Thursday, June 27, 2013

Only a Northern Song

Photo BBC

Yorkshire Poet, cultural explorer and pop manque Simon Armitage is best known in the UK as one of our foremost modern bards who frequently pops up on radio and television presenting what are usually, fascinating examinations of  historical figures drawn from Arthurian legend or Ancient Greek tragedy. I must say, I like the cut of his jib and love hearing that warm Yorkshire brogue which to a Liverpool ear is however, indiscernible from the Lancashire accent, or even a Derbyshire or North Staffordshire accent come to that. Mind you, any accent from the south east be it London, Essex or Kent is all Cockney to me!  I was recently recommended Simon’s Walking Home about his long distance walk down the Pennine Way, which the publisher’s blurb offers the following information..

 In summer 2010 Simon Armitage decided to walk the Pennine Way. The challenging 256-mile route is usually approached from south to north, from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm, the other side of the Scottish border. He resolved to tackle it the other way round: through beautiful and bleak terrain, across lonely fells and into the howling wind, he would be walking home, towards the Yorkshire village where he was born. Travelling as a 'modern troubadour' without a penny in his pocket, he stopped along the way to give poetry readings in village halls, churches, pubs and living rooms. His audiences varied from the passionate to the indifferent, and his readings were accompanied by the clacking of pool balls, the drumming of rain and the bleating of sheep.
 I’ve got say, this sounds more my cup of tea than yet another ‘How I beat Everest’ or ‘Kanchenjunga: Death or Glory’. There is certainly a poetic quality to the brooding northern uplands.  In fact,talking of northern uplands, I did a little piece last year on The Guardian’s Northerner Blog about Simon upsetting the outdoor public with his Stanza Stones trail in Ilkley. Personally, I like it and it fits into the landscape a lot more sympathetically than a huge upland wind farm for sure. 

In late summer Simon will once again assume the travelling troubadour role when he takes off once again on a long distance walk. This time in the South West. Following the Coastal path from Somerset to Land’s End ‘and beyond’ . Following the ragged Celtic shores of Kernow. Simon writes on his website..

 Once again I'll be bartering my way from start to finish, giving readings and passing the hat around, inviting the audience to put in whatever they think I'm worth. I want to see if I can pay my way with poetry alone, but this time away from my home ground, and getting further distant every day, towards where the country narrows to a point and the Atlantic begins.  If you'd like me to give a reading in your local pub, village hall, theatre, school, gallery, church, barn, living room etc, can offer me food and shelter for the night and sherpa my unfashionable turquoise suitcase on to the next stop, please get in touch at the following address:
If you live in the South west or happen to be there in late Summer, check out Simon’s full itinerary on the link below. Reckon it'll be reet grand me'sel!

Simon Armitage Website 

Monday, June 24, 2013

What would Jock Nimlin think?

'Is your iPhone charged Jock?'

I was reading about a mountain rescue incident in north Wales over the weekend, where the local MR team located a lost walker through a GPS tracker on his mobile phone and led him down from the ferocious  heights of Moel y Hydd;  a deadly 2000’ peak in the Moelwyns which is about a quarter of a mile from a road leading up to the Cwm Stwlan Dam. Yes...I am being a tad ironic here! I tend to think when I read of these incidents, ‘what would Jock Nimlin think?'  Nimlin was a tough working class Glaswegian who in common with tens of thousands of working class outdoor folk in the thirties, were working like demons in shipyards, factories and busy docks in the week, and who would  then take off on a Friday night by train, bus, push bike or on foot,into the mountains. 

There they would doss in howffs (a rudimentary shelter in a cave or under a boulder) under tarps, in tents or even just under the stars. And yes...even in the middle of winter.

In the mountains they would walk and climb in their rudimentary gear in all weathers, eating simple fare and come Sunday night they would head back to the conurbations for another week of poorly paid toil before repeating the cycle. If they or any of their party should suffer an accident then they would extricate themselves or their comrades- if at all possible-from the situation. Even recovering their own dead from the mountains.

I’m not saying this was the good old days by any stretch of the imagination but really, how far from those days of exploration and self reliance have we come. Look at the website of any busy MR team and you will gather just how pathetic a constituency the mountain activist has become. Phoning 999 when they get a little tired on Tryfan or they twist an ankle on the Pyg Track. As for requesting help when they get lost in somewhere like the Moelwyns; this is Wales for Christ sake not the Yukon or Alaska! You can reach a road from just about anywhere in a hour. OK, you might wander about in circles for a bit but so what. Have a read of Rebecca Solnit’s 'A field guide to getting lost, a treatise on both physical and spiritual dislocation from the cosy, boring little comfort zones we inhabit.

These days we have pretty sophisticated clothing, hi-tech outdoor gear, smart phones and GPS systems and are swarming all over the mountains like a flies. It’s hard not to bump into another individual or party in the honeypot areas where the majority of weekend walkers and climbers tend to congregate.

Politically I’m not somewhere who has any sympathies with privatization in any form but I often think that a continental commercial approach to mountain rescue where an individual pays for rescue either through insurance or out of their own pocket would reintroduce a degree of self reliance which is somewhat sadly lacking in so many outdoor activists these days. Can you imagine if Jock Nimlin was alive today, him calling out the MR team on his iPhone if he sprained his wrist doing a climb on the Cobbler or if the mist came down when he was making his way off the Buchaille EM.

And if anyone opines, 'Yes...that’s easy for you to say, sitting at home in front of a laptop but I bet if you had an accident in the mountains or got lost, you would be the first person to call the rescue services'. Well, actually, a couple of years ago I took a fall soloing a VS climb in the Arenigs which are relatively speaking remote and unfrequented. Knocked myself out and came to with a bloody swelling the size of a grapefruit the on the back of my head. And yes, despite being concussed to the point that I couldn’t remember how to use my mobile phone, I did manage to get off the mountain back to my car. Crazy I know. If only I could have remembered how to use my phone I could have relaxed for an hour or so and been carried down!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

East is East

The End...or is it the beginning?

A typical weekend afternoon and I'd just walked six miles along the Cleveland Way and washed up in the picturesque little fishing village of Robin Hood Bay. Enjoying a pint outside the Bay Hotel- the traditional watering hole of those who finish the Coast to Coast long distance walk- a lone walker trudged wearily down the hill towards the beach. As he came into sight a cheer erupted from a couple of dozen people who had gathered with banners and bunting in front of a giant 'Well Done Phil' message scratched into the wet sand. The cheers spread to the boozers and Sunday drivers on the front- who hadn't done anything more vigorous than stagger down from the car park above the village- who joined in as well. 

I was actually there the following day when about thirty mature road bikers wearing yellow club jerseys, caused yet more celebration and cheering as they arrived en masse at the Bay after doing the coast to coast on wheels. I remarked to my companions..'My God,this is a jolly place!. I've never heard so much cheering and or experienced such general bonhomie in one place before!

It's pretty obvious that old Wainwright's Coast to Coast creation has struck a chord with the walking and biking public. It got me thinking about how outdoor folks in general just love engaging in a structured activity with a clearly identifiable goal. Be it ticking off  Munros, Corbetts, Wainwrights etc. Following long distance paths like the Pennine Way or the CtC; completing things like the 3 Peaks race, The Snowdon 15's, The Bob Graham Round etc;taking part in annual mountain marathons and fell races; careering around  bikes trials like the Marin or ticking off rock climbing lists like Ken Wilson's Classic/Hard/Extreme climbs.

Funnily enough,when I got home and got back on the computer yesterday evening, I had an email from John Redhead who happened to mention James MacHaffie repeating-30 years after it's first ascent-John's Margins of the Mind. I checked James's web site to find out more and discovered that he was working his way through JR's 'and One for the Crow' climbs. Another bloody list!!!... The JR Crow Climbs! Not a list I think will gather anything like the number of completers as AW's CtC but there you go. It's not just earnest red socked ramblers or wiry athletes who like something structured and formatted to go for but cool rock dudes too.Perhaps a student of Freud could explain this fascination with lists and organized trails?

As someone who has never been a list ticker or who has yearned to complete an established walk like the CtC, I am in fact girding my loins to tackle a long distance walk of my own devising to be completed this summer. It's something that like Wainwrights creations,has a logical structure and could be repeated by others should they wish to. I don't think it will be the new El Camino de Santiago somehow but I might get an article out of it and shed half a stone.

Getting back to my sojourn on the North Yorkshire coast. I've always had a heavy bias towards the West Coast of the UK. From the spectacular Atlantic coast of Cornwall up to crenelated,island studded shores of Scotland. However, I'm starting to really warm to the North East coast now. After all, my surname is of Viking origin and this coastline is where my forebears are thickest on the ground according to the stats. Not surprising I suppose given it's proximity to the land of the long ships across the North Sea.

The coastline twixt Scarborough and Whitby is really spectacular in places with some wonderful hidden coves and difficult to reach under cliffs which from hundreds of feet above,look like isolated Eco-systems. Verdant and unsullied my humankind. The cliffs reach a high point of 650' at the lost Victorian resort of Ravenscar. From here the outlook is amazing and thankfully not as yet violated by vile off shore wind farm arrays. 

Scrambling down from Old Peak at Ravenscar,a steep twisting path which had disappeared with a land slide in one place, we stopped at one point and stood transfixed when we heard what I thought was a cry of distress....or the moans of the sea dead! It was in fact the banshee wailing of seals which were gathered in abundance on the rocks hundreds of feet below. On the shore, an old WW2 look out post was lying upturned after succumbing to land fall.(The cliffs are as stable as sand castles around here). It's steel foundation rods  erupting every which way like the tangled roots of a prehistoric tree.

Finally down amongst the seals and debris I could wander slowly around the bay, engaged in one of my enduringly favourite activities.....beachcombing!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Earthworks: the inspiring land art of Andy Goldsworthy

Being a huge admirer of the land art of Andy Goldsworthy and the writing of David Craig,it was a real treat for me to come across a joint work-Arch- which came out as an illustrated hardback in 1999. Somehow,it had passed me by. Basically, for those people who just do not get contemporary art, Andy's often transient works captured in photographs and created from natural materials like branches, rocks and leaves, would leave them nonplussed.

The Arch project more especially would have them scratching their heads with regard to its concept and execution. Basically, Andy and his assistant towed a trailer of roughly hewn sandstone blocks from where they were quarried in the Scottish lowlands and followed an old drove road through Cumbria, erecting and dismantling the arch at locations en route. These locations were as diverse as a cattle market,Shap High Street,crumbling sheep folds and lay-bys. At intervals Andy was joined by David Craig who captures the essence of the journey in his own inimitable style. But let Andy Goldsworthy himself explain the project...

I will make an arch in Scotland from Locharbriggs red sandstone. It will be erected in a sheepfold on the Lowther Hills near to where I live, after it will follow a drove route from Scotland through Cumbria and into Lancashire or Yorkshire. This is one group of work within the sheepfolds project which will have its origin outside Cumbria yet still leave its mark there, in common with people,animals and things which have passed through this area over the centuries, leaving evidence of their journey but neither coming or staying there.
The arch will stay overnight at folds along or close by the drove route. it will be erected and photographed at each site before being dismantled and taken to the next. Some of the folds (still identifiable on the maps) no longer exist; others are in need of repair.Several virtually derelict wooden folds will be rebuilt in stone, continuing what I see as a tradition of first drawing a fold with rail,fence or posts before it is made in stone. the arch will,wherever possible,leave behind it,a trail of revived working folds, a trail of goodwill.

And so it goes. From one location to the next. Under louring skies the geologically alien sandstone arch takes root amongst the nettles and grey speckled volcanic rocks and granite boulders. It's colour changing chameleon like from sun kissed peach to rain washed vermilion until it nears it's final destination, a pig sty near Kirkby Lonsdale. David Craig describes the final bucolic scene as ...

akin to the atmosphere at a sheep shearing or when a horse is being shod at a smithy'...' When the arch is complete,looking more compact than usual under the lour of the crag,and nearly everyone has gone away, Amy Spillard aged five, dares to clamber up the arch and tiptoes along its crest. She looks like a girl-ghost in an enchanted garden a hundred years ago. All day we have lived in a place which is summer in a nutshell-in a pumpkin rind perhaps,or the calyx of a flower. the sun sinks in the wooded hills to the west,rises to shine  full into the dell a few hours before the arch must be dismantled.

Harold Drasdo:'Art cannot improve upon nature'

Interestingly, I happened to mention to our mutual friend Harold Drasdo how much I had enjoyed Andy and David's work and to my surprise, Harold told me he wasn't a fan of Andy Goldsworthy's work. Offering a comment ripe for philosophical discussion 'art cannot improve upon nature'. Sheesh..that's quite a statement!

As I was wandering in the Berwyns the other day I was thinking about this and I came to the conclusion that Andy himself would almost certainly not see his work as improving upon nature, rather as collaborating with nature. It is however something that greater minds than mine will have pondered, that eternal conundrum..'Yes...but is it art?' To my mind however....absolutely! The world can only be a better place with inspired minds like Andy Goldsworthy and David Craig in it as far as I'm concerned.

Ruin of a sheep fold in the Berwyns

Monday, June 10, 2013

In dreams begins responsibility

Sutty after his ordeal,with Sian Williams.Photo BBC Wales

One of the most popular stories on this morning's national news was a  feature about a Spaniel which had survived ten days on a mountain face after his owner fell 400' and was seriously injured. Despite not having been within 30 miles of the mountain when the incident occurred, I can't help wondering if I might have had a part in this incident?
The Carnedd Filiast Slabs are probably the biggest expanse of rock in North Wales. Being 1000' high and contained within a remote high glacial cwm above Nant Francon. Because of its remoteness and because other factors such as suspect rock quality and intrusive vegetation,the venue has seen relatively few routes recorded, and those that have been made are all in the lower grades. For these reasons, it's certainly a venue for the iconoclastic explorer! However, the vertically overlapping bands of slab do have a few good routes and scrambles on the very edges of the slabs, which for some reason offer much better quality rock. Left Edge,a two star V Diff, and The Ridge, a thousand foot Grade 3 scramble amongst them.

Now the last CC Ogwen guide was the first guidebook in the UK that I'm aware of, to have included scrambles above grade2 alongside pure rock climbs. I had the pleasure of checking out many of these routes,all of which had previously been listed as Mod or Diff rock climbs. The theory being that a lot of rarely ascended old 'Mods' might lend themselves as superb scrambles. Particularly in light of how scrambling is now seen as an activity in its own right with a dedicated band of activists. And so it proved. Many of these old climbs at places like Tryfan's West Face, on Glyder Fawr and at Carnedd Filiast itself are indeed well worth checking out.

The Ridge: A superb 1000' scramble on the Edge of Atlantic Slab

Now, Atlantic Slab where the 'Sutty' incident took place, is a huge expanse of rock which ironically doesn't offer much in the way of actual climbs-bar one 'Diff'-but it is contained by the aforementioned The Ridge and another grade 3/Mod scramble,The Runnel, which is also a good long G2 winter plod. Now, I'm just guessing here, but I imagine the injured scrambler who fell was on The Runnel? He definitely would not have taken a dog on a 1000' slab face or The Ridge on the right. The Runnel,although long, is contained and is a gully of sorts, although at 600' it steepens and the exposure can kick in. I've done it as a winter route and a scramble but I wouldn't take a dog up it. But that's coming from someone who has experience of the route and not intended as criticism of the unfortunate climber. I've taken a labrador up a variation of Cyfwy Arete and over on the West Face of Tryfan, a dog was on the first ascent of a quite testing V Diff. Providing you are careful and your dog has a harness,they can get up quite demanding  terrain. It's better for the dog and I'm sure they enjoy it more than being overfed and under exercised .

From below, The Runnel might look a reasonable option and I'm sure a scrambler might think he could get a dog up it. The other reason I think it was this route is the MR team describe 'Sutty' the spaniel as having 'dug a little nest for himself... "either to keep warm or to try and keep out of the sun". The vegetated Runnel lends itself to this more than Atlantic Slab or The Ridge.

I've had a look this morning at the guidebook to read my description of the route,in case I might have offered some misleading information which would lead someone to tackle it without being fully aware of the implications. To my relief it's pretty accurate and doesn't oversell the route.Suggesting that it's probably better as a winter route than a scramble.It's something that anyone who has ever written a route description will have pondered at some point. How accurate is the description and is it technically spot on?  Some climbers are notorious at 'sandbagging' one of their own routes. This is to seriously underplay the technical difficulties. Either as a ploy to sell themselves to their rivals as hard cases or through sheer ignorance. Menlove Edwards was notorious at under grading routes but it's generally accepted that there was no ulterior motive behind this. He was just useless at grading! If anything, whilst attempting to be accurate, I tend to over grade routes rather than under-grade them. That's why it's always wise to get a second and third opinion. That way you usually get an accurate consensus.on the true grade.

The 2 star V Diff Left Edge

I hope the injured 60 year old scrambler, currently in hospital near Birmingham, fully recovers from his serious injuries. I'm sure being reunited with Sutty will give him a big boost. If there is a lesson to be learned it is that guidebook descriptions offer a general over-view of a route including warnings about rock quality etc. However, there are always external factors such as weather conditions,recent rock fall and a lack of traffic etc,that can change a route's character completely. At the end of the day,it's all about assessing the route and making a decision on the day as to whether or not it's feasible. Especially, if you are on your own and soloing in a place like The Filiast Slabs. Don't just go on route descriptions which might be twenty years out of date.More especially on low graded routes in unpopular areas.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

In the forgotten footsteps of Patrick Monkhouse

Patrick 'Paddy' Monkhouse is not exactly a household name in UK outdoor writing. However, the former northern editor of The Guardian was both a contemporary of and kindred spirit of Alfred Wainwright and Harry Griffin. Being a passionate hillwalker and chronicler of our wild places. His best known works in print are 'On Foot in the Peak', published in 1932 followed two years later by 'One foot in North Wales'. Although the popular mountains in the 1930's had yet to be trampled to death by millions of pairs of feet, Monkhouse still found the greatest pleasure and satisfaction in exploring the less frequented upland areas.

Quite often he was the very first outdoor writer to describe these back of beyond areas and offer routes to link up outlying peaks. Both books are considered classics of the genre and although out of print, are still available second hand through sites like Amazon and Abebooks. In 1988 Diadem brought both 'On Foot' books together in one edition with an introduction from Jim Perrin who also did a Guardian obituary after Monkhouse died aged 76 in 1981. Unfortunately, the obituary can't be accessed online as it appears to be behind a pay-wall. Apart from Perrin's two pieces,there is nothing to be found online about Patrick Monkhouse. Not even a photograph.

One of Monkhouse's remote routes just happened to be on my doorstep and last weekend I took the opportunity to follow in his footsteps. 'Gylchedd' is not a name familiar to most but it's the OS name used to describe a remote Arenig eastern outlier. It's highest point is Carnedd Filiast (not to be confused with the Nant Francon Peak of the same name). It's a fine top which I've been up several times. Usually from the shores of Llyn Celyn, the flooded valley beneath which lies the remains of the village of Capel Celyn. However, Monkhouse's approach was from the west, striking up the beautiful quiet valley of Blaen y Cwm. 

I only discovered the valley last year and what a perfect spot it is. A finely carved glacial hollow with just a few scattered farms and old ruins here and there. A road leads up to a saddle but beyond the high point it becomes a rough drovers road which even a 4x4 would struggle to negotiate. Monkhouse describes the valley as 'a sombre one' although he admits his impression was based on doing the walk on a dreary day when 'the clouds were low and dark'.

With plenty of sheep  on the road I kept Fergus on his lead until we reached the saddle (Foel Frech). At this point a farmhouse gate opens up onto moorland with a faint track breaking off. It soon disappears and you are left to find your own way. The magnificent yawning void that is Nant y Gylchedd is now in view. This empty cwm-save an isolated abandoned sheep station at its head- will have undoubtedly turned more than a few heads on the A5 in winter, for it really collects the snow. The ridge line of Gylchedd is around the  2000' mark and the steep band at the head carries the snow long after it has melted elsewhere.

Don't be tempted to make a beeline for the unseen high point just beyond Foel Frech because it leads to deep heather riven with unseen streams and bog. Far better to follow the encircling left arm of the cwm on a rising contour. The slately rock thinly covered with sheep cropped grass is far easier to walk on. Towards the head of the cwm, it becomes rippled with strange fingers of outcroping rock which look like spoil heaps. As far as I can tell,they're just a natural feature. Cresting the top you reach an old fence line. From here it's just a stone's throw from the summit of Carnedd Filiast which has an stone shelter wrapped around its trig point. Fantastic views abound.

Monkhouse notes that the locals call the entire massif Carnedd Filiast but he prefers Gychedd. My own guess is that Gylchedd is the name of the entire massif which actually boasts three summits including  Foel Goch and Bryn Cebyd. From here, Monkhouse slogged across the boggy Migneint to summit Arenig Fach. Gylchedd however,boasts a unique plateau which is speckled with little tarns and impressive peat hags. It's an atmospheric place when the cloud is down.

From the summit of Filiast,we said our goodbyes to Monkhouse and his wild perigrinations and returned via the north ridge of the great cwm. Once again, it's fairly easy walking with a bit of a scramble at the bottom to access the deep cleft which carries a fast flowing river to join the Afon Conwy. By late afternoon,we latched the penultimate gate and ambled back into Blaen y Cwm. A young girl rounding up sheep on her quad bike offered a friendly wave while in the next field,her father was waging war on the encrouching nettles on his old Massy Ferguson. The sky larks sang, the bluebells bloomed, the buzzards soared and stray lambs rattled the fences.To quote the Welsh bard..'All the sun long it was was lovely'....Far from the 'sombre ' day when Paddy Monkhouse passed this way.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Dry Tooling: Shadowy group declares war on the geeks!

Morris Dancing. A bit like dry tooling but more fun and less harmful to ecosystems.

I was amused when I read an article from The Guardian which was sent to me by a friend. Written by Kevin Rawlinson and carrying the snappy headline 'Mountain climbers face off battle over method of scaling the heights' , the unintentionally hilarious piece detailed a shadowy band of Cumbrian trad extremists waging war on dry toolers under the banner of 'the People's Climbing front of the Lake District'!

Now some people who tune in occasionally will have picked up on my distain for the dark art of dry tooling, which for the uninitiated, is climbing rock faces using winter climbing gear and usually on fixed protection. Thankfully, the DT geeks are usually banished to dark and dank venues which are deemed unsuitable for real climbing. Anyway...the  shadowy People's Front have targeted Hodge Close Quarry near Coniston where they have trashed the fixed protection before sending an email to the BMC saying 'it does not approve of encouraging the destruction of traditional rock routes in the Lake District'. I'm not sure if there's a You-Tube clip of them wearing balaclavas in front of a pirate flag and a framed picture of Ken Wilson; threatening a holy jihad on unbelievers and.... Stevie Haston?

Telegraph pole climbing: A sub-sport of dry tooling

Naturally this extreme action has led to harrumphing in the circles of power and influence with leading mountaineer and Cumbrian resident Alan Hinkes declaring 'It's a shadowy thing because they are not declaring who they are' ( Yes they are Alan. They're the People's Climbing Front).. 'which is vigilantism in one way' 

It would be tempting to set up a North Wales branch of the movement and call it 'The Popular Peoples Climbing Front of North Wales', but then we're getting into Monty Python's Life of Brian territory....'Are you the Popular People's Climbing Front?'...'Feck off...we're the People's Climbing Front'..if there's one group we hate worse than the Alpine Club it's The Popular People's Climbing Front!!!'

Actually, I don't feel that strongly about dry toolers. To me they're just an odd assortment of harmless eccentrics like Morris Dancers and those South Sea Islanders on Vanuatu who worship Prince Phillip. Mostly 20/30 something males called something like Jonty or Henderson who still live with their parents....The dry toolers...not the South Sea Islanders. For these over grown boy scouts,the latest shiny ice axe is just another version of their old Luke Skywalker light sabre....bless.

So despite my sincere sympathies with my climbing soul mates up North, I would just say to them, live and let live lads. You know what the man said......'All we are saying, is give Piers a chance'.