Taking to the Hills

Fell-running singer/storytellers Boff Whalley and Dan Bye's 'These Hills Are Ours' - Keswick Theatre By The Lake
June 24, 2022

Political activism takes many forms. But if anything can make you sit up and care about the right to roam, it’s these two gentle, fell-running, mud-loping guys singing songs and telling stories. These Hills Are Ours is a touring show that’s very personal, autobiographical, poignant, and hard-hitting in unexpected ways. Like the repeated message that there’s still only a tiny fraction of England’s land open for us to walk and wander on (Dan Bye quotes it often, and it’s a nought point nought something percent figure). And perhaps a more pertinent point that while the hills ARE ours, we can only borrow, share them; they will have the upper hand, as Dan was to realise. More of that shortly.

Dan, a theatre maker, director, performer, and Boff, ex-Chumbawumba guitarist, Commoners Choir leader, dramatist, and occasional Mag North columnist, have a wonderfully eclectic pair of portfolio careers, always creative, always entertaining. They share a great deal in common, but especially a love of running over the northern hills, and this show was due to land in Keswick more than two years ago. It was well worth the wait.

They have a palpable double-act chemistry between themselves and with their audience, and a natural way of exchange and interchange as Dan, with his deeply delightful Stockton accent, tells stories into which Boff slides the occasional folk-style song. It’s heartwarming, emotional, and very funny. “I wasn’t at all impressed to meet a man who’d had a top ten single and toured the world with a rock band,” confesses Strava-addict Dan. “But then he told me his 10k time, and I thought, holy shit!”

Boff and Dan

The beginning of their story is the original fight for access to the moors, the Kinder mass trespass more than 90 years ago, which led ultimately to the creation of the Pennine Way by Tom Stephenson. Their show is dedicated to the walkers who were actually jailed for their peaceful protest.

But it was only at the beginning of this century that rights to roam over the Forest of Bowland were established, and to celebrate that the guys decided to link together the runs that they’d been doing “from the armchair to the trig point,” as one of Boff’s songs tells it. Their epic would be an 80-miler from Dan’s home near Lancaster, to Kinder Scout in the Peak District via Pendle Hill and the Pennine Way. It was Dan who did the running because Boff had broken a toe; his role became the vital support driver, taking his camper van to road crossings to feed the weary runner and – on several occasions – lose him thanks to the vagaries of tracking technology.

The journey -  and their story and songs about it - was also a celebration of escape, about running into wild places, escaping the town or the city, escaping the restrictions of upbringing or class or politics. This hills, for all their ups and downs, are great levellers. They wanted to go, as Boff sings, “where the universe is sticking to the soles of your shoes."

The journey, of course, didn’t go to plan. Starting over Clougha Pike, heading through Bowland Forest and over Pendle, by-passing Boff’s native Burnley, out to the Pennine Way above Todmorden, and then following it south, was due to take around 24hours, Dan hoped. There was no triumphant ending. After 28 hours, with 12 miles to go, Dan’s journey ended at the foot of Bleaklow wrapped in a foil blanket. But the goal doesn’t matter, he concludes. There’s some graphically familiar body and soul searching along the way, but for the details you have to see the show, and it’s touring till the end of this month, and then again in September and December. See Dan’s website for details http://www.danielbye.co.uk/

The Keswick audience loved it all, and many of them were going to take up the invitation to run with Boff and Dan the next morning, up a local hill, for this is part of the show’s tradition. Wherever they perform, they’ll go out to share their love of hills and mud with local runners. What they also loved was Boff’s aside story, about Sabden at the foot of Pendle. It was here, as a schoolboy, that he and friends called into a shop to buy sweets before climbing the hill. They were diverted because the shopkeeper told them David Bowie had called in earlier, to buy eggs for his auntie who lived in the village. Yes, Ziggy Stardust was a regular shopper here. The lads abandoned their ascent of Pendle and sat for several hours outside the shop waiting for a glimpse of their hero. It was years before they realised the shopkeeper was having them on. “Why do grown-ups lie to children?” asks Boff. He checked the date and googled Bowie at that time: he was in New York recording an album in New York with Lou Reed.