The Big Three

I'm just back from a few days in North Wales. I'd aimed to walk the Paddy Buckley Round, one of the 3 fell running 'classic rounds'. I managed 2 days, over 500 photos and 4 camps before the weather shut the trip down. All the photos in this post are from the PBR.

I don't run these rounds. I walk them. The Welsh round is the third of the Big 3 I've tried. Last year I walked the Bob Graham round, in the Lakes, and the year before I tried my luck on the Charlie Ramsay, in Lochaber, Scotland. I ended up falling short on that first trip and only managed the Tranter round. I went back and mopped up the Loch Treig Munros in May this year over 2 days. All being well, I'll go again for the whole round next year.

On the Paddy Buckley this time around, I had 2 fantastic days weather before a low pressure descended. I could have shlepped round the rest of the round on a compass bearing when the weather turned. It wasn't particularly dangerous, just extremely wet. When I began on the Charlie Ramsay round, the aim was just to get round in one piece. Now though, it turns out I have a job to do, so I pulled the plug early. Best to go back when I can finish what I started.

Last year, the publisher Cicerone commissioned what will (with any luck) be my first book, about the Big 3. My idea is to make it part guide, part celebration. Occasionally I break into a jog on a hill, but I'm not a fell runner, so what qualifies me to do a book on the classical rounds? It's a fair question. Well, the book won't be about the activity of running in itself, although it will feature runners. It's about the Rounds - mountains, people, history and culture. The Big 3 are a great example of how people and place come together, a positive link between us and the land. If you follow my wittering here and elsewhere, you'll know I'm all for that.

Additionally, whilst the book will I hope be useful for everyone planning a round, the guided part will be primarily written for walkers. I've got some experience there. After a year of work on the project, I also have a fair idea what to leave out, as well as what to put in. There are very legitimate reasons why a walker's route can't always follow the exact line that a runner can:

Practical - some lines are less optimal if carrying a backpack.

Environmental - some of the regular lines taken by runners are showing signs of erosion, and would be susceptible to greater damage with more, regular footfall. There are instances where this is not desirable or sustainable. There are other instances where deviation from the line would break the flow of the round.

Ethical - these routes are high level undertakings, even for so called 'plodders' with 5 days food and shelter. There's a tradition in fell running of not prescribing an exact line, but of developing the hill craft, route finding and fitness required through repeated recce'ing. I have a good deal of sympathy for this approach. To that end, they'll be no GPX files for runners here. They will remain real challenges for fit and experienced outdoors people.

By the same token, I don't have any truck with elitism in outdoors pursuits. The hills belong to all of us and none of us, and they don't care if I walk, run or crawl. Passion and persistence are what counts, and they aren't exclusive qualities.

But the Big 3 are an important part of UK hill culture, and it's equally important I get things right - that means exploring both runner's and walker's options in order to recommend a direct line as might be taken by those trying for a 24hour round, or another 'in the spirit of'.

The beauty of the Big 3 in my view, and why they shouldn't just be the province of runners solely, are the places that join the summits. I flattered myself that I knew the Welsh hills fairly well - they were where I went when I lived in the south to learn how to be in the mountains - but I visited new places this time because of the Round. That's how it should be. The Paddy Buckley is unique among the 3 in that it's possible to see the entire round from multiple points on it. The big hitter - Snowdon - like Nevis, follows you around, but here you can see the Carnedds and the Nantlle ridge too. It's incredibly exciting to see it all laid out, and then to approach it slowly over hours following. It was also a joy to hear Welsh spoken so frequently, on the hill, in the cafe and on the buses. We should cherish our cultural diversity, alongside biodiversity. Difference makes us resilient.

The Buckley round is also unique among the 3 for traversing through so much obvious human history. The south of the round explores the vast slate quarries above Blaenau Ffestiniog, a place I first visited as a Wrexham schoolboy. The damage wrought here is devastating and poignant, vainglorious and beautiful, like coming across the ruins of an alien civilisation. An eerie experience that adds much to the round.

There's also the light. Mountain light can be hard and high contrast, and milky soft, and all the rounds face the sea and share a West Coast, Celtic gentleness, but even so, each round has it's own particular colour temperature. If Lochaber is pink, Cumbria is blue, Snowdonia for me has always been gold. Welsh mountain light casts deep shadows, that I've missed without knowing. 3 rounds, 3 countries, 1 shared culture. I can't wait to go back.


If you'd like to share your Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley or Charlie Ramsay Round story, or know someone who would, please get in touch. There is plenty of scope for interviews, anecdotes, tips and histories. I'd love to hear from you.