Origins to Modern Day
The Wainwrights as a set of 214 Lakeland fells crystallised when the seventh and final book was published in 1966. But while widely read, the guides did not land in the lap of the same long-distance community we are part of today. At that point, even 24-hour rounds were exceptionally rare, let alone multi-day efforts.
During the 1970s, Wainwright’s work started to provide inspiration for fell runners looking to push the boundaries, but the source was his Pennine Way and Coast to Coast books rather than the pictorial guides. These point-to-point journeys were the prologue to the Wainwrights. Among the records they fostered, Alan Heaton’s Pennine record of 4 days, 5 hours and 10 minutes (jointly with Mick Meath) is as good a point as any to mark the birth of northern English ultra-distance fell running.
It is impossible to confirm, but research suggests Alan was also the first fell runner to seriously consider assembling the 214 fells into a single round. According to Bill Smith, his interest stemmed from preparatory work undertaken by John Beech, a fell walker and Liverpudlian school teacher. Inspired by Joss Naylor’s 72-peak 24-Hour Fell Record in 1975, John produced a plan and schedule for how all of the Wainwright fells might be traversed in one continuous route.
For a long while, all this was purely hypothetical and the idea of ‘doing the Wainwrights’ incubated in Alan’s mind for a decade. But before he could hatch a plan, Chris Bland stepped up to the mark.
Chris, cousin of Billy, had had similar thoughts to Alan. In 1981, he decided to inaugurate the Wainwrights challenge as a means to raise money for repairs to his local church in Borrowdale valley, for which he was a warden. Sited on the outskirts of the hamlet of Stonethwaite, it is the same church where Bob Graham lies buried.
Circumstances meant Chris had only a short preparation period so there were only limited opportunities to recce the route. Or seven routes, for Chris’s plan was to take each of the pictorial guides over consecutive days, thus completing seven books in seven days. To this he added a further constraint: each day must start and finish at a valley church, reflecting his cause. While this would not be a continuous traverse, the overall distance and scale of the challenge was very similar to what would become the round.
Four years later, Alan Heaton was ready for his attempt. Unlike Chris, he wanted to take on the Wainwrights in the form of a round; indeed it was he that coined the term ‘Wainwrights Round’.
He worked on his route with Fred Rogerson, well known for Bob Graham schedules, making several variations to the original plan put forward by John Beech. Alan was a bus schedule clerk, so the task may have come naturally, but it still would have been a huge undertaking without the aid of electronic mapping. He measured his route at around 390 miles (perhaps an overestimate) with 120,000 feet of ascent, some 20% longer than today’s route but with a similar amount of climbing. Gone was the concept of a book a day; instead the plan was for a continuous route that criss-crossed Wainwright’s hand-drawn borders, balancing the most efficient course with the logistical necessity of regular support points.
Alan completed his Wainwrights Round in July 1985. One year later, Joss Naylor did the same with a route based on Alan’s but with a number of revisions. The round was thus established.
MODERN DAY STORY
After three incredible performances between 1981 and 1986, it was not until 2014 that the Wainwrights Round saw its next success. This ‘long gap’ was almost precisely the same length as the period between Bob Graham’s original 1932 round and Alan Heaton’s reprise in 1960.
Why such a gap? During the 1980s and 1990s, the focus was on fell racing rather than endurance running, which has grown was much over recent years. Moreover, seven-day fell runs are the preserve of a very small number of competitors and few could contemplate the challenge. Perhaps the real oddity was that three different men went for it in the space of five years, rather than that no one else did for the subsequent 28.
Steve Birkinshaw’s excellent book tells the story of how he came to the round. Steve was and continues to be a keen orienteer and fell runner, no stranger to long distances. He made two valiant attempts on the Lake District 24-Hour Fell Record in the 2000s and set a very fast time for an anti-clockwise Bob Graham.
In preparing for his attempt, Steve wrote the playbook which the majority of today’s attempts choose to follow. When it came to the route, Steve began with a blank sheet of paper and managed to improve on Joss’s route by a modest but important percentage (estimated by Steve to be around 16km shorter, with 2,000 fewer metres of ascent). This has now become modern-day standard that contenders tweak rather than redesign.
Steve reduced Joss’s record by twelve hours (nine hours of moving time; three hours of resting time) and was the first person to go under seven days and hit the target originally set by Chris Bland in 1981. Five years later, Paul Tierney took a further seven hours off the record, largely through resting time. In 2021, Sabrina Verjee was the first person to go under six days, on her fourth attempt and to great acclaim. While she was fourteen hours slower than Paul on the move, she completed the round with twenty – yes, twenty – fewer hours of rest. John Kelly reduced the record by a further eleven and a half hours earlier this year.
The over-arching story is therefore more of reducing rest rather than moving faster over the fells. Over the years, this has meant that the distinction between day and night has been gradually eroded. While they pushed the candle at both ends, the early record-holders still aimed for substantive stops at the end of the day, either at a waiting van or a nearby accommodation. In contrast, sleep is now a commodity to be consumed in purely bite-sized times, irrespective of time of day. While the fells themselves are timeless, there are countless other differences between modern-day attempts and those from the 1980s.
As of today, more than 20 people have made attempts in one form or another. The majority of these have been supported, but, just like the Bob Graham Round, the full array of variants has now emerged, including winter, solo, self-supported and unsupported.
 By way of a research project, a group of students used algorithms and aerial imagery to generate by computer an ‘optimum’ route. This was initially claimed to be significantly shorter than the usual route, but the details of their report suggest that, when optimising for time, the savings are likely to be significantly less. Regardless, all of this is yet to be tested by any contender in practice.