Wednesday, April 30, 2014

No picnic at Hanging Rock

Ken Wilson's photo of proto hipster,John Beck struggling up the final section of the now departed Deer Bield Crack:

I was reading on the BMC site about the number of rock climbs which have either been completely destroyed ,or drastically altered by the March storms. Coastal cliffs especially, have been seriously affected with the classic Cornish climb Terrier’s Tooth seeing its first pitch washed away. Of course, rockfall and route obliteration/alteration has always been part and parcel of the game. Off the top of my head, I can think of several routes which have either disappeared or been changed-usually for the worse-by sections of rock peeling off. 

Possibly the best known was the 1930’s AT Hargreaves’s thug fest, Deer Bield Crack which went for a burton in 1997 along with DB Chimney and DB Buttress. Ken Smith’s Footless Crow article gives full details. In North Wales, classic VS Climbs like Merlin at Tremadog and Nea in the Pass have seen pitches fall down with new alternatives developed. The dolerite cliffs of Tremadog in particular have seen several climbs and entire faces disappear since they were developed in earnest in the 1950’s. Tony Moulam’s  Rienetta is now virtually an entirely different route from its 1952 version. In 1967, Tony Wilmott’s crux pitch of Fandango disappeared whilst a few years earlier, an even more dramatic event altered the Tremadog landscape when Caernarfonshire County Council dynamited Hounds Head Buttress because they were frightened it would fall down and spill onto the nearby road.

A possibility perhaps not unfounded considering that in 1977 a section of cliff between Bwlch y Moch and Pant Ifan fell down and destroyed a house below. The female occupant being fortunate to escape with her life . 

In the current Tremadog guidebook is an obscure and rarely repeated route of my own on the beautiful lakeside crag of Craig Penmaen Brith. ‘Red Star Belgrade’  is a three pitch VS route described by second ascentionist Pat Littlejohn as ‘an execrable route’...thanks! I guess climbing up vegetated walls and battling through holly is an acquired taste. However, it did have a good first pitch which started in a smooth bay before escaping left at the top to reach a nice section of juggy climbing. Problem is, last time I walked passed by, it appeared the entire slabby bay had gone! The current guidebook doesn’t mention it so I don’t know if the current description takes account of this?

It must have been quite a fall though as it looks like a sizable section of cliff has completely disappeared. I'm sure I'm not the only one to have pondered what it would be like to be climbing when the entire face you are on parts company with the main cliff. A possibility perhaps for anyone climbing on Lakelands Castle Rock of Triermain  in the future. It will bring an entirely new meaning to the description... North Crag Eliminate!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

To boulder go where many have gone before.

Driving back and forth twice a week from north east to north west Wales, my usual route takes me through Llanberis Pass with occasional deviations through Ogwen Valley or Beddgelert. As regular trips go it sure beats the commuter trip around the M25 or gridlocked at Sandbach services!  Driving up and down The Pass, I’m always at risk of taking out a section of stone wall as I crane my neck to see if anyone is out on the crags, or take in a buttress high above the valley which, who knows, might have some new route potential? One thing that has struck me recently, despite north Wales having enjoyed a pretty good spring so far, even on a balmy spring evening when the crags on the sunny side of The Pass are illuminated, it’s remarkable how devoid of climbers they are. On one evening last week as I drove up at around five o clock on a perfect warm sunny evening, I saw just one team on the Grochan, and they were the only ones climbing in the entire valley!

By contrast, as per usual the Cromlech boulders were teeming with activists and around the corner, on the road to Capel Curig, the RAC boulders were doing a roaring trade. Although bouldering has been practiced as long as people have been climbing, it was always practiced as either a bit of post or pre crag fun or as training for ‘real climbing’. It's stating the obvious to recognize that today, bouldering is often practiced and enjoyed as an end in itself, with many of its participants not going anywhere near a rack or rope from one month to the next. How did this state of affairs come about? Is it ‘just the moves man’ and the fact that the most popular boulders are literally road side or at the most, a short amble from the car? 

You can certainly see the appeal. Lumping a heavy rucksack full of ironmongery and ropes up to a high cwm which sees few visitors is certainly a dying art and you can understand how so many crags in the less popular areas like Mid Wales are slowly returning to nature. Even classic crags like Llech Ddu in the Carneddau are becoming vegetated and hence, attractive to winter warriors who will almost certainly be making more winter ascents than those making pure rock ascents in the future.

To get back to bouldering; I wonder how percentage wise, the figures break down between those who purely rock climb and those who purely boulder? Yes..I realise that there is a sizable cross over between those who practice all disciplines, but it’s still quite striking just how dominant bouldering activists are in relation to trad rock climbers when you see both groups in their native habitat. Is it just a generational thing? Most boulderers scampering up and down The Cromlech boulders look under 25 while those odd teams I see heading up towards Wasted, Dinas Mot, Cyrn Las and Ddysgl, with ropes tucked under their rucksack flaps, all look 40/50+.

I seem to recall someone posting a thread on UKC entitled ‘Is trad climbing dying on its arse?’ Maybe not dying exactly but certainly evolving into something different from what would be recognized by activists in climbing's post war heyday, as mountain activists embrace not just bouldering but mountain and road biking-the roads in Snowdonia are chock full of Wiggos these days! Many climbers I know hardly ever get on the crag,preferring to don their lycra and jump on their expensive road bikes and spend the day head down,arse in the air and pumping the pedals like their life depended on it. But then,that strange phenomena is worthy of investigation in itself.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Joe's Place

In the early 1960’s,my maternal grandfather did an unexpected thing. Despite having reached three score years and ten and being comfortably ensconced with his third wife in a little terraced house in Mosside, Manchester, he went out and bought a remote traditional cottage on the Malltraeth Marshes on Ynys Mon (Angelsey) North Wales. It was surprising in many ways. The cottage-which cost him six hundred pounds-had no mains services. Water was drawn from a stream, light was provided by oil lamps and cooking was done on a range. Furthermore, he had no car and was incapacitated with what was known at the time as ‘a gammy leg’. The result of being blown up at sea in the first world war. Shopping trips required a long hobbling walk down a rough track my father called ‘The Rocky road to Dublin’ and then catching a bus to Llangefni.

It was certainly a brave lifestyle choice for a seventy year old, taking on the challenges of living off the grid in a fairly remote location. As a young child living on the challenging Bluebell Estate in Huyton on Merseyside at the time, I loved visiting the place. Despite the Spartan existence..washing outside in a tin bowl, using an outside chemical toilet, living on frugal rations and going to bed early when it got  sowed the seed which took root when I moved to north Wales myself in the late 1970’s.

Joe and Ethel only lived there a few years before they took on a more centrally located cottage, on a bus route and more accessible for shops and services. He died not long after in Bangor, N Wales in 1967. In the mid 80’s, I was on Angelsey when I decided to try and find the original cottage and show my family where the blue touchpaper which led to my move to n wales was first lit. It wasn’t that easy but as soon as I turned onto ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ I knew I had cracked it. I intended to knock on the door, explain who I was and perhaps the current owner might accommodate us with a brew and a brief look around. Unfortunately, no one was at home but I could see straight away that it was now a second home. And a rarely used second home at that. (See the photographs taken at the time.

Twenty years went by and now with a new partner I decided to show her the place when we were over on Angelsey. Despite getting close to it, my car was bottoming out on the track and I convinced myself this can’t be the right place? It took another visit to confirm that it was indeed the right track but this time I left the car on the bottom lane and walked up. The first thing I noticed-which I hadn’t appreciated before-was the vast panorama of Snowdonia mountains which framed the cottage. Being set on former marshland, the land hereabouts is flat with huge vistas all around. The only sounds I could hear were lilting skylarks and bleating was so quiet and peaceful, just as I remembered it. Little wonder that I had been seduced by the area all those years ago.

The Malltraeth Marshes must have been an amazing environment before they built the cob at Malltraeth on the coast. Before then, the tide would sweep inland, often as far as Llangefni and the few scattered cottages must have been pretty cut off and isolated from those above the marsh. Especially at high tides. I wondered if the cottage was regularly flooded before the cob and canals were constructed?

When I reached the cottage, I could see straight away that it was totally derelict. The garden had been overtaken by skin ripping haw and blackthorn, dog rose and thick bramble. It was a fight to get to the cottage but when I did, I was able to get through a broken window and take a look around. It had been so long since I had been inside and  it was weird to be back again. It was still furnished but ceilings were falling down, the roof was open to the elements in places and it was totally uninhabitable. Knocking on the door of the cottage across the lane-one of only three properties on this dead end track- the elderly occupant told me that the owner hadn’t been to the cottage for at least ten years.

That information set in train a search via the land registry department, Google name searches and even an appeal for information on the previous incarnation of this site. I had the owners name and knew that he had been living in the West Midlands but all attempts to find him reached a dead end. I was hoping that given his obvious disinterest in the cottage, I could persuade him to sell it for a nominal amount  in the hope that he would be favourable to see it restored by someone whose family used to own it, rather than let it just fall down. After all, it needed totally gutting to the four walls and rebuilding from scratch.Not exactly a cheap and quick modernisation project.

Eventually I traced the owner and found myself talking to a friend of his who was prepared to act as a go between. I had been told by the neighbour and his friend that X was eccentric and not that communicative. To cut a long story short, to date I have had no acknowledgement of letters or phone contact numbers I have  left with his friend, and have since resigned myself to the fact that for whatever reason, the owner of ‘Joe’s Place’ would rather see the cottage become a mound of stones than part with it. I think most people like myself would scratch their heads at this mentality but if you travel across north Wales or indeed any rural area in the UK, you will see derelict cottages that  farmers in particular, would rather fall down than part with.

Personally, I think that given the chronic housing shortage in rural areas then local authorities should be able to compulsory purchase derelict properties and bring them into their social housing stock.

It’s a shame that my envisaged project to reclaim and restore the cottage in it's original vernacular style has founded. However, as a footnote; my partner and I took ownership of a little cottage just across the straits from Angelsey earlier this year which I’m renovating at the moment. It hasn’t been occupied full time since-ironically enough-1961 when Joe bought his cottage across the water. There would have been a romantic symmetry if the Angelsey project had come off but it wasn’t to be. At least I’ve got something else to get my teeth into. Even if it means my outdoor life is currently on hold as I wrestle with a comprehensive modernisation project which I hope will be completed in the next six months.
'Joe's Place' is lost amongst the trees on the Fen like landscape of Malltraeth Marsh.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Augustus John: Models in a north Wales landscape

Derwent Lees 'A Welsh Landscape'.Location,The Arenig Fawr outlier of Pen Tyrau.

Of all the mountains in Wales, for me, Arenig Fawr is easily the King..or perhaps it should be Queen?...of Welsh peaks. This brooding massif surrounded by the rough bounds of the Migneint, encompasses everything that is mysterious and romantic in mountain lore. It even harbours within its bounds, a contemporary human tragedy and in that, an event that can teach us something about the folly and ignorance of those who have political power. I refer of course to the destruction of the Treweryn valley and the village of Capel Celyn to create a pointless and unnecessary reservoir . An action which I blogged about a couple of years ago in The Drowning Season.

In fact, I’ve always found the mountain a rich creative seam to mine. Inspiring both art and climbing pieces which have appeared in the climbing press and blogs. In the early 90’s I had a piece in the then Climber & Rambler magazine, ‘The Art of Arenig’, which detailed the mysterious and as yet unrecorded climbing history on Arenig Fawr and the mountain’s unique place in British art. The mountain inspiring ‘The Arenig School’; An Edwardian art movement led by the leading light of the day, Augustus John but which has James Dickson Innes as the mainspring of the movement. See ‘James Dickson Innes..Artist of the Sacred Mountain’ for more.

Interestingly, The Arenig School-based in the cottage of Nant Ddu nearby-only lasted a couple of years- 1910/12-before Augustus had moved across the moors to the slate mining village of Tan y Grisiau near Blaneau Ffestiniog, where he rented a cottage and carried on painting the local landscapes and his muse Dorelia....and any other model who happened to pass under his spell!

Anyone interested in his art and who is familiar with the landscapes of north Wales cannot help but play ‘spot the location’. Not particularly with his landscapes, as these are fairly obvious for most parts. It’s more interesting and difficult though when a model is involved as often he just plonks them on a hillside or sits them on a rock which could be anywhere.

Anywhere except we know it has to be either under Arenig or under the climbing crags of the Moelwyns where his now ruined cottage is located. For years I believed that the cottage of Llwynynthyl was in Cwm Orthin, the vast open valley which most walkers heading up to Moelwyn Mawr pass through. However, an art programme, ‘Framing Wales', on BBC Wales presented by Kim Howells- the fascinating former NUM secretary, Labour MP, Culture Secretary in the Blair government and rock climber- who offered a different location to Llwynynthyl when he scaled an easy climb on one of the Moelwyn cliffs. After completing the climb, he pointed to the ruins of Llwynynthyl which sits above..or is it below?..the road up to the Stwlan Dam.
So..with this in mind,here’s a few educated guesses as to model locations.

The Red Feather:1911 Augustus John
I’m pretty sure that this is on the western slopes of Arenig Fawr under a crag known as Craig Hyrddod,( Crag of the Rams) less than a mile from Nant Ddu. In 1997 I made a first climb on Hyrddod which due to a misinterpretation, I called ‘Hurricane Wall’, thinking that the Welsh name translated as storm or tempest. Huge boulders abound hereabouts and there is a curious shrine at the base of the cliff. Another climb I did here I called Pagan Wall.

The Orange Apron:1912: Augustus John
This has to be a Tan y Griseau painting. Looking up to the high point of Moelwyn Bach from the lower slopes of Moel  yr Hydd with the slate mine levels clearly visible.

Reverie:1914 and Doreilia in a Green Dress:1914

Confusingly, Reverie is also referred to as ‘The Tired Climber’ and ‘Doreilia in Cornwall’. Most certainly this is not Cornwall but is it a Tan y Griseau painting or an Arenig work? I originally thought it had to be the lower slopes of Moel yr Hydd above the cottage, Llwynynthyl, but it could be just slightly north of the Red Feather location beneath the saddle which connects Pen Tyrau with Arenig Fawr. Both paintings show what could be a stone wall which suggests Arenig.

Lily on the mountainside:1911

This has to be looking north east from Moel yr Hydd towards Nyth y Gigfran and the mouth of Cwm Orthin. Climbers will recognize it as the location of the popular venue, Craig y Clipau.

Lyndra by the Pool: 1914-Derwent Lees.

This is a work by the Australian painter, Derwent Lees. A lesser figure in the Arenig School, very much influenced by Augustus John. Location, the lower slopes of the Arenig outlier,Pen Tyrau.

Lyndra by the rocks:1914.Derwent Lees
Lyndra appears to be Lees’ muse very much in the manner of John’s Dorelia. Here, the artist has placed his model in the lee of what appears a sizable cliff.The light and shade would suggest that it is the basalt quarry just lower down the Pen Tyrau mountainside and close to Arenig village.

So....a few educated stabs at the locations of these paintings.Anyone with their own theories,feel free to get in touch.

Anyone interested in the Arenig School then I recommend Michael Holroyd’s monumental biography of Augustus John which covers the period in great detail.