Origins of the Route

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 far from the first person to complete long rounds of Lakeland fells. When he set out from Moot Hall in 1932, he was embarking on a challenge which had existed in some fashion for 100 years. He did not invent the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record; he was trying to beat it.

The first account of a long round in the Lake District dates back to 1832, when two Keswick men succeeded in gaining Skiddaw, Helvellyn and Scafell in 18 hours. The Carlisle Journal reflected that “considering the difficulty of ascending and descending these stupendous mountains, it may be considered a most arduous task.” Nearly two centuries later, most would still agree. But this was the start of the story, not the end: over the remainder of the nineteenth century, a large number of ever more impressive ‘pedestrian feats’ were undertaken. With each, some of Lakeland’s foremost mountains were added to the record, including Scafell Pike, Bowfell, Blencathra and Great Gable. The successive challengers were a combination of local hands and early tourists, often drawn from the emerging sport of rock climbing. 

By the turn of the twentieth century, the record had developed into a serious accolade, although it was never entirely clear whether the primary object was distance, ascent or sheer number of fells. Peaks only became the clear currency when the then record-holder, Dr Arthur Wakefield, codified the record with admirable pith. Writing in 1906, he said: “The aim of these walks is to ascend the greatest possible number of peaks above 2,000 feet and to return to the starting point within 24 hours.”

Wakefield was a local physician and strong climber; indeed he would later participate in the 1922 Everest expedition with Mallory. He set an initial record in 1904 but went on to raise his own bar the year after with an anti-clockwise round of 21 fells, consisting of Robinson, Hindscarth, Dale Head, Brandreth, Green Gable, Great Gable, Kirk Fell, Pillar, Steeple, Red Pike, Yewbarrow, Scafell, Scafell Pike, Great End, Esk Pike, Bowfell, Fairfield (via Langdale and Grasmere), Dollywaggon Pike, Helvellyn, Blencathra and Skiddaw. 

His achievement marked the end of the amateur era. By this point, attempts on the record required the professionalism and systematic preparation which is evident in so many of today’s endurance challenges. Wakefield took all of these elements – rotating pacers, specific training, a five-week taper, tested nutrition, lightweight gear, a detailed schedule and countless recces – to culminate in his 1905 record.

Wakefield’s round was beaten by Cecil Dawson in 1916, but the improvement was never accepted by the Lakeland community, perhaps because of the controversy of having undertaken the endeavour during war time and questions over whether he was witnessed on every summit. It was not until 1920 that a further record was set, on this occasion by Eustace Thomas, who knocked 42 minutes off the time for Wakefield’s 1905 circuit. After a period of meticulous training and a series of abortive attempts, he went on to raise the record to 29 peaks in 1922, adding Great Calva and the fells of the Helvellyn ridge. Amazingly, after a short rest in Keswick, Thomas went on to take in a further seven peaks in the Grasmoor group so that he could claim 30,000 feet of ascent in a single walk.

And so to Graham. In 1931, he made his first attempt at the record, but poor weather and navigation stymied success. The next year and just one month before his eventual record, he supported Freddie Spencer Chapman in an attempt over a route identical to what would become the Bob Graham Round. Graham met Chapman at the summit of Bowfell to pace him to Dunmail Raise, but at this point their fates parted: Chapman failed to return to the Moot Hall within 24 hours; Graham went on to make history.

On 13 June 1932, Graham took the 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. When asked what had helped keep him going over the final stretch of fells, he grinned and said: “willpower”.

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, he stayed on high ground to add Rossett Pike, the Langdale Pikes, Thunacar Knott, Sergeant Man, High Raise, Calf Crag, Steel Fell and Seat Sandal to the round. It was a major advance on the number of peaks, if little different in terms of overall distance.

Just like Wakefield and Thomas, Graham was not satisfied with his achievement and sought to better his own record in 1933. Newspaper accounts suggest his aim was to take the scale of ascent to 30,000 feet of climbing, the mark set by Thomas but not within the 24 hours. Graham’s plan was to add “two or three” fells from the Grasmoor massif to his original 42, perhaps by heading down to Newlands Hause after Robinson, up Knott Rigg and on to Sail and Causey Pike.4 Frustratingly, he was beaten by the weather on two occasions. His second abortive attempt ended after 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.”

Graham’s unfulfilled desire to go further did nothing to detract from his 1932 endeavour. It was a prominent achievement, not least as he was a well-connected Keswickian (being a fruiterer and later hotelier by trade). But the following three decades were a quiet time for the Fell Record. It was not until 1960 that the record was broken, on this occasion by Alan Heaton, who improved Graham’s time over the same round of fells.

But not precisely the same. 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 tantalisingly close to their summits. Similarly, Hanging Knotts, Looking Stead and High Snab were often originally listed; today, contenders would pass within spitting distance. It all comes out in the wash.

Over the next decade, the Fell Record was advanced on five further occasions by combinations of Alan Heaton, Ken Heaton, Eric Beard and Joss Naylor. During this time, Bob Graham’s round had no greater significance than Wakefield’s round or Thomas’s round: they were all just past records.

But as the 24-Hour Fell Record was pushed ever farther, a small number of people also chose to replicate ‘just’ the 42 fells of Bob Graham’s round. In 1971, Peter Walkington became the first person to achieve membership of the Bob Graham Club in this manner, with a time of 20 hours and 43 minutes, slashing Alan Heaton’s record by over an hour. In doing so, Walkington gained the niche honour of being the first person to hold the title for the Bob Graham Round but not the 24-Hour Fell Record.

From this point, the histories of the two records diverged. The Bob Graham Round went on to become the UK’s most famous mountain endurance challenge, with over 2,000 successful completions. In contrast, the 24-Hour Fell Record has been advanced on only a handful more occasions and received relatively little attention. The fact that it is now so difficult to improve means it is reserved for truly gifted athletes. One such man is Kim Collison, who in July 2020 managed to best Mark Hartell’s long-standing 1997 record with the addition of Fleetwith Pike to the round. The fact that Collison stopped only twice in the 23 hours and 45 minutes to remove stones from his shoes demonstrates the knife-like margins involved. Can it be further improved? Of course. But it will take someone very special indeed. 

The obvious question arises: why did Bob Graham’s round become immortalised over any other? There is no one simple explanation, but there are a number of contributing factors.

The first of these was the untiring commitment of Fred Rogerson, master-builder from Windermere and inaugural Chairman of the Bob Graham Club. Rogerson established the Club in the same year that Walkington took Heaton’s Bob Graham Round record and Joss Naylor set a new 24-Hour Fell Record (which he would go on to improve in 1972 and 1975). Without Rogerson’s energies, the round would surely not have endured in the way it has.

Second, the length of time that Graham held the record would have embedded its prominence. His round was a significant advance on Thomas’s and so it was always likely to stand for some time. This drought of competition was undoubtedly lengthened by the Second World War, which stalled the development of many sports. All told, Graham was – and is still – the person who has held the Fell Record for the longest number of years. Remarking on the formation of the Club, Rogerson explained: “Some motivation was needed to keep the achievements of [Graham and his pacers] alive, otherwise it might well have been another 28 years before any new attempts were made.”

Finally, but most conjecturally, there is perhaps a natural limit for what the ‘average’ endurance fellrunner can achieve. Does it correspond to 42 peaks in 24 hours? As noted above, by the 1960s, the 24-Hour Fell Record was out of reach of the vast majority of fellrunners. In comparison, while Graham’s round was tough, it was also just about manageable. Graham himself once teasingly remarked: “Anybody should be able to get round in the day – providing he’s fit enough.”

Overall, Rogerson’s nurturing of the Bob Graham Round was a way to help maintain, promote and celebrate the challenge of 24-hour rounds, even if the actual 24-Hour Fell Record could not be furthered by mainstream contenders. The round fitted the bill for what the fellrunning community needed at the time and has laid down stronger roots with every completion.

Nearly 100 years on, I suspect Bob Graham would be more than a little amused that his, rather than any other, round has been granted such iconic status. It is here to stay.