Three years ago, a couple of guys set off from Wasdale Head to climb Scafell Pike. They would be chatting as they walked, and decided to record their adventure as a podcast, planning to record a handful more to celebrate their love of Lakeland.
But listeners loved it, and wanted more, so this spring the the Countrystride podcast will reach its 100th episode, broadcasting to more than 10,000 people every month all over the world. With over 200,000 listens to date it is believed Countrystride is the UK’s largest regional podcast.
On that first occasion, David Felton and Mark Richards talked to Iain Gray from Fix the Fells about how path engineering has evolved over 30 years on the hills. They also chatted to other walkers at the summit about what Scafell Pike and the wider fells meant to them.
It’s a theme that runs through all of their output, whether they’re interviewing fell-running legend Joss Naylor, broadcaster Eric Robson, farmer and writer James Rebanks or wild Haweswater campaigner Lee Schofield: what is it that makes THIS place, Cumbria, special for you?
And that’s what they are asking all their listeners for the 100th edition: what’s magic about the Lakes? Why does this part of the world have a special place in your heart? They’ll be walking, too, of course, up grand little Helm Crag, the “lion and the lamb” mountain outside Grasmere, with a select group of guests including climber and writer Bill Birkett. "What does make the Lake District magic?" asks David. “Is it the landscape? The people? The weather? The history? A personal connection? Each of us has our own answer to the question.”
The podcast celebrates the landscapes, culture, heritage and people of Cumbria and the Lake District through a blend of immersive field recordings, inspiring commentary and interviews, all shaped into a single walk presented by author, illustrator and ex-farmer Mark and produced by David, who is also a photographer, writer and broadcaster. He’s wandered the Lakeland fells since he could stand on two feet and in 2017 walked from Land's End to John o'Groats.
Mark was strongly influenced by his mother’s roots in the Yorkshire Dales, and from his youth has adored the hills and dales of northern England. He was encouraged to direct his passions for pen and ink drawing and walking into writing and illustrating walking guides from Alfred Wainwright, with whom he spent many weekends in the 1970s. The author of many guidebooks, including the eight-volume Lakeland Fellranger series, he lives at the northern tip of the Pennines.
Together their podcasts have covered a diverse and eclectic range of subjects, from Dentdale and the Dales High Way to the Vikings, Cumbrian dialect, dry-stone walling, fell ponies, Cumbrian ghosts – and of course Beatrix Potter. There have been walks and talks in the footsteps of Wainwright, and interviews with people who are helping to shape the future of the landscape.
“We see it as slow radio in a shouty world,” says David. “It’s home-grown, there’s no money involved, no financial backing; we attract listeners by word of mouth, and they’re very loyal.”
Mag North has some favourite editions. There’s the “cross border” episode with a walk that passes over into the Yorkshire Dales, from Chapel-le-Dale to Dent on the Dales High Way long distance footpath in the company of the trail's co-creator – and local lass – Chris Grogan. We learn about Chris's childhood as a farm girl in Upper Dentdale, encounter a group of firemen doing the Three Peaks Challenge and, on the Craven Way that runs across the shoulder of Whernside, the Countrystriders discuss the joys of long-distance walking: “mindfulness before the term was invented”.
And we loved hearing about trees in the age of the Romantics with Dr Anna Burton, lecturer in English Literature at the University of Derby, with whom they rambled through Lorton Vale to hillside-hugging Holme Wood above Loweswater, learning about the historic shift that gave woodland an aesthetic value. In fact, learning is part of the joy of Countrystride; did you know Wordsworth was involved in planning Holme Wood?
As a publisher, David established Inspired by Lakeland to make books and gifts inspired by the wild places he loves. “We believe in caring for our landscapes and communities. As such we print on paper that is FSC (forest management certification) approved, with our local Penrith printers planting trees for each book printed.”
They published the highly-acclaimed Forty Farms, Amy Bateman’s photographic record which was also given a lengthy exhibition at Rheged. "Everything we sell is designed locally, with a percentage of profits ploughed back into local business and Cumbrian-based charities. The Ullswater Way official guidebook trials a new model of publishing, with sales income from each book being re-invested in the Ullswater Valley to help keep the Way in good condition.”
Their work has been recognised by the National Trust who awarded them the inaugural Community Business Award for their commitment to sustainable, ethical and locally-focused business. In the past three years they have given more than £10,000 to Friends of the Lake District, the Lake District Foundation (for repairs to the Ullswater Way) and to local NHS Trusts.
Back at Countrystride, plans are under way for a party to celebrate – belatedly – their 100th podcast, a day-long festival of music and talks which will be staged in Ambleside in October. It’s likely to be a grand reunion of many podcast listeners.
Header Illustration: Wastwater by Mark Richards