It’s seven years since I decided to visit the summit of every one of the fells in Wainwright’s seven Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells. I had a very particular reason – to do something special in memory of a dear friend who’d lost her battle against breast cancer – and (I’m not sure why) I decided to do them in one concerted effort which lasted under two months. Elite fell runners, like Jos Naylor and Steve Birkinshaw, had run them all in a week, but I’ve yet to hear of any ‘normal’ walker who’s done them as quickly as I did.
It was quite a thrill, a concentrated experience. A lot of planning was required and I was lucky enough to get accommodation provided in the Lake District. There were disadvantages – the most serious being that, because every day was timetabled, I had to get out and walk whatever the weather, and although most days were fine, two horrendously wet ones will never be forgotten!
For any keen, reasonably fit walker, I’d recommend it.
Turn the clock forward seven years. I’d picked up Bill Birkett’s ‘Complete Guide to the Lakeland Fells’ and wondered whether I should visit the additional 327 fell tops over a period of time. In those seven years I’d asked my friends to sponsor me on other challenges, notably a 4,500 mile cycle around the British coast (and they did, to the tune of over £30,000 for Cancer Research UK). I’d also become seven years older and was finding that the body certainly doesn’t improve with time.
I felt that maybe I’d had a long enough break – perhaps friends would tolerate just one more request for sponsorship. But I’ve always been ambitious. Shamelessly, I wanted sponsors to part with more money than they would normally do, but at the same time they would have to be able to afford it, and I would need to give them value for money. The idea stayed on the back-burner for a while.
Then, on New Year’s Eve ten months ago, when we were staying with friends in a rented cottage in Windermere, Val and I went for a walk up Wansfell Pike. As we trudged upwards, the cogs in my mind starting turning, and suddenly I had a brainwave – do ALL the Birketts in one year (as far as I’m aware, nobody has done this) and ask people to sponsor me for 10p a summit. £54.20 – more than you’d normally sponsor someone for, but spread over a year, with entertaining updates on a blog, it would be a matter of a little over £1 per week ‘ less than half a pint of beer of a litre of petrol.
But if I was going to do them all in a year, the start would be the next day! No planning! Well, to cut a long story short there was a lot of planning, but it was very concentrated! Those four weeks in January were a whirlwind – plotting routes,arranging sponsorship, a website, publicity, accommodation, and so on. But I was lucky enough to get lots of help.
The first walks were in mid-January with thick snow on the ground. So deep – and soft – in places that on one occasion it was easier to lie on our bellies and paddle forwards for 30 yards! But mostly the weather wasn’t too bad, and I had time to pick my days and not walk too much in wet weather. And of course in summer it would be even better… but of course, I’d forgotten what English summers are like, especially in the north-west.
From June to September the weather was rubbish. I don’t think there were two consecutive dry days in three months, the ground was saturated and the streams were full and fast-flowing. The bracken grew thick, high and at times almost impenetrable. Just as I was becoming concerned that I might slip behind schedule, September arrived, and soon the weather began to improve. Eventually it seemed likely that I’d finish the challenge before the weather got too cold and the days too short.
As I was planning the routes I discovered that one of the Birketts – Pillar Rock – was a proper rock climb. This came as an unwelcome surprise, but I nervously made some provisional arrangements to tackle it under expert supervision. At the same time I also found that not one but two Wainwrights weren’t on Bill Birkett’s list – in addition to Castle Crag (not high enough), Mungrisdale Common was absent, perhaps because of its remarkably nondescript qualities!
As it happened, I was overtaken by events – the plan to climb Pillar Rock was scuppered by a large and very angry boil right on my waist line. Peter, my rock-climbing babysitter, decided that no medieval torture would come close to the pain of a climbing harness in that region, and Pillar Rock remained unassailed. At least Mungrisdale Common kept the numbers at 542!
As the weeks and months go by, the mental side of the challenge becomes more and more of a factor. You reach a point where progress feels laboured and the end still seems a long way off – and motivation – to get out of bed, to keep the blog up to date, to plan the next few days’ walks – becomes tough. Then in July came the worst weather of the challenge – and it wasn’t even forecast. A bright day was promised for Scafell Pike, England’s highest mountain, but the weather thought otherwise, depositing probably 3” of rain in four hours and making progress extremely difficult.
17 years ago I had an operation to remove a bowel tumour, since when I’ve had a permanent ileostomy. It’s surprisingly easy to manage, even in remote places, walking or cycling, but really bad weather with high winds, heavy rain and freezing cold hands present quite a challenge. That was one tough day!
On the whole though, the walks were enjoyable. Much of the time I had to be content with just my own company, and I found myself to be much more safety-conscious than I ever remember before. The logic being that if you take risks day after day, the chance of something going seriously wrong is just too high.
The scenery in the Lakes can be magnificent – the combination of fell and water, the quality of light at times, all combine to make it a truly magical place. A gleam of sunshine always helps, of course, and I remember a sign outside the pub in Stonethwaite, carved a bit like a gravestone, that reads “In memory of a sunny day in Borrowdale”.
So would I recommend others to tackle the Birketts in one year? Certainly not! Some times of the year are better than others, and to squeeze all the fells into ten or so months inevitably means that many have to be walked when they’re not at their best. Visit all the Birketts by all means – you’ll see parts of the Lake District that many people overlook – but spread them out over two or three years to get the best out of them.
Having summited all the fells, it’s too early to relax completely. I have to make sure all the pledges become firm donations for Cancer Research UK. I need to put down some thoughts, like these, before I forget. But it’s a nice change, I must say. And there’s a bike in the garage that hasn’t been out on the road for nine months – time to pump the tyres up and take a spin along some local lanes I think!
I do need to acknowledge the contribution of several people:
So many have helped: I’m bound to forget some, so I apologise now, but the contribution made by the following has been much appreciated. I couldn’t have managed the Challenge without them.
For help with accommodation: Robert & Margaret Berry; Bill Taylor; Nuala and Susan at the Royal Oak, Rosthwaite; Laura and Jerome at Howe Keld, Keswick; Clive and Sue at Thornthwaite Grange; Christine Thomas at the Elterwater Hostel; Michael Parkinson (Fell & Rock Club);
Mark Goossens for help with the website, and Kath Molyneux for helping with e-mailing lists.
To those who spent time walking with me and giving me some lifts: Ian Hardy; Iain Poole; Duncan & Emma Metcalf; plus many other walkers on odd days. Special thanks to my long-suffering wife Val Honeywell who did more fells than anyone except me at 84.
Corporate Sponsors Melt Candles; Evans Accountants; The Printed Cup Company; Crow Wood Leisure (Burnley); West Coast 4×4 of Clitheroe, and all the hundreds of individuals who have donated hard-earned funds. Jonathan Brown of Pendle Print for providing all my flyers at no charge.
Other supporters, both on social media and elsewhere: Mark Richards (the ‘Fellranger’ series of walking guides); Sarah Howcroft (Rohantime); John Manning of Lakeland Walker magazine; That’s Lancashire TV; Emma Harrison, Kathryn Driver, Andy Belcham and John Honeywell who all drummed up support; and especially Alan, Janet and Lyndsay Shaw for their unceasing support and for having the great idea of raffling the McRae / Grindrod rally print. And of course Val, who clearly had no idea what she was letting herself in for all those years ago. Nowhere, between the richer & poorer, the sickness & health, did they mention anything about these challenges.
I must thank all the people who have found the cards I’ve left at summits. Although I agree with the principle that you should take only photographs and leave only footprints, I decided to leave a card at each top, asking the finder to take it away with them (so as not to leave anything for long) and send me a ‘selfie’ photo. Over half the cards came back and many of the finders have been generous enough to sponsor me. Some even came to walk on the final summit, and it was a genuine thrill to meet them.
I think that’s it. I’m sorry if I’ve gone on too long, but I hope I’ve given you some insight into the Challenge. The main purpose remains – raising funds for Cancer Research, because together we will beat cancer sooner.
Perhaps I’ll see you on the fells sometime…