Durham Hewitts Round

My last couple of years have seen various injuries meaning I’ve never put in a solid block of training and had to watch with envy as people do personal challenges and chase FKTs, especially during Covid when there was no racing. However, the last few months have been good and I decided to have a crack at the Durham Hewitts Round on Saturday 28th May. In case you can’t be bothered reading the whole article (!), I completed in 9h58m39s – a new record!

Hewitts are defined as hills of 2000 feet or more with a drop of at least 30 metres on all sides (Wikipedia). There are 524 Hewitts in England, Wales and Ireland (Scotland doesn’t seem to play this game – maybe 2000 feet is too insignificant up there?), 180 in England, 25 in the North Pennines, and 11 in County Durham. Stuart Ferguson devised this round of all the Durham Hewitts clocking up some 45 miles and 7500’ of ascent. It covers what can only be described as “rough going” (well I’m sure you could come up with some more colourful language too…) with much of it “off-trail” through peat bogs, tussocks, and heather. Not for the faint-hearted but the kind of thing I take a perverse pleasure in!

Previous completions:

  • First completed in 2008 by Stuart Ferguson and Steve Lumb in 14h03m with an unsupported run starting from St John’s Chapel in Weardale.
  • Will Horsley went unsupported and improved the time to 10h39m04s in 2011.
  • Apparently, a Tony Wimbush and Simon Richardson completed it at some point, no more details known.
  • Andy Blackett completed a winter round in 15h42m in January 2022.

My motivations for doing it:

  • Have a nice day out in the hills (yes, running for 45 miles can be nice!)
  • Beat Will’s time. No point beating about the bush, that was a goal.
  • Good training for “something else” maybe later in the year.

So here we go. I was aiming for ~10 hours, so up at 6am, left home 7am, start 8am, aiming for a sociable finish time of 6pm. Start at the war memorial at St. John’s Chapel – a short pause to recognise those commemorated (“For God and Country” reads the inscription – although it is faded and looks more like “For Cod and Country” which made me smile!) – and then I was off.

Aiming for a brisk time, it seemed fastest – if a little dull – to just start up the road to Cowshill then up the bridleway. A good warmup and easy going. Burtree Hill has a pleasing 3′ pile of stones. It is then rough after the road, no path or trod but I pushed on to find a fine currick and trig waiting at Killhope Law. Set off on a promising damp trod but it ended up peat hags before the fence down to the road at Killhope Cross. Then follow the fence line through Deadstones (a fine currick / pile of stones) to Burnhope Seat. Here I diligently went to the Hewitt top (747m on the OS 1:50,000 and marked with a low cairn on a small knoll) 200m west before returning to the more distinctive trig on concrete base (746m on the OS).

Currently feeling ok, but aware the worst might be yet to come. The next leg over to Great Stoney Fell (freshly pained white trig) mostly follows a fence line, with a dose of peat hags and bog. Down to Three Pikes – a typical flat plateau, with a small cairn marking the spot although it all seemed the same height.

Approaching the road after Three Pikes

Down to the main road, wiggle through some fields on footpaths, and slog up to Viewing Hill. Now this really is vague – I wouldn’t want to try finding it in the mist! Although you are greeted with a low cairn, and there is also a plastic quad bike track as you approach.

The cairn at Viewing Hill with Cow Green Reservoir in the background

At this point I was still feeling ok, and with 7 out of 11 summits down in 3hr20 thought maybe a really quick time could be on the cards. Maybe I should have looked at my maps as I’d done the short legs, and now faced some monsters with tired legs.

A long track takes you down to the Cow Green Reservoir car park, and beyond to Cauldron Spout and along the Pennine Way. Andy had described to me his woes crossing a thigh deep Maize Beck on his winter round and making a large diversion. No such problem today, with drier conditions, it was just the slippy rocks you find round these parts to contend with, and I did indeed slip, and one drinks bottle fell out a side pocket, fortunately I grabbed it before to floated down to High Force. Then the big climb up to Mickle Fell. There is a huge obvious cairn although the Hewitt grid reference and OS spot height are 200m south-west. I dumped my bag at the cairn and ran round over and back to be sure, then onwards.

The climb had worn me out, but I was super excited to be out on these hills, not having been up any of Three Pikes, Viewing Hill, Mickle Fell, or Bink Moss before the round. Indeed Mickle Fell is in the MOD Warcop firing range and you need to check the public access dates. The ridge of Mickle Fell was my favourite section of the whole round, a lovely grassy trod from the cairn / Hewitt top to the trig at the other end. There I met a couple out for a stroll and off to see the WWII plane crash – one for another day. Other than near roads and tourist spots like Cow Green, the only other person I saw the whole day on the fells was on Burnhope Seat – what a privilege to get to run in the hills with so few people. I wonder whey there aren’t more?! Anyway, on with the run over to Bink Moss.

Wellies on stakes at Bink Moss

At this point the arduous nature of the round and the length of these final legs is taking its toll. I sit down for 5 minutes to gather my breath and my thoughts. 10 hours is seeming less likely , and even Will’s time could be a stretch (and my fading brain can’t work it out – I don’t have any sort of schedule to go off in case you hadn’t guessed!). But onwards we go, down the hill to Holwick, over the Tees, and through Bowlees.

The slog up to James Hill seems to take an age and the clock is ticking. But I reason we could still be on for sub-10 hours. 20 minutes to the road, 20 minutes up to Fendrith Hill, 10 minutes to Chapelfell Top, and 20 minutes down to St. Johns Chapel – is that possible? I’m tired, but find another gear, and push on. A nice line cuts the corner off Fendrith Hill, and then I’m lucky to find the peat bog to Chapelfell Top relatively firm. In fact all day conditions were probably as good as they could be, both the weather on the day (dry, sometimes sunny, sometimes fluffy clouds, but never too hot), and previous dry weather meaning the bogs aren’t quite as boggy as they could be.

So I’m at the Chapelfell Top, it is over 3km downhill, but less than 20 minutes to get under 10 hours. Is that possible? What time do they do in the fell race? How much do I want it? How rough is it? Let’s find out. I’m off and give it all I’ve got left in the tank, eventually flying into St. John’s Chapel with just over a minute to spare. SO HAPPY!!

SummitDistance (km)SplitTotal
Burtree Hill7.2642:4642:46
Killhope Law4.7735:441:18:30
Burnhope Seat2.6520:562:27:46
Great Stoney Fell4.1836:183:04:04
Three Pikes2.1216:423:20:46
Viewing Hill5.1253:124:13:58
Mickle Fell11.461:45:015:58:59
Bing Moss7.571:02:457:01:44
James Hill10.571:48:478:50:31
Chapelfell Top6.1350:469:41:17
FINISH – St. John’s Chapel3.5217:229:58:39
Happy Duncan at the finish in St. John’s Chapel

A few other notes:

Food – I ate 5 SIS gels, a Bounty and Snickers Bar, and two flapjacks. 1800 kcal total. Had another flapjack, a Crunchie and a gel in reserve.

Water – I was quite worried about this, as there aren’t any viable streams from the start until between Three Pikes and Viewing Hill. But I got through that section with 2x 500ml bottles (I did have a plan to divert to a stream if necessary), fill between those hills, again in Maize Beck, and again on approach to Holwick.

Style – The choice is between going solo and unsupported (carrying everything you need except filling with water en route), having support at road crossings (food, drink, change clothes, etc.), or being accompanied by supporters / pacers / bag carriers on the hill. I’m generally in favour of the purest style and opted to go solo. But Pippa fancied a day out and I accepted “moral support” only at the road crossings and was very grateful to keep seeing her cheery face and words of encouragement to spur me on.

Navigation – I enjoy the idea of self-sufficiency and that extends to navigation. For me it is map and compass all the way (no GPS!), and the less pre-practice and recce-ing the better. As mentioned earlier, I had never previously visited the sections from Great Stoney Pike round to Bowlees, and a few other stretches besides (although I’d been up the other summits by other routes). I printed out the route with OS 1:25k on 4 double-sided sheets of A4 (to save carrying and unfolding big maps). Several sections follow obvious fence lines, but some less so. I had my compass out several times: after Burnhope Seat (cutting the corner of the loop in the fence line), off Great Stoney Fell (setting the direction to Three Pikes), up onto and across the nothingness that is Viewing Hill, after the Mickle Fell trig towards Bink Moss, and after you leave the fence on the way down to Holwick. Had it been misty I expect I’d have used it more.

Kit – It was a nice day and I ran in 3/4 tights, t-shirt, and cap all day. I carried lightweight waterproofs, hat, gloves, thermal and long-sleeve top just in case. Recently I’ve been wondering about using poles. I’ve never used them much except running adventures in the Alps or when walking. I didn’t use them on this challenge, and I know many fell races ban them (currently race organiser discretion, but some people want the FRA to ban them in all their races). I suspect if I was doing something more mountainous I might be tempted, although I’d need to sort out a system, because faffing with poles when running solo, when you also need to be eating and sometimes getting the map out, is tricky – you need four hands!