Rules of the record

“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” – so wrote Dr Arthur W. Wakefield in 1906. While he could not have known it at the time, Wakefield had codified the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record for the first time. He was perfectly entitled to do so: he was the record holder.

Up until that point, it had never been clear whether it was a distance record, an ascent record or a peaks record. Going by the literature of the time, it was almost an unwritten equation involving all three, with the parameters of the equation depending on the beholder. A combination of this and poor record-keeping meant the term 'record' was dispersed liberally and without any rigorous underpinning.

It is interesting to note that the first record round is commonly cited as the 9 peaks gained by the Reverend J. M. Elliott in 1864. He completed an anti-clockwise circuit of the mountains surrounding Wasdale in eight and a half hours. In terms of peaks gained, the walk would not be surpassed until the late 1890s. But it was significantly shorter than a score of long walks undertaken in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, which could easily run to 40 or even 50 miles.

We would all agree that a round of Skiddaw and round Scafell is a harder enterprise than the Fairfield Horseshoe, despite the latter taking in four times as many summits. Since the Victorians fully appreciated this, I suspect Elliott’s round would not have been considered sensational. Moreover, many other walkers could have dramatically increased their peak count with only small detours; the fact they did not demonstrates it was not their goal. To be fair to the Reverend, he probably never intended to set a record, much less seek recognition for it.

It was not until Wakefield entered the scheme that the sheer number of peaks tarted to be the main currency for records. His statement on the terms of the record was therefore a helpful clarification. But it did not mean that the twentieth century history of the Fell Record was free from controversy.

The first issue arose only ten years after Wakefield’s pronouncement. In 1916, Cecil Dawson went out and beat Wakefield’s record – or so he claimed. 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”. Dawson added at least two extra fells from the Helvellyn ridge to Wakefield’s record. He returned to Keswick in under 24 hours and though he took ten minutes longer than Wakefield, 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 every peak (where was his crowd?). But in all likelihood, this 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.

And so it was not until the rounds of Eustace Thomas that Wakefield’s record was accepted as broken. Thomas put the issue beyond doubt by first beating Wakefield’s time over the same course in 1920. Two years later, he then added eight additional peaks to the record. Of these, most were along the Helvellyn ridge, including some with hardly any topographical prominence, such as Watson’s Dodd. But it was now clear to all that a contender had to either improve on the time of the current record holder or summit additional peaks within the 24 hours – or both.

When Bob Graham took the peaks record to 42 fells, this was no marginal gain on Thomas’s round. Graham added 11 peaks to Thomas’s total, putting clear blue Windermere-length water between him and the previous mark. The fact he broke the record so clearly is probably why there was so little – if any – grumbling on the fact that some of his selected peaks were less than the 2,000 feet stipulated by Wakefield. Grey Knotts, Calf Crag and High Snab all stood below this mark.

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.

As the Heatons traded records between them, peaks dropped into and out of the record. While Bob Graham had included every one of Thomas’s peaks in his record (and Thomas had included each of Wakefield’s peaks), a spirit of flexibility appears to have arisen. Notable examples include Fairfield (not included in records between 1965 and 1972), Rossett Pike (excluded between 1961 and 1972) and Causey Pike (include in 1962, then excluded until 1971). It was not until Naylor’s round of 72 fells in 1975 that every Bob Graham peak was included back in the record. In addition, the 2,000-feet criterion was further eroded by the inclusion of Ard Crags by Ken Heaton in his 1962 record of 54 peaks.

This flexibility does not appear to have been called into question and simply seems a product of what was a busy and important stage of the record’s history. Between 1960 and 1975, the record was improved on twice as many occasions than in the subsequent 45 years!

Just as Joss Naylor was cementing his grip on the record, the newly formed Bob Graham Club chose to formalise the rules. In its first constitution, it stated that: “The same summits shall be traversed on foot completely in a faster time and / or the addition of a separate summit, 2000 feet or over with 24 hours.” It was felt that there was no need for any further rules. Indeed, Harry Griffin asserted: “There is no need for further rules, and I will always be strongly against any restrictions, regulations or special arrangements”.

Nevertheless, in 1978, a minimum degree of prominence was set for new peaks, requiring that there must be at least a 50 foot drop in all directions. This was a reaction to Joss Naylor’s final record of 72 peaks in 1975. Naylor’s round included a number of peaks with relatively little prominence, including Coombe Height and Little Calva.

Over the next decade, both the men’s and the women’s records were broken, neither without controversy. On the men’s side, Mark McDermott added four peaks to Naylor’s tally after a period of meticulous planning and flawless execution. For reasons best known to themselves, some in the fell running community raised challenges, questioning whether Mark had really achieved the record or whether he had only succeeded because he somehow ‘optimised’ the route with a computer. Both claims are laughable, especially when considered in hindsight. Let us hope all doubt has now been completely extinguished. It is worth stating that each of Mark’s additional peaks were clearly within the rules of the record at the time: Lonscale Fell, Bowscale, Bannerdale Crags and Hart Crag.

On the women’s side, Anne-Marie Grindley set out in 1979 to be the first woman to add further peaks to the Bob Graham Round. Given the rules of the record, her choices quite literally set the course that future record-breakers would need to take. She discussed her additions with Fred Rogerson in advance, agreeing that a peak could be included if it was surrounded by at least two 50-foot contours (i.e. 100-foot prominence, around 30 metres). Reflecting on her route decision, she reflected, “as the first female to do more than 42, I felt it was my choice of route”. In her own words, some of her selected fells were “controversial”. But, regardless, Anne-Marie clearly added a substantive mileage to the route, largely in the north-western fells. If anyone felt the additional peaks were ‘soft’, the record was, of course, waiting on a plate for anyone who wanted to break it!

One interesting consequence of this history is that the men’s and women’s rounds comprise different fells. Indeed, this interesting facet of history will never change, as many of the peaks embedded within the women’s record are now ineligible for adding to men’s rounds given they fall foul of today’s distance and prominence rules laid down by the Bob Graham Club. These fells are Sale How, Calfhow Pike, Stirrup Crag, Looking Stead and Kirk Fell East Top. This has some interesting implications for the routes that contenders take between peaks.

The next clarification to the rules came in 1989, when the prominence threshold was increased to 250 feet and a minimum distance of 0.25 miles (between an existing peak and any new peak) was introduced. The 250-foot level is around half the level required for a mountain to be classed as a Marilyn or Corbett. This rule change was the result of nearly a decade of careful consideration. It began in 1979 when the Club circulated a questionnaire to all its members to ask for views on what should constitute a ‘peak’. Pete Walkington, a previous Bob Graham record holder, even chaired a sub-committee to consider the returns. The informal group reported after four years, leading to further debate. While a long time in gestation, the rules have remained unchanged ever since.

When these modern-day rules are applied to the modern record, there is little room for manoeuvre. Only the very highest hanging fruit remains for adding to the record. One cannot start with a blank sheet of paper and the remaining peaks for inclusion are listed on the Bob Graham Club website. Prospective record-holders must choose the peaks they want to add from this list (or improve on the time of the previous record-holder).

Interestingly, there has never been any rule on where a round must start (and, of course, finish). Unlike for the Bob Graham Round, it need not be the Moot Hall. Over the years, Lairthwaite Road in Keswick, the Old Dungeon Ghyll in Langdale and Brackenclose in Wasdale have all featured in records. However, since the 1980s, every record has started and finished in and around Braithwaite.

The official (and briefer!) description of the rules can be found on the Bob Graham Club’s website. The page also includes the list of eligible fells for inclusion in future records.