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.
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.
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.
The Bar Amundsen at the Grand Terminus Hotel, Bergen
I’m sat by the fire, and slightly too warm in consequence, in this quintessentially civilised bar, all dark wood and deep seats, high ceilings and a crackling fire. It is slightly too busy and this is the only table free. This room could be in England or Scotland. It is a renowned whisky bar although God only knows what the merest shot of whisky would cost here in Bergen. I’ve had a rather excellent burger served with new potatoes, which, oddly, worked well, and pleasant conversation with a work colleague: I’m still here on business for the moment.
After supper I went for a walk in light rain. The rain rose to a crescendo towards the end of my walk, wetting my woollen coat, my umbrella, the legs of my trousers and my shoes. All was dry by morning, although for some reason I slept ill.
Next day, an excellent breakfast in a well-appointed but hard to find dining room. I could wish it were snowing – it was raining too hard for me to carry my bag round to my next hotel, the Hanseatisk Hotel. I’m staying here on business, drawing a clear line under the business part of my trip, and staying henceforth at the Hanseatisk Hotel with my wife.
The Festnings (Fortress) Museum
“We never thought about it, it was completely natural. We had to set our country free” – Johannes Hellend (in Bergens Tidende, a newspaper.) Interesting to note the use of the word “tidende” in Norwegian, rendered in English as “newspaper”. Think of the archaic English word “tidings” and reflect on where it came from…)
A remarkable and moving visit to this Fortress Museum, which I found, if that were possible, more moving even, than the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. A chance to reflect on war and crisis, and our response to them both – both our personal response and our collective response. What would WE do? What would I do? What would any of us do? Not so easy to consider when you read a graphical description of what a person looks like after five weeks in the hands of the Gestapo.
The Norwegians are a remarkable bunch of people and generally supportive of the English. They are very forward-looking on democracy and human rights. My wife and I spent a considerable and wonderful time allowing the museum concierge, a friendly fellow in his sixties, to talk to us. I need now, after this museum, to read some form of summary of WWII in Norway. The concierge recommended a book, but I cannot now recall what it was! We experienced a moment’s peace in a modern, anodyne canteen, with a picture of Kongenes Norge on the wall, before moving on to the Mariakirche – St. Mary’s church.
A trip to Bergen should include a trip on the Floiban funicular railway. We went up the railway and had a good walk round on the mountaintop before riding down again in the dusk to take supper at a fine restaurant in the wooden Brygge section. I had reindeer; she had seafood. The English have to brace for impact when the bill – rekningen – arrives in Norway, but that’s just Norwegian prices. Embrace it – you can’t do nothing about it. Though it does take some getting used to…
On a catamaran on a “Fjord tour”
As I sit on board this vessel, my mind is drawn to other similar vessels. The ones on that rainy day on the Lei River in the karst country of China. Ten identical giant tourist vessels, where the lunch was served as if on an airliner. The hydrofoil and the more traditional transports on Lake Garda in Italy. Numerous pleasure craft on Derwentwater, Windermere, and Ullswater in the Lake District. Similar boats on the Trent, the Seine and the Thames, and on the Rhine at Duisburg in Germany, way back in 1980. After 17 years at sea, and after endless travelling, as I know hotels, so I know boats and ships. And if I know any nationality well other than the English, it is the Norse, particularly the Bergen Norse. I was seven years at sea before I met a deck officer that wasn’t a Norwegian from Bergen. If I had to identify a centre, a place of rest, a place to make a pilgrimage, perhaps as well as Brandlehow in the Lake District and Cromford in the Peak District, I should choose Bergen.
As I sit on board this vessel, my mind is drawn to other similar vessels. The ones on that rainy day on the Lei River in the karst country of China. Ten identical giant tourist vessels, where the lunch was served as if on an airliner. The hydrofoil and the more traditional transports on Lake Garda in Italy. Numerous pleasure craft on Derwentwater, Windermere, and Ullswater in the Lake District. Similar boats on the Trent, the Seine and the Thames, and on the Rhine at Duisburg in Germany, way back in 1980. After 17 years at sea, and after endless travelling, as I know hotels, so I know boats and ships. And if I know any nationality well other than the English, it is the Norse, particularly the Bergen Norse. I was seven years at sea before I met a deck officer that wasn’t a Norwegian from Bergen. If I had to identify a centre, a place of rest, a place to make a pilgrimage, perhaps as well as Brandlehow in the Lake District and Cromford in the Peak District, I should choose Bergen.
A visit to the museum of Munch. Munch proves to be a very innovative artist, a full century ahead of his time, creating selfies and video shorts in the 1930’s!! How will WE innovate, in art and craft, in life and in love? How do we break out of the box and abandon the rule book? Another area of innovation in this land, is that of bridge-building. Literally of course – these people build very advanced, very experimental bridges. But how will we build bridges to other people?
The Hanseatisk Hotel
I’ve written about this delightful wooden hotel before. Read my story Rekningen – it is not about the Hanseatic, but I wrote that story after staying here some years back. Staying here is productive to my creative life. Our daughter Josie discovered the place for us when researching a holiday for us back in 2015: We came and stayed, and it was great. Then, I came again and stayed here when I came to Bergen on business. To think of the times I have stayed at the very ordinary Scandic on the other side of the harbour, when I could have stayed here! https://www.dethanseatiskehotel.no
We visited the Mariakirche again. It was interesting to see white-haired old ladies in predominance. Where is REAL power? We are as a culture – as has been prophesied – kept afloat perhaps, by the prayers of white-haired old ladies. We owe our lives, perhaps, to our praying women. We went this morning to an Anglican Parish Communion which was literally (and refreshingly) “by the book”. It was a lovely service. The preacher spoke on John 1:35ff wherein the disciples, seeing Jesus passing, ask him “where are you staying?”. And Jesus tells them his address….NO!! He doesn’t tell them his address. He says, “COME AND SEE” – come and see for yourself where I live. Oddly, both the epistle and the gospel reading (though given in English) were both Scriptures I’d happened to read in Norwegian the previous evening.
After church a pleasant hour over coffee in a room nearby, talking with various people from the church. There were two distinct groups of people. Firstly, young foreigners mostly of oriental background, and secondly, white-haired English emigrants (my notes say “ex-pats” but the culturally more correct term is “emigrant”). Not all female, but mostly so. We spoke with a most delightful lady of 87, hailing from Sunderland, who had lived here with her Norwegian husband since the 1960’s. She was well-preserved and elegant; she was very open and most friendly. She told us her remarkable story of how she met her future husband whilst she was working as a cook on a yacht in Alicante. This elderly lady swam in the sea every day and accounted her continuing good health thereto. She told us that she was about to go into a time of three months when there would be no lifts in her apartment building. She had a dodgy knee, a dodgy heart and she was 87. What an example to us all!!
Afterwards, we took a walk in the upper, wooden streets, above the main town, taking a stop in a little park for cocoa and “vaffels”. Then, later, a sausage dog apiece from “the sausage shop”. This jam-garnished fast food marked the end of our holiday, and soon after, in the thickening dark of late afternoon, we took bus to the airport.
Well I’ve done it! I’ve read fifty-two books this year! I think I can be proud of that. Some of them I have even reviewed properly. We’ll not go through them all in excruciating detail here, but we will discuss broadly, my year’s reading. I never set out to read a book a week, but I did set out for sure, to read many dozens of books in the year.
Of the 52, 15 of them were in my Kindle – I can do both paper books and e-reading. Eight of the books were re-reads. A few of those only, will I highlight. Nicholas Monsarrat’s “The Cruel Sea” which I re-read after seeing the film one Sunday afternoon. C.S Lewis’ “The Great Divorce” remains one of my favourite reads, being an account of a man who dreamt of going on a day trip to Heaven – from a certain another place. Another re-read was R.A Heinlein’s “The moon is a harsh mistress”, at one level, a story about a rebellion in a prison colony in 2075: at another, the greatest manifesto for libertarian political views, you will ever read. Eighteen of the 52 books were fiction – an oddly low number, although it just means that my interests have been well satisfied by non-fiction.
I started the year reading Dr J.H. B Bell’s “A progress in mountaineering”. Bell, as a 16-year old in 1910, cycled 47 miles from Newtonmore to the foot of Ben Nevis, and climbed Nevis alone. And then he cycled back 47 miles again: the account does not make it clear if he cycled 90+ miles in hobnail boots, or if he climbed Nevis in plimsolls. What seems clear, is that when compared with our elders, we have become a nation of wuss.
I enjoyed Jonathan Nicholls’ “Kittyhawk down”, a well-researched story about RAF pilots in the Western desert during WWII. In February I also read Murray Rothbard’s short pamphlet “The Anatomy of the State” (Murray Rothbard also wrote “The fatal conceit” about the errors of socialism), and a book called “The road to Mecca” by Muhammed Asad, a Jewish convert to Islam, who later became a senior diplomat for the government of Pakistan. In March I read Robert Winder’s “The hidden springs of Englishness”, and started Neil Sheehan’s “A bright shining lie” reviewed here – if you read one book about Vietnam, make it this one.
My sister sent me an old copy of Rich Roll’s “Finding Ultra” about an overweight man who turned his life around and became one of the fittest ultra-marathon runners in the world. As much for the appendices on plant-based diet, did I find that book interesting. William Wordsworth’s original travel guide to the Lake District proved oddly relevant centuries after it was written. Having tried and failed to source a copy of Varlam Shalamov’s rare Kolyma Tales, instead I read Hugo Jacek-Bader’s excellent “Kolyma diaries” and “White fever”, about travels in Eastern Russia – startling stuff about a very different world.
I read some science-fiction: Amongst others, Paul McAuley (“The war of maps”), Iain M Banks (“The Algrebraist” – again), an old Keith Laumer novel and two works of the modern writer Adrian Tchaikovsky. Also Heinlein – “Glory Road” (is that even sci-fi??) and “Harsh mistress” as already mentioned. Becky Chambers’ “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” I review here.
I read three books about India: Shashi Tharoor’s (perhaps understandably) bitter and twisted “Inglorious Empire”, William Dalrymple’s account of the East India Company entitled “The Anarchy”, and finally Katie Hickman’s “She-merchants, buccaneers and gentlewomen: British women in India”. All very informative and enabling one to gain a more accurate perspective of world history. The lesson from Shashi Tharoor’s “Inglorious Empire” is that bitterness and negativity, however arguably justifiable, is deeply unattractive.
I have read much about America: I am a fan of America. I believe in what America stands for, though it seem to be in trouble in these times and full of vice and failings. Robert Kaplan’s “Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World”, reviewed here, proved very interesting at the start but perhaps a little disingenous towards the end. A great interest of mine is American history, particularly the westward expansion. I read Bernard Devoto’s; “1846: the year of decision” and John Anthony Caruso’s “The Appalachian Frontier” , was well as several of Dee Brown’s books – one on the Fetterman Massacre, the other on women in the wild west. Dee Brown’s greatest and most famous book, all should read: that is “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”, an account of the destruction of the native American tribes.
Later in the year I read Tim O’Brien’s “The things they carried” – the Vietnam war as seen through the lens of what soldiers carried with them. One soldier carried a pair of his girlfriend’s tights as a neckscarf, and wore them even after she dumped him. Also, I read Stephen Hough’s “The Great War at sea” – most informative – and Alice Roberts’ “Tamed – ten species that changed our world”. Self-explanatory title there, and rather a lot of detailed biology which I had to skip.
I read Ed Husain’s troubling account of journeys in certain cities in the UK – “Among the mosques”. In order to get published, Ed Husain has to be upbeat and positive about what is happening with Islam in the United Kingdom today, but I find that he can’t possibly be as naive as he comes across in his writing. A deeply worrying travelogue.
Tim Butcher wrote “Blood River”. The age of great explorers, opines one of the reviewers, is not dead. Butcher attempts with only partial success to navigate overland by motorcycle and boat, from the eastern Congo through to the Atlantic coast. The Congo is a messed-up place, and it is deeply messed up for a number of very complicated reasons. It will get worse – much worse. Certain important minerals essential for modern Lithium-ion batteries, required for what some people call “the energy transition”, are most easily sourced in the Congo. In the coming decades the extraction of those minerals, to salve the western conscience and enable electric cars, will do as much damage to Africans in the Congo as King Leopold ever did in his extraction of rubber in the early 20th century.
I read a useful and informative biography of Sir William Stanier by the ever-readable and prolific railway author O.S Nock. This one I found in an excellent second-hand bookshop in Bridport. I read Ryzard Kapuchinsky’s “Imperium” about Soviet Russia – including an unforgettable two-page interlude on how to make peach brandy. What drives my reading, is this – not what is in plain view, but what is not. Sometimes something tangential – a fact or anecdote of paramount importance or of deep interest, is almost literally found “in between the lines”.
I ended the year with David Halberstam’s “The Coldest Winter”. This is a brilliant account of the Korean War. Another great Pulitzer prize winning author covering vast sweeps of American culture and history. Though some of the descriptions of battles are a little too detailed for me, what made the book is the wide arc of history, the bigger picture. In a book about Korea, I learned much about the “New Deal” and the life and times of Franklin Roosevelt. I learned about changes to domestic politics in the USA that are still very much of importance today. I learned about McCarthyism, and also about Douglas MacArthur – a horribly fascinating, perhaps deservedly reviled, but nonetheless important 20th century figure. What’s it like to have no self-doubt at all? Lack of self-doubt is not one of my qualities.
Earlier in the year, I chanced across Francis Rossi & Rick Parfitt’s “Just for the record”, being an autobiography of Status Quo. This rock autobiography was a disappointment for me; it was potentially great story written in the most perfunctory manner. You would think that lyricists could write! No, obviously not. One thing I recall though is Rick Parfitt writing of himself as a teenager (when his guitar teacher patronised him) “No-one calls me laddie“. See my point above about lack of self-doubt.
Over Christmas I was given “Rainbow in the dark”, the autobiography of Ronnie James Dio. We learn that as a boy he swore to himself that one day he would headline at Madison Square Garden, in his own name – and he did! A readable enough tale of ambition fulfilled, of the virtues of hard work and persistence, and of some of the other less agreeable habits of rock ‘n roll stars. Reading it, I’d like also to read a biography of the guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, if and when such a book becomes available.
This is for balance, for unfortunately, Dio’s account of those years is somewhat self-serving. It is a shame, for I regard him as a great lyricist, and the distinctive sound of his voice, be it in the heavy metal music of Rainbow, or Black Sabbath, formed a background to my youth.
The full list here:
Chris Anderson The official TED guide to public speaking Paul McAuley The war of maps J. H B Bell A Progress in mountaineering Iain M Banks The Algebraist Jonathan Nicholls Kittyhawk Down Murray Rothbard Anatomy of the state Muhammed Asad The road to Mecca Robert Winder The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness Adrian Tchaikovsky Cage of souls Nicholas Monsarrat The Cruel Sea C.S Lewis The Great Divorce Neil Sheehan A bright shining lie Jacek Hugo-Bader Kolyma Diaries Rich Roll Finding Ultra William Wordsworth The Lakes Keith Laumer Doorstep Jacek Hugo-Bader White Fever Shashi Tharoor Inglorious Empire Robert D. Kaplan Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World Ryzard Kapuchinsky Imperium Dee Brown The Fetterman Massacre Bernard Werber Empire of the ants William Smethurst Writing for television William Dalrymple The Anarchy Sven Hassel Court Martial Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet Bernard DeVoto 1846:The year of decision Len Deighton Blitzkrieg Dee Brown The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West John Anthony Caruso The Appalachian Frontier Larry McMurtry Lonesome dove Larry McMurtry Dead man’s walk Larry McMurtry Comanche Moon Francis Rossi & Rick Parfitt Just for the record – autobiography of Status Quo Michael Bonavia The birth of British Rail R.A Heinlein Glory Road R.A Heinlein The moon is a harsh mistress O.S Nock William Stanier Katie Hickman She-merchants, buccaneers and gentlewomen: British women in India Stephen Longstreet War cries on horseback George Orwell Animal Farm Ed Husain Among the mosques Richard Hough The Great War at sea Tim O’ Brien The things they carried Tim Butcher Blood River C.S Lewis That Hideous Strength O.S Nock The Settle and Carlisle railway Adrian Tchaikovsky Children of time Alice Roberts Tamed – ten species that changed our world Jeff Long Deeper David Halberstam The coldest winter: America and the Korean war Ronnie James Dio Rainbow in the dark
When I began my journey from East Surrey at 1853 on a Wednesday evening, it was with a heavy heart, for a number of reasons. A lovely old fellow we all knew was dying; he did in fact go home, early on the Thursday morning. A little later, arriving at Euston, I went for a pint in that favoured spot, the Doric Arch at Euston station. This marked the start of my holiday. Later, as I boarded the sleeper train, there was an oddly sudden and very heavy rain shower. My wife informed me that this rain was quite extreme back in Oxted, shorting out house electrics and causing minor flooding.
Arriving in Inverness, I was straight into gloves – it was one of those cold and blustery mornings. The train was almost an hour early. I recommend the Caledonian Sleeper; it is costly, but good value for money when you look at what you’re getting – return travel from London to Scotland, and two nights accommodation. You can of course just buy a seat rather than a berth, and sit up all night. This costs maybe £100 return and would be pretty much the equivalent of taking a 12-hour flight in economy. Sooner you than me: I say, what price money? If a journey’s worth going on, it’s worth going on in comfort.
Inverness is a long way from London and indeed, a long way from Edinburgh. The atmosphere is very different. I started by taking coffee and a breakfast roll in the bus station cafe. You can’t beat a bus station or train station cafe; no-one cares how smart or untidy you are, or how big your bags are. As a very tall man, I do sometimes value not being noticed.
To the co-op to pick up some groceries: I bought bread, butter, cheese, tomatoes, little oranges, an onion, fresh spinach, chocolate, fresh tortellini, and water. I carried in from home, coffee, sugar, spices and salt and pepper, porridge oats, red lentils, gram flour, and chorizo sausage, and also a trail mix of “date, nut and seed balls” – these were absolutely superb. Thence, by cab to the airport to pick up a rental car. Then I motored back into town, swiftly over Slochd and down into Glen Feshie, to park up at the road head and prepare for hiking. Leaving home, my rucsac was 16kg: now with food for three days and water, it must have approached 20kg.
Part 2: Glen Feshie to Glen Geusachan – across the Great Moss
After a climb through some pleasant woods, the route to Carn Ban Mor goes up the left-hand side valley of the Allt Fhearnaghan. I was feeling very fit and strong as I climbed, and I did notice far more snow than I had thought there would be. This seemed to be more than the Autumn icing-sugar dusting of snow I had anticipated, and was closer to real winter conditions. Up onto the Great Moss, I did not go to Carn Ban Mor, and also made the error of leaving the track, and thus wading through heather and fresh snow occasionally drifting a foot deep. It was blustery, showery weather. One moment, I could see Angel’s Peak and Cairn Toul, the next, there’d be a squall and a snow shower. I made my way to the summit of Tom Dubh – just a slight top in the midst of the Great Moss, though at 918m as high as most Lake District summits.
From Tom Dubh, downwards into an area of fens, marshes and little tarns where I found myself going in circles and doubling back away from half-frozen watercourses I could not possibly ford. It was an oddly blue-grey world, and the snow started to pile down. I got on down to Loch Stuirteag, where I had hoped to camp! This was a wild and inhospitable place, wholly unsuitable for camping in anything but summer conditions. In any case, a howling wind was at my back; I sought in vain for shelter. Lower down, at the very top of Glen Geusuchan, I thought I found shelter, and laid my tent out in a flat spot. But the outer was nearly torn from my hands in a violent gust. What was I thinking of? I should have been in grave trouble had I stayed there. I packed up again and struggled on downwards into a glen of deep, trackless heather. I fell over and picked myself up again; I found myself on the edge of steep slopes down into the river; my feet fell into hidden water; I stumbled, carrying 20kg. To be fair, I had bought a new rucsac, an Osprey Aether Pro 70, and it was an exceptionally good carry. Nearly 2kg lighter than my previous rucsac, this one sat very comfortably and caused me no problems at all.
I could find nowhere to get out of the wind. I didn’t feel desperate, but it was quite a desperate situation. Darkness was impending; I was already tiring. I could not realistically make it to the Courrour Bothy in daylight. I should have been left floundering uphill through the trackless heather, in the dark and the storm, trying to find Courrour – an unlit speck in the mountain fastness.
Eventually I found a place in the river bed – can I pitch a tent on sand and pebbles? Yes. At least this place was sheltered by an old river bank, a six-foot wall of peat and heather, and was as out of the wind as I could find. I struggled with the wind whilst getting pitched, and pitched the tent outer first, though it wasn’t actually raining at that point. Almost the last thing I did outdoors as darkness fell (apart from getting water from the river) was collecting heavy stones to pile onto the guys and tent pegs. Well that I did so now rather than in the dark. I had a good camp – I cooked dinner, ate, and turned in soon after. I certainly slept some, though the noise of the wind and the frequent rain showers kept me awake much of the time.
I was awake at 5a.m when the storm reached its crescendo. Lucky I was that it had not been earlier. The wind redoubled in strength and tore out the pegs on the windward side of my tent, though the guy-line held. This made the outer tent flap in the wind unto destruction, unless it was fixed. The noise of the tent flapping wildly in the gale, particularly in the dark, could easily induce panic if you allowed it to. I managed to fix it from the inside, with rocks and moist sand. Then the pegs on the lee side came out, then on the windward side again. Four or five times I had to jam the pegs back in again, getting wet sand all over my hands and in the inner tent. By this time I was awake and dressed for the day and had started to pack up against the possibility of ultimate catastrophe. I did manage to make porridge and coffee, and dress a pre-existing cut on my forefinger, whilst using one of my trail poles to keep one peg in place on the lee side of the tent. This was a remarkably difficult moment and I seemed to get through it without too much trouble. The tent flapped; I was somehow able to rise above doing so. Panic, worry or getting things wrong was just not an option in these conditions: everything had to be done quickly, methodically, correctly, and in the right order. I packed up, dropped the inner, and took down the outer, but by this stage as daylight strengthened the storm ebbed; the worst of the squall was over.
From Achlean to my camp on Geusachan Burn at around 974943, was about 17km, which took about six hours. It is a very great shame, but buried somewhere in the sand of that river bank, or blown off into the wilds, there is a small slice of thin flexible polypropylene chopping board, bright blue, about 6″ x 6″ – for I never saw that again. Breaks my heart to leave litter, but the wind must have carried it away. There was some slight damage to the ends of my tent poles, which was easily fixed.
Part 3: Glen Geusachan to Glen Feshie
Let’s look at the positive – remember that bit in “Apollo 13”? “what have we actually got on this spacecraft that works?” …er, let me get back to you on that, chief…actually quite a lot. I was warm, dry, clean, my kit was packed and complete and dry, I’d had a hot breakfast and even some coffee. The world was at my feet.
In the glorious light of dawn, I walked out of the side glen and round into the Lairig Ghru. Fording streams and rivers is a serious challenge in the Cairngorms – it is rarely an issue in the Lake District. One cannot ford the Dee even this high up, certainly not in cold weather, though one might try in high summer. I had to detour all the way up the the Courrour Bothy to cross the river. It was an uphill slog through heather, with only the occasional hint of a path. I reached Courrour on a bright and pleasant morning, about 10a.m.
I crossed the Dee on the footbridge, and had brief converse the only hiker I saw for two days, an older man from Edinburgh. He was in for the day to climb the Devil’s Point and Cairn Toul. Approaching Courrour at 10a.m in late October, he must have made a very early torchlit start from the Linn of Dee – that’s a long walk in. God only knows what time he started from Edinburgh! He did mention that there had been driving rain on the drive in – probably about the time my tent was getting hammered by the gale.
I powered on down the valley, consciously keeping the pace fast. I was fortunate in being very fit: when backpacking, many issues conspire to slow you down. Hips hurt, shoulders hurt, feet hurt, blisters, hungry, thirsty, exhausted etc etc. The last of these, when you’re very fit, is almost an irrelevance. Walking at 4km/hour all day long while carrying 20kg becomes merely doable rather than requiring a mighty effort.
A chopper searched the surrounding summits as I walked south. Early afternoon, I came into phone range and also into sight of the White Bridge across the Dee. I saw a couple with a pushchair and a dog – I didn’t realise how near the Linn of Dee car park was at that point – about three miles away. I saw two estate workers. The next part of my route lay for many miles along unmetalled roads, and in fact I was passed by a car once.
To the Red House, and on up the Geldie Burn – though no burn this, but another wide and deep river unfordable in cold weather or winter conditions. The Geldie Burn is technically a “misfit stream”. The valley in which it lies is glacial in origin, not carved by this or any river. Geldie Burn has enormous relict banks indicating that at some point in the geological past, when the ice melted, it must have been ten, a hundred times bigger than it is now – a torrent like unto Niagara.
Through the golden afternoon over lovely brown moorland, and endless path, which, once the un-made road ended, was never less than a clear trail. From the White Bridge, up the Geldie Burn and to the unnamed waterfall at the head of Glen Feshie, at least 12 kilometres. I started to experience muscle pain in my left shoulder; I found that Voltarol brought very swift and very effective relief.
Sometime before arriving at the unnamed waterfall, I fell over. I was negotiating some deep and evil-smelling pools of mud in one of the ruts of the road. Whatever…I twisted and slipped. Or I slipped and twisted…carrying 20kg, once you’re going down, you’re going down – there’s no stumble and recover with that kind of weight on your back. I ended up on my back in a foot deep puddle of thick, black runny mud. Desgustang! With some difficulty I got myself up and out again. Strangely enough, I personally was untouched – wearing a Goretex raincoat, gaiters and overtrousers, no actual mud penetrated to my clothes. My rucsac took the brunt of the mud and was very dirty. If I had a minor criticism of the light grey colour of the Aether Pro, it would be that the straps and hip-belt show the dirt very easily.
This remarkable waterfall was, to quote C.S Lewis, “a terror in the woods for miles around”. It was audible long before it could be seen. It has no name on the map; it is comparable to High Force in Teesdale, and were it within a hundred yards of a road in England or Scotland, people would drive 100 miles to see it. In the Cairngorms it is at least five hours walk up-hill from the road head in wild and remote Glen Feshie, and probably five hours walk from the car park at Linn of Dee. So almost impossible to access in a day-trip except in high summer. How remote! How excellent that remoteness is.
I was now in the descent into Glen Feshie and ready to look for somewhere to camp. Trees appeared, larch and other kinds. Suitable places to camp emerged, albeit far from water – the river was running in an inaccessible gorge. I had at this point run out of water, so I needed to camp right by a stream. Better yet, there was no breath of wind. I needed to stop a little earlier to allow enough daylight to ensure that my tent was OK after the beating it took this morning.
I found a place by a ford, and camped right next to the path, in as wild and remote a location as ever I have camped in…except for, oh, last night. The tent went up easily and the ground took the pegs well. Once established, I made a faranata – a pancake of chickpea flour, as recommended by my son. On a Trangia stove it worked a treat. For afters, some chocolate and a sip from the hip-flask. To drink I had litres and litres of stream water: slightly brown from peat. There’s no sheep up here – no need for any purification tablets. Though the colour was off-putting, and the water was so cold as to induce a blinding headache, it was like nectar, like Ambrosia, like ice-cold lager. It is a pleasure to be that thirsty and have a pure mountain stream in which to slake that thirst.
On day 2 I walked 30km in approximately eight hours. I used Black Diamond trail poles, Gore-tex gaiters and over-trousers, walking trousers, merino wool base layers, a thick cotton shirt and Berghaus fleece and waterproof coat. I get cold easily these days: a merino wool hat helps, and gloves are a big deal. I had a thin and a thick pair of gloves, and also some heavy mittens. I wore gloves at all times outdoors when walking; up on the plateau I found it necessary to wear all three pairs at once.
Part 4: Glen Feshie
I packed up in good order as the light started to improve, and was ready to hike by a little after 8a.m. I continued down Glen Feshie, through an absolute Eden, a veritable wilderness paradise. When I was a youth in Derby, I borrowed from the local library, an old book about the Cairngorms. And in that book, there was a snatch of an ancient Gaelic poem, which has remained with me ever since: Glen Feshie of the storms, I had the longing, to be in thy shelter…and now I had the pleasure of walking the whole length of this wild glen.
There were high and low spots to my morning’s walk. It took me until noon to walk out to the car, and on the way I got lost in the woods; there was a rain shower, and there was a washed out bridge over a tributary stream. There was much fording and crossing of streams, brushing through vegetation, and climbing up and down along the side of the gorge. For most – but not all – of the way, the path led along an unmetalled road. In places, where the road had been washed away, the path detoured up the mountainside.
On the walk out I found my hips were very sore under my hip belt. So I stopped on the path and took off my pack, and got out the Voltarol. I dropped my trousers without a moment’s thought, in order to put the gel on my hips. I’ve spent two days on the hill and meet one other hiker; I met no-one all day Thursday, and I met no-one after 10a.m on Friday. I camped in the wildest places where there was absolutely no chance of anyone coming past. Yet, no sooner had I dropped my trousers to apply the medicine, a man and a woman appeared from nowhere to walk past me. They never turned a hair. “Morning!”.
I arrived at the car at noon: It took just under four hours to hike down the valley – a journey I’d estimated would take at least six hours going uphill. And my hike was over.
I carried approx. 20kg using an Osprey Aether Pro 70. This rucsac is one of the lightest expedition bags available, weighing 1.8kg – which is why I bought it. It feels lightweight, even flimsy, and I admit I was sceptical when it arrived, particularly given it’s relatively high cost. My scepticism lasted only until I got it packed and set off – on the hill it proved durable and a very comfortable carry, a much easier carry than any other rucsac I’ve ever used. This rucsac has replaced a much older Berghaus C7 1 series 65+10, nearly 2kg heavier, but with a good deal greater carrying capacity. I think we can safely say that when the manufacturer Osprey says 70 litres, that includes the hip-belt pockets.
The hip belt tightening arrangements are particularly inspired, and I liked the pockets on the hip belt. I will say, it’s not quite as clever as the manufacturer thinks it is with regard to attaching things to the outside, in spite of a wide range of straps. I could not easily see how to attach trail poles, and I still can’t obviously see how to put an ice-axe on it – the big first rucsac I’ve ever had where this is not completely obvious. Heavy items – tents, tent poles etc – may have the tendency to slide through the straps eventually. Also – as I found when I fell over – because the rucsac is light grey, it does show the dirt, particularly the straps and the hip belt. Getting it back home, it also became the first rucsac I’ve ever had to strip down and wash. Overall though I would highly recommend it.
I used a Trangia 27 (the smaller Trangia). I’ve been using Trangia stoves since the 1980’s and have never had a problem with them, nor been tempted away from them. Durable and reliable if a little heavy and – at least some say – a little slow. Two things I like about the Trangia – it has a low centre of gravity, and all the pans are included as part of the stove. I slept in an MSR Elixir 2 tent using a Rab Alpine Pro 600 down three-season sleeping bag.
By Pendolino to Oxenholme, tilting through the heartland like an aircraft. In Lancashire the weather deteriorated, to pouring rain as the train called at Preston. At Oxenholme, to the Station Inn for a pint and then to camp in their garden. We were the only campers on a wet and windy Thursday evening. Next day, after a breakfast of champions prepared on a Trangia stove in a pub car park, to Sadgill at the head of Longsleddale.
We were away onto the hill before 0800. It was absolutely pouring. I’d not walked a hundred yards before regretting not fetching waterproof trousers. I stopped to put my gaiters on, which helped somewhat. Earlier in the week I had hurt my heel slightly mowing the lawn while wearing big boots with inadequate socks. I was now on the hill with both heels dressed in prophylactic, pre-emptive dressings, a kind of talisman, perhaps, to ward off blisters.
We plugged away up the valley to Gatescarth Pass. I read after our walk that when a railway through these lands was first proposed, back in the 1840s, one possibility considered was a route through Kendal and along Longsleddale, with a 2-mile tunnel under the Gatescarth Pass and into Mardale – the valley now filled with Haweswater. In the end of course, the route chosen for what is now the West Coast Main Line from London to Glasgow, took the much longer and steeper route over Shap and through the Lune valley. What might have been, eh?
Left up onto Harter Fell (778m) and squelch down to Nan Bield Pass, where there was a shelter, one side of which was exposed to the rough northerly wind. We hid behind it. There was a great view of Blea Water, and Haweswater directly “above” or behind it. Then, on up Mardale Ill Bell (760m) and onto the summit of High Street (828m) where it was possible – just, for they are in a north-south direction – to hide for a snack behind possibly the highest dry stone walls in the UK. They weren’t dry stone walls at that moment, I can assure you.
Then the long walk downhill to Patterdale, past the very picturesque and shapely Angle Tarn (I call this one the “other Angle Tarn” to distinguish it from the arguably better known Angle Tarn high up in the northern corrie of Esk Pike.) This gentler and larger Angle Tarn has a little island in the middle with trees on it! Onwards, down to the Patterdale valley floor as the rain eased somewhat. At one point we passed a frenzy of foxgloves, almost as if someone had gone out of their way to seed the hillside with that lovely flower.
At Patterdale we found welcome at neither the Ship Inn nor the Patterdale Inn. Desirous therefore, of leaving the hospitality of Patterdale behind us, we walked with some effort down the valley towards Glenridding. We found St Patrick’s Boat Landing, a little cafe up a flight of stairs, serving tea and cakes. Here we remained, wet and dripping but welcomed by mine host, for a couple of hours.
Refreshed, we set off again, walking up the eastern and more wild side of Patterdale, through delightful woods – a generation or two ago, one might have camped wild here in these remote woods both with impunity and with great pleasure. Perhaps not today – not really the done thing. We crossed to the right-hand side, walking alongside Brotherswater, through still more lovely woodland. At the campsite at Brotherswater, we found no room for us. To be fair, it was a Friday afternoon in late June, whatever the weather. Jaded, we took a short snack and set off yet again.
We slogged through improving weather, our waterproof gear coming off by degrees, until we reached Hayeswater. Here we made the most excellent camp, along with at least three other parties. Our supper was tortellini with pesto, washed down with some very strong beer, followed by chocolate and fruit. A 32 km hike in two halves.
The next day, we had a breakfast of porridge and coffee, and then struck camp in light clag. We reversed yesterday’s route, more or less, back over High Street. No rain this time, but it was windy in places. In improving weather we descended into Longsleddale, for a total round of 45km in less than two days.
Thence by car to Bowness, thinking we might rent a canoe and relax with some boating on Windermere. But Bowness was full of tourists and there was nowhere to park. It made Ambleside on a busy Saturday afternoon look like a deserted hamlet. Dreadful place, possibly only the second time I’ve been there in my life; I shan’t willingly go back. We left, and took the chain ferry across the lake, and sat with a pint in Hawkshead.
Later, we met up with some friends, and in the golden evening, climbed up onto the summit of Holme Fell near Coniston, and camped right on the summit. Very fragrant and heathery. Sat on the summit we ate well – this time we had a spicy dal, and some Farinata – spicy chick pea pancakes. Though the evening grew cold, there was tremendous visibility and glorious views as the sun went down.
A review of “Earning the Rockies“, by Robert D. Kaplan
The first Kaplan I read was “To the ends of the earth”, an account of travels through dusty, broken lands. I became a fan of his writing on the instant. This book is about the United States: dusty in places certainly, broken in places perhaps, but vital, he argues, to the future of our world.
It is a book full of quotable truism. “Comparison”, he opines, “is painful and not always polite, but it is at the root of all serious analysis”. This is something we learned in geography in school. Our teacher laboured to teach us the importance of the word “whereas”. Kaplan’s father, a truck driver, gifted Kaplan with what he calls a “cruel objectivity”. This work is neither cruel nor objective. Not a hymn of praise to America, more a reasoned defence of the American imperial project, which he argues, has grown out of the physical geography of the American continent. He seeks to “rediscover what is vital, yet forgotten, what is commonplace, yet overlooked.”
He roots the book in the influential work of an almost forgotten man of American letters, Bernard DeVoto. DeVoto’s understanding of the American West was like Devils Tower, Wyoming, towering over the surrounding plain of knowledge. Kaplan’s book is one whose moral and philosophical heart is west of St Louis, at the one hundredth meridian. It is a book that acknowledges the continuing power and importance of the frontier in American thought. Kaplan has to deal robustly with that depressingly popular school of thought that the settlement and conquest of the American West was just a terrible crime. Those grave injustices can’t be swept aside, of course. They are dealt with very well in such seminal works as Dee Brown’s “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”, which should be required reading for all students of the American West.
I rather like his travelogue style of writing. His observations of places like Wheeler, West Virginia, and Portsmouth, Ohio, are fascinating commentary about the human condition as well as a discussion of the American psyche. Rather like Neil Sheehan in “A bright shining lie” (reviewed here), he draws attention to the Scots-Irish or “redneck” heritage, noting that “America as a democracy has a highly developed warrior ethos”. Americans are a fighting people, he suggests. Civil society in the USA has a far closer and more respectful relationship with the military than you’ll find elsewhere in the world.
Of the politeness found throughout the United States, particularly perhaps in the South and in the Mid-west, he suggests that it is just politeness – it goes no further than that. He writes that we must not confuse politeness with hospitality, such as that found in the Middle East or in Africa. Hospitality helps social stability, he writes, but politeness helps efficiency and production.
His road journey is completed at San Diego when he reaches the Pacific and sees the gathered grey hulls of the U.S Navy. At that point he does get a little misty-eyed, like Natalie Merchant’s youthful soldier in her song “Gun shy”:
So now does your heart pitter pat with a patriotic song When you see the stripes of Old Glory waving?
The final third of the book seems quite distinct from the rest, and was not quite as readable – although still interesting. The mordant pen of an observant and humane travel journalist is gone. It is replaced by that of the geopolitical analyst with a distinct, refreshing, and quite understandable bias for, and love of, the United States of America. Modern left-wing liberal culture, particularly in western Europe and in the UK, does tend to be dismissive of the USA.
He does mis-step on occasion and say some odd things. To describe Israel, the Baltic states and Taiwan as “robust, venerable and iconic democracies” (as he does on page 136 of my copy) is pushing it a bit, to say the least! But mostly he is right on the money, as when he writes that the European Union, and globalisation itself, would be impossible to contemplate without the “overarching fact of American power“. That’s the plain truth, if an unpalatable truth to some. The bill for defence of western Europe, from Pearl Harbor down to the present day, has been paid for by American taxpayers and in American lives. Because the Americans have 300 warships, the Royal Navy can get away with a few dozen. European nations are able to spend as little as 1-2% of their GDP on defence, primarily because the Americans spend twice that much.
A note on sustainability: he notes in one place that California and the great cities of the American southwest, use the water of the Colorado River in a wasteful, unsustainable way. In another place, he notes that most European countries maintain an unsustainable level of social welfare, broadly made possible because of American power. It’s the juxtaposition here that interests me. These two unsustainable practices may be connected or linked in some way. There’s no maybe about the fact that both will change.
What would America and the world look like today had the continent been settled eastwards from what is now California, rather than westward from the water-rich Thirteen Colonies in the east? Or if the USA had never existed at all? Or if the United States ceased to exist? Not many writers have dared to even think about that last. The continuance and survival of the USA is not inevitable.
The travelogue in the first part of the book is deftly observed and humane. The second part, his analysis of world order as seen from San Diego, is more partisan and more complex to read and understand. In places I don’t agree with his analysis and in places it is arguably disingenuous.
Kaplan’s central premise is that the world needs the USA, and that the USA is an exceptional country with exceptional, even imperial, responsibilities on the world stage. He argues that the reasons for that derive from the physical geography of the American continent – there is no other like it. Similar conclusions are drawn, on a more general basis, by Tim Marshall in his excellent book “Prisoners of Geography”.
This is a book about America, for Americans, and America-phobes need not pick it up. Their view, in the end, is not sought. “Finding the Rockies” was very interesting, very readable, clear sighted and instructive – one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The watermill stood at the end of a quiet lane that wound along the valley side through the trees. One came round a corner and up a little rise, and saw it, red brick against the green hill. I first saw it a child, when I’d been taken there on holiday. In the back seat of the car, bare legs against the hot vinyl bench seat, I’d bumped and jolted along that road – no more than a dirt track in those days. When we got round that corner, I saw it, and like my parents before me, I was transfixed. I’d loved that place ever since. I brought my wife there and introduced her to it, and later, our kids too.
We’d stayed near there on holiday several times in all the ensuing years, growing to love that sweet, familiar little land. The steep, secret valleys, the winding roads through the woods. The lichen and the stone walls.
I’d stood and listened to the somehow tamed and domesticated sound of the river as it poured over the weir into the mill race. I’d watched as the water poured over the ancient paddles, listened as the tired old wheel creaked round, squeaking and grumbling with age. As if it were saying, Go away! leave me in peace, leave me to sleep in the afternoon sunshine…
And we’d been delighted when someone brought that mill into life and made it work again, turning it into a tourist attraction. It actually ground wheat into flour. Again and again we’d returned to this place in the rounded hills, to the secret watermill. We’d smelt the flour being ground, the dust sharp in our nostrils. We’d bought that flour and carried it away with us, baked bread with it as soon as we could, on the Sunday after getting back home from holiday. We’d tasted that bread, made from flour we’d seen being ground ourselves. We’d seen the wheat, we’d watched it poured out, and we’d heard the flour ground out. We’d heard the rumbling rollers, the grinding grey stones. Almost like it was our own.
And then the chance came to own the mill. In the afternoon of our lives, the means to do as we’d always wished, coincided with the opportunity to do so as well. We could buy the mill. And so we did; we bought it and we went to live there. We went down the quiet lane by the river, to sit and listen to the grinding stones and the weir, at the brick mill under the green hills.
My diary records this: Andrew Marr, in his “history of modern Britain”, writes that “in the New Labour years, as under John Major, a sickly tide of euphemism rose ever higher, depositing it’s linguistic scurf on every available surface”. True. That said, saying what I think is not part of the programme. There are even thoughts that these days I feel I cannot afford to have. I am someone with deeply libertarian and individualist instincts. I live at a time when authoritarianism and collectivism seems to be everywhere on the increase. Not only that, but authoritarianism and collectivism seem to be increasingly popular. In such a world I would do well to keep my opinions to myself. One of the things I fear most of all is being in a place where I have no time, peace, or private space in which to think. I fear being in a place where being a private individual or spending time alone is discouraged or even not allowed. Some might say, “why would you want to be alone?” but to that I say, “get thee behind me, Satan!”
Five years ago – May 2016
After business in London, my wife and I went to the Clarence on Whitehall, and had an indifferent supper in their excellent upstairs dining room with the skylight and the huge wall map of 18th century Westminster. I had a forgettable burger and a pint of Camden IPA, she had venison shepherds pie and a glass of Pinot Grigio. Total £40. Good atmosphere, friendly waitress, ordinary food. Then, we strolled up Charing X road and outside the entrance to the Portrait Gallery, we encountered a large crowd, including paparazzi straining for a view with their cameras. We found out that they were awaiting a view of Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge. In due course, limos and close protection police swept up, and the lady duly emerged to applause and cheers.
What struck me about this stroll in central London was that apart from mobile phones, cameras and the mechanisms used to propel the vehicles, there was nothing in the scene on Charing X road that someone from Pepys’ time would not have understood. What was going on? People were strolling, eating, drinking, chatting. Courting. Buying and selling. The fundamental activities that make up human life in any age.
Ten years ago – May 2011
Jargon: I don’t like the expression “X has a heart for Y” where X is a person and Y is a situation, a country or a problem. Someone at church speaks of having a “heart for France”, the sincerity of which, I do not doubt. But will we “get behind” their “heart for France”, though? Someone notes that as leaders in church, we must articulate a vision to the congregation.
I use the word “vision” here strictly in the modern management jargon sense of “Vision and purpose”, not at all in the prophetic sense of “dreams and visions”.
But leaders, particularly in a church, can end up with a vision statement that their people do not “get behind” – the people may not share that vision. That can be heart-breaking. We have seen all of this ourselves in the past. It’s all very well having a vision for the church if there is no room for discussion, dissent or even plain disagreement. Claiming that it comes from God, even as a clergyman, is a dangerous place to go. Because if you do, you can then brook neither dissent nor disagreement. And we have seen clergy getting into the greatest difficulties by refusing to discuss or entertain dissent. This is not somewhere you can go, neither as a clergyman nor as a boss or a leader in civil society, without the most profound and dire consequences.
Fifteen years ago – May 2006
A church men’s weekend at Wrotham, Kent: Good stuff throughout though more “martial” and less spiritual than I would have liked. That is not to do it down or minimise the efforts of the guy who organised it. In conversation on the Friday night someone mentions a book on courtesy and etiquette amongst the English which I ought to read. I learn that I must take myself less seriously, and also that I must think more deeply – I was comprehensively thrashed at chess by one who I have not considered to be a deep thinker. Clearly he is a deeper thinker than I!! I am encouraged to believe in myself – and to write more.
Twenty years ago – May 2001
Mike Breen of St Thomas Crooke’s Sheffield, spoke to us at a leaders weekend, on Moses, whose life was in three parts. He quoted D.L Moody who said that all people, all Christians, were in one of three phases of life. These were, being made or built, being broken – the desert place, and being used or blessed. It can be a cyclical thing rather than phases – we might be in the desert more than once, used or blessed for a season, made or built for one purpose or another.
Later, off to the Beardmore Hotel in Glasgow with Mrs. H, in a rented car. A pleasant and successful drive up there in a little over four hours. One thing I remember about the long haul up the M6 was the hills around the Lune valley highlighted against a dark and stormy afternoon sky, very beautiful. Visited a number of Charles Rennie Mackintosh sights including the College of Art. Next day, up Loch Lomondside, a nice long walk, cruise on the lake, then round down the side of Loch Long to Helensburgh to see “The Hill House” which was a remarkable place with the most excellent light, even indoors.