A history of the Wainwrights & some 214 record-breakers

In a 13 year labour of love, Alfred Wainwright produced a series of seven books known collectively as A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells.

Each book describes a particular fell and the surrounding area, including some amazing hand drawn pictures illustrating various routes to the summit. 214 fells make up the guide, with nothing else to connect them other than a nod from Wainwright as being to his liking, and his subsequent commitment to capturing them in his own unique and encapsulating style.

Wainwright in use

They include well known lakeland giants like Scafell Pike, Great Gable, Skiddaw and Helvellyn; first time favourites like Cat Bells and Latrigg; lesser visited peaks like Sour Hows and Sallows; and those in a remote area at the 'Back o Skiddaw'.

As someone who struggles to draw a stick man, the accuracy and inspirational nature of Wainwright's drawings astound me. I perhaps enjoy them most when they are beside a mug of steaming hot tea!

Since their publication over 50 years ago they have sold millions of copies and provided inspiration to many - both from the armchair and from the valley bottom.

Where there are lists, people inevitably start to work through them as a personal goal. The chair of our Lake District area, Malcolm Petyt, is a prime example. Malcolm completed all 214 fells over 15 years whilst living and working in Reading. Following a heart attack, and subsequent recovery, in the year of his 65th birthday he decided to do them all again, which he successfully did within 214 days.

Almost inevitably with lists there becomes a sense of friendly competition, which Wainwright himself would no doubt frown upon:

  • the youngest person to climb them all
  • how many times someone has completed all 214 (currently standing at 49!)
  • the fastest time to do them all

Wainwright arranged the 214 fells into volumes by their location, for example the Western Fells. Tackling all 214 volume by volume is a logical approach, providing seven significant milestones that help break the enormity of it all into bite-sized chunks.

However, this volume by volume approach doesn't lend itself to taking an optimal route.

The Wainwright book collection

The fastest route will minimise distance and ascent, whilst also taking into account the ground underfoot. To get through one volume in 24 hours is a considerable achievement. In 1981 Chris Bland from Borrowdale attempted to do a book a day for seven consecutive days. In that single week he completed five out of the seven, and got about two-thirds through each of the other two. 

In 1985 Alan Heaton decided to tackle all 214 in an order that linked them by the best route - not book by book. Starting and finishing at the Moot Hall in Keswick - where most Lakeland endurance fell running feats begin and end - Alan experienced trouble with his feet. After 5 days he visited hospital and was put on a course of antibiotics. He finished after 9 days, 16 hours and 42 mins.

Joss Naylor

Enter Joss Naylor. A Wasdale sheep farmer with a string of endurance fell running records and fell racing wins to his name. Not bad for a man who as a teenager was told he should not take part in strenuous activity and who spent five years in a special corset for his back. To top it off, before he took up running he even had two discs removed from his back and all the cartilage from a knee!

Joss Naylor by Jim Barton

He made a Wainwright attempt in 1985, modifying Alan's route to one he felt was more efficient. He ran through a heatwave, cut holes in his shoes to release the pressure on his ankles, suffered from terrible blisters, and struggled to eat. He stood on top of his last Wainwright within a week of starting, and ran back to touch the door of the Moot Hall 7 days, 1 hour and 25 minutes after starting. In this time he spent a total of just 44 hours resting.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, for 28 years his record stood unbeaten - a huge testament to the achievement of Joss. Then, in 2014, Threlkeld based Steve Birkinshaw set out to beat it.

Steve Birkinshaw

Steve’s attempt was unknown to me and so when I ambiguously stated to a friend, somewhere on the M6 one Friday night, that I fancied a continuous loop of the Wainwrights one day, I was surprised to learn of Steve's attempt just a few weekends later.

An accomplished fell runner (winner of the 2012 Dragon's Back Race – which heads down the spine of Wales) Steve spent many hours improving the optimal Wainwright route. As he points out, there are no computer programmes to answer this question, just a lot of hard graft poring over maps for hours on end. He eventually settled on a route that he estimated to be 16km shorter than Joss’ with 2,000 metres less ascent.

Steve set out on a sub 7 day schedule, aiming to cover a distance of 519 km and over 35,000 metres of ascent (not forgetting 35,000 metres of descent).

Steve's route

Despite bad blisters - which were partly dealt with by cutting holes in his shoes - and an inability to sleep when he did rest, Steve stayed amazingly close to his schedule all week, finishing 6 days, 13 hours and 1 minute after setting out.

Steve's exploits are documented in his new book 'There is No Map in Hell' - a great insight into the man, and the highs and lows of a record breaking attempt on a challenge of this sort.

By coincidence, on the same day Steve set out from Keswick, I was enjoying a long day out on the fells, heading from Dunmail Raise to Honister Hause, via Wasdale. I knew his schedule and bust a gut to get to Beck Head, the pass between Great Gable and Kirk Fell. I rather awkwardly turned down the offer to join him over Brandreth and Grey Knots: my feeble excuse being that I had been going longer than he had - which by an hour was true! 

For the next 5 days I was absorbed as Steve lost and made up small amounts of time against his schedule. His attempt was a very public one. He was wearing a tracker which allowed his exact position to be updated every minute on an online map. It was the last thing I checked before going to bed and the first thing I'd look at in the morning. If I stirred in the night I couldn’t resist taking a peek to see if he was resting, or eating up more miles and more fells. Before, I had been keen to have a go at my own Wainwright round. Now I was becoming quietly infatuated.

The tracker provided vital real-time information to Steve's support crew. As is the way in the fell running community, he was supported on the fells by friends and sometime strangers. Many ran with him, others offered him food or drink. As the challenge went on, his support crew stepped up their duties, taking care of his blisters and taking responsibility for navigation and route choices as sleep deprivation set in.

The refinement of the route; advances in clothing, footwear and food; and the advent of real-time tracking provided Steve with an advantage over Joss. Combined with Steve's single mindedness to stick to his schedule and natural ability as a fell runner, a new record was always on the cards – at least that’s how it seemed to me, sitting at home in Hertfordshire.

As Steve worked tirelessly through the days and the fells, a significant online following built up. As he drew near the end of the round it became evident that barring a disaster, he was going to break the record and his digital following spilled onto the fells.

Steve Birkinshaw

Steve describes the last leg, from Newlands Hause tackling Cat Bells as the 214th fell as being reminiscent of a scene from Forest Gump, with 50 people running with him. There were even more people waiting to cheer him on as he returned to Keswick. This was in complete contrast to a couple of drunks who witnessed the end of Joss's record!

My holiday from fell

So, with time off work, logistics in place and family commitments agreed (thank you Kirsty, Elizabeth and Jack) - I am setting off on my own adventure on 19 May. I’m using annual leave to give me the time to do this, so my attempt has been nicknamed ‘The Holiday from fell’.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Steve as his route and associated logistics are available online. I too have decided to take a tracker, partly to aid my support team, partly as a safety feature; but mainly so I can share this experience with other people.

From May 19, this map will be online on the The Holiday from fell webpage.

Simon Barnett outdoors in the mountains

You’ll also be able to follow my activity on social media by looking at the hashtag #WhereIsSimon?

Will I make it? I honestly don't know. I’ve not really done enough training. But I’m relying on a combination of stubbornness and residual fitness that I hope will get me through. My body has failed me before, and it may do again.

Will I get lost? Almost certainly, because I intend to use a map and compass and not the tracker to navigate. There are some sections that are known to me, but many fells are new and the route between them unfamiliar.  

Will I enjoy it? Despite pain and discomfort, and the inevitable lows, with this question I’m certain of the answer – yes!

Will I stick to schedule? I believe it’s achievable. My boss might have something to say if I fall behind and don't make it back to work when I'm supposed to! I don't intend to race ahead of the schedule. I want to pace myself and try not to cause any lasting damage, because after this challenge is over, there are other lists I hope to tick off…

The holiday from fell #WhereIsSimon?