Friday, October 25, 2013

The X-Factorisation of climbing guidebook production

You can tell when someone has little musical interest or imagination by looking through their CD collection. Invariably it will consist of a couple of dozen ‘Best of’ or ‘Greatest Hits’ compilations and that’s it. It’s as if the act of actually buying and listening to an artists’ entire work or even just one of their albums is too big an ask. Far easier to just buy a Greatest Hits album based on one song they liked on Radio 1.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing. More people these days it seems would rather watch a 30 second video of a skateboarding duck on You-Tube than sit through a three hour classic movie. In a way, this cultural shift towards instant gratification and sound bites is even being reflected in the field of climbing guidebook demand. Time was when the climbing areas of England and Wales were overwhelmingly covered by two august clubs; The Fell & Rock Club which essentially covered the Lake District and The Climbers Club which covered Wales and The West. Since the first guidebook was published in 1910, these clubs have offered through the voluntary services of members, comprehensive guidebooks to traditional climbing areas. Within each area, the coverage spans the polished popular crags to remote, far flung outcrops with just two or three climbs on them. As a rule of thumb, guidebooks to the more popular areas will be updated every ten years or so although the less popular areas will often go twenty years before an updated guidebook comes out. 

Given that most guidebooks are authored by highly motivated climbers who see it as a labour of love, not a commercial undertaking, the latest guides will include new climbs and recently developed crags as well as ‘lost’ climbs and crags which the diligent guidebook authors will have discovered. Routes and crags which for whatever reason, have never appeared in a guidebook before.
This comprehensive approach is totally exclusive to the traditional publishers of climbing area guidebooks. However, the growth of the ‘greatest Hits’ compendiums increasingly threatens these traditional guides.Only offering a selection of climbs within a wide area, these commercial guidebooks will often only offer three or four routes on a crag which might contain four dozen or more. The authors will have selected routes which are deemed ‘the best of’ but this approach guarantees that within an area like Snowdonia, hundreds of quality climbs will be off radar to the average climber.

The producers of commercial guides will argue that they are only servicing a demand for their product- the producers of the X Factor and I’m a Celebrity can offer the same argument of course!  In a way these Greatest Hits compendiums are aimed at the ‘skateboarding duck’ audience; a younger market who increasingly have no interest in exploring far flung crags but instead want a three star road side fix. You won’t find many remote crags in the commercial guides. They are essentially over-loaded with the honeypot crags and 2/3 star climbs.

Of course all this wouldn’t matter but for the fact that the commercial guides are seriously impacting on the traditional area guides. Sales are diminishing at a fast rate and already the clubs are putting guidebooks on hold as they take stock of the fast changing publishing landscape. One area where the commercial publishers steal a march on the clubs is in how quickly they can produce their product. Without suggesting  downright plagiarism, it certainly could be said that creative re-jigging of existing guidebook descriptions are often in evidence within commercial guides. Throw in a hundred or more nice glossy topos and action shots and that’s twenty five quid to you Guv!

My own view is that the traditional area guidebook will disappear eventually and become an online archive. Although these archives will be downloadable and available as print-outs, I can’t see that many climbers trawling through an area like Mid Wales and selecting a remote crag. I foresee hundreds if not thousands of climbs and dozens of less popular crags returning to nature. Perhaps not a bad thing from an ecological perspective, but from a climbing perspective, it will be a damn shame to see many great climbs disappear as the market becomes more Cheryl Cole than Hot Rats!


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Clyde Holmes- eco poet and landscape artist: 2014 exhibition

 Clyde Holmes: Photo CH Website

I noticed an old article of mine-Beyond the Haloed Mountain- had suddenly become popular again on Footless Crow and discovered it linked to a new website dedicated to the poet and artist Clyde Holmes. Clyde-who died in 2008- was a fascinating character. A Londoner by birth, he eventually ended up living with his family high up in the remote valley of Cwm Hesgin amongst the outlying peaks of the Arenigs. Living a solitary life in a small traditional cottage without mains services or neighbours, Clyde and his family attracted the attention of the Independent who published article about him  in the mid 80’s, and later, the BBC, who dedicated an episode of its ’ Visions of Snowdonia’ series to his life and work. A coffee table book of the series by Jim Perrin and Ray Wood followed. For some reason, the series has never been repeated or offered as a DVD which is surprising?

Anyway....I was delighted to discover on the website that an exhibition of Clyde’s paintings will be held at the beautiful Moma Gallery in Machynlleth, Mid Wales in January. For those unfamiliar with his work and for those who appreciate traditional landscape painting, the exhibition will be a welcome opportunity to sample his work. In an extract quoted in the FC article, Clyde offers the opinion that landscape art itself is becoming a dying genre......

  We're possibly seeing the gradual disappearance of landscape painting. To my knowledge no new generation is coming up with a special interest in the genre. It's conceivable that landscape painting will fizzle out like the landscape itself.

You can’t ever see a Holmes-esque landscape painting ever winning a contemporary art prize these days for sure, but personally, I can’t see the genre ever completely disappearing. You can’t hang a tent or dead shark on your wall after all!

Clyde Holmes Studio Works: Moma Gallery, Machynlleth, Powys: 11th January-8th March 2014.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Wrecking on the cast iron shore.

Night falls on Staithes:

I don’t think Beach combing or Wrecking as it is still known in Cornwall, would ever be considered an outdoor activity as such. In most people’s minds it is associated with a gentle stroll along the shoreline, idly picking through the high tides’ flotsam and jetsam whilst a dog hares off into the distance scattering  gulls. It does however have a more extreme variant which involves climbing and scrambling above a foaming white maelstrom to reach hidden coves. The ever present possibility being swept into the sea by a rogue wave; dodging salvos of rocks which fall from loose decaying cliffs, and risking a leg breaking slip on slimy rocks whilst in a remote location. There is also the chance that you might be trapped by a fast incoming tide in a position where retreat up the cliff is impossible. At the weekend I was engaged in spot of-could we call it- ‘extreme beachcombing’-while staying in the fantastic little fishing village of Staithes on the North Yorkshire coast.

The cliffs hereabouts are pretty impressive by any criteria. Often over 500’ high and inevitably -being on the east coast- battered by wind and giant  North Sea waves. Sadly, for climbers but more importantly, for people who live close to the cliff edge, the cliffs are as far removed from the solid granite cliffs of Cornwall as you could get. Consisting of a blend of mud, rock and shale which is as stable as a stack of cards in a drafty room. ( See Pic) . Rock falls and landslides are part and parcel of life here. One day you can be skirting the cliff edge along a popular coastal path, the next day that section of path is littering the beach!
 Extreme coastal walking near Staithes

To get back to beach combing for a minute: The activity has for a long time drawn artists and artisans to the shore in search of detritus thrown up by the waves which might lend itself in the creation of art and crafts. Some shore lines  are more interesting than others though, in that the tides in different parts of the country are linked to currents which offer either rich or meagre pickings depending on where you are. The North Cornish Coast for example which brings in bounty from as far afield as the Amazon rain forests to the Lobster fishing grounds of Maine and Newfoundland. One artist who has exploited this resource with great skill and imagination is Jane Darke who lives at Porthcothan near Padstow. Jane and her late husband -the playwright, Nick Darke- religiously combed the local coves and beaches for materials and recorded their activities in a short film shown on BBC4-The Wrecking Season. At the time, Nick was recovering from a stroke and the film is a moving account of their coming to terms with their new circumstances while continuing their passion for wrecking. ( The term ‘wrecking’ of course comes from the era when shipwreckers and smugglers worked the remote coastlines. Deliberately enticing richly laden ships onto the rocks and plundering their bounty). 

Jane and Nick Darke: Photo JD

Jane Darkes’ follow up to The Wrecking Season is an incredibly moving film which started life as a continuation work but quickly developed into a searing chronicle of her husband’s final months after he developed cancer. The Art of Catching Lobsters was also shown on BBC4 to critical acclaim. I caught up with Jane just after the film was premiered on the BBC when I was in Cornwall and Jane kindly entertained my family at her lovely home set above the sand dunes of Porthcothan. Walking on the beach with her one late November afternoon with a strong, low autumn sun sinking fast into an indigo twilight,  I still vividly recall the powerful tapestry of colours that day and the rich sea sounds and smells. All together a powerful concoction of stimulating creative elements. Little wonder the sea attracts so many artists and writers.  ( An extract from Jane’s book ‘Held by the Sea’ appeared on Footless Crow a couple of years ago) Both of Jane’s films and her book are highly recommended.

Staithes where I was staying, also has an artistic tradition where studios and galleries abound. I do find the artiness of these places a bit forced and contrived though. There are only so many times I can take someone wandering along the cobbled streets with an easel and canvas under their arm. All they need is a beret set at a jaunty angle to complete the stereotype! Leaving the tourists and painter manques to their own devices, I set off from the town and followed the shoreline towards Port Musgrave. The tide was just retreating , leaving enough bare rock to scramble over although being so close to the crumbling cliffs, it was somewhat disconcerting as volleys of stone regularly peppered the stone pavement I was following. 

Many of the rocks hereabouts offer themselves as fossil tables. Flat surfaces displaying a patina of fossilized shells, stems and leaves. In one or two places, old ropes hang down the crumbling cliffs. Suggesting an emergency escape in the event of being trapped by an advancing tide. Near the end of the bay, the land juts out into the sea. A natural division which separates the bay from Port Musgrave Bay on the other side.

Old iron ore mine shafts emerge from the cliffs. A reminder of a 19th century mining industry which flourished here. There is evidence that modern day troglodytes regularly explore these shafts but given the instability of the land here, underground exploration must be a pretty nerve wracking  experience. Port Musgrave Bay itself is a weird place. At one time it boasted a jetty and harbour to service the mining and fishing industry. However, during the Second World War, the MOD displaying a paranoia which even by the standards of the day was pretty extreme, decided to blow up the harbour and protective sea wall because it feared the Germans might use it during an invasion. You can just imagine the German high command choosing a bay with 500' crumbling cliffs and accessed only by a steep, circuitous fisherman’s path as an entry point! 

What remains of the harbour attracts sea anglers these days. The jetty itself is scattered with little boats and an amazing collection of crude shelters and fishing huts constructed out of corrugated sheets, driftwood, stone and salvaged materials. Usually with a collection of lobster pots stacked upon the rusting roof. I’m guessing the usual planning permission laws and regulations don’t apply down in this remote spot...and why should they!   I returned to Staithes with an empty rucksack. Despite the storm the night before there was little of interest . Not even a nice sculpted piece of driftwood. Just the odd trainer, plastic bottle and marker cane. Poor pickings today but next time there just might be a whale's jawbone, a polished seed from a central American jungle or a message in a bottle?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Simpsons: Scotland's cartoon sporting estate villains!

No sooner had I written in glowing terms about Scotland’s advanced access laws compared to England and Wales,that I read on Andy Wightman’s blog about an appalling situation in Wester Ross. For the full story, read Andy’s blog and the attached comments. However, in a nutshell, a Yorkshire company, Rainheath Ltd-(registered address-North Hill, Dishforth, Thirsk)- which attributes 96% ownership to a Andrew Simpson, purchased the Ledgowan  shooting estate,for £2.5m in 2011. This is in addition to another estate they own; the 2000 acre Rossie Ochil Estate, just south of Perth.
It appears the Ledgowan Estate is actively pursuing a policy which seeks to prevent access on its estate; note this recent entry in Highland and Island Council committee minutes:

Country 'Sport':Photo Murdo Macload-The Guardian

A photo was shown of the padlocked gates at Ledgowan.  Mr Tom Forrest had walked this path and had come across a young man from Ledgowan Estate.  On being asked the man had instructed Mr Forrest that he couldn’t walk there at the moment as he had sheep in the field with lambs.  On asking if he could get access from the other end at the lodge he was told no, but that maybe he could get access through the hotel.  A woman had also reported that on walking this path the keeper had put her off going through the gates. There had been considerable correspondence between a Council solicitor and the owners regarding primarily the old road but other gates on the Estate had also been mentioned.  The old road obstructions had been removed with the police in attendance. Eight of 15 gates to the the hills were locked, three of which were on tracks.  The Estate had insisted on one of the locked gates remain so to prevent rustling..  The access officer had informed them they would need to provide a small side gate or at very least a stile to enable access rights.

More recently, Doctor Kenneth Brown of Glen Moriston was accosted by Richard Simpson, a particularly aggressive member of this feudal sub species,who apart from photographing the good doctor and his wife and noting their car number, subjected them to a torrent of hostile questioning. Informing them that their very presence was damaging the environment. This from a representative of a family who have gouged a bloody big ugly track across a mountainside! (See Pic) 

Presumably to enable the estate’s rotund clients to get their fat arses up on the hill from where they can waddle into a position to take shots at the local wildlife.  I would imagine getting up on the hill on their own two feet would be next to impossible for these tweedy buffoons.

This incident reminded me of the Wilderness Walk’s episode, presented by Cameron MacNeish where he and David Craig were walking on the Knoydart Peninsular. David recountered an experience in the Scottish hills when he was stopped by a crusty relic in a Land Rover and summoned over by a hooked finger..... ‘And what are you doing on my mountain?’ asked the plummy toned fossil. To which David offered his thoughts which ended with him declaring ‘I find it hard to understand how one man can own a mountain!’ At which point the landowner replied ‘ You sound like one of these Communists!’ and drove off in high dudgeon. When David finished his tale, after a short pause Cameron replied...'and he’d be right of course!’ which I found amusing.

With knuckleheaded relics like the Simpsons running private estates in the manner of medieval fiefdoms you have to think...those Bolsheviks had a point about the landowning aristocracy!