This is a chapter from 'A Tribute to the Round', a short book on the Bob Graham Round, written for charity and available here
The Northern Fells are geologically and geographically severed from the rest of the Lake District. But while there are no supportive ridgelines to connect them to other massifs, the fells have been included in Lakeland rounds since the origin of the 24-Hour Fell Record. It would be impossible to have a credible round without them.
It is a leg of long transitions, big ascents and multiple options. Starting at 1am, Bob Graham chose to complete it during dark hours. Today, many now opt for an early evening egress, which makes for magnificent southern views of Lakeland as the sun sets on ‘the day the round began’.
To describe Skiddaw as a constant is to risk suggesting that all other mountains are changeable masses, presenting a different shape and experience depending on the season. This is clearly not the case, but there is nevertheless something particularly fixed about Skiddaw, not just the fact it is one of the oldest mountains in Lakeland, formed nearly five hundred million years ago and well before Borrowdale arose from volcanic eruption.
Skiddaw has been described as the easiest 3,000-foot climb in Britain. It was certainly deemed the least frightening for the early fell walkers and the route by Jenkin Hill was one of the first tourist routes up a Lake District mountain. The path is the most readable face of any peak and the hour or so of ascent is likely to be the most predictable part of a round; there is scant opportunity for man or plan to go awry.
The vast majority of contenders head from the steps of Moot Hall to Skiddaw via the well-trodden path to Latrigg, affectionately known as Skiddaw’s ‘cub’, past the Hawell Monument (dedicated to three local shepherds) and through the ‘Halfway House’ gate up Jenkin Hill. The conclusion is Skiddaw summit, technically Skiddaw High Man, the highest of several mounds along the undulating ridge.
For the curious, a more novel approach exists: gaining Skiddaw by way of one of its younger brothers, Carl Side. Standing at nearly 2,500 feet, it would be a serious fell in its own right were it not under the complete shadow of its older sibling. But the feature which most compromises its credibility – the complete lack of prominence from Skiddaw – means it is no more ascent to reach the older brother by means of the younger.
For the purposes of the round, Carl Side has one main feature: it is steep. If Hall’s Fell on Blencathra is the Leg One knee-wrecker, Carl Side is the calf-buster. Moot Hall to Millbeck can be travelled on a combination of relatively flat roads or paths. From the hamlet, there are two ways to the summit. The most amiable is the path up the north-western shoulder via the gleaming quartz White Stones. Once atop Carl Side summit, a less-than-stable slate-ridden path awaits to Skiddaw.
An alternative is to head up the enclosed hollow carved by Slades Beck. Wainwright notes that in the 1960s it was “the second most-used route to the top of Skiddaw”. Now it is a much less-trodden way, a path for the first half and scree-torn for the second half. Even for Carl Side aficionados, there is little positive to say, save for it being the only sheltered way up Skiddaw.
While few would recommend Carl Side as a sustainable start to a long-distance round, it can be noted objectively that many Bob Graham ascents are just as steep or steeper. With the potential to save half a mile, it is a credible choice. But the fact is stark: to my knowledge, no round has ever gone this way.
Most people first notice Great Calva from the car: driving up from Grasmere, there is a clear and intriguing gap between Skiddaw and Blencathra. Calva sits at the head of the Great Central Fault, which runs straight as an arrow to Dunmail Raise and Windermere. Through it, we are afforded an insight into the Back o’ Skiddaw and directly upon the highly conical shape of Great Calva. Formed like a volcano, its lava is deep heather, erupting in the late summer to frustrate passage on all but the most developed routes on its slopes.
The man to thank for adding Great Calva to Lakeland rounds is Eustace Thomas, who added it and the fells of the Helvellyn ridge in his 1922 record. Before Thomas, all previous 24-hour rounds passed directly from Skiddaw to Blencathra, usually via Skiddaw House. Great Calva is now firmly embedded in the round, allowing contenders to enjoy a period of isolation before embarking on more popular climbs. Of all the fells on the round, its slopes are probably those with the highest proportion of round-specific footfall. This may be the fell’s main – only? – noteworthy quality. Poor Great Calva. Still, it could be worse: it could be Little Calva.
The transition from Skiddaw takes you into the misnomer of Skiddaw Forest. Beginning just north of Gibraltar Crag, the trod to Hare Crag is now well developed. Rightly or wrongly, it owes its existence to the round. Contenders take it into Candleseaves Bog and wend their way to the tiny bridge and tree which marks where the Cumbria Way crosses Dead Beck. The only good thing about Candleseaves is the fact it leads and contributes to the striking falls of Whitewater Dash – but this is of no consolation on the round.
From there, the Calva trudge awaits. This begins along the beck and then branches off to a trod. It is technically possible to stay with the stream, follow it until it disappears and then take the ridgeline to the summit. But this is not recommended: there is hardly the semblance of a way.
A longer alternative is to retrace steps along Skiddaw ridge and then trot down the simple, slightly drier and grassy descent of Sale How to Skiddaw House. While the hostel affords a perfect vantage point for watching poor navigators flounder in the bog, no proficient contender would be swifter going this way. That said, it is a conscientious route for a practice leg as it alleviates pressure on the eroding trods to Hare Crag and past Dead Beck. To see it through, take the path up Great Calva’s south-western shoulder from the Caldew footbridge.
History does not record which way Graham took on his round in 1932. Given it was around 3am and would have been a rare fell-to-fell transition for the time, we might call it even odds.
Regardless of route, do make sure to take in Great Calva’s northern and true summit. Not to do so might be the single most tragic way of not completing an otherwise successful round. What could be worse than unwittingly persisting with the remaining 40 fells in vain?
Few approach Blencathra from the back. It is surely a breach of Lakeland protocol, perhaps even desecration of holy ground, to summit without using one of the eight available ridges. Wainwright dedicated more space in his pictorial guides to Blencathra than any other fell and yet none of the 36 pages describe the ascent that nearly all contenders make.
Ignoring Skiddaw and Moot Hall, this is the longest transition of the round. You have the short distance between Great Calva’s north and south top to decide which of three routes to take. The first and most popular option is to descend Calva by the ‘eastern fence’. Generally considered the cautious choice, wayfinding should not be difficult and you reach an impressively round sheepfold alongside Wiley Gill.
There is then the matter of the River Caldew, far from an insignificant watercourse, especially after prolonged rain. The Caldew virgin will look around for an easy place to ford, but there is none; those who have been there at least once before know to head straight in. The route would be much wetter had the aspiring engineers of the 1950s had their way and dammed the valley of Mosedale.
Once the river is conquered, it is simply a matter of taking a straight bearing over Mungrisdale Common, which has “no more pretension to elegance than a pudding that has been sat on” (according to Wainwright). Then on to Foule Crag and Blencathra’s summit (although some with a close knowledge of the ground prefer to take a more direct attack from Mungrisdale to the top).
The second involves trods through heather down Great Calva’s less frequented south-eastern flank. There are broadly two sub-options. The first heads toward a sharp bend in the Caldew; the second to another round sheepfold. If you do not hit either of these lines, the descent is unlikely to be gratifying amidst the sea of heather, especially when in bloom. Beware sudden drops along the bumpy ground.
The third, final and probably never chosen option is to go via Skiddaw House. From the false Calva summit, take the well-formed and runnable south-west path, cross the footbridge to Skiddaw House, follow the Cumbria Way for half a mile until it turns southward and then strike out to Blencathra.
Again, there is a sub-choice. The first option is to follow the faint trod to the Cloven Stone, perhaps the only notable feature of Mungrisdale and doubling up as the parish boundary, and then take a line to Foule Crag. The second is a more direct attack, taking in Sinew Gill (translation: silent waters) and then Roughten Gill (translation: roaring waters). Either way, there are no barriers to simply striding out. Sheepfolds can be used for wayfinding, but the awkward, diagonal and tussocky ascent only favours those with one leg longer than the other.
Experience suggests there is little material time difference between the fence line and heather trods. They are the same distance, too. So it comes down to preferred ground. If aiming for speed over idiosyncrasy, the Skiddaw House option does not enter the equation and is over half a mile longer.
But all get you to Hall’s Fell Top, the summit of Blencathra. As you near the unusual OS ‘trig detector ring’, you will happen upon a large white cross of quartz stones, undoubtedly the largest memorial on any fell. Fittingly, it was laid by a fellrunner, Harold Robinson, in memory of his friend, Mr Straughan, a gamekeeper at Skiddaw House, who died in the Second World War.
Thankfully, the round pays due respect to Blencathra on the descent to Threlkeld. With four descent options, it is the joint leader for the round’s greatest range of choice (the other being the transition from Scafell Pike to Scafell) and much of Blencathra’s mountain beauty is on display in the variety. All options are credible for different contenders in different situations.
Hall’s Fell descent is the classic way down. After an initial sharp drop, the path leads to the magnificent ridge which requires some handiwork to navigate for the first portion. The arête then unfolds into a swift descent down to the village; the Blencathra Foxhounds at Gategill kennels often ensure you hear Threlkeld before you reach it.
This has always been a swift part of the round. Even before the turn of the century, descents of 22 minutes were logged (by Ned Westmorland in 1898 – all the more remarkable for the fact it was at the end of a round finishing in Threlkeld), not far off the astonishing 15 minutes clocked by current record-holder Kilian Jornet. Overall, Hall’s is a joy in the summer, but some mountaincraft is needed to negotiate it in winter conditions.
Usually considered the bad weather option, Doddick Fell offers a cautious end to Leg One. Indeed, after bog-trotting over Skiddaw Forest, the initial well-pathed gravel descent will refresh legs on the way to the ridge. From there, it is less exposed than Hall’s ridge and can be negotiated without hands.
What is potentially even quicker is to fly down Middle Tongue, a route so akin to falling that it has earned the fellrunning epithet of the ‘parachute descent’. Said to have been pioneered by the likes of Billy Bland and, more recently, Yiannis Tridimas, this is even less trodden ground than the Back o’ Skiddaw. Steep grass at the top leads to rock and scrub in the middle, which gives way to old mine workings at the base (there is still evidence of a walled tramway).
Middle Tongue also offers a middle road: a hybrid of the parachute and Hall’s Fell descent. In essence, the objective is to use the initial grassy descent into Middle Tongue to avoid the fiddliest parts of the Hall’s scramble and lose height quickly. Depending on the line taken, it is possible to rejoin the ridge after a few hundred feet of descent. The line is not always obvious and any more detailed guidance must be gained through experience. Depending on confidence, this route may negate the need for Doddick in bad weather.
Many of the fastest contenders opt for the parachute descent, but it requires downhill mastery of continually steep slopes over poor ground. For those with less dexterity, there is much merit in using the hybrid option. While Doddick Fell has its devotees, it is over half a mile longer than Hall’s ridge, so conditions will need to be pretty bleak to make it faster.