Tuesday, October 21, 2014

River access rights ....drowning in an ocean of indifference.

A while ago, I did a couple of blog pieces about the lamentable cRow act and how it was a missed opportunity with regard to the general public’s right to roam freely and without risking the ire of landowners in England & Wales.(Scotland enjoys this right although as writers like Andy Wightman point out in his excellent blog, feudal landowning relics still remain up there and walkers are still encountering access problems on some sporting estates). However, to get back to England and Wales, despite the fine promises from the Blair government, the cobbled together cRow act was a compromise aimed at appeasing landowners and farmers. The aforementioned blog pieces mentioned access problems I myself had encountered in the uplands of north Wales since the act came into force.

Whatever the failings of the campaign for the right to roam in the countryside, these failings fall into insignificance when compared to the appalling access situation on English & Welsh waterways. An incredible 96% of our rivers are out of bounds to canoeists and boat users, as landowners and the all powerful Angling body has the Westminster government quite firmly in its pocket. Even the more progressive Welsh Assembly appear to be loathe to muddy the waters-if you’ll forgive the pun-when it comes to taking this powerful lobby head on and putting river access on its legislative agenda.

Just down the road from here is the River Dee which meanders from it’s source under the mountain Dduallt near Bala (see Defending Ancient Springs) to the sea at the Dee Estuary. Access problems in the upper reaches are a case in point. Although the Dee is deemed navigable and thus technically canoeists enjoy the right to use the river-The section of river between Llangollen and Bala is deemed ‘bandit country’ by paddlers and any trips down river hereabouts are termed ‘bandit runs’.  At the end of the 80’s I took part in one of the ‘Mike Jones Memorial trips’. These were charity fund raising trips in memory of the eponymous late paddler.

At an amenable paddling Grade 2, this 12 mile run between Cynwyd and Llangollen was open to anyone and the event saw a range of craft from dinky white water kayaks to big Open canoes bouncing down the river through some fantastic countryside. Sadly the continuous battle with the riparian community became too much for the organisers and they finally gave up. Denying charities like the Muscular Dystrophy organisation, thousands of pounds in funds from future events.

On other Welsh rivers like the Afon Conwy, I’ve known friends who have had rocks hurled at them by angry fishermen. On rivers like the Seiont in NW Wales, farmers and paddlers have fought running battles as the former group try to run sections of the river and on my local river, the Afon Alwen, I’ve encountered barbed wire stretched across the river at head height at rapid sections where escape or avoidance would be difficult Why should paddlers or indeed any recreational river user accept this state of affairs? If landowners tried to garrotte mountain bikers or walkers crossing their land there would be outrage!

As I write, things are as they’ve always been. There is absolutely no chance the current Tory/Liberal administration will upset one of their key constituencies, the farming and landowning community. Not that a Labour administration would offer any more hope given their current craven position as the ‘Tory Lite’ party. The only hope we have in Wales would be seeing  a more radical influx of AM’s in the next assembly election. A new breed of politicians who are not stuck on the issue like rabbits caught in headlights. Terrified of upsetting the powerful status quo and who would not be afraid of introducing legislation which would be in the interests of ordinary people.

It’s almost 2015 and still our river access rights remain rooted in the dark ages. Why do we accept this. At least some organisations are fighting for our rights although it appears a David and Goliath battle at the moment.
Rivers:Griff Rhys Jones

Monday, October 13, 2014

Cwm Silyn's Great Slab: Between here and eternity

I was sorry to read about the rockfall and resultant unstable conditions that remain on The Great Slab in Cwm Silyn. (See BMC Story) . The crags hereabouts are personal favourites of mine being quiet backwaters with stunning views and quality routes abounding. The direct ‘Kirkus Route’ is in my experience, possibly the best mountaineering VS climb in North Wales. This 400’ route, first climbed by Colin Kirkus in May 1931, takes a pretty central line up the great slab and offers delicate slab climbing and outrageous exposure in equal measure.

Just over a year later, fellow Merseyside based North Wales activist and bona-fide legend, Menlove Edwards put up his equally regarded mountaineering V Diff, Outside Edge Route. A route I climbed on a misty day one October when visibility was so bad that leader and second were out of sight of each other for most of the climb. Only making contact on the dank belay ledges. A couple of years ago, a couple had to be rescued from Outside Edge route after only climbing 150’ in six hours before calling for a rescue. Good job they didn’t try Crucible or Jabberwocky!

Just around the corner is the huge rambling cliff, Craig Fawr where on another dank day I climbed a 600’ route, Engineers Climb in a party of three. A route which saw three falls but no submissions as we struggled to the top in the cold rain. I was interested to read that north Wales activist and off the beaten track explorer, Martin Crook had put up what sounds like a fine direct VS version of the route. A expedition described in his article (Engineers Eliminate: The nuts and bolts of a first ascent). Thankfully for Martin, it appears the weather Gods were smiling when he visited Craig Fawr.

Another great crag in these ere parts is Trwyn y Craig where the excellent 1925 route, Overhanging Chimneys takes centre stage. (see the Footless Crow article-One step in the past).

The Great Slab has always been an esoteric venue for the connoisseur. It will be a shame if its current unstable condition remains as it could become a forgotten venue where climbers fear to tread. Could it be saved by a BMC sponsored ‘trundle fest’. A project to remove the unstable rocks without causing even more damage and instability, or will nature take its course and will we see a hard winter prizing the perched choss from the upper reaches of the slab?

All photographs are of Kirkus Route VS-4c on The Great Slab taken by the author.(Copyright waived for non commercial purposes)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ogwen Cottage...another outdoor centre bites the dust.

I was sorry to see that Ogwen Cottage outdoor centre in Snowdonia has closed and is up for sale as part of Birmingham Councils’ revenue saving strategy. The council is selling off a number of properties including Og Cott in an effort to reduce to its financial deficit. The centre is apparently subsidized to the tune of £1.2m and its closure will see a number of jobs go which include outdoor instructors, kitchen and maintenance staff.

‘Og Cott’ has been a permanent fixture in my outdoor life and somewhere I still drive passed at least four times every week. The dwelling is a fairly utilitarian building in itself, situated on a bend on the busy A5 where Nant Francon and Ogwen Valley meet. However, its functional appearance is more than made up by its fabulous location; positioned at the head of the sombre waters of Llyn Ogwen, flanked by Tryfan’s rugged West Face and looking out to Pen yr Ole Wen. There are for sure, not many outdoor centres in the UK which are more favourably blessed in their setting.

The cottage was originally a coaching inn. Its position on the Thomas Telford engineered A5 made it a popular stop off point for travellers to and from Ireland via Holyhead. In the late Victorian, early Edwardian era, it became a popular hostelry with the nascent mountaineering community. Legendary north Wales activists like Archer Thomson, OG Jones and The Abraham Brothers all stayed there while making the mark on the nearby cliffs. Tryfan, The Devil’s Kitchen, Creigiau Glesion and even Craig yr Ysfa all saw new routes established by these early pioneers who set out on their quests from ‘The Cottage’.

By the 1950’s the cottage had been purchased by another Welsh climbing legend, Ron James who established an outdoor activities centre and mountain rescue base. By 1964, Birmingham City Council had taken over the centre although Ron James remained as its chief instructor.

Over the years, ten of thousands of young people from the inner cities have enjoyed their time at the centre. For many, it would have been their first time outside of their urban environment and footloose in the great outdoors. In this stunning location they would go on to take their first steps on the rock face when they nervously came to peer over the edge of ‘Tin Can Alley’ -right behind the centre- before going on to enjoy the multi pitch experience in the cradling mountains above.

The news that Og Cott is to be sold to a private buyer reflects the remorseless decline in LEA owned and run outdoor centres nationwide. Since the 1980’s there has been a steady flow of mountain hostels and centres coming onto the market as councils are forced to make deep cuts in their budgets. Last night’s TV news in Wales warned of further deep cuts in local authority funding with services to the elderly, public libraries, refuse collection services, youth club funding  and even parks and gardens under threat of closure and sell off. Political cynics like me will inevitably point out that the Westminster cabal can always find the funds for pointless military excursions in the Middle East but when austerity budgets are being structured in 11 Downing Street, Health, Education and Welfare are always the first areas to see their budgets slashed.

I think most decent people would rather see their taxes funding outdoor education centres like Ogwen Cottage than paying for a nuclear missile system like Trident-£50 billion- or training a Tornado pilot. ( It costs more to train a single RAF pilot as it would cost to fully fund the Ogwen Centre for a year!).Then again...there's profits to made in the arms industry. Teaching a young kid from Handsworth to navigate in the mountains has zero profit potential I'm afraid!

Outdoor Education 2014....RIP.

Birmingham Mail Story

Ogwen Cottage Sale details

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Dark clouds gather over Clocaenog Forest

So....It came as no surprise when the coalition energy supremo, Ed Davey, MP for Kingston and Surbiton, rubber stamped the planning application by German global energy corporation RWE, to build a thirty two turbine wind farm in Clocaenog Forest. For those who argue for devolving power away from the London political mafia to the nations and regions, the Clocaenog decision, highlights the rotten and corrupt way decisions like this are made. A project which will have huge social and environmental consequences in North Wales, decided in London by a Southern English Liberal MP who almost certainly has never even set foot in Clocaenog Forest.

For these people and the global energy corporations they serve, places like Clocaenog, The Hiraethog and the Arenig outliers, are just contour lines on a map.  Relatively empty expanses, remote and easy to exploit.Elevation..tick: thinly spread population..tick: compliant political machine..tick: sympathetic landowners (In this case The Welsh Government) tick.

The Right Honourable Edward Davey MP. Member for Kingston and Surbition....and global energy corporations.

A while ago I outlined the serious impact the wind farm could have on residents in the Vale of Clwyd through the risk of increased flooding caused by extensive deforestation; ( The Vale of Clwyd is the most at risk area in the whole of Wales and one of the highest at risk areas in the UK) See ‘All this Useless Beauty’. I also outlined why the planning enquiry then taking place was a total sham. The tracks within the forest were already being widened and reinforced to take heavy plant machines and borrow pits (quarries) were being  reopened and extensively worked to provide aggregate for the development.

As with most of these huge industrial scale developments, the name of the game is profits. Huge heavily subsidised profits at that. As I write, electricity provided by these wind farms is down 20% on 2013 levels, despite more wind farms opening and operating. Quite simply, the wind is not blowing as strongly this year! One of the biggest scams to incense environmentalists is when the government pays the wind farm operators to close down their sites in periods when the UK’s nuclear, coal and gas power stations are producing too much energy. For example, when it becomes unseasonal warm and electricity demand drops.

Factors like this will not affect RWE’s profits though as the UK government guarantees a fixed rate for renewable energy, despite this economic strategy falling outside of its neo liberal philosophy which preaches the absolute laws of the market must prevail. Whereas ship building, coal mining, car production etc-is allowed to fail and production out sourced to the far east, the so called renewable sector is feather bedded and protected. Little wonder that investors gather like swine around a steaming subsidy trough!

Economic and political factors apart; I am left wondering who will notice when the red squirrel, the black grouse and the red kite are wiped out in Clocaenog Forest and who will pick up the tab if-and some would say when- serious flooding impacts on those vulnerable valley communities? Not RWE or its shareholders that's for sure!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Scotland's declaration of dependence.

Well...it was not to be...this time! The most momentous political event in the UK in my lifetime and an all too rare opportunity to actually achieve real positive change through the ballot box came to naught. A one sided media blitzkrieg and a panic stricken political establishment  promising the world, was enough to persuade the grey conservative constituency within Scotland to remain under Westminster rule. For the demographics show the over 55’s were the bedrock of the No campaign. A sizable element that neutralized the votes of the 71% of young voters who had voted for independence. 

Depending on your perspective, these older voters who were targeted by the Better Together crew were either ‘Wee Timorous Beasties’ frit of change, or a vulnerable element who were ruthlessly exploited by Project Fear’s scaremongering. Everything from pensions to TV licences, food prices to mortgages. The grey vote was basically battered into submission by an endless stream of negative propaganda and basically, enough of them swallowed it. 

For the young and the young at heart, it can feel like a betrayal. A triumph of fear over hope...of cynicism over self belief. It is a fact though, that the conservative constituency is literally a dying constituency. The older generation- many of whom  have a WW2 brothers in arms camaraderie with their English, Welsh and Irish fellow combatants; have experienced the deprivations which followed the war and moved through to the relative prosperity of a post 1950’s economy when jobs were plentiful and industries like mining and shipbuilding still thrived- are undeniably more sympathetic to the concept of unionism and see Great Britain as a benign construct.

By contrast, the present generation have seen a weakening of the ties that bind to the extent that the majority see an independent Scottish state as a natural progression from its current devolved state. More European in outlook and just as likely to visit Amsterdam or Berlin as London, this young outward looking generation is more likely to observe the advantages of living in a modern Nordic state than in a tired imperial relic. It is this constituency that eminent left wing Scottish historian Tom Devine refers to when he declares that the ‘independence genie has been let out of the bottle and it cannot ever return’. From the triumphalist Tory journalists who declare that the UK has killed the idea of Scottish independence stone dead- ignoring the 45% vote for independence-to the more sober Guardianists who say that the issue is ‘over for a generation’. I would suggest that with almost half the population voting for independence and with Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow voting break away from Ruritania, then this significant element of Scottish society is not about to meekly touch their forelocks, accept that might is right and slunk off into the night .

There is a new political force in Scotland which crosses the progressive political spectrum. The Yes campaign has managed to capture the centre/left ground, embracing vibrant new non aligned  movements, harnessing articulate new young voices and consigning the dismal Labour Party led by the hapless and hopeless Miliband to its rightful place with the rest of the centre/right UK establishment parties.  The great city of Glasgow has been a shining light in this great conversation. Ignoring the siren voices of the tame media and the UK political cabal and reviving the spirit of ‘The Red Clyde’. Politically savvy and unafraid to pursue a radical agenda. By contrast, the genteel folk of Edinburgh rather confirming Billy Connolly’s observation that ‘a Glasgow funeral is more fun than an Edinburgh wedding’ ! Conservative, tame and reserved. A city with a sizable constituency of that group recognized by political pollsters as ‘Shy Tories’. Or in this case ‘Shy Unionists’.

As for the future? The UK economy is £1.2 trillion in debt (88% of GDP) and can only function if a tame populace accept zero contract hours, low pay, long hours, welfare cuts, austerity and continued massive borrowing. The irony being that Scotland was continually told it was economically nonviable despite its obvious wealth and potential compared to the rest of the UK.  A useful analogy would be to have seen the referendum as a launching of a lifeboat. The provisions had been stashed; a course had been plotted; people had starting climbing aboard but at the 11th hour, with land and deliverance in sight, everyone was ordered to get back on board The UK Titanic!

To be continued......

John Appleby