Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Waterway access rights: A river runs through it.

The late great Mike Jones
If the hikers Right to Roam is still a distant dream for walkers in England and Wales, the canoeists' right to paddle is right out there in the distant realms of the galaxy. Remarkably, what used to be a common right-the right to travel freely upon UK waterways- has been eroded to such an extent that in 2017, paddlers and other recreational waterway users, enjoy access to just 4% of our rivers....FOUR PERCENT!!!

What paddlers are up against is the all powerful landowner/fishing lobby backed up by the government, who enjoy absolute control over waterway usage. Those free spirited paddlers who do risk so called ‘bandit runs’ do so at risk of incurring the wrath of the landowner/angling lobby,and the very real risk of  being on the receiving end  of often violent retaliation. Stones have been thrown at paddlers, barbed wire stretched across fast, inescapable sections of river. Canoeists have returned to their cars to find their tyres slashed...etc etc. Not surprisingly, for most canoeists, its just not worth the aggro and expense. Hence the Riparian lobby continue to exercise their complete control over waterway usage through violent acts of intimidation and political indifference.

Naturally, the government and its agencies of state, including the police, continue to display contempt for the basic freedoms and rights of ordinary people and in matters of dispute, inevitably side with the Riparian lobby. Several years ago I took part in a memorial paddle down the Upper River Dee in North Wales- The Mike Jones Rally- which was a charity paddle in memory of the eponymous paddler who drowned  in Pakistan when paddling on the Braldu River that flows off K2.  I remember the great buzz I had as a non paddler at the time, joining with hundreds of other paddlers in various boats- from little slamon kayaks to great hulking Canadians- and exploring this ‘forbidden’ river for the first time. My friend and I were just about the last people on the water that mid November afternoon in our ancient two man boat as we set off from the village of Cynwyd, heading for the Horseshoe Falls, 12 miles away at Llangollen. We arrived when it was almost dark but it was wonderful, paddling in the fading light, seeing all those secret places from the water. By then, everyone had finished and would be happily engaged in the apres paddle festivities as we held up the rear in the quiet gloom.

It was an all too rare glimpse of what open access on our waterways could be. Free to travel these quiet water roads. Enjoying a rare glimpse of our land as no one else can see it. A few years later, I got into sea kayaking and have since travelled most of the Cornish creeks by sea kayak and what a great experience it has been. Winding off the main creeks to explore the shallow side creeks. Inaccessible to all but the paddler. At times it is like being on an Amazonian tributary with just the quiet swish of the paddle, the chatter of birds and the splash of leaping mullet to disturb one’s reverie.

The Mike Jones Rally finished on the Dee that year I believe. Despite being a charity event, the Landowning/Angling lobby were not minded to let it continue as an annual event-for one day a year for God’s sake!- and I understand that’s now being held up on the upper Tyne in the North East of England.

Somewhat bizarrely for those climbers and hikers who do at least enjoy their activity without any incurring any financial penalty, paddlers who do wish to exercise their limited rights of access, have to pay for a licence to do so. British Canoeing who oversee the activity offer this advice on their website.

“If you want to canoe on many of our rivers and canals you will need a licence to do so. British Canoeing has teamed up with navigation authorities who manage the waterways to offer British Canoeing members a great rate for a waterway licence in England. Included with your British Canoeing membership is a licence to paddle over 4,500km of rivers and canals.’

Adding...."As a British Canoeing member, you are given a membership card which also serves as your waterways licence. A lanyard is also provided for ease of display. Carry your British Canoeing membership card with you at all times, as you may be asked to show this to authorised navigation officials. You can see the list of included waterways in the list below.’

Imagine the uproar if climbers, mountaineers, hikers, surfers etc etc, had to pay a licence to carry out their chosen activity! A jobsworth wandering under the cliff at Cloggy checking a climbers’ licence or being met on the summit of Cader Idris by an employee of the BMC..’ Can I just see your hillwalking licence sir?’.

Pity the poor paddler, Screwed over by Landowners, Anglers, The Government and even their own body. In instances like this I always reach for my Edward Abbey book of quotations; 'A Voice Crying in the Wilderness'. How about his classic, ‘If wilderness is outlawed,only outlaws can save the wilderness’. That’ll do....... Bandit Run down the Dee anyone?

Sunday, June 25, 2017

'Rise like Lions after Slumber'

The Good Guys
What is it that attracts people to engage on outdoor activities? Is it the thrill and pleasure in the activity? The tenuous move that delivers success for the climber; the buzz a mountain biker feels as they wheel full pelt through forests and streams, the crunch of gravel in their ears and the rush of air in their faces. The quiet contemplation the hiker finds as they take in an empty vista from upon high? Of course the activity itself delivers an almost spiritual awakening for the participant following a day considered well spent. However, underpinning the actual activity itself and a vital component  of the whole experience is that most abstract concept...freedom.

On the face of it, there is nothing which connects climbing a route on a remote crag where you only have the crows and sheep for company, and attending a music festival like Glastonbury with 200.000 other people. As I write it is indeed the Glastonbury weekend and as usual, I have just been a distant observer on TV and following the Guardian blogs. By coincidence, the paper also carries a feature on camper vans. What is noticeable-more especially after the wildly enthusiastic reception Jeremy Corbyn received yesterday where he drew a record crowd-has been the vitriol and hated emanating from the Tory/UKip trolls towards young people, festival goers and even campervan owners. In fact their hatred is for anyone who values freedom, creativity, self expression and who has a social conscience.

People having fun, enjoying the festival or living off grid in a campervan, drives these bitter and twisted little bigots nuts! And you can see where these Tory Party useful idiots are coming from. I have a picture of your stereotypical freedom hating troll. Living in a bungalow in some nondescript Midlands town. Trapped in a career they hate and a loveless marriage. Never in their entire lives have they even been to a live music event, climbed to the top of a mountain,smashed through the surf in a sea kayak; spent a night looking up at the stars, ridden a horse; Parked up a camper in a quiet forest in the dead of night. In short, the most exciting thing these people will ever in their sad lives is to wash their 10 year old Honda Civic on a Saturday instead of a Sunday or visit a different garden centre to their usual Sunday haunt.

Having a tame and servile populace who do not as a rule, seek to express themselves outside of those narrow parameters defined by the state as ‘normal’ conduct is of course an essential pre requisite of a state and society which functions in the interests of a privileged few. You will have noted with the Grenfell Tower disaster that it was the marginalized who had been shunted into inadequate accommodation. The poor, the asylum seeker, the immigrant, the ethnic minorities. Most people of a certain age will remember how another minority who expressed different values to the state and who sought a life of freedom outside of the narrow confines of production and consumption. Who rejected the unthinking blind acceptance of knowing your station and accepting your lot.  The New Age Travellers in the early 1980's totally rejected the norms and values of Thatcher’s Free Market philosophy and chose poverty and freedom as infinitely preferable options to  just being just cogs in the machine.

Who could forget the vile treatment dished out by Thatcher’s state goons at the Battle of the Beanfield and at other locations, where this most peaceable of communities had gathered. Brutally beaten by baton wielding state thugs who had been ordered to remove their ID tags by those who sought to cover up their nefarious activities. A pregnant woman dragged through a broken window of a bus, long haired crusties with shattered skulls and blood matted hair. Confused, frightened and lost. Children screaming as they watched their parents set upon by faceless thugs. Their twisted features hidden behind sweat dripping visors. The long convoys of smashed buses, campervans and coaches accompanied by bare footed travellers carrying their pathetic belongings on their backs or in wheelbarrows. It was a scene reminiscent of historic  war time displacements or the more recent refugee convoys which have shamed Europe in recent years.

This was their country as much as the pin striped gangsters who unleashed this terror against ‘The Enemy Within’. The Thatcher government further legislated against freedom by rushing through laws on trespass and making it illegal for more than a limited number people to gather in one place. Designed to prevent the large convoys and free festivals which had spread like wild fire throughout the land that summer. Once freedom takes hold, it is an intoxicating draught which inspires and seduces those with open minds and open hearts. In this respect, the brutal suppression of this alternative lifestyle community which had rejected the values of the market driven state, could not be tolerated by a right wing authoritarian government. In hindsight, it was always doomed to fail given how powerful the Thatcher government was in terms of a parliamentary majority and how ruthlessly they were prepared to be to protect the status quo.
The Battle of the Beanfield
Which brings me back to 2017 and the ties that bind the free spirited outdoor community with those who seek to live an alternative lifestyle. As Buffalo Springfield once sang...There’s something happening here...what it is ain't exactly clear?. The endless cycle of political, economic and social crisis which currently grips not just the UK but Europe and the US in its dark maw, is a challenge for all progressive,radical individuals and movements. The rise in popularity of left wing populists like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Saunders is a positive sign to be sure. However,there is a long road ahead. The UK/US/EU states will continue act as a dead hand on those who value freedom, self expression, alternative lifestyles and progressive ideals. 
As Orwell observed Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. Its a long way from Worthy Farm to Llanberis Pass but in their way, each location embodies the spirit of freedom,adventure and the desire to live a life less ordinary. Climbing in particular has always been considered an anarchic activity which has attracted many great minds and free thinkers. Its probably the most cerebral 'sport' of all and as such, that unique mountain spirit captured in word and deed by so many gifted individuals within the field, chimes with that spirit of hope and quiet determination. Once freedom is out of the box you cannot put it back in.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Keswick Mountain Festival boycott call after 'Chaotic 2017 Festival'.

A small outdoor businessman, Ethan Thomas who owns and runs Summiteer Equipment, has called for a boycott of the annual Keswick Mountain Festival by other outdoor businesses after describing  'one of the worst weekends of my life' at a chaotic 2017 festival in the Cumbrian town. Writing on his Facebook page, the young outdoor retailer described the events organisers as 'self centred, chaotic and rude'. His full statement in full went on.....

"I've just had one of the worst weekends of my life at Keswick Mountain Festival. I don't think I've ever come across an organisation as self centred, chaotic and rude as Brand Events who run the place.

I had to fight like crazy to be allowed to get my stock and the van off the field today in order to go home. This was after they shut down the Festival because of the weather and told all exhibitors that they would have to come back and collect their things tomorrow. Not even allowing them to check if their stock was ok.

A lot of the staff and organisers were incredibly rude but after a weekend of being treated like shit even I was appalled when one of the main organisers stormed off shouting at me (in front all the other organisers) "you're irritating me now!" when I was merely trying ask him for a solution so I could get my van (that I needed to drive down to Yorkshire for this evening) and collect my stock in the bad weather. The bad weather was now about a 20mph wind with the occasional gust. However a "health and safety manager" which was simply a man wearing a caving suit and a helmet, making over the top decisions, decided to treat it like a war zone.

And this was just the icing on the cake.

On Friday they trapped me on the field until 11:15pm because their policy was that they couldn't let exhibitors on or off the field whilst the public were on it. This might make sense, until you find out that we were parked outside the public area and would have driven down a cordoned off track mat for exhibitors only.

On the Saturday, having got to bed at 2am the previous night (due to having had to restock so late) and having had to get up at 5:30am to finish restocking, we rang the festival office and asked when we would be allowed on until. The answer was "until just before 9." So when arriving at 8:25am we were amazed to find that they had decided to close the road leading to the festival so they could run a triathlon on it. There solution was that we paid for their parking at the other end of town and walked our down sleeping bags back and forth to our stall in the rain. After yet more complaining and tireless arguing we were eventually allowed to drive our vehicle to our stall and unload it at mid day (missing out on morning sales).

It feels a shame that a company like mine, which goes out of its way to do good things and treat people fairly, has had this experience. We've paid nearly £800 to basically be treated like we're dirt on someone's shoe and just a necessary nuisance in order for the organisers to make a bit more extra money. I will also add that we only got a day and a half of exhibiting done on a three day event and I wasn't allowed to collect my display marquee, stands and anything else other than stock. The answer being "you will have to claim this on insurance". And just to let you know, I think it is very unlikely that I will be refunded for this having already spoken to most of the (incredibly arrogant and rude) senior organisers who seemed very reluctant to take any liability for anything what so ever.

All these above events are just the highlights but right now I am too emotionally drained and tired from it all.

All I will say is this....Please boycott Keswick Mountain Festival.It is a festival run by greedy, selfish people who really don't care about anyone or anything other than their own pay checks.....

Ethan Thomas:

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Walt Unsworth: Death of a Mountain Man

Image: Cicerone
When I first started getting into climbing and hillwalking,Walt Unsworth was one of the first names I came across as I began to read outdoor publications. As the editor of Climber magazine and author of numerous mountain related books, his name became synonymous with the great outdoors. Appropriately in the circumstances as he was the founder of The Great Outdoors/TGO, hillwalking magazine. Now Uncle Walt has gone. He died at the fine old age of 89 at his Cumbrian home last Tuesday. I must admit,apart from his books and editorial stints, I never really knew that much about him, and I guess that’s true of most outdoor folk who knew the name but nothing about the man.

Walt Unsworth-as his name suggested-was very much the archetypal northerner. A Lancastrian by birth and a Cumbrian by residence. The lure of the hills inspired him to follow that well trampled path taken by working class northerners which leads to the crag face and in the words of Ewan McColl, the ‘Sun-warmed rocks and the cold of Bleaklow's frozen sea...The snow and the wind and the rain of hills and mountains’.

Writing on the Outdoor Writers and Photographers website, outdoor writer Roly Smith who knew him better than most, offers this rich appreciation of Walt’s life and times....

Walt Unsworth, who has died after a short illness at the age of 88, could justly be regarded as the father figure of British outdoor writing. He founded the respected Cicerone Press with his climbing friend Brian Evans exactly 50 years ago this year. Frustrated at the lack of practical climbing guides to the Lake District, they got together to produce their first independent guide in 1967. Together they made an ideal team, with Walt as the writer and Brian as the artist, designer and printer. The guide sold well, and the proceeds of each new book went into the production of the subsequent one.

He was born at Ardwick, Manchester and educated at Abram, near Wigan, where he first met his wife, Dorothy. Walt began fellwalking in the Lake District as a youth during the Second World War. Rock climbing was a natural progression, and during the 1950s, he was one of many other young tigers, such as Joe Brown and Don Whillans, for whom the “bob-a-night” (5p) Wall End Barn in Langdale became almost their second home. After conscription and service in the Army, Walt was offered an assisted place at Chester Teacher Training College and his first teaching job took him to as a science teacher to Wolverhampton. Later he became Head of Physics at Birch Road Secondary Modern School at Walkden, Manchester.

But his first and abiding interest was always climbing and the outdoors, and he introduced many of his pupils to the hills. While at Birch Road he also introduced one of the first Duke of Edinburgh Schemes, a fact recognised by a visit from the Duke himself. He eventually achieved his ambition of becoming a full-time writer, specialising in walking, climbing and travel. He wrote several climbing guides himself, notably to Anglezarke Quarry, near Horwich, where he made many first ascents. His English Outcrops (Gollancz, 1964) was described as “one of the seminal books of post-war climbing.” He eventually became editor of Climber (later Climber and Rambler) magazine on the recommendation of Chris Brasher in 1962. As editorial adviser to the publisher, Holmes McDougall, he also named and helped launch the revamped magazine as The Great Outdoors (now TGO).

He was also a founder member of the Outdoor Writers’ Guild – now the Outdoor Writers’ and Photographers’ Guild – in 1980, and later became its first president. Cicerone Press produced over 250 well-respected guides “for walkers and climbers, written and produced by walkers and climbers” under his leadership. Walt gave many Guild members their first opportunity to be published, and he was always fiercely supportive of them.

Tom Waghorn, outdoor journalist and a friend for over 40 years, said of Walt: “He had a tremendous ability to discover talent, and as a canny businessman, he knew how to spot a gap in the market.” Kev Reynolds, who wrote more than 20 guides for Cicerone, commented: “Walt was both my mentor and my friend. When I did my first book for him – Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees in 1978 – I had no idea that I would be able to make a living at it, but Walt encouraged me at every step.” Mark Richards, another of Walt’s protégées, said: “He was my guiding light – the man who gave me a start and encouraged my creativity. I’ll always be grateful to him.”

Among Walt’s many publications were Portrait of the River Derwent (Robert Hale, 1971); Encyclopaedia of Mountaineering (Robert Hale, 1975), and his definitive history of Everest, first published by Allen Lane in 1981. As a former teacher, he was justly proud of the fact that his trilogy of childrens’ books based in the Peak District during the Industrial Revolution – The Devil’s Mill, Whistling Clough and Grimsdyke (Gollancz, 1968-70) – became recommended reading as part of the National Curriculum. Walt’s Everest won the ITAS Prize for Mountain Literature at the Trento Festival in 1992, and he was awarded the OWPG’s Golden Eagle Award in 1996.

As a travel writer, Walt and his wife Dot visited many countries around the world, either privately or as a guest of tourist boards or travel companies, and he wrote up his trips for many national newspapers. The couple married in 1952 and had two children; Gail, a retired radiologist and now garden plant specialist and Duncan, a former BBC cameraman and photographer. Walt had five grandchildren and one great granddaughter. In later years, he delighted in running the annual Milnthorpe Art Festival from Harmony Hall, his elegant Georgian home, raising thousands of pounds for local artists and charities.

Walt’s quietly-spoken Lancashire burr always communicated good, no-nonsense, northern common sense, and he was immensely supportive of me when I became chairman of the Guild in 1990. He was the mentor and guiding light to many prospective outdoor writers, and will be sadly missed by the entire outdoor community  

Roly Smith (OWPG) 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

All aboard for Desolation Road

We need to talk about politics. For some in the outdoor community, that’s a signal to run for the hills. Let’s keep friction and controversy out of the equation and instead talk about how many hours you need to spend on the wall to maintain standards or wax lyrical about Jet Black’s awesome new sports route in Mugglethorpe Quarry. For many others though in the outdoor community, talking politics an essential part of who they are. Especially through the conduit of the social media. I recall a well known North Wales climber was once sitting in a club hut surrounded by excited young companions discussing politics when, unable to contain his frustration any longer, he slammed his fist on the table and exclaimed..’enough of this...let’s get back to talking about climbing!’

For anyone brought up immersed in politics, its an odd perspective. As outdoor activists, politics informs everything we do.From access issues to ecological degradation; Climate change impact to regional instability in traditional destinations. How can anyone who climbs, rambles, paddles, sails, bikes etc, not be interested in issues which impact upon their chosen activity?

The advent of social media,particularly Facebook, has changed the game of political communication completely. Whereas in the recent past, forums like UK Climbing were the only places you could have a good old rant. These days the ranter can unburden themselves in the Guardian or Independent comments section, but more especially, on their Facebook page which has the advantage of being uncensored and unlimited. This of course is a double edged sword. Although we tend to be attracted to those who generally share our political beliefs, it can spill over into quite bitter acrimony. Especially when others outside of your own circle pile in with comments.

Probably even more of a problem than a spot of verbal aggro in the comments section is the way the social media distorts one’s political perspective. ‘The Facebook Bubble’ is that phenomena where a member of a friendship circle gains a false impression of political reality by only reading comments and seeing ‘likes’ from those who share their point of view. Despite evidence to the contrary being all too readily available, there is often a refusal to confront the obvious truth when it appears that all the evidence points to a different truth.

This was most obvious in the post Brexit social media world. Despite the result being close, the 4% margin was pretty conclusive and it soon became clear that both the Tory government and a future Labour government would respect and implement an exit from the EU. Despite this, many liberals became convulsed with emotions which all to quickly bore all the hallmarks of the Kubler-Ross model for the stages of grief. Denial-Anger-Bargaining-Depression, and twelve months on, for the majority at least- acceptance.

Remarkably, just after the Referendum vote, previously ‘right-on’ Liberals were wishing the elderly dead and fermenting with anger against the working/underclasses and the under-educated. Constituencies whose rights the left were traditionally supposed to champion!  Even the Welsh and Northern English received the sort of bigoted abuse from metropolitan europhiles which previously had only been used by right wing knuckleheads. For months this constituency believed it could do something which had never been done since democracy was first established in Great Britain. Overturn a democratic vote and award victory to the side with the least votes. This curious example of velveteen fascism was vigorously pursued without any concern it appeared, of the brutal irony. Those supposedly on the left who felt that middle class voters with qualifications and careers should have their votes weighted favourably against the underdogs. It was turning back the clock a hundred years to a time when the same arguments were used against women having the vote.

Despite having a remarkable belief that democracy could be overturned by petitions, marches and repeating the mantra ‘it was only advisory’, the mathematics of the vote only told half the story. It has become clear in recent months that the true margin between the Euro Sceptics and Europhiles is far greater than the vote suggested. For a start, a large number of Leave voters stayed at home after being convinced that it was in the bag for the Remain. Also, a large section of Remain voters were reluctant Remainers. Either convinced by government propaganda that the UK would sink into immediate chaos, or sticking with the principle , Better the Devil you know. The recent polls showing only one in five now think the UK should stay in the EU is a striking example of how social media delusion can mask reality and shows that sometimes, even such an apparently indisputable statistic often masks a deeper truth.

Meanwhile, back here on June 8th, 2017 and the General Election promises more of the same. Hope and optimism trumped...sorry to use that word... by its old foes,disappointment anger and confusion. Like most people in the Outdoor Community, I would love to see a Labour Government tomorrow replacing the vile, self serving Tories.  Even better if it was supported by a the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens. The Tories worst nightmare..... 'A Coalition of Chaos’! However, I fear that remains just a faint hope. I expect a comfortable Conservative victory followed by five more years of austerity, division, bitterness, acrimony and the predictable diminishment of public services and the NHS.

At least there’s always to mountains to escape to.

So.....24 hours later and it appears there probably will be a 'Coalition of Chaos' but not the one we hoped for. A Tory/DUP minority administration. Delivered as a Pyrrhic victory to a soon to be ex Prime minister who was hoisted by her own petard. An arrogant, hubristic attempt to destroy the Labour Party which ended up exploding like a firework in May's face. Corbyn and his Momentum followers were brilliant while the majority of his back stabbing MP's should just crawl back under their stones and let real Labour candidates fight the next election for Labour.
It was pretty devastating to see the SNP lose so much ground in Scotland, but as I've suggested above, that in part was due to the SNP rather foolishly allowing themselves to be a zealously pro EU party when a large chunk of the electorate are Euro sceptic.
But the real winners of the June election-expect another one in October- have been the young. A previously maligned constituency who finally got their act together and voted in large numbers. In the main for Corbyn's radical brand of politics.

All of a sudden, the future looks a lot brighter.