David Lintern has written the first guide to Britain's 24-hour mountain challenges – The Big Rounds. It's a book about people and places and the magic that happens when they meet on equal terms. Here, he shares how the book came about and what happened over the following five years.
Still fairly new to Scotland and having moved north of the border for a job with the John Muir Trust, I became aware of a big circular route that went partly on the Trust’s land. I mentioned Ramsay’s Round to Andy, a friend I’d met while walking the Haute Route Pyrenees, and we quickly resolved to attempt it together, as a means of him trying some Munros for the first time. For me it was a fascinating corner of British mountain culture, as well as a neat package to persuade him that he should come north.
The trip didn't happen. I fouled up the schedule and Andy couldn't get the time off from work at short notice. But as this plan imploded, the man himself got in touch, completely out of the blue. Charlie Ramsay had seen a photo I had taken of Knoydart in The Great Outdoors magazine and wanted a copy to use in his upcoming talks about the Round (he used Knoydart as a training ground). ‘Sure, no problem,’ I said. ‘You're based in Edinburgh? The Round is 35 years old this year? Um, would you mind meeting for a chat?’
There was a degree of synchronicity I felt I needed to acknowledge. Because Charlie had got in touch unsolicited and done me the honour of meeting up, I felt obliged to try for the route. I felt bad for being away when my partner’s parents were visiting, and worse for going solo and not with Andy, but as Tanya said: ‘You have to go now.’
The seed is sown
In the end, I didn't make it. On my first attempt, I bowed out with as much grace as I could muster in the time I had and managed an augmented Tranter's Round, exploring some of the valley section and being bitten half to death by Cleg flies. I was obviously moving too slowly.
By then I understood just enough to have no idea how people run these hills in 24 hours or under. So, there it was; the seed was sown.
Two of my colleagues at the Trust who had completed the Bob Graham Round as a run enthused about my much more modest efforts around Glen Nevis, and down the rabbit hole of discovery I went, excitedly noting the Welsh Round on the way.
There were other synchronicities that conspired to keep me pointing in the same direction. A favourite haunt of mine when I lived in Edinburgh was Aberlady Bay, the nation’s first Local Nature Reserve, reached by a rickety wooden bridge from the road into Gullane. The historical novelist Nigel Tranter took daily walks there and called it ‘the bridge to enchantment’. His son, Philip Tranter, devised the route around Glen Nevis on which Charlie Ramsay later based his own Round.
Then there was Chris Brasher, a pacer for Roger Bannister in the first ever sub 4-minute mile and a steeplechase gold medal winner, who later helped to develop British Orienteering and the London Marathon. Chris was a chief instigator in both the Welsh and Scottish Rounds and his part in the running careers and lives of both Welsh Round creator Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay is told in the book by both men. He tried for a sub 24-hour Bob Graham three times and never quite made it, but he did meet Charlie and Paddy in the process, goading and planning and pushing them on to do great things.
Brasher’s name was also important at my workplace. He was one of the original ‘gang of four’, who alongside ecologist Denis Mollison and journalists Nick Luard and Nigel Hawkins, set up the John Muir Trust in the aftermath of the successful campaign to stop the Ministry of Defence buying Knoydart to use as a military training area. Later, the Trust donated a considerable sum to the community buyout. Brasher was fondly remembered by both staff and members.
And then there was Keri Wallace, who rang the office one day and said she was raising money for the Trust by doing the Big Three Rounds back to back as a multiday challenge. Years after that phonecall, it’s been great to include some of Keri’s valuable advice and experience in the book.
All roads lead…
So as daft as it might sound now, at the time all roads seemed to lead to the Big Rounds. I felt I couldn’t escape them.
In May 2014, the day before I walked the Bob Graham Round for the first time in one go, I met with Jonathan Williams at Cicerone, and later that evening with a few folk from the Bob Graham Club, in a decidedly Mason-esque mock Tudor room above the Eagle and Child pub, Staveley.
My wide-eyed enthusiasm was met with seasoned experience in both cases. I was on my way. Or was I?
I limped around the Bob Graham full of a head cold. It took me six days, even though I knew most of the tops already. I run in my local hills now, but then I was a backpacker – surely, I was in over my head? And there were concerns about the increased popularity of hill running, and what a guide of this kind might mean for erosion and local infrastructure. Richard Askwith’s rather brilliant book had served to inspire a new generation of fell runners, and now in the Lake District it wasn’t so much Feet in the Clouds as boots on the ground. I wanted to do the right thing and give people the best information to mitigate those concerns. Some of the Bob Graham Club Committee were understandably skeptical.
Then there was a change of lifestyle – I moved (twice), went freelance and had a kid (twice). The project lurched sideways and backwards but rarely forward. I mopped up the rounds over the next two years, mostly in single pushes but visiting some sections several times to resolve navigation niggles and develop alternative sections – places where I felt the ground was too eroded for more footfall or too technical for more heavily laden backpackers.
The route research was the easy part, of course. Being outside is not that difficult, even in difficult weather. But I struggled to stitch the bigger picture together, and missed those early, easy synchronicities. Then in 2016 it started to change and, quite quickly, it became all about the people that had made – and make – these Rounds such a vital piece of our outdoor culture.
I lucked out and found myself in Lochaber for Jasmin Paris’s record-breaking Ramsay Round. I met with Nicky Spinks and Paddy Buckley and spent more time with Charlie Ramsay. Nicky had forgotten I was coming and was mucking out her cows. Paddy told golden age tales of adventure with his friend Chris Brasher during the Knoydart days of the John Muir Trust. Charlie was as dynamic, honest and funny as ever, and more detail emerged about his own impromptu Bob Graham Round, and his subsequent friendship with both Chris and Paddy. Finally, the historical context was made personal and emerged from the hill fog.
A year on, and there were more ‘signs’ that I was back on the right track – at least in my own mind – to sustain me as I chiseled away at the drafts. First, Wendy Dodds – the first to run Paddy’s Welsh Round and one of the most experienced fell runners in the UK – got in touch.
I couldn’t really imagine doing the book without her, and I’d always worried what she might think of it – if I ever finished the blasted thing.
Wendy very kindly contributed valuable insights on the perennial subject of hill craft, as well as her own recollections of that first Welsh Round.
I met winter record holder Jim Mann twice – once in an Inverness car park and another on Lochnagar. I made, lost and made contact again with Mike Hartley, the only person ever to have run the Big Three back to back. Their achievements in the mountains are unsurpassed.
The final piece
The final piece of the puzzle was just like the first: another TGO magazine connection, out of the blue. Roger Smith emailed to clarify detail on a route description I’d sent in. Roger is a previous editor of the magazine and still works for them as a columnist and sub-editor… but what I didn’t know was that he is also a Bob Graham Club member, number 117. I let slip what I was busy with and, unprompted, he offered to check over the proofs in his own time. I couldn’t imagine anyone more suited… or more forensic! Roger helped me iron out some awkward creases, kill a couple of darlings and was a sounding board and confidence booster in the penultimate and most difficult part of the process.
I’m forever in debt to everyone who so generously gave their time and trust to the project. For me, it’s important to mark Charlie and Paddy’s contribution to hill culture, and to try to illustrate just how magnificent these mountain areas are. Embarking on the Rounds reveals another side to some of our more famous hills… but also another side to ourselves. Whether you run them or walk them, they are a vehicle for both outer and inner adventure. The Rounds are not easy; they strip away our prejudices and our pretentions. But I also found out there’s something at the centre of hill running that is utterly and completely simple, joyful and open hearted. Everyone shares. I feel very lucky to have witnessed that, to have learnt from it, and to try to make something that celebrates it.