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:

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: 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.

5 Star Review: A Walk in the Clouds — 50 Years Among the Mountains, by Kev Reynolds

One of the unexpected bonuses of writing this blog over the last eight or nine years is that I have got to meet some of this country’s best and most prominent outdoor writers. I have found them all to be great fun, fascinating characters who are genuinely inspirational in many ways. Of all of these writers the one who has made the greatest impression on me personally has been Kev Reynolds. Kev’s guidebooks have seen me safely through all kinds of Pyrenean adventures and his mountain reference books to the Alps and the Pyrenees are some of the most well-thumbed books on my bookshelves.

Before I met Kev for the first time I knew I would like him. His oeuvre may be the guidebook but somehow from out from that restricted format shines an exceptionally warm person, a man who revels not just in high mountains but in the company of both mountain communities and fellow visitors. An encounter with Kev is always an experience to savour and memory to cherish. Kev’s stories are a delight as they entrance you with the magic and wonder of high and far off places. Within them there is always humour, writ and just the right amount of cheekiness. If you have heard Kev speak or give a presentation you will know what I mean.

Now Kev has distilled his 50 years or so of mountain walking into a wonderful new book, A Walk in the Clouds.

As Kev says himself in the introduction this is not a collection of stories of great drama and excitement but a series of memories at the gentler end of the outdoor spectrum. Kev’s long walk in the clouds has left him with a rich store of memories and as he puts it himself:

…(this) is collection is a celebration of wild places in all their seductive mystery — a commemoration of mountains and valleys; friends with whom some great days have been shared; people met alone the way; the generosity of strangers; humour plucked from the most unlikely situations. A celebration of life”

This is no autobiography biography but a carefully crafted collection of short stories most of which started off as journal entries written at the end of days on the mountain or at the end of a trip. This is not hard or intense reading and most of the pieces here are no more that three or four pages long. These stories are never anything but accessible but despite their brevity each them carries a lo, so much so that I found Kev constantly playing tricks on my mind. I would read some small piece or other only to find, when I finished it, that all kinds of memories and encounters from my own trips were flooding my mind.

The pieces are grouped in sections that follow the development of Kev’s own walking career. We start in the Atlas mountains Kev’s first excursion in the wild land of an unfamiliar country. Next up is the Pyrenees —mountains that Kev first saw on that trip to Morocco — which set the scene for Kev’s first groundbreaking guidebook Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees , a book which is still in print today and which I’ve used a great deal over the yeas. Following the Pyrenees comes the Alps, the Himalaya and, finally, a collection of memories from assorted trips around the world. In each of these sections you will find wonderful descriptions of high, wild and beautiful mountains, high passes and lowland pastures. There are nights spent in storms under canvass, convivial evenings in refuges, brushes with near disaster, stories from the leading of mountain treks and others featuring life long walking companions including, of course, Kev’s wife Min.

These short stories really do bring these mountains to life and they do so not least because Kev is so good at connecting with local people and with the communities that have lived there for generations. As Kev looks back over his career he is finding that the memories of the people he met along the way are becoming stronger and stronger and this is certainly something that I can identify with. I am reminded of the late writer and traveller Bruce Chatwin who said that a landscape was never properly illuminated for him until he had met the people who animated it. Here we encounter lonely shepherds, simple mountain pension owners, guardians of high refuges and a multi millionaire who tackled the great peaks of the Alps by private helicopter! We meet Pierre and Jean Ravier, two of the greats explorers of the Pyrenees and many of Kev’s long standing sherpa guides, good friends and comrades. There is also a fascinating encounter with a small Himalayan village community none of whom has ever left their own valley and who really cannot understand why you would need to know what was to be found further downstream! Kev’s publisher Jonathan Williams also has a few important walk on parts, some of which are too delicate to describe here!

If you have seen Kev speak you will find that many of his ‘greatest hits’ stories are here, most prominently the one where our hero ends up hanging in mid air following the collapse of his balcony. But most of the material here is completely new to me.

The great thing about this book is that it focuses on the kinds of experiences and observations that all of us will have when we venture out into the Alps, the Pyrenees or the Himalaya. In that sense there is nothing out of the ordinary here but of course, as all mountain goers know, everyday in the hills is a chance to experience the extraordinary. This is a quietly inspirational book, I say quietly because it inspire us all to get out and do things that we are all capable of doing!

In ‘A Walk in the Clouds’ Kev tells us that he never set out to become a guidebook and outdoor writer. Things just happened and opportunities arrived out of the blue that he simply took advantage of. You can see that Kev is a genuinely modest man but reading this book I’ve realised what makes him so special. Kev’s art is this quiet and gentle ability to inspire us all to do that little bit more and to unlock just a little bit more the potential within. Whenever I have chatted to Kev he has always quietly encouraged me to explore somewhere new or to return again to the Pyrenees (and provide him with even more up to date intelligence of conditions on the ground). I always go away from an encounter with Kev beginning to plan a new adventure in my head. Reading this book has given me the same experience.

Anyone who has used one of Kev’s guidebooks will delight in this collection of memories and mountain stories. If you don’t know Kev’s work you’ll still find this delightful and I would be amazed if you then don’t find yourself buying one of his guides and quickly planning to follow in his footsteps. And all readers — like me — will surely be heartened by Kev’s closing remarks that make it clear that there are yet more of these memories to be set down.

Kev’s inspirational cajoling continues until the very last paragraphs of the book:

“… all who go to the mountains have abundant opportunities to gather a harvest of memories worth reliving. Happily there’s no need to be a top-grade climber tackling the latest major vertical challenge, nor even to trek the longest or toughest routes, for with an eye for beauty and the ability to absorb the wonders of the world you, enrichment comes from simply being there.”

“I hope this message comes across in some of these stories in this book and will inspire you to gather a harvest of experiences and memory to underline the truth that life is a gift to be treasured and not wasted on ‘if only …’

Well, Kev, the message has certainly come across in this book. Even in the final paragraph you have inspired me to think afresh of many of the experiences I have had when travelling. You have given me the inspiration to explore new pastures of writing myself.

This is truly a wonderful gem of a book. With A Walk in the Clouds Cicerone have developed yet another dimension to their publishing and log may this spirit of experiment continue. I hope that a further collection of Kev’s writings will find its way into the future catalogue.

Go and buy this book for you will understand what is truly great about my friend Kev — at the end of these 200 pages he will be your friend as well!

Available now in book form, electronic versions following shortly.

Review: Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, by Wade Davis

Just when you think that everything that could be said about Mallory and Everest along comes Wade Davis who has produced a truly extraordinary book. Into the Silence won the Samuel Johnson prize for Non Fiction in 2012 and it certainly deserved to do so!

Davis has not simply written a book about Everest expeditions, he has asked the question why did people behave as they did? The expeditions came about in the wake of a truly dreadful World War. How did the war experience effect the expeditions and can they help explain the attitudes these mountaineers had to risk?

Into the Silence begins by juxtaposing two events. Firstly, we have Mallory and Irvine setting off on the morning of they fateful climb, the expedition planners looking on with perhaps a sense of inevitability; time was running out in the  race to get up to the summit before the Monsoon arrived. At more or less the same time, group was gathered at the top of Great Gable in the Lake District to remember the climbers and members of the Alpine Club who had died dying the great war.

British mountaineering had been decimated during the war and had lost many talented climbers. Those — like Mallory — who survived had witnessed extraordinary suffering and carnage. And, as we now now, many of the strategic planners and commanders never really appreciated the realities of the scale of loss that their tactics led to. During the early stages of the book Davis takes us through — in some detail — the war experience of those who were to become the key actors  on Everest through the three expeditions of 1921, 1922 and 1924. This first section is a pretty comprehensive and still shocking description of that war. We also see how the key strategists saw the war, with commanders like General Haig adopting a policy of not visiting the front because it effected his health _ it as Haig who famously asked whether it could really be true that so many men had been lost during the war.

It is clear that this British approach to the war, and the split of experiences, was replicated in the expedition planning. In simple terms (mine) those planing the expedition int he Alpine Club and the Royal Geographical Society had little experience of the horrors of war and of danger. Theirs was a world of honour and endeavour based almost on chivalry.

Davis takes his time to set the scene properly; then he moves on the expeditions themselves. 

In 1921 a survey mission left for the Himalaya under the command of Charles Howard Bury but although only a reconnaissance mission Mallory (first amongst then natural climbers) always hoped for a crack at the top. Mallory himself was a comfortably off if not wealthy school teacher, unhappy with his job and work. Even though Mallory’s experiences of the War were horrific we can see some of Britain’s history reflected rather unhelpfully in his views. Arguably, one of the heroes of this expedition was the Canadian climber and surveyor Oliver Wheeler. Wheeler was not only strong climber but someone skilled in the new Canadian skill of map mapping from photographs, which involved the carrying of less equipment. During the 1921 expedition Wheeler and his small team of Sherpas spent longer at high altitude than other members of the expedition. It was Wheeler who observed the rout that would be the key to finding a route to the top of the mountain. Mallory was dismissive of Wheeler’s work even failing to acknowledge its significance in official reports. As he wrote to his wife Ruth, he simply didn’t rate Canadians!

The expedition in 1922 aimed to get to the summit. Those such as Mallory who signed on again effectively had less than half a year with family and friends before going out again. Wheeler was not to go on this mission although the nature of his survey work ventrally found him to be head of the Indian Survey.

This time the expedition was led by Charles Bruce who in a sense had to learn about Tibet and the Himalaya from scratch. Davis gives an enthralling account of the expedition’s search for the missing route to the top. In 1921 the ageing mountaineer Alexander Kellas (who was a veteran of climbing who may have been there at all if younger men had lived) first raised the notion of using oxygen to support climbs although sadly Kellas dies on the 1921 expedition. In 1922 the Oxygen theme was taken up by George Finch, one of the outstanding Alpinists of his day. Like Wheeler Finch was never really accepted by the establishment indeed he had been blocked from taking part in 1921 inn the grounds of a rather dubious medical — it was clear he was not really wanted. Finch’s achievements in the Alps in 1921 made it more or less certain that he would be part of the expedition in 22. However, this scepticism of him and his character is evident and like Wheeler before him his talents were not properly appreciated — Mallory was initially dismissive of both Oxygen and Finch himself, although he did become very appreciative of Finch’s talents on the mountain.

Davis also gives a fascinating account of the business foundation of the expeditions. The expeditions had to generate cash not only to finance the next outing but to some extent to finance the lives of climbers such as Mallory who were not independently wealthy men. The ’21 expedition had made a fair surplus but the ’22 expedition had been nowhere near as lucrative. Mallory, for example, was despatched on a lecture tour of the USA and Canada that failed to break even. It was hoped that there would be an expedition in ’23 but in reality it was impossible.

Mallory himself nearly missed the fateful expedition of ’24. He was feeling the strain of being away from his young family so much. He found a job with the Workers Education Association which was more to his liking to teaching at public schools. Mallory prevaricated as to wether he would actually sign up for 1924 and there is some evidence that he hoped his boss would not give him permission to go. However, establishment intervention saw the WEA giving Mallory 6 months leave at half pay. there was no chance that he would not go.

In 1924 Bruce again headed the expedition although he his health was so ropey that his position was quickly taken by Edward Norton. The whole focus opt this expedition was a rush to the mountain and yet there were still few young and skilled mountaineers on the team. Irvine was young an inexperienced yet he made his way up the rankings on the basis of his strength and ingenuity — it was Irvine who took on the mantle of maintaining and operating the Oxygen. 

Davis gives fascinating, full and frank accounts of each expedition. This is a book that despite its size gets read through pretty quickly. Once the book moves into expedition territory the excitement of the expeditions really grabs you. Yet all the time the reader is conscious of the World War background to not only the expeditions but to the individual characters involved.

An epilogue sketches over the next set of expeditions which could only follow after the end of the second World War. The first man to the top was, of course, a New Zealander, Edward Hillary, something that would have been un-imaginable in the 1920s. Davis also follows the search to discover whether Mallory and Irvine actually reached the top of the mountain.

This is a magnificent book a far greater achievement than most books that look at mountain expeditions. For Davis the War experiences shaped the expeditions and the characters of those who were members of them. Talking of Mallory, Davis reflects at the end of his book:

He would have walked on, even to his end, because for him, as for all his generation, death was but a :”frail barrier” that men crossed, “smiling and gallant every day.” They had seen so much of death that life mattered less than the moments of being alive.

Top class writing. Recommended. Go buy it!

Christmas Books

Most years I try to produce a list of books for Christmas gifts — especially helpful is your partner is as unimaginative as mine! I’d love some of these — I shall no doubt have to make do with the usual goodie bag from Bob and Rose!

On The Map: Simon Garfield

A series of fascinating essays into how maps both relate to and realign history.

Here you will find there ‘pocket map’ tales on dragons and undergrounds, a nineteenth century murder map, the research conducted on the different ways that men and women approach a map, and an explanation of the curious long-term cartographic role played by animals. I’ve not reviewed this yet but it is coming shortly.

Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams/A Year in the Life of the Cairngorms, Chris Townsend

Chris has had a busy publishing years. Razor Clams (reviewed here) is probably Chris’ best book yet an account of his walk along the seldom tramped Pacific North West trail.

A year in the Life of the Cairngorms (reviewed here) is a photo essay that captures the changing shape of the seasons. Chris is a very talented photographer and I particularly like the way that these are natural photos — not evidently messed about with. A lovely coffee table book.

A Patrick Leigh Fermor Selection

One of the greatest travel writers and adventurers of the 20th century Leigh Fermour died in 2011 and this year has seen an important tribute to him in the shape of Atemis Cooper’s fine biography (reviewed here)

I’ve also recommended a couple of his books. A Time of Gifts is the first volume in PLF’s account of his journey at the age of 18 — on foot — during the ’30’s from England to Constantinople. One of the best travel books you can ever read.

In Tearing Haste is a collection of letter between PLF and Deborah Devonshire. They were life long and contrasting friends , he a great stylist and she a self acclaimed non reader who went from becoming one of the greatest socialites into the women who restored the great house at Chatsworth. A wonderful read this, lighting up what really is a bygone age. I don’t know why but I find letters like this fascinating to read.



Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest, Wade David

One of the best books of the year, an amazingly detailed look at Mallory’s expedition. Davids seems to have been the only person to wonder how the First World War experiences shaped and marked the adventurers in Mallory’s team.



The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert MacFarlane

A wonderful book in which MacFarlane ponders travel by foot or by sail across some of the routes that humans have been travelling for millennia.(Reviewed here).



Cairngorm John, by John Allen

A great memoir of one of the lynch-pins of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. Everyone who walks the Scottish Highlands should read this book! (Reviewed Here)

…. and finally

Some books to take with you to read aways the hours in camp, on the train or on the airplane!


The Bat by Joe Nesbo

Nesbo has become something of an international crime writing sensation and has long been championed by this blog. The Bat is the first in the Harry Hole series and has final been translated into English. If you have followed Harry’s somewhat dysfunctional exploits  then this will explain a lot of the back story.


River of Shadows, by Valerio Varesi

Introducing Commissario Soneri. This is a rather unusual detective story set in Italy’s Po valley. The story is set amongst the settling of feuds of fascists and communists and the star of the story is the River Po itself, wild, wonderful and in flood. Something a little different if you like this genre.

Review: Smarter Backpacking After 50 by Jorgen Johansson

Some of my favourite memories of TGO Challenges have involved meeting Challengers of a certain age who were not only taking part in their first crossing but who were backpacking and wild camping for the first time.

I remember on my first TGO Challenge meeting a couple during the one of the last, flat, days towards the East coast. Their youngest child had now gone off to University and one of the couple was a teacher who had taken early retirement and was now able to venture out beyond the restraints of school holidays. They’d had an absolute bawl, had loved moving from one landscape into another and had been entranced by wild camping. We spent much of our time talking about where they might explore next. Our discussions focused on France where they could combine their love of French food, bars and cafés with some stunning backpacking. It felt good to share in their overwhelming joy and excitement.

Look around the web and you’d be forgiven for thinking that backpacking is a young person’s game but, as the Challenge proves, this is certainly not the case. Freed from the ties of families many walkers over the age of 50 are up for a new challenge; Jorgen Johansson has recognised this and has come up with exceptionally useful book for those planning to strike out for the first time.

This is the second of Jorgen’s ebooks on backpacking, the first was Smarter Backing which I reviewed here.

‘Backpacking Over 50’ follows the minimalist formula of its predecessor. There are no photographs here or complicated tables and graphics, jet pure text. Somehow this really works. Jorgen has a nice and economical writing style and he manages to cram a lot of information into a tight space; the book never feels an ordeal to plough through. The information is presented I short Chapters or  ‘Steps’.

It is safe to say that as you get older you tend to plan a little more than when you were younger — you certainly worry about new things more.  Jorgen deals with many of the subjects that you would expect to see here but he specifically addresses issues of age.

Early sections are addressed to those who may not have done anything like this before. Short chapters deal with judging your fitness in order to consider how to plan your trip, how to judge terrain and distance and so on. Distance is always something that new backpackers struggle with. How far should I walk during a day and for how many hours should I walk? How can I gauge what impact will hills make on my progress? I’ve certainly found with this blog I get a lot of emails about how to build up fitness before a walk and Jorgen deals with these issues very well.

After dealing with issues that will be specifically welcomed by older backpackers Jorgen moves on to look at issues that need to be considered by any backpacker. As you might expect with any backpacker who’s work is featured here Jorgen is big on lightening loads. I have younger Challenge comrades who pour scorn on the lightweight fraternity and I usually respond to them by retiring, “Just wait and see what you think about that in another 15 years”. As the joints become a little less nimble and as the weight begins to creep on the lightening of backpacking loads becomes, I think, a bit of a no brainer. Also considered the usual issues of pitching a tent or tarp, identifying a good pitch, filtering water, first aid and keeping yourself healthy as you walk.

Even in these general sections Jorgen’s approach is tailored for those of the age group — his section on food being a good case in point. I think (as you get older) the way you consume food on the trail changes as you get older. I’ve realised I now need to eat more regularly and more substantively. Jorgen lays out menus for the day including stopping breaks. He clearly believes in three square meals a day as you walk with lots of time for stops and snacks in between. I would agree with this although I would add the concept that Mick and Gayle describe as ‘second breakfast’. Making space for a second breakfast of the day an hour and a half or so into a day’s walk makes a lot of sense when backpacking.

I think this is an exceptionally useful book for anyone over the age of 50 looking to backpack for the first time. The sparse approach to production keeps costs down and this title will only set you back £4 or less on Amazon. At that price this is great value for money

Backpacking isn’t just for the young! It’s never too young to throw yourself into the wild back country and revel in the natural landscape, flora and fauna.

I can find no better way of ending this review than by using Jorgen”s own words about the joys of backpacking.


To sum it up: I am backpacking simply because nothing else makes me feel better.

Wow, that is quite a statement, but for me it happens to be true. Let me explain. It is not that I do not enjoy my loving family, good food, sex or other things that I wish for myself and all people. And I might not enjoy hiking and backpacking as much if I was doing it all the time. I do not know, and I probably never will.

What I am saying is that backpacking is a pastime that makes me feel extremely well when I am doing it, and it gives me something to look forward to when I am not doing it. Combined with the big and small activities with which we fill our lives in between pastimes I feel that I live a full and fulfilling life. Considering that I am also fortunate to live in a relatively peaceful society with my basic material needs met; what more can anyone ask?


Review: The Making of the Crofting Community, by James Hunter

If you have a love of the Scottish Highlands and a passion for history then this is most likely a book that will fascinate you.

James Hunter’s masterly account traces the history of the Highland Clearances, the development of crofting and the emergence of the crofting community. Hunter’s historical heroes include E.P Thompson (The History of the English Working Class) and many of the new African historians. This book tells the story of the Clearances and the development of crofting from the position of the Highland Crofters themselves. Hunter analysis historical development from this perspective which on first publication in 1976 was very apical indeed. most previous histories had been written from the perspective of the Highland Landlord. This new edition, published in 2010, brings us bang up to date and looks at some of the most recent developments in community land ownership.

[Read more…]

Review: Cairngorm John by John Allen

Over the last eight or so years that I have been taking part in the TGO Challenge I have developed a habit of book buying at Montrose. In the High Street the independent book seller Henry Hogg has a fine collection of books about the Highlands, about their culture, history, geography and so on. I usually buy two books to read in the campsite and on the bus home. This simple technique has seen me increase my knowledge of he Highlands from virtually nothing to something much more worthwhile. This year I bought two cracking books. The second book I am still reading — as it is a major history — but this first one was fascinating.

John Allen was a pharmaceutical chemist who moved to the Cairngorms to take over two local chemist shops. In 1972 John read a short article in the local newspaper that told him that the local Mountain Rescue Team was looking for new members. John duly signed up and one the years rose up to become the Team Leader of Cairngorm Mountain Rescue. This book is part autobiography, part history of CMR, and a discourse on mountain safety. Anyone who has walked in the Cairngorms will enjoy this and — like me — you may feel yourself reading this in a very effective mode. This is the kind of book that makes you think about your own approach to the mountains and mountain safety.

After the obligatory and reasonably pedestrian biographical section this book quickly gets into its groove. In 1971 the Great Cairngorm Disaster had a big impact on the outdoor world and the way in which the media saw it. A school party got into problems on the Cairngorm plateau and 6 of the 8 died. As a result of this safety guidelines for schools changed but the incident also spurred CMT to improve their own levels of skill and professionalism.

While Cairngorm John is a relatively easy read it is a cleverly constructed read, much of which must be due to co-author, professional writer and editor Robert Davidson. The core of the book is based around the official logs of CMT rescues but the sections tackle a wide range of subjects. We learn about the struggle of the CMT to resource itself and the long struggle to achieve proper core funding (which only came about when Jack McConnell was First Minister of the Assembly). We learn a lot about how the outside world came to grips with a dramatic rise in popularity of mountain sports. And we learn a lot about mountain safety by properly understanding how those who died, or who were rescued, got into difficulties. And the book also is fascinating as it explains how Mountain rescue world and how it co-operates with the other emergency services such as the helicopter services that operate from RAF Kinloss.

The UK Mountain Rescue Service is unique in that nearly all other major mountaineering countries have professional services that are funded through personal mountain insurance. A debate in the UK promoted by a Parliamentary Select Committee looked at the introduction of such a system here but the local blend of professional amateurs and a free service to all was preserved.  As a nation we decided we wanted to ensure there were no barriers between potential walkers and access to the mountains. We also decided that the current system of professional teams working voluntarily was the right one for us.

As you might expect there are some common themes that emerge from the rescue notes and most of us who spend time in the mountains will be familiar with them: plan a long walk in to get the limbs in shape; always carry and map and compass and know how to use them; do not rely on electronic devices on their own; always carry adequate layers of clothing; ensure you have a proper supply of food with you — even on a day hike; and be prepared for a very quick change in the weather.

I would not claim to be an expert on the Cairngorms although I have hiked there quite often over the last decade. But reading this after this year’s TGO Challenge did make me stop and think. mMy route through the Cairngorms, across the high and exposed Bynack Moor was particularly unpleasant. I must admit that reading this book has made me reflect on both routes and kit carried.

This book will appeal to anyone who walks in high mountains, indeed I was go so far as to suggest it should be obligatory reading especially for those of us who live in urban environments.

Cairngorm John should remain a very important book for mountaineers for years to come.

Thoroughly recommended.


Review: Wild Water — Wild Light, Mike Brown

My review of Chris Townsend’s “A Year in the Life of the Cairngorms” was well received. This is a lovely book of natural photographs which benefits from Chris’ intimate knowledge of his local mountains.

As so many of you liked the natural nature of the photographs I thought I’d feature one of the other stunning landscapes that I’ve go hold of during the last twelve months.

Mike Brown is a Yorkshireman who relocated to West Cork in Ireland during the 70’s and who now resides in the charming seaside resort of Courtmacsherry. West Cork is a wonderful land of rugged coastlines, unspoilt beaches, lush rolling hills and harsh, rigged, peninsulas. Brown captures this landscape as only a long-term resident can. These are stunning seascapes, featuring almost every weather condition and each of the seasons. The photographs are natural in the sense that they are not over-processed and reminds me very much of how my memory sees the land.

West Cork is certainly worth a visit some time. It is a charming place which remain largely unspoilt; in many ways it reminds me of Cornwall 30 or 40 years ago.

Anyhow, see for yourself by following the link below.