Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Augustus John: Models in a north Wales landscape

Derwent Lees 'A Welsh Landscape'.Location,The Arenig Fawr outlier of Pen Tyrau.

Of all the mountains in Wales, for me, Arenig Fawr is easily the King..or perhaps it should be Queen?...of Welsh peaks. This brooding massif surrounded by the rough bounds of the Migneint, encompasses everything that is mysterious and romantic in mountain lore. It even harbours within its bounds, a contemporary human tragedy and in that, an event that can teach us something about the folly and ignorance of those who have political power. I refer of course to the destruction of the Treweryn valley and the village of Capel Celyn to create a pointless and unnecessary reservoir . An action which I blogged about a couple of years ago in The Drowning Season.

In fact, I’ve always found the mountain a rich creative seam to mine. Inspiring both art and climbing pieces which have appeared in the climbing press and blogs. In the early 90’s I had a piece in the then Climber & Rambler magazine, ‘The Art of Arenig’, which detailed the mysterious and as yet unrecorded climbing history on Arenig Fawr and the mountain’s unique place in British art. The mountain inspiring ‘The Arenig School’; An Edwardian art movement led by the leading light of the day, Augustus John but which has James Dickson Innes as the mainspring of the movement. See ‘James Dickson Innes..Artist of the Sacred Mountain’ for more.

Interestingly, The Arenig School-based in the cottage of Nant Ddu nearby-only lasted a couple of years- 1910/12-before Augustus had moved across the moors to the slate mining village of Tan y Grisiau near Blaneau Ffestiniog, where he rented a cottage and carried on painting the local landscapes and his muse Dorelia....and any other model who happened to pass under his spell!

Anyone interested in his art and who is familiar with the landscapes of north Wales cannot help but play ‘spot the location’. Not particularly with his landscapes, as these are fairly obvious for most parts. It’s more interesting and difficult though when a model is involved as often he just plonks them on a hillside or sits them on a rock which could be anywhere.

Anywhere except we know it has to be either under Arenig or under the climbing crags of the Moelwyns where his now ruined cottage is located. For years I believed that the cottage of Llwynynthyl was in Cwm Orthin, the vast open valley which most walkers heading up to Moelwyn Mawr pass through. However, an art programme, ‘Framing Wales', on BBC Wales presented by Kim Howells- the fascinating former NUM secretary, Labour MP, Culture Secretary in the Blair government and rock climber- who offered a different location to Llwynynthyl when he scaled an easy climb on one of the Moelwyn cliffs. After completing the climb, he pointed to the ruins of Llwynynthyl which sits above..or is it below?..the road up to the Stwlan Dam.

So..with this in mind,here’s a few educated guesses as to model locations.

The Red Feather:1911 Augustus John

I’m pretty sure that this is on the western slopes of Arenig Fawr under a crag known as Craig Hyrddod,( Crag of the Rams) less than a mile from Nant Ddu. In 1997 I made a first climb on Hyrddod which due to a misinterpretation, I called ‘Hurricane Wall’, thinking that the Welsh name translated as storm or tempest. Huge boulders abound hereabouts and there is a curious shrine at the base of the cliff. Another climb I did here I called Pagan Wall. 

The Orange Apron:1912: Augustus John

This has to be a Tan y Griseau painting. Looking up to the high point of Moelwyn Bach from the lower slopes of Moel  yr Hydd with the slate mine levels clearly visible.

Reverie:1914 and Doreilia in a Green Dress:1914

Confusingly, Reverie is also referred to as ‘The Tired Climber’ and ‘Doreilia in Cornwall’. Most certainly this is not Cornwall but is it a Tan y Griseau painting or an Arenig work? I originally thought it had to be the lower slopes of Moel yr Hydd above the cottage, Llwynynthyl, but it could be just slightly north of the Red Feather location beneath the saddle which connects Pen Tyrau with Arenig Fawr. Both paintings show what could be a stone wall which suggests Arenig.

Lily on the mountainside:1911

This has to be looking north east from Moel yr Hydd towards Nyth y Gigfran and the mouth of Cwm Orthin. Climbers will recognize it as the location of the popular venue, Craig y Clipau.

Lyndra by the Pool: 1914-Derwent Lees.

This is a work by the Australian painter, Derwent Lees. A lesser figure in the Arenig School, very much influenced by Augustus John. Location, the lower slopes of the Arenig outlier,Pen Tyrau.

Lyndra by the rocks:1914.Derwent Lees

Lyndra appears to be Lees’ muse very much in the manner of John’s Dorelia. Here, the artist has placed his model in the lee of what appears a sizable cliff.The light and shade would suggest that it is the basalt quarry just lower down the Pen Tyrau mountainside and close to Arenig village.

So....a few educated stabs at the locations of these paintings.Anyone with their own theories,feel free to get in touch.
Anyone interested in the Arenig School then I recommend Michael Holroyd’s monumental biography of Augustus John which covers the period in great detail.
john appleby 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Stone Free: Last great problems in north Wales

I was looking at Terry Taylor’s Mid Wales climbing site the other day and I noticed in the Craig Ddu/Moel Siabod section, his reference to the Great Prow of Craig Ddu still being unclimbed. This section was a bit out of date and he did mention that hot shot Calum Muskett had been active in these ere parts, but I haven’t heard anything on the north Wales grapevine to suggest that it’s been vanquished by Calum or anyone else for that matter. I contacted Calum to see if he or anyone else had liberated it and it appears not. To be fair, he does not appear to be particularly impressed with the crag or project but then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's true that Craig Ddu (Black Crag) lacks the grandeur of a Cloggy or Cromlech, being more a scruffy mid-wales crag in character, but I've always thought it a grand spot myself.

I’ve always taken a proprietorial interest in Craig Ddu because I discovered it in the 90’s, made the first ascents there and tipped Terry off about the crag. New crags are always being discovered, particularly in out of the way places like the Carneddau or Mid Wales, however, Craig Ddu was unusual for two reasons. The first that it was on the flanks of one of our most popular mountains-Moel Siabod- and secondly, because it was so big, relatively speaking. Little single pitch craglets are being developed all the time, but Craig Ddu was different as it was a good 45m high or 150 feet in old money. 

Unusual as well, in that it offered multi pitch routes. A rarity these days. I discovered it through simply looking at a 125/OS map and noticing a sizable cliff marked. Fortunately, it was on the rarely visited south west flank of the mountain and the approach from the Roman Bridge was rough ,pathless and involved crossing a boggy plateau. Not the sort of terrain to tempt most walkers and climbers.

Climbing the serrated knife edge of Brigate Rosso on the far left tier.

After surprising myself at discovering such a sizable crag, I persuaded my old friend Harold Drasdo to join me in attempting to make a first impression on the crag. That first impression was ‘Zenturion’ a three pitch VS climb which could be seen as having ‘minor classic’ potential in that it found a way through some unlikely terrain at an amenable standard.  The final pitch took off up the vertical headwall, with the ground falling dramatically away beneath your feet. It looked unlikely but each pull delivered you to another hold until you pulled out on a stone pavement. At this point you could just walk off but I regret not putting up a fourth pitch on a short tier above. When Harold joined me he exclaimed..’well, you can live off that for the next six months!’ 

We did a few more routes on the crag and Harold and his brother Neville ended fifty years of new routing together with their ‘Two Against Nature’ on the far right hand buttress.( The crag is split into three areas with the main cliff flanked by smaller crags to each side).  I realised that the crag offered more potential for better climbers than myself and told Terry about it. It’s fair to say that TT was not disappointed and quickly filled his boots . In fact, Andy Cave, amongst others, made a guest appearance up there with Terry. However, despite climbing high into the E’s, the prow it appears, is a step too far. Even for a talented and prolific new router.

So just how hard is it...E9/10...11!!! The actual overhanging section is not that long..15 metres maybe...but the rock is compact and doesn’t offer that much in the way of protection or comforting holds. Zenturion tracks to within a few metres of the Prow but those few metres offer a world of difference with mere verticality tipping into a yawning gravity defying test of physical and mental toughness.

Last great Welsh problem? I doubt it myself. There’s always going to be another desperate problem just around the corner which will tempt that tiny minority of elite climbers who crave to go where angels fear to tread.

Craig Ddu Main Cliff

Monday, March 17, 2014


Alas poor Eweric...I knew her well
After the wettest UK winter on record, nine rainless days of blue skies and sunshine continued in north east Wales. Time to take a break from an intensive period of work restoring an old cottage and get out into the hills. I chose somewhere nearby; somewhere I’d only discovered in the past few years despite its close proximity. That is the great wild cwm of Gylchedd with the option of bagging Carnedd Filiast and enjoying some of the finest mountain views in Wales.

The wild and wonderful Cwm Gylchedd 
I left the quiet Blaen y Cwm valley in glorious sunshine and broke off the old drovers track to head into the cwm as a band of mist separated the blue sky above from the dun moorland landscape below. On a sunny Sunday, a walk like this is the antithesis of the crocodile crawl up Snowdon or Tryfan in the company of thousands. You are as likely to meet a yeti as another human being within this wild trackless land.

Skirting the edge of the cwm I gradually gained height and aimed for the ridge which contains the cwm at its head. As I reached what I believed was the main connecting ridge I was by now held by a cold clag. Visibility was measured in metres and the usual outstanding views from up here could only be guessed at. At least Carnedd Filiast summit was but a stone’s throw away. However, after wandering in the general direction and without a map, I decided it was time to dig out my iPhone. I might not be able to see my hand in front of my face but I’ve got ‘Apps’ ! Yes,an OS GPS gizmo, an altimeter gizmo and a compass gizmo...what could go wrong?

Bringing up the OS map I could see the summit was not far away but up here it was impossible to discern any features. The high ground of Gychedd is a strange and almost unique plateau of extensive peat hags, small tarns  and of course heather. On a clear day it’s a great place with fantastic views all around, however today, the peat hags and tarns carried a spectral air. Ghostly impressions which hove into view before disappearing.

Despite the cwm head being so close from the summit, I somehow managed to wander around for an hour or so, continually missing the summit and at one point wandering in the opposite direction. I’m never that concerned about getting lost in the mountains. After all, it’s north Wales not Alaska we’re talking about,however, it is a bit disconcerting, wandering about in a strange twilight world of shadows and blurred topographical features.

Eventually, the strong westerlies whipped the mist into submission and revealed a blue sky. When I reached the summit, the vistas were beginning to emerge from the mist. Cwm Hesgin briefly appeared before the mist obliterated it from view, then, to the north, the main Snowdonia mountains were revealed. I had brought an old SLR film camera with me to test it out and balanced it on the trig point. Cold fingers struggled with the lenses and various dials as north south east and west, the views were revealed before the mountain mist blew across and smudged them out.

Eventually the sun won its battle and the mist dispersed which meant I could make a beeline for Cwm Gilchedd which I reached in less than 10 minutes. I realised just how far out I had been when I first reached the ridge and headed in what I thought was the right direction. So much for my uncanny sense of direction and map apps!

Friday, February 28, 2014

The search for Greenland Rib..... Lost and Found?

Photo sent by John Hunt to John Jackson.
Driving up the A5 in Snowdonia yesterday, I reached that point where the road straightens out briefly near the Siabod Cafe and you emerge from the bends and encroaching foliage to get an uninterrupted view of the mountains ahead. As I approached the junction which I would take en-route to the Lleyn Peninsular, the prominent ribs and slabs of Creigiau’r Gelli were delineated by a strong morning sun. For years I had looked up at these imposing crags, wondering if they had any routes on them?  The North Wales guidebooks certainly didn’t carry any information at the time so if they did they must be unrecorded.

Given their proximity to the Plas y Brenin Mountain Centre I guessed they just had to have been explored by the centre staff over the years, but in all the times I had travelled up and down this road, I had never looked up and caught sight of a party on the cliffs.

Miriam Tierney on'The Temptation of St Julitta'.Creigiau'r Gelli.
As I passed by, I recalled an interesting old photograph published in the North Wales Mountaineering Club journal in 2005 which illustrated an obituary for former club member John Jackson. John had been head warden at  Plas y Brenin in the early 1960’s. The photo carried some intriguing information surrounding a lost route ‘Greenland Rib’ which had been completed with Sir John Hunt in 1961. At the time of photographs’ publication, The Climbers Club were in the process of bringing out a new Ogwen guidebook under the authorship of Mike Bailey. Despite a forensic examination of club archives, old journals and appeals for information, Greenland Rib remained and indeed still remains a mystery?

Luke Appleby on P2 of 'St Julitta'.
However, I have a hunch I know where the route is, although this more based on a theory rather detective work and hard evidence. In fact, I may have even made a ‘first’ ascent of the route myself! This brings me back to Creigiau’r Gelli. As previously mentioned, the crags stand pleasantly above Plas y Brenin, facing south and catching the sun. Or at least it catches the sun on those rare occasions when we actually see the sun in North Wales! It's a pleasant 15 minute stroll to reach the crag which at present has but four routes recorded which  follow the most prominent features. A retired PyB instructor confirmed that instructors had indeed climbed up there and named one climb as Diamond Slab, which as it turns out is a very good E1. He suggested that a Lakeland climber-I think it was Tom Bowker?- had also made first ascents up there but again no written information to confirm this?

As someone involved in the Ogwen guidebook  team at the time, I went up there one day with the author and we were immediately drawn to one of the most obvious ribs which we climbed, and after being surprised by a fox which offered some dramatic bridging moves up a neighbouring groove, it was named ‘ Basil Brush’ ! Again, another nice little route; this time at a sustained VS-4c. My theory is that Basil Brush and Greenland Rib are the same route.

The photo taken on the day of the first ascent (above) show Jackson and Hunt standing in front of a farm gate. This I’m sure is just up the road from Plas y Brenin with the backdrop being the lower slopes of Cefn y Capel. The crags of Dyffryn Mynbwr (formerly the Ricks and the Racks), lie just to the left and Creigiau’r Gelli just out of shot to the right. The script on the photograph which sent by John Hunt to his friend, says, John, The day of your appointment as Warden of PyB! Happy memories and good wishes for the future...John Hunt.

Underneath it is captioned....’Photograph sent by John Hunt after my appointment as Warden of PyB’ Person unknown has added... In 1960 they went out and climbed a route they named as Greenland Rib in 1961 following their 1960 Greenland Expedition.

To add to the confusion, in 2008 I climbed another rib further right with a couple of my off-springs. This was a pleasant three pitch V Diff which offers itself as a perfect route to take a novice. It was named ‘The Temptation of St Julitta’. St Julitta’s is the lovely little chapel next to PyB by the way. Could this be Greenland Rib? I don’t think so somehow. The latter is a rambling escapable route while Basil Brush is a striking line following a sharp, knife edge rib. I'm sure the two Johns would have been much more inclined to tackle the more imposing and harder line.

Until I hear evidence to the contrary, then I’m sticking with the Greenland Rib/ Basil Brush theory.Any further information gratefully received.
Tony Pearson on Basil Brush...or is it Greenland Rib?