England's Everest (1904 - 1933)
Part two of the history of the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record, from Dr Arthur Wakefield to Bob Graham's eponymous round (and his failed attempts to improve on his own record). A summary article for this period was published in Fellrunner (Autumn 2020), which can be read here.
1904 - Wakefield's first [end17]
1905 - Wakefield's second [end18]
1910s - Wilson and Earnshaw attempts [end18b, end18c, end18d, end18e, end18f]
1920 - Eustace Thomas's first record [end19a, end19b]
1922 - Eustace Thomas extends [end19c, end19d, end20]
1931 - Dodgson's 100-miler [end20a, end21b]
1931 - Bob Graham's first attempt [end20b]
1932 - Freddy Spencer Chapman [end21]
1932 - The Bob Graham Round [end22]
1933 - Bob Graham's attempts to extend [end22b, end22c]
WAKEFIELD'S FIRST [end17]
Date: 27 July 1904
Start / finish: Keswick, 1am / 8.53pm [19 hours 53 minutes]
Route: Anti-clockwise round of Great Gable, Kirk Fell, Pillar, Scafell, Scafell Pike, Great End, Bowfell, Fairfield, Helvellyn, Blencathra and Skiddaw
Contender: Dr Arthur Wakefield
Support and pacing: Murray, Japp and Darling
Dr Arthur William Wakefield was a local physician from Kendal. When he came to the record, he had no prior history of pedestrian or climbing records, but he was closely involved in the climbing community (in particular, as President of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club). In an account of the walk, he stated that one of his aims was to claim the record for a ‘Sedburghian’, his northern England school.
Starting at 1am, Wakefield embarked from Keswick on an anti-clockwise circuit, which first took him to Great Gable via Seathwaite. The ridge was followed to Kirk Fell (the one new fell he added to Johnston's round [end16]) and then Pillar, but he did not continue along the traditional Mosedale Horseshoe; instead, he dropped into the valley to the Wasdale Inn, arriving at 6am.
While he rested for only 15 minutes, it was not until 9am that he reached the top of Scafell. The cause of the delay was bad weather and deep mist, leading him to lose significant time. After summitting, he could not find the way to Broad Stand, so ended up heading down into Eskdale and then back up to Mickledore (similar to the Foxes Tarn route). He also went wrong around Esk Hause. Thankfully, the mist then cleared.
Wakefield reached Grasmere at 1pm (stopping 10 minutes for lunch) and was atop Helvellyn at 3.30pm. There was then a descent to Thirlspot and a long road section to Threlkeld. On this and the initial road section to Seathwaite, he was accompanied by a supporter on a bicycle.
Evidence suggests he ascended Blencathra by Hall's Fell as it is described as the 'copper mines' route in his account [id077]. The transition from Blencathra to Skiddaw was known to be tricky; expecting it to be under the cover of darkness, his support team went so far as to arrange for a man to be on the road to Skiddaw House with a lantern at the appointed time. But in the end, it was still light. He returned to Keswick just before 9pm, beating Johnston’s time by 2 hours and 14 minutes and taking the record to 11 peaks.
WAKEFIELD'S SECOND [end18]
Date: 15 August 1905
Start / finish: Keswick, midnight / 10.07pm [22 hours 7 minutes]
Route: Anti-clockwise round of his 1904 record, plus Robinson, Hindscarth, Dale Head, Brandreth, Green Gable, Steeple, Red Pike, Yewbarrow, Esk Pike and Dollywaggon Pike
Contender: Dr Arthur Wakefield
Support and pacing: Woodhouse, Richmond, Buckley, Wade, Philipson and Waddington
Wakefield pushed himself further in 1905 with an anti-clockwise round of 21 fells, nearly double the number of his previous record (albeit with relatively little additional distance or ascent). His round comprised precisely half of the peaks that would go on to make the Bob Graham Round. He was one of a number of record-holders who felt they could go further than their initial mark. Later examples would be Eustace Thomas, Bob Graham, Alan Heaton and Joss Naylor.
He had originally planned to set out in July, but a leg injury forced postponement. Later in August, he was in two minds about whether to make a move, but John W. Robinson and the Abraham brothers encouraged him to get going when a good weather window appeared.
While he benefited from perfect August weather, his success came despite a series of minor calamities: a gammy knee gave way while descending Yewbarrow; he lavishly refreshed himself at a local inn before realising he had no means of payment; he ran short of the verification slips which he was leaving on each summit; and a farmer had to cut open his shoes to relieve pressure on his toes. But he made it round.
He set out from Keswick at midnight wearing a lightweight and slightly thread-bare Sedburgh football jersey. Robinson was gained via Newlands hause and the “northern ridge”. His round was the first to include the Newlands fells.
While he and his supporters struggled with wayfinding in the dark, they made it to Honister in good time. For whatever reason, Wakefield chose to not claim Grey Knotts and went straight to Brandreth. It is unclear why, given it is above 2,000 feet and was marked on the one-inch Ordnance Survey map from the time. Perhaps it was deemed an insufficiently prominent peak. It was not until 1960 that it formally became part of the record.
As dawn broke, Wakefield followed the then-renewed railings towards the Gables. After ascending Kirk Fell, he took the scree route for the descent to Black Sail Pass. This proved hairy and, in the words of a pacer, involved “taking the oath and our seat simultaneously” [id031].
Nevertheless, all was going well until Yewbarrow. On the way down its steep slopes, Wakefield’s injured leg gave way. With only a quarter of the round complete, he and others had serious doubts about whether it would be possible to continue, let alone set a new record. He hobbled to the Wasdale Inn at 6.40am for breakfast and the leg was bandaged very tightly. Amazingly, this seemed to solve most of the difficulties.
The Scafell massif was navigated much more swiftly than the previous year. Esk Pike was added to the round, although it was erroneously registered as Hanging Knotts at the time.
The descent from Bowfell was taken by the Three Tarns route and then The Band. By now it was now midday and a hot day was setting in. This set the tone for a long, tiresome transition to the eastern fells via Langdale and Grasmere. There was some confusion with pacers and he was alone for most of the road walk. Arriving at the Swan Inn at Grasmere in a desperate need for food and drink, yet without supporters or any money, he nervously sought nourishment on the house. It was generously provided.
He took in Fairfield and then Dollywaggon Pike, a new peak. Nethermost Pike was seemingly skirted rather than gained and, thankfully, he was met by the next pacer with nourishment on Helvellyn, who had brought a basket with three large wine bottles of hot tea and a large amount of jam sandwiches.
After descending Helvellyn and returning to the valley floor, he alternated between trotting and walking to Threlkeld from Thirlspot. Darkness complicated navigation across Skiddaw Forest, but he made it back to the Skiddaw Hotel in Keswick with nearly two hours to spare.
At each summit, his plan was to leave a piece of paper with his summit time in a glass vial with a request for the finder to send the slip back to the Guardian office. This worked well until he ran out of bottles and so had to use a range of creative methods to leave his mark. These included a sock and a thumb print smudged upon a scrap piece of paper.
WILSON AND EARNSHAW ATTEMPTS [end18b, end18c, end18d, end18e, end18f]
There is little firm history on the men who attempted to beat Wakefield’s record between 1905 and the emergence of Eustace Thomas as a champion pedestrian (see below).
Eric Wilson of Bolton is said to have made two attempts on the record between 1905 and 1920, but we do not know precisely when or whether Wakefield was involved (Abraham suggests it was before Dawson – see below).
On his second attempt, Wilson is reported to have been ahead of Wakefield up to Pillar, but he then became lost in mist on Yewbarrow, descending to Overbeck rather than Mosedale. This would have led to a significant detour to reach the Wasdale Inn, which would surely have been necessary for sustenance.
Similarly, Oscar Earnshaw attempted the walk on three occasions, but he never reached further than Wasdale. I have not yet been able to confirm the details, but I note that a man of the time with that name was a mining engineer from Northumberland who would later go on to serve in the 177th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers (and sadly killed in action in the summer of 1916).
DAWSON'S DISCOUNTED RECORD [end19]
Date: 16 June 1916
Start / finish: Keswick, 1am / 11.17pm [22 hours 17 minutes]
Route: Anti-clockwise round of Wakefield’s 1905 record, plus Stybarrow Dodd and Great Dodd (and perhaps Helvellyn Lower Man, White Side, Raise, Watson’s Dodd and Clough Head)
Peaks: At least 23 (and possibly up to 28)
Contender: Cecil Dawson
Support and pacing: Freedman, Palmer, Dutton and Cannon
Dawson was a Manchester cotton merchant who specialised in Peak District ‘bog-trotting’. His legally-dubious walks over private land became so well known that he acquired a group of followers who christened themselves as “Dawson’s Crowd”. He was not a new name to the Fell Record: he had previously been involved in a record walk with Broadrick in (end15) and had been the joint record-holder between 1901 and 1903. Broadrick unfortunately fell to his death in a tragic climbing accident on Scafell Pinnacle in 1903.
Dawson is said to have made several attempts on Wakefield’s record. His final effort was on 16th June 1916 and is the only one for which we have details.
He added at least two peaks from the Helvellyn ridge to Wakefield’s round – Stybarrow Dodd and Great Dodd are marked on his split times. We do not know whether he passed over the summits of Helvellyn Lower Man, White Side, Raise, Watson’s Dodd and Clough Head. He would surely have passed tantalisingly close to most of them. So, while he claimed 23 peaks, he might in fact have gained as many as 28 (just one off Thomas’s 1922 record of 29 peaks – Great Calva accounting for the difference).
Dawson returned to Keswick in 22 hours and 17 minutes, well within 24 hours but some 10 minutes slower than Wakefield. Under the terms of the record, this should not have mattered. However, the community took against him and the prevailing mood was not to endorse it as a record.
It is unclear who led this disqualification or for what reasons. Some evidence suggests George and Ashley Abraham assumed officiating duties, claiming that Dawson was not witnessed on each peak (where was his crowd?). The evidence suggests that he was supported at road crossings, but not accompanied on all the fells.
In all likelihood, this justification was technical cover for a deeper wound: the fact he completed his round during war time. Wakefield would have been preparing for the Somme offensive just as Dawson set out on his walk in June. By the standards of the time, this would have been considered a highly improper act.
Rightly or wrongly, Dawson developed a “pathological grievance” against this repudiation. For their part, the Fell and Rock Climbing Club were unequivocal that they intended to play no part in refereeing so-called “racing over the fells”.
It is important to note that Thomas would go on to say that he felt that Dawson should have been credited with the record.
EUSTACE THOMAS'S FIRST RECORD [end19a, end19b]
Date: 29 May 1920
Start / finish: Keswick, 1am / 10.25pm [21 hours 25 minutes]
Route: Anti-clockwise round of Wakefield’s 21 peaks
Contender: Eustace Thomas
Support and pacing: Dr Arthur Wakefield (pacer), Harry Summersgill (planner), Frank Summersgill, Freedman, Harris, Hirst, Humphry, Manning and Richards
By the time most fell-walkers have reached their physical peaks, Eustace Thomas had not even begun to climb the fells. In his late thirties, he was an unathletic Manchester businessman; by his mid-fifties, he would be one of the most prodigious walkers of the interwar period.
He was only introduced to the Lakeland fells after the war. But some inner, ready-kindled fire must have been lit as, while on holiday to Lakeland in 1918, he decided, with Norman Begg (with whom he also did bog-trotting in the Peak District), to make an attempt on the record the very next year.
In 1919, he made it round Wakefield’s course but not within the 24 hours. The walk went well in the first stages, but Thomas struggled to keep feeding and fell behind at Langdale. By taking long rests and benefitting from improved weather he was able to finish, but the round took over 28 hours.
In the following months he spent a significant amount of time reflecting on how to improve his performance. This led him on a personal mission to define a “system of mountain endurance”, to train body and mind for another attempt. He left no stone unturned – from training, to breathing, to nutrition, to sleep, to pacing: his method was the original marginal gains. He would go on to apply these skills in other fields, most notably working with Roger Bannister to design lightweight shoes for the four-minute mile.
For his second attempt, Thomas set out from Keswick at 1am at the end of May in 1920. The first two sections passed without incident, save for injuring his hand on the descent from Yewbarrow. Thankfully, it did not slow him down.
In what has since become a treasured tradition, Wakefield paced Thomas to break his own record. The pair met at Wasdale. Wakefield only planned to stay up until the Langdales, but in the end continued all the way back to Keswick.
Thomas logged a similar time to Wakefield from Keswick to Wasdale, but he was 25 minutes up by the time he departed from Langdale. According to Wakefield, Thomas was going better at Langdale than he was at Wasdale.
Mist affected the walk, particularly over the Helvellyn ridge. There was also thick fog on Blencathra. But it did not stymie success. Thomas completed the round by entering the King’s Arms Hotel at 10.26pm, hopefully for a well-earned drink. He had taken the record by about 40 minutes.
EUSTACE THOMAS EXTENDS [end19c, end19d, end20]
Date: 10 June 1922
Start / finish: Keswick, 1am / 10.54pm [21 hours 54 minutes]
Route: Anti-clockwise round of his 1920 record, plus Helvellyn Lower Man, White Side, Raise, Stybarrow Dodd, Watson’s Dodd, Great Dodd, Clough Head and Great Calva
Contender: Eustace Thomas
Support and pacing: A large team, including Summersgill
Unsatisfied with his achievement, Thomas made a number of further attempts. His view was that he could not claim to have properly broken the record unless additional peaks were added to Wakefield’s round.
In 1921, Thomas made two further attempts on the record. Unfortunately, both fell foul on weather.
By the time he set out from Keswick in 1922, he had acquired a large support team who had turned crewing into a regular summer holiday. An extract from his timetable gives an insight into the meticulous planning. Starting from the prior evening: “5pm, try [motor] car; 5.30pm, meal; 6pm, bed; 11.35pm get up; 11.45pm meal, as per separate sheet, and rest; 12.30am, [travel to] Keswick, compare watches; 1am, Thomas starts, car keeps within call in case Thomas wants to decrease or increase clothing; 2.10am, leave road for Robinson summit, milk, one minute’s rest.” And so on.
He set off up Robinson from around three quarters of a mile short of Newlands Hause. The Newlands fells were difficult to navigate in mist and the transitions to Hindscarth and Dale Head were "anxious".
He was met by three fresh pacing supporters atop Great Gable, who came with hot drinks. They travelled with him for the remainder of the leg, in effect the Mosedale Horseshoe. According to Thomas, the descent from Yewbarrow to the Wasdale Hotel was made in less than 17 minutes, including a change of footwear to boots (from lighter soled shoes, presumably?). He even took the opportunity of a brief bath in the Inn.
Scafell was deep in mist which made it difficult to locate the point to drop onto Broad Stand. However, spirits were high by Bowfell, as the most technical mountains had been claimed, darkness was largely over and the weather was improving.
Fairfield was the first top not cloaked in cloud. In a break from Wakefield and his previous round, Thomas continued on the ridge after Dollywaggon Pike and Helvellyn, all the way to Clough Head. This was the first time all the summits on the Helvellyn ridge were formally included in the Fell Record. But it is worth noting that the ridge had been traversed on two previous occasions: by Cecil Dawson in 1916 [end19], and Westmorland, Beatty, Strong and Johnston in 1898 [end11].
The team gave light signals on the descent of Clough Head to supporters waiting in the Salutation Inn, Threlkeld. Thomas went on to reach the top of Blencathra in 55 minutes. Deep heather over rough ground from Calva was the most difficult going of the day. Calva was the 28th of 29 peaks and the only new peak added that was not on the Helvellyn ridge.
By the time he trotted into Keswick, the market square had filled with well-wishers. Aside from the final leg (with Great Calva) each section was completed quicker than his 1920 record. It is particularly notable that Thomas took less time to reach Threlkeld from Helvellyn via the Dodds than by down trotting along the valley floor.
After a short rest in Keswick, Thomas did something which would not be repeated until the advent of the 'double BGR': he carried on walking. His ambition was to realise an “old dream” [id046] and reach 30,000 feet of ascent by gaining a collection of fells in the Grasmoor group – Grisedale Pike, Hobcarton, Grassmoor, Wandope, Eel Crag, Cray Hill, Sail. While this would not be achieved within the 24 hours, this was an intentional act to ascend by more than the height of Everest, perhaps even to subtly demonstrate that he could have performed similarly in the Himalaya (relevant, as Wakefield had been selected to join Mallory’s second Everest expedition).
As it happens, Ken Heaton was the first man to reach this altitudinal mark within 24 hours, which he did when he extended the Fell Record to 51 peaks in 1961.
DODGSON'S 100-MILER [end20a, end21b]
Date: July 1931
Start / finish: Thornthwaite, 8.30pm / 5.45am [33 hours 15mins]
Route: An anti-clockwise round similar to Thomas’s 1922 round (including the north-western fells extension) but also including Grisedale Pike, Grasmoor, Stone Arthur and Great Rigg
Contender: Colin Dodgson, with limited support
Colin Dodgson set out on a 100-mile walk of the Lakes in July 1931. According to accounts of the time, he "was not attempting to break any record" [id013]. Instead, it appears he simply wanted to see how long it would take to complete a round of 100 miles. But the fact he embarked on a route so similar to Thomas's perhaps suggest he was seeking to test himself against the record-holder.
He went anti-clockwise and was accompanied by supporters in the first half, but the final 50 miles were spent alone. The weather was cool, with occasional mist. Dodgson took three rests amounting to 3 hours 25 minutes, but he had no sleep.
In the end, Dodgson covered the major peaks of Thomas’ record, plus Thomas's north-western extension, and also Grasmoor, Grisedale Pike, Stone Arthur and Great Rigg.
Dodgson also made a second attempt at a record walk, this time shortly after Graham had completed his 1932 round. He chose to follow Graham’s route but had to abandon after Great End due to injury.
Dodgson was also known for bagging all the 2,000-foot climbs in the Lake District – a feat which took him three years.
BOB GRAHAM'S FIRST ATTEMPT [end20b]
Some of the most established record holders failed at their first attempt and Bob Graham was no different. In 1931, Graham set out to beat Thomas's record - but he did not succeed. All we know is summarised by Bill Smith: “A combination of inclement weather and a resultant navigational error brought it to an untimely end” [id018].
There is some suggestion that Graham had originally aimed for 41 peaks, going on to add a further fell in 1932 to reflect the fact he was one year older. This feels unlikely for a number of reasons. First, Graham was 43 when he did his round in 1932, not 42. Second, Great Calva (the supposed additional fell) was in fact added to the Fell Record by Eustace Thomas in 1922. Third, Spencer Chapman went for a round of 42 fells in the month before Bob Graham’s round, suggesting a route of 42 was already sketched out.
However, it is plausible that the 1931 round of 42 fells was made to match his age at the time – 42. This might explain why some of the rather less impressive fells were included, such as Hanging Knotts, Thunacar Knott and High Snab.
FREDDY SPENCER CHAPMAN [end21]
Date: 17 May 1932
Start / finish: Keswick, midnight / 1am [25 hours]
Route: Anti-clockwise round of what would shortly be Bob Graham’s recprd
Contender: Freddy Spencer Graham
Support and pacing: Bob Graham, Dr Arthur Wakefield
Chapman was a remarkable man and a single sentence cannot do justice a career which incorporated the professions of explorer, mountaineer, schoolmaster, author and soldier. While it accounts for but a slither of his rich life, Chapman’s attempt at the Fell Record makes for an excellent story.
He decided to make an attempt on the record in May 1932, one month before Bob Graham was to complete his eponymous round. Chapman was coaxed by fellow alumnus of Sedbergh school, Dr Arthur Wakefield, who greatly wished for the Fell Record to be held by a ‘Sedberghian’. In addition to a shared alma mater, they were both involved in expeditions: Wakefield to Everest, Chapman to Greenland.
After a period of training in the Lakes, Chapman formed his team. His group included Martin Rylands and Phil Davidson, who would go on to support Bob Graham a month later.
Chapman set off from Keswick at the traditional midnight hour. Calamitously, it was nearly all over by 3am when he ran into a wire fence and nearly fell into a quarry hole on the descent to Honister. But he came back from the brink and only twenty minutes was lost. He went on to make up time on leg four, despite breaking his compass while descending Great Gable when it fell from his pocket.
Leg three commenced after a hearty breakfast at the Wasdale Head Inn. After negotiating Scafell and Scafell Pike (via Broad Stand), Chapman lost his way at Great End. In the mist and with no compass, the only way to gain bearings was to descend. And so the price for his Gable accident was a detour to Eskdale. Position confirmed but time lost, he headed back up to Esk Hause, going on to Esk Pike and then Bowfell. Thankfully support was at hand.
That support took the form of none other than Bob Graham, waiting with much-needed hot cocoa. Did Graham also have a compass? Perhaps not, given the pair went on to lose thirty minutes over the remainder of the leg to Dunmail Raise.
Still, the game was still on and Chapman continued hard into leg two, now joined by Wakefield on Helvellyn. Even at this point in the round, he was “not the least bit tired”.
That said, fatigue set in at Threlkeld and morale went on take a further hit when Chapman’s final pacer failed to meet him on schedule with hot coffee – gallingly, the supporter had come, become bored, and left. Would this be the final straw? No: despite an “interminable ascent” up Skiddaw, the record was still in play. Hope persisted, just.
Even in poor weather in the 1930s, the traditional way down to Keswick would have been difficult to miss. But short of time, Chapman tried a shortcut. Unfortunately, shorter does not always mean swifter – and so it proved. He and his pacer became enmeshed in bracken on a steep, quarried slope (perhaps around Howgill Tongue?), and did not return to Moot Hall until 1am.
Newspaper accounts from the time tell us “Mr. Chapman hope[s] to make another attempt on the record in June.” In the end, he did not. Graham, on the other hand…
THE BOB GRAHAM ROUND [end22]
Date: 13 June 1932
Start / finish: Keswick, 1am / 0.39am [23 hours 39 minutes]
Route: Clockwise round of Thomas’s 1922 round (excluding north-western fells extension), plus Nethermost Pike, Seat Sandal, Steel Fell, Calf Crag, High Raise, Sergeant Man, Thunacar Knott, Harrison Stickle, Pike O’Stickle, Rossett Pike, Hanging Knotts, Looking Stead and High Snab
Contender: Bob Graham
Support and pacing: Phil Davidson, Robin Deans, Bill Hewitson, Martin Rylands
On 13 June 1932, Graham took the Fell Record to 42 peaks in 23 hours and 39 minutes. This was no marginal gain on Thomas’s round; by raising the bar to 42 peaks, Graham had put clear blue Windermere-length water between him and the previous mark.
The tale of this round is told more fully and better elsewhere, particularly in 42 Peaks, the official history of the Bob Graham Round and Bob Graham Club. For the purposes of this account, it is pertinent to focus on the fells which were added to the round.
Graham made two main innovations to the route. The first was to go clockwise; hitherto, most rounds had travelled from Moot Hall, to Robinson and onward.
The second was to radically expand leg three. Since the turn of the twentieth century, all previous records had included Scafell, Scafell Pike and a full traverse of the ridgeline to Bowfell. But until Graham, contenders would usually descend The Band into Langdale valley before walking to Grasmere for a long ascent of Fairfield. Instead, Graham stayed on high ground to add Rossett Pike, the Langdale Pikes, Thunacar Knott, Sergeant Man, High Raise, Calf Crag and Steel Fell to the round. The other additional fells were Nethermost Pike and Seat Sandal in leg two. It was a major advance on the number of peaks, if little different in terms of overall distance.
One peculiar feature of the route is that the fells originally registered as the Bob Graham Round are slightly different from the list of 42 which are today etched in every contender’s mind. No record is kept for how or why this happened, but two possible reasons are that the one-inch Ordnance Survey map from Graham’s time did not allow for precise peak marking and the fellrunning community’s attitude to the route was far more art than science. No contemporaneous accounts list Ill Crag, Broad Crag or Grey Knotts as Bob Graham fells, despite the fact he would have passed very close to their summits. These three fells have replaced Hanging Knotts, Looking Stead and High Snab, each of which were originally recorded as part of Graham’s round. Today, contenders would pass within spitting distance to all of them, so it all comes out in the wash.
BOB GRAHAM'S ATTEMPTS TO EXTEND [end22b, end22c]
A little-known epilogue is that, just like others before him, Graham was not satisfied with his achievement and sought to better his own record in 1933. His aim was to reach the landmark 30,000 feet by adding “two or three” fells from the Grasmoor massif. Frustratingly, he was beaten by weather on two occasions.
For his second attempt, he covered leg one under time, but a thick mist descended on Helvellyn and rain hit on the Langdales. He had to abort the attempt on Pike O’Stickle, 22 fells and 12 hours into the round. Remarking to a local reporter, he reflected: “I enjoyed what I did do – and I feel fine.”