How volunteers work to fix the fells

On the path to Alcock Tarn

The Fix the Fells volunteer lengthsmen scheme is a long-term programme of work to restore and maintain the eroded paths in the Lake District.

What is the lengthsmen scheme?

A lengthsmen is a term for anybody involved in maintaining paths, whatever their gender. The scheme was set up as part of an original project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and backed by partners including the Lake District National Park Authority, Natural England and the National Trust. Around 100 lengthsmen volunteer for Fix the Fells. They support the Trust’s upland ranger teams who work on behalf of the partnership across the Lake District, clearing drains all year round and rebuilding remote fell paths during the warmer months. In 2016 alone, the lengthsmen went out almost 500 times and cleared thousands of drains.

Supporting the work

Tom Seaward, who works for the Trust on nature conservation, joined the volunteer lengthsmen for the day.  

Tom said: 'I volunteered with Barry Capp, a retired aerospace and defence contractor who has spent the last nine years helping to organise Fix the Fells activity across almost 300 sections of path. I joined a team of five volunteer lengthsmen clearing out drains on the footpath to Alcock Tarn, a small lake 300m above Grasmere.'

Tom Seaward learns the finer points of drain maintenance from volunteer lengthsmen Barry Capp
Joanne Backshall,Tom Seaward and Barry Capp
Tom Seaward learns the finer points of drain maintenance from volunteer lengthsmen Barry Capp

The idea of the drain is to take water off the path. When it’s wet, you’d expect water to come running down the hill, get caught in the drain and rundown into the beck. If the debris fills the drain, the water just runs straight down the path, wearing it away. A lot of these areas are designated as Special Areas of Conservation, if paths are eroding and getting wider and wider, you’re losing the vegetation and the species that go with it.

Surviving the storms

The Lake District has been battered by three major storms in the last decade, making the work of the lengthsmen increasingly important.

In late 2015 Storm Desmond dumped up to 30cm of rain on some fells in just 24 hours. Fix the Fells volunteers surveyed the damage to 120 paths, plotting gullied footpaths and bridges that had been washed away. If you can keep the drains reasonably clear, you stand a chance of protecting those paths.

Even with volunteer help, it costs the Fix the Fells partnership at least £350,000 a year to build and repair the paths. Much of the stone has to be flown in by helicopter. 

" The National Trust raises over £200,000 a year for Fix the Fells through donations and via a visitor giving scheme. We’d like to take this chance to say a heartfelt 'thank you' to all our donors and volunteers."
- Mike Innerdale, Director, North region

'There are days when you look out the window and if it was just you going out for a fell walk you’d go back to bed,’ says volunteer Barry Capp. 'But because you’re part of the group, you’ll do it. That tells you how important this is to us all.'

This article was adapted from the article by Tom Seaward, published in the summer 2017 magazine.