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.