Lakeland's Lost Round
Fellrunner magazine (Winter 2023)
This page reproduces the article as published.
Rounds are alluring prospects, instilling an elevated sense of purpose in a long mountain journey. Today, they take a distinguished place in the sport's tapestry, whether they encompass peaks, trigs, valleys or even the view from a tea shop. Yet this was not always so. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, only two had emerged, both highly niche for their time. The first was what we now know as the ‘Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record’; the second was the ‘Four Fells Record’. The former blossomed and gave birth to the renowned Bob Graham Round along the way; the latter faded into obscurity, its last mention in a newspaper obituary in 1903. This is the story of that forgotten round – the Four Fells Record.
The Four Fells plays a straight bat, offering exactly what the title proffers – a round of Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, Skiddaw and Bowfell, the four highest fells in Lakeland (assuming the Scafell massif contributes just one peak). The peaks may be gained in any order by any route from any start point.
In nascent days, the Four Fells garnered sufficient acclaim for the notable Keswickian George Abraham to hail it as a “prodigious feat”. This was an era before the codification, so the unambiguous nature of the round appealed to contenders and commentators alike. While the Fell Record struggled to define its terms – was it the longest round, the most ascent, or the largest number of peaks? – the idea of a fixed-point challenge provided a stable yardstick for efforts, even when records were spaced years apart.
The inaugural completion occurred in the early 1870s by an Alpine Club member and Mackereth (the first proprietor of the New Dungeon Ghyll Hotel). All that we know of this maiden attempt is that the contenders “barely succeeded”. A few years later, the Tucker brothers – Alfred, Frederick, Hubert and Edward – stepped onto the scene, hailing from an artistic Langdale family. Arthur Tucker, most distinguished among them, later became the Bishop of Uganda, using his fell hardiness to moral effect while on mission in East Africa, apparently tramping 16,000 miles over twenty years.
On a balmy 26 June 1876, the brothers set off on their round. All were “fine, lusty men, well hardened to the fell”, but the walk was made without training or support – spontaneous even by the standards of the time. Leaving Elterwater at 4.20am, they set off carrying nothing but “a small quantity of beef tea”, reaching Bowfell via the Langdale valley by 8am and Scafell Pike at 9am. The temperature rose over the four-hour lowland transition to Skiddaw and they sweltered through St John in the Vale to the base of Helvellyn. Here, the party celebrated their three-quarter mark with 16 bottles of ginger beer on one of the hottest days of the year.
They journeyed back to Elterwater, but not before a curious detour to Ambleside. The finish came just before midnight; they had completed in 19 hours and 38 minutes, “lower[ing] the previous highly thought of record by six hours”. Local journals extolled with evident awe that “this remarkable effort of pluck and endurance was conducted on strict teetotal lines”.
For unknown reasons, there were very few attempts at either the Four Fells or Fell Record over the next two decades. It was not until 1895 that a party set out from Elterwater once more, this time comprising Benjamin Dawson, William Poole and William Palmer (a key figure in the early Fell and Rock Climbing Club). This time there would be system of verification involving spotters placed on the four tops, who would organise for letters with the contenders’ summit times to be taken back to the Britannia Inn.
The trio embarked at 1am on 5 August on a bleak, wet day, with the heights shrouded in mist. After summiting Bowfell, over an hour and a half was lost on the traverse to Scafell Pike. This laid spirits as low as the clouds until the clag cleared momentarily to allow for vital reorientation. But it was too late for Palmer, who was forced to withdraw. Poole and Dawson pushed on, refreshing themselves in Keswick, summiting Skiddaw behind schedule, but making up time to Helvellyn. Such was their pace, a tourist walker on the slopes of Jenkin Hill went to the trouble of reporting to a local newspaper that he had witnessed the pair “leaping from rock to rock like chamois [goats]”.
With the record in the balance, Palmer nobly returned to pace along the final stretch and all returned to Elterwater (via Ambleside) not long after 8pm, “enthusiastically welcomed by a large crowd”, trimming the previous mark by 21 minutes. Perhaps more impressively, the verification letters arrived just before the finishers themselves.
It was then only four years until the next attempt, this time by Richard Broadrick, one of another set of Lakeland brothers. On 27 April 1899, he set out alone from Ambleside at 4.30am. Travelling through the Langdale valley to Bowfell, he topped Scafell Pike by 8am and Keswick was reached only three hours later, clearly showing this was a run and no perambulation. He continued to make excellent time until he mislaid his purse on Skiddaw. Knowing he could not succeed without procuring refreshment, he had no choice but to retrace steps to claim his funds, losing 45 minutes in the process. The rest of the round passed without incident, and he finished in Ambleside at 7.56pm in a time of 15 hours and 26 minutes.
This was a magnificent time for a solo and self-supported effort, nearly four hours swifter than the previous record. But Broadrick’s account was challenged by some as an exaggeration. He retorted he could find no companion to match his pace, but to put his abilities beyond doubt he made it his mission to find a partner for his next attempt. Two years later, he teamed up with Cecil Dawson (no relation to his 1895 namesake), the celebrated ‘bog-trotter’ from Manchester and together they raised the Fell Record to 10 peaks. Ironically, Dawson went on to set a Fell Record in 1916, but it was never recognised because he was not witnessed on the fells.
Broadrick’s future was more tragic. In 1903, he and three other men slipped while forging a new route on Scafell Pinnacle. Fellow climbers came across four entangled bodies at the base of Deep Ghyll, but none could be saved. It was an epoch-ending disaster, which marked the end of the golden age of Lake District climbing.
Broadrick had only been 31 years old, and the early history of mountain records might read differently had he lived. Instead, the year after his death, Arthur Wakefield gave the Fell Record a serious boost, setting an 11-peak Fell Record in 1904, before eclipsing his own effort with a round of 21 fells the very next year. This set in train events that led to Bob Graham’s 42 peaks and, ultimately, the current men’s and women’s record. For the Four Fells, the combination of this advancement and the death of its record-holder meant it could sustain no momentum. The last reference to the record is in Broadrick’s obituary; the challenge passed away with its champion.
For my part, I learned of the Four Fells while researching the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record. Subsequently, Paul Wilson, Chairman of the Bob Graham Club, stumbled upon the certificate presented to Poole and Dawson in 1895 after they broke the Tuckers’ record. After exploring this historical cul-de-sac further, the obvious course was to recreate the challenge. This was about paying homage to past record-holders, but I was also curious to see how a sub-par modern fell runner, might stack up against the competition from yesteryear.
I chose to start from Moot Hall, deliberately solo and in high ankle boots as a nod to our ancestors. Skiddaw was claimed without drama, albeit in mist with little to show for it. Lakeland emerged from the clouds on the descent and I was soon traversing the fields of the Vale of St John to the base of Helvellyn. Nineteenth century contenders would have paused for refreshment at the King’s Head Inn, but I saved my pint for the après-fell. The White Stones route gained me Helvellyn, but it felt strange to do all the ascent and then turn immediately back, making no use of the ridge.
Once down, a decision had to be made: how to transition to Bowfell? I was not the slightest bit tempted to emulate the old route via Ambleside, so I instead opted for the Wythburn valley. Off I trudged, knowing what was coming but yet still surprised by the long, wet, taxing slog. Still, once atop High Raise, I was greeted by a pleasant, rolling traverse around the Langdale Pikes to Rossett Pike. Here, I took the Bob Graham line to Bowfell summit, and then it was off to Scafell Pike, resisting muscle memory to ignore the trods to the likes of Great End and Ill Crag. From the Pike, it was back to Esk Hause, a gradual descent by Grains Gill to Seathwaite and ‘just’ the small matter of nine road miles to Keswick.
I returned to the Moot Hall in an aggregate time of thirteen and a half hours, spread over two days because of poor weather. I am in no doubt that this could be eclipsed in an instant by a competent fell runner, let alone a champion. While an imperfect comparison, Joss Naylor’s record of seven and a half hours for the Lake District 3,000s gives a glimpse of the potential of the course in the hands of an elite athlete.
Although the Four Fells might not stand out as a classic route because of its lengthy lowland sections, it is an excellent duathlon test of fell and road fitness. Furthermore, the course offers the chance to visit as many hostelries as peaks, a vital consideration in the past. With that in mind, I rewarded myself at last to a pint, happy to have made it round this round of old. I sat on the bench, looked upon the Moot Hall and raised a toast to Richard Broadrick.