Saturday, 29 November 2008

A Mountain Ramble


I started climbing -well, walking, scrambling, occasionally crawling up- mountains in my early twenties. What became a mountain-habit began with a walk: a group of us got it into our heads to do The Ridgeway Path. This is an ancient track running through the South of England from Avebury to Tring. The experience left a deep impression on me.

From The Ridgeway we graduated to Kinder Scout in the Peak District. This was our first mountain. OK, so it was a plateau instead of a sharp peak (the “Peak” in The Peak District refers to a tribe, apparently, not the hills), but at least we had the satisfaction of climbing to the top and admiring the view. In so doing, we discovered one of the strangest landscapes in Britain: the huge expanse of peat bog over which the Kinder river winds, or “scouts”, until reaches the gritstone crags on the edge of the plateau known as Kinder Downfall. The names on the map tell you a lot about the place: Madwoman's Stones, Seal Stones, Ringing Rodger (a corruption, perhaps, of rotcher, an outcrop?). The place is riven with deep clefts in the peat, worn away by water. On the Kinder plateau it does not take a lot of imagination to imagine you're on the surface of another planet. We were hooked.

The aura that surrounds Kinder is, of course, enhanced by its history: this is the place where hill-walking in Britain became politicised. The story of the Kinder Mass Trespass is well known, as is Ewan McColl's song, The Manchester Rambler. I suspect many readers will know it, but will enjoy reading a few verses nevertheless. They tell the story of the conflict between the landowners and the ramblers, better than I can:

The day was just ending as I was descending
Through Grindsbrook by Upper-Tor,
When a voice cried, "Hey , you!" in the way keepers do,
(He'd the worst face that ever I saw).
The things that he said were unpleasant;
In the teeth of his fury I said
That sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead.

I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler from Manchester way,
I get all my pleasure the hard moorland way.
I may be a wage slave on Monday,
But I am a free man on Sunday.

He called me a louse and said, "Think of the grouse."
Well - I thought but I still couldn't see
Why old Kinder Scout and the moors round about
Couldn't take both the poor grouse and me.
He said, "All this land is my master's!"
At that I stood shaking my head, -
No man has the right to own mountains
Any more than the deep ocean bed.

I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler, etc.

Next, we were off to North Wales. Another friend's eyes had lit up when he heard of our Kinder Scout exploits. Our next expedition, he insisted, should be nothing less than a traverse of the Welsh 3,000-foot peaks. In retrospect, it was an over-ambitious project: there are fourteen of them (or fifteen – it depends how you count them) and half way up the first one, we realized we were never going to make it. I said half way up the first one, but this is not strictly true. On consulting our map at the summit we discovered we had climbed the wrong one. This was Llwytmor, a mere 2,750 feet. In the end, some of us managed to climb four (or five – it depends how you count them), including Tryfan, which must be considered one of the most alluring mountains on the British mainland. It is often said to be the only one that requires you to use your hands to hold on during the ascent. We had a fantastic time and I still wonder how we managed to achieve what we did: we had opted to camp en route and were each carrying about 40lb! Some of us had shelled out good money -heaven knows why, looking back- on expensive gear. We might not have been wage slaves when we were up there in the hills – but fashion slaves? Hm.

If only I'd read WH Murray back then. Shortly after the war, he spent five days rock climbing on Rhum with a friend, Michael Ward, who he describes as a “a magnificent rock-snow-ice climber”:

“Ward had excelled himself. He turned up wearing the torn and patched jacket of an old lounge suit. The patches were of black cloth, probably cut out of wartime curtains, and they had been clumsily sewn on by himself. However, the jacket served to cover a navy blue rugger jersey, which was all that he wore underneath (the weather was cold). The trousers were particularly shapeless, even for navy-blue serge, and most wonderfully frayed. He might have passed for a tramp, utterly down and out, were it not for that upright bearing – and a food-filled rucksack. He had brought no change of clothing from London.”

from Undiscovered Scotland (1951)

I've climbed Tryfan many times since. There is a farm at the foot of it, Williams Farm. Occasionally I've camped there. I have memories of going there with my children when we all climbed the mountain together and, years before that, with various friends. Of sitting round in a tent playing cards, while rain drummed on the roof. Of driving to nearby Bethesda one night, and returning with a box of Mr Kipling's “exceedingly good” cakes. (Fondant fancies, in fact. Food can seem so much more important when it's cold, dark and there's no telly). Of a solitary “skinny dip” in a stream at 6am one Easter. Unforgettable stuff. Come to think of it, it's about time I went back.


Rachel Fox said...

Interesting note about the name of the Peak District!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Somewhere (I have just tried to locate it, but I can't) I have a book about women climbers/explorers called "The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt." When I pass Kilnsey Crag these days and see climbers in such scanty gear and such ultra light-weight shoes I wonder how those early climbers ever managed to get to the top.

BarbaraS said...

Great post: I love mountains and anything to do with climbing or fell-walking. Obviously I don't get out as much as I used to in me pre-six-kids days, but I still head for the hills when I can. We live just beside the Cooley Mountains, which sweep down into Dundalk bay (just opposite Sellafield - nice.) home to the legends of Cuchulainn. In turn they are just beside the Mourne mountains. See? Now you have me started! I'd love to walk all around the Peak District some day.

The Solitary Walker said...

I love Tryfan. Have camped once at that farm too!

Poet in Residence said...

Brother went in shop near Bethesda and asked for pack of Peter Stuyvesant cigs. Reply after bit of head scratching: "Sorry, can't help you there. Doesn't live round here."

Don't forget your brolly. Could rain.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. The call of the outdoors does pull me hard and I hope to get out and about a bit more one day. Even though I lived in Bangor for four years, I have only ever actually 'climbed' one of the mountains (I don't suppose tsking the train to the top of Snowdon counts?). Anyway, the mountain I have climbed is one if the Glyders. This was actually when I was on a geography field trip with my school. We managed to get horribly lost, even though we reached the top. None of us had any appropriate clothing and, on meeting some RAF blokes up there, were called 'idiots'. More strictly, it was our teachers who were the idiots as we were just following orders. We had to scramble down a very steep scree slope to get down and one of our teachers looked like she was about to have a nervous breakdown. On return to school, we never saw her again. Quite an event. I now live in South Wales, where every incline is called a mountain but there are some lovely walks.

Dominic Rivron said...

Rachel: You've got me checking my history. It's more complicated than I thought. The National Park website says: "...the area was occupied in the 7th century AD by an Anglo-Saxon tribe called the Peacsaetna - meaning 'dwellers of the peak'. This is thought to be the earliest known naming of the area as the Peak or Peaks." So the area could be named after the tribe which was, er, named after the peak(s).
Weaver: I think we are easily convinced that we need things. I've never read The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt, but WH Murray's writings are peppered with references to the minimal makeshift equipment of his day. After WW2 mountian walkers and climbers were well provided for by a massive army surplus market. As this dried up, specialist gear producers expanded to fill the gap, leading to the situation we find ourselves in today.
BarbaraS: I've often wanted to visit the mountains of Eire myself, particularly McGillicuddy's Reeks.
SW: Amazing mountain, isn't it?
PiR: Perhaps he was thinking of the Peter Stuyvesant who lives in Capel Curig. :) I keep meaning to get myself a decent umbrella to take walking. (For some reason walkers have always considered umbrellas "uncool").

Dominic Rivron said...

Singing Bear: Good story. It reminded me of another(I forgot where I read it), of a walker encountering a man on the summit ridge of the Glyders dressed in a business suit, sat on a rock with his bowler hat and open briefcase beside him, having a shave. He said he was a lawyer, had been driving to work past the Glyders and had, on impulse, cancelled his appointments and walked to the top.

Anonymous said...

As a student I was at a somewhat robust progressive school in Yorkshire and we did all of our year-round rambling across Malhamdale. (And, for one memorable fortnight, on Rhum.) We professed to resent the relentless slog through horizontal rain, the building of fires in the darkness when all we wanted to do was eat and then sleep and the nights under army surplus canvas. But I wouldn't have missed the experience for the world. Your good post has revived recollections of those pleasures and pains!

Dominic Rivron said...

Malhamdale is not far from here. Great for school parties, I should think. Interesting, how we learn as we grow up that some things that are superficially unpleasant are in fact very rewarding.

Sorlil said...

I love hillwalking but don't get out to do it as nearly as much as I want to - my new year's resolution!