There he goes: dishevelled maroon vest, distinctive gold stripe slashed diagonally across its middle. A pair of Walsh shoes, badly-tied and muddied. A laugh and a joke and a well-aimed insult. A grinning disregard for officialdom, custom and over-politeness; heading for the bar, trophy in hand. Quick, if you offer him the price of a pint he’ll probably sell you the cup! If ever fell running had a wayward bastard offspring, then the anonymous Pudsey & Bramley runner is probably it. At least, that’s how the mythology goes.
Let me tell you how I first became interested in fell running. Long after I’d left Burnley as a teenager and moved to Leeds, my Dad took up watching the fell races around Lancashire, taking photographs of these wiry blokes racing up and down Hameldon and Thieveley and Pendle. He had a fair old collection of slides (remember them?) and one of those pointer-torches. “See that? That’s a runner called Kenny Stuart. Best mountain runner in Britain. And look, on this one, see – that’s him again, at Thieveley, racing a chap called Jon Wild. What a battle they had that day. Let me tell you all about it -“
At some point in the late ’80’s he convinced me to meet up with him in Skipton and drive out to watch an evening race in the Yorkshire Dales called Simon’s Seat. It was raining, cold and dismal. Two hundred runners in vests and shorts huddled together in a farmer’s field near Bolton Abbey, men and women of all shapes and sizes – and notably, one of them, probably still in his teens, sporting a pink Mohican haircut. So off they went, up into the clouds, through the woods and out towards the top of the ridge. Mist, gloom and a twisting route up the hillside meant that the runners disappeared from view for around forty minutes.
We waited. And waited. Until someone shouted, heralding a flurry of activity, claps and calls – and here were the runners now, hurtling down the finishing field, muddied to the eyeballs. And in the lead, bizarrely, was the lad with the pink Mohican, a big grin on his face as he crossed the line, looking like he’d barely broken sweat. That was Gary Devine, who I soon got to know in Leeds as a local punk. He played bass guitar in a band, and wore his fingerless leather gloves even when onstage. I tentatively approached him a few weeks later and asked him about this fell running; he invited me to come along to the club. Tuesday evening, up in Pudsey, 7 o’clock. That was my introduction to both fell running and to Pudsey & Bramley – and as it turned out, an introduction to a place where you could be athletic and fiercely competitive as well as maverick, funny, weird and individual.
Pudsey & Bramley AC began life in a dilapidated wooden hut in the middle of a rutted, patchy sportsfield in 1910. Back then – and for around fifty years – they were known as Bramley & District Harriers, heavy-vested track & field athletes with names like Cliff Thorpe and Frank Christmas. Really. Bramley is an industrial area of Leeds, situated well away from the more affluent University-based runners and the famous Leeds City club as well as the (even back at the beginning of the 20th century) towering presence of our big noisy neighbours, Bingley Harriers.
In those days there were very few fell races as such, and it was only with the advent of cars and telephones that ‘getting out on the hills’ became tenable for most of the Bramley runners. Albert Swainson was one of the first to get involved in competitive racing on the Yorkshire hills, winning the Burnsall Fell Race four times in the 1930s – a connection between the club and that short, sharp up-and-down race that has endured through the years. Albert’s trailblazing inspired a generation of Bramley runners gathering in the little wooden hut, not least two local lads named Alan Cocking and Pete Watson. It was the fifties, and these two spent a decade or two racing, and winning, on the Yorkshire fells. Cocking had an England vest as a cross country runner, while Watson became famous for winning successive Burnsall Fell Races through the ’60s.
Back to the ’80s. Having met Gary Devine, I was curious to know what this club was like. What I discovered very quickly was an ethos of shrug-your-shoulders nonconformism allied to a will to succeed, a will to do well. Pudsey & Bramley seemed to give off the appearance of not caring while actually being utterly competitive. It’s this unspoken, unwritten ethos that still dominates the club’s fell running arm two decades later. I grew up in Burnley, a town surrounded by hills and fells and moorland. The East Lancashire area had Clayton-le-Moors Harriers, a vast and experienced club full of historically great mountain runners. But Leeds? A corrupt Council, a football team everybody hated, a chip on its shoulder as big as its Town Hall, and apart from a few municipal parks, not a lot of grass. How come this little running club in Leeds seemed to be capable of winning so much on the fells?
The Club officially became Pudsey & Bramley AC around 1961, when a local Bramley builder offered to buy both hut and playing field, little realising that he would end up being part of athletic history. The Club moved into Pudsey (still half a marathon’s distance from a proper fell) and gradually gathered a new crop of runners, inspired in turn by Pete Watson’s victories. First Jack Maitland, a refugee from Edinburgh, took on the maroon-and-gold mantle (mainly because, as a student, he could get lifts to races!) followed by Gary Devine (isn’t that where this story began?) and then over the years, runners including Sarah Rowell, Ann Buckley and recently Rob Hope – a real lineage of international class athletes who continue to play up the Pudsey & Bramley mythology (Good Time Club! Party Time On The Fells!) while actually winning Championships. It’s a delicate balancing act, but someone’s got to do it.
Another story. In 1990, Pudsey & Bramley having won the FRA British Team Championship, Gary got a phone call from Danny Hughes, then in charge of the English section of European mountain running. Since we were the winning team, could we select three runners to compete in an international Mountain Race in Italy? Four of us gathered in a pub on the old Otley Road in Leeds after a Tuesday night training session. Gary obviously had to go – he was British Champion – but the remaining three of us had all competed equally well throughout the season, swapping places at various Championship races. How to resolve the dilemma of which two of us got the trip-of-a-lifetime, running for England in Italy? We wrote three names on bits of paper, folded them, shook them up and put them in an ashtray. Then we chose, eyes shut. No race-offs, no meetings, no coach to make the decision for us. Imagine it – “I could’ve run for England – but I picked the wrong bit of paper out of the ashtray.” I was the runner who lost out, but knew that in the scheme of things this was just another footnote in Pudsey & Bramley’s mythology, filed in chronological order along with Ady Illingworth, the Great Welsh Incident of 1991 (I won’t go into that one until I’ve checked it with the lawyers), Will Ramsbotham, the Ben Nevis flag, the Weirdy Sheardy Brothers, Hughie Devine’s Tug-O-War team and Graham Pearce’s shorts.
The club is littered with (running, breathing, badly-navigating) examples of its own history. Paul Stevenson joined the club in 1974, while still at school; his brother Brian joined five years later. Both had mullets, both knew little about running up and down mountains (have you ever been to Pudsey or Bramley? A rabbit warren of Yorkshire stone terraces, busy roads and rugby pitches) and yet both have remained active on the fells for over thirty years. What strikes you about the pair is how much they love this sport, how crucial it is in their lives. City blokes out in all weathers, discovering new races and new routes; they’ll tell you that between them, in their pursuit of competing on the mountains, they’ve been arrested, hospitalised, stranded, lost and reduced to tears. They typify P&B in both their long-lasting love affair with the northern hills and in their will to be competitive.
This year Pudsey & Bramley will celebrate its centenary year with a variety of dinners and do’s, and will also be having a mass attempt at the Bob Graham 24-hour Round. Partly because it’s an epic challenge that many of Pudsey’s runners want to have a crack at; and partly because it’s a great excuse for another day on the mountains followed by a night out in Keswick. To toast this little club that seems to keep on winning things. And this year, aptly, Pudsey & Bramley are again the reigning FRA British Team Champions and once again Rob Hope is British Champion. It’s a myth you couldn’t make up.
So. Happy Birthday P&B, especially to all the club faithfuls who’ve worn their tatty versions of the maroon-and-gold for upwards of a decade or two (or three, or four). Who’ve been the fifth counters in the Championship races; who’ve stepped in at the last minute for relays; who’ve endured five-hour drives in the bare-metal back of Gary’s van to compete in obscure Scottish and Welsh races; who’ve fallen asleep on the table in Yorkshire curry houses after giving their all up and down Britain’s biggest peaks. And thanks, too, to all those fellrunners from other clubs up who’ve travelled with us sometime, somewhere along this long journey. Phew. Now, get them Walshies laced up, you’ll be late for the start …