Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Great Countryside Media Swindle!

I was reading Robert McFarlane’s article on ‘Britain’s Wild Places’ in the Guardian today. I’m never too sure about RM and where he fits into the outdoor writing field? I’ve enjoyed and agreed with many of his articles but can never get a handle on his books which I often find unreadable. My misgivings perhaps relate to his place within a British media which in recent years has become corralled into a narrow and obsessive promotion and presentation of the UK countryside as a bucolic heaven on earth. In its way it is-as it was in Ruskin’s day- a largely metropolitan perception of what the countryside actually is with regards to ecology, socio/cultural issues and how it relates to rural areas in other parts of the world.

At its worst it is a BBC Countryfile view of the countryside. Basically an insidious piece of NFU propaganda aimed at ignorant townies. A countryside which never was. Where heroic farmers tend their rare breed cattle, make cheese in their outbuildings and welcome the return of the migrating wild geese. In Countryfileworld, there is no grubbing up of hedges,draining of ponds,gruesome snares,moles hanging on fences,overstocked uplands grazed to the bone and unable to naturally regenerate. There are no generous subsidies for ‘improvements’, no closing of rights of way and farmers shouting ‘get orf my land!’. It’s a saccharine coated cloying world where a blonde bimbo bends the willow and her boring straight laced side kick waves a fly road over dappled waters.

Basically, the success of Countryfile has spawned an industry. Every channel now has a ‘Secret Britain, Unspoiled Britain,Beautiful Britain, Hidden Britain etc etc, where celebrities repeat the mantra that 'Britain is the most beautiful country in the world’ while rolling cheese wheels down a hillside, Smoking herring and bumping into ‘local history experts’.

Which brings me back to Robert MacFarlane. His Guardian piece falls dangerously into the Tourist industry territory in the way he follows the Countryfile narrative. Claiming somewhat absurdly, that we have wilderness in the UK which we patently don’t have. We have increasingly threatened areas of wildness which is not the same. Given the UK population is 64 million and predicted to hit 70 million within ten years, then we have to accept that short of a catastrophic apocalypse then we will never see wilderness- and those lost species it once supported, like bears, wolves and lynx,- ever again.

To compound the media countryside narrative, MacFarland offers a handy list at the foot of his article of ‘Wild Hotspots’, In its way its the ‘Wainwright Paradox’. A writer who claims to be at home in the wild places but who unintentionally through his writing, holds up a big sign saying ‘Tourists this Way’!  I have a terrible feeling that we’ll be seeing ‘Davina McCall’s Wild Hotspots’ on ITV any day now!.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Wild Flowers at Hillsborough

I remember the day of the Hillsborough disaster as though it was yesterday. I was climbing at Tremadog on a perfect spring day. I can even remember the routes we did- Hogmanny Hangover, Merlin and One Step in the Clouds. As a football fan brought up on Merseyside I was keen to find out between climbs, how my team-Everton- were getting on in the other-forgotten-semi final that day and kept asking bemused climbers if they knew the football scores...they didn't...middle class gits!

Driving home at twilight, the Moelwyns were particularly stunning. Dusted in salmon pink against a rainbow sky. On the way home, we called in on my Scouse friend Mark- who should have been climbing with us that day- and he looked grey when he answered the door.

There on TV I watched the terrible aftermath.

The next day I picked wild flowers from the Welsh hedgerows and drove to Anfield with my family were we laid our little posy with the mountain of flowers, scarves and photographs and just stood there in a stunned murmer.

There but for the grace of God went I for many a time I had been caught up in the chaos which sprang from 60.000 people funneling into and out of a football ground. Another day, another time it could have been my Dad, my mates or myself.

God bless the 96 and their familes.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Sea Kayaking: Up the creek with a paddle.

Yon lies Padstein
Browsing through a free ads paper about 12 or so years ago,my eyes alighted on an ad for a Prijon Yukon sea kayak. Despite being pretty involved in various outdoor activities which included having a basic understanding of sailing a dinghy, I’d never taken to water activities like white water paddling. I’ve always loved everything about the sea and rivers but I’ve always had a healthy respect, nay, fear! of water. I can swim - not very well- and I’ve even dived off the highest high diving board you can imagine but land is very much my natural element.

So, somewhat impulsively and-without knowing a thing about sea kayaks- I rolled up at a house outside Oswestry with £400 and returned home with a precariously balanced sea kayak on the roof of my old Sierra. Desperate to get on the sea but not having the skills or confidence, I searched the Internet for local clubs and paddlers forums and pretty soon, struck lucky. I was invited to go on a club trip down the Menai Straits that very weekend. It was a pretty intimidating prospect. I’d never even sat in a sea kayak and didn’t know a soul of course but that was the least of my worries. The club paddlers were great but one look at the current surging down the straits, crashing and swirling around the pillars of the towering bridge just above the jetty, scared the bejasus out of me! I was in half a mind to say ‘I can’t do this’ but at that moment, drowning seemed preferable to outright humiliation!

Rockhopper on Cowland's Creek, Cornwall.

All too soon, I fixed on my spray deck, dropped my rudder and paddled into the current, hoping that instinct and luck would kick in and carry me through. After a few minutes the dry mouthed fear was replaced by something approaching excitement as I bounced through the bridge arches and remained upright. Just up river, the party gathered mid stream and I turned my boat around to look back. Something made me look back over my shoulder and I was drifting backwards at a great speed straight into a marker in the river. Now in a flatter section I’d lost all perspective but the current was still surging powerfully down the Straits in the direction of Caernarfon.

Porth Trecassell,Ynys Mon
We got out at the old Dolphin Inn and after the thrills and thankfully, no spills, I was pretty hooked on this sea kayaking malarkey. The club were nearly all seasoned veterans in their sleek fibreglass classic Greenland style sea kayaks.Most had expensive dry suits and everything the well equipped sea paddler needs, from CB radios, to deck compasses, tow lines to spare split paddles. By contrast, I was the novice in my plastic tub, using a cheap wet suit, second hand kag, paddle that was heavier than a Navvy’s spade and a Decathlon life jacket. Nevertheless, I had some great days out with them. Mostly exploring the Angelsey coast and one memorable time, a trip to Hilbre Island off the tip of the Wirral Peninsular when in really stormy conditions, I was capsized by a big wave. To be fair, the highly experienced veteran next to me went first. I looked over and..’Christ...he’s gone!’ Executing a perfect roll he returned and then a wave tossed him over again. By the time he came back I’d gone too in a rolling, churning ball of surf, sand and adrenaline. By the time I’d come to my senses, I’d been washed up on the shore.
Outside the club, I’d made paddling buddies with some experienced local lads and even bought my teenage son a sea kayak to join me on the briny. More great trips followed and I managed to paddle in Scotland and Cornwall. In fact with Luke, I developed a real fascination with the Cornish Creeks. At the time of writing, I’ve explored all but one or two and what fascinating places they are. Often out of bounds to even small boats, some of the shallower creeks can only be reached by kayak. Despite Cornwall in the holiday season being rather crowded, paddling down some of these creeks can be like being on the Amazon. Quiet, verdant and alive with bird song and the splash of rising fish.
Some fine trips stand out like Lostwitheal to Fowey. Paddling passed Dauphne du Maurier’s house right on the Foy and paddling from Combe near Truro to Falmouth along The Carrick Roads in conditions that ranged from millpond stillness to crashing waves.

In Scotland, off the island of Shuna at twilight as seals popped up all around to see who was disturbing their reverie. 

A Club Flotilla at Treaddur Bay
The original Prijon Yukon went not long after I started sea kayaking. I didn’t realise it at the time but it was the perfect boat for a beginner. Compared to the sleek traditional Greenland style boats it was a real ugly ducking but just about as stable as you can get. I’ve had a few sea kayaks since then including another German made Prijon. This time the Kodiak; a large capacity tourer, A classic P&H Icefloe which came down from Scotland and little Rockhopper. Only the Rockhopper remains and it was my craft when I made my last trip on the water four years ago when I paddled it from Penpol Creek on the Foy to Leryn and back.

However, the call of the sea remains and I’ve just bought my third Prijon-a Touryak- from someone who was giving up sea kayaking and including all his gear with the boat. Serious paddlers will always look down their nose at rotomoulded-Plastic- sea kayaks, especially as the Prijons are fitted with foot pedal operated rudders which 'proper' paddlers wouldn't be seen dead using! To be a proper sea paddler you must have a narrow ( hence tippy) fibreglass boat with a skeg,even if you do risk punching a hole in your boat on some jagged unseen rock every time you explore a rock garden! but I’m sold on Prijons as they are a sea kayak equivalent of a Land Rover.

A Prijon Touryak...The new boat
It’s been a while but the call of the sea is too powerful to be ignored Roll on some blue sky days!.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Jim Curran...Mountain Renaissance man leaves the stage.

Jim Curran on the left at an exhibition of his work

So...Jim Curran has died. Rock Climber/mountaineer, film maker, artist, lecturer and friend to so many. Since I started climbing in the mid 80's, Jim's name was synonymous with what seems like a golden period in mountain culture. So many creative people were producing quality material at that time, that the shallow,self aggrandizing narcissism which passes these days for mountain literature appears like thin gruel after the rich banquet which went before. Jim Curran's name is more synonymous with mountaineering books like 'K2- The Story of the Savage Mountain', 'Suspended Sentences' his auto-biography and his biography of Chris Bonington 'High Achiever'.However, his films and art works are equally well regarded by those who immerse themselves in mountain culture.

If you were looking for a potted biography of the man than look no further than his own website which offers the following run down of his life and times....

He has climbed and filmed on fifteen mountain-based documentaries (including two on Mount Everest), with all the great of the British mountaineering scene, including CHRIS BONINGTON, JOE TASKER, ALAN ROUSE, JOE BROWN and PETER BOARDMAN. He has also filmed in the Andes, Caucasus and Atlas Mountains and China, and nearer home, on the Old Man of Hoy and St Kilda. 

He lives in Sheffield where his painting is constantly interrupted by the attractions of the Peak District in general, and the attractions of climbing on gritstone outcrops in particular. 

His films and books have won many awards world-wide, and he has been short-listed four times for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.
His films include Kongur, K2 - Triumph and Tragedy, Barnaj, and Trango, all produced by CHRIS LISTER of Northern Films in Leeds.

Book credits include Trango, The Nameless Tower, K2 - Triumph and Tragedy, Suspended Sentences, and K2 - The Story of the Savage Mountain, which won the non-fiction award at the Banff Mountain Book Festival in 1996. He has written the authorised biography of Sir Chris Bonington, High Achiever - The Life and Climbs of Chris Bonington.

He has filmed and presented a series of climbs in the UK for the BBC's Tracks outdoor oriented strand, as well as climbing and filming on Chris Bonington's latest expedition to Tibet. He has also filmed, scripted and narrated the documentary, Rock Queen with Catherine Destivelle, the French climbing superstar, which won him and 'EMMY' award for outstanding electronic camerawork. 

He was Artistic Director of the annual Kendal Mountain Film Festival, and has recently completed a sixteen hundred mile bicycle ride from the north of the Shetland Islands to Land's End, and has written a book about his adventures, The Middle-Aged Mountaineer.

He has had two one-man exhibitions of his paintings and drawings: at the Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, and most recently at the Alpine Club in 2004. He is now painting full-time.

In 1990, he was involved in something of a climbing 'cause celebre' when he took on another iconic name from the period, Jim Perrin after the latter had traduced Jim Curran's reputation and skills as a climber in a UK climbing magazine article. In his autobiography, Curran says of Perrin...

I was never too sure about my feelings for Jim Perrin. Because of our mutual interest and some similarity with our names, people often got us confused, to my amusement and to his irritation!

Unlike, say, Paul Nunn or Joe Brown, he didn’t seem to have any sympathy for, or understanding of, his partners – me in this case. I felt his climbing was very much for his own self-fulfilment and I was just a portable belayer, a feeling that grew stronger as the day wore on.

10 years later Perrin recalled the climb in print and painted Jim Curran as something of a dangerous bumbly. Although JC was never a rock climbing hot shot and certainly technically inferior to the leader that day, his vast experience as a world mountaineer suggests that Perrin had been creative with the truth. A verdict the court agreed with as Jim Curran emerged vindicated in court and awarded damages.

However,this was just a fleeting dark encounter with a member of the outdoor community,as the overwhelming majority of climbers and non climbers alike who came into contact with Jim Curran, came away all the richer for sharing his humour, intelligent conversation and good company. He was a great friend of Footless Crow and was always helpful and accommodating with advice on mountain matters and requests to re-use his material. He will be missed by a lot of people.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Is nothing sacred! : mountain artists verses the purists

Part of the Pip Hall/Simon Armitage Stanza Stones project
A couple of weeks ago, North Wales based photographer, Nick Livesey posted a photo on a social media page of him sitting alongside a carefully made stone spiral set on a pale rock pavement in the Rhinog mountain range. Nick wasn’t outraged by the work but lamented the fact that someone would muck about with natural materials and impose a human dimension on the landscape. There then followed a fairly feisty debate about just who has the right to interfere with the mountain environment and just who is the ultimate arbitrator of ‘acceptable interference’?

I found myself in a minority in that I don’t have a problem with land art in the mountains providing it compliments or even improves the setting. I’ve always been a fan of Andy Goldsworthy, David Nash and Anthony Gormley for example and think that their work generally enhances the environment it is set in.However, I do realize that there are contradictions going on here in that I generally oppose man made structures such as hydro plants and wind farms being placed in an upland setting. To be fair though, the latter projects are installed for easy subsidized profit and not placed within the environment in a spirit of creativity and yes...reverence to nature.

Richard Shilling's Clougha Egg

One of the reasons I don’t have a problem with ‘good’ land art in a place like Snowdonia is that at the end of the day it is a small park on an overcrowded island which has been degraded for decades by quarrying,forestry,poor farming practice-EU subsidized  livestock overstocking- caravan sites and tourist developments. Furthermore, in a global context, it is not particularly wild. You won’t meet a grizzly bear or wolf, fall down a crevasse and you won’t have to stop off overnight at a refuge en-route to bag a mountain top. If you were parachuted anywhere in the park then you could walk in any direction and hit a road within an hour. With millions of visitors every year, the main mountain honeypots like Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), have more in common with Oxford Street on a Black Friday than a lonely mountain!

It puzzles me why we accept a random pile of stones on a mountain summit but not an exciting sculpture? If an impressive Goldsworthy work suddenly appeared on the summit of say Arenig Fawr, the Outdoor Taliban on UKC would be up in arms but we don’t appear to mind a cairn and war memorial up there? Personally, if I was mooching about on one of the high points in the heathery, boggy Berwyns or on on the Migneint and I came across an arresting work of art it would add so much to the journey.

There was a similar Brouhaha about the Stanza Stones on Ilkley Moor when stonemason, Pip Hall carved six Simon Armitage poems into rock set at various locations on the brooding moor. Not surprisingly, I personally thought it was a great project and as the stones have weathered over the last few years,they have melded beautifully I feel into the landscape.

As for who has the final say on what is and what is not acceptable practice in a mountain environment, then it has to be the Snowdonia National Park Authority.An organisation which will not allow someone to discreetly fix a small memorial plaque to a rock but who will allow farmers to gouge access tracks across the mountain,erect huge agribarns and leave their fields littered with used silage and feed bags.An organisation which will object to someone parking up a hot dog van for a few hours at Ogwen Cottage but who will wave through private and NT Hydro schemes and various ‘improvements’ in the name of tourist development and renewable energy.. Given the fact that the SNPA is somewhat compromised by employing so many people who have a foot in both camps- planning and farming, then it is little wonder that we witness a generally favourable approach to planning applications from this sector and the turning of a blind eye to farming bad practice within the park.

To get back to the original point though, will it ever be possible to appease both camps-the purists and those sympathetic to land art? I think not somehow. To demonstrate just how impossible it is to reconcile the two schools I would cite the views of two true climbing intellectuals who as friends would agree 90% of the time on political and environmental issues. David Craig and Harold Drasdo. David like myself is generally a big fan of land art to the extent that he has co-authored a book with Andy Goldsworthy and penned articles like ‘Perfectly mobile-perfectly still’. My late friend Harold on the other hand did not like Andy Goldsworthy’s work one little bit and told me ‘Man cannot improve on nature’. Although a native American or Buddhist would say that we are part of nature so is a rock fall caused by water erosion or the wind uplifting a tree more natural than an Australian aborigine daubing ochre animals on a cave wall?

Sorry, getting unnecessarily philosophical here but you get the point. Do we have the right to change the landscape in the name of art and if not...why not? I sense there will always be two diametrically opposed schools of thought and any artists carrying out furtive installations in the hills or wilder places is always running the risk of having their work vandalised by well meaning,but -I would obviously have to say-misguided mountain purists.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

'How to keep your Volkswagen Alive'. A Counter Culture classic

Over the years I have owned probably over 50 motor vehicles. Most of them bangers which started with the ubiquitous Mini-I’ve had five of those, the first two were written off in accidents. I’ve had Land Rovers, 2cv’s, all manner of boring Euro boxes etc. However, the only vehicles which really captured my imagination were aircooled VW Beetles and Camper Vans. There was something about that growly engine sound, the unique flat boxer engine with opposing horizontal cylinders. The strange heating system that either didn’t work or melted your shoes! It was a vehicle that even a mechanical dork like myself could work on. Yes...I too have removed a 1600 engine from a Type 2 Camper.

Ironically, in all the years I’ve owned aircooled V Dubs-four Beetles and four Campers- I never owned THE Bible. John Muir’s ‘How to KeepYour Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by step procedures for the compleat (sic) Idiot’. The irony being that now I own a modern-ish watercooled diesel VW Camper and Muir’s book is all but useless as a workshop manual. However, ‘How to etc’ is more than just a boring car manual. It is a genuine piece of US 1960‘s Counter Culture art. From the laid back writing style of Muir to the Crumb like Peter Aschwanden illustrations. The book which first came out in 1969 reeks of tie dye grandad vested, bandana wearing hippies, driving their vans, Beetles and combis across the states to the soundtrack of The Grateful Dead.

Given the fact that these old aircooled vans where somewhat underpowered given their 1600cc engines, and given the regularity they broke down-overheating was a problem in hot regions like Muir’s New Mexico- then an impoverished hippy really did need to tackle problems head on themselves without recall to using expensive garages.
This is where John Muir-the great grease guru came in.He was a structural aeronautical engineer who in the time honoured manner of the day 'Turned on, Tuned in and Dropped Out’. Muir left the world of the souless corporation behind to become a writer and car mechanic. Opening a garage in Taos, New Mexico which specialised in  aircooled V Dubs. Somewhat surreally, John Muir was related to THE John Muir-the Scottish born, US conservationist.

Flicking through the book last night, it was clear the lasting impression Muir’s book had made on millions of people the world over. In my 30th anniversary edition, various people now middle aged like myself, recalled how in their youth the book had become more than just an oil thumbed manual but a book which was part philosophical tract, part good Samaritan text and part love letter from a dear friend.

Unlike the common or garden car workshop manuals which are dry as dust and impossible for lay people to understand, Muir uniquely treated his reader as an enlightened teacher would a child who is keen to learn but so far limited in their understanding of the subject. Jobs were described in an easy to understand-non jargonised way, with simple illustrations and avuncular advice when things didn’t quite work out the first time.

Uniquely, ‘How to keep your Volkswagen alive’ is the one manual people keep as a work of literature as they would a favourite novel. Often long after they’ve actually owned an aircooled VW. It has inspired affection and reverance, stimulated pride and satisfaction and has been used by teachers to demonstrate good writing. It is as much a ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance’ cult classic as a technical manual.

It certainly makes me want to own an original aircooled V Dub again although prices these days have skyrocketed in the UK to classic car levels. Hopefully one day, I’ll adjust my vinyl seat and set the controls for the heart of the sun...until then.

Illustrations from the original book.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The mystery of the forgotten mountain film maker.

I was recently contacted by an auctioneer who had carried out a house clearance and come across correspondence between a film maker by the name of John Greaves and Paul Work and Ruth Janette Ruck. The latter couple featured in a couple of Footless Crow articles ‘Wild Mountain Time’ extracted from RJR’s Hill Farm Story and ‘Shooting Ingrid Bergman’ about the time Hollywood came to Nantmor.  At the end of Wild Mountain Time I offered a brief biography of Paul Work which ran as follows...

'Paul' Work is one of those virtually unknown romantic figures of Welsh climbing. Born on the flat Lancashire coastal belt in the pleasant little town of Formby, just outside Liverpool , he was a contemporary of the great Menlove Edwards-another Formbian-who attended the same school. He followed Menlove into climbing and was proposed and seconded for membership of the Climbers Club by Menlove himself and Colin Kirkus. Although he never matched the legendary pair in the technical department, he was a great explorer of the less frequented areas of Western Snowdonia where he established dozens of esoteric and infrequently climbed lower grade routes. In particular on the vegetated 400' cliffs of Diffwys on Moel Hebog, The equally verdant Aberglaslyn Pass, the cliffs of Moel Dyniewyd and Cwm Tregalen.

Probably his best known climbs-relatively speaking- are Christmas Climb on Dyniewyd and Canyon Rib above Aberglaslyn Pass. Paul Work and his wife Ruth lived in the shadow of Moel Dyniewyd where they ran a smallholding for many years until his death in the 1990's.’

Ruth J Ruck penned some early back to the land books. 'Place of Stones', 'Hill Farm Story' and 'Along came a Llama' based on their experiences in this beautiful part of western Snowdonia which appealed to urban escapist fantasies in the same way as other books of this genre. Notably Hovel in the Hills and I bought a Mountain.

The letters written between 1969 and 1980 offered a fascinating insight into the life of this unusual couple who had eschewed the normal career path undertaken by the middle classes of their generation, to effectively drop out and eke out a hard existence through subsistence farming on the elevated uplands above Nantmor.

However, my interest was really piqued by the other correspondent, John Greaves. With his partner-a Miles Briggs- he had apparently made some mountaineering films including ‘ Camp in the Clouds’, ‘Arrowhead’ and ‘Cairngorm skies’, A quick search of Google followed by further enquires within the climbing and film community has revealed absolutely zero information about John Greaves or his films?

All I have gleaned so far is that when the correspondence began, Greaves was living in Woolacombe Road in Woolton, Liverpool and later moved to Aberystwyth. He was involved in publicity and photography work surrounding RJR’s third book,-Along came a Llama-and provided photographs for a feature on the couple in the glossy She magazine which appeared in the late 70‘s. There is mention of an article in the US National Enquirer and Ruth mentions in her letters being filmed for a 25 minute HTV Wales feature.

I have gathered that after John Greaves died, his cameras and films were taken by an elderly female friend who has the items locked in a caravan at her Aberystwyth home. So...the whole thing is something of a mystery. From a mountaineering history perspective, it would be a tragedy if these films still exist but are destined to be lost forever.

If you can throw some light on the mystery of film maker John Greaves and his lost films,then do get in touch via the email address on this page.