or, why it took me 50 years to saunter round the Wainwrights.

In 2022 John Kelly, an American ultra-runner, ran a 320 mile course round all the 214 fells described in Alfred Wainwright’s seven “Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells” in just over 5.5 days. Other mere mortals typically complete the challenge in a year or two. It took me over 50 years.

In this post I confess to having been wrong to resist the challenge for so long and try to convey the sense of satisfaction and unexpected joy in finally ticking off all the summits in AW’s books. I also want to encourage others of an opinionated and stubborn disposition to get out and explore fells that don’t appear on tea towels or tee shirts.

Before I saw the light

I first became aware of Wainwright’s celebrated guide books in the mid-sixties. While attending a “mountaincraft” course led by Lake District National Park rangers and based at Grasmere Youth Hostel, one of the lads on the course shocked the rest of us, largely law abiding citizens, by pinching a copy of “The Central Fells” from the village bookshop.

Exhibit A

Despite it being a proceed of crime, we enthusiastically passed the book around and I recall being well impressed by the drawings and maps. However, at that time I didn’t really appreciate the wonderfully lyrical writing or realise what a monumental achievement producing all seven volumes was. I also had no inkling that “doing the Wainwrights” would become such a “thing” and a big deal for so many people.

Time passed and as I continued exploring the Lakeland fells from my home in Lancaster, I gradually became aware that some walkers were seeking to climb all of the fells AW described. My reaction to this was to dismiss these obsessives as nothing more than “train spotters” and to consider myself in some way superior by refusing to indulge in this unseemly activity unworthy of a true aficionado of the hills (i.e. me).  

I clung to this ridiculous notion for many years. During this time I climbed all of the higher fells, some many times over by most of the available routes, always assuring Wainwright disciples that they were wasting their time on the piddling lesser heights.


When I retired in 2011, aged 58, I sought new challenges. Firstly, I walked the whole 633 miles of the South West Coast Path ( an account of which can be found here), then did a few long challenge hikes, including the Tour de Mont Blanc. Throughout this period I started to reflect on the urgings of friends who had completed the Wainwrights and I began to wonder if – heaven forbid – I had been wrong for all those years!  

In 2014 we bought a log cabin just outside Keswick. This meant we were spending more time in the Lakes, giving me ample opportunity to pursue what up until then I’d always regarded as a pointless exercise.

So, I got a list of all the Wainwright fells and was surprised to see that I’d climbed far fewer than I’d fondly imagined. I’d been blithely telling folk that I’d knocked off “most of them”, but found I had over 60 left. Still, how hard could that be? (spoiler alert – a lot harder in my 60s than it would have been in my 30s).

Finally bitten by the Wainwright bug, I got out the maps, set up a spreadsheet and started planning a series of walks to enable me to complete the list, which I did in 2019.

I was accompanied on these walks by my long-suffering wife Pat, who I’d roped in to this fell walking lark just a few years earlier. Without her companionship and enthusiasm, I don’t think I’d have bothered, which in retrospect would have meant missing a lot.

What would I have missed?

Well, a sense of achievement, of course, along with some really fine views, often providing quite different perspectives on familiar groups of fells. We also shared many friendly, often uplifting, conversations with folk we met who were pursuing the same objective.

Other common threads uniting my remaining Wainwrights are that, generally, they were grassier and more rounded than the rocky peaks I’d always been drawn to (more moorland than mountains) and also less frequented. I also learnt that size definitely isn’t everything- but of course I’ve been saying for years.

To try and illustrate the “joys of ticking” I’ll describe four of the walks I did to complete my list, one from each point of the compass. I hope this might encourage fellow reluctant peak-baggers to join the club.

Hills of the north? Rejoice!

Until we bought our cabin in Keswick, Skiddaw and Blencathra had been the northernmost points I’d ventured in the Lakes. However, to complete the Wainwrights I would have to go further north into the totally unfamiliar area comprising the Caldbeck and Uldale fells and the hollow of the Skiddaw Forest – an area known as Back O’Skidda.

To me, this large tract of unspoilt land has a totally different and isolated feel compared with the mountains to the south; rounder, less rocky, boggier and with fewer footpaths. It feels more of a wilderness and closer to my local national park, Dartmoor (although just a bit steeper!). 

This walk began just south of Longlands, at a layby (GR 265358) on a minor road that heads NE off the A591 just before it reaches Bassenthwaite.

Uldale Fells

Following the footpath to the pass at Trusmadoor we turned right to climb Great Cockup. Skiddaw dominated the view to the south, as it does from all of this walk, but to the north we were rewarded with an uninterrupted, distant view of the Solway Firth and Scotland beyond. Variants on this view are seen from all the peaks on this round, with occasional glimpses of western and southern fells thrown in.

Returning to Trusmadoor we ascended Meal Fell and completed a fine circuit of rolling hills by traversing Great Sca Fell, Brae Fell and Longlands Fell, from which descended to the car.

The circuit is a relatively modest 6.5 miles, but felt further, perhaps on account of the 2,000ft of climbing?

An added attraction of this walk is that, after your exertions, it’s not far to the Old Crown at Hesket Newmarket, one of my favourite pubs; it’s run by a community-owned cooperative, as is the excellent micro-brewery in the back yard. At this ale-drinkers paradise the brewery’s rather moreish produce can be sampled at a lower price than you’d pay in the bright lights of Keswick. 

Swindale – full of eastern promise

This 11 mile walk, from the delightful valley of Swindale, involves 2,300ft of climbing and takes in Selside Pike, Branstree, Tarn Crag and the most easterly Wainwright of all, Grey Crag.

Swindale is a wonderfully remote and unspoilt valley and its beauty more than compensates for any weariness on the long slog round its surrounding hills. It is also a valley that has been transformed by a conservation project that has the distinction of benefitting both people and the environment by radically improving the valley’s habitat for wildlife while at the same time preventing flooding further downstream. The remarkable tale of how this RSPB led project put the bends back into the river can be found here.

There is no parking by the farm at Swindale head, so the car was left just beyond the dam at GR 516133.

After walking down the valley road to the farm, we turned right onto a track leading to the Old Corpse Road that heads over the ridge to Haweswater. This road transported Mardale’s dead over to Swindale on their final journey to Shap.

Cheered by thoughts of death and dying, we turned left just before cresting the ridge and trod good, grassy tracks past the impressive cairns on Artle Crag to reach the less than impressive summit of Selside Pike. As with all of the summits on this walk, the most extensive views were well to the east, towards Shap and the Pennines.

The route continued to the nondescript grassy summit of Branstree, which afforded a fine view of the Kent estuary to the south and a glimpse of the Scafells to the west.

Tarn Crag next, situated at the head of Longsleddale. Here there are the remains of an old survey post, used during construction of the tunnel carrying water from Hawsewater to conurbations to the south. Again, views of Lakeland fells are limited, but the Pennines and Morecambe Bay amply compensate.    

Finally we reached Grey Crag, before descending the long valley back to Swindale Head. The route was straightforward, but we did it after rain and found it hard going underfoot. However, despite the tired, wet feet, for those like me who love walking in wild surroundings with excellent views (albeit generally to sights beyond the national park) it’s a grand day out.  

Into the weary wild west

We headed to the far west for what was the toughest walk needed to complete my project – a 14 mile round involving 3,500 feet of climbing.

Starting from an old gravel pit on the Ennerdale Bridge to Calder Bridge road (GR062135), the route followed a clockwise circuit taking in 5 Wainwrights (Grike, Crag Fell, Caw Fell, Haycock and Lank Rigg).

The hills were smooth and rounded, like most of my final Wainwrights; with the highest and only rocky summit, Haycock, giving an excellent all round panorama taking in the Scafells, Pillar, High Stile and the Helvellyn ridge. Other tops had excellent distant vistas towards the sea and Morecambe Bay but views of other Lakeland biggies were largely obscured. The sight of Sellafield was less inspiring.

We loved most of this walk, not least for the barren surroundings and sense of achievement in finishing it, but found it hard going towards the end. The 1,500 foot descent from Caw Fell (which feels really remote, probably because it is) deep into the valley of Worm Gill was tough, but after 10 or 11 miles of walking, the steep climb of 1,000 feet up the other side of the valley to the isolated summit of Lank Rigg was even tougher – for us, truly “a hill too far”. AW observed that “this is a fell most visitors have never heard of” and we were certainly wishing we’d never heard of it as we toiled up its steep slopes; once on the top though it had a nice “on the edge” feel about it and a very imposing cairn.

The fun didn’t end at Lank Rigg, as we then had a dispiritingly long tramp back to the car. As is usually the case though, any hardship was forgotten once we’d finished and were sipping our drinks in the Fox and Hounds Inn at Ennerdale Bridge; we didn’t stay long though, leaving after a swift one as the pub filled up with irritatingly loud Coast to Coast walkers. Having walked so many of his hills was I now beginning to channel that avuncular funster Alfred Wainwright?

Celebrating in the south

I’d climbed all of the Coniston fells bar Grey Friar, which is a bit off the beaten track; it lies slightly away from the main group and as a result is probably less frequently visited than the rest.

I chose this modest 6m walk, with just under 2,000ft of climbing, as my grand finale for wholly sentimental reasons; only after climbing it did I realised that it’s unprepossessing dome shaped top offers a panorama of the fells that is as good as any you’ll see.  

The very first walk I did in the Lakes was as a 12-year-old, while camping with the scouts in Dunnerdale. We were taken to Coniston and walked back to camp along the Walna Scar track, an easy walk that skirts the fringes of Coniston Old Man and Dow Crag, but one that sparked a life-long love affair with the fells. I left Grey Friar until last because the route starts from this path – soppy eh?

The route begins where the Walna Scar track crosses Long House Gill at GR 240968. An easy access road rises gradually to Seathwaite Tarn, a reservoir, after which a short but sharp climb gives easy access to the summit. Cue a feeling of elation, a plastic medal presented by Pat (no expense spared) and celebratory pics, including one of the stunning view mentioned above. On a day when the visibility seemed limitless we were presented with a fantastic panorama of the Scafells. But it’s not just the view to the west that’s jaw dropping – turning clockwise we were treated to distant sightings of Skiddaw, Blencathra, Hellvelyn and closer to hand, the rest of the Coniston group. All in all, a good place to finish my quest.

About time!

After returning the way we came we drove to Coniston for further celebrations at one of my favourite pubs, the Black Bull. A couple of pints of Oatmeal Stout went down very well indeed.


Writing this post, I’ve reflected a few times that, when I was younger, I’d have considered some of the routes I walked to complete my Wainwrights pitifully short. Sadly, tempus fugit and there comes a time when you can’t canter round the fells as quickly as you once did. Not that I’m complaining in the least; I remember discussing aging with a friend at a time of life when you think you’ll live forever, probably in my 30’s and us both speculating that we’d be so lucky if we could still get out on the fells in our 60’s (which seemed very old then). As I approach 70 (which of course now doesn’t seem old at all) and just about still capable of climbing the highest fells, albeit at an out-of-condition snail’s pace, I consider myself very lucky indeed.

If you’ve stuck with this account so far, you need to get a life, or at least a hobby you’ll realise that I now fully acknowledge the error of my ways and wish I’d not been so stubborn in my youth and middle age. Judging by the number of people we meet out on the fells, folk need no encouraging to undertake the Wainwrights challenge, but in case there are still a few obdurate twerps like me, I would unreservedly encourage others to embark on this odyssey and not risk missing a real joy, as I almost did.

I’ve been asked if there were any of my remaining Wainwrights that I wouldn’t want to do again, or would warn others away from. It’s a testimony to the quality of my “remainers” that I can only think of two; Mungrisedale Common, which isn’t a hill at all and one that, providing more evidence of his eccentricity, AW included in his guide but then suggested that you don’t bother visiting, the other is the group of fells around Matterdale, because of the amount of road walking involved.

Mungrisedale Common
“…….has no more pretention to elegance than a pudding that has been sat on.” (AW ; “The Northern Fells”)

While accompanying me in completing my list, Pat became enthused by the idea of “completing” herself and in 2022 she summited her final Wainwright – it took her significantly less than 50 years. Supporting Pat meant that I had to repeat some of the higher fells that I’d done a few times before, but that was no hardship (even if they took me a lot longer than did earlier ascents). Her final walk was a reduced version of the classic Mosedale Horseshoe, for us a challenging, indeed epic, 12 miler involving 3,480 feet of climbing. We were quite pleased with ourselves; although I’m not telling you how long it took us.

The summit of Steeple was a perfect place for Pat to achieve her final tick.

What next?

It would have to be a more modest challenge and to that end I’ve been eying Wainwright’s “The Outlying Fells of Lakeland”; I know I’ve done many of them, but haven’t dared count what remains yet for fear I’ll get another shock. Of course, I could try and perambulate all 214 Wainwrights again, but fear I might end up traversing most of them in an urn……….



– heaven in a boggy bit of Devon

Swapping scouse for pasties, misguidedly dissing Dartmoor and a stroll up the Cowsic.

When I was 28, work took me from Merseyside to Cornwall: I traded a lively metropolis with easy access to the mountains of Wales and the north west, for the dramatic, breathtakingly beautiful coastal scenery and pristine sandy beaches of the West Country. It was a long way from my beloved Lake District, but there proved to be real compensations.

After cutting my hill walking teeth in the Lake District, I initially considered Dartmoor very tame by comparison. Being a stubborn sort, it took me a long while to acknowledge this silly error of judgement.

At every opportunity I’d harp on endlessly about how Dartmoor is so inferior to the Lakes, but eventually I realised that I was being very harsh (as well as not a little stupid) – the two national parks are just different, so much so that such daft comparisons are really meaningless. I will always regard the Lakes as the best place in the world, but that doesn’t mean that Dartmoor isn’t special and I now appreciate that the features that differentiate it are not weaknesses, but rather represent some of it’s strengths. In what follows I’ll acknowledge the similarities but will also try to highlight some of the differences that make Dartmoor so dear to me.

I first set foot on the moor when a friend took me for a couple of walks up the desolate River Cowsic valley and along the exhilarating ridges enclosing it. A few miles north west of Princetown, the area around this valley struck me as a genuine wilderness.

Introduction to the wild west (of Devon) – The Cowsic Valley.

Anyone wishing to explore this peaceful valley will find a good spot to park the car at OS ref SX 591765, reached along a straight track that leaves the B3357 just west of Two Bridges. From here you can drop down to cross the river and follow a path which eventually joins the Lich Way for a while before leaving it and heading north up the Cowsic towards the decidedly boggy Cowsic Head. The Lich Way is an old coffin route and makes a fine linear walk from Belever to Lydford and is celebrated in a lovely, haunting song from Devon folk super-group, Show of Hands. After passing the site of an ancient settlement and some hut circles I’d suggest turning right to head east before you get your feet wet and climb out of the valley to Devils Tor. Just before the Tor you can marvel at Beardown Man, a huge standing stone erected over 4000 years ago. This old pillar of granite is a longstone or “menhir”, the second tallest standing stone on the moor and the the highest.

Beardown Man

This modest 5.25m hike, involving 235mtrs of climbing, is a splendid introduction to the moor and its spectacular scenery.

The route of the River Cowsic valley walk.

I visited the moor on a fairly regular basis after those first jaunts: the frequency of visits increasing dramatically after I crossed the border and moved to Dawlish, in Devon. I count myself lucky to now live 5 minutes walk away from the South West Coast Path and around 40 minutes drive from the majestic rock scenery of Haytor.

Haytor Rock

The well-travelled C19th Dartmoor resident, Anglican priest and prolific hymn writer, Sabine Baring-Gould, did not share my reservations and placed the moor at the top of his personal pecking (or perambulating?) order ;

“I have wandered over Europe, have rambled to Iceland, climbed the Alps, been for some years lodged among the marshes of Essex- yet nothing that I have seen has quenched in me the longing after the fresh air and love of the wild scenery, of Dartmoor.”

Sharing an ancient, lonely, wet, but special place with the military.

Dartmoor’s barren uplands are tremendously atmospheric and feel far more remote from roads or human settlements than they actually are. This is partly due to the dearth of other walkers (a refreshing change from the Lakes) but also because of its featureless terrain.

The wild desolation of the moor is embodied in its extensive areas of bog, which are so pervasive because of the combination of heavy rainfall and the fact that the layer of peat covering most of the higher ground absorbs the water quickly but distributes it slowly.

Happily, despite the efforts of Conan Doyle, misty, murky mires are not the defining feature of Dartmoor’s high places. A more attractive aspect is presented by the many tors and other granite outcrops, which have been weathered over the millennia to give us an endless variety of attractive, sculptured shapes that Henry Moore would be proud of.

Heading into the River Taw valley, with boggy Taw Marsh at its head.

Apart from the tors, the undulating terrain and lack of distinct features make Dartmoor the toughest place I’ve ever navigated: far harder than the Lake District, where the more prominent crags and other pointy bits provide helpful landmarks to aid navigation. Of course, a GPS and the ability to use it overcomes these difficulties and – after many years claiming to be a purist – I finally succumbed to temptation and invested in one. I confess that I do enjoy playing with it, although I still love the satisfaction of using map and compass to find my way about. Given the rough topography and challenging route finding, it’s perhaps not surprising that the military have annexed several areas of the moor for training exercises and live firing.

On Dartmoor there is a big army training camp near Okehampton and three firing ranges – Okehampton, Willsworthy and Merrivale – amounting to 11% of the national park area, on which access is freely allowed apart from the periods when live firing is taking place. The army get a lot of stick from moor lovers, but they seem to me to do a good job liaising with the public and try their best to minimise restrictions, particularly during weekends and school and public holidays.

The presence of the army on Dartmoor is another difference with the Lakes, where there is much less of a military presence on the ground. Although the deafening daily fly-past of fast jets screeching overhead and frightening the sheep is a reminder that Lakeland is also a valuable training resource.

A glance at a map of Dartmoor reveals a plethora of “antiquities”, confirming that there is far more evidence of early man’s settlement on the Moor than there is in the Lakes. The walker soon realises that the moor is well endowed with attractive and often mysterious standing stones, stone circles, cairns, and hut circles: presumably this is due to the fact that Dartmoor was more accessible and therefore more inviting to early man than the rocky heights of Lakeland?

That said, it’s hard to fathom why anyone would want to live in some of the out of the way spots where antiquities are found, until one considers that the valleys were full of impenetrable forests and wild animals in prehistoric times, so the higher places offered safety. In later periods, isolated settlements were created in the harsh moorland environment to accommodate those making what must have been a desperately tough living from tin mining, quarrying ( London Bridge, the British Museum and the National Gallery were all built with Haytor Granite) and wool. All of these testimonies to mans endeavour add great interest to a moorland ramble.

Myths, legends and pubs.  

While there are differences, there are also many shared characteristics between my two favourite national parks: to name but two – both are home to a slew of mysterious legends and both have a fine selection of pubs to slake your thirst after a long day on the hills.

Myths and legends abound on Dartmoor: my own personal favourites being those surrounding “Jay’s Grave” and the “Hairy Hands”.

Jay’s grave.

Kitty Jay was a young housemaid who took her own life after being wronged by her lover, who left her pregnant and destitute. As was the tradition in those cruel, unenlightened times, a person committing suicide could not be buried in consecrated ground and to prevent her spirit coming back to haunt those left behind she was buried at a crossroads. Now the “legendary” bit: whatever the season there are always fresh flowers on her grave. I have walked past Kitty’s grave many times and confirm that this is the case. As a faithless humanist with no belief in the supernatural I know there must be a rational explanation for this, but even if the explanation is less mythical and local people are going out of their way to respect the memory of this poor unfortunate girl it’s still a pretty special reflection of the better side of humanity. Kitty gave celebrated Dartmoor-based folk singer Seth Lakeman one of his “greatest hits”.

My other favourite legend concerns the “Hairy Hands”. Since the early 20th century, there have been many reports of a pair of disembodied, often invisible, hairy hands which wrest control of a steering wheel or handlebars along a stretch of the B3212 near Postbridge, causing the traveller to lose control and sometimes career off the road. Scientists have come up with plausible explanations of the phenomenon, related to the camber of the road, but despite this an otherwise very sceptical friend of mine is unconvinced. Driving (sober) home to Tavistock one evening he insists he felt a very strong pull on the wheel and while refusing to believe it was a result of supernatural intervention, he admits to being shaken and is at a complete loss to explain it.

Another thing I love about Dartmoor are the many fine old pubs dotted across its landscape. My three favourites are;

  • The Plume of Feathers 
  • The Warren House Inn
  • The Rugglestone Inn

The Plume of Feathers, in Princetown, plays host to an eclectic mix of hikers, sightseeing locals, holidaymakers, residents of the pub’s camp site and bunk house and off-duty warders from the grey, monolithic prison that dominates the small town. At the time of writing (July 2021) I have just heard the sad news that this fine pub will be closed indefinitely, another victim of the pandemic. I hope new owners can be found who will manage to revive this once thriving Dartmoor institution.

The Warren House Inn, owned by the Dutchy of Cornwall, is on the B3212 near Postbridge close to where the Hairy Hands terrorise unwary travellers (and perhaps provides a possible explanation for some of the reports?). This pub enjoys a fine remote setting and is said to be the highest in southern England. It was once at the centre of a large, thriving tin-mining community, as the many interesting old black and white photos in the bar illustrate. The pub has its own legend in that it is said that the fire has never gone out since 1845. My exhaustive and selfless research in all four seasons can vouch that this does appear to be the case.

Finally, The Rugglestone Inn, Widecombe, is one of two grand pubs on Tom Pearce’s manor: the Old Inn being the other. It is a traditional, stone-floored hostelry with local beers and ciders from the barrel and a lovely big garden. A peaceful, secluded place for quiet reflection after a hard day’s walking.

Going to extremes and manoeuvres in the dark.

Another similarity between the two national parks is that they both provide demanding, long distance challenges for the fittest walkers and runners.

Some of the Lakeland events, like the Lakeland 3000’s or the Bob Graham Round, might be better known nationally, but Dartmoor can hold its own. The annual “10 Tors” event, organised by the army for teams of teenagers is a superbly well organised and inspiring challenge, while the 30 odd mile North-South walk , though not happily transformed into an organised and oversubscribed “event” is also a formidable challenge: so much so that a North-South route is considered suitable for the Royal Marine’s endurance march, the final part of the selection process for that elite Corps.

There are various “North -South” routes and I’ve done a few of them, both walking and speed marching (mixing walking and running), with a mate who’d been a Royal Marine and had trained recruits at their base at Lympstone. After one long traverse across the moor I commented that I hadn’t found it too bad, but was brought back to earth with a bump when my friend observed that I should try it carrying a heavy rucksack and rifle.

Another daft thing I got up to on Dartmoor was night hiking. I’ve been caught out once or twice in the Lakes and had to complete a walk as the sun was sinking, but never set out there to deliberately start a walk at dusk and complete all of it in the dark.

There was a time when, even in the depths of winter, me and a friend would frequently drive onto the moor after a day’s work in Exeter and wander around for a few hours, later appearing from out of the gloaming to surprise aghast locals in a pub. As well as being a pretty good test of navigation, night hiking introduces you to a totally different moor than the daytime one you see, a moor where distances are distorted and familiar views transformed, often magically. I’ll long remember two incidents. Firstly, the night I walked straight into a bemused and shocked cow slumbering on Saddle Tor (she seemed shocked, but not as much as I was). Secondly, an enchanting snow covered, moonlit evening near South Hessary Tor, on the track leading from Princetown to Nuns Cross Farm, where we dispensed with torches for the entire walk and delighted in the twinkling lights of Plymouth and the shimmering, silver sea far beyond the city.

My idea of a perfect moorland autumn evening is to wander through the ancient, mystical and rather eerie Wistmans Wood, one of the highest and oldest oak woodlands in the UK nestling above the West Dart River just north of Two Bridges, as the sun sets and the wood and surrounding moor turn the colour of Dartmoor IPA. In such glorious, but spooky, surroundings you can well believe in the Hairy Hands.

Keep on keeping on.

I’ve spent a large part of my walking-life wandering around Dartmoor and amassed a heap of happy memories. At 68 I’m still able to do most of the longer walks, albeit at a slower pace and with a few more aches and pains afterwards. I count myself very lucky: none of us know what’s round the corner, which is all the more reason to try and keep going and make the most of it while we can. Given a fair wind I’m hoping Dartmoor will be my companion for many more years to come: it is special, as another eminent visitor confirmed;

“I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming ‘War Horse’ on Dartmoor.”

Stephen Spielberg
Perfect end to a perfect day.