Joss Naylor is a name that needs no introduction. Many will know legends of his extraordinary Lake District fell running exploits, but I suspect that very few - myself included - will be familiar the Lakes, Meres and Waters route or his record breaking run of it in 1983. The Bob Graham this is not, both in terms of its popularity and difficulty, yet its wonders - according to Joss - are some of the most stunning in the whole of the Lake District. This book by Vivienne Crow covers not just the route, but looks back on Joss' record run, and those who played a part in it. Whilst re-walking the route with Joss, Crow recounts the people they meet along the way, and beautifully captures the spirit of the Lakes as a whole, both past and present. It's part guide, part biography, but also so much more from a man who continues to inspire - and I for one am inspired…
When I first received word of this book being published my initial reaction was "what's it actually about?". I'd never heard of the Lakes, Meres and Waters (LMW) route and wondered whether it was actually a book about Joss' favourite bodies of water in the Lake District, or even if he'd got into wild swimming in his dotage, like everyone else. But thankfully not.
Whilst Joss and the Lakes are the undoubted stars of the show, Vivienne Crow's smooth-flowing writing is what weaves it all together
At its most basic, the LMW route aims to take in all 27 of the largest bodies of water in the Lake District, covering 105 miles and over 4200m of ascent (14,000ft in old money). Unlike the Bob Graham, it isn't a 'round', as it doesn't start and finish in the same place, and the book goes into why that is, plus the development of the route and the history and lore that surround it.
It is the integration of these other elements that make this book something different. Irrespective of whether or not you are directly interested in the LMW route, to which this book would act as a superb guide (notwithstanding its large size), the route itself is merely a vessel (pun intended) through which to bring out the brilliance of Joss himself, and his deep connection with the landscape of not just the Lakeland fells, but its valleys and villages too. Unlike the Bob Graham, which tends to run over ridges, the LMW stays much lower down the mountain. As such, you see a different side of the Lakes to the one that many fell runners and hillwalkers will tend to prioritise. Whilst the LMW can be done as a non-stop 24 hour challenge, it can also be enjoyed at a far more leisurely pace, and the book itself describes it over ten separate stages. The fact that the book covers either option should help to broaden its appeal - not least because running 105 miles within 24 hours is quite specialist, even for the specialists!
Visually the book is incredibly striking, with the juxtaposition of Stephen Wilson's modern photography interspersed with images from Joss' archive. Cicerone have been unafraid of giving a lot of page space to these amazing images too, and the book really is a visual feast, with a large format that makes it much more a coffee table tome to peruse indoors than a guidebook to be carried outside. That said, GPX coordinates of the route are available, and you could easily take a photo of the single page that outlines a description of each individual stage. The rest is there to inspire you to do it.
Whilst Joss and the Lakes are the undoubted stars of the show, Vivienne Crow's writing is what brings it all together, and it's weaved absolutely brilliantly - and naturally - throughout the course of their walk together. It flows as naturally as the conversation would with an old friend, and her phonetic interpretations of Joss' thick Cumbrian accent frequently brought a smile to my face - if not an outright laugh. He's a man with a lovely turn of phrase, made only more lovely by the way in which it is spoken.
One of the things that fasinated me most, explored throughout the book, was the changes that the Lake District has gone through since Joss was born in 1938. This includes a variety of hot and emotive topics, including the number of sheep on the mountain, the growing presence of bracken throughout the area, and the number of people visiting it. Small mining villages have now become tourist hotspots, which brings its own problems, but also positives too, with more and more people - and in particular more children and families - being introduced to the outdoors.
Joss' appreciation of the landscape and empathy with its people come across frequently, and it is is therefore no surprise that part of the proceeds made go towards his favourite charity - the Brathay Trust. This Ambleside-based charity aims to offer young people, particularly those from a deprived background, a chance to access and experience the outdoors. Compassion is just another aspect of Joss' character, and one which makes the legend all the more legendary.
Whether you're interested in running the Lakes, Meres and Waters route, or aim to appreciate it at more of a walking pace, this book would be a must. But it will appeal to all who love the Lake District more generally too, or who have an interest in one of its great characters. It's brilliantly written, hugely inspiring, and genuinely took me by surprise. Highly recommended.