Race Report – West Witton Fell Race by Marc Davies

Saturday 22nd August 2015 – West Witton Fell Race by Marc Davies

The Witton Feast is a traditional village event that includes the ancient ritual of ‘Burning the Bartle’ – a thing to see in its own right.
I was there having heard about the fell race via Peter Richardson. Numbers fluctuate year by year, but it is a classic race route, and previously the race has been run (and won I believe) by the Brownlees.

I arrived early with Bev so I could reconnoitre the route and we could both enjoy walking Penhill which we haven’t done for a while.

The race actually starts at the west end of the village but finishes at the sports field to the east. Peter had mentioned the fact there were some challenging ‘stone walls’ to negotiate near the finish so we had a look at that end first. A pair of ‘lollipops’ indicated the final wall just feet before the finish line, beyond it was less clear.

Bumping into a dog-walker we asked if he knew the route, he had run it previously and in fact his other half was running it I discovered later. He gave a rough idea were it went and as we were chatting mentioned sometimes the field was 20 or so and other times just half a dozen. That focussed my mind. I suddenly felt a pit develop in my stomach! The thought of lining up with 5 other runners for a run like this sounded a bit intimidating. No one wants to be last – and no one wants to be lost and last or slow and last.  I was getting twitchy!

Still 3 hours until registration we headed up the village via the road to pick up the route where we could easier find it and not risk any potential wrath from farmers (race route of course not following paths too much).

On the hairpin was the first sign – ‘over the wall to the finish’ – only 2 foot of classic stone wall, but 5Ft drop the other side – no jumping without caution!

1 Race marker

Up the road further (on very steep tarmac) we crossing the green lane and through a tight gate and into a steep field of thistles and occasional Belted Galloway’s. It was a very humid afternoon and even at gentle rambling pace it was hard going. Onwards and upwards across old mine spoil heaps, more thistles and a few openings and gate before the moorland proper and the final sharp tug up to the beacon on Penhill. Penhill stands alone and proud at this point in the Dales and we see it each morning in outline as we travel to Northallerton. A beacon it really is. The views were very hazy today though and no chance to see back to our home hills. At least the forecast rain hadn’t shown up. Flying ants in abundance but luckily not too many midges as we continued along the craggy edge toward the far end (We walked the run route in reverse) to see were the next marker was.

2 Race Marker

The descent (ascent) was less clear, but we followed what we thought was the right way dodging reed tussocks and boggy patches. We didn’t find the point the route up entered the moor but I guessed I should be able to see people ahead at that point (surely!).

Concerned about the time we turned back along the track on the mid-way ‘shelf’ back towards the finish. This was actually the junior’s route. Looking down to the village, a steep 200m below us gave an appreciation of the challenge. From here it looked a long steep way – and Penhill climbed even steeper another 100+m behind us. Wow, quite a challenge. And here we were on the junior’s route – damn plucky kids!

Returning to the road we met another runner driving up to remind himself of the route, a Settle Harrier he had run the race a few times and in fact came in second this time so was a very handy athlete. He gave some good advice about the route as a few more people turned up that were obviously entering, quite a few youngsters for the junior race and a very lithe tanned figure that had ‘winner’ written all over him (and he was). All were social and as the ‘crowds’ (!) amassed we went and registered. A whooping £4 paid I picked up my number – wishing 40 represented the number of entries (it didn’t).

We wandered to the far end of the village for the start, a brief trot up the outward route brought an awareness of the steepness, that’s enough warming up for me! Back to the start line and a chance to see for the first time how many people were entered and if there were any familiar faces. There were not and there weren’t enough people for anyone to be hidden, just 12 seniors, 3 women & 8 men – nowhere to hide!

3 Seniors

The juniors were to leave a minute later and there were 4 girls and 3 boys.

6 Juniors

We got underway after a brief safety chat (the walls the walls, and turn left at the road if lost or you’ll be in Coverdale as happened a year or two back in murky conditions).

We’re off, easy, easy, determined not to burn out early – fatal on a mile+ uphill, I took a steady pace and hung on in there near the back hoping there might be some cracking ahead. Sure enough someone started to walk so that was one gained (if it could be maintained!). Steady, steady. I wasn’t making any further progress but wasn’t losing too much time on those ahead, puff puff pant pant I could hear someone catching me! Then a small child ran past me – great effort, the juniors set off 1 minute after us. It wasn’t long before the young lady was walking though and we had a bit of two and fro up to the shelf were the juniors went left and the seniors continued up up.

4 Seniors

Was that thunder? Maybe a jet? No that is definitely the sound of thunder echoing up the Dale. On top of the highest hill around is not a great place to be if lightning is striking – hopefully it would miss us. Daring not look behind me but concentrated on staying in sight of the others, perhaps even gaining very slightly – could it be so? When it gets steeper and walking comes into play I can dig a bit deeper and was definitely gaining on at least the green shirted Swaledale Club runner. Target fixed. Onto the actual edge of Penhill and I took to the extreme edge running along the crag side with evocative swirling cloud hanging just below masking the views but enlivening the whole fell run experience, wonderful, I was enjoying this run, really enjoying the run.

The Swaledale runner was on the path further right but I preferred the more airy edge, like running a skyline. Though both paths must have been the same length I felt I had the better line and was almost undertaking in the now light mizzle and murky conditions. Down at the finish line the heavens opened for 10 minutes…but we were above it all and battling through thin cloud.

The two paths joined and I leapt over the stile just behind before forking left again for the skyline. The clouds frayed and the beacon appeared, for some reason I ran around clock-wise which took me past the descent while my fellow competitor went the sensible way, I doubled back and threw myself off the hill side with abandon.

I knew it was now downhill all the way and technical so I knew I was in my element – if only they did downhill (foot) racing. Anyway. Fast paced short steps combined with longer strides were possible and I was away like a loon. Ahead another runner at the gate – he opened it, ran through and closed it and on, I catapulted through the gap left by the post for just the purpose (again good to have the advance knowledge) and I dodged left to the steeper but easier to my mind ground and then in and around the old spoil heaps grateful again for the earlier reconnaissance walk. Cows avoided, thistles and nettles not – leaving the sensation for post-run. Squeeze though a tight gap and onto the track, a brief moment of ‘where’ (so much for that reconnaissance then eh) before seeing a marshal and away again down the very steep field with renewed vigour. Onto the track a short flat section before the steep tarmac and the hairpin wall and the first leap of faith. Well, a pause, a turn, a down climb a jump and a hurtle down another field. Misjudging the reeds I encountered a bog section that near sucked a shoe away, across to the corner, through a gap the finish in sight a bit further below and several walled fields away.

Hang on, I’m running straight towards a stone wall I can’t possibly see over, eh? There’s a guy standing there, the wall higher than he is, eh? ‘Where do I cross’ I call as I stride towards him looking left and right and seeing nowhere obvious. ‘Straight up here’ says he, ‘I’ll give you a leg up’. You have to be joking I think, this is madness! Nowt for it, I clamber up the face (without assistance but grateful for my rock-climbing skills). What goes up has to come down and after a bit of a down-climb I dropped and ran towards the visible finish ‘lollipops’. Just a final wall before them – striding out I suddenly realised the next wall had a mesh extension on top and no one present to point the way (I still have no idea which was the right way to go). I kept running straight, realised I couldn’t cross there so ran left to what looked like a gate but was actually a water trough, I barrelled over it and into the mire the other side before lunging on to the finish. The final wall was lined on the far side, either side of the lollipops by a cheering crowd of spectators and once over it was a matter of meters to the finish and a good minute of bent-double deep breathing.

What a race, what a course – and how on earth do the juniors get over those walls???

I’d gained 3 minutes on the second runner I’d passed off the beacon and 5 on the first making me one Very Happy Bunny. I was 7th in 46 minutes which is a very high finish for me…but there were only 12 of us which tempers the result somewhat.

What’s more there was a beer pump at registration so that important post-race hydration was near at hand.

8 Rehydration

The results aren’t published as I write my report, but the gentleman that was first came in 10 minutes before me and was indeed the tanned lithe fellow…who represents GB at 3000m steeplechase! One daughter was first junior, the second was third and even his seven year old son came in – all of them (the children) celebrating with a cartwheel over the line. Mum was the last runner home after 1Hr 13.

The presentations took place in the marquee with trophies and lovely hand-made medals for the various winners, a shield for the first local home and mugs for the participants, all for £4.

It was nice to spend time chatting to everyone and there was a good village carnival feeling to the event. Great to catch up with the other runners, the Settle Harrier had come in just a minute behind the winner, and third was a Ripon Runner (did I hear right aged 72?). There were then a few of us all within a matter of minutes of each other. First junior was about 40mins which is very respectable indeed – especially considering the walls, madness when you are only 4Ft or so tall, madness!

Would I do it gain? Would I ever! I’d recommend it to anyone who’d likes there fell racing, particularly classic style and anyone who just loves our countryside and getting out there in it.

We stayed on to witness the ‘Burning of the Bartle’ – look it up for more details – but basically an effigy is carried down the closed main street with the ‘carriers’ obtaining alcoholic drinks at each willing household door before setting the Bartle alight at the end. This year the skies had opened and it nailed down hard nearly all evening. The lightning and thunder only added to the ambiance as the crowd followed and the doggerel was repeated:-

On Penhill Crags he tore his rags
Hunters Thorn he blew his horn
Cappelbank Stee happened a misfortune and brak’ his knee
Grassgill Beck he brak’ his neck
Wadhams End he couldn’t fend
Grassgill End we’ll mak’ his end
Shout, lads, shout!

Almost sounds a description for the fell race, following as it does the fells and lanes of the words.
Keep an eye out for the race next August – it’s sorely in need of support to maintain its presence and will pay back everything you put in tenfold.




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