In memory of Joss Naylor: a salute to the King of the Fells

LFTO pays tribute to perhaps the greatest fell-runner of all time, who has died at the age of 88

Joss Naylor tribute

by Nick Hallissey |
Published on

“I’m just Joss, whatever I’ve got to do.”

Joss Naylor, who has died at the age of 88, wore his legend lightly. He established, smashed and rewrote records. He was adored by communities across Cumbria, Yorkshire, Snowdonia and anywhere else in Britain where the ground is more up than flat. His name is revered by fell-runners and trail runners across the globe. He was, quite simply, ‘The King of the Fells’.

Joss Naylor in the lakes

But as far as Joss was concerned, he just got on with it.

“Nothing beats running on my own,” he once told us.

“The solitude, the views, the fresh air, and to think how lucky you are to be there to enjoy it. Anything else could be happening in the world, but if you’ve got that moment, you’re doing fine.”

Joss was born on 10th February 1936 at Middle Row in Wasdale Head, in the shadow of England’s highest mountains at the western edge of the Lake District National Park.

Joss Naylor reading trail running magazine

His family farmed in the valley, later moving to Low Greendale a little way further down Wast Water. Joss lived almost his entire life in Wasdale (and in true Cumbrian dialect he pronounced it ‘Wasdul’), working mainly as a sheep farmer – mostly without mechanised aid of any kind.

As a young adult he suffered injuries which might have prevented a lesser human from becoming a legendary fell-runner. He had an operation at the age of 19 to remove cartilage from his right knee following an injury, and at 22 to remove two discs from his back.

Joss Naylor tending to a knee injury

But not Joss. His world changed one afternoon in 1955, when the annual Mountain Trial race event came through Wasdale Head.

“I saw it and I said to my dad, ‘I’d like to do that’. And he said, ‘You needn’t waste bloody time thinking about running,’ or something like that!”

But five years later, Joss was able to get round his dad’s indignation and joined in the 1960 Mountain Trial.

“I didn’t know much about it until an hour beforehand, when the proprietor of the Wasdale Head Inn said, ‘Do you want to do the Mountain Trial?’ I didn’t have any gear but farm boots and trousers cut off at the knees. But I knew the mountains, so I nipped up Yewbarrow and Red Pike, skipped round and sneaked away over to Pillar.

Joss Naylor fell runner black and white

“Then I got cramp so I had to ask two ladies picnicking at Styhead Tarn, ‘Got any salt, girls?’ The next day I could hardly bloody walk! But I did every Mountain Trial after that.”

In 1966, he won the event for the first time. A legend was born, and over the following half-century, Joss would set and break fellrunning records with each passing year, including several for the notorious Lake District fell-running challenge, the Bob Graham Round. In 1971 he covered 61 summits in 23 hours 37 minutes. In 1975 he bagged 72 in 23 hours 20.

Joss Naylors fell running shoes

In 1971 he got round the National Three Peaks Challenge (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon) in 11 hours 54 minutes, including driving time. In 1973 he set a record of 4 hours 46 for the Welsh 3000s (the 14 peaks of Snowdonia over 3000ft) and in 1974 he set another for the Pennine Way, in 3 days, 4 hours and 36.

In 1986 – at the age of 50 – he completed the Wainwrights (the 214 Lake District fells as classified in Alfred Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides) in 7 days, 1 hour and 25 – a record which stood until 2014.

He also set records on classic challenge routes such as the Lyke Wake Walk, the Lakes, Meres and Waters circuit and the Coast to Coast.

When he turned 60 he ran 60 Lakeland fell-tops in 36 hour, and at 70 he ran 70 Lakeland fells. He celebrated turning 80 with a leisurely 30-miler from Caldbeck back home to Wasdale.

Joss Naylor interviewed by trail running magazine

He also established the Joss Naylor Lakeland Challenge, open to over-50s only, covering  48 miles and 30 summits from Pooley Bridge to Greendale Bridge, and including some 17,000ft of ascent.

Joss was noted for his ability to withstand pain, and to persevere in every climate from blizzards to extreme heatwaves. “If they gave out medals for suffering,” he once quipped, “I’d have a shelf full.”

Partly his tolerance was down to technique: he was famously able to lengthen his stride on the approach to a summit, effectively moving to descent pace minutes ahead of any competitors.

He also attributed it to his physique. “I’m built of sinews and bone more or less, I’ve no body structure at all, and if you’re given something like that, even if you are a freak, it’s just a little bit of magic.”

Joss was also a tireless campaigner for charity. He was a patron for The Brathay Trust, which is dedicated to offering life-changing outdoor activity breaks for children, young people and families in need. Joss raised around £40,000 for the charity between 2007 and 2019.

Joss Naylor speaking at a mountain festival

He was awarded an MBE for services to sport and charity in 2007.

In 2014 Joss featured in Terry Abraham’s acclaimed film Life of a Mountain: A Year on Scafell Pike, which brought him to an even wider audience after it was screened and streamed on the BBC.

Terry was one of many who have paid tribute to Joss since his passing, describing him as “a humble, down to earth man whose incredible athleticism was known and respected around the world, let alone within Cumbria”.

The film also depicted Joss’s beguiling love for his sheepdogs – many of which would accompany him on his fell-running adventures over the years.

Fell Runner Joss Naylor and his dog

In a 2016 interview, when we asked what one thing he would bring back from the past if he could, he replied: “A dog called Lassie. It had the biggest heart of any animal that was ever born and it would run flat out for you all day. It was the roughest old bugger on this earth but I’ll tell you what, the sheep respected it. It was full of bloody mischief from when it got up to when it went to bed. It was just something special, like.”

The abiding memory that most people who met Joss carried away with them was his humility. His height and build made him instantly recognisable to those in the know, yet he would make time to talk with anyone – and he loved nothing more than to chat over a pint of Guinness.

And as far as he was concerned, fell-running was about simplicity and beauty. The joy of being among free among the mountains. There was no point winning, he often said, if you didn’t notice how beautiful it all was.

Joss Naylor and other running legends

We’ll leave you with this beautiful account he gave us when asked for his favourite fell-running memory. We think it says everything about Joss Naylor, King of the Fells, Iron Man… and inspiration.

“I remember running Lakes, Meres and Waters on my own with the sun on my back. My legs felt relaxed, it was a beautiful weekend. Afterwards I lay down on the grass in a star fashion with my eyes closed for five minutes. It was just one of those magic days where your lungs and legs worked in harmony. I look back on that and think how lucky I am to have done these things.”

Joss Naylor, 1936-2024

Joss Naylor and his sheep dog
Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us