Fell running has its share of idols; Joss Naylor, Nicky Spinks, Kenny Stewart, Angela Mudge, Billy Bland. Remarkable athletes, some with remarkable stories, all deserving of their place in the pantheon of fell running greatness.
One name which is all too often missing from that list of greats is Eric Beard. A well known and much loved figure in his own time, history has been unjustifiably cruel to Beardie; many may know the name, a few may know something of what he achieved, yet I’ve spoken to no one who was aware of the breadth of his achievements.
Born in Leeds on the 20th of October 1931, Eric Beard left school at 14 with little in the way of qualifications and a similar scarcity of athletic promise. Embarking on what might best be described as a portfolio career, he found work as a salesman, a labourer, a greenkeeper, a tram conductor and, reportedly, a jockey.
It was while working on the trams, at the age of 24, that Beardie found running. Drawn in by a bet with a colleague, he joined Leeds City AC and over subsequent years became a prominent member of the Road Running Club.
In the winter of 1955, while out training, he met Dennis Gray, bouncing by with apparent ease as Dennis struggled for breath. Eric stopped to introduce himself and the pair became friends, exchanging passions; through Beardie Gray came to join Leeds City AC, through Dennis Gray Beardie discovered climbing and the mountains.
This was to be a pivotal moment for Beardie, as his love of the hills came to dominate not only his athletic career but his entire life.
Beardie’s first fell race came in 1957 at the Yorkshire Three Peaks Race, an episodes which provides evidence of his legendary zeal. Having run an 8 mile road race the day before, he hitch-hiked from Lancashire to Chapel-le-Dale and slept outside, the next day finishing in 6th place in a time of 3.59.45.
As the hills came to exert a more and more dominant influence on Beardie’s life, his career, such as it was, took a turn and he began to work as a transient instructor and general dogsbody at outdoors centres, most notably at Plas y Brenin in North Wales and Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms. It was during a spell at the former in 1962 that he broke the first of his fell running records, that of the Welsh 3000s.
Arriving at the summit of Snowdon by the ultimate tourist path, the Mountain Railway, he set off at 10 a.m. into a cold, snow laden northerly and, despite the conditions, succeeded in traversing the 14 summits in a time of 5 hours 26 minutes, an improvement of thirty four minutes on the previous record.
It was the following year, 1963, in which we find the most compelling evidence of Beardie’s greatness as a runner. In a single year he set records for the Cuillin Ridge, the Cairngorm 4000s, the Mourne Wall, the Arrochar Munros, the Welsh 3000s (again) and broke Alan Heaton’s Lakeland 24 Hour Record, climbing 56 peaks in 23.55.1 Surely the most prolific season of fell running record setting there has ever been.2
Although Alan Heaton reclaimed the Lakeland record a few years later, it would take decades for others to be overcome. His time for the Cuillin Ridge, an hour and thirty five minutes better than the previous mark and thought by many to be invincible, would stand for seventeen years until Andy Hyslop bettered it by just four and a half minutes in 1984; the Cairngorm 4000s record survived until 1979 and it took the great Joss Naylor to wrest the Welsh 3000s crown from his head, the mark having been lowered one more time by Mr. Beard himself in 1965.
In subsequent years Beardie took his fascination with longer distances to an extreme, reaching some kind of logical endpoint in 1969, a year in which he completed four colossal pedestrian journeys. In May he ran from Ben Nevis to Snowdon via Scafell Pile, the Three British Tops, in a little over ten and a half days. The next month he ran the so called ‘Rooftop of Wales’, a 5 day journey from north to south taking in Snowdonia, the Rhinogs, Cader Idris, Plynlimon and the Brecon Beacons.3 Later in the year came two long road runs, first from Leeds to Downing Street and then from John o’ Groats to Land’s End by a somewhat circuitous route.
A further outing, an attempt on the world 24 hour track record, was scheduled for later in the year. Unfortunately it never happened. On the 16th of November 1969, while hitch-hiking from the Lake District back to Leeds, Eric Beard was killed in a car crash on the M6. He was 38.
The merit of Eric Beard’s running palmarès is self evident, but that’s not all that makes him worthy of note. As well as a phenomenal runner, he was also something of a pioneer. The history of the Cairngorm 4000s record only goes back as far as Beardie, before him there was no one. His time for the Cuillin Ridge surpassed the previous mark by such a margin that it is difficult to think of the two traverses as being examples of the same type. His continuous run over the Three British Tops has yet to be repeated.
Yet there was more to Beardie than a pair of pumps and a vest. Fell running may have been his main drive, but he as a mountaineer he was more than capable. Self effacing about his skill on more technical terrain, the lie is given to his modesty by mixed ascents of the Zmutt Ridge on the Matterhorn, the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc and the Kuffner Ridge on Mont Maudit, as well as difficult rock climbs on the north-east face of Piz Badile and the north face of Cima Grande. Serious enough undertakings now, more so in the early 1960s.4
For much of his life Beardie lived the way many people wish they could, staying in one place and saving his money just long enough to fund the next trip. Walking and climbing in the Alps, cross country skiing in Norway, driving to Iran in a Landrover; Beardie was in thrall to the mountains, driven not by the fanatical obsession of a top end climber, but by a simple love of spending time in the hills.
And therein lies the explanation of one of the most perplexing aspects of Beardie the athlete. In all his running career I can find only one instance of him appearing on a podium, victory at the 1960 Dovedale Dash. Initially it felt incongruous for someone of such clear ability to meet with so little competitive success. Yet the more I read, the more I hear from others about his nature, the more apt this seems. For all his fitness, his training, his strength in the hills, Beardie lacked the killer instinct which is the mark of a great racer. It was enough for him just to be there.
The kind of peripatetic, care free lifestyle which Beardie led is written off by many as purely selfish, yet to level that accusation at Beardie would be both grossly unfair and wildly inaccurate. If he had one passion greater than running it was helping others, especially children. In his work as an outdoor instructor Beardie was “a genius with children”. Chris Brasher described him as “the finest natural teacher of climbing to young people”, telling of an incident at Plas y Brenin where Beardie “lead a group of children off a mountain after being out all night in the mist, and they were all smiling.”
The mammoth road runs of 1969 were all undertaken to raise funds for the The Save the Children Fund, or for children’s charities in his native Leeds. Beardie’s willingness to lend himself to any cause which asked him to complete such a journey is testament to both his charitable nature and his prowess as a runner.
From all I’ve heard from friends of Beardie’s, I have no doubt that it is his work with children and charitable contributions, rather than his many records, of which he would have been most proud, and which make him most deserving of adulation. All those who knew him speak of his kindness first and his athleticism second; “always willing, always helpful.” One of the most charming Beardie facts is that in his early twenties a customer poll voted him Leed’s most courteous and cheerful tram conductor.
This enthusiasm for helping others inevitably extended to running. Indeed, Beardie could even be help responsible for the running career of a certain Wasdale shepherd.
I used to spend quite a bit of time training with him and he encouraged me to run a lot as well. I never really ran that much before I met Eric.
Eric Beard’s death came as an enormous shock. Hundreds attended his funeral, among them hordes of climbers and walkers, and many children. Dearly missed by those he knew, for years his Bob Graham Club certificate hung in the bar at Glenmore Lodge, and in the early seventies Bearnais Bothy near Loch Carron was renovated by friends in his memory.
Restored with money
provided by friends of
Eric Beard 1931 – 1969
Known to all as
Writing about Eric Beard in a coherent way is challenging. Although he died young, he fitted more into his 38 years than most would manage in 70, and did it all with such enthusiasm and at such pace that even decades after his death, it is still difficult to keep up with Beardie.
I started reading all I could about him over a year ago, yet it still feels like this is a scattershot portrait of the man and his life, a highlights reel which misses much of substance, the glue which holds the whole thing together. Perhaps that is inevitable. It may be that that is just how he was; frenetic, difficult to pin down. Writing the best part of 50 years after he died it is clearly a struggle to get a full and accurate picture. Anyone who has any ammendments, additions, or who just wants to chat about Eric Beard, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d especially love to hear from anyone who knew Beardie.
1 – In so doing he became only the fourth person to complete the Bob Graham Round.
2 – I first wrote this sentence last year. Jasmin Paris may now have something to say on the matter.
3 – This was nearly twenty years before the publication of John Gillham’s book Snowdonia to the Gower: A Coast-to-coast Walk Across Highest Wales described a very similar journey and provided the inspiration for the Dragon’s Back Race
4 – Some explanation for Beardie’s prowess in the mountains, and some rational for his self-effacement in this regard, may be found in the company he kept, the mountain glitterati of the day; sharing raucous lock-ins in Carrbridge with Tom Patey; playing the part of sherpa to Chris Bonington on numerous televised climbs; a member of the infamous Rock and Ice Club along with many of the big names of the day,such as Joe Brown and Don Whillans. Anyone would think of themselves as a punter when their friends are among the best in the world.
A number of people have been incredibly helpful and put up with a lot of pestering in my quest to find out more about Beardie. Others have kindly allowed me to use their photos. I am especially grateful to John Cleare, both for his stories of Beardie and for the use of his photographs. Before them my mental image of Eric was grainy and pixelated. Others who have helped me are Dennis Gray, Jim Barton, Ian Champion of the Road Runners Club, Bob Wightman of the Bob Graham Club and David McCabe of the Fell Runner Magazine. Probably other people too. Thanks and sorry to each groups respectively. Mr. Google also came in handy from time to time.