Joss Naylor drapes a long, slim leg over the side of his armchair and looks briefly wistful. It is a shimmering morning in Gosforth in the summer of 2021 but for the moment we are back in 1983: the year the great Cumbrian fell-runner completed an epic 105-mile Lakeland route in 19 hours and 14 minutes.

“It was summat very special,” says Naylor, cradling his mug of tea. “It was a good weekend; a bit like today. I could have got under 19, mind – it was the bloody mist that put me back 10 minutes…”

The fiery competitor in Naylor remains clear at 85, yet his 1983 ‘Lakes, Meres and Waters’ run from Loweswater to Over Water, which is now the subject of a book, also prompts warm nostalgia. Revisiting the route with author Vivienne Crow last year, this time at walking pace, was a vivid experience for Naylor.

What were the clearest feelings it revived? “The sheer beauty of it, like. And the variation of different valleys. Going out to Skeggles Water was like being on the moon. It’s in the back of beyond and you didn’t know where you were going. There were no paths in them days. You just had to get your head down and go.”

What gave him the idea to take on the Lakes, Meres and Waters run in the first place? “Alan Heaton [another great hill runner] had done it. But I didn’t know him. It was just in my make-up. I got a lot of pleasure from doing that sort of thing.

The Westmorland Gazette: Joss Naylor touches the water in one of the 'lakes, meres and waters' during his epic 1983 run (photo: Dave Elliott)Joss Naylor touches the water in one of the 'lakes, meres and waters' during his epic 1983 run (photo: Dave Elliott)

“It was a bloody long way, like. A lot of trailing about. When I got to Windermere my back-up van hadn’t turned up. They’d gone somewhere else. I was stood in bloody water up to my knees for 10 minutes. They caught up with us eventually…”

Naylor laughs at the way his cherished terrain can be simultaneously stunning and arduous. “We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world," he says. "I appreciated that and I still do. That’s what this book is all about, to let people see what’s on our doorstep.

“It’s a story of beauty. That’s the simplest way to describe it."


'I’ve never seen anything like it. The man must be a mountain goat...’

Naylor, commonly described as one of the toughest fell-runners there has ever been, retains the same lithe figure that has carried him to extraordinary feats down the decades. After our interview he says he will “go out and do about 10 miles”, around Blea and Burnmoor Tarns and back along the screes, and even now he still regards the fells as fresh and inviting. “It’s solace on its own. I like getting out, even if it’s pouring down. You can be out there and hardly see a soul.”

There are many other occasions when the Lakes’ legion of walkers and runners come across Naylor. “It’s surprising,” he says of the attention he gets. “Piles and piles of people. And the unlikeliest sort of folk. But I don’t think about it. It doesn’t do my ego any good. I’m Joss and that’s it. I’ll talk to anybody.”

Naylor’s story is embedded in this county; a young sheep farmer who proved astonishingly fleet of foot and set numerous records. He ran as a boy at May festivals until he was asked, almost by chance, if he fancied trying a mountain trial at Wasdale Head. “I’d just had my breakfast. I had no running shoes or nowt,” he recalls. “They said, ‘You’ll be alright’. I went in my bloody big boots and cut the legs off my trousers.”

Naylor recalls that first mountain trial in remarkable detail: the mist on Red Pike, the shortcut he attempted after Pillar, the cramp he suffered after crawling under some trees and the salt he borrowed from some picnicking women to help him find his legs again. “I finished about halfway up the field. The next year I missed Seatoller and ran an extra mile or two and got disqualified. After that I did a la’al bit of homework.”

Naylor would, in subsequent years, win many such trials. “What I got pleasure out of wasn’t racing, it was just going for long runs,” he says – yet his appetite was relentless. His many feats of endurance are too long to list but they include, in 1975, the extraordinary bagging of 72 peaks, at over 100 miles, in just 23 hours 20 minutes. Another stunner was his ascent and descent of Scafell Pike, England’s highest, in an extraordinary 47 minutes.

“That one was magic,” he says, grinning. “This commanding [Army] officer rang up and said he had four young blokes training and doing the three peaks challenge. I got up there and this big Chinook helicopter was in the field. This old boy says, ‘You’re too late, my boys have been gone an hour’. I says, ‘That’s alright then’, and set off.

“Once I crossed the beck, my legs just fired up. It was like somebody had put a rocket up my backside. I touched the pit cairn on the top and came back past these lads. When I came down, this gentleman said, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. The man must be a mountain goat’."

The Westmorland Gazette: Joss Naylor pictured at home in Gosforth, next to a painting of one of his many fell-running feats (photo: Jon Colman)Joss Naylor pictured at home in Gosforth, next to a painting of one of his many fell-running feats (photo: Jon Colman)

Naylor had the build and bone structure of an elite athlete and was often invited to run professionally, great athletes such as Chris Brasher among those who tried to twist his arm, but the inclination was never strong enough. “I did a 24-hour run at Crystal Palace and they said, 'You can win any marathon you want', but I said I wasn’t really in a position where I could just do that.

“It was the same around here. I said, 'I’ve no time to train – I’m trying to get my sheep to fell, and these taties to pick every morning'. I’m not saying I didn’t train, but not to the extent where I was flogging my guts out two or three times a week.”

It was also the case that running competitively was not in the family. “When I started, my parents told me I was a silly bugger and not to waste my time. But I remember one time the old lad [my father] was sitting on a wall when I was finishing a race, and tears were running down his eyes.”


'No matter how dark it is, there’s light at the end of the tunnel if you look for it...'

Naylor also had greater physical challenges simply than those involved with putting one foot ahead of another on hard ground. One of his knees, he says, has had "no cartilage for years, just bone against bone," while he suffered serious back problems in his youth.

“I got a kick up the backside that went wrong. Off my mother. I’d have been giving her cheek. I was eight or nine, got caught in the wrong position, and I could feel something wasn’t right.

“I was 20 before anybody could do anything about it. I went into Manchester Infirmary and they kept us in for a week as a guinea pig.”

Naylor had 12 months to recuperate after an operation but damaged his back again when vaulting a fence and landing on a cobble. He was advised by consultants that he should give up both farming and running. “I said, ‘That’s a bit rough’. I had to go and get measured for this corset. I did that and then met the missus for fish and chips. I had this big arctic cod but I could hardly eat its tail. I went out, took the corset off, threw it in the back of the car and never put it on again.”

He defied the warnings, and says that, as he ran, the pain gradually faded. Yet later he suffered badly again after being poisoned by sheep dip. “It was strong stuff. It used to fair clear your head, like. But it left the blood coagulating in my legs and wasn’t getting pumped down in my feet when temperatures dropped below 10 degrees.”

In subsequent years Naylor travelled to Spain to improve his circulation in winter. At the time, he says, “I went to see the doctor and they said it was ingrowing chilblains, would you believe. Didn’t get any treatment. The pads came off my feet, and the pain…was serious.”

Did these various physical setbacks teach Naylor how to live with discomfort? “Oh, they did. You learned to put it at the back of your mind.”

It feels appropriate, on this theme, to ask Naylor how any fell runner should face the physical and mental hurdles that must be faced on the hills. He considers the question and says: “You haven’t got to think too far ahead. I think that’s what does a lot of folk. The miles get longer if you’re struggling or looking for shortcuts. If you keep that in your mind, you can get through most things. The only thing you can’t fight is hypothermia. You’ve got to be very much aware of that.”

The Westmorland Gazette: Joss Naylor above Buttermere on the 2020 rewalk of his 1983 'lakes, meres and waters' fell-running challenge (photo: Stephen Wilson)Joss Naylor above Buttermere on the 2020 rewalk of his 1983 'lakes, meres and waters' fell-running challenge (photo: Stephen Wilson)

Naylor today says he’s “getting his legs back” after suffering from pneumonia a few years ago – something which also pushed him towards a period of depression. “I got down. I don’t mind admitting it to anybody," he says. "It was as though someone had got you like a dishcloth and screwed the last bit out of you.

“I got help. You’ve got to be man enough to face up to these things. I saw two different lots of people, but these women wanted to put me on tablets. I’ve seen people on those and they just give you boxful after boxful and expect them to cure you.

“No, that isn’t for me. It needs somebody to get you out there, take you to a different part of the world, see something and have a good crack. Toddy, my mate [Peter Todhunter], was probably the man who got us out of it. We can talk about owt.”

I remark that some people would sooner bury such difficulties rather than share them so candidly. “They would, aye. And that’s one step to burying themselves. You need people to help you. It doesn’t matter how dark it is, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel if you look for it.”


'I don’t like sitting on my backside. I like to do summat...'

Naylor, whose book will raise money for the youth charity Brathay Trust which he has long supported, was in 1976 made an MBE for his services to sport and charity. “The Queen was courteous, nice,” he says. “She said, ‘You come from a nice part of the world’. I said, ‘I appreciate that, ma’am'.”

Did he expect such recognition? “No. I don’t do owt for any praise. But it’s something very nice to have.”

Naylor, who also worked at Sellafield, talks at fervent length on other subjects. His dislike of the National Trust, for what he feels is detrimental work to his beloved Wasdale Valley, could fill a separate book, while his eyes twinkle when he tells a story about the times he “sorted out a couple of shop stewards” who had bad-mouthed him “for having two jobs”.

“This fella thought the good Lord had flattened him. He didn’t realise I had so much power.” He winks and guffaws.

At home Naylor says he likes watching “good sport” on television, such as rugby union, but not American football (“too many stoppages…I wish they’d get on with it”). He also professes a fascination with crime programmes, but he is seldom away from the fells for long. A common sight is of Naylor repairing walls or clearing bracken from Greendale. “I’ve cleared a hell of an area in the last 10 years. I don’t like sitting on my backside. I like to do summat.”

Can he ever imagine a time when he is not able to set foot in his beautiful surroundings? “It’ll come, won’t it? But, you know, it doesn’t bother us now if I went out, dropped down and never took another breath.

“I wouldn’t like to be in a home. Old age is an incurable disease, as you and I know. We’ve all got that to face sometime. But I’d like to face it gracefully if I can and keep my dignity as long as I can.”

At 85, he is still looking outwards, training for mountain trials and facing the glory of the fells. His legacy is assured with the many who cherish this part of Cumbrian heaven and its hardy heroes, but does it cross his own mind how he will be remembered?

“It does, aye. I just want to be remembered as Joss Naylor. Nothing bloody fancy. Just a simple fella who likes to do a bit of good.”

*'Joss Naylor’s Lakes, Meres and Waters of the Lake District', by Vivienne Crowe with Joss Naylor and photography by Steven Wilson, is published by Cicerone Press, priced £19.95.

The Westmorland Gazette: Joss Naylor's new book, written with Vivienne Crow, published by Cicerone Press, priced £19.95Joss Naylor's new book, written with Vivienne Crow, published by Cicerone Press, priced £19.95