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.


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.


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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.

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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.


Book Review —Ribbon of Wildness: Discovering the Watershed of Scotland, by Peter Wright

At the end of this year’s TGO Challenge I found myself (as is my want) in the rather lovely independent Montrose bookshop belonging to the estimable Henry Hoggs. I picked up the book Walking with Wildness: Experiencing the Watershed of Scotland. Sadly, this was not quite the book I was looking for. Walking is a guidebook that has been created on the back of Ribbon of Wilderness and this book was not in stock.

The Ribbon of Wildness is the book that inspired Chris Townsend to embark on his recent non-stop walk along the length of the Scottish Wilderness and I have long intended to read it. I found it quite difficult to get hold of it. I ordered it through Amazon and had to wait almost a month for delivery but it was well worth the wait.

There is something fascinating about watersheds and this one in particular, not least n the way that Peter Wright writes about it. In the main the watershed remains wild land with only one significant development along it, the new town of Cumbernauld. The sitka forests that have plagued the Highlands over the last century tend to hang of the sides of hills rather than spoil the watershed itself. The watershed is most often a land boundary and maybe that has preserved its quietness.

I suppose — to those who don’t know Scottish hills — this book might be puzzling but for anyone who has walked the Highlands regularly and combed the Munros this is a fascinating read. As Wright progresses along the watershed he talks us through geological development and change, local and national history. He looks at the local fauna and fauna and reflects on challenges to the landscape and the environment both traditional and new. Like me Peter is naturally ambivalent about wind farms, for instance, but the sheer scope of their growth and desecration of the environment has focussed his mind.

We have a lot of information on local history and culture, on the meanings of place names and the development of language. We have some fascinating passages which describe how communities that sit only a mile or so apart, but on different sides of the watershed, experience and see the world in very different ways.

In a sense this walk — which was made in a series of various forays (six weeks in all) — has allowed peter the time and space for a rather deep meditation about Scotland, its hills and people. I can see why Chris Townsend was so fascinated about it.

You don’t have to want to walk the watershed to want to buy this book but reading it will certainly make you think about exploring large chunks of it, if not all.

There is not really much point me going into more detail about the book. It is enough to say that it is amazing how much you can get from the observation that a drop of rain that falls few centimetres on the other side of the watershed to its companion can end up in a different ocean or sea.

This is recommended reading for all of those who love walking and backpacking in Scotland.

The accompanying Walking the Wilderness is a collection of short day walks and ideas for longer expeditions. A such this is an interesting companion to Ribbon, but it is with Ribbon that you will want to start.

(At the time of writing the Amazon server that provides me with my usual book links is down, but I shall place these as soon as they are available).

Ribbon of Wildness is published by Luath Press and priced at £14.99

Review: Every Day Above a New Horizon, John Davison

From the world of books you could easily get the impression that treks and trail walking are things of great extremes, undertaken by athletes who suffer significantly for their art! But, of course, it does not have to be like that and the mere mortals amongst us can still enjoy the thrill of a trek albeit one that is measured in weeks rather than months, where camping is often on campsites or where gites or B&Bs are used frequently.

New technology and the internet has made small run publishing — or self publishing — very popular over the last few years. I have reviewed a number of self published books in these pages, books that I have very much enjoyed reading. At the bottom of each review I include an Amazon link. This link allows you the reader to quickly check out other reviews and, if you choose to order the book via this route, I can see how many have been sold. By far the most ordered book from this site using the Amazon system is a self published book.  These books fill a real niche somewhere between a travelogue and a conventional guidebook; they can give us a good idea of life on a particular trail.

Every Day Above a New Horizon is another successful self published book which centres around a walk on the Stephenson Trail in France. A few weeks ago I reviewed Max Landsberg’s A Call of the Mountains a book which described the project of a Munro bagger; Max’s book while having a strong narrative also gave many hints and tips that will be useful to those beginning to Munro bag. In this book John Davison does much the same thing for trail walking combining a strong narrative with quite a lot of useful information about wild camping, treating water and so on.

Like John I have had the Stephenson Trail on my list of to do walks for years. The Trail has been developed to commemorate the walk undertaken  by Robert Louis Stephenson from the Massif Central to the South of the Cevennes just above the Mediterranean. Stephenson wrote a short book about his trip. Travels in the Cevennes with a Donkey is often considered to be the first modern travel book.

My problem with this trail is that I never seem to be able to find the time to slip this walk into my annual schedule. I have the route planned almost completely but there it sits until, well, one day …

I was pleased to read that John has had the same experience. He too harboured the dream of walking this trail for many years. He even carried around some text from Stephenson as a poster which sat on his office wall. It sat on a number of different walls over the years before he found the time and space to walk the trail.

So, Every Day Above a New Horizon, not only focus on this walk but on those trail expeditions that led up to it. In building up to the Stephenson Trail John walked and backpacked in Derbyshire, Wiltshire and in the Highlands. He then graduated to longer trails including the West highland Way, the Great Glen Way and the East Highland Way before moving on to tackle the big one.

The really great thing about this book is that John writes well. He has a sparse and simple style and is successful in avoiding the flowery language we get from many inexperienced writers. He has a nice gentle sense of humour and a keen eye for important detail. Anyone who has regularly trailed walked will recognise many of the experiences and characters that are encountered along way. There’s the gear bore who carries massive weights and dominates every meeting at a campsite. There are walking companions who value the pubs along the route more keenly than they do the landscape and who sometimes hail down a taxi and thumb a life to get from one place to the other. There are hotels and B&Bs who, faced with a smelly and muddy trekker, suddenly decide that they are full. And there are honest pieces about the horrible nature of the early stages of the West Highland Way which is often more reminiscent of a rubbish dump than of a national trail. I agree with John’s observation that the decision to ban camping in the Loch Lomond area has been a disaster as it simply encourages improvised bivouacs which leave behind tons of debris.

The Stephenson Trail takes up the second half of a book. For me, this gives a pretty open and honest account of a first time excursion on a French Trail, including that rather touchy issue of the French and their dogs!

The Stephenson Trail is not a particularly difficult trail in itself although some of the days are long. However, John makes it clear that UK walkers need to respect the upland areas many of which are higher than any territory in the UK and which can (often) be subject to pretty dreadful weather conditions. Although this is a trail that can be broken with very comfortable evenings in lovely villages it is one which needs to be prepared for properly.

I enjoyed reading this book. It had the right air of authenticity to it. As I’ve already mentioned John writes well and this is an easy book to digest; I read it in two sessions over a Sunday afternoon and earl evening.

If you are thinking of tackling one of these trails for the first time I think you would find this book useful. If you have a lot of experience of trail walking then there is also a lot to enjoy.

I think this is only available in paper cover at the moment, but it is easily bought through Amazon.

Review: The Call of the Mountains, Sights & Inspirations from a journey of a thousand miles across Scotland’s Munros, by Max Landsberg

Derry Cairngorm

Derry Cairngorm, one of the magnificent Scottish ‘Munros’
It is not difficult to see why the mountains of the Scottish Highlands are so popular with walkers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Within a relatively small area the Highlands offer, arguably, the greatest variety of hills and mountains that can be found anywhere, from the sea and island dominated North West, to the brooding crags and corries of Nevis to the sub arctic tundra and wonder of the Cairngorms. Of course, the stars of the Highlands are the ‘Munros’, the hills that are over 3,000 feet high. There are 283 Munros at the time of writing (em, but we may have just lost another one due to scientific calculation -ed) many of which are easily accessible; as a result it is not too difficult to see how the collection of Munros becomes such a lifetime’s passion for so many.
There have been a lot of books written about the Munros. We have a whole library’s worth of guidebooks that will help you get up the hills. We have wonderfully illustrated coffee table books that inspire us and hep us get through our long winters. And we have the travel books, memories and diaries from those who have walked all of these hills in one continuous trek. So, do we really need yet another book about the Munros? Max Landsberg clearly thinks so and he has produced a book which, for me,
is distinctive; I can’t think of another that does the same job.
Max’s book is not a tale of great heroics and epic non-stop walks and neither is it a guidebook or something that you would slip into your rucksack. What Max has produced is a book that describes his own personal journey, his discovery of the hills, his growing obsession with them and then his quest to ‘tick’ off each of the Munros.
Max tackled the Munros — as many do — from a job and a base in England, in his case London. Regular readers will know that I am not a bagger and that I find the obsession with the Munros a little strange at times, but what I am sure about is that anyone who completes all of the Munro walks from England has really achieved something that is both difficult and special. If you are based in Scotland you might not  find this book all that impressive, but if you are a long distance bagger there is a lot here for you to enjoy and treasure.
It is not easy to pigeon hole this book but I shall try and give you a flavour of it.
This is refreshingly honest memoir of a hill walker. Max describes to us his early outings on the hills. He is badly prepared and not really sure what he is doing. He gets lost on one occasion and is saved by the Mountain Rescue Service talking him down off the hill using his mobile phone. His mobile phones get trashed by rain. His map print outs get turned into maché. And yet the magic of the hills takes hold and Max slowly begins to realise the Munros represent a challenge he has to complete. He learns quickly and develops his personal hill craft skills. The fascination becomes an obsession, the journey to the top becomes all important, more so than the appreciation of the surroundings he is walking through. There are snatched weekends, huge car journey’s from London and nights spent sleeping in the car. Gradually, he gains a greater sense of perspective and very much finds that he has become one with the hills.
This list of events may seem odd to some of you but what strikes a chord with me is that Max’s experiences are exactly parallel to those of friends of mine who have become English baggers. A few times over the last year I have written about excursions with my bagger mate Carl. He drives me mad at times not least because he is a driven man with a determination that I simply don’t share. But Max’s story is Carl’s story. In Carl I can see a Max developing and that alone makes me take the Call of the Mountains Seriously.
The is a book is that it provides much of the insight and information that new or would-be baggers need.  Here you will find information on the hills themselves, details of accommodation, a useful glossary of Gaelic names and mini essays on the history, geology and geography of the hills. There are features on he distinctiveness of landscape and on flora and fauna. Much of what you need to know if you are thinking of setting off on a life of bagging is here. And Max also provides some useful listings and resources for further reading and research.
If there is genus in this book it is in the way that Max introduces this information, it kind of fits in with his own Munro journey. His first sections cover at lot of the basics of hill walking in Scotland. As he progresses he studies the maps and wonders about all of those names — and so we have the description of gaelic place names. As he progresses he gets more curious about the various geologies of the Highlands as well as its history He begins to become more organised at planning his trips, begins walking with friends he has met on the hills, learns to use a mountain bike to tackle long approaches and so on. And then there are the big questions. Do you ever walk a hill twice?  (This one always kills me but it often seems to be a major concern of baggers). Which hill should be the last Munro? And after the Munros are finished, what next?
Max can be a bit mystical at times; in another life he is the author of business books, The Tao of Coaching and the Tao of Motivation. While I found some of Max’s mysticism  a bit flowery at times it never got in the way of the text. On some occasions I wish he would have written more about his thoughts.
A sub text to the main story is provided by Max’s side trips to the Himalaya which coincided with the Munro quest.  Max became fascinated by the walking technique of Nepali porters which seemed to him to be as efficient as possible. These have been studied by an Italian Professor Alberto Minetti and Max used these findings and brought them together with his own observations to develop his own walking style:
“Having practiced these techniques, they have gradually become more automatic in recent months…
“… I am able to forget the techniques completely, my body has become tuned and entrained. And then, as if by magic, I start to feel the walking is easier
“.. Words flit out of my consciousness, eventually forming a type of mantra:
“When the path strings up to meet your boot
the hill will life you on your route/”
I’d like to have known more about these techniques, but perhaps, I shall just have to search Prof Minetti out!
So, do we need yet another Munro book? Well, Max has succeeded in writing a very different book about the Munros. If you are based in Scotland it all might seem a little odd or mundane. But if — like Max — you are tackling the Munros from Southern England I think you will not only find a lot to identify with but a lot that is informative and fascinating.
If you are based well south of the border and are just starting out on Munro bagging, this is almost certainly a book you should add to your library.
The book is available as a relatively expensive hardcover (£20) or as a Kindle Book — the link below is to the Kindle version.