This book landed in my post box as a birthday gift from one of my sisters. She knows me too well, perhaps. I have a stack of books waiting to be read that is literally, and not metaphorically, longer than my arm. If I read through them all religiously, one by one, that would be all my reading for the rest of this year and much of next year too. Fortunately though, I’m not obsessive about the order books are read in. Any book, landing on my desk, coming into my hands, or coming to my attention, can come “straight in at No. 1” and jump to the head of the queue. Also – a habit that may not be so common – I can and do read many books at once (not literally at once…I mean that at any one moment I am part way through anything up to a half-dozen different books, and can pick any of them up and continue where I left off before. That’s possible because of one of the most noble inventions mankind has ever created: I speak of course, of the bookmark. Less fortunate (or perhaps saner) people read books serially, one at a time, as if they were TV programmes or films.
In this delightful and beautifully written story, we read of a man who spends the balance of his life stuck in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. That is the story: an aristocratic individual, the gentleman of the title, is condemned by the very early Bolsheviks, in the years following the Russian Revolution of 1917, to a life of house arrest in the Metropol Hotel. Unlikely as it may seem…
It is to say the least, a somewhat far-fetched premise, something of a whimsy or a fantasy, but as a plot device it allows the author to describe the life of a big city grand hotel under the Soviets. Our hero, a man in his twenties at the start, remains in the hotel until his sixties. In that time, a number of adventures come his way. His moustache is cut off by an angry Bolshevik in the barbers. He meets and forms a most unusual relationship with a little girl of 10 or so, who – again how far-fetched is this – gifts him with a master key for every door in the building. A good deal more believable are is his on-and-off afternoon liaisons with a beautiful female movie star, his relationship with other members of the hotel staff, and his decades-long relationship with a senior official of the regime who wants to learn from him, over monthly dinners, about how the west works.
Far be it from me to poke holes in a good story – and it is a good story, by the way – but I can do no other. How on earth does a man stay fit and trim stuck indoors for life, yet still eating two or three square meals a day, with alcoholic drinks? Every day. Even six flights of stairs twice a day aren’t going to be enough there. I know a little about climbing stairs every day, and I know quite a lot about calories.
All the aspects of the story combine to make him a kind of invincible superhero: he has looks and charm as an aristocrat. He clearly has money though who pays for four decades worth of staying in a hotel – even in a tiny garret up in the rafters – is never made clear. He never gets poorly, and deeply unconvincingly, the Great Terror of the 1930’s passes him by. I write this because one of the other books I am reading at present is “Man is wolf to man” by Janusz Bardach (co-written with Kathleen Gleeson) about life in the Soviet prison system. I had to put it down as it was affecting my mental health, so violent and unpleasant was the world described by Janusz Bardach. And then I read this novel about a perfumed aristocrat in a Moscow hotel!
The author has therefore, written an exceptionally pleasant and readable novel about manners and human relationships, and set it right in the middle of one of the most unpleasant and horrible periods of human history – a time when (certainly in Russia) individual humans counted for little or nothing. I’m hoping that the author does not harbour fond feelings for the Soviet system, for the communist era and for the whole tissue of malevolent silliness that is Marxism. As he’s a Yale man (not a recommendation in the view of some authors I think highly of) this may be a vain hope. Soon enough I will know, for his work was sufficiently entertaining for me to look out for his other books and read them too.
I was out touring in Scotland on my own, having a short break to myself, recharging the moral and emotional batteries. After leaving the Atholl Arms Hotel at Blair Atholl (see More Scottish travels) I made two short detours along single track roads through grey and rainswept countryside deep in fall colours, and after some indecision about which route to take, found myself at the Sugar Bowl Café in Kingussie, a pleasant room painted grey and orange, the steamed-up windows indicative of a warm welcome within, shelter from the driving cold rain of November.
I sat over coffee and cake, looking through some purchases from a nearby second-hand bookshop. I had “The sending” by Geoffrey Household, “Raw Spirit”, the de facto autobiography of Iain Banks (but on the surface, a book about malt whiskey), and “The January Man”, an account of a year of walking Britain, by a guy called Christopher Sommerville.
I made an entry in my diary, and put my pen away. I happened to check my phone and I saw that the nearby Strathspey Railway were having a Diesel Gala Day! I left the café on the instant, in a heavy downpour, and returned to the car. I drove to Aviemore and parked up at the heritage railway car park, again in heavy winter rain. It was 12.50.
In the cold and wet station I learned that the next train was at 13.15. On the platform I got talking to Duncan, a professional photographer who took a few pictures of me enjoying myself. https://www.duncansphotography.co.uk/
From here on in the reader has to put up with nerdish trainspotter details about locomotives and carriages (for which – while I explain it – I make no apology.)
In due course an old English Electric “08” shunter brought in the train, and a Brush type 2 locomotive was attached to the front. I sat resplendent and alone in a very well-appointed Mk 1 FK (First Class Compartment coach). It had an absolutely lovely atmosphere. For me it is the ambience of the old Mk I’s; the woodwork, the lamps, the curved sheet metal ceilings. The sound of the doors slamming that make me feel about 10 years old, going on holiday to Skegness or Blackpool. Notwithstanding the atmosphere, I “bailed”, as the train-spotters are fond of saying, at Boat of Garten, hurriedly crossed the footbridge, and joined the up train back to Aviemore, which was hauled by a Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon (BRCW) Type 3. A “Class 27” since the 1970s. This was mostly the newer (but still vintage) Mk II stock, still atmospheric, still nostalgic, but not quite the same as the old Mk I compartments.
When the railways were nationalised, British Railways found itself in charge of an absolute plethora of styles and designs of coaches, inherited from the four large companies that existed before. Some form of standardisation was required: from this, in the late 1950’s, came the British Railways Mk I coach.
This was the experience most people would have on a railway journey in the UK from the early 1960’s until the late 1970’s and indeed later, although newer designs were brought out subsequently. The Mark II arrived in the late 1960’s; the first air conditoned Mark II not long after that, and then the Mark III in the early 1970’s.
These are still around – they are the carriages seen in the old “HSTs” which can still be seen in Scotland and down in Cornwall. The privatised railway of today is up to Mk V which are the coaches used for the most modern trains like the Caledonian Sleeper. The final Mk I coaches were the old “slam doors” used in the south of England, and these were withdrawn as late as 2005.
I ordered some tea, crisps and a sandwich. The sandwich was freshly made! What a remarkable thing. I chatted sociably with the guy selling the food. At Aviemore, off the train and back on, and then all the way down to Broomhill at the other end of the line.
The sound made by these Sulzer engines in the Brush type 2 and the BRCW type 3, particularly when they are working hard, is really quite something; it is a magical music to my ears. There are, for me, few sounds that have quite the same effect as does the sound of a vintage diesel locomotive – or perhaps in particular, these slow-beating Sulzer engines.
One might have a hopefully pleasant Pavlovian reaction to many sounds – for example, the sound of a drinks can being opened, or that sound described by Alistair Cooke as the “most civilised sound in existence”, that is, the sound of ice cracking as spirits are poured over it. But for me, it is the sound of diesel locomotives, reminding me as they do, of going on holiday when I was a small boy.
From Broomhill back to Boat of Garten, where I changed again from one train into the other. As the afternoon went on, the weather and the light improved, though heavy showers persisted. I took loads of pictures.
From Boat of Garten back to Broomhill, then all the way back to Aviemore, arriving in the dusk after as remarkably moving and relaxing afternoon as I’ve had in recent years. And this on top of everything else this weekend bas brought. I paid £23 for a “Rover ticket” which enabled me to make something like six separate journeys up and down. I think I got my moneys’ worth.
Sir Wilfred Thesiger – that well-born “leather-faced explorer” of the twentieth century – has long been a character with whom I’ve been fascinated. Really, ever since I read his remarkable book “Arabian Sands“. My wife bought me this one, thinking I’d like it, although it was on my shelf for some months before I picked it up and read it. I thought – I’ve already read his autobiography “The Life of my choice“. Why do I need to read a biography as well? But I did.
Alexander Maitland, though clearly Thesiger’s close friend and his appointed biographer, does not shrink from writing things that may not be so positive; he does not shrink from saying what needs to be said. He spends quite some effort pointing out subtle and not-so-subtle omissions in Thesiger’s autobiography, aspects of Thesiger’s character that the man himself might have been tempted to gloss over. Yet, Maitland as a biographer is never less than sympathetic. This is no hostile biography.
He writes early on of “paradoxical aspects of Thesiger’s character and temperament…he was a maze of contradictions” and was his own worst enemy. Like the desert Bedu he so admired, he could be a man of extremes. “He could be affectionate and loving, yet he was capable of spontaneous, bitter hatred. He was either very cautious or wildly generous with his money and possessions; he was normally fussy and meticulous, but he could be astonishingly careless and foolishly improvident. He relished gossip, yet was uncompromisingly discreet. His touching kindness contrasted with sometimes appalling cruelty”. And “His vices were fewer, less extreme, and yet more conspicuous than his many virtues.”
Makes me think of the rather entertaining concept of “redeeming vices” – an expression used of Bill Clinton by his biographer. Thesiger once wrote, I recall, of a relative of his who was something of a gambler and a rake, yet married to an uncompromisingly upright and God-fearing battle-axe, that this male relative – not his poor wife – must have been “excellent company”.
Thesiger was well-born, at least by my standards and understanding. His uncle was Lord Chelmsford, one of the last Viceroys of India. He inherited from Lady Chelmsford, sufficient wealth, at least on paper, not to have to work for a living. In that respect he was perhaps a gentleman in the older and strictly literal meaning of the word. As regards him – or any of us – being a gentleman in the more modern sense of being honest, upright and kind, a story he tells against himself, recounted here by Maitland, is instructive.
On a time, he was out in the desert with two Bedu companions, weeks from shelter, carrying for food only water, flour and a handful of dates and some coffee beans. One of his Bedu companions caught a rabbit and prepared it for the pot. As it was cooking, all of them were drooling, ready for rabbit stew after weeks without a good meal. And just as it was cooked, some other Bedu arrived. After the proper greetings were exchanged, the Bedu tribesmen then offered this rabbit to their guests, and it was duly accepted, leaving Thesiger and his travelling companions with nothing. Thesiger wrote in “Arabian Sands” something to the effect that it was at that point he started to learn what true nobility, true hospitality, true generosity, really was.
We see under Maitland’s kind eye, Thesiger’s life progressing from boy in Ethiopia, to young man at Eton and then in the Sudan, to the mature explorer of Arabia he became and for which he is chiefly remembered. We see his very close relationship with his mother, and his domination of younger men around him – Maitland calls him a “gang leader”. We see how he struggled to write, and worked very hard indeed to prepare “Arabian Sands”. He was a prolific photographer and learned much from the great pioneer female desert explorer Freya Stark. He opposed modern progress and machinery, yet discreetly espoused it’s use when it suited him. In spite of his desire to see the ancient culture of the Arabian desert preserved, one might hold him partly responsible for its destruction. With the best will in the world, he must bear some of the responsibility for the (admittedly inevitable) opening of the Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter) to subsequent oil exploration (something I do know a bit about as my first employer was one of those corporations that conducted seismic survey oil exploration in the Oman and elsewhere in the Arabian desert.)
He was very wealthy; he was a scion of the privileged English upper class, and he had an unreconstructed, deeply conservative (and possibly offensive by modern standards) attitude to many aspects of life – for example, to hunting and animals, to relations between men and women, and to technology and machines. Yet, he was perhaps a listener to, and understander of, ordinary people, and he made lasting contributions to tribal life in many places. He was a decorated and notable warrior as well a great explorer and man of letters, a brave adventurer whose explorations still inspire people today.
At the start of 2022 I was reading a dense tome called “Railroaded – transcontinentals and the making of modern America” which was all about the development of the railroads, the growth of monopoly capitalism, and the effect this has had on American culture. I had to skip whole chapters; it was fascinating – but alas, rather intermittently and unreliably so. I was at the same time re-acquainting myself with the pulp science-fiction of Philip Jose Farmer (his “World of Tiers” series), and Sven Hassel’s “Monte Cassino“, a story of the second world war in Italy as seen from the German perspective.
In January I read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s historical novel “Red Sky at noon” about – cough – war in the Ukraine. Reviewed here. His novel opened “The red earth was already baking and the sun was just rising when they mounted their horses and rode across the grasslands towards a horizon that was on fire“. What an opening! I read Tim Marshall’s “The Power of Geography“, a weaker book, perhaps than his earlier outstanding “Prisoners of Geography”.
In February I finished another historical tome, Ray Allen Billington’s “Westward Expansion – a history of the American frontier”, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in this topic, an abiding fascination of mine. This book covers the whole, from the early Spanish incursions to the closing of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century. Also in February I found time to read William Gibson’s “Agency” – one of his stories involving computer-generated “stubs” of a somehow alternate past rather like the recently filmed “The Peripheral” which I read years ago and am watching now.
In March I found myself enjoying John Julius Norwich’s history of “France” (how many of us in England know anything other than the very basic facts about that country?) and also military historian John Keegan’s “History of warfare“. I was then a little ambivalent about the highly recommended “Humankind – a hopeful history” by the Dutch philosopher Rutger Bregman. Very readable and informative but not a book whose conclusions I could whole-heartedly agree with – a bit like the work of Yuval Noah Harari in this respect. It’s not all about nodding sagely in agreement, nor all putting the book down in frowning consternation.
A short interlude in May saw me reading a book called “How steam locomotives really work“. I’ve still got that one – not given it away. It’s a gem in that it conveys an understanding of a very complex and difficult technical subject without resorting to advanced mathematics. In May I read the first novel of a friend of ours, Mrs Ruth D’Alessandro’s “Calling WPC Crockford“, an engaging memoir of rural policing in the 1950’s. We eagerly await both a sequel and watchable early Sunday evening TV adaptions thereof. Keith Robert’s “Pavane” – reviewed here – I had never heard of, despite its publication as an “SF Masterwork”. I thought I know my SF – but perhaps not? A pavane is a kind of Latin dance. This Pavane is a remarkable alternative history, a work of writing craftsmanship, a finely shaped bow or arc of story from beginning to end.
In June I read another sci-fi classic, Doris Lessing’s “Shikasta“. Shikasta is our earth, as seen from the viewpoint of those who try to settle it from afar. Like much great work by her and other female science-fiction writers such as Ursula le Guin, there are much deeper ideas at play here: this is not guns and heroes space-opera. A key idea explored in Shikasta is the importance of collectivism and community. At the far extremity of her argument in this direction, we see the idea that individualism itself could actually be a form of mental illness. You may be sure I don’t agree with that.
I was Between East and West – that is, touring in Eastern Europe – with Anne Applebaum, and then, I travelled from Portugal to India with Roger Crowley for an eye-opening account of “how Portugal forged the first global empire”. Remarkable to read what happened when men from Portugal – a primitive and feudal middle-ages culture – arrived at length in the Indian Ocean. They entered a sea of traders, free markets, and if by no means a democracy, then certainly, a functioning multi-cultural melting pot. The Portuguese, possessed as they were of vastly superior military technology but a much weaker moral and cultural understanding, swept the lot away and as good as destroyed everything they touched. There is a lesson there for us all.
Christopher Hibbert has published a life of Admiral Lord “Nelson – a personal history“. Nelson was a flawed man and not quite the untouchable English hero we see on the plinth in Trafalgar Square. I read the journal of Osborne Russell, a nineteenth century trapper: “nine years in the Rocky mountains“. I waded through Frank Snepp’s “Decent Interval“, about the Vietnam War. Upsetting. It put me in mind of a character created by the writer Richard Morgan who said “Anyone who still loves his country just hasn’t read enough history books yet”. Never a truer word wrote in fiction…
As summer turned to Autumn I had another good read on an upsetting and blood-soaked topic, “Partition” by Barney Spunner-White. This came about following a re-read of Kipling’s “Kim” and then a canter through Kipling’s short autobiography “Something of myself“. From upsetting and blood-soaked, to the engaging writing of Andrew Marr’s “The making of modern Britain”. Then, back to Norman times for “The White Ship” by Charles Spencer, being a history of pre-Plantagenet England, based loosely around the foundering of the aforementioned ship at Barfleur in 1120. Only two people survived. The king’s son and heir to the throne, William the Conqueror’s grandson, was drowned. This tragedy precipitated decades of bitter and bloody civil war.
Becky Chambers’ gentle and uplifting “social” science fiction “A closed and common orbit” tells the story of a woman – herself rescued from destruction as a child – who befriends and helps another woman. With Becky Chambers work it’s all in the emotional back-story: two plots move towards one another, only combining in the final pages. M John Harrison provided “You should come with me now“, being a collection of rather odd but compelling short stories about ghosts. Deeply strange, and rather reminiscent of the work of China Mieville. In the autumn, I re-engaged with the local library after many years away, and I borrowed and read “Thin Air” by Richard Morgan. You’ve read one Richard Morgan sci-fi/detective novel, you’ve read ’em all… Unremitting, gory violence. A bad tempered and ill-mannered former enforcer hero. Market forces gone mad. Explicit sex. All the usual Morgan tropes. Somehow unputdownable. More? Yes: Adam Robert’s “Bete” – another bad-tempered and irascible hero in a world where animals can talk – and do. Also, Sylvain Nouvel’s “Sleeping Giants“, a novel in the form of a series of interviews with a never-named representative of a shadowy and all-powerful government agency.
Moving back to non-fiction to finish, Jorge Cham wrote “We have no idea“, being a jocular, cartoony, sub-Bill Bryson account of how little science the human race actually knows. Refreshing reading, as I finished the year with Steven Weinberg’s (again highly recommended) “The first three minutes” about the birth of the universe. I thought it would be good; though he had a few good phrases, overall I was disappointed. I suppose cosmology IS complicated – see my comments above about advanced mathematics. I read Christian Woolmar’s “Cathedrals of Steam” about London’s great railway termini, which was a great account though it dwell on how things might have been better organised. I found Theodore Dalrymple’s anecdotes from the under-class (“Life at the bottom“) the more depressing for it being over twenty years old and knowing that little if anything has improved in that time.
Fifty-one books. Around a fifth of them, were re-reading. Only two-thirds I read in paper copy – the rest were on a Kindle. This year, a little over half of my reading was pure fiction. I re-read some old favourites: “The Lord of the Rings“, Heinlein’s “The cat who walks through walls“, and Stephen Baxter’s “Moonseed” and “Ark” to mention a handful. I finish the year deep in Nick Hayes’ “The Book of Trespass” which is troubling but exciting reading.
J. Parkinson and I, at this point in time busy people working for a living and raising kids, wanted to get away hillwalking, but we found that the time could not so easily be spared. After our successful overnight assault on Nevis of the previous year, we thought we might resolve this conundrum (and spend less time away) by the simple expedient of doing some classic hill-walking overnight. On this occasion we did the Snowdon Horseshoe; on another, we made a noteworthy attempt on Idwal Skyline, and bailed after rather too long spent on Tryfan – of which more later.
We left Derby at 7.35pm. We parked at Pen-y-pass and started up the PYG track at 11.30pm. The drive in along the coast road had taken 2 hrs 40 minutes. There was some moonlight on the climb up to Crib Goch. We had of course deliberately chosen a clear night as near as was practical to full moon. I walked in up the PYG track, and out along the Miner’s Track, in trainers, only using big boots for the actual route itself.
Unfortunately the moon disappeared behind clouds and our traverse of Crib Goch was accomplished in darkness without benefit of moonlight. It was windy; both of us found Crib Goch technically very demanding in the dark. Scary, in fact.
Up and over Crib-y-ddysgl, up the railway and onto the summit, which lost it’s cloud cap only while we were there, about 3a.m. We found that route-finding on the ridge was impossible by torchlight; there was no way of looking ahead. The light of dawn started to appear as we crossed from Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa) to Y Lliwedd. As we descended from Y Lliwedd, there was beautiful, transcendent morning light. We were back at Pen-y-pass at 6.40am. Seven hours on the hill.
On another occasion – I can’t find any paper notes for this but I remember doing it – we decided on an attempt on Idwal Skyline in the dark. We picked a moonlit night of course, and set off from Derby, arrived in Snowdonia, parked up at Milestone Buttress, and set off up the North Ridge of Tryfan.
The North Ridge…what we hadn’t bargained for, what we had not implicitly understood, was some basic astronomy. The moon shines from the same direction, more or less, as the sun. It is never found in the north in the Northern hemisphere. I ought have known this, having worked at or near the equator and seen the rather odd spectacle of the moon being DIRECTLY overhead – something you’ll never see the UK. Ever tried climbing the North Ridge of Tryfan in the dark? Don’t. A fit party might climb the North Ridge from the road to the summit in slightly over an hour. I’ve done it many times, summer and winter, in between 70 and 90 minutes. It took us three hours. That was a salutory lesson. Wisely we opted not to climb Bristly Ridge. We descended to Bwlch Tryfan and from there straight back down to the road.
Here are a number of accounts of climbing the Sharp Edge of Blencathra, over thirty years. The first, in the mid-1980’s, and most recently in 2015.
From Castlerigg into Keswick. Then we tramped out, eventually hitting the disused railway. It was a hot, hazy, blue sky kind of day. Under the big A66 bridge, and some of the old river bridges had a very Canadian feel to them. Splendid scenery. We left the old railway and crossed several fields to a road, which we followed down into a ravine. We stopped in the shade by the babbling brook, a lovely spot encouraging lassitude, but eventually we had to push on.
Up the hillside as the sun beat down on us. This is your Mousthwaite Combe. We laboured up a grassy path up onto the shoulder, which offered amazing views. FM radio reception was quite remarkable – we were listening to Q102 Dublin on our walkmans – in stereo. We continued onto the summit, not taking the route via Sharp Edge on this occasion. We dropped back down to the road arriving at the Salutation Inn in Threlkeld for an excellent bar meal. From there after a pleasant drink, we walked back to Castlerigg in the gloaming.
A large party of ten for a mass ascent of Blencathra! From the inn we moved along a road and struck left into a short valley, across the headwall of which, could be seen our path, forming a diagonal upwards. Mousthwaite Combe. At the top, we found ourselves on a broad whale-back, with a deep valley below. In it, the gloriously Tolkienesque River Glenderamackin. [Tolkienesque to me that is, not to the younger fellow who wrote this account in 1985; he knew nothing of Tolkien when he was 20.]
Along the left side of this valley, before climbing steeply up into the corrie of Scales Tarn. This is really impressive rock scenery, particularly Sharp Edge. One member of our party, somewhat afraid of heights and exposure, went up the screes to the summit. The rest of us went up Sharp Edge, with K. and R. at the front, and myself and T. J Walmsley shepherding one or two less experienced walkers in the rear.
It was my first time here on what became and what remains probably my favourite route. I found it passably sharp, suitably impressive and very exposed, but too short. It looks a lot worse than it is from a long way off. When you think of the great ridge walks in the British Isles, the Sharp Edge of Blencathra is by no means least among them, though is one of the shorter routes, the crux of it being only a hundred yards long. Even Crib Goch is only a few hundred yards of really sharp rock ridge mixed in with a mile or so of reasonably narrow ridge walking. For sustained narrow rock edge work you have to go to the Aonach Eagach above Glen Coe, which is miles long. But that’s not passable in winter conditions for walkers.
The route lies up over some gendarmes and up onto the summit where we had lunch. To the north there are many kilometres of wild moorland, but not particularly exciting hill country. At the top, it started to mist up. Blencathra has little to recommend it but Sharp Edge, and the descent was tedious. This being a Sunday, it had to be a short day – 4 hours on the hill. But satisfying for all that.
On a windy day, myself and J. Parkinson walked into Blencathra through low cloud. There was a fair amount of snow visible in the corrie of Scales Tarn. Sharp Edge itself was in cloud and the rock was exceptionally greasy to the fingers and to the boots. There was little snow on the ridge itself, but a fair bit on the face at the end.
We did not reach the summit: My friend noted that he was in his element roofing, sitting on the crown of a house in the urban environment, and had no problem with heights, but the conditions here put us both out of our element. The rock cold and greasy, we withdrew safely.
Always know when to turn back. A key lesson for the mountaineer, learned here at no cost. I’ve been fortunate over many years to learn some important lessons in mountaincraft at very, very modest cost.
Myself and R.C.E Ball, in heavy standing snow but clearing weather, climbed up into Mousthwaite Combe. It was windy; spindrift was troublesome to us the whole day. The path round to Scales Tarn was barely visible under the snow. In places, folds in the land caused very deep snowdrifts to form, hindering our progress considerably.
We got into the Scales Tarn corrie about 1.30pm. Scales Tarn itself was frozen. The main part of Sharp Edge was great sport, if spoiled somewhat by constant spindrift storms. There was hard frozen snow from previous falls, as well as fresh snow. The crest up to the summit was technically very difficult in winter conditions, as we neither of us were carrying ice axes or crampons. An axe would have been a great help. The snow was very hard, the rocks iced over to eliminate all handholds, and footholds were hard to make.
The summit plateau was lethal verglas. We got up and off quickly but with considerable difficulty, via Scales Fell, and good glissading (or bumslides in this case) down to Mousthwaite Combe. We were the first party on the hill after heavy snow.
The previous day, 8/1/91, we’d taken a short stroll from our camp at Braithwaite, up Stile End to Overside (1863′), before retreating before a blizzard in late afternoon. A warming up stroll terminated abruptly by a heavy snowstorm.
We were on the hill (that is, into Mousthwaite Combe) by 12.15pm. We arrived in the Scales Tarn corrie around an hour later. There was an attack of hail as we climbed up to Sharp Edge. The conditions were excellent. Up on the top of Blencathra we could see Styhead Tarn glinting in the distance. We detoured around for extra hill-walking – Blencathra is a short route. However, the weather worsened and a snow squall forced us to shelter. So we came down and were off the hill by 4p.m.
I think this is the time we went to camp at Castlerigg, but decided to go to a B&B in Keswick instead. I recall getting wet even opening the car door, at the campsite up at Castlerigg, and we thought, “No.”
We drove through to Scales and set off up Blencathra at about 2pm, in good weather.
As we got into the corrie of Scales Tarn, the weather broke big time, and our scramble up Sharp Edge was lethal. Conditions were very greasy and slippery underfoot. The mist was down, and for a time it rained quite heavily. My young colleague had never been here and struggled with confidence. We got up Sharp Edge only after long meditation and careful consideration. In any case, to withdraw from Sharp Edge in those conditions would have been more hazardous than going on. An ascent of the Sharp Edge of Blencathra is no mean achievement in any conditions.
So, on and up we went, and we were soon finished. We were further encouraged by three friendly men making their way slowly up the ridge behind us with much talk and laughter. After the summit we descended through pleasant afternoon sunshine to the car and drove directly to Honister Hause YHA. We checked in and had the cup of tea we as Englishmen had been desiring for some time. I saw that Youth Hostels are now licensed. Supper was at the Fish Hotel in Buttermere, taken outside, on a very clear and pleasant evening.
Here’s a few words on flying after more than thirty years being paid to go on aircraft at someone else’s expense, both at the front and at the back of the bus. I worked for 17 years all over the world as field crew in marine seismic survey, and have worked for the last 18 years for a maritime trade association – again, all over the world. I’m on the way to Singapore and have just boarded the aircraft for the first leg – a Gulf Air 787 Dreamliner bound for Bahrain. On this occasion I am at the front of the bus, in seat 2A, a window seat. There is effectively infinite legroom. Interesting to see that the aisle seat has much less leg room, in order to leave space for the window seat customer to squeeze into their seat.
The first aircraft I ever went in was a British Airways Hawker Siddeley 748 “Vanguard” from Aberdeen to Birmingham in May 1988. My first long-haul flight was in February 1989. We flew in a UTA 747 combi, from Brazzaville in the Congo, to Paris, stopping along the way in Doula and Marseille. We boarded the aircraft up steps from the apron – no jetway. Because De Gaulle was fog-bound, we were four hours on the tarmac at Marseille, with no refreshments or anything. From Brazzaville to Paris took 12 hours. You can read more about that trip here: https://plateroom28.blog/2020/05/31/marine-seismic-in-the-tropics-1989/.
The route I’ve flown most often is probably London to Houston, generally Gatwick, generally Continental Airlines. In the five years between 2000 and finishing offshore in Autumn 2004, I crossed the Atlantic something like fifty times, in Economy. I say that – it was actually 49 times. When my dad died the company flew me back home at less than 24 hours notice, from where we were working offshore Trinidad, with British West Indian Airways.
There have been some standouts over the years, though I’ve never been involved in any airline mishaps or near-misses. I know people who have. I know a guy who missed a flight that ran off the end of the runway at JFK and ended up in the water. I know someone who told me he was in a KLM DC-10 when all three engines spooled down mid-flight. I know someone whose dad was stuck in traffic and missed Air India flight 182 from Canada to London, that crashed with total loss of life in 1985.
British Airways flight 74 from Lagos to Gatwick was always a favourite in the mid-1990’s. I’m no fan of BA today and avoid flying long-haul with them, but back then, getting safely onboard that flight could make you start singing the national anthem. As the Lonely Planet guide of the time said, “every flight out of Lagos is like the last flight out of Saigon”…
I once flew in an Alitalia A310 Airbus from Dakar to Rome and the inflight meal was still half-frozen. The steward just looked blankly at me when I complained, and moved to the next customer. A remarkable and almost Soviet disinterest in the customer which sticks in my mind over thirty years later. I’d still avoid Alitalia to this day if I could. I once flew from Rio to Europe with VARIG – the national carrier of that proud nation Brazil…and was served instant coffee. You couldn’t make it up!
I flew from Addis Ababa to Heathrow with Ethiopian Airways. Sat in departures, a fellow turned to me and said, “Is this your first time?” I replied that I’d been on many aeroplanes in my time. He said, “No – I mean with Ethiopian Airways”.
“Are you scared?” he asked. “No”, I replied.
“Well you should be”, he replied, “I’m an aircraft engineer and I’ve seen their maintenance”.
Charming! For political reasons the aircraft could not overfly the Sudan and detoured up the Red Sea, and had to refuel in Athens. Ten hours from East Africa to Heathrow.
I once flew first class from KL to Amsterdam with Malaysian Airlines. More champagne, Mr Nick? Well seeing as you’re asking…That came about because my employer’s travel agency, organising an already heavily delayed crew change out of Songkhla in Thailand, messed up the flights for two of us. The local agent told us that there were no flights from Thailand to London. I said, you’re not thinking deeply enough: think Southeast Asia to Europe, not Bangkok to Heathrow. They came back with two tickets from KL to Amsterdam. One of them was first class at a cost of $5000. I said to the travel agent – just do it!! I didn’t actually lose my job over it, but the vessel manager arranged for me to be immediately “posted” elsewhere to a less salubrious role. Life-changing, but I neither apologised nor ever regretted it. The other guy messed up was a German fellow called Christof. He said, “you can’t treat field crew like slaves” and he was quite right. The principle still applies. That trip was fun: we had to take taxi from Songkhla in Thailand, across the border to Alor Setar in Malaysia. I was sat in the little provincial aerodrome at Alor Setar, waiting for the domestic flight up to KL in an hour and fifteen minutes. In the departure lounge it became very quiet all of a sudden…where was everyone? I realised at the last moment that there was a one-hour time difference between the two countries. Whoops!! I made that flight with minutes to spare.
On a BA leg from ABD to LHR I was upgraded from business class to first class. That was OK although the first class experience with BA is probably about on a level with the business class experience with a front-rank airline like Emirates or Cathay Pacific.
We once took a leg from Buenos Aires in Argentina to some provincial airfield in Tierra del Fuego, in what was effectively the Argentine equivalent of Airforce One. A remarkable and never to be forgotten luxury experience. Others have had to fly for four hours from Puntas Arenas to Port Stanley in a twin Otter with no lavatories – we get “Air Force One”.
The aircraft have changed. The ground-breaking Boeing Triple-7 came out in 1995, with its twin engines rather than four, and extensive use of composite materials in the body. We’ve seen the 400-series jumbo jet with the extended bubble. Upstairs in a 747 was always a special, rather intimate experience for a wide-bodied aircraft. And then of course the mighty double-decker A380. There’s nothing on earth like those lumbering monsters. I’ve often flown into Gatwick on A380’s. On one occasion, I made the mistake of selecting the forward-looking camera to my display screen. Let me tell you, an Airbus A380 needs EVERY SINGLE INCH of that runway to land safely. When the aircraft turned to taxi after landing, all I could see on the screen was green Sussex grass…
In all those years I never missed a flight because of my own error. But other people’s errors? Well! In the early nineties some of us made a flight from Arlanda (Stockholm) to Heathrow only because there was an “air conditioning fault” on the aircraft. In 1993 I was flown by my employer from Manchester to Gatwick, taking the 10.30a.m flight. It was heavily delayed. Once aboard, I checked my car park ticket stub, and saw that I’d parked the car at 9.48a.m…that would be completely impossible in the post-911 world. That one WAS my mistake, misjudging the traffic driving into Manchester airport. In 1997 an idiot member of the opposite crew overslept in a hotel and quite deliberately left his phone off the hook, delaying a crew change flight from Hurgarda to Cairo. We caught the onward flight from Cairo to Heathrow ONLY because our agent had an uncle who was a Colonel. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Several of us once made a flight from Mexico City to Paris, after it had closed, because the check-in lady was in a good mood and was attracted to one of my colleagues. In 2015 two of us flew from Luanda to Johannesburg, on a plane delayed by four hours. We raced through O.R Tambo International to the gate for the ongoing leg to Heathrow, to see the BA 747 just being pushed back from the gate. So close!! Only after considerable difficulties with my employer’s travel agent did I secure an economy class passage from Johannesburg to Schiphol with KLM.
Air travel: it’s been a fun journey…or has it? More of a love/hate relationship. I’m 194cm tall. Whilst I enjoy meeting people and visiting faraway places as much as the next person, I have to say that if you told me that I’d just been on the last long-haul flight of my life, I don’t think I’d be crying into my beer for more than about thirty seconds.
“If it stops raining by eleven, we’re going mountaineering” I said, at about 9.30a.m. My colleague just grunted in reply, his eyes on his book. The rain pattered lightly on the tent; the clouds looked oppressive. Eventually he deigned to put his book aside and get ready, and we set off around 10.30a.m. Measured steps along an old track saw us at the base of Tryfan, my dear friend having tried without success to charm a lone young lady from Southampton who we met along the way. I grinned inwardly and steamed upwards over the heather. It was 11a.m. The lower slopes, heather and grass, give way to bands of cliffs up which we eagerly scrambled. The A5 soon shrank to matchbox car proportions, a thin line winding along the lake.
Eventually the rock proper begins. I clambered onwards, far ahead of my friend who chose to take his time, savouring the delights of scrambling up the best mountain in Wales. Tryfan never fails to delight the scrambler or casual climber – a veritable delight of routes up good, rough grey rock. Quickly I gained height, choosing, as far as possible, the testing bits rather than the worn pathways. The summit of Tryfan is rarely visible whilst on the north ridge, as the ridge is stepped into terraces. Grey towers up ahead are the tantalising target. The cross-cutting clefts – one of them called “Heather Terrace” are one of the few places where everyone follows the same path. I got to the summit in 77 minutes – a personal best for Tryfan. My companion arrived, at a more leisurely pace, almost half an hour later. He polished off my remaining orange and set the food-consumption rate for the rest of the day.
We continued, trying our best to down-climb rather than walk, down to Bwlch Tryfan where my companion insisted we stop for lunch. I gave in graciously and we sat quietly eating lunch at the col. Then, quivering in anticipation almost, for the afternoon’s work, we arrived at the foot of Bristly Ridge. We climbed and climbed, enjoying ourselves. This section was most enjoyable – an almost endless progression of easy rock that grew sadly easier as we approached the summit. Behind us, Tryfan was a tooth. From the sun-drenched summit of Gylder Fach, though, it looks positively diminutive. Strange shards of slate stand up in clusters on the summit, giving it a rather fantastic look, as if in a scene from “The never-ending story” or other such film.
Out in front again, I continued along to Glyder Fawr in warm sunshine, seeing Snowdon dark on the left, and the Nameless Cwm on the right. Arriving on the summit, we met again with the young lady from Southampton, who complained of a painful knee, and continued downhill in her company, ostensibly helping her. My potential philanderer of a close friend and climbing companion abandoned his position as obliging gent as soon as it was clear she was quite happy on her own; he stampeded off down the screes at a suicidal rate. I went downhill a little slower, particularly after falling on my a**e at one point. At the bottom he gazed wistfully up at the slopes, to the girl with the painful knee, and we continued.
Up Y Garn, where there were a few specks of rain out of nowhere, it seemed. Oddly it’s always cold and windy on Y Garn. Today was no exception. We sat at the top, looking down the slopes into Cwm Idwal, noticing the grey clouds swirling over Glyder Fach at 3200′, whilst the Carneddau on the other side of the Ogwen valley, remained clear of cloud at 3400′ and higher. The last movement of the Idwal Skyline is down the sharp arete above Cym Clyd, which is again as on the Glyders, punctuated by sharp upstanding slates. A wise place to walk with your hands out of your pockets. We arrived at Idwal Cottage well satisfied, at about 6pm. Chips and steak pie at Idwal Cottage, made us feel brighter by far, and deeply content, we tramped back along the A5 to our tent on the far side of Tryfan.
I’ve just been looking through my old hand-written route books. I have hand-written reports of days on the mountain going back forty years to 1983. I’m in the process of typing them all up and posting them online, here at the plateroom28 blog, in the page Forty Years of Mountains. There’s quite a lot there to read. I am influenced by the writing of the great Scots mountaineer and early environmentalist W.H Murray (1913-1996). As a youth, I obtained a very old copy of his first book “Mountaineering in Scotland”, and deliberately copied his style – though perhaps not his grace – in writing trip reports.
We travel here to the Peak District on a Royal Wedding day. But which one – the reader can be the judge. Two of us left Edale about 10.30a.m and ran off up Grindsbrook. As we neared the top, a rain shower turned heavy, and we waited as it drove down-valley, a grey stain along the skyline.
The peat hags were steaming gently in bright sunshine as we moved over the flat and desolate sea of heather. Up here on Kinder, the flatness envelopes you. We arrived at the “summit”, more of a gentle watershed marked by a cairn, and from there, navigated by reference to the Holme Moss TV transmitter tower, a tall thin mast, its warning lights a-flashing periodically, some 16km to the north. Crowden Head was replaced by the dry bed of the Kinder River, which led us to the Downfall. As we lunched at the Downfall, large and sturdy sheep appeared, until around fifteen of them stood around us patiently waiting for titbits. Black clouds swooped by, darkening the fresh blue skies, soaking the good citizens of Hayfield far below.
From Kinder Downfall, north, followed closely by another line squall. Swiftly, as the skies grew dimmer, we sought shelter under a block of gritstone and waited for the squall to pass. It blew itself out after a dozen minutes or so, and we continued, now again in warm sunshine, advancing along a gentle scarp, past the white front of the Snake Inn far below, past the steep Seal Stones path downwards. We arrived at trig point 1937′ and rested for a while in warm summer sunshine. In the distance, Win Hill was a square grey top. We followed paths downhill through heather past crumbling outcrops, onto the lower moor, Crookstone Hill. In the distance, Ladybower reservoir was visibly empty. As we walked, there were a few mutters of suitably distant thunder. Along the moor, great clouds of blue and grey heaped up behind us, motivating us to hurry. Shelter was far ahead, in the woods at the edge of the reservoir.
A dense squall rushed past on our left, thunder began to crackle, and lightning fork cloud-to-cloud and onto the surrounding tops. Heavy rain began to fall. Lightning flashed again and the rain turned to hail. We flung ourselves into a ditch, hiding our heads from the hail, and then dashed for cover behind the shelter of a stone wall. Hail fell…and when it was over, the world was white like winter. It was amazing to behold. We walked in deep cold past a group of terrified pony-trekkers, their mounts as scared as any of them, down to Hope Cross and along. Fresh clouds gathered, and we tarried a while, hiding from the real risk of being struck by lightning.
Clouds back of us, we continued down the track to Hope. Hail came again, almost painful as it battered our legs, heads and backs. Water ripped at the track, a veritable flash flood, and we were grateful to leap into a Land Rover when a lift was offered. Being driven through the hail-covered lanes to Hope, we reflected that this was the most startling thunderstorm we’d seen for some time.
A trip to Knoydart – extreme backpacking in October
My trip this October, in the planning these last three months, was to walk from the railway at Glenfinnan, through to Inverie on the Knoydart peninsula. Inverie is one of the most remote places in mainland Britain. The walk itself I understand is part of the so-called “Cape Wrath Trail” though there was nary a sign at any point to indicate that.
I took the 48km walk in three more or less equal stages of about 16km each. From Glenfinnan to Strathan, Strathan to Sourlies, and from Sourlies to Inverie. As I was hiking alone, completely out of phone range, I don’t think I’m exaggerating to call it “extreme” backpacking. Conditions underfoot were absolutely dreadful, wet and deep mud and peat throughout. Across that ground, I was walking at barely 2km per hour averaged over the whole day. I thought I’d meet few people if anyone at all, mid-week in October, but eight other people were on the hill travelling more or less the same route at the same time. We met several times, finishing with drinks in the Old Forge in Inverie.
As in the past, my journey north on the Caledonian Sleeper began with a pint in the Doric Arch at Euston station. Virtually deserted on a Monday night, this railway-themed public house has a giant scale model of “Evening Star”, British Rail’s last steam locomotive, strategically placed behind the bar.
It was really rather pleasant to sit in my berth in the morning, watching the West Highland landscape scroll past the window. Breakfast came as the train rounded the famous Horseshoe Curve near Bridge of Orchy. At Fort William there was ground mist. My eye was caught by a Stanier Black Five stood waiting in the mist for the off with the “Jacobite Express” charter train to Mallaig.
After shopping for some minor groceries in Fort William, I took train a little after noon to Glenfinnan. The mist had burnt off; the skies were clear. The train was absolutely rammed full of tourists, and the officials of the railway company, in consequence perhaps, were a little above-averagely irascible. Passengers must not leave bags here…bicycles must be stored front wheel uppermost…
In the most beautiful clear weather, I hiked up through the heather and trees towards the viaduct. It is concrete: anywhere else but in this stunning location it would be ignored as an industrial monstrosity. But here, certainly since Harry Potter, people travel hundreds of miles to visit Glenfinnan viaduct.
The way ahead lay up a tarmac road through Glenfinnan. As a 10k runner I have learnt much about pacing myself this last year – but not enough. Though I consciously tried to keep the pace down, I still went too fast along the tarmac and in only a few kilometres the hard impacts did more damage to my left heel than in the whole of the next three days, causing a small blister. I continued past the bothy at Corryhully, taking a late lunch, and continuing up to the top, the Bealach a Chaorainn. Here there was a rather surreal gate with no fence on either side of it. Onwards, trending north-east away from the setting sun, down into a wide glacial valley, the long and straight Gleann Chaorainn. As the afternoon wore on, the light grew more delicate.
The ground underfoot became boggier and more complex, and I was starting to tire. As the valley came out into the bigger Glen Pean, I fell over in deep mud and somehow managed to buckle the bottom third of one of my trail poles. Ratty, I crossed the bridge over the Pean and approached a band of forest. Here I met the first of the eight people who were crossing to Inverie at the same time as me, an Englishwoman called Suze and her partner Andy, a Scotsman. After a brief chat I left them in peace and sought somewhere to pitch my tent. But the ground was tussocks and hummocks, dreadful, pathless wet ground wholly inappropriate for camping. In the middle distance I spied some different green, and thought, that might a better campground. It did – but it was on an island in the river. I crossed to the island with only minor difficulties (the boulders in the stream bed were a bit slimy). I deemed the risk of flooding on this particular night, to be negligible, although there was clear evidence that the island could and would flood when the river rose in spate.
Next day, the tent was wet inside and out with dew and condensation. In packing, I found that I had inadvertently brought onto the hill, over half a kilo of spare cheap tent pegs which had been stored right at the bottom of my rucksack. Rather too much weight to casually carry around – I had to abandon them. I crossed the river again, noting that the river had fallen during the night, and set off into the forest. The route lay along a track that clearly predated the trees (an industrial plantation) by decades if not generations. Round onto a forestry road and onwards; beyond the woods, the sky was clear and blue. A choice presented itself: I could hike up Glen Dessarry in the woods, or in the sunshine. On such a beautiful morning, it had to be the sunshine, at the expense of a short detour.
There is a reasonable unmade road up Glen Dessarry, up which it was my task to toil. I took an early lunch – or maybe it wassecond breakfast. I am become a creature of Hobbit on the hill: bread and butter, cheese, tomato, Chorizo sausage, chocolate, date/nut/seed trail mix, perhaps an orange. At Upper Glendessarry the path leaves the unmade road and kinks to the right – “Inverie, 17miles” a sign says. Wet and very muddy, the path continues, keeping another industrial plantation on the left. I reached the top edge of these upper woods and found a convenient flat stone on which to have another snack. A mile or so away below I spied two hikers, presumably the Scotsman and Englishwoman. They saw me clearly against the sky, and waved, but I missed that. They must have taken the route through the woods. As I lunched, a single Typhoon fighter roared past in the distance.
The path continues upwards, always wet, muddy and boggy, over Bealach an Lagain Duibh, which to my unschooled eye looks something like “Black Lake Pass”. One arrives in due course at two linked lochans, dark and forbidding in the lost, high hills. That said, the sun was out and though the water was black, the mood was not too bad. Lochan a’ Mhaim, it is called. On the bank of the second of these, a small boat was stashed, having clearly been laboriously carried up from Loch Nevis.
On the way down to Sourlies from this lochan, there was at least one significant ford over the Finiskaig river. One has to take care with fords, hiking alone. The trail poles are a great help in safely crossing a river. It was a lovely walk down through variable terrain, but always muddy and wet underfoot. At times the river meandered as a “misfit stream” through the valley, then it dropped down through a gorge to the valley floor proper at the head of Loch Nevis. After the initial significant ford, the path kept to the right all the way, sometimes high on the hillside above the river, other times, lower. I passed three people, the first of whom I spoke with briefly. In a strong Slav accent, he told me he was making for the roadhead at Strathan, and that his friends were some hours behind him. An hour or more later I passed his companions. A lady with a Husky and an older, less fit looking man, labouring slowly up the hill with stertorous breath and a Cross of St Andrew on the back of his rucksack. They had started from Sourlies – and late indeed was the hour for them to be passing me not even close to half-way to Strathan.
Once on the valley floor I spotted a party of two walking ahead of me. They arrived at the Sourlies bothy a few minutes before I did. Mark and Dave; Dave, a Scotsman, Mark, an older guy from near Manchester. I decided to stay in the bothy and I put my tent up to dry in the stiff breeze, and it dried in minutes. Mark made some tea, and I contributed some milk from the sleeper train. Not long after that, the Englishwoman Suze and her partner Andy arrived, and there was some sociable chat. They opted to camp outside. Then, four Dutchman arrived – going to be crowded tonight! But they also opted to camp, although they prepared their food in the bothy and stayed for a chat. We started a fire, but if there was any wind at all, the chimney didn’t draw properly, and the bothy soon filled with smoke.
I cooked spicy lentils and a “faranata” – a chickpea flour pancake. This impressed everyone, as freeze-dried wilderness meals seem to carry all before them. Just add hot water. But I like cooking, and one-pot cooking in the wilderness is a challenge I cannot resist. It does mean that I have to carry various bits and bobs onto the hill to make such mountain cuisine possible. A small onion perhaps; a clove of garlic, a twist of spices and salt and pepper. It all adds weight but is worth the effort. As I am a big man, today weighing over 90kg, I can afford to carry 20kg on the hill.
During the night it rained for a time and the wind rose. For some reason I did not sleep well, though i was comfortable enough on a little wooden platform with a couple of mats under me. The Sourlies bothy is in a magnificent wild location at the very head of Loch Nevis, a fjord in all but name. The Fort William to Mallaig road is 15km to the south and about the same to the west, over trackless mountains. To the north, across more trackless mountains 10km to Loch Hourn, itself 15km from Loch Alsh, another fjord or sea-loch. To the east, the route I walked – 13km or so to Strathan at the roadhead on Loch Arkaig. In short, as wild a place as anywhere in Britain.
Next day I was away bright and early, on the hill by 8.15a.m. The couple camping had already set off. The first part of the route lay right along the seashore, quite literally on the beach. Would be tricky at high tide, I would think. The path curves right up onto the headland of Strone Sourlies, and round into Glen Carnoch. One is then presented with a dreadful flat salt marsh to cross. At this point, before nine in the morning, the sky was deeply threatening, lowering grey. There were various paths across the marsh, and the light was good enough, but the going underfoot was really slow and boggy, very, very wet. Without trail poles this would be a really challenging walk.
I found crossing the marsh not so much the moral low point of my journey, as the moment when the sheer wildness and remoteness of this terrain, came home to me. Fall over badly here, walking alone, and even sprain your ankle, much less break your leg, and you’d be in a world of hurt. There’s no mobile connectivity. At best, at this time of year there might be twenty-odd people a week through here, and raising the alarm, without satellite telephony, would only be after 6-7 hours walk from here. Last year in the Cairngorms, I found the scale of the wilderness there similarly daunting. This West Highlands terrain is more intimate and familiar than the Cairngorms, resembling as it does the Lake District or North Wales, but this particular stretch was the exception, and that sense of intimacy deserted me. It was almost frightening.
Halfway across the marsh, I spied a stag and his harem of does, right in my path. I was concerned that the stag would get edgy and jealous if I came too close, and I tried to give them a wide berth, which wasn’t easy in a marsh. I’d been hearing rutting stags all the way from Glenfinnan. As I pondered the way forward, the deer moved out of my way. I spotted the footbrdge which I needed to cross. The scale of the landscape was so great that I had not seen it sooner. Soon after, I spotted the Englishwoman and her partner some way off course, keeping to the right up the valley. There was nothing I could do about it. I became conscious that I was not even carrying a whistle.
The bridge at Sourlies is new, having been erected in 2019 after the old one presumably collapsed or washed away. In October, one might ford this river only with the greatest possible care, and to do so alone would be foolhardy. Crossing, one then hikes up to the ruins of Carnoch, a substantial village or even township. Strange and ghostly it seemed me under that lowering sky. A substantial community once lived here.
From Carnoch, the path lies slow and steady uphill to 575m, back and forth in neat zigzags, to the col which is marked only by a small cairn. This morning’s walking, from Sourlies to this col, has been the summit, the climax, the crux, of the whole three days from Glenfinnan. A propos of the wilderness situation, the guy Dave had shown me earlier, some form of satellite-based emergency position-indicating device, for use in such country as this. I may have to consider carefully, obtaining something of that nature.
And on down into Mam Meadail and the rough bounds of Knoydart. The path was straight and true, steadily downhill and on the right of the river, but ever wet and muddy underfoot. Quite some way down – it is not obvious on the OS map, and so is a relative innovation of recent times – the path becomes a rather obtrusive unmade road. There is evidence of digging machinery having been here; the road is graded and passable with great care in a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
The valley narrows into what is almost a gorge as it passes Torr an Tuircc on the right. There is a footbridge and a ford for the tracked vehicles used to make the road. From here, on the left of the river through pleasant woodland, into the wider valley of the Inverie River, to another more substantial footbridge. Thence onto a pretty useful unmade road, past a monument on a hillside. Then – again the OS map has not caught up with reality – past a blasted wasteland of harvested plantation, all giant grey tree stumps and waste timber. I continued along a high forestry road until reaching the edge of the land owned by the Knoydart community, where there was good signage. Along the side of some woods, which were somehow reminiscent of the Dark Peak, and then left, in spitting rain, down a path beside a babbling brook, down to the road.
The West Coast atmosphere here is very strong. These houses and lanes of Inverie very strongly resemble the settlement at Kinloch on Rum, as well they might. I walked out towards the campsite, passing as I did so, a mobile home. As I passed, two little girls leaned out of the window to tell me that the campsite was cold and wet and that there was a bunkhouse. Bemused, I stopped for a moment, and their father appeared to shush them, telling me that the campsite was fine. This pleasant-mannered Englishman sold me a place in the Knoydart Foundation bunkhouse nonetheless, for £22, and with that I was well pleased. The bunkhouse was great: comfy bed, superb showers. I had a cup of tea and sat in a lovely lounge, very high-ceilinged and gloomy. A fire crackled and two visiting old Lancashiremen sat chatting. I made myself some supper in the kitchen, and then walked out through the damp autumn leaves to the Old Forge, the “most remote pub in mainland Britain”.
Today, to walk through from Glenfinnan, though objectively a tremendous achievement, is not unusual. I was the first of nine people to cross today from the Sourlies bothy. This evening, all nine of those people were in here – myself, the couple from Edinburgh, the two guys from Manchester, and the four Dutchmen. Five of us sat down for drinks, and we had as remarkable and pleasant a time of fellowship with strangers, as ever I had.
“Somebody left us whisky And the night is very young I’ve got some to say and more to tell And the words will soon be spilling from my tongue”
I would not recommend going on that route without trail poles, waterproof trousers and gaiters. The weather was unseasonably mild, so I didn’t use gloves or a hat at all. I used a waterproof copy of OS “Outdoor Leisure map” #398, Loch Morar and Mallaig, as there does not appear to be a Harvey’s Mountain map of the area.
See the centre, feel the heartbeat Chance encounter on the street Quiet moment, stop and eat Here a station on a bridge Here a roofer on a ridge. Jewelry shops, quiet streets Little cafes, people meet. A cyclist has a little dog In a basket – just fantastic. Bearded men, well-dressed ladies, Electric cars and tenements. Leafy streets and Asian grocers Seedy dentists, Boris bikes. Students walking through to lectures Old facades and building sites Just one policeman standing watch A vaulted station roof, A hotchpotch: Different buildings, places, people. This is London, Dr Johnson’s London.
An old aunt has gone home to glory, full of years; the last of her generation. I travelled to the funeral to honour her memory, respect my family and to catch up with my cousins. Today, to Derby for the funeral of that last remaining aunt: I travel to London from my home and walk north across this great city toward St Pancras. After my walk I sit in the Black Sheep Cafe on the Pentonville Road, within sight of the vaulted roof of St Pancras station, and reflect on what I have seen. I’ve walked almost at random through the city streets. Why? Because I can. Because of what I might see, because of who I might meet, what I might learn.
First, Blackfriars: a railway station built on a bridge across the Thames. I walk up towards Holborn viaduct, crossing Fleet Street. At one set of lights, the first six cars to pass me were electric vehicles. Ladies and gents going to work. Beards and bare legs: it is warm weather. Buildings I never saw before; streets I never walked along. A man rides past with one of those dignified little lap dogs sat in a front box on his bike. I consider renting a Boris Bike, but decide not to. Men are working on rooftops. Here in Holborn, a jewellery quarter. Further north, leafy residential streets and red-brick tenements. A junior school. Dentists. An Asian grocer. This is inner London. On Grays Inn Road, I even saw a uniformed policeman.
St Pancras International: this station is like a church to me; it is a temple of all that the railway should be. Also, it has been close to the start and end of dozens of significant journeys, right back into boyhood. I first came here, to my knowledge, for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebration in 1977. Now it is Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee, 45 years later. Most of all I recall coming here in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, to the tired, grimy and neglected station of the old London Midland Region of British Rail. I remember the old high-ceilinged booking office – now a fancy restaurant. There are railway nostalgists who prefer the station as it was then, but I think it is tremendous, and a great improvement. Today, in my view, St Pancras is in its pomp.
Sitting upstairs in front of the silent electric Eurostar trains all lined up in a row, I can see two grey-beard older brothers taking brunch together at Carluccio’s. A warm wind blows food smells over me, and outside, it is sunny. But here amongst the marble floors and under the magnificent pale blue roof, all is quiet save for the murmur of electric motors and the occasional explosive hiss of compressed air from the trains. Here, I am off the beaten track. Recently a colleague of mine was lamenting the Lake District as being “too busy”. Get off the beaten track, I told him. It’s not difficult. It’s certainly not difficult here at St Pancras.
Arriving in Derby, I walked through the “Castle Ward” and the shopping centre, bringing me out onto East Street. I detoured around a bit, having time to kill. Derby is my home town and I would visit it even if it was rubble and ruins, but like many British provincial cities, its heart is blasted, wasted, almost dead. It is unfortunate but it is not unique: Southampton and Aberdeen, provincial cities whose centres I know well, are not that different. The reasons for the death of the inner city are complex, but the collapse of walk-in retail – people going into actual shops – through the rise of the internet, will have played a part.
I walked down Sadler Gate, along Bold Lane and up St Mary’s Gate. Up past the Cathedral and onto St. Mary’s for a Roman Catholic funeral mass, something I don’t do very often. Then, with some relatives to the crematorium, and onto a wake. The wake was held at a pub named after a railway – the Great Northern. The pub stood on a road built to access a railway that no longer exists. It’s still called Station Road, but you’d have to have an interest in industrial archaeology, if you weren’t from round here, to know where the railway station was. That’s modern Britain for you.
This is one of the “SF Masterworks” series which has re-issued, over the decades, some absolutely classic titles. Some of them are well-known to me; others, like this one, I had never heard of. You can see the list yourself here. I’ve read 21 of the 73 titles in the softcover list. It is necessarily some editor’s subjective choice, and there is a tendency for Philip K. Dick to appear rather too often in my view.
But this is about Pavane. A pavane, we read, is a kind of Latin dance. This is important. Roberts has written a work with six “measures”; six long chapters, each of them meaningful, each of them drawing us onto an inevitable conclusion. We start in the late 1960’s, and we finish sometime near the end of the 20th century, describing the growth of, the antecedents of, a very English revolution. A humble engine-driver at the beginning, further on has become a rich business man. His niece becomes the mother of a firebrand aristocrat, the Lady of Corfe, whose actions bring the established order down in flames and ruin. Throughout, there is an older hidden England, a faerie England, at work. It is at work for good. It is a concealed spiritual England such as C.S Lewis hints at “That Hideous Strength” – although he speaks rather, of “Logres”, a spiritual Britain.
Pavane is an alternative history. And it is remarkable as such, for it is a work of writing craftsmanship, a finely shaped bow or arc of story from beginning to end. In this alternative history, Good Queen Bess is assassinated in 1588; the Spanish Armada is successful in its conquest of England, and the entire Reformation is brought to a bloody halt, unlikely as it may seem (more on that in a minute.) The Catholic church militant then reigns from Rome, supreme and unchallenged, for centuries down to modern times.
The story starts in the late 1960’s in Dorset. Part of the attraction of the novel for me was the writer’s clear love of and knowledge of Dorset, an area I know and love myself. Most of the action is set between Dorchester and the Isle of Purbeck.
We see how control of innovation can prevent progress: in this alternate 1960’s, steam traction engines haul goods along rough unmade roads, often threatened by bandits in the woods, and subject to the constraints of impending darkness and winter weather. The use of concrete is tightly controlled and even banned – because concrete can be used to create fortifications, and hence foster rebellion against Rome, which is ruthlessly put down by the Church Militant.
There is no electricity; there is no radio or TV. Petrol and diesel engines have been invented, but the church has circumscribed the use of these new-fangled devices by Papal Decree. But in this world, unthinkable rebellion is brewing slowly, in the woods, in the fields, in the quiet villages. It is a world where the strength of England is found in the countryside.
Writing as a believing Christian here, I sense that Keith Roberts perhaps has little time for church or religion – but he never becomes openly anti-Christian, as in the worldview seen in such work as the “His dark materials” trilogy of Philip Pullman. He writes with a light pen of the faeries, the “old people”, of the old religions and the older Gods – Wotan, Thor, Freyr. In this he prefigures – or at least reminds me of – the much later work of Neil Gaiman in his excellent “American Gods”.
Pavane was very readable, very engaging, and full of delightful and evocative language. If I had a criticism of it, it would be of the opening premise – that the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I, and even victory for the Spanish Armada, would have been enough to destroy the Reformation and the protestant energy and faith of north-western Europe.
I’d argue not. I’d argue for a historical inertia; doubtless there are “cusp” points in human history when much can change subsequently because of a single event. But I’d argue that there are far fewer of them than science-fiction authors might like. I’d suggest the assassination of JFK might have been one; I’d certainly argue that the death from disease of Prince Arthur, allowing his younger brother Henry to become Henry VIII, was another.
But I think, rather, that there is a kind of historical inertia. I don’t think it’s quite so easy to change history through the turn of a card or the flap of a butterfly’s wing. I’d suggest that there is considerable cultural and historical momentum, which is preserved and not lightly shifted. Consider: throughout history there have been many times when reactionary forces might have won on the battlefield, but didn’t – would it have made much long-term difference even if they had?
Realistically would England be that different now if Charles I had won in the English Civil War? Would America today be really that different if the thirteen colonies had failed to prevail in their Revolution? And even if the South had won on the battlefield in the American Civil War, as a slave economy competing in a free market it could never have prevailed against the North in the long term. When the conservative, the reactionary and the traditional meets the progressive, the proactive, and the forward-looking, in the long run, there can be no doubt about what the outcome will be. The status quo is never acceptable.
About eighteen months ago I went to the Lakes for a bit of wild camping. In the final paragraph of my trip report here, I wrote this: “had I known that public transport in the Lake District was so comprehensive and so well co-ordinated, I would never have brought the car at all. From where I live in East Surrey, the train would be about the same journey time, maybe slightly quicker, and a good deal less tiresome than trudging up and down the M40 and the M6. The train might cost a good deal more than the cost of the fuel – but as any fule kno, the cost of fuel isn’t the true or full cost of motoring.“
I journeyed to Windermere by train. Leaving my home in East Surrey just before 0700, I was in Windermere just after noon. It is the Pendolino tilting train that makes this worthwhile and possible, from Euston to Kendal in three hours. The cost was not excessive at £133 return in standard class. After a scotch egg and a bottle of pale ale sat in a sun-soaked corner in Windermere, I took bus 508 up Kirkstone Pass, for £5.10, with a very cheerful and friendly driver who said, “It’s a while since I’ve driven this route. Let’s hope I can remember it”. There were two other passengers.
At the Kirkstone Pass Inn I hopped off in bright sunshine. As I was rigging my bag for hiking, seven or eight motorcycle warriors of one tribe or another roared through on their throaty Harley-Davidsons. It was 2pm. Grinning and confident in physical fitness, I set off up the hill, and was on the first top, Red Screes (776m). From there, along to Scandale Pass and little Scandale Tarn. Here there was a squall and in five minutes I went from using a sun hat to wearing gloves. That’s the Lake District for you – never underestimate the mountains. Further on, to Dove Crag, Hart Crag and finally Fairfield (873m) whence I arrived at 5.10pm. I’d been this way before, some time in the 1990’s. Here you can see the difference between winter and summer conditions:
The first time I was on Fairfield was in shouting rough conditions in about 1979 or 1980, with a school party on a YHA trip. It would hardly be allowed now. From there, down to the somehow ever-gloomy Grizedale Tarn. It is a long way down. Another location with deep memory for me, from that same YHA trip, only the second or third time I’d ever visited the Lakes.
It was with some difficulty that I found a place to pitch my tent. The aspect was geographically similar to that tarn in the Cairngorms (Loch nan Stuirteag) where I’d experienced difficulties last November. A high tarn flowing east down into a wild valley, no obvious camp ground at the outfall and a rising wind. But, a place to camp I found, by the babbling brook, and soon enough it was supper time: fresh tortellini and a tin of 8% stout. I was drowsy; I hardly thought at all. I was in bed asleep well before 9pm. I found that lying in my sleeping bag in the tent, listening to the babbling of the brook, I could be in a place where I was not thinking about anything: awake, but barely even conscious.
I was wide awake by 6a.m and set off at 8a.m, tent dry, ready for adventure. I was on Dollywaggon Pike before 9.30a.m, and from there to Nethermost Pike (891m) and onto Helvellyn (969m) before 10a.m. The first and strongest of the day-trippers were already there, some Scotsmen with good camera equipment. Absolutely stupendous visibility!! Just look at these below. I spent some time talking to the Scotsmen, reflecting that the last time I was here was in winter conditions in 1997.
And then, down, through the long morning. Although earlier on there had been few enough people on the mountain, I passed many dozens of folk toiling up the long and arduous ascent of Helvellyn from the Thirlmere side. Why would anyone climb Helvellyn from that side? A dreadful slog, it is. I suppose the ascent from the Patterdale side, involving as it must, either Swirral Edge or Striding Edge, is not for everyone. And not for me, is that steep downhill to Thirlmere: by the time I got to the valley floor, about 11a.m, I was tired and I had stubbed toes. It was very warm and sunny – again, absolutely delightful conditions for photography.
I was starting to think, where will I fill up on water? Odd to be in a reservoir valley, yet for there to be no instantly available drinking water. Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink…there was a long and somewhat tiring slog through admittedly delightful woods up along the eastern shore of the reservoir, as far as the dam, where I stopped for lunch. Boots off, charge my devices, and sit in a sun-soaked corner. Lunch was bread and butter, cheese, tomatoes, and a little Chorizo sausage. An orange, some chocolate and some trail mix. I drank the remainder of my water. Now I really needed to fill up.
As I set off again, a trio of hikers passed me, two young women and a young man, all festooned with clanking cups and pans and camping equipment hung on their rucsacs. I confess I don’t like it for there to be any stuff attached to the outside of my rucsac. I prefer the clean lines of climbers’ rucsacs and generally don’t even do side-pockets if I can avoid it. One of the girls stopped to chat. It seems that they perhaps, did not realise when they arrived last night, that camping is strictly prohibited on the Thirlmere valley floor. I was just pleased to hear someone speak in a Lancashire accent, whatever this youngster was telling me.
At Armboth, I managed to fill up my water bottles, though I deemed it necessary to add purifying tablets. Onwards and upwards literally; the second ascent of the day, from Thirlmere up over the moor to Watendlath. I shouldn’t have cared to come through here in claggy conditions; the moor, as well as being boggy, was pathless and featureless; one should find oneself very soon resorting to the compass in poor visibility. Initially it was a very pleasant walk through steep meadows with unusual flowers, leading up onto a rather boggy moor. I found this hard going as it was now mid-afternoon and I was carrying 3kg of additional water. And so it was that for the first time in my life I found myself visiting the little hamlet of Watendlath, nestled in a hanging valley between Borrowdale and the Thirlmere valley. There was a tea rooms, and I stopped for a pot of some of the best tea I’ve had for ages, along with some rather nice tea bread. It was 4pm.
From Watendlath, one skirts the eponymous tarn and sets off up a good bridleway to Rosthwaite in Borrowdale. This was an ancient, traditional and much-trod road. It made me think of those many passes of Lakeland through which there is no tarmac road. Sticks Pass across these very moors. The Walna Scar Road between Coniston and Dunnerdale. The Black Sail Pass from Wasdale to Ennerdale. The Scarth Gap between Ennerdale and Buttermere, and the biggest and most important of them all perhaps, the central pass of the Lake District, Sty Head between Borrowdale and Wasdale. There will be others. I came down towards Rosthwaite late afternoon, again, in glorious sunshine, with the aforementioned Sty Head pass visible in the distance, as well as the bright specks of distant cars in the Honister Pass reflecting the sunshine. And all the time, the sound of lambs, and occasional cuckoos.
At Rosthwaite I stopped at about 5.20pm for a pint of ice-cold lager, primarily so I could sit in range of WiFi and update my wife on my location. Though the pint was very welcome, it was secondary to my purpose. Clearly EE don’t have a mast in Borrowdale.
Onwards: first, another tiresome road tramp along around 2km of tarmac, before turning left into the fields again on a path to my final destination today, Tarn at leaves, where I planned to camp. Though at best 2km from the road, it was strongly upstairs, really quite steep. The sun was at my back and though I was flagging towards the end of the long day, I knew I needed to get there. “You’ve got this” I told myself, and I had. I was a little concerned though, that there were no paths onwards from Tarn at leaves. This concern had some justification; the map, as far as it goes in terms of detail (which is not far even on the OS 1:25000 sheet) showed none. But this isn’t the Cairngorms in November. I finally got to the tarn and found it very boggy, going in up to my knees and getting my boots wet right in the last two minutes of an immense twelve-hour day on the hill. But it all dried out quick enough.
I was sat down to my supper quite late – about 8.30pm. For supper I had spicy red lentils, and a chick pea flour pancake – a “faranata” the recipe for which I learned from my son Nat. I can’t be doing with not eating and drinking well when camping wild. To wash my dinner down I had some remarkable and very tasty 8% proof “Sling it out Stout” (though to be fair after that walk of nearly 25km, even Carling Black Label would have tasted like nectar. Well, that’s pushing it a bit, maybe…
The place was well deserted. Though I was happy enough, it reminded me of a sad part of Tolkien. Hurin, released by the devil Morgoth after 28 years in captivity, wanders over the land trying to find the hidden city of Gondolin, whose king Turgon, was once his friend. He knew roughly where it lay, but not exactly. And on some deserted moor, where the wind whistled endlessly through the grass while no-one was listening, he cried out in grief and rage, “where are you, O Turgon, in your hidden halls?” But someone was listening…Morgoth’s hidden servants reported those words back, and the betrayal of Gondolin began.
This tarn is one of those past its former glory, slowly drying out. Slow by no human perspective – it’s climate change alright, but not as we know it. It’s nothing to do with man-made climate change. Tarns like these have been drying out in the Lake District since the ice receded these 10,000 years. There are dozens of them. The word “moss” is often a giveaway, for example, at the Great Moss under Scafell Pike: even a cursory glance at the map tells you there was once a lake there. For all the boggy areas in which went up to my knees when I arrived in the evening, it was a dry camp and a dry strike. After a breakfast of mushrooms, spinach and fresh coffee, I was away again by 8a.m the next morning. What I could not do, is find fresh water to drink. I set off onto the hill with less than a litre of water left, but with a few little oranges and tomatoes.
It was not clear to me where to go from the tarn; I did not want to end up scrambling up and down bands of cliffs: unwise at any time if you’re on your own, a recipe for a coffin or worse if you’re carrying a 20kg rucsac. Once you stumble, down you will go. Don’t stumble!! I pressed on, keeping the dark and seemingly endless (and appropriately named) valley of Langstrath on my left. I remember being in it once on a rainy day, thinking it went on for ever. And I found a fence. Where a man can build a fence, I can safely walk. I followed that fence for quite some way before leaving it, saying farewell as to an old friend, and striking uphill towards Glaramara (783m). I was an hour and ten minutes walking this morning before I encountered a path. That is unusual for the Lakes.
Glaramara unfortunately has a short scramble which I did not recall from last time I was here (which to be fair was 36 years ago when I was a callow youth.) But keeping one’s weight forward works for climbing with a big bag; slightly less unnerving than climbing downward face-out, when the weight and centre of gravity must be kept back to avoid to avoid toppling over and down. I did not expect to see anyone here this early (9.30a.m) on a Sunday morning – way too early for day trippers to get to this location. The summit was deserted and cold. For a short while it was cold enough for me to wear my woolly hat. On the next summit I did in fact meet and have a pleasant chat with a young backpacker, who had camped on the shoulder of Scafell Pike at over 950m above sea level. We spoke of obtaining water; he noted that water flowing in streams off the central massif could be polluted and a problem: he was planning a two-night Mountain Leader Training exam expedition soon, and obtaining water in summer conditions, was a challenge. I was drinking water I’d carried all the way from Thirlmere.
Again onwards to Esk Pike and Esk Hause, the central col and cross-roads of all the Lake District. Also about as far as you can get from a road-head anywhere in the Lakes, although paradoxically enough, probably not the remotest location. Here there were day trippers, mostly up from Seathwaite, Borrowdale. Round here one reflects on the centrality, not of Esk Hause, but of Great Gable. It’s not the highest mountain of course, but it is the central boss, the ice-worn stub of whatever original mountain stood here millions of years ago. Near here I saw some classic “roche moutonnee” (literally “mutton rock”, rock like sheep) whereon there were clear scratches from the ice, quite at odds with the rock’s natural bedding plane, the scratches pointing towards Great Gable in one direction, and down-valley in the other. I do like the landforms left by the glaciers. The hanging valleys, the corries and cols. Truncated spurs. Misfit streams. Terminal moraines. Eskers and drumlins.
Round to Bow Fell, where I started to feel hungry and took lunch. On Bow Fell I encountered an older fellow with his young son, and he was teaching him the names of the summits on the skyline, testing him so he would learn them. I know them, and no-one taught me their names. But I am an older man and I’ve been coming to the Lake District for over forty years. My first trip was in 1977, to the Newlands valley with the Scouts, and we climbed Dale Head in claggy conditions. I remember it fondly. But it is something that would not be permitted today, for two Scouters with no Mountain Leader certification or formal training to take 16 young Scouts on a hike like that.
From Bow Fell, descending carefully, I went down to Three Tarns, where I saw that fellow again with his young son. I was most careful going downhill, though it seemed straightforward enough. I became aware that having climbed Bow Fell half a dozen times at least, I’d never come down this route, only up it. From Bow Fell, at a little after 2pm, I went down The Band, increasingly footsore, until I found myself very slow and very tired at Stool End Farm, about 3.30pm. A child was playing in the farmyard as I passed through, and my hike was over.
The geeky stuff
On day 1 I walked 9.57km; on day 2, 24.46km, and on day 3, I walked 14.28km, to a total of 48km in just a bit less than 21 hours total. On the second day, the 24km was taken over 9 hours and 49 minutes and involved four separate ascents, three from the road.
I used an Osprey Aether Pro 70 which weighed 14kg laden with no food or water. Add to that around 3.7kg of water, 900g of beer and all my food, means that at the start I was packing somewhere between 20kg and 21kg. This is a lot less than I was carrying with my previous rucsac which was about 10 litres larger but a good deal heavier. I’ve written about this before.
I slept in an MSR Elixir 2 tent, and used an Alpkit Skye High 700 4-season down bag, a silk liner, and a Thermarest self-inflating mattress. I used a small Trangia 27 and a small (750ml) metal bottle of bioethanol. I carried gloves and mittens (and used the gloves), a woolly hat and a sun hat (and used both), Goretex waterproof trousers (didn’t use) and Goretex gaiters (did use). I carried about 800g of Lithium battery power packs as well as a cellphone and a smart watch. Spare clothes, waterproof coat, fleece jacket, first aid kit, small pair of field glasses, and a few other bits and bobs, made up the kit list.
I found the Aether Pro too small for my purposes and the tent had to be strapped to the outside. But the extremely light weight of the Aether Pro carries all before it – I love that aspect of it. After a day or so I became adapt at re-packing and found things fitted better, and eventually the tent fitted inside. I have not yet had the Aether Pro out in heavy weather, so I don’t know how waterproof it is without a rain cover.
I found and read a copy of Richard Mattheson’s “I am Legend”. This is the 1950’s pulp fiction novel that was made into the 2007 Will Smith film of the same name. Towards the end of the book the hero notes that “he has no adjective for terror”. This struck me deeply, and I looked into it. What the man meant was that terror was so much part of his everyday life that it excited no comment, no adjective, and certainly no superlative. His life was so terrible, so full of terror, that the terribleness of it was quite literally unremarkable.
There is a lesson for us all here in the West, where to a degree, thus far in recent times at least, the reverse has been true. Our lives in general are not terrible. Today, in the West, terror is not everyday and unremarkable; it is exceptionally rare and very remarkable indeed.
But I got to thinking in particular about water, and also about life in general in a country like the UK where there is respect for the rule of law. We do not generally use adjectives to describe drinking water – or at least, not too often. Water is water. It is mere; it is taken for granted. There is, in the West, no “good” water nor “bad” water; there is merely water. In general, water is just water. It has no adjective. We have an implicit understanding in the West that water is always good, it is something that we have always completely took for granted.
I’m reminded of one of Freya Stark’s stories; on a yacht off Arabia sometime in the 1930’s, she welcomes an Arab on board, and the Arab drinks some water in her cabin. “What sweet water” he says – of the tanked water on a yacht! So accustomed, is this Arab, to water of widely different and perhaps much poorer quality, that he considers the water served to him by Ms Stark, to be “sweet”.
As with water, so with the rule of law. We take it for granted that we can (at least in broad daylight in the leafy suburbs, not of the hours of darkness in some of our big cities) leave our houses and walk abroad without being armed. This quality of life, brought to us by the rule of law, is quite literally unremarkable. It has no adjective. We ought be thankful that this is so, and long may it continue.