Review: There’s Always The Hills by Cameron McNeish


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.


Book Reviews: Books Needed!

One of the things I have enjoyed most about this blog is reviewing books, as well as websites and other material. As things have gone a bit quieter the review books have stopped flowing. As the blog is now up and running again I’m in the business to start reviewing again.

Often a book will also be featured on a podcast for the outdoors station. I have also happily hosted competitions for a reader to win the book after it has been reviewed.

If any authors or publishers wish to get in touch about a review, please email me here: andy.howell AT me DOT com.

Review: Footprints on the Mountain, the news from the Pyrenees by Steve Cracknell

Early in the life of this blog I started reviewing books, travel literature and trail guides. Then publishers and authors started sending me books to review and I began the practice off ending each review with an Amazon link so readers could compare my thoughts with those of others. The Amazon links give me a small commission each time somebody buys something as a result of a click on one of these links (warning — you will never get rich doing this). This service also allows me to see which of these books have proven to be most popular in terms of purchase. The results have often been quite unexpected.

Mostly these purchase ‘charts’ are topped by the you might expect to find in such a list, for example long distance trekker Chris Townsend. But every time I look at the tables one name always features — Steve Cracknell — and his If Only I Walk Long Enough, his account of walking the GR10.

Now Steve has turned his attention to the Spanish GR11, or La Senda and I have no doubt that this will become another slow burn hit.

Like the previous book, Footprints on the Mountains sets out to be more than an extended trail journal. Memories of the trail are enhanced by notes on local history and observations of local culture. The terrain — and the effort required to cross it — is detailed with honesty and a certain humility. Steve is not a man simply racing through the landscape. He is a man who savours the journey, takes great pleasure in the company he keeps on the trail and who is genuinely interested in the local cultures he encounters along the way.

The secret of the success of If Only I Walk Long Enough was that the book gave you a real impression of what it was really like to walk the trail. Many of those you encounter in the Pyrenees are tackling the walk later in life. Some are tackling long distance trails for the first time. Most are walking the trails in sections, sometimes over a number of years. While some guide books seem to revel in ridiculously long and hard days, and single multi week journeys, Steve’s books more reflect the experience that most of us will have.

Steve also shares, I think, one of my own views. Race through this landscape too quickly as you simply miss so much. Avoid your fellow walkers and you miss so much of the camaraderie des montagnes as the French say. And to pass by local history is a real shame for this is a fascinating area. As Steve suggests in the book the Pyrenees are really a land all of their own, a non-state place that exists on both sides of the border with a shared economy, shared culture and even shared languages, based on the Basque cultures of the West and the Catalan cultures in the East. Take your time. Look and learn. Let it all sink in.

Steve walked the trail from the Atlantic to the Med, west to east. On the GR10 the vast majority of walkers go in this direction but with the GR11 many more walk from east to west. Starting in the Basque country Steve seems in no hurry to get going and book opens with an extended account of the towns and villages he explores before setting off. This works very effectively and sets the scene for the book as well as setting the pace. A walk along the Pyrenees can offer so much and Steve’s preambles seem to prepare the reader for this very effectively.

If you are thinking of walking the entire trail, or just a part of it, this book will give you a real feel for how the trail works and what it is like underfoot. The GR10 is a classically French invention, starting and finishing each day in a village with a bar, a hostel or a campsite. Planning and then walking is relatively painless (apart from the usual muscle pain that is) as you cross high plateau and walk through lovely forest. The GR11 is more solitary and more rugged, its trails and terrain more demanding. It is not as developed as the French Trail and often the day ends at an isolated hut or hostel where the French equivalent would end in a more luxurious setting. Yet this is no wilderness adventure with days on end of wild camping. Steve completed his walk without (I think) one night in a tent, staying at mountain refugios, hostels and small village hotels. If you are thinking about the same and of trip you will find a lot of useful information here and you can also get a good feel of the side trips off the trail that are needed to find these kind of hostelries.

The book is useful in all kinds of other ways as well. Steve started walking relatively early on in the season and encounters a lot of snow. An ice axe and crampons were required. Steve is not an experienced winter walker and so his descriptions of using this equipment and of crossing snow and ice fields is all very helpful.

The Pyrenees are big and proper mountains of the kind not found in the UK. The  trail while long is sharper and steeper than many of the long distance routes in the US. Real planning and research is needed when route planning, understanding how the route alternatives work and so on. Itineraries need to be relatively flexible. These are trails that most relatively healthy walkers can tackle relatively happily but guide books often do not help you prepare effectively. During this walk Steve is constantly meeting walkers coming in the other direction. He often has to warn them about large and potentially dangerous won fields. Their response is often the same — the guidebook didn’t say anything about snow. And that’s the point. The season in the high mountains is a short one  and snow can linger long and hard on the shadier parts of the mountain, even into August.

So, this is a great book to read if you are thinking of tackling all or part of the Senda. If you have walked the GR10 and fancy tackling its Spanish cousin then this is the book that will show you the differences between the two. But there is more here besides, much more.

Steve has developed his writing style a lot since If Only I Walk Long Enough. In many ways the new book reminds me a lot of Chris Townsend’s recent work. On completing the walk Steve has painstakingly researched a lot of the local history and setting out with this already in your head can only enhance the experience of your own walk. There is so much to know about and to explore here. There are old and ancient communities, deserted settlements, man made interventions such as reservoirs and hydro schemes. In the West there is the struggle for the survival and development of the Basque culture. In the East there are memories of the civil war and the fight again racism. There is nature too, the attempt to rebuild the community of Pyrenean Ibex and the more controversial campaign to re-introduce the brown bear (there are currently estimated to be 30 bears living across the Pyrenees so hikers need not worry about them too much). The wolf seems to be re-introducing itself, by all accounts migrating across France from Italy. And in the middle there is Andorra, that weird anomaly of history that has resulted in a whole nation — economy, culture and all — completely devoted to the art of shopping. 

I’ve not walked the whole of the GR11 but I’ve always enjoyed my time here. The path is higher, more rugged and more solitary than the GR10 and demands more thoughtful planning. The sections featuring the snow should be considered carefully. More than once I’ve met small groups descending from the GR11 quite traumatised by their high mountain experience. But prepare properly and the Pyrenees will reward you handsomely.

This book will no doubt become a firm favourite amongst lovers of the Pyrenees. The French GR10 is more developed and therefore more popular than the GR11, but the later is a trail that should be better known.

As with the GR10 Steve has developed a website/blog too accompany the book — to accompany These are great sources of information as well as sources of news and other information which benefit from Steve being a local to these mountains.


Nan Shepherd on the Fiver!

Everyone and them something happens to remind you just what an unenlightened society we are. No more than a few years ago a friend of mine started a campaign to get the Bank of England to commemorate the lives of women on their notes. I was amazed to realise that this hadn’t happened before.

Anyhow, the habit has now caught on. This morning it was announced that Nan Shepherd would feature in the Scottish £5 note. In many ways this is a remarkable choice and one that all hill walkers should welcome.

Shepherd was not really that prolific but she was one of the Scottish modernist fiction writers. Although her last novel was published in 1933 it was her small homage to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, that was considered her greatest achievement.

Shepherd spent all of her life in our around the Cairngorms and she was able to write about the range almost better than anyone else before or since. While written during the 1940s The Living Mountain is pretty timeless as these mountains don’t change much. That is not to see that there are not contemporary notes here, for example the second world war does feature. But the observations she makes, the emotions and feelings stirred by this rugged landscape and timeless.

The Living Mountain is a short book and pretty easy to digest, although every sentence has real impact. It is also widely available as an e-book.

For any hillwalker who loves the Highlands, this is almost required reading.


Review: The Naked Shore: Of the North Sea, by Tom Blass

I grew up with travel books and ‘travel literature’ has been a constant pretty much all of my life.  Travel literature has been around for a long time but, perhaps, came into its own after the second world war. As we moved through the 60s and 70s travel became more democratised. It became easier to research and to plan trips and travel also became more affordable. And there was still a lot to discover and to write about. While western economies were developing there were still many places in the world that were unspoilt or where local cultures had experienced only minimal exposure from the outside world.

You will have your own favourite authors but in all honesty I’ve fallen out with the genre in recent years. It is arguably too easy now to write a travel book. So many have been written that there seems little space for innovation. We are obsessed with celebrity travel. Books seem less profound and more about echoing television entertainment than about being inspirational in the way,well, only a book can. There appears to little new to write about. it all becomes very formulaic. And then something pops out of nowhere and thrills you once again! 

The Naked Shore is a great book based around a proposition so simple that I’m amazed this hasn’t been done before. Tom Blass sets out to explore the North Sea, travelling north from the mouth of the Thames crossing endlessly over the sea to the continent and back again.

The North Sea is a dark and forbidding place, not exotic in the tropical sense but no less complex and surprising. To some extent we can see shared culture that you might not first imagine, through the Saxon and the Vikings and then through the traders of the hanseatic League. But we also have fascinating sub cultures, sailed communities that scarcely figure on the map. While we might simply blink at the mention of some of these places today and then move on, some of thee tiny pieces of rock assumed ridiculous importance in years gone by.

First off, Blass explores the Thames from Tilbury to the sea; it is at Tilbury that the Thames river pilots give way to sea pilots. This is the land of Great Expectations, of mist and marsh bt also of modern economic development and growth. Past Southend the Shoeburyness marshes are a weird and wonderful places still used by the military, conjuring up a word;d all of its own. On the opposite side of the sea the river Shelde (running through the great port of Antwerp) is often seen as the twin of the Thames. but of course these two rivers run a different course through the history and culture of place as much as they share a similar natural history.

Bless focuses on both the ancient and the modern, on geology and on today’s geo politics. And then there is the lost land of ‘Doggerland’, a once well inhabited bridge of land between ourselves and the continent, memories and remnants of which show up occasionally in extreme weather conditions and in the nets of fisherman.

The island communities are fascinating. Heligoland while now just a blip in the ocean off hamburg was once seen as important enough to be traded and bargained for by nations on both sides of the water. Further north there are some even stranger island communities but I won’t spoil that for you here!

And then there are industrial bases, the tough towns and communities of North Lincolnshire and the Humber. Fishing predominates here and the social and economic industries is no less fascinating than the geological and natural history of the region.

Blass writes beautifully. It is something of an achievement to produce such a riveting, entertaining and educational book about an area so close to home, that we all think we know so well.

Seriously recommended!


Review: Lakeland: Walking With Wildlife, by Alan Gane

On of the great things about hillwalking is that it is often the perfect occupation for melding with other hobbies, photography particularly comes to mind here. Perhaps, understandably a love of the great outdoors, of walking the heights, is most often combined with a love of the wider natural environment, of geology and geography and, of course, wildlife.

Alan Gane is a hillwalker who having retired as an agricultural researcher has spent “much of his time fell-walking, watching and photographing wildlife and giving talks on the subject …” Gane was a partner in UNICEF and his knowledgeable and scientific commitment to the natural world is very much on evidence here.


[Read more…]

Review: Space to Wonder, A guide to trekking the mountain frontier of the Pyrenees, by Gordon Wilson

From the emails it is clear that the planning season for high mountain treks has started. So, here’s a book that is very welcome, socially if you are now obsessed with land speed records or take a more relaxed attitude to hiking than many. If hotel, refuges and refugees are more your thing than, say, a bivy up high — well, this is a boo for you.

[Read more…]

Review: Balancing on Blue, by Keith Foskett

It is not that difficult to write a mediocre trail journal, one that adds little to the many that have come before. What is more of an achievement is to produce a trail journal that is inventive and which brings something new to the genre. Fortunately for us, Keith Foskett slips into the latter category with his new book Balancing on Blue, an account of his walk on the Appalachian Trail, a 2,700 mile trail from Georgia in the deep South to Maine in the North.

Keith captures the reader right from the first few sentences. The book starts with a number of short pieces, not by him but by those he walked the trail with. This introduction gives us an insight into Keith’s walkers, their motivations for walking the trail and something about their background. There are those who have always loved the outdoors but have fallen into dead end jobs; they are looking for relief and for escape. There are others who have spent their young lives engaged in intensive academic studies. One is a professional juggler, dedicated to his task who’s talents eventually see him as a World Champion; this trip is his chance to experience a completely different world. And there is one character who’s life has been driven almost completely, firstly by his own family and secondly by that of his wife. He has of trekking the wilderness and so he wakes upon morning and announces to his wife he will be leaving for the next eight months of so!

Within the first few pages it is clear we are not talking you average trail journal! These initial vignettes give way to both the start of Keith’s journey but they also lead us into Keith’s story, naturally flowing from the introductions from the others.  Here Keith wants us to understand what drove him to travel, to explore the wilderness of the trail. As a young man he wasn’t suited to school and left early for a series of mind numbing jobs in offices. He had a difficult time in his twenties, a natural introvert he had difficult relating to groups bigger than four and difficulty forming lasting relationships. We might think of him as a loner but that would be unfair. Keith stands up for introverts. They take their time, they observe, they come up with solutions. The world owes much to the introvert.

Keith describes what sounds like a pretty miserable. It was travel — of all kinds and not just the trail — that saved him. Keith describes himself from someone partial to dromonania —  from the latin dromas (runner) and mania (excessive or unreasonable desire, even insanity). Dromonania is an uncontrollable impulse to wonder, but it is an obsession that you get the impression saved Keith.

No, if you thought this was going to be a book about the solitary life on the trail of a self confessed loner, you would be very wrong. This is a book about the trail community, about comradeship on the AT.

Walking any lateral trail will inevitably see you meeting up regularly with that group of hikers who move more or less at your pace. At the first miles are tackled the relationships come together and much of the book describes what comes to be recognised as a good trail team.  The team shares responsibility, looks after those of the group who suffer bad days or illness. They share technique, they share the challenge of overcoming obstacles, the share information about gear but mostly the share their love of the natural world and of the wide open spaces of the trail.

Of course, all the usual trail elements are here as well and I’m glad they are. The AT is, perhaps, not as well known — or as well written about in recent years — and the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT and the Continental Divide Trail go through western territory, crossing desert and mountains such as the high Sierra. In the main the AT forges a green corridor with most of the walk being in forest, with only the occasional glimpse of a vista or a break for mountain summit. The terrain dictates a different technique as well — this is as much (or more) the land of the hammock than of the tarp pitched on flat ground. Anyone looking to walk the AT, either on its own or as part of the ‘Triple Crown’ will learn a lot.

There is much that is common with other trails though. Trail head towns — big and small, lovely and dead — are remembered in detail and, of course, the search for a real breakfast dominates these pages as much as it does in other trail journals.

I could go on but I won’t spoil the fun. 

The book ends with a selection of reflections from those who were introduced to at the beginning. We learn of changed lives, of new inspiration, of new challenges and new goals. We see how for many life was never quite the same again after the trail. And Keith — modest to the end — slips in his own end story amongst those of his walking companions.

This is a trail journal yes but it is much more besides. It is entertaining, informative and — I think — more than a little brave. It is my outdoor book of the year, so far, of 2015.


Keith Foskett | Long Distance Hiker, Writer, Blogger


Review: Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles by Chris Townsend

In this internet age it is tempting to think that we know all about the great trails of the world even if we have never ever hiked them ourselves. There are many tells journals to read. There are many hikers who now blog or micro blog as they walk. We know all about the trail infrastructure, we can download the maps and, of course, we all now know about the famous Trail Angels of the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT.

Chris Townsend walked the PCT over 30 years ago. Back then the trail was a reality but it was nowhere near as popular as it is today. I think the year Chris hiked it only 11 people completed it. It has taken 30 years for Chris to produce this book and it seems he only embarked on the task after encouragement from his new publishers, Sandstone Press. Sandstone should take a bow as this is a very fine book indeed. When reviewing Chris’ recent Grizzly Bears and Razor clams (I think it was) put forward the view that Chris’ writing is just getting better and better. Rattlesnakes confirms this.

The PCT is an epic trail and 30 odd years ago walking it was even more epic as the trail infrastructure that we have today simply wasn’t there. To make things even more dramatic Chris walked the PCT after one of the heaviest snow falls recorded making much of the first section of the walk quite a challenge.

The PCT runs for 2,650 miles, starting at the Mexican borders and running North (at least that’s how most people tackle it) through California, Oregon and Washington States. The trail takes in the Mojave desert, the High Sierra Mountains, The Cascade Mountains and many of the great US forests along the way.

This PCT walk was Chris’ first mammoth hike and this book combines both the excitement of that youthful walk with a maturity of reflection that is simply beguiling. Above all else it is the natural drama of the trail environment that is the star of this book but the way Chris details the development of the PCT (both before and since his walk) is fascinating.

A modern journal on the PCT would inevitably feature a lot of words about gear and while this is a book about moving through landscape there’s enough to keen gear junkies happy. For this trip Chris was provided with some of the first Gore Tex waterproofs that landed in the UK. It was also on this trip that Chris saw the light and turned (mid trip) to lightweight trail shoes from heavy boots. There is the drama of a broken pack and the search for a replacement. But mostly this is about the walk.

The heavy snowfall results in a trip that seems a very different one to many accounts that I have read. Chris is famous for walking alone but the snow heavy sections dictated walking in small groups for safety. Not only was there a lot of snow to cross but tiny and often dry creeks had turned into raging torrents. What comes over nicely is the relationship that is built up amongst these trail companions. Chris remarks towards the end of the book tat he had walked much of a thousand miles with some of them and yet they ended up knowing little about each other’s lives back in the ‘real world’. However, you do get a great sense of the trail intensity of these friendships. While not having undertake a venture like this myself this — levelling of human experience — is a feature of any long trail walk and, I think, is one of the reasons for the longevity of the TGO Challenge where you often have little idea about the people you are walking with save for their own views of the immediate experience

A lot of the other usual ingredients are on show here, stories of serial breakfast eating in tiny, backwater, trail towns, the joys of a shower after weeks of walking and so on.

But what makes this a joy to read is the sharing of Chris’ discovery of life on a trail like this, the beauty of the desert, the joys of the high mountains, the fascinating variety of the forests and the glorious wildcamps along the way.  I wish I could describe this all a bit more eloquently but you’ll just have to go and read the book!

This was the trip that I guess formed the Chris Townsend that most of us know today. I’m glad that he took a long time to write this as I think we’ve ended up with a fascinating and probably more enduring book.

When I finished reading the book I rang up Colin Ibbotson who told me that the book had made him want to go out and hit the trail again. I know when he means. Putting the book down I had to go out for a walk and spend a night camping on the side of the hill, a far more modest experience without doubt but this is what Chris’ books do. They shake you out of lethargy and install in you that love of the natural world that keeps us all going.

This is very firmly recommended.


Review: Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane

Over the last decade Robert Macfarlane has established himself as one of the UK’s most important writers about travel and the outdoors, through bestseller including Mountains of the Mind, Wild Places and The Old Ways,  I’m reluctant to pigeon hole Robert as a travel writer or his work as travel literature, though it is certainly very literate.

If you like literature and the art of writing this is a book for you. If you prefer your writing to be more simple, most often in the form of a trip report, then maybe this won’t be for you, but here goes.

This book is all about the relationship between literature and the land or more accurately I suppose the natural world and its elements. The environment and the land have inspired some of greatest writers, both of fiction and non fiction. But Macfarlane’s thesis is that the land — as experienced by writers — defines not only style but language itself.  It is this relationship that is central to the book.

Landmarks is broken down into a number of chapters or sections. Each one explores some aspect of the natural world through one (sometimes more) key writers. Macfarlane explains how these books work and why he was so personally inspired by them. His sections are works of literary criticism but as such they give great insights into how these writers experienced their own world and the landscapes they are famous for. Each section is completed by a glossary of words — collected from all over the English speaking world — that relate to the subject in hand.

In short, this is a book for people who are fascinated by language.

There are sections on flatlands, uplands, waterlines, coastlands,underhands, northlands, edge lands (around cities), earthlings and woodlands. The authors featured include some of the greats such as Nan Shepherd (author of the Living Mountain based on her life in the Cairngorms), Roger Deakin (the environmentalist who championed wild swimming (Waterlog) and Wildwoods.

The terrain featured includes the flat bogland of Lewis, the East Anglian broads, the Scottish Highlands, the coast and much more.  The glossaries at the end of each section are fascinating; for example, there are so many unique and descriptive words about bogs and wetland from all over the UK. The words listed are delightful. If this frightens you stop here. If you love the sound of some of the words, then here are some of my favourites:

Ammil — from Devon, ‘the sparkle of the morning sunlight through the hoar-frost’

Blinter — a Scots word meaning a ‘cold dazzle’

Seabhainn — Gaelic, a small pool in the rocky bed of a stream in which salmon get imprisoned

Lattin — Somerset, enough rain to make outdoor work difficult

Dropple — Northamptonshire, a sudden squall with heavy rain

Aggy-jaggers — Kent, a mist that forms along the sea edge

Hit the Grit — Suffolk, to start walking on a road

Rack — Cotswolds, a path made by hares or rabbits

Shepherd’s Lamp — (after John Clare) the first star that rises after sunset

Bishop — Herefordshire, an over-large heap of manure!


I could go on forever. The book ends with a meditation about our current relationships with the natural world. All is not well. Macfarlane is concerned that  the disconnection of children from nature is greater now than it has ever been. Apparently, nine out of ten children can identify a Dalek while only three out of ten can identify a Magpie!

This language is important precisely because it is the result of our experience of — and our interaction  with — the land. Macfarlane’s book is not only a fascinating exploration of literature it is a call to arms. This richness of language has not come about by accident. That the language itself is endangered is simply a warning of greater challenges facing us in preserving our landscape and our wild places.