Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The loneliness of the long distance filmmaker.

Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in A Walk in the Woods which has just been released in the US.
With the film version of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild starring Reese Witherspoon on general release in the UK, I was interested to see that Robert Redford no less, has taken on Bill Bryson’s comic travelogue, A walk in the Woods about an ill judged attempt at getting back to nature by walking the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail. Like Strayed’s Wild, I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s book when I read it umpteen years ago and I am interested to find out what sort of fist Redford has made with his film version. 

At 78, Redford plays Bryson himself although after seeing him in the excellent All is Lost last year, I’ve no doubts that this remarkable actor has the physical strengths to play a long distance hiker. Despite the popularity of long distance walking books and travelogues where a usually single hiker sets off into the great blue yonder on some personal quest - think of writers like Laurie Lee, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Hamish Brown, John Hillaby or even the Lakeland poets tramping around the fells- film or TV adaptations are relatively few and far between. Off the top of my head and can think of Martin Sheen’s The Way, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild,  the film version of Kerouac’s  On the Road, perhaps Nicholas Roeg’s classic 1971 movie Walkabout might be a tenuous inclusion and I have a horrible recollection of seeing Tony Hawke’s Around Ireland with a fridge remade as a feature film. Or was that just a terrible dream!

On TV we’ve had Julia Bradbury doing some Lakeland Hill-walking and yomping across England on Wainwright’s Coast to Coast. In the 1990’s Cameron MacNeish presented Wilderness Walks and poet Simon Armitage has done a bit of wandering around oop north, but its slim pickings to be sure.

It’s not just hiking which is generally ignored by the film and TV companies. Rock climbing is virtually nonexistent on UK TV screens. In the last thirty years I can only think of Lakeland Rock, The Edge and On the Edge (only shown in Wales) on TV. There have been some oddities like Julia Bradbury doing some classic climbs with Tim Emmett and Scottish TV show the odd bit of climbing footage in their Adventure Show, but south of the border in England and Wales rock climbing and to a lesser extent hill walking is just totally ignored by those who create the schedules.

I must admit that I find the lack out outdoor programming hard to understand. There are supposed to be over four million active walkers in the UK and about 300k rock climbers. A not inconsiderable potential viewing constituency. If proof were needed about the Great Outdoors film and TV potential then just take a look at Terry Abrahams  The life of a mountain which had an hour long edit shown on BBC4 last week. The programme apparently attracted just shy of a million viewers which is three times the average midweek BBC4 audience for that slot.  Imagine if it had been shown on BBC1 what the viewing figures would have been!

As it stands, it’s left to the small independent film companies like Hot Aches or Striding Edge in the UK to create and distribute climbing and walking films through downloads and dvd’s, and one or two names in the movie industry who are willing to take a chance on a book like Wild and turn it into a film. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, TV and film companies treat outdoor material as if it was drawn from a tiny fringe clique instead of being an integral part of a thriving culture which counts  tens of millions of activists worldwide. A misreading of market potential which is hard to understand?

Monday, January 19, 2015

Ogwen Cottage: Dreaming of Wetherspoons!

The National Trust recently purchased the historic Ogwen Cottage mountain centre in Snowdonia at auction, for £450k.  For once a reasonable figure for such an imposing building given the Trust’s history of paying way over the odds for other north Wales purchases. Noticeably the eye watering £4.5m they paid for a Snowdonia estate which included part of Yr Wyddfa’s summit and the £1m plus they paid for a farm in Nant Gwynant. I’m confused as to why the trust needed to add Ogwen Cottage to its portfolio though and I’m none the wiser what their plans are for the centre? So far the NT have not issued-as far as I know- any detailed statement?

The Trust do have a base nearby at Craflwyn near Beddglert so I’m not sure if this will be an environmental studies centre, exhibition centre, accommodation block or regional office? Og Cott does, of course, have a significant place in north Wales mountaineering culture. Originally a stage coach inn with accommodation provided for those travelling from the south to Ireland via the port of Holyhead, the inn became a popular destination for climbers visiting Snowdonia as the new sport of rock climbing began to take off in the late 19th century.

Iconic figures like the Abraham Brothers, Cecil Slingsby and Geoffrey Winthrop Young all used the inn to base their activities with local activist, Archer Thomson famously borrowing the Og Cott kindling hatchet from the coal house to make a winter ascent of The Devil’s kitchen!

Ogwen Cottage in its previous incarnation as an inn in the 1920's.
In the 1950’s, the centre was purchased by Ron James, Trevor Jones and Tony Mason-Hornby who set up a mountaineering centre. The centre was purchased by Birmingham Education department in 1964 who kept Ron James in the driving seat where the prolific explorer and creator of Snowdonia first ascents ran the centre until retirement in the 1980’s. Recently, the cut backs in education budgets inflicted by our neo liberal governments in the UK, has seen centres like Ogwen Cottage sold off by the relevant authorities as they find themselves unable to fund what traditionally have been non profit making, public services. There are now a staggering number of former outdoor centres as well as YHA hostels which have fallen victim to the economic climate and of course, social and cultural changes in mountain visiting habits.

I have to confess a certain lack of excitement in the NT’s purchase of Ogwen Cottage. Given the history of the building and its prime mountain location, I did harbour hopes that perhaps it might have once again returned to its former role as an inn. Preferably –and this will be controversial- part of the Wetherspoons chain!  Despite the reputation the chain enjoys in the urban areas, my own experiences in particular, of its Ruthin pub here in north Wales, is that it offers a huge range of ever changing excellent real ales from home and abroad at two pounds a pint and furthermore,offers reasonable cheap pub food fare . For those stumbling down from Tryfan or the Carneddau in the depths of winter, I’m sure the inn would have become a real mountain mecca.

As it stands it's just become another piece of National Trust real estate. What a shame.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Mountain rhymes and reasons


White page written in red ink, a trembling hand misspelling stone.
A climbing wordsmith struggles here to articulate the lines.
Vague sentences hang from every page.
The previous author fought to handle the grainy texture,
his pen breaking repeatedly on the rough paper-stone.

Little wonder his words make no sense today; loose paragraphs
peppered with lichen stars, abbreviated using heather devices.

I would rewrite the story in my own words if I could decipher
the opaque script.
Cefn Goch is an old language, like Cornish.
A dead tongue poured over by romantics and mystics.

Words no longer spoken must remain hidden in the stone vaults.
Remembered in the oozing cracks and weeping edges that carry
the story.
Perhaps I will tear out the faded pages and start again, writing
a new ending to an old tale, or singing the stone in my own voice.
Pitch perfect.


Vagrant amongst the peregrine nation.
They are out there...somewhere....betrayed by the
mumbling rituals carried on a blind wind.
Swallowed amongst the fragile towers and peeling walls, 
they play their shadow games.
Pale scars on the high alter are drawn by empty hands.
Grey rocks and sods of earth explode and collect
on the scree slopes below.

Every now and then voices stun the void between us,
half men, half beasts, stumbling down the mountain's
damned aisle.
A box of crows ruptures the air,
a flash of colour which stains the emerald moment
and roots us back to earth.
They are on our route!


Gibbous moon over Slioch,
a frozen orb tilting towards a lunar sea,
gifted from twilight.
A frozen mountain hangs in a salmon dusted dream,
fixing itself in memory.
Up there I would find myself
amongst the bleached crow bones and starched heather.

Standing on air while the sea wind whips around my neck,
lifting hairs from stretched bare arms,
A discordant song ripping across my mind.

Feeling muscle rhyme with stone,
dance across lichenous slabs to arrive
beneath the raven walls and
find the hoary rib melt in my embrace.

Slioch...rainbowed in September's gloaming,
a fragile frieze stretched out and tacked to heaven.

If only I had the palette to paint you.


Folded in stone, the dark island whispers across the sound.
A velvet cipher captured between a quiet sea and a red washed sky.
In my dreams I land on Jura's clouded shores and carry the ashes
of my haunted past to scatter amongst the lilting paps
and diamond lochans.

I would bear my bittersweet wonder in a soaring stone
My scars cleansed in the salt blasted air.
Quiet voices caught in a ripping wind carry across the weeping
moors,fixed like a stone cross to an ancient world.

In Jura's heart a man could find his poetry and his art,
trawl its dark waters and find nourishment and wisdom.
Climb her mountains to find his children.
Make love in her sea caves; a bed built of driftwood and sand.
Fall asleep in ancient churches, a salmon sky cast through
the lime girt walls.

On Jura a man could dance and never lose his breath.
On Jura.


Working the green seam under a louring sky.
Cobs of earth and shards of stone tossed into the steel void
echo through the skylark spaces. 
Eagle Crag- its peeling face a drum
played by tired fingers.
Hanging from vapors, his swaddled frame bends the wind, 
slowly unwrapping the pallid core of the crag,
he moves through countries of stone, 
reaching deep into raven spaces.
All feathers, white fur, brittle skin.

A rock arcs to earth, exploding on the scree
before rolling through the bilberry door.
Muffled voices rant in corners; each player fixed in separate
hemispheres,connected to this spinning orb by instinct and fear.

William of the orange fleece; mining rock,painting stone,mixing oils.
Caught on the barbs of imagination.
An image of rapture fleshed and embossed on his own fire washed canvas.