Tuesday, May 19, 2015

In a Quiet Place:Wandering the Lleyn Pilgrim Trail

There’s something about following a Pilgrim’s Trail which appeals to my non Christian sense of adventure in the same way as a long distance trod like The Pennine Way or the Coast to Coast walk. Probably, because these ancient trails more often than not, meander through quiet backwaters and take it some stunning locations, with ancient churches, holy wells and shrines thrown in for good measure. 

The Lleyn Peninsular Pilgrim’s trail is not exactly the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James) in Northern Spain which sees hundreds of thousands of walkers following its course every year, but in its own way, this 47 mile walk which essentially follows a coastal pathway, takes in some equally spectacular scenery with the added bonus that throughout most of the trail, you won’t encounter many fellow ‘pilgrims’.

The trail starts at Clynnog Fawr at the 12th century church dedicated to St Beuno , THE main man hereabouts when it comes to divine beings. This 7th century Abbot, healer and all round good egg could- legend has it- heal the sick and raise the dead. Excellent qualifications it appears, for beatification after death. The church dedicated to him is pretty huge by country church standards. Resembling a small cathedral, it dominates the village in its scale.

From Clynnog the trail meanders along the wild coastline, passing through Trefor and the near 2000’ Yr Eifl peaks to reach another of Beuno’s holy places. The stunning little church of Pistyll.

Open the heavy oak door and your olfactory senses are assailed with the smell of lavender and herbs. Here Beuno  is said to have grown herbs in the garden cum graveyard, to heal the sick and balm the wounded. Nestling in a hollow in the hills, the little church’s western walls are windowless to protect it from the squalls which whip in from the Atlantic to gain velocity over the Irish Sea before crashing into the Peninsular. It’s no wonder the Lleyn often features on the national weather forecasts when wind speeds are mentioned.

From Pistyll, the way weaves around the coast, passing through Nefyn before reaching out to Porthdinllaen where the famous Ty Goch ‘pub on the beach’ attracts both punters and the odd celeb. Including Cam and Sam, Corries 'Ken Barlow',and Hollywood’s Demi Moore.

It’s hard for those not familiar with the Lleyn Peninsular to differentiate it from Cornwall. Same shape- an arm of land jutting out into the sea- same gulf stream kissed climate, same meandering dramatic coastline featuring rugged cliffs, quiet inaccessible bays and coastal villages. You will find a lot more people hereabouts speaking Welsh than you’ll hear Cornish spoken in Cornwall though!

The trail continue through RS Thomas country- the remote environs around Aberdaron- to conclude with a boat trip to Bardsey Island. ‘The Island of 20000 saints’ who are buried here....apparently. The Pilgrim’s Trail is said to take four or five days of walking although I’m sure as I write some lean, mean running machine will have done it in a day! 

But a voice sounds to my ear: Why so fast,mortal?
These very seas are baptised. The Parish has a saint's
name time cannot unfrock.
In cities that have outgrown their promise people are
becoming pilgrims again, if not in this place then to the
recreation of it in their own spirits.
You must remain kneeling.Even as the moon making its
way through the earth's cumbersome shadow, prayer too
has it phases.

RS Thomas from 'The Moon in Lleyn'


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Animal Rights Zealots and the Green Horses

I think I can safely classify myself as an animal lover. We’ve got three horses-two of which were rescued, four cats-two or which arrived on our doorstep as tiny kittens; probably dumped; a Springer who came from the Springer Rescue society after being rescued by the RSPCA. He’d spent the first six months of his life locked in a shed in terrible conditions. On top of that I’ve created wildlife zones and a pond, built and erected owl and small bird boxes around the place. We support The World Horse Welfare, the horse charity where our cob ‘Bill’ came from, and last year planted a small patch with saplings and daffodils which will also be a pet cemetery. Our poor old cat, Bella who died a few months ago is the first client!

On the social media, quite naturally I have a lot of animal loving friends; from people like myself to total zealots. These ‘ultras’ are usually harmless enough if lacking any perceivable sense of humour. An example of this occurred today when someone posted a picture of The Green Party using two horses to pull flat-bed carts which provoked a sadly predictable explosion of ignorant, hysterical outrage at this outrageous act of animal cruelty.

Sadly, the animal rights people who take issue with this know nothing about horses or the real welfare issues which have arisen in recent years since the economic crisis of 2008. Ten of thousands of horses are being dumped, abandoned or starved because their owners simply cannot afford to keep them. Horse welfare charities like WHF simply cannot cope anymore as they just don’t have the facilities, funds or staff to save every horse. Given the terrible condition of horses and ponies who come into their care, the charity would find the suggestion that two obviously healthy,cared for horses pulling empty carts are being mistreated, quite risible in the circumstances.

Horses are incredibly strong and sociable beasts who would not be phased in the slightest by being pressed into service like this. Old and sick horses excepted-they would also appreciate the exercise as quite often, if they are based in an urban setting, they will inevitably be restricted to a yard or stable. I can only guess that these two horses probably enjoyed the day out and the attention.

Zealotry in any form is a pretty dangerous thing; especially allied to ignorance and hysteria. Supporting animal rights is to be commended but being outraged and offended by something which is not even close to being an act of  animal cruelty goes to show that the dumbest animals usually just have two legs and an incredibly tiny brain!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Barking up the wrong tree: Irish mountaineering club's dog advice.

It was a posting on the Irish Mountaineering Club’s Facebook page which prompted raised eyebrows and ruffled a few feathers amongst the wider mountaineering community. After posting a You-Tube video of a dog running free and chasing a sheep onto cliffs in Devon, the clip was accompanied by a stern recommendation from the club..’ if you are going into the mountains then leave your dog at home’.

Even for non dog owners the advice came across as a rather OTT knee-jerk reaction to an incident that didn’t even happen in Ireland. Of course dogs do worry sheep; a particular problem right now in the lambing season when terrified ewes can abort, and in the worst case scenario an out of control dog can kill or injure lambs, rams and ewes.

Thankfully, given the tens of thousands of dogs who go into the hills, these incidents are rare. 99% of dog owners in my experience are in the control of their dogs and will keep them on a lead amongst livestock and will have them trained to remain within the owner’s orbit.

My own interest in this is as a dog owner who wouldn’t dream of doing a mountain walk without taking Fergus, my six year old Springer Spaniel. For a start, as a breed Springers need the exercise and stimulation which is part and parcel of their high octane working pedigree. Of course, like most active dogs he enjoys being out and about in the great outdoors and he is in fact great company. Apart from the fact that he gets impatient if I stop for a rest and often barks until I get going again!

He’s not a dog I’d take to a crag though if I’m climbing. He’s too keen to follow and in general is just a pain. I’ve seen lots of dogs at the crag though. Relaxed and content to just chill next to the owners rucksack while the owner sports themselves above. The majority of climbers in my experience, like seeing dogs at the crag and will happily ruffle their ears and feed them bits of sandwich when they stop for lunch. There’s no denying though, that a small majority of mountain walkers and climbers hate dogs with a passion and will jump on any negative anti dog bandwagon they can. In this instance the Irish Mountaineering Clubs’ ill considered edict.

The author on the first ascent of 'Twa Dogs' VS-5a on Clogwyn Gigfran,N Wales.Named in tribute to a friends'two dogs who usually accompanied these new routing jaunts.
Dog threads on forums such as UKC will always generate heated debate and stimulate trolling from the haters. Let these bilious little people spill poison from their keyboards. Personally, as someone increasingly moulded in the Wainwright outdoor template, I’d rather see dogs in the mountains or at the crag than people! Certainly their impact on the mountain environment is hardly in the same league as the assembled hoards who descend on the national parks and uplands at the weekends.

As Pascal is quoted as saying...’the more I see of humanity, the more I love my dog’ .

Friday, April 3, 2015

Obscured by clouds:Wainwright's 'Bad Weather' quote revisited.

Eric Robson and Alfred Wainwright:Not a rain cloud in sight!: Photo Richard Else-Striding Edge

‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’  As mountain related sayings go it has become something of a cliche. Used by outdoor companies in the advertising promotions; quoted ad naseum by outdoor/travel writers, bloggers and just about anyone with an interest in persuading us to endure the masochistic ‘delights’ of undertaking an activity in inclement weather.

The quote is of course usually attribute to Alfred Wainwright although I’ve also seen it attributed to Ranulph Fiennes and described as a ‘Norwegian Saying’. The Wainwright source is given as his Coast to Coast walking guidebook but as I don't have a copy to hand I cannot check this out. However, whether or not this is verifiable doesn’t alter the fact that all the evidence suggests that Wainwright never actually  believed this patent tosh. A piece of hokum which sounds more like it emerged after a brainstorming session in a US advertising agency- working no doubt, on behalf of some outdoor apparel giant- rather than being the invention of a north country fellwalker who was noted for his stubborn refusal to embrace technical outdoor clothing.

The contradictory nature of this saying can be clearly evidenced in a UK TV documentary featuring Wainwright and his trusted interviewer and friend, Eric Robson. Sitting in a Borrowdale cafe, the pair looked to the stormy rain battered fells and Wainwright commented ‘ It’s certainly not a day to be out on the fells’. Note; not ‘If only I had my £400 Gore-Tex kag, Event Over trousers and my Seal Skin lined £300 Italian boots I’d be oop on’t fells like a shot’ !

When Eric asked him how he dealt with bad weather in the fells, AW was quite clear in his response. He simply said if the forecast was bad he just changed his plans and went on another day when the weather was more clement. An approach totally at odds with the attributed ‘ No such thing’ quote.

I have to say, this approach is plain common sense to me. If you live in the locale as AW did and can afford to change your plans then why not? Call me a fair-weather outdoor activist if you will but I see absolutely no point in going out climbing, hillwalking or mountain biking if it’s lashing down and a westerly gale is sweeping over. It would be different perhaps, if you had driven 200 miles to get your outdoor fix and had accommodation booked etc. Then I can see how you might find yourself quoting ‘Wainwright’ as you  zipped up your kag, hoisted a pack on your back and headed off into the mountains as white torrents tumbled down and the tops were wreathed in clag.

Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men etc, do not always follow the expected trajectory. Being unexpectedly caught out is par for the course if you get out regularly in the great outdoors. On several occasions I’ve been caught out climbing in the rain and on more than one occasion I’ve found myself, to quote Morrissey ‘Shipwrecked on dry land’. That is, when I’ve been hit by a squall in extremis. Trying to remove a gear placement which is suddenly under water is an interesting experience, as is trying to find your rucksack which you secreted in a niche at the foot of the crag except the niche has suddenly disappeared behind a waterfall! 

The most terrifying experience of all for any mountain goer is being caught in a thunder and lightning storm. Having just finished Direct Route on Glyder Fach, my partner and I were hit-almost literally- by an explosive storm which saw the sky take on a blue hue and the atmosphere bristling with menace. Running down the mountain side as lightning cracked around us and with our ears ringing with thunderclaps ,was not an experience I’d like to repeat anytime soon.

Captain Ahab unsuitably attired for an outdoor activity. In this case, the first aid ascent of Moby Dick.

There are always of course, the outdoor Captain Ahab’s. Not lashed to the mast in an Atlantic tempest or struggling to overcome 'The Great White', but gaining a perverse pleasure in elemental suffering by undertaking an activity when common sense suggests a day more suited to festering in caffs. Driving back and forth through Snowdonia I see these ‘Ahab’s regularly. Particularly the road bikers. Dressed in nothing but lycra, head down and peddling furiously into the wind and rain funneling down Ogwen Valley, or the perversely enthusiastic hillwalkers, returning like drowned rats from a day on the mountain when you can't see your hand in front of your face or the rain has matched a tropical monsoon in intensity

‘No such thing as bad weather’?....Au contraire mon ami and if Wainwright was still alive I’m sure he’d concur!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

All that Glitters is Garnet's Gold

The documentary Garnet’s Gold’, re-titled ‘The Lost Gold of the Highlands’ on BBC , was a brilliantly filmed feature surrounding the strange life and times of one Garnet Frost. A late fifty-something Londoner who, never having married or lived with a partner, had stayed with his mum in a state of splendid artistic dishevelment in a comfortable semi in that anonymous London sprawl which John Betjemen referred to as ‘Metroland’.

For reasons not quite explained, Garnet had paid his first visit to the Scottish Highlands twenty years previously and somehow found himself wandering the midge infested bounds of Lock Arkaig where he found himself tumbling down a ravine; coming to rest on the shores of a fast flowing small river which would enter the Loch further down. Lodged in one of the bank side rocks was a curious gnarled staff. It’s possible significance lost on the finder who starving, cold and dehydrated lapsed into a state of semi consciousness; prepared to accept the inevitability of death.

By a million to one chance he was rescued by a passing stalker and his return to civilisation coincided with his discovery of the legend of Prince Charlie’s Gold. During the Jacobite rebellion, funds in the form of gold bullion was brought over from the continent to financially underpin the campaign. However, defeat at Culloden saw the booty carted hither and thither across the Highlands until-legend has it-it was hidden someone near the shores of Loch Arkaig.

The bothy near Lock Arkaig: Walking Highlands 
Before the focus moves oop north, Garnet’s life with his 90 year old mother and friends is developed through talking head interviews and footage showing his predilection for beer, fags, dancing and crooning at the local boozer. As great outdoors activists go, Garnet is just about as far away from the norm as you can get.

Without any discernible means of income, our hero somehow manages to get himself an old Land Rover Discovery, a small boat and a weather balloon with a camera attachment and takes off with two friends for whom the wilds of Scotland are as alien to their suburban comfort zone as the jungles of the Congo!

Staying at the old bothy, Garnet takes off alone into the wild. His apparel refreshingly logo free and looking as if it was bought from an army and navy stores in the 1960's.His face quietly erupting into a midge bitten visage of swollen red skin. His bare legs inviting every tick in the area to climb aboard.
Ed Perkins captures it beautifully with some truly stunning footage; all taken apparently, on a single camera by the director himself.

Certainly well worth checking out. It might even still be on BBC iPlayer as we speak. Available in the UK only.