Burnsall Feast Sports take place on Saturday – and this year’s event will mark a special anniversary. The sports date back hundreds of years and it is known that even prior to the Elizabethan period celebrations of some kind occurred on the Village Green to commemorate the Feast of St Wilfred.

This falls on the first Sunday after August 12 and up to the latter part of the last century the following week was recognised as the Burnsall Feast week. Since that time the sports have been held on the first Saturday after the first Sunday after the 12th of August.

A relative modern introduction has been the well-contested fell race, although controversy surrounds the actual date – whether it was 1850, 1865 or a date nearer to 1870.

According to tradition, it began in around 1870 when a group of villagers are supposed to have discussed the idea in the Red Lion.

The upshot of it was that Tom Weston, a well-known local character, tested the course one moonlit night and ran it naked!

Interestingly, the Craven Herald did not report the race until 1882, in a report probably submitted by the vicar, which neither named the winner nor the number of starters.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the record-breaking run by Ernest Dalzell, from Keswick, who finished the course in 12 minutes and 59.8 seconds. He dominated the sports scene for many years, but was killed in the First World War.

Here, with the help of villager and the event’s publicity officer John Clark, we look at Dalzell’s amazing feat at Burnsall.

Unusually two fell races were staged in Burnsall in 1910 – a month apart.

The first took place during the normal feast sports in August and was won by Accrington runner R Thomas.

But the weather conditions were so bad that only three runners managed to finish the course and the winning time of 16 minutes and five seconds was well outside the record of 14 minutes and 13-and-a-half seconds.

So the landlord of the Red Lion and the local postmaster decided to put up the prize money for a re-run of the race in September.

And it was then that Dalzell, from Keswick, broke the record, finishing in 12 minutes 59.8 seconds. Thomas was runner-up.

The Herald reported: “Thomas was first to the summit, but it is impossible to describe the terrific pace at which Dalzell flung himself down. He passed Thomas like a flash.

It was so thrilling that some people lowered their field glasses; others felt theirs to be fixed as by some magnetic impulse and they could not have taken them away if they had wanted.”

Some questioned Dalzell’s descent time of two minutes 42 seconds, which seemed incredible.

Indeed, the then vicar of St Wilfrid’s, the Reverend Stavert, insisted that Dalzell had descended in three minutes 42 seconds.

However, those who witnessed the race swore by Dalzell’s record and said they had never seen anything like it.

The slightly-built Dalzell was born in 1884 at Sheep Fold, Skelwith Bridge. He worked as a gamekeeper at Ormathwaite, near Keswick. Throughout his racing career he was noted for fearless breakneck descents. WC Skelton wrote of him: “He could leap down a fell with the speed of a Helvellyn fox and the surefootedness of a Martindale deer.”

The late Sir Percy Hope, Master of the Blencathra foxhounds, was quoted as saying: “Dalzell was the best runner down a fell I ever knew. To see him take a flying leap over a stone wall and roll over in the bracken, his feet on the other side, was unforgettable.”

He was 21 when he achieved his first victory at Grasmere in 1905. He won this race seven times, setting new records on four occasions, but he is most certainly best remembered for his legendary run at Burnsall. Some of the times put up by the old timers, like Dalzell, are even more remarkable when it is remembered that they wore much heavier boots and more restrictive clothing than today’s athletes. Lighter spiked shoes only came in later.

The modern generation might also find it difficult to believe, in an era when footballers receive six-figure sums a week, that Dalzell’s victory brought him the first prize of £5 plus £1 for breaking the record.

It stood for 67 years – until the Jubilee Challenge Fell race for professionals on June 18 1977 when Fred Reeves, of Barrow and later of Coniston, crossed the line in a time of 12 minutes 47.2 seconds.

It was appropriate that a runner who won Ambleside and Malham 10 times, Embsay and Lowgill 11 times and the Fell Runners’ Championship 10 years in succession up to 1979 should be the one to achieve this momentous feat.

The Craven Herald said at the time: “His reception from spectators sensing ‘it was on’ was rapturous. As he unwound at the finish, threshing arms moved upwards in salute of a mighty victory.

“Reeves’ scorching run up and down Burnsall Fell had shattered a 67-year-old record set by legendary Dalzell. Since that epic pre-World War One run, Dalzell’s record has been shrouded in doubt and controversy. Many deemed that time not humanly possible and that it would stand for ever.

“It stood the test of time and the challenge of thousands of athletes, both professional and amateur, until Reeves came, saw and conquered.”

The Herald reported that Reeves had led from almost the start, reaching the top of Burnsall Fell in nine minutes five seconds – 18 seconds behind the fastest descent. But he had everything to play for.

“He threaded his way downhill, conceding vital seconds when he careered off-course. But he picked his way smartly through the heather and boulders to rejoin the rough sheep track lower down the fell. From then on he looked a record-breaker all the way.”

Speaking after his victory, Reeves said: “I pushed myself going up, but had not got the lead I would have liked. Once I knew the record was won, I went for it.”

An amateur runner, JR Wilde, also achieved a time of 12 minutes 48 seconds in 1983, but these are the only two to better Dalzell’s epic feat.

These days, as a spectacle, the scene has no equal. The bridge parapet is thronged with spectators and the Green is a hive of activity with children’s and womens’ races, game birds, a pet show, children’s fancy dress and Punch and Judy.

The day ends with the presentation of the prizes, a blessing by the Burnsall Rector and the playing of the hymn “Jesus shall reign” by the Lofthouse and Middlesmoor Brass Band. Any money raised goes towards the upkeep of The Village Green and charities that require support.

With the increase in the number of competitors taking part, the four-centuries-old Burnsall Feast Sports seem set to continue for a long time to come.