Later this month, a 60-year-old Cumbrian will run up and down 60 of England's highest mountains in the space of 36 hours. Why? Because he's Joss Naylor

Mick Imlah
Saturday 08 June 1996 23:02

Wasdale has the hardest, most masculine profile of any valley in the Lake District. At the head of it, a wet little hamlet with an inn and a field for climbers' tents shivers beneath a horseshoe of big, bare mountains, Yewbarrow, Kirk Fell, Great Gable, Lingmell and Scafell Pike, the highest in England. ("Oh my God," gasped Coleridge, the first recreational fell-walker, pausing here in the summer of 1802, "what enormous mountains these are behind me!") Its lake, Wast Water, though only four miles long, has the depth and gloom of a Loch Ness. One bank of it is formed by the Screes, a rampart of rock half a mile high, in which broad red streaks are folded through the grey stone, the whole plunging and crumbling to the water's edge.

On the opposite bank, with more fells massing behind, there is a solitary farmhouse, the home of Joss Naylor, sheep farmer, fell-runner and modern Lakeland hero: a man whose work and play is so bound up with the landscape he inhabits, you might compare him to Wordsworth's Lucy, "Rolled round... with rocks and stones and trees", if only there were more trees; if only he were not so unrestingly alive, and so much less of a girl. Joss Naylor gets stuck in.

This midsummer weekend, for instance, 22-23 June, he will run up and down 60 peaks over 2,500ft, one for each of his 60 years, in 36 hours; leaving the gate on Walna Scar near Coniston at 3am on the Saturday and finishing in the car park at Glenridding on Ullswater at 3pm on Sunday; over 100 miles in distance, and over 40,000 feet of ascent, the equivalent of climbing and descending Everest, from sea level, one-and-a-half times. Not exactly a stroll in the country; but nothing out of the ordinary either for a man whose notion of pushing himself has shifted mountains for decades.

The special toughness of the Wasdale character may come partly from its being cut off by its mountains from the softer lakes of Westmorland to the east, the cream teas and choking tourist traffic of Ambleside, Grasmere, Hawkshead. You approach Wasdale instead from the West Cumbrian coast, south from Workington or north from Barrow-in-Furness, through grey towns and villages - Flimby, Frizington, Drigg - of rusting rugby posts, abandoned workings and shops for sale. I found this out, anyway, one autumn afternoon, by trying to take a cab across the Lakes from Kendal station to Wasdale. Not 20 miles, as the buzzard flies; but two hours later, the driver, who had never been to Wasdale before, had a pounds 50 fare and a double puncture. Joss Naylor could have run it quicker.

Neither is there anything false or pretty or self-conscious about the traditional sports and contests that go on at the Wasdale Show. This happens each year on the second Saturday in October, the last show in the Lakeland calendar, the chilliest, drizzliest and heaviest-drinking. To lay a hound trail, two runners head off in opposite directions, each dragging "a sock full of other socks" soaked in aniseed, to meet somewhere halfway round the course as the owners let their foxhounds off the leash. A pair of Cumberland wrestlers, in their daft flowery knickers, lock to in a mismatch: the grinning old hand upends the plump teenage apprentice with friendly restraint. Prize sheep, big muttony Herdwicks, their coarse grey fleeces dyed rosy red for the show, are bundled roughly back in the wagon with the losers. And as the farmers disperse from the beer tent, over the wavery PA a little girl sings a song, written by a local teacher, in honour and praise of "our Joss".

And "their Joss" is how they see him; everyone here is pleased to tell you how they know him; proud, too, of his being not quite like them or ourselves, invariably reaching for extra-human terms - a "whippet", a "cougar", a "man of steel", a "bionic shepherd" - to describe him. Arriving at the show, I meant to ask where I could find him, but knew him as soon as I saw him: the tall spare figure in the tracksuit, leaning in, sipping a Mackeson and nodding in conversation but strikingly more alert and intense than those around him, as if on the look-out for something in the field to herd or hurdle.

Fell-running projects the ordinary animal urge, to go farther and faster, into territory that obstructs it: where tussocks and peaty holes and sudden stones keep up a constant uneven percussion on the knees and ankle-joints; through pathless tracts of boulders covered with bracken and heather; and up on to sharp rocks that blister and bruise the feet and cramp and shred toes. The weather, too, will attack you. Joss Naylor describes running on consecutive days: one in dry mountain heat, "like trying to stand close against a bonfire", when "there was no sound but the rasping of air in your throat"; the next, of such pummelling horizontal rain that it made of his face a featureless balloon. There are extra surprises - clouds of midges, minutes-long, that invade the mouth, the nose, the ears; and the black joke of the summits, the oatmeal scatterings of old fell-walkers' ashes underfoot. And the best endure these not for hours but for days, pressing past exhaustion until, sleepless and swollen-jointed, the stumbler loses his appetite for food, his ability to swallow, and can only report, as Naylor did of one escapade with his blood-coughing support team, "I do not have the words... to describe the discomfort, the physical pain, the frustration, and worry we all had to suffer." Joss Naylor is famous because for a period of nearly 20 years he could absorb this suffering at a pace and for a duration that no one else could match; and because in the course of this supremacy he performed new acts of resilience that demanded more than local astonishment, and so singlehandedly put fell- running on the national map.

The strange explanation for Joss Naylor's unique capabilities is that for large parts of his early life he was literally immobile. Hampered from his childhood by a serious back condition, he took little part in sports as a boy. He left school at 15 to help on his father's farm; he was deemed unfit for National Service. In 1954, when he was 18, he had an operation to remove the cartilage from his right knee. They made a mess of it, so that, ever since, this legendary runner has had a knee joint which doesn't work, which won't lock out straight, hence the peculiar pattering gait which has been his hallmark. (At 60, he's just started a course of physiotherapy: "It's much easier, like, I can stride out now.") In 1958, two discs were removed from his back at hospital in Manchester; he was six weeks encased there, and it was many months before he could usefully work again. Even after, he was in continual pain, and occasionally in a surgical jacket, until he was about 40: but by then he had become one of the outstanding long-distance athletes - if it is possible to compare fell with Alp or bush or track - in the world.

Since this medical history didn't deter him from endurance racing, it must instead have helped him to withstand its ordinary aches and pains. It certainly helps, on runs of 24 hours or more, to be able to do without sleep, as Joss Naylor's back forced him to learn to do. On runs of more than two days, he will take three hours' sleep a night on his mattress in the back of a van. Neither, by the way, is he too careful about his diet. "I'll eat owt," he says, meaning not that he prefers restaurants but that anything will do. In fact nothing will do him most of the working day - just water and a chocolate bar; on big runs, he will take mouthfuls of sweet rubbish, macaroni pudding, trifle, weak tea; and a few cans of stout at night. He doesn't, in a phrase, look after himself, but leaping bogs and crashing down scree requires its own kind of fitness. What he recognises in himself is that he "carries no weight" (at about 6ft and nine-and-a-bit stone, he is indeed "as thin as that", as an admirer says, holding up a single finger) and that he has "a tremendous amount of power": a power which is not built up in a gym or fuelled by food or rest, but seems in some slightly disquieting way to generate itself.

Joss Naylor first raced in the summer of 1961, when he saw a trial beginning near his father's farm at Wasdale Head. On impulse, he joined in in his workboots, led for eight miles until he got cramp, and had found what he wanted to do. By the time he was 30, he was best on the circuit. In those days, fell-running was really only a local curiosity; but soon he began the sequence of record-breaking exploits that have helped the sport transcend its seemingly natural limitations. (In the Nineties, Lake District runners travel to world championships in italy and Switzerland.) He won the classic Mountain Trial, run annually round a different course, 10 times ("It should have been more, but my navigation let me down"). Among his records are his coverage, in 1986 at the age of 50, of all 214 of the summits listed in Alfred Wainwright's Lake District guides, in seven days, one hour and 25 minutes, clipping half a week off the existing record (it took Wainwright himself 13 years). He says: "I would have done it in six days, but I had trouble with my feet" - that is, the flesh on both ankles was cut through to the nerve.

Asked which single run has given him the most pleasure, he chooses his Lakes, Meres and Waters record run of 1983: "It was one of the most beautiful things I ever did, seeing every drop of water in the Lake District, 27 of them in 19 hours, just over. When we finished at Derwentwater, it was becoming dark, but we saw everything else in a single day's daylight - a beautiful clear June day it was, only a little bit of of mist early on. That was something." But ever since Bob Graham did his celebrated "round" of 42 peaks on 13 June 1932, the most coveted fell-running record has been for the number of peaks scaled inside 24 hours. In July 1975, Joss Naylor ran through a heatwave Sunday to raise his own record by nine to a total of 72 peaks, an achievement that amazed the pacers melting in his wake ("He's just not human," they said again), won him the MBE and seemed to set a record that would last for ever.

Now fell-runners generally support one another; much of Joss Naylor's running is done as back-up or as a guide for younger runners, literally as a shepherd to men. Neither would he be so popular in Cumbria if he were thought to be jealous of his achievements. But he knows his own strengths and how to measure others against them. When, in 1988, a young man called Mark McDermott took the 24-hour record, with a run of 76 peaks - when a lifetime's endurance was effaced by someone who seemed to have poured all his ability into a single day - it rankled. And it still rankles today.

"He's hardly won a race in his life, before or since - you'd think if he was capable of doing that, he'd be winning every big race in the country. And his training, two hours a night round a blooming football pitch, and coming out and doing a bit here at weekends..." Which are the sort of dark thoughts that will simmer away in a sport whose ground is determined by the participant, whose regulation is voluntary, sketchy, a matter in the end of good will. Was Joss Naylor never tempted then to test his mettle instead on the track or on the roads?

"Well, I could have done. I had the pace. But there was no sponsorship in athletics until I was about 43 or 44, though I was running well then. And I couldn't have left the farm on a regular basis without sponsorship." So he has remained what he had always, as a boy, expected to be, a sheep farmer. As I arrived at his farm one Sunday afternoon in the lambing season - he'd been working a couple of hours since a five-hour run earlier - he was up to his elbows in blood performing the old trick to attach an orphaned lamb to a bereaved ewe; cutting the fleece from the dead lamb - "nipped" by a fox, its stomach eaten out by crows - and fitting it over the other as a jacket. But it seems that the new generation of young dalesmen, even without many alternatives, are put off by the physical hardness and financial leanness of such a working life - that Joss Naylor may be one of the last of his kind.

It's part of the aim of the National Trust - which "protects" the whole of the Lake District, and which now owns, for instance, most of Wasdale - to maintain traditional land use where possible. But Joss is scornful of the Trust management. "The footpath on Black Sail there, it was kept right by the council until 1970 - they used to go up twice a year, just, and there was no erosion at all. Now it's eroded to nothing. The Trust leave things too late. And you can't tell 'em. Sixteen or 17 years ago, I went specially to see the man in charge of the area and told him exactly what was wrong - that when it comes quite a lot of rain, water washes over the footpath from this point to that point. I said I'm sure one of your workers could put it right in a couple of hours. 'Oh,' he said, 'you couldn't take a spade with you when you go out on one of your runs, could you?' Nothing was ever done, and it's meant thousands and thousands of pounds' worth of damage to a good bridleway."

Joss and his wife, Mary, agree that things are improving, but only by dint of short-term measures. The Trust have their own maintenance teams of wallers - "good wallers, some of them" - who go into farms and repair the dry-stone walls. "So the farmers won't keep up that skill, and they won't be able to pass it on." And as the trickle of trippers and climbers swells down the slopes, so the habit of labour in solitude that was the sheep farmer's exacting inheritance seems another thing that must erode away.

For local people not involved in farming, employment choices boil down to tourism - if they have a property, for instance, to take advantage of the sporadic B&B trade hereabouts - or Sellafield, on the coast 12 miles to the west of Wasdale - again, if they're lucky. Joss Naylor himself, true to his place even in this, worked shifts for several years as a fitter's mate at Sellafield, enabled by his need for only a little sleep and enjoying the companionship (after sheep) of what his wife called the "idiots" there - "good lads, would do anything for you".

British Nuclear Fuel's Sellafield site is a complex of 600 buildings over 480 acres, including the old atomic power station, Calder Hall, and the plutonium factory, formerly called Windscale. For 50 years, the nuclear industry has shielded the Cumbrian coast, whose coal and iron and shipbuilding industries petered out in the Thirties, from outright employment failure. There was even something of a boom time during the construction of the THORP reprocessing plant. At its height, there were 7,500 people at work there, half of them local. But since the plant became operational in 1992 only 2,000 are employed there. Sellafield itself, once known locally as the Holiday Camp on account of the light demands made of employees, is reducing its workforce from a peak of 8,000 to a projected 4,600 by the end of the century. Month by month, the fabric of the local towns registers the decline.

So the attitude to Sellafield prevailing here is a grudging, provisional gratitude. Safety seems not to concern too many; perhaps because of the hundreds who lost their lives over the years in the old coal mines; perhaps again, as Mary points out, because "we're sitting a few miles from Sellafield, and the only time there's been any fall-out here it's come from the Ukraine."

Yet, despite the brave-new-world ambitions embodied in the visitors' centre at Sellafield, the nuclear and tourist industries are hard to reconcile. The little Victorian resort of Seascale, a couple of miles to the south, was a thriving place, with bathing and golf and a sizeable hotel, the Sca Fell. Then, in 1983, in the so-called Beach Incident, radioactive discharge was washed back from the Irish Sea in a crud. The beach at Seascale was closed to the public for six months and beachcombing went out of fashion for good. In the same year, a Yorkshire TV investigation found an incidence of leukaemia and other cancers 10 times the normal. The subsequent Gardner report, published in 1990, established a link between men working at Sellafield and cancers in their children.

Vivien Hope, the daughter of a Sellafield fitter and a resident of Seascale, fell ill in 1988 with Hodgkin's lymphoma; surviving her illness, she has since sued BNFL, unsuccessfully, for damages for personal injury. Yet she has now returned to work at Sellafield as a clerical assistant. As she says: "There's nowhere else to work round here." The Sca Fell Hotel, which had been shutting down room by room, pipes bursting everywhere, closed completely over last winter.

The new hope for the area, if hope is the term, is the NIREX project of a dump for the dry storage of spent nuclear fuel, to be bored 650 metres beneath sea level, somewhere near Sellafield; there because, as an adjunct to Vivien Hope's resignation about her job opportunities, "no other part of the country will accept it". The first site to be explored lies between Sellafield and the village of Gosforth on the very edge of the Lake District National Park. But should the geology here prove unsatisfactory, NIREX will seek permission to drill in the National Park itself, "beneath the fells to the east of Gosforth"; that is, under Joss Naylor's 140 rocky acres.

Joss's announcement of his 60-peak marathon represents a comeback not much less dramatic than Vivien Hope's. Four years ago, spraying sheep after shearing them, he inhaled sheep-dip, whose toxic effects on humans have been highlighted in other recent cases. "I had a dust mask there, but I got careless and didn't put it on, and I was breathing these particles in, for about three weeks. And I just gradually got that way that I could hardly catch sheep, and all the power had gone from my body. I was still running a bit, but just going through the motions, and I got real low, like. It's taken about three year to get it all out of my system but I was lucky to get away with it, lucky I didn't get enough in my system to drag me right down, like..."

When Joss Naylor did his Wainwright round in 1986, the money raised went to fight arthritis; for his new 60-peak attempt, it's Multiple Sclerosis: another aspect of his cussed, on-going crusade against paralysis and decay. And when this champion, his energies restored and harnessed for charity, steps out and up from Walna Scar in the dark that early morning, the lights of Sellafield a faint glow to the west, he scores one more outrageous victory in the battle we're all involved in: to set our power, while we've still got it, against the gravity of sickness.

! Donations can be made to the Joss Naylor Multiple Sclerosis Appeal Fund, account no: 40-22-16 31075888, at any Midland Bank branch

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