Walk and Talk with Joss Naylor

The legendary octogenarian fell runner and farmer, sometimes called the King of the Fells or Iron Joss, on why he wanted to walk the route of his epic 105-mile Lake District run from 1983 and what makes his home county so special.

By Kerry Harden

An older man sitting upon stones at a summit

Feeling on top of the world above Buttermere on the way up to Red Pike

What was it like growing up on a farm [in Wasdale Head] in the Lake District?

If we weren’t outside, there was something wrong with us. Even as kids, we all had our jobs to do around the farm. If we didn’t do them, we didn’t get fed! Back then, everyone had to pitch in and help out. I would feed the dogs, collect wood for the fire, bring potatoes in for dinner. I would stand on a lemonade box and wash the pots. When I was 10 or 11, I started to help milk the cows – it was all done by hand. I used to love lambing times and shepherding. My father and I would spend hours searching for the sheep in the valley

When did you start fell running?

Ever since I was about five years old, I was running around the fells. I would have the run of Wasdale Valley, it was just part of my everyday life. It was the easiest way to get around. Walking might take three hours but I could run it in one. From the age of eight or nine, I had a problem with my back so that stopped me running for a bit. I had an operation when I was 20 but about a year later, I jumped a fence and landed badly – I had to go back to hospital and wore a brace for about eight weeks. When I started taking part in proper races, in my 20s, I just ran in my work boots and cut my trousers to make shorts. But it all just came naturally to me.

What do you think is the secret to your running ability?

I was just born with it. I’ve been told I’ve got a pair of big lungs, and there’s nothing on me. And you’ve got to stick with it, concentrate on the section you’re running, don’t think beyond that and don’t let bad weather bother you. When I bought my own farm at the age of 27, I didn’t get time to do much training. I’d only go if it was a wet day and I couldn’t work. There were long periods when I couldn’t run at all. I had more work on than I could manage.

Black and white photo of a young man by a stream

Buttermere was the third body of water on Joss's Lake District run in 1983.

What do you remember about your record-breaking 105-mile run in 1983?

It was a magical day. I’d covered most of the route the weekend before. I just got up that morning and ran the lot [in 19 hours and 20 minutes – still a world record]. It was beautiful, no bad patches at all. I ran well over all sorts of terrain and saw all the Lake District. It was something very, very special. The bit that sticks in my mind was coming down High Street, the old Roman road, towards Pooley Bridge. The sun was just starting to go down. It was absolutely beautiful. Afterwards, I had a cup of tea and drove home.

What made you decide to revisit the route for your book?

I never forgot it. I thought it was one of the most beautiful things on this earth to do. And I wanted to give other people a chance to do what I did that day, whether walking or running. It was magical. The views in the Lake District on a good day are worth anybody spending time visiting. Most of the route, about two-thirds of it, aren’t along footpaths so people don’t know about them. There are valleys and lakes that people never get to see, such as Esthwaite Water, Ennerdale Water and Crummock Water, and they’re out of this world. We took our time over the summer [in 2020] and went out 20 times to retrace the route. It was a chance to look back and remember. I’ve put a lifetime in since then. Your body changes and you change – even the landscape changes.

An older man standing by and looking out at a shallow lake

Taking a pause by Wast Water

In what ways has the route changed?

There’s much more bracken about – it’s at least a foot taller since they took all the sheep off the fells. The sheep also helped to make paths, but that doesn’t happen any more. There used to be lots of boundary walls, which have fallen down and never been repaired. The paths used to be well maintained. Twice a year they’d make sure the water was kept off them so there was no erosion, but now they’re just left, water gets in, freezes and then destroys the path. The secret is to keep the water off them. The rain now is tropical, different to how it used to be. It does damage.

What's your current fitness regime?

Cover of a book Lakes, Meres and Waters of the Lake District

I get out walking most days. Now and again I do still run, but nothing like I did before. But I hope to keep going for as long as I can.

Joss Naylor’s Lakes, Meres and Waters of the Lake District is on sale now (Cicerone, £19.95), with Joss’s proceeds donated to the Brathay Trust.  

What’s your favourite

Country walk?

Going over to Middle Fell and Seatallan, then coming back down Buckbarrow. It’s a lovely little horseshoe. A very grassy route that doesn’t hammer the old joints.  

Town or city?

I’m not big on towns and cities. I prefer to be away from the crowds. 

View?

If I’ve been away from Wasdale for a little while and I’m coming over Burnmoor, you can see right around the fells. It’s a tremendous view, especially if the sun is still shining on the fell tops. That skyline is very special.  

Kit?

A good set of lightweight thermal wear next to your skin and a good storm-proof top. 

Post-walk tipple?

I have a pint of Guinness when I get back and then a nice brandy before bed.