2nd January 2022
84km, 2300m ascent
15 hours 42 minutes
The Hewitts round was first run in 2006 by Stu Ferguson and Steve Lumb. It covers around 80km and 2300m of ascent over every mountain in County Durham over 2000 feet with 30m prominence. Will Horsely completed the route in summer 2011, Tony Wimbush did the route with Simon Richardson and there have been two further attempts which have both bailed at Cow Green. The ground is incredibly rough, around 80% pathless and crosses significant sections of peat bog. In August 2021, Paul Hodgson suggested an attempt at a winter round as a celebration of my upcoming 40th birthday. I started to look at sections of the route from early September, keeping an eye on how wet the bogs were getting and trying to predict what the ground conditions would be like by mid-Winter.
By mid-November I was fairly certain the route would ‘go’ in Winter and had looked at all the sections on various training runs. The longest of these was 55km around the Stanhope 10 trigs, which while not covering any of the same ground, is partly over very similar terrain. It’s worth mentioning at this point that this sort of long run is not what I do, I did the Bob Graham Round 9 years ago and at that point retired from ultra-running , it being something I wasn’t good at or particularly enjoyed. I don’t think I have run over 50km since my BG, so being fit for 80+km in 4 months wasn’t in anyway a foregone conclusion.
Given the uncertainties over my ability to complete the route and with the risk of going for an unplanned swim in a bog I decided to do the round supported, both at road crossings and on the fell. This gave the added bonus of it being a slightly more sociable way to celebrate my 40th birthday. In the weeks preceding the attempt I was feeling confident and discussed that I would go solo if Covid rules or other issues prevented support from coming out. This would turn out to be a significant over-estimate of my abilities.
Being part of Durham Fell Runners, support fell into place easily. Everyone I spoke to was very positive about the attempt and everyone I asked, offered to help if they could. I decided to start at 4am, in the hope that I would be finished by around 4pm as it was getting dark, a very approximate 12 hour schedule was drawn up – another over-estimate of my abilities!
Paul Hodgson met me at 0345 in St John’s Chapel, it felt good to be meeting at a silly time in the morning to be going on an adventure with friends. We started at the war memorial, and as Will had done 10 years previously, paused for a few seconds to reflect on the real, rather than self-imposed, desperate struggles that the names we were reading must have gone through. We set off at 4am, keeping the pace very steady, walking all the up-hill sections. It was very difficult to follow the vague grassy trods around Black Hill, and we lost a few minutes here relocating ourselves and decided on a slightly rougher line following the fence North to the 607 trig point rather than the 570m contour path which gets to the first summit via slightly easier ground. Middlehope Moor (named Burtree Fell on Stu and Will’s account) was reached in around 1hr 10. The next section to the road crossing at Killhope Cross via Killhope law has a bit of everything, deep peat groughs, thick heather and tussocks the only thing it is lacking is any trods. Another minor navigational glitch left us a couple of hundred metres further West than my planned route, meeting the fence line which took us to Killhope Cross, 16km, in around 3 hours. The only victim of the first leg was my water bottle, which was lost when Paul fell in a bog early on, leaving us only 500ml of water between us for the first two legs.
Paul was also designated support for L2 (this was his idea after all). At least we weren’t going to get lost on L2, as it mostly follows a fence line for 15km and it was going to get light soon. Hewitt 3 is Deadstones which was reached around 45 minutes after the road crossing. Hewitt 4 on the round is generally regarded as Burnhope Seat, however, the Database of British and Irish Hills records Burnhope Seat as being in Cumbria. There is a very fine trig point in County Durham which I visited and is a few hundred metres from the summit, but I was on the Durham Hewitts Round and I didn’t fancy a detour for a Cumbrian one, so I didn’t visit the top of Burnhope Seat. Stu visited the trig and the true summit, Steve just the trig and Will doesn’t remember which top he visited so I think it’s within the spirit of the round to take your pick.
After Burnhope Seat the fence was followed to Great Stony Hill, the sun had risen, weather was calm and all was going well. We left the fence to cross the bog to Three Pikes, then made the quick direct descent to the lay-by at Hill Top where Will Horsley was waiting on road support duties with James Osborn and Dan Hoyle ready to take over on L3. Total time for L1 and L2 was 5h 30 min.
L3 starts with some fiddly farmland nav, which James got spot on, then past the fascinating ruined church on Harwood beck, and the rough climb/contour to Viewing Hill. The OS map seems to call this area Herdship Fell, naming the small prominence at 639m Viewing Hill, however the Database of British and Irish Hills calls the main summit at 649m Viewing Hill, and that is the one we visited before the easy run off to join the path to Cow Green, and onwards along the Pennine Way. We discussed where to cross Maize Beck. The logical point below the line of boundary stones at 791 262 is ‘balls deep’ at the best of times and there had been some heavy rain. We didn’t fancy getting wet and cold or getting swept along the river so we opted for a detour to cross at 774 267 which added around 4.5km to the route. As we made our way back along the beck it was clear we could have crossed safely a few hundred metres above 791 262, but a prudent judgement call should never be regretted in the mountains. My legs were feeling tired and tight at this point, I was struggling to get going but was still managing sub 7min km’s on the good running along the Pennine Way.
The section from the Pennine Way to Bink Moss is through Warcop firing range, which is only open for public access on some days. Check MoD website for details of public access days.
I was slow ascending Mickle Fell, the 250m climb taking 40 minutes, which included a stop to put waterproof trousers on as the rain got really heavy, showers were forecast but this was proper rain and it stayed with us for most of the rest of the round. Mickle Fell is the high point of the round, we reached the top at 1310, around 9h10 after my start. The run along the Mickle Fell top is my favourite section of the whole route. It feels so remote, the views to all sides are vast and there is generally a stonking tail wind. This time though, it was also sheeting down with rain, so we plodded along and made the best of it.
The good running soon runs out, followed by a descent to Arngill Head, which is some of the worst terrain on the route. Some newly constructed rope dams across the peat gruffs provide some verifiably safe terrain, apart from that, it’s a huge bog-fest, followed by deep heather to the top of Bink Moss which we reached 10.5 hours in. Good running along wooden boardwalks off Bink Moss took us down to the nice tracks to Holwick which were crossed by two or three ‘run, jump, and hope for the best’ stream crossings which were all now significantly more fierce than I imagined they would be. Through Holwick over the bridge and into Newbiggin for the end of L3, 11h 40 minutes in.
L4 support Adam Bridges shuttled James and Dan back to their cars while I had a full outfit change and some food in the van. I set off refuelled along the road towards Watson’s Bridge as it was getting dark with Martyn Farnsworth and Fran Blackett – my wife. I was feeling good at this point, moving well again and enjoying myself. Adam soon caught up as we followed the track to the ruined Flushiemere House, finding time for a game of quoits – utilising a large box of industrial staples, which Adam was victorious in. It was now fully dark, and my pace slowed, the 200m climb took around 30 minutes. The wind was strong and the rain heavy, as we battled to the top of James’s Hill (Westernhope Moor) after 13h15. This is the last major climb, however the head wind along the next section was atrocious, every step was a struggle. I was still moving, but very slowly by now only managing 12-15minute km’s. Fran took charge of the navigation on this section, and also of feeding me. Which isn’t a duty I would normally expect her to undertake but I was in full ‘head down and get it done’ mode and wasn’t much interested in eating. She did both roles expertly and we didn’t put a foot wrong for the whole leg.
Chapelfell Top is a hill which is very special to me and Fran, having both organised fell races up there for the last few years. Reaching the top 14h50 after leaving St John’s Chapel as the last top on this huge challenge was a moment I won’t forget. At race pace, the descent is around 15 minutes, today we took 52 minutes. I did run at times, but it was more of a walk for the most part. We were out of the wind and slowly warming up at this point, and there didn’t seem to be much of a rush. A very minor navigational disagreement as the three men without a map were convinced it was this way and Fran calmly corrected us to reach the wall corner in the other direction. Down the stone track, over the road and back to the war memorial which I had last seen 84km ago, 15 hours 42 minutes 2 seconds previously.
People have asked me if I will go back to do a summer round of the Hewitts, I’m not going to say never – it’s a great route and one which I hope others will explore and challenge themselves on but I certainly have no plans. I found my limits on this run, and that’s a big part of why I did it. To go back and find the same limits again doesn’t hold much appeal.
I do hope that others follow in my footsteps and attempt this route in Winter. It’s remote, high, serious terrain which is rarely visited – everything a mountain challenge should be. I only saw 2 others on the route over the course of all my reccies and my round. The ground conditions mean a Winter round is always going to present a significantly different challenge to a summer one and I like that aspect of it.
A minor point on style. Unlike previous attempts I chose to run this route supported, I don’t think the bogs are sufficiently dangerous to make an unsupported winter round out of the question for someone with the right experience. I chose to not use GPS for navigation on the round. I also chose not to use poles. I came into this sport through fell racing in FRA events, GPS and poles are not permitted in fell races. Perhaps it’s because I’m a traditionalist. Perhaps it’s because I enjoy a set of rules. For reasons I can’t fully explain I chose to apply the no GPS, no poles ethic to this challenge. Others are free to take the challenge in whatever style they see fit.