There’s a Point To The Map!

Most of the best walking days are up high but most not all. As with most things variety can ball important. So, yesterday saw me walking the Wedlock Edge from the Shropshire village of Much Wenlock to Craven Arms. This is a good day of walking, eighteen miles or so of reasonably undemanding walking _ the kind of walk that allows you to just chill out, contemplate life and take in your surroundings.

The ‘Edge’ is the first of three major ridges that the traveller encounters when travelling West towards Wales. Beyond the edge are the Long Mynd (often thought of as a mountain but really a ridge) and the Stipperstone ridge. Further West is the offer’s Dyke and the misty land of Wales where there be dragons.

I try and do this walk at least four times a year, once in each of the seasons for the different phases of the year bring out very different characteristics of the landscape. The short climb up to the ridge soon has the walker engulfed by the woodland that is a feature of much of this walk which can be broken up into three sections.

The first section takes a land rover track through dense woodland. This is a working landscape and you are more likely to come across forestry workers than walkers. In winter gaps in the foliage reveal fertile farming country on both sides of this narrow ridge. But in summer the foliage is dense and the walker is closeted by green. As the day warms the woodland smells are totally seductive. These are deciduous woodlands which reverberate to wonderful birdsong. You may be walking alone but you never feel alone.

After a while the track ends and leaves behind the undulating woodland walk for a disused railway line but one that is now encased in woodland. The tree line breaks now to reveal the glorious hill of Caradoc and the Mynd beyond.

The final stretch seems much seldom walked. Here the vehicle tracks give way to narrow walker’s paths that plunge back into dense woodland. On such a long and straight walk memory always plays tricks, so much so that I am never really sure where I am and can only judge progress through time. Eventually the track peters out and takes you down to a series of delightful country lanes which run on to Craven Arms. While actual location is sometimes hard to discern the route is pretty simple; you follow it to the end. There’s no need for a map once you’ve done its few times.

But not today. The Forestry Commission had moved in to thin the woodland. In all the years I have walked here I have become used to meeting and chatting to foresters in the early parts of the walk but I have never seen them on this stretch. New tracks had been bulldozed to give props access to the timber. Prominent signs asked walkers to follow directions and instructions. Suddenly my route was not so clear and my usual narrow path had gone. I only had my phone maps with me and picking a new route —  in full sunshine — along the lanes proved difficult. The easier choice was to drop down to the main road but the new forest paths deposited me further out that expected. And so followed a trudge along the main road. Depressing this but I convinced myself that it was good training for a future TGO where it is often difficult to avoid the A9.

No, if I had been carrying a map ….

… next time I will be!

The Growing Impact of New Media — Outdoors Station Live Feed

The accelerating growth of new media over traditional forms of print and journalism were rammed home to me this week, a week in which I contributed to my first ‘YouTube’ Live Stream with Bob over at the Outdoors Station.

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Review: The Making of the British Landscape, by Nicholas Crane

Many hill walkers and trekkers will know Nicholas Crane as the man who — immediately after getting married  — set off on a two year walk across the watershed of Europe!  Other readers will know Crane as a contributor to the BBC factual series Coast.

This is a book that I’ve been wanting to read for a while and, finally, I was given it as a birthday present. I wasn’t disappointed!

If you think that a history of the British landscape might be difficult to pull off you would be right. But in many ways this book much more than a history of a landscape, it is a pretty good a natural history and societal history of Britain as well, for there is little that this book doesn’t explore. But don’t let this worry you! As ever Crane’s style is both engaging and fascinating to follow.

The book — written in distinct sections — starts with the ancient geographical and geological history of these islands (well even before we were a group of islands). We follow the footsteps of the earliest inhabitants. We are introduced to the impact and significance of past ‘ice ages’ and periods of warming. Of course, there is our separation from Europe when the confluence of the Thames and the Rhine deepened to become the English Channel and begin the sinking of Doggerland.

Ancient civilisations and cultures are covered in some detail. We follow the movement of hunter gatherers as they make their way from the South and Crane contrasts British development and society against that of Mesopotamia at the same time. Then there were the Romans, the defeat and exist of the Romans, the reversion back to a ‘British’ culture and society, the arrival of the Vikings, the Normans and so on. Each of these migrants or invaders left their mark not only on the society of the nation but on its landscape and its natural world. Readers may be surprised (as I was) by how quickly the British Wildwood was cleared.

Humans, of course, shaped our landscape, the most obvious example of that most readily seen by hillwalkers is how sheep grazing changed our world. But much of this book is concerned with the developing urbanisation of the nation and its impact on these islands.  Disease and natural disaster also had a big impact on population and therefore landscape.

As we move towards modern times we have the impact of the enclosure movement and the clearances in the Scottish Highlands. Britain was very quickly recognised as a land of riches by many, partially due to the abundance of natural materials such as lumber, iron, coal, copper and tin and by the variety of landscape in such a compact area and, of course, these natural advantages helped Britain become the world leader in industrialisation.

Crane deals really well with the conflict between the modernising of the world and tradition. There was the draining of the fens — in particular Englands largest inland lake — in order to maximise arable farming (the fenland was 30% more productive than other comparable farming areas). There was the development and introduction of fertilisers which changed crop production and therefore the landscape. The mechanised age brought with it canals that changed markets though supply and demand, the development of stream and the power-driven plough and, of course, trains and latterly cars.

International trade has also had a big impact on our landscape but Crane shows how even this can occasionally reflect on our past natural history. Agricultural markets collapsed at one point under the pressure of poor harvests and the growing ease of important crops and cereals from elsewhere in the world. Much arable land was abandoned and it took but thirty years for the wildwood to reassert itself, before the next wave of development took hold.

In modern times war, our links with Europe and the rise of new technologies continued — and continue — to shape our landscape. Crane ends the book considering the sustainability of our landscape and economy and the impact climate change is having on these islands.

This is not only a fascinating book but an absolute triumph. Like many of the best books on the natural world, and on history, the book doesn’t necessarily tell you much that you didn’t know already but it provides real insights through the context in which development is placed.

Thoroughly recommended.

Also not to be missed:

Danger, Excitement and Death In The Mountains

Once again, our news media is highlighting the ‘danger’ of mountaineering. One the last week or so we’ve had the stories of the lightening strike in the Scottish Highlands, the groups disaster on Nanda Devi and, of course, yet another disaster on Everest. And earlier this year we lost one of greta hillwalking community Steve Perry

At the most basic level mountaineering is a high risk activity but like many such activities it presents challenges and rewards the nature of which are not readily understood by many who have never experienced them, even at a basic level that many of us mountain walkers have experienced.

Most of the people I know — or have walked with — understand risk and danger. There have been a few exceptions to this but I sense that those I’ve met in this category have a whole series of other issues to play with. But, no matter how concerned we can be about people, the outdoors itself — and its community and industry — can’t be responsible for this. Risk is risk and it is an integral part of the outdoors world.

Some things though do challenge this view quite profoundly and the enigma of Everest does that.

Most of us who read about mountains are very aware of the slightly dark and dodgy side of the Everest world/industry. For some it seems that the only criteria for booking a trip up Everest is the ability to pay the costs of the expedition. I’ve read stories of people who have virtually no experience of hillwalking let alone mountain climbing. During the last few weeks the recent coverage of the Everest disasters have revealed people being taken up the mountain who have never used crampons before!

Now, this is not a criticism of the trekking companies of Everest companies per se. Many are responsible and the best very ethical, investing in the education and sustainable development local communities and carrying out environmental clean-ups on the mountain itself. But, there are the others — the ones who don’t check on background and experience but happily take the cash.

Here’s a thing. If something like this happened in the UK, or in Europe, there would be an inquest (or some similar investigative process). The inquest would establish the standards that operators are working to and also their culpability in any disaster. Perhaps, we are all just unlucky that the most challenging and attractive mountains are in a country that doesn’t have the developed institutions that we take for granted in other parts of the world. Imagine an inquest here hearing that somebody who had died on Everest hadn’t even worn crampons before? Imagine the uproar when witnesses described the almost manic determination to step over dead bodied to get to the top? Any inquest or investigative system would put paid to the cowboys or those who are reckless in cutting corners.

But maybe I shouldn’t be worried about all this. After all, if some rich idiot wants to put their life at risk then maybe none of us should be worried. But, there may be other longer term challenges. I’ve heard it suggested recently that climate change is creating greater uncertainty with Himalayan weather, that clear periods of weather are no longer as guaranteed that they once were and that the temptation to move when there is a slight change in the weather is now so great that caution is too easily thrown away.

I’ve filed this under my ‘Ramblings’ category, which really means thinking aloud. But i’m interested in what the team thinks!

Video: Hiking & Backpacking in the Pyrenees with Hendrik

A quick response to my Pyrenees 2019 post came from Finnish hiker Hendrik Morkel. Hendrik’s video series features a hike he took last summer with his friend Martin. The hike started and finished in Andorra and features sections in both Spain and France.

In the videos Hendrick and Martin give the viewer a great feel of how the mountains look and feel. Being decidedly younger than me Hendrik has also used some new technology. Not only do the pictures move but one of them must have been carrying a drone — which makes for some superb ‘helicopter’ shots.

There are seven videos in the series and in each one Hendrik not only shares with his the video he shot during the day but talks to camera about each excursion.

These videos really do give you a feel for the mountains and, in particular, demonstrate the difference between the Spanish GR11 side and the French GR10 side.

The first video is here. Follow the link to YouTube to view the whole series. Thanks Hendrik.

 

Pyrenees 2019?

Walking up Ordessa

Over the last few weeks I’ve started to receive a lot of emails about trips to the Pyrenees this summer. I have to apologise for the Pyrenees Forum not being operable at the moment (more below). However, I thought I’d put together some thoughts which map against many of these emails. I’m always happy to answer emails and help if I can!

 

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Familiarity and The Inevitability of Change

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There’s nothing quite like a trekking or hiking adventure on unknown territory but sometimes a familiar walk — a long walk — is what the doctor ordered. Especially when the weather forecast is turning good!

Local hills can be superb not least — as I’ve said before — because you don’t need to worry about maps and navigation. A long walk over familiar ground give the time and space for observation, for taking in the minute changes of the seasons and landscape.

On this trip I headed out for a twenty mile or so all over really well-known land. Almost immediately I was reminded that I haven’t started this walk from this starting point for a few years. I took a minor road from the village centre and hoped over a style at the point where the houses end. This sin’t the most spectacular of walks but I always find it fascinating. A path cuts alongside intensively cultivated fields. Sometimes I find walking through a field of stubble, sometimes next to freshly ploughed land and occasionally through a field of maize that is taller than me. But today was something of a greater surprise.

I nipped over the style and — head down — headed off into a … small housing development! When did this appear?

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I trotted down the path on the right and immediately hoped over another style to find another small development.

These ‘in-fill’ developments are the result of the regional housing strategy that is designed to fuel the demand for property. There are lots of pressures for homes, not least in this area for reasonably prided housing for locals who have bene frozen out by the spreading of suburbia and the invasion of second home owners. A quick look around showed most of the house inhabited with owners at home. It didn’t look as if these were for locals; they had the unmistaken air of retirement homes.

Soon I was back on the field. Since the last time I was here footpath signs have been refreshed, styles refurbished and the routes generally tidied up.

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Despite this being a school holiday there was virtually nobody else out walking. I stopped to chat to a farmer who was busy erecting a new field fence. He warmly pointed out the correct direction of the walk. He’d only taken on the farm twelve months ago. He was hoping he could sheep out grazing on the ground soon. I realised the patch I’d been walking through was a bit scruffier than in the past. The sheep would soon tidy the place up a bit.

On the next step of land I felt disoriented. I’d been following signs for the Shropshire Way but these had taken me away from my usual route. This stretch of the walk is often a bit of a trudge, waling through ought woodland that is often soggy and waterlogged. A new path had been created to avoid the mud and let me on to a delightful woodland track, the path now immeasurably improved/

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As delightful as this woodland walking was it was a relief to climb onto the high moors.  The air was full of skylark singing. A gentle warm breeze floated from the  south west. My only company for this wonderful ridge walk were a few ponies and some sheep, the young lambs not at that age where they are curious and full of exploration.

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Finally, as I headed off the ridge I met a fellow walker. By now the clouds had burnt off and the sun’s shadows were lengthening. We congratulated ourselves on stealing some solitary time on these hills. 

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It was time to head back to the train station. The walk had been long enough to take in so much that you would miss on a route-march style trek.  The walk had been much improved by those little freaks that had been made to the Shropshire Way.

Sometimes the familiar ways are the best.

As The 2019 TGO Challenge Comes To An End: The Slightly Weird Impact of Social Media

As today roles on most TGO challengers — well those who didn’t complete their trip yesterday — will be signing off in Montrose. Tonight there will be the dinner, the speeches and the certificates and presentations. And then it will be home again, until next year.

It has been fascinating following this year’s event. I had to pull out because of a series of care issues to do with my elderly mother that needed to take precedence. I figured I wouldn’t have prepared properly and might not have enjoyed the walk. And if I’m walking across Scotland I want to be able to enjoy it to the full. Still, as I always say, the mountains will always be there next year.

These days it is possible to follow the event on social media. You’ve been able to do this for a while but this year feels very different to me.

Back in the day (about five years ago) walkers Tweeted and Facebooked their messages at the start point. Then they disappeared into the hills for three or four days, only re-emerging at the Great Glen. Then they disappeared again to surface in the Cairngorms before more radio silence until they got to Braemar or Ballater. Somehow, these periods of radio silence added to the sense of adventure and drama.

But these days are long gone. Now it appears that Challengers can get a signal even on top of the most isolated hill. You can settle down each evening and trace that day’s adventure. It is almost as if you are walking along with your favourite mates.

All of which feel a bit weird to me. Of course, as humans we have an almost overwhelming desire to communicate but I wonder if this constant communication takes the edge off the event, makes it feel less special or challenging?

Of course, Challengers still have to do the actual walking. Navigation can still be a challenge and the weather almost certainly is at some point. For me the best part of the Challenge — especially a solo trip — are those days of solitude. I suppose people can still be solitary while sending messages to the world. But it still seems odd to me!

Anyhow, enough of the rambling on. To all you Challengers, congratulations on your walk. Have a great evening. I can imagine you now, sitting in the bar of the Park Hotel reliving stories, talking endlessly about rucksacks and tents and — if you are Lee or Tony — downing more Guinness than seems advisable.

I’ve missed you. See you next year.

Review: There’s Always The Hills by Cameron McNeish

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I’ve been meaning to view this book for ages but as the blog has been in suspended animation I’ve simply not got around to it. Last week’s new that Cameron was retiring from the telly’ prompted me to get on with it.

Many of us know Cameron and many TGO Challengers know him personally through his long years as editor of that magazine. Cameron retired at 60 as he felt it was wrong to keep editing such a magazine after that but this then allowed him to turn his focus to the Wilderness Walks series that he made for the BBC and to the walking of trails old and new, from Skye to the length of Scotland. As ever with a ‘celebrity’ we feel that we know him well but that’s the point of a good biography, it tells us the story or the author got to be the person that they are, the experiences that made a difference, the opportunities that had to be grasped and — almost inevitably — the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

‘There’s Always The Hill’s’ is an autobiography but one in which the outdoors takes centre stage. We learn of Cameron’s first trips to the hills from inner city Glasgow, to his meeting and then marrying a local nurse Gina. We get the passionate and focus of the young man as he sets out to make the hills the centre of his life.

I’m stuck by how many of ur great outdoor writers — for example Kev Reynolds — have become hostel wardens (both here and abroad) to literally get out into the hills and the mountains. Cameron is such writer. Taking up the wardenship of a hostel in Aberdeen too him close to the Cairngorms and a move to Aviemore located him right in the middle of them. We follow Cameron and Gina from Aviemore to Kincraig and then on to Newtonmore, where they are still based today.

Like many autobiographies of this type it’s the early years that I find the most fascinating, the struggle to get out into then hill and the gamble to try and make a living from them.  There’s also a fascinating account of entering jounralism, the story of the developing TGO magazine and so on.  Perhaps, we know too much of Cameron’s recent work but the early years and struggles are what makes the book for me.

Cameron always seems to have an almost perverse sense of humour, for example championing the TGO Challenge while personally having no interest in the event whatsoever. Cameron only did the Challenge one — when he’d decided to retire. Many of us remember him on that walk but far more of us remember Gina who has tackled the event on a number of occasions. Cameron once told me that he preferred to be out on his own, in no small part he thought due to his shyness. Many would laugh at the notion of Cameron’s shyness but I think it shines through here as well. Aw with many, overcoming reservation and shyness often seems to make some people ‘larger than life’ and that’s certainly as I see Cameron.

Anyhow, I won’t spoil too much of the book; you really should read it for yourself.

At seventy retiring from the TV work will allow Cameron to have his summer’s back again and to continue to head to the hills — both here at home and further afield abroad. I doubt he’s going to disappear totally, this would see against the grain of his life so far (and I see he is still writing content for Walk Highlands).

But this seems the right time to say thanks for the magazines, the guidebooks and those TV shows. I really appreciate the way in which Cameron’s TV pieces have shown how to adapt to age, the focus on the mountain bike and the importance of the camper van. I’m sure he has many years of walking left in him yet but ‘There’s Always the Hills’ is the account of a hillwalking life that — without doubt — has indeed been well lived.

 

Tragic Death of Mountaineer Steve Perry

This morning I heard the very sad news that mountaineer Steve Perry has died while climbing with Andy Nisbet on Ben Hope, the most northerly of the Munros.

Long-term readers of this blog will remember that Steve used to cop up quite often in these pages. Scotland was Steve’s first love and he will always be remembered as the man who completed the first continuous, winter, round of the Munros (raising over £3000 for Cancer Research along the way). Steve also embraced the TGO Challenge. He moved up to Scotland to be nearer his beloved hills.

Steve was interviewed by the outdoors Station on a few occasions and you can hear him there talking about the famous winter walk and about life in general — an interview recorded at Kinbreak Bothy while on the TGO Challenge.

It’s a reminder I guess of how dangerous mountains can be, but Steve loved those mountains!