Running free on the fells

Running free on the fells

  • Richard Askwith running with his dog, Nutmeg, in Northamptonshire in 2014
    Author Richard Askwith, running with his dog Nutmeg
  • Giles Marshall in the Roaches race
    Giles Marshall in the Roaches race
  • Mark Rigby in the Roaches race
    Mark Rigby in the Roaches race

Image of Richard Askwith and inset photography courtesy of the author (except Lake District)
Images of Giles Marshall and Mark Rigby by Alan Heaver

Rough grass, mud, rock, scree: fell running is an unforgiving pursuit. Richard Askwith explores its mysterious and enduring appeal

It isn’t sensible. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it. Over the years, many Cambridge men and women have found the concomitant thrills too potent to resist.

Even in its traditional homelands, fell running is a niche pursuit. The appeal of a sport that involves racing up and down trackless mountains on foot, in all weathers, is not obvious to most people.

In Cumbria, Yorkshire, the Peak District, Scotland and Wales – the homelands in question – fell runners are considered an eccentric minority. How, then, should one consider that tiny subset of fell runners who have indulged their passion for the sport at Cambridge?

The question is rarely asked. I am sure I am not alone in having passed my time as an undergraduate (Trinity 1977) without once having encountered the idea that such a sport existed, let alone that the University might be one of its centres of excellence. You’ll have spotted the difficulty. How does one run up and down fells in a city whose defining geographical characteristic is flatness? Happily, fell runners rarely allow such trivial difficulties to circumscribe their dreams. If they did, they wouldn’t be fell runners. The entire sport is an affront to common sense.

Athletics at altitude

Running on scree

Think of fell running as athletics at altitude, on absurdly steep gradients, and you’ll have grasped barely half the difficulties. The surfaces are unsuitable too: not just rough grass but mud, rock, scree, heather, bracken, bog and boulders. (British fell runners rarely bother with anything so effete as paths.) Then there’s the weather: often hostile, sometimes dangerous, usually disorienting. To excel as a fell runner you need not just speed, stamina and strength, but agility, daring, resilience, mountaincraft and, not least, a capacity to throw off, at crucial moments, the shell of physical caution that encases most adult lives.

It isn’t sensible. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it; and, over the years, many Cambridge men and women have found the concomitant thrills too potent to resist.

Golden eighties

The golden age of fell running in Cambridge was probably the 1980s. Anthony Kay, a graduate student at Clare (1979), is credited with introducing the bug in 1981, having caught it as an undergraduate at St Andrews. He found some potential kindred spirits in the Orienteering Club; enthused tirelessly; and was advised to set up a dedicated fell running club. “Maybe I was boring them with my enthusiasm,” reflects Kay, now Lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Loughborough University. “I am sure some people did think it mad, but that has never stopped students from doing anything, has it?”

The Cambridge University Fell Running Club (CUFRC) was established in 1981, and a small but enthusiastic membership developed. Many, like Hugh Shercliff (Trinity 1981), had experience of orienteering and mountain hiking – Shercliff was already a keen Munro-bagger. Others were crosscountry runners who had been seduced by talk of mountain adventure.

Fair or foul

The scope for term-time adventures was limited, but the travel was, in a sense, part of the challenge. “It was the good old days of British Rail,” says Dr Shercliff, now Director of Undergraduate Education at the Department of Engineering. “They used to do a cheap weekend return to anywhere in the UK for £8. Of course, having gone all that way, you couldn’t let anything like bad weather put you off.”

Richard Askwith running with Nutmeg in Northamptonshire, 2014

The Marsden to Edale race and the Edale Skyline, both in the Peak District, were two early attractions. For the most part, though, CUFRC was about fell-focused training, which typically ranged from normal crosscountry to long runs back from Haverhill (reached by bus) via the Gog Magog hills.

There were also regular trips to Royston, a 15-minute train ride away, where Therfield Heath provided a passable imitation of proper mountain terrain. “It’s only old downland,” says Shercliff, “but it’s cut into by several quite deep re-entrants, so if you ran across the grain of the land you could easily do five or 10-mile training runs that were virtually all up and down, all on rough ground.”

Racing start

In January 1982, CUFRC hosted its first fell race, a mere 100 miles away on Box Hill in Surrey. The home-counties location lacked rugged credibility in northern eyes, but, as London 2012’s Olympic cyclists will testify, it didn’t lack steepness, especially with a zig-zag route that squeezed 1800ft of ascent and descent from a 735ft hill.

Runners came from as far afield as Cumbria and Yorkshire, and the race has remained a fixture of the fell running calendar (although Cambridge’s role in it has lapsed). A second CUFRC event, the Roaches, was set up in the Peak District a few months later. The 15-mile race attracted a field of 54, and, again, the race has thrived. CUFRC had 15 members by then, making it Britain’s 14th largest fell running club. Those who wore the light blue CUFRC vest began to be seen less as curiosities than as respected rivals to their northern counterparts. A few, such as Mark Rigby (St Catharine's 1980), made their mark on the sport’s record books. There was even a brief attempt to set up an inter-university fell running championship.

Uphill struggle

But keeping the momentum going was, aptly, an uphill struggle. Key players moved on, and in 1989 Hugh Shercliff (by then Research Fellow at Girton) bowed to the inevitable and allowed the remains of the fell running club to be subsumed into the hillwalking club. The two races were in due course taken over by local clubs; and those light blue vests, with CUFRC in cursive lettering and a little figure running up the slope of the ‘f’, became collectors’ items.

Yet a University that draws students from all over the world is bound to attract, from time to time, a few students who combine academic gifts with the rare combination of talent and temperament that makes a fell runner. Current members of the Cambridge University Hare & Hounds cross-country running club who match that description include Will Bowers (Trinity 2009), a member of Ochil Hill Runners in Scotland whose accomplishments include a creditable showing in the Ben Nevis race, and Holly Page (Homerton 2013), who has already come second in one English Championship fell race this year – and who has been known to train by doing repetitions over the railway bridge. There’s also an annual club trip to the Easter Festival of Running on the Isle of Man, the attractions of which include the Peel Hill Race.

Like a giant game of tag

Nor, it turns out, were the pioneers of the 1980s the first Cambridge students to succumb to the lure of the fells. Several great Cambridge athletes of the early 1960s – Bruce Tulloh (Selwyn 1959), Herb Elliott (Jesus 1960) – are said to have dabbled with mountain-running, although not under University auspices; and Chris Brasher (St John’s 1947), later prominent in the sport, indulged his enthusiasms for cross-country running and mountain adventure while at the University, without ever quite meriting the definitive label of ‘Cambridge fell runner’.

Sauta Roc, St Guilhem-le-Desert, 2005

Go back further, however, and the record becomes clearer. In 1898, George Macaulay Trevelyan (Trinity 1893), a young fellow – and future Master – of Trinity, combined with two undergraduate friends, Geoffrey Winthrop Young (Trinity 1895) and Sidney McDougall (King’s 1895), to establish a fell running tradition that survives to this day. The Trevelyan Manhunt – like its summer offshoot, the Trinity Lake Hunt – is, essentially, a giant game of tag, which takes place over 10 square miles of wild Cumbrian mountains. Between 30 and 40 people assemble once a year in the heart of the Lake District and spend three days hunting one another. They are divided into hares – usually four per day – and hounds – everyone else. The hares get a head start to make themselves scarce in the mountains. The hounds then set off to ‘kill’ them. A kill is made by touching.

It doesn’t sound dangerous until you think about it – at which point you realise that ‘affront to common sense’ is, in this case, putting it mildly. Think, for example, about the word ‘mountains’, and all that it implies: rocks, gullies, cliffs, extreme weather. Think, too, of the last time you played tag – the headlong sprints, the desperate lunges, the evasive twists and turns. Then mix the two together.The challenge lies in the fact that 10 mountainous square miles is an enormous area for a running game involving fewer than 40 people. The joy is that success depends partly on fitness, partly on fearlessness, partly on guile; but also, largely, on mastery of the landscape. When I tried it, last year, I thought I would be let down by my lack of speed. In fact, it was slow-mindedness that betrayed me. The best hunters know the hunt’s terrain intimately, and understand instantly the threats and opportunities offered by each square foot of ground.

Precarious passion

Tales from hunts gone by include incidents of hares climbing trees, hiding in haylofts, burrowing under boulders, swimming into tarns, leaping from great heights and, in several cases, escaping so far up or down precarious rock-faces that hostilities had to be temporarily suspended.

If that sounds foolhardy, well… in cold print, it is. Yet for most of its history, the hunt has been enjoyed by people of great intelligence. The bond with Cambridge was loosened when a separate Trinity Lake Hunt broke off in 1901. Nonetheless, a substantial proportion of hunters – who have included one chancellor of the exchequer, one home secretary, two secretaries of state for India, a lord chief justice and a governor of Hong Kong – have been Cambridge high fliers.

Meanwhile, the Trinity hunt survives too, quietly convening for a week each summer. It’s a private tradition: the College has no formal role in it. Around 15 undergraduates are usually invited, with the other places taken by veterans who can’t bear to give the sport up.

Why? It may have a lot to do with the age-old student propensity to take a detached attitude to risk. Geoffrey Winthrop Young wrote the first of the famous guidebooks for Cambridge nightclimbers: The Roof Climber’s Guide to Trinity (1900). Chris Brasher, half a century later, shared that enthusiasm.

Into the cloud-topped hills

View of the Cumbrian hills from Lancaster

Yet the appeal of manhunting, and of fell running generally, goes deeper than mere thrillseeking. The need to immerse yourself in the landscape – in order to succeed and to avoid all manner of disasters – requires a shedding of civilised preoccupations that amounts almost to a shedding of self. For a few intense hours, fell runners must focus with demented intensity on every detail of the mountains until (as the Oxford philosopher and Trevelyan manhunter CEM Joad put it) they have been ‘impregnated by nature’. Mark Holland (Trinity 1994), Master of the Trinity Hunt, enthuses about exchanging “the pandemonium of modern life... for England’s most stunning and inspirational landscape”; Will Bowers, who has been on a Trinity hunt, talks about the joy of “getting out in wild places”; Holly Page finds “something freeing” about “getting to the top of a hill and hurtling down it”.

But my favourite explanation was that quoted by Chris Brasher in 1972, after he had pressed some hardened fell runners to explain why they did it: “‘Oh come on, Chris, you know why.’”

Fell running may never become a Full Blue sport at Cambridge; or even a popular one. But as long as there are students there who love to run, some will have dreams that take them beyond the drab horizons of the fens and into the cloud-topped hills.

Richard Askwith (Trinity 1977) is author of Running Free: A Runner’s Journey Back to Nature (Yellow Jersey).

This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 72. Find out how to receive CAM.