rain and hail to some very hot weather. I don’t do too well in the heat, so that was a challenge. Fortunately I went as light as possible, wearing fell running gear and carrying a small daypack with lots of water, food and maps – some days I had four different maps, including both Ordnance Survey and Harvey maps. I also had a whistle, compass, phone and a survival bag – all the stuff you need to stay safe in the hills. Thank you to Cotswold Outdoor for their generous support, as they gave me a pair of Inov-8 fell running shoes and a Rab Kinetic Plus jacket.

What, in particular, kept you going – someone mentioned a very specific sandwich?!

I ate a lot. Plenty of chocolate – and yes, lots of cheese and peanut butter rolls. Mum reckons she made about 60 over the course of the week. I suppose it’s a slightly strange combination, but I kept chowing down on them and they did the trick. One Ramblers member tweeted that I should try peanut butter and beetroot. I didn’t much fancy that though!

Did any of the fells prove particularly difficult to access?

I was trying to follow a route that minimised the distance and climb between fells. In some instances there were no rights of way or right of access on my optimal route. The one that sticks in my mind was Great Mell Fell. While the summit is on access land, there’s no right of way on or off that land, which meant that I faced some difficult decisions.  I approached from the south-east, as most people do.  From the top I could either retrace my steps and do an additional 7km of mainly road walking, or carry on north, down a 750-metre disused rifle range. Over many years locals have worn a path through the grass along the range, and at some point a stile has been erected at each end.  I did the pragmatic thing, but it was the least enjoyable part of the whole round. Of course, had I been in Scotland, where access is very different, none of this would have been an issue. 

Were you ever tempted to cheat, even for a minute?

It’s not in my nature to cheat – and in any case I was wearing a tracker supplied by Open Tracking, so it would have been instantly obvious. The tracker added a different element to the challenge – it was useful from a safety perspective, but most of all it made it easier for friends and family to follow my progress. The aim was to enable as many people as possible to enjoy the challenge with me. I’d had a long-running conversation with one particular friend, who couldn’t believe that someone who’d spent as much time in the fells as me had never been up Pike o’ Blisco. When I was on top and enjoying one of those cheese and peanut butter sandwiches, I sent him a text telling him I’d finally done that fell. He replied; ‘I know – I’m watching your tracker!’

Was it a walk, a run, a shuffle, or something in between all of these?

It was mostly walking. Although there comes a point where if you’re on a gentle downhill descent, it almost becomes more efficient to break into a run.

What factors came together for you to be successful?

I’d put it down to fitness, desire and ambition – as well as having the necessary time, space and support from friends and family to do it, of course. It all came together to make it a very enjoyable couple of weeks of my life.

Did you get lost?

I did a couple of times – both on the same day. The first was on the way to Green Crag. It was a foggy day, and somehow I went up the wrong stream. There is a myriad of knolls around there. I didn’t have a map or compass out, and curled around too far to the right. There was no way of picking this particular fell up later on in the route, so I knew I didn’t want to miss it out. I eventually rang a colleague at the office, who was in early that morning, and fortunately he was able to tell me where I was and set me on my way. Later I got lost again, but managed to find my way out of it, despite overshooting the path I wanted. That did mean I had to approach the next fell from a different angle though, which was on access land that I could only reach by climbing through a storm drain.

What's your favourite Lakeland fell – and did that change as a result of the challenge?

A tough question, but my personal favourite is Yewbarrow, at the head of Wast Water. It’s a tough climb whichever way you approach it, but has great views of the surrounding fells. You don’t get too many people up there either, so it’s well away from the madding crowds, and normally when I find my way up there I’m at the start of a good long fell day, which is always a pleasing prospect.

As a result of this challenge I’ve got lots of new favourite Wainwrights though – often the lower ones actually, including outlying fells like Binsey. The view of Bassenthwaite Lake – which is actually the only ‘lake’ in the Lake District – looking back to Skiddaw, Ullock Pike and the other Northern Fells is just fantastic.

What was the most memorable moment from the 15 days?

One moment will stick with me forever. I woke up in my tent in Langdale, in thick fog at 7am. I got up and got going, climbing towards the Langdale Pikes, and at about 1,000ft I popped out of the cloud into bright, clear sky. There was the most amazing cloud inversion beneath me, stretching out for miles and miles in every direction. Anyone watching my tracker that morning would have seen it move backwards and forwards from time to time as I stopped to capture it all on my video camera. It was absolutely spectacular.

What’s next?

The list is long, and unfortunately life and time is too short. But I love the idea of long journeys through wild, remote places, so I quite fancy walking the Cambrian Way. In my heart of hearts, if I could pull it together, I’d love to do a Munro circuit, using self-propelled transport in between the mountains – canoeing or swimming, road biking and mountain biking, with the bulk of it on foot. I think that would be 50 to 55 days of continuous effort, but I do quite fancy that.

Since doing the Wainwright Round I’ve completed the Paddy Buckley Round in Snowdonia – that’s 61 miles, 47 mountains and 28,000ft of ascent, all inside 24 hours. I also did the Bob Graham round in 2008, which of the Big 3 Rounds just leaves the Charlie Ramsay round in Scotland left to do. Only about 50 people have done all three in less than 24 hours each. I’d quite like to add my name to that exclusive list. It’s somewhere in the back of my mind.

Wainwright thought it was important to instil a love for the outdoors in children. As a father, is this a notion you agree with, and how do you try to do that?

Absolutely. Elizabeth, my daughter, has a Wainwright chart and is slowly making her way through that, although her progress has been impeded somewhat since the arrival of her little brother, Jack. We still try and get out as often as possible, including in the Chilterns, where we live. A local landowner with a right of way through a wood has recently replaced a ‘fairy walk’ with some dinosaurs.  A giant T-rex has just been added to the velociraptor and the stegosaurus, which delighted the children.

We were in the Lakes last autumn, just for a weekend, and Elizabeth collected an acorn for her class’s nature table at school. Her teacher seemed very impressed when she asked where the acorn had come from and Elizabeth nonchalantly revealed its source.

Jack’s also in the process of learning his sounds with a set of phonics cards. One of the cards shows ‘m for mountain’. At the moment he associates ‘m’ with ‘windy mountain’, because it was so windy when we went up Ingleborough, in the Yorkshire Dales. Hopefully one day he won’t always make that association!