Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Tuesday 13th November 2018

“FEARLESS as a human antelope”, to see him come leaping down a fellside with “the speed of a Helvellyn fox and the surefootedness of a Martindale deer” must have been an unforgettable thrill.

Seven times he won the famous Grasmere sports guides’ race and the record he set for the traditional Burnsall fell race in the Yorkshire Dales stood for all of 67 years until Fred Reeves came along to finally beat it as part of a special challenge event.

As thousands gather this weekend to remember those who died in service of their country, I have been researching the story of Keswick fell runner E. H. Dalzell, one of many athletes who volunteered to fight in the First World War. Ernest Harford Dalzell was at the peak of his abilities, countless more sporting achievements still to be won, when he lost his life in 1917, killed in France.

He has now inspired a book, Armistice Runner, written by children’s author Tom Palmer. And although his name does not appear on the village war memorial, pupils at Grasmere School have been using Dalzell’s remarkable story to learn more about the war which ended 100 years ago and which cost almost every town and village in the land some of its finest and best.

Palmer, who ran the Burnsall fell race to gain an insight into Dalzell’s mind, said: “He was famous for his insanely speedy descents and for cycling hundreds of miles to get to and from a venue on race day.”

Lance Corporal Dalzell’s tragic fate was typical of the impact of the First World War on Lake District communities. Born in 1884 at Skelwith Bridge, he was a gamekeeper at Ormathwaite, near Keswick. He died on 2nd June, 1917, his final Grasmere victory having come four years earlier.

Dalzell was known as “the prince of Lakeland athletes”. In 1910, when he set his Burnsall record, he was at the pinnacle of his form. He had won more than 100 races and that September the weather was set fair and the ling on the fell had been burned close. Locals who saw the race said he was ”a superman” whose descent was, to quote from a 1965 article in The Dalesman magazine, “a breathtaking, astonishing sight over a route most of today’s runners think it would be madness to attempt”.

Sir Percy Hope, a distinguished Keswickian who followed the sporting scene keenly, once remarked that “Dalzell was the best runner down a fell I ever knew. To see him take a flying leap over a stone wall and roll over in the bracken on to his feet on the other side was unforgettable”.

One local newspaper reporter said it was impossible to describe the terrific pace as Dalzell flung himself down the fell. Spectators’ eyes were fixed on him as if by some magnetic impulse and they could not take them away if they wanted to.

Dalzell was 21 when he won his first Grasmere title in 1905. Remember in those days runners didn’t have designer label kit and specially-made footwear. They ran in heavy work boots and restrictive clothing. Although W. C. Skelton wrote that evocative description of Dalzell as the human fox and deer, many doubted the veracity of the Burnsall record. It was not humanly possible, they claimed. Even the legendary Caldbeck shepherd Bill Teasdale could not match it. Thousands tried to beat it until Reeves, a runner from Coniston, came, saw and conquered in 1977.

In his book, Tom Palmer writes of a 13-year-old cross-country runner and her great-great-grandfather, who was a champion fell runner just like Ernest Dalzell, and who went to war and ran messages between trenches.

The obituary in the Westmorland Gazette said Dalzell was indeed that fearless human antelope “who gave his life for his country running an even greater race than lovely Grasmere can provide”.

Those of us who love these fells should pause awhile tomorrow to think about Ernest Dalzell and many other locals who went away to war over a century ago, an enterprise that was sold to them as a great adventure, not believing they would never return and see their beloved mountains again.

These and countless others who served in subsequent conflicts and lost their lives. In the chaos of everyday life it is all too easy to forget their sacrifice and the valuable lives that might have been had they been spared.

STORM ROSS HEADING THIS WAY

I APOLOGISE now if I’m about to ruin your Christmas festivities. But with the long-range weather forecast suggesting an increased likelihood of named storms — the UK could be on course for five biggies before Christmas says the Weather Channel — I can’t help noticing that Storm Ross is lurking on the list.

For the fourth year the Met Office and its Irish Republic equivalent has come up with a list of names reflecting the nations and their culture and diversity. Yes, folks, even storms are politically correct these days. Ross is right there, between Peggy and Saoirse. Apparently the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z are never used to comply with international storm naming conventions.

Ten storms, ranging from Aileen in September to Hector earlier this summer, were named in the 2017-18 season. Storms are given a name when they threaten “medium” or “high” potential impacts of wind, rain and snow.

Anyone with the name Desmond will, sad to say, be forever associated with the storms that wreaked havoc in Cumbria. Sorry all you Desmonds, but it’s an inescapable connection with disaster. But with the Met Office saying December and January could be “wetter than usual” and Storm Ross on the horizon, maybe my name will acquire notoriety. Couldn’t they just have made do with a Robert or a Richard and left me out of it?

IT’S SNOW JOKE

US oldies must drive the younger generation crackers as we trot out our customary corny joke at the first sign of a frosty morning and a bit of windscreen scraping.

“Winter draws on,” we say to friends, neighbours and indeed anyone who will listen, as if we had the comic brilliance of a Ken Dodd or the Two Ronnies. It’s a real old timers’ joke. You never hear anyone under the age of 50 telling it. They say the old ones are the best. Not in this instance they aren’t.

A RIGHT OLD STITCH UP

ONE of my most enduring memories of my mother concerns her knitting and sewing skills. She always seemed to have a jumper on the go, or buttons to sew back on a shirt. It was a manual dexterity born out of her early years when, if you wanted something to wear, you had to make it yourself.

There are still some wonderful embroiders around, but I suspect knitting and sewing have generally became lost arts. While older generations had these skills at their fingertips, these days fingers are only used for texting.

A leading surgeon — Professor Kneebone, would you believe — says some students spend so much time in front of screens they have lost the dexterity for stitching up patients. What use are excellent medical grades if they can’t give someone a neat scar after their hernia op? It’s a worrying thought for anyone about to lie on the operating table and submit to a newly qualified doctor’s darning technique.

JEREMY NAILS IT

JAZZ hands was a new one for me until recently when I discovered it involved waving both hands in the air as a silent substitute for applause. Manchester University students voted to replace clapping with “jazz hands” at union events to avoid alarming audience members who don’t like loud noises.

The change was passed by the union’s senate in response to a motion by its “liberation and access officer” after it was argued at a meeting that traditional clapping could cause problems for those with anxiety or sensory issues.

Students, eh? Don’t you just love ‘em, the way they try to ban speakers who don’t fit in with their political agenda and remove art work they consider offends their sensibilities. These great seats of learning should be places where debate takes place, not become a vehicle for censorship or soppy notions about jazz hands.

As it’s a weekend of remembrance, I will rely on broadcaster Jeremy Vine for the best riposte. “Glad some brave young souls decided to ignore the difficulties caused by sudden noises 100 years ago,” he tweeted. Enough said.