This is a chapter from 'A Tribute to the Round', a short book on the Bob Graham Round, written for charity and available here
Bob Graham was highly familiar with the fells, but even he would have had to spend some time exploring ways to travel between the summits unconnected by paths, especially for the peaks that he added to the round. This would have been no small task given most Lake District footfall would have been limited to low ground; transitions such as Great Calva to Blencathra, Seat Sandal to Steel Fell and Rossett Pike to Bowfell are but three examples where Graham and his pacers would simply have had to strike out. Perhaps a third of the round could have been wholly pathless.
Today, the situation is clearly very different. Anyone who has spent time reflecting on the round is aware that the footfall is significantly greater than it was. To give a sense of scale, there were 125 successful first completions in 2019, the same as the first 19 years of the Club. Combined with a number of pacers, prudent recces and others interested in the round, many parts of the route are coming under environmental pressure.
The primary concern is erosion, which is caused by the weather, humans and animals. Susceptibility is correlated with steep slopes, high altitude, and regular thin vegetation cover, all of which feature in the Lakeland landscape. So it is not hard to see how the nature of the ground, high rainfall, high footfall and grazing livestock all combine to wear down the fells.
These factors operate in a vicious circle. Heavy footfall thins vegetation, which struggles to grow back at high altitude. Vegetation crumbles down to mix with the soil which, then uncovered, is exposed to rain. Water mixed with sediment cascades down the slope, dislodging ever further material. After the rain, the trod or path is more exposed to footfall, which leads to further damage when rain next comes. Sometimes the bedrock itself is exposed. On the face of it, this is unproblematic as it erodes very slowly. The problem lies, again, with rain. When slippery, most walkers and runners avoid it and look for lines over nearby vegetation, prompting erosion in other places.
It is an inevitable and visible fact that some of the Bob Graham lines are now suffering from erosion. But this statement cannot be left without appropriate context. First, the Bob Graham Round is a very small proportion of the feet that tread the fells; over 19 million non-BGR visitors come to the Lake District each year. Second, it is not just contenders and their supporters who use some of the BGR lines. Third, there are many other Lake District routes which are under similar – and very often far greater – pressure.
On the other hand, the concentration of footfall is highly correlated with erosion and the folk of the round tend to want to put their feet in very specific places. Of these places, some are hardly visited by tourists: aside from completing the round, there is little cause to find people wading through Candleseaves, seeking out the higher top of Thunacar or cursing Yewbarrow’s eastern slopes.
It is therefore only right to pause and reflect on the impact of the round on the environment. None of us would want to deny others the experience we have had on the fells. Yet the overall impact is something few of us would individually choose as optimal. As the Bob Graham Club notes: “How we maintain the challenge of the round, with its traditions, spirit and ethics intact for future generations, is an increasingly pertinent question for us and the wider community.”
Hypothetically, the most effective policy would be to limit rounds to dry spells, send contenders anti-clockwise and ask them to avoid the most exposed parts of the route. But blanket pronouncements are impractical, unenforceable and, I suspect, would sit very uneasily with the Bob Graham Club.
Instead, I humbly appeal for all to infuse their Bob Graham experiences with the primary piece of guidance offered by the Club: “Respect the route.” This will mean different things to different people and everyone must make their own personal choice.
One way to make that choice is to consider your route and direction. The options described in this book describe some alternatives to the most environmentally sensitive parts of the round. Avoiding these transitions after periods of heavy rain would help. Or go anti-clockwise: descent is more of a problem than ascent, so reversing direction alleviates pressure on some of the most exposed downhill lines. It is also a nod to history, as the majority of pre-Graham rounds went the other way.
Not all of this may be achievable on a ‘round in anger’ but for recces, pacer detours or simply something different, options are available.
The most sensitive areas (and their alternatives) are described below. These are but the four most obvious examples. Others include the loose, steep ground in Middle Tongue (relevant for the parachute descent of Blencathra), the trod under Black Crag on the way to Pillar, the scree gullies of Rakehead Crag off Scafell, the ascent of Yewbarrow and the bogland of Martcrag Moor between Pike o’ Stickle and Rossett Pike.
Skiddaw to Great Calva
Wainwright did not originally include this as one of his eight routes to Skiddaw, but there is now an established trod down Blake Hill and Hare Crag, leading to blanket bog at Candleseaves. This is the main part of the round which crosses peatland, which is particularly susceptible to erosion. The closest alternative way is to backtrack from Skiddaw summit and head down Sale How to Skiddaw House, then ascend Great Calva by its south-western shoulder.
Threlkeld to Clough Head
Steps and a trod are now cut into the slopes from the Old Coach Road to the ridgeline. There are two alternatives. The first is to stay on the road and gain the peak via White Pike. The second is to head around Threlkeld Knotts to join the good path which traverses up Red Screes.
Seat Sandal to Dunmail Raise
The steep descent off the north-western shoulder is particularly tricky ground in wet weather. It is instead possible to head due north from the summit to intersect with the Raise Beck path and use this to descend to Dunmail Raise.
Grey Knotts to Honister
The grassy trod is very much less than grassy in places. It is worth remembering that Billy Bland took the fence line in his then-record (full disclosure: he later rued the choice). If taking the stone stairway down to Honister, make use of the steps rather than exacerbate the off-path erosion.