Monday, 28 February 2011

Coming Up: David Craig amongst the rocks of home

Sally Baxendale and Richard Tolley on Pillar Rock's classic severe-Rib and Slab: Photo Stephen Reid

"Twenty metres up on the belay ledge, still high on a burst of adrenalin, I looked about me to savour the barely accessible grandeur we had dared to enter. From the uppermost profile of Pillar a shaggy grey limb was growing rapidly outward. It dropped and curled under on itself, like a raptor's claw.

There's a really weird cloud up here,' I called down. 'Looks like a bit of a storm coming up.'
Beside me on the rock small spots were appearing, darkening enlarging as though the flanks and limbs of the crag were turning into a leopard's coat beneath my eyes. As soon as Neil reached me we decided to retreat,  with hardly a moment's discussion. The sky was unruly In three or four minutes dark shapes with dragon-toothed edges appeared all over the livid glare of it, fretted crests and manes, wisps wreathing like smoke above a bonfire.
By the time we had packed our gear into our sacks, every rock was glistening and slippery. We were soaked through and still warm. The water sluicing on to us out of the sky felt not adverse like British rain but close to blood-heat. I had felt that just once before, in the monsoon rains of Sri Lanka. We took off as many clothes as possible and plunged down the fell side in an ecstasy of sweat and rainfall, running like waterfalls, like becks, like the showers teeming between clouds and treetops.
Long after the sun had set and on past midnight, we watched from the back door of the farmstead at Gillerthwaite as Pillar and its parent mountain behind it came leaping into sight, a black tusk on a black brow, silhouetted against the flaring yellowed whites of the sky.Above them, far huger and higher than the mountain, the torsoes and heads of the the cumulo-nimbus glowed suddenly neon in the discharges of lightning.'

This Friday,another delicious slice of mountain prose from the master craftsman-David Craig. David travels through the mountains of home.Taking on the ever popular polished stone phallus which looks down upon the green fields of Wasdale-Napes Needle,to the lonely citadel of Pillar Rock,high above Ennerdale.




Friday, 25 February 2011

Portrait of the artist as an old man: William Heaton Cooper

Autumn St John's Vale:

A buzzard drifted over the roof of the Studio of W. Heaton Cooper as I walked down the lane from the Youth Hostel to call on him. It was early evening, a fortnight after Easter, and it would be light late. The Studio is in the centre of Grasmere, facing the village green, and its gallery is visited by thousands of people each year who buy paintings, prints and cards with those familiar tones of colour that together make a distinctive vision of the Lakeland landscape. It is W. Heaton Cooper's vision of the Lake District that hangs in homes across the nation and across the world. It was W. Heaton Cooper's vision of the crags of the Lakes by which I first learned to read them as a young climber, from his sketches in the little brown guidebooks first edited by Harry Kelly in 1935.

In fact, if you buy a guidebook for Pillar in 1988 it contains crag drawings made over 50 years ago. Only with the series of FRCC guides currently in progress have Heaton Cooper's portraits of the crags given way to the work of younger artists. These days they have to carry so many routes that they are referred to as 'crag diagrams.' It was the story of the first guidebook crag sketches that I was curious about. But when I came away from that house a little later, I had a sense of having heard not just history recalled, but of fresh discoveries recently made.
Opening the door of the house he had had built alongside the Studio in 1938, there stood a genial 84 year-old, straight and brown with fitness, smiling and firm-handed with a warm grasp of life.

"You'd better sit in the throne whilst I take care of the coffee", he said, pointing me towards his newish leather armchair. While he poured the kettle I asked him straightaway about the guidebook sketches. Had they been a special commission?
"Yes, out of the blue Harry Kelly asked me to do them for the series. His feeling was that photographs didn't really give a 3D effect. So I had to invent the idiom, catching the whole crag with the greatest economy of line."

"Had there been any models of guidebook crag sketches to draw from?" I wondered.
"I hadn't seen any, certainly, but my training in drawing the human form made it easier. Art School training had certainly given me economic drawing skills. Choosing the position from which to draw the crags was a problem, though — to draw them from below, as a climber would see them using the guidebook, or from further away? I decided that further away was best, at right angles to the rock face. Of course, some crags were easier than others."
"Did you ever have to cheat and draw something which could not actually be seen all at once?"
"The only place where I did that was for Pillar's South Face of High Man when I had to look round the corner and then draw from memory.

Steeple from Pillar:

Harry Kelly was very witty about that when he saw that I'd drawn it as though Pisgah wasn't there in the way: 'A perfectly respectable bit of mountain appears to have been moved by Heaton Cooper!'
I climbed with the guidebook writers to get to know the lines of the routes, not all of them of course - some climbs were too stiff for me. Then I did a pencil drawing which was reproduced by photogravure. In a separate printing the black ink routes which we marked on transparencies were done by letterpress printing, off metal, to give a 3D effect. Later reprints of the guides tried to economise by doing them both in one printing, the result being completely useless.
I was surprised, when they were published, at the response to the aesthetics of the drawings. I'd thought of themas merely functional diagrams. I didn't see them as part of my work. I just gave them to the guidebook writers, or if people wanted to pay for them I'd say 12.50 ought to cover it.' Sid Cross has rather cornered the market in them now."

Talk turned to Lining Crag in Borrowdale below which I had camped last year and discovered Heaton's routes on what he called in his autobiography, Mountain Painter, an 'insignificant piece of rock that no-one had bothered about.' How had he first come across it?
"For me,. the painting always came first. I had been painting in Langstrath one day in 1934 and I walked back down to Eagle Crag to have a look at it. Further up Greenup Gill in the evening I came across what I realised was a fine little crag. I soloed Greenup Arete that evening for fun. I liked the texture of the rock which seemed like Gimmer. I took Jim Cameron back two years later and we did Evening Wall. We just did these climbs for fun, you know, and then later Jim Cameron wrote them up."

"A rather different spirit from that of today?" I suggested.
"Oh yes, we didn't descend, for example, by an easy way off, or abseil, in our day. We climbed down the same or another climb. That's why lead climbers in our day did not fall. They didn't climb what they couldn't reverse. I think the art of climbing down is needed now, don't you, in world leaders for example? But I liked the last line of the poem you sent me about Evening Wall and the painter, `In the evening of life amongst the crags.' "

"I hope you weren't offended by that."
"Why should I be? I'm well past the evening. It must be nearly midnight. I can't live for ever!"

Ennerdale Water:

'Well you certainly seem joyously full of life to me... "Actually I suffer from terrible depressions and I have just come out of a year's depression. This Easter weekend has been a personal renewal for me. I am painting every day. I get up at six o'clock, look at the weather, look at the glass and decide where to go today. The marvellous thing about the Lakes is that it's very small. You can get anywhere to paint and be back for evening. This morning I walked up Easedale and found a subject. Tomorrow, if it's fine, I shall go out with a sheet of half-imperial sized paper on a board, with an easel, and do a very detailed drawing in pencil or biro. Then I shall come back to the Studio and Work from memory.

This last year, when I've not been able to go up any height I've learned that now I can trust my memory. Memory stores the colours, tones and the effects of light because it all goes deep enough to stay in the subconscious. Form is the intellectual objective content which I have recorded in the sketchbooks. These days I'm going back to the sketchbooks more and more. The result is that there's more of me in the painting than a copy made on the spot. I was glad to be free of those guidebook crag copies."
I mentioned that the paintings of his that I prefer are those in which there is some dynamic force at work, a storm about to break, or a movement of light. These seem to me to be more emotionally expressive.
"That's because they're from here.' (He taps an 84-year-old heart.) "It's taken me all these years to learn what's important."
How, I wondered, would he describe his own style?
"I always hoped I would never get into a style. I don't like the idea of trying to fit Nature into a style. Every painting ought to be a new adventure, letting the landscape dictate the style."
Outside it was completely dark and, thinking of this young-at-heart mountain painter getting up well before me in the morning, I prepared to take my leave.

"This spring," he said at the door, "has been wonderful for me. I have got really excited about it. Isn't it marvellous that at my age I can still get excited about spring?"


Evening Wall, Lining Crag
for W. Heaton Cooper


Fingers are fine brushes for dipping into wet dabs
of mosses blobbed on the palette below the canvas of the crag.

 
Feet are the pointed ends of sharp pencils, shaped for toning strokes across the grain of the crag.

 
Eyes trace the steady growth of the composition, the length and proportion of the line on the page of the crag.

 
Sun holds the source of shadow for the painter and delight in the evening of life amongst the crags.



After Sunset:

The Heaton Cooper Studio


Terry Gifford© 'The Joy of Climbing: Published Whittles 2004
First published in High September 1988



Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Coming up: Terry Gifford's portrait of mountain artist William Heaton Cooper


" Talk turned to Lining Crag in Borrowdale below which I had camped last year and discovered Heaton's routes on what he called in his autobiography, Mountain Painter, an 'insignificant piece of rock that no-one had bothered about.' How had he first come across it?
'For me,. the painting always came first. I had been painting in Langstrath one day in 1934 and I walked back down to Eagle Crag  to have a look at it. Further up Greenup Gill in the evening, I came across what I realised was a fine little crag. I soloed Greenup Arete that evening for fun. I liked the texture of the rock which seemed like Gimmer. I took Jim Cameron back two years later and we did Evening Wall. We just did these climbs for fun, you know, and then later Jim Cameron wrote them up."

"A rather different spirit from that of today?" I suggested.
"Oh yes, we didn't descend, for example, by an easy way off, or abseil, in our day. We climbed down the same or another climb. That's why lead climbers in our day did not fall. They didn't climb what they couldn't reverse. I think the art of climbing down is needed now, don't you, in world leaders for example? But I liked the last line of the poem you sent me about Evening Wall and the painter, In the evening of life amongst the crags.. I hope you weren't offended by that."
"Why should I be? I'm well past the evening. It must be nearly midnight. I can't live for ever!"

This Friday,respected UK climbing writer,Terry Gifford recalls a meeting with the remarkable Lakeland mountain artist-William Heaton Cooper.
The artist in question is the central figure in a Cumbrian mountain art dynasty which includes his father,the Victorian landscape painter Alfred Heaton Cooper and son Julian Heaton Cooper.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Fay Godwin...poetry through a lens

Fay Godwin is very much a writer's photographer, in more senses than one. Poets and novelists are drawn to her work, and she worked closely with several. She is remembered now as a landscape photographer – a career celebrated in a new exhibition of her work, Land Revisited, at the National Media Museum in Bradford – but her connections with writers go back a long way, to the days when she was the wife of the influential and dynamic bookseller-turned-publisher, Tony Godwin. They married in 1961, and I met them both in the 1960s when Tony was publishing my work, first with Penguin and then with Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
They were a memorable couple – small, slight, wiry, somewhat elfin, and charged with energy. In those early years Fay took some remarkable portraits of authors, including John Fowles Angela Carter and Ted Hughes, but she was later to say that had she not been a young mother with two small children she would have preferred an adventurous life of photojournalism to bread-and-butter commercial portraiture. Domestic responsibilities and conflicts constrained her, as they did so many women of that period, and she appeared to adapt to her role. But her life was to change dramatically. In 1969, her marriage broke up very suddenly, and in 1973 Tony, equally abruptly and unexpectedly, departed to work in New York, where he died three years later of asthma-related heart failure at the age of 56.
Fay was now on her own, and able to develop and explore a new dimension of her art. From an urban life as a 60s north London wife, mother and hostess, she set out on a long journey into the wilder landscapes of Britain, sometimes in company, sometimes alone, often on foot, and built up over time a body of work that reflects a deep sense of place and the poetry of place. In 1970 she met Ted Hughes, with whom she formed a creative partnership which was to result in his lament for the Calder Valley, Remains of Elmet (1979). Perhaps the best known of her collaborations, this volume was very much poem-led. She responded strongly to his vision of the ruined mills, the "melting corpses of farms", the Satanic majesty, the sluttish subsidy sheep, the black chimneys, the cemeteries, the millstone grit, the willow herb. It was through Hughes, she said, that she got to know England.
Her roots were not English. She was born in Berlin, the daughter of a British diplomat father and an American artist mother of Scottish ancestry, and her childhood was peripatetic. She had learned to enjoy walking as a girl in Austria, and joined the Ramblers' Association in England in the mid-1950s (she was to become its president in 1987). Liberated by divorce from some of her domestic and social duties, and with growing children, she now began to walk again more seriously, discovering the history of Britain, its prehistoric megaliths, its Roman and medieval roads, its field systems, its crofts and kilns. She developed a keen sense of space and topography, patiently waiting for the light or the sky to respond to her needs, learning to battle for permissions to enter forbidden or forbidding terrain. There is a deep loneliness in some of her images, a sense of desolation, some of which may well have been acquired during her apprenticeship with Hughes. She turned away from portrait photography  with a vengeance.
There are no people in most of her landscapes (and none in this exhibition), only the traces of people, the remains of people. She documented ancient trades – the drovers' roads, the whisky roads of Scotland, the oil riggers of Shetland, the shepherds of the Lake District – but her landscapes are marked by emptiness. Simon Armitage commented that her portraits of sheep-farmers bear witness to a sense of "collective good" and "commonwealth", but this sense of the human is unusual in her work.
One of her early major collaborative publications was Islands, a portrait of the Scillies with a text by John Fowles, published in 1978. Fowles had been much impressed by her 1975 work (with JRL Anderson) on the Ridgeway, and his long essay rambles quirkily and knowledgeably through the history and mythology of the islands, giving the highest of praise to Godwin's art, diligence and physical endurance: "British photography has not had a more poetic interpreter of ancient landscape, of its lights and moods and forms, for many years." This volume, unlike the Hughes collaboration, is image-led: Fowles as author extemporises on the images Godwin brought to him, while admiring from a distance her "formidable walks in pursuit of remote subjects".

This was a period in which topographical work was beginning to enjoy a new vogue, foreshadowing the environmentally aware "nature writing" of the last decades by authors such as Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin. Richard Long was creating walking sculptures and earth sculptures, and Andy Goldsworthy was beginning to try his hand at working in ice, stone, river and leaf. WG Hoskins's landmark The Making of the English Landscape, first published in 1955, reached a much larger audience in 1976-8 through his television documentaries. Topography was part of the zeitgeist.
The subject of my own landscape book, A Writer's Britain, first published in 1979, was suggested to me by the distinguished Polish-born photographer Jorge Lewinski, who had independently been taking photographs of writers' houses – Abbotsford, Knole, Haworth – and needed some extended captions and text to go with them. I happily agreed, but soon found that the houses in themselves were not nearly as interesting to me as the landscapes that had formed the imaginations of poets and novelists – Egdon Heath, Gordale Scar, Tintern Abbey, the Potteries – and I found myself writing what was in effect a history of the way writers have shaped our vision of the land. Lewinski went along with this change of direction. He did the driving and saw the places, while I, more house and family bound, sat at home and read the books.
Godwin also worked on text and author-led publications, notably on a 1983 volume called The Saxon Shoreway which follows the indefatigable and map-loving Alan Sillitoe as he takes a nine-day walk munching on rye bread and Polish sausage round the Kent shore from Gravesend to Rye. Some of these images are to be seen in Bradford now.
Godwin pursued her own pathways, building up an international reputation for her art and her polemics. She was much helped by the freedom bestowed by a major Arts Council bursary awarded in 1978. The images in her 1985 exhibition and the accompanying book, Land, were largely the result of this public encouragement and support, and many of these appear in the Bradford retrospective. She was able to travel to the Scottish Isles and to Sutherland, the land of her mother's ancestors, and her photographs of lochs and glens and standing stones with solitary sheep are hauntingly memorable.
They have a Wordsworthian timelessness, a sense of the Wordsworthian sublime. Her imagination, like his, was attracted by the barren, the grand and the bleak. These archetypal landscapes are probably the most enduring tributes to her great talent, and they are enduring in every sense – she catches the spirits of places that have been worn and weathered, deserted and abandoned, and yet still speak to us.
Godwin also benefited, in 1987, from a fellowship in Bradford, at what was then known as the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television. This connection seems to have sent her work in a slightly different direction, away from the remoteness of wilderness and towards urban and suburban landscape and post-industrial dereliction – subjects which had long preoccupied her, but to which she now returned, experimenting with colour as well as working in her customary black and white. These Yorkshire images bring to mind the work of another lone woman landscape artist, Prunella Clough, whose paintings also dwell on the offbeat view, the telegraph pole, the cement block, the fence, the broken wiring, the litter and the plastic bag.
Godwin became increasingly concerned with our connection with the earth and our assaults on it, by the way we mess up our rivers and canals, our shores and embankments. From the 70s onwards, she had been recording subjects such as rotting cars lying in lagoons, a hawk hovering threateningly over a bunker on Dover cliffs, sheep lining up to stare over a military canal, shacks and caravans littering the countryside, pill boxes marching along the beach, Keep Out and Private and No Fishing notices thwarting the rambler. Godwin had been captured by the visual impact of these messages, but she was also concerned and outraged.
She was a pioneer of organic food and farming, distressed by the impact on land and landscape of fertilisers and factory farming, and persuaded that her recovery in the 1970s from what she described as "advanced cancer" had been aided by her naturopath doctor's advice to commit herself to an organic diet. (It has to be said that, to some, her advocacy of raw turnip was challenging.) Our Forbidden Land (1990) is an impassioned attack on the destruction of the countryside. The text is strongly argued, and the photographic documentary of what the Ministry of Defence, bad planning, guard dogs, greed and neglect are doing to Britain is eloquent. The volume is illustrated with poems from Ted Hughes and Adrian Mitchell, Frances Horovitz and Thomas Hardy, James Fenton and Seamus Heaney. Nearly all her work has poetic reference; she also worked with the poet Patricia Beer on the National Trust book Wessex, from which Bradford is showing a few images. Her early experiences of the literary world inspired her all her life. She had moved far beyond the publicity shots of literary figures with which she had begun her professional photographic career. And she did manage through her involvement with the Ramblers and other environmental organisations to satisfy some of that early desire to become a campaigning photojournalist. She succeeded in shaping her own future.
Prunella Clough's later work sailed off towards abstraction, and so in some ways did Godwin's. Fowles had remarked that she managed "to lend a paradoxical air of the abstract" to many of the shots of the Scillies, and in her last years she photographed objects found on the beach and worked on studies of foliage. But a certain grand austerity remained central to her vision. She did not take pretty pastoral pictures.


Since her death in 2005, photographers have been finding their access to both public and private land more and more problematic, more expensive, and legally restricted. In Our Forbidden Land she wrote about the dilemma of access to Stonehenge, a site mass marketed by English Heritage which charges substantial sums to everybody, from individual artists to wealthy advertising companies. She foresaw a time when "the only photographs we are likely to see of the inner circles of Stonehenge will be those approved by English Heritage, generally by their anonymous public relations photographers". Our common land would be the copyright of others. We are fortunate that she made her journeys round the British Isles when she did, before even more of our landscape was fenced off or built up.Philip Larkin, in a poem titled "Going, going", oddly enough commissioned by the then Department of the Environment, gloomily concluded that

. . . before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts –
First slum of Europe . . .

It hasn't happened yet, but, as Godwin and Larkin warn us, it may.
Fay Godwin: Land Revisited is at the National Media Museum, Bradford, until 27 March.

Fay Godwin


Margaret Drabble©
First published in The Guardian:


Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Coming Up: Fay Godwin....this land is your land

"Flying the black flag of himself' Ted Hughes: Photo Fay Godwin©

"Fay was now on her own, and able to develop and explore a new dimension of her art. From an urban life as a 60s north London wife, mother and hostess, she set out on a long journey into the wilder landscapes of Britain, sometimes in company, sometimes alone, often on foot, and built up over time a body of work that reflects a deep sense of place and the poetry of place. In 1970 she met Ted Hughes, with whom she formed a creative partnership which was to result in his lament for the Calder Valley, Remains of Elmet (1979). Perhaps the best known of her collaborations, this volume was very much poem-led. She responded strongly to his vision of the ruined mills, the "melting corpses of farms", the Satanic majesty, the sluttish subsidy sheep, the black chimneys, the cemeteries, the millstone grit, the willow herb. It was through Hughes, she said, that she got to know England.'

Photographer Fay Godwin is best known for her collaborative works with writers like Ted Hughes (Remains of Elmet) and John Fowles (Islands). However,many consider her towering achievement to be her seminal work Land , first published a quarter of a century ago.To celebrate this work,The National Media Museum in Bradford are currently running a exhibition-Fay Godwin-Land Revisited until March 27th. 
This Friday,celebrated writer and friend Margaret Drabble remembers the most poetic of photographers.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Lakeland Pioneer- Bill Peascod

Bill Birkett is one of the UK's most respected outdoor photo-journalists.His walking and climbing books have become a fixture on the bookshelves of outdoor activists and lovers of the Lake District throughout the world, with his articles and photographs regularly featuring in the outdoor media. As a member of the famous Birkett Clan-it was father Jim,a quarryman,who established the Birkett name with his cutting edge exploits on Lakeland rock in the 1930/40/50's-son Bill not surprisingly picked up the baton and by the 1970's had become an established hard new router himself. As part of a talented South Lakes based team,Bill played his part in pushing up the standards of Lakeland climbing with routes like 'Fear and Fascination' and 'Broken Arrow' both (E5-6a:US 5.12a)which became benchmark climbs for aspiring hard men...and women!
Nephew Dave Birkett has carried on the tradition and established himself as one of the UK's leading pure rock climbers.Creating routes which lie at the limits of technicality.
Further information about the author can be gleaned on Bill's website.

Twilight's last gleaming: Don Whillans leads the first pitch of Colin Kirkus' classic 'Great Slab' on Clogwyn du Arddu (Cloggy-The Black Cliff) with Bill Peascod on belay.Moments after the photograph was taken,Bill had succumbed to a massive heart attack and passed away.Six months later,Don Whillans was also dead.Photo Bill Birkett Collection©

It takes a man with a special kind of dedication to climb in an unpopular area, on cliffs that are large and serious due to their remoteness, looseness and vegetation. Bill Peascod was such a man. Hailing from West Cumberland, he became known for his development of the north-western fells. Previously untouched and relatively unknown there lay hidden, in this the most beautiful part of Lakeland, some large and major crags. He became respected for his bold and unprotected leads, his physical strength and his depth of personality. Naturally strong, he started work at the coal face and developed his physical strength even further by a dedicated programme of weight training.

As for his personality, he is a rare man, being both a chartered mining engineer and an internationally renowned artist. Leaving Britain in 1952 he began a new life in Australia and inevitably pioneered a number of routes over there. Recently he returned to the Lake District and intends to open an arts/adventure centre near Bassenthwaite. I have little doubt it will succeed.
Bill was born in industrial West Cumberland, in the town of Maryport, on 3rd May 1920. Living in Workington when a schoolboy, he remembers frequenting the library virtually even-day, withdrawing a book, reading it and returning it the same day. He was an avid young reader. It was here, reading O. G. Jones's marvellous book Rock Climbing in the English Lake District and the Abraham publications, that he was given the incentive to take up rock climbing for himself.

He started work in the West Cumbrian coal pits at the age of fourteen, where hard work produced stamina and physical strength. At the age of sixteen he was walking into the Lakes, and the magic of his local Cumberland Fells enchanted him. These were "good walks". Starting from Workington he would walk to Grassmoor via Loweswater, climb Lorton Gully to the summit o f Grassmoor and return to Workington in the same day. Butter-mere seemed to have an irresistible draw for Bill, and he would visit there and return via Ennerdale to his home in Workington. There were good thirty-mile trips, involving many miles cat ascents and descents.
Scrambling led to climbing, and he remembers soloing gullies, optimistically trailing a fifty-foot rope behind him, hoping it would 'catch' if he fell off.
Struggling to find companions on these outings, he remembered just how incompatible climbing and living in a local mining community were. Believe it or not- and I can confirm this whole - heartedly--being born and bred in Little Langdale—locals regarded venturing onto the hills as an oddity and just "bloody daft", so Bill would hide his climbing rope at the bottom of his rucksack. It was returning from one of his marathon walks and some three miles outside Workington. that he was passed by a bus containing the local Rambling Club. The bus stopped, and from then on Bill was not without people of like mind.

He remembers one of his first climbs to be Stack Ghyll (HS) on the Haystacks-Buttermere, and in this horrendously loose route his fingers were smashed by a falling boulder. Laid off work, he was in no way deterred; in fact his appetite for Buttermere climbing became insatiable. Later, on Haystacks with S. B. Beck, he pioneered Y Gully (VS), a frightening piece of climbing. Ray McHaffie made the second ascent of the Gully and the first winter ascent—he reckoned it was easier in winter! Summer ascents can be counted on the fingers of one hand. S. B. Beck told me that he thought at the time that, if he was lucky enough to get out of the Gully alive (he did not think he would), he would never climb again. Of course he did and accompanied Bill on many more first ascents.

Bill's Lakeland pioneering activities began with a couple of rather minor sorties on Round Howe, a delightfully remote and compact little crag lying at the extreme head of the Buttermere Valley. Chimney Route (VD) and Central Route (MS) were done in 1939 and 1940 respectively.
Young and fearless, his next new route was very different: in 1940 he tackled the big dank and impressive Eagle Crag. Eagle towers over Birkness Combe on the west side of the Buttermere Valley. It is a major crag, some five hundred feet high, and is comparable with the best in the Lakes.'Far East Buttress' was the route. It is graded VS and is at the top of this grade.
Until this event Eagle had remained remote, almost unnoticed by the busy climbing world of Langdale and Wasdale. It is true that Piggot had first breached Eagle's defences in April 1925, providing a route he named Western Buttress Ordinary (HS), and Cross, with Kelly and party, had produced routes, notably Double Cross Routes (VS), 1937, but these climbs did not have the same purposefulness of line.

Bill Peascod leads the final pitch of his classic VS-Eagle Front:B Birkett©

The following week Border Buttress (HS) and 'Eagle Girdle' (VS) were put up. Then on 23rd June one of Lakeland's great routes was produced. 'Eagle Front' (VS), five hundred feet, forced its way up the main buttress. It was the best and hardest climb in Buttermere at that time, and it remains a superb climb today.
Only four weeks later Peascod was back again, accompanied, as on the preceding climb, by S. B. Beck. They climbed the main buttress again by a very serious route named 'Fifth Avenue' (320 feet). It is graded VS in the guide but I think HVS is the more appropriate grade. The crux pitch involves a 150-foot run-out of rope; it is hard, and the holds are sloping, a thoroughly frighten­ing piece of climbing. When Bill led it, he was climbing into the unknown, with no protection and on belays that were hopelessly inadequate. This was certainly one of the most impressive Lake District leads. He was only twenty years old at the time, and many fruitful years lay ahead.

After Eagle Crag, Bill turned his attention to the nearby Grey Crag, with sorties onto High Crag, the massive Haystacks, and Yew Crag—all in his beloved Buttermere Valley. Then in 1946 he started the development of Buckstone Howe with the notable `Sinister Grooves' (VS). This crag is impressively situated among the slate works above Honister Pass. It dries quickly and can be reached in ten minutes' easy walk from the road. The rock is slate, the crag being surrounded with a fascinating tapestry of industrial archaeology, and requires cunning and careful ue. It is a fitting crag for a mining engineer to develop. The crag and the climb are so good that it is almost inconceivable that it had been by-passed by all previous climbers. Jim Birkett, a quarryman, lived (the youth hostel used to accommodate the quarry workman in the 1940s) and worked at Honister for a number ofyears, yet he never even looked at Buckstone Howe!
Groove Two (VS) followed, and this was a technical master­piece. Many present-day leaders fail to enter the final groove. I rate it at least 5A technically, and these days, although protectable with micro nuts, it is still a demanding lead. In 1951, Cleopatra (VS) was forced; again the VS grade seems inappropriate—I would certainly give it an HVS grade. The climb itself is just excellent and has been described as the first modem roadside classic climb. A classic route is one, whatever its grade, that can be chosen from an era and represents all that is best about that era. The designation 'classic' guarantees that the route will be of high quality and will be enjoyable—like a good piece of music or a twelve-year-old bottle of malt whisky. Cleopatra is superb: it gives technical and challenging climbing on tight slate.

Another impressive and major crag was opened up by Peascod in 1946. This was again called Eagle Crag, but this crag is situated above Langstrath in Borrowdale. The month was June and in the space of two weeks Falconer's Crack (VS), the Great Stair (MVS) and Postern Gate (HS) were climbed. Almost unbelievably, again from a crag unclimbed on before, Peascod produced three excellent climbs of their grade. Falconer's Crack remains the classic of the crag.
I remember a few years ago (I was fifteen at the time), I was attempting Falconer's Crack with a reasonably experienced climber who was twenty. This lad had led Extreme climbs in Wales, and he was somewhat of a hero figure to me. We reached Delilah (MVS) on High Crag. It was climbed in 1951 and was Peascod's last new climb before he departed for Australia. He left behind a legacy of over fifty climbs, and some of these were truly great.
Ironically, Bill's worst climb bears his name. On Far East Raven Crag in Langdale, climbing on unfamiliar ground, he put up an undistinguished route. He refused to name it and did not record it. Perhaps mischievously, Arthur Dolphin found out about the climb and wrote it up in the Langdale guide. Because it had no name attached to it, he called it Peascod's Route—Arthur loved irony.
Very fortuitously I have recently had the great pleasure of meeting Bill Peascod and not only discussing his climbs but actually climbing with him. To my surprise and admiration he had no trouble at all doing Lakeland VS climbs after thirty years' absence. He climbed Eve (MVS) on Shepherd's Crag in Borrowdale, a climb of which he had made the first ascent almost exactly thirty years earlier and where he did at least five routes on a very cold February day. Watching him bridge delicately, precisely and quickly up a VS comer crack, it was if he had never been away.

Evening Sky-Grizedale Pike:Bill Peascod,mixed media

In 1946 and 1947 Bill was deeply affected by two mining disasters due to underground explosions. First the No. 10 pit at Lowca saw fifteen men killed, and a year later at Whitehaven 104 men were lost. Involved in rescue operations, he became deter­mined to leave the pits while he still had the option.
During the war years Bill worked at college and his labours bore fruit when eventually he became a chartered engineer (mining), and he left the pits to teach mining at Workington Technical College. But by 1952 he had had enough of struggling to earn a reasonable living from teaching, and he departed for Australia. Climbing, of course, did not cease, and he pioneered many new routes in the then completely virgin ranges. Based in New South Wales, notable new ascents included the Bread Knife in the Warrumbungles in 1954. And others followed, in the Glasshouse Mountains, particularly on the seventeen hundred ­foot-high pyramid-shaped Beerwah, a spectacular spike of undesite rising from the flat of the surrounding plains.

Australia saw his talents as an artist blossom and bear fruit. The seeds sown at art college, which he had attended for only a short time in distant Workington, had at last matured. Exhibition
Talking to Bill, I found it interesting how his climbing philosophy and attitude had developed. In the early days Bill was fearless, putting up major routes, Eagle Front and the like, in his first year of real climbing.
No protection, loose rock and hard climbing all felt very good, and his enthusiasm was limitless. He reckons that good climbers are born good and that ifyou are going to climb well, then you will do so immediately. Every day of every weekend was spent climbing both summer and winter.
Enthusiasm was, however, tempered with bitter experience. One morning in Brackenclose, a young man, D. M. K. Horn, eighteen years old, was alone and wanting someone to climb with. He was ignored. Later, on Pillar, Bill with S. B. Beck was descending across the top of Walker's Gully after doing the south-west route. They heard a flapping noise, like a crow exiting from a tight crack, but not quite. Bill, always eager, was at the bottom of Grooved Wall first, ready for another climb, when he discovered the body of Horn, who had fallen while soloing North Climb. Afterwards he realized the danger of falling, and this in fact had a steadying influence. "I was lightweight in experience so I got a pair of nailed boots and learned to use them." He most certainly did that, and the first ascent of Resurrection Route (VS) on High Crag and a repeat ascent of Grooved Wall were both done in nails and in the rain, shortly afterwards.

His confidence in rock climbing returned, and weightlifting provided the necessary physical strength required when he left the pits for a lecturing post. When he had been working at the coal face, he would finish on night shift and go straight out climbing, often pushbiking to the Lakes on a Saturday morning and climb­ing all weekend. He never, however, climbed weekdays after work. This was true even after he had taken up teaching, although there was enough time to do so. It seemed that certain con­ventions of West Cumberland Society were hard to break.
Apart from his Lakeland activities Bill was active in Scotland and with G. G. Macphee did early ascents of Rubicon Wall (VS) and Long Climb (VS), both on Ben Nevis. They also climbed Clachaig Gully (VS) in Glencoe in four hours, the previous best being seven hours. Bill went on to do two first ascents on Ben Nevis. These were Minus Two Gully (VS) and No. 5 Gully Buttress (VS), both with B. L. Dodson. His Welsh visits were less frequent, and he took an impressive fall off Soap Gut (in the pouring rain), only saved by virtue of his rope jamming alongside a small chockstone! No runners, you see.

The wet summer of 1950 saw Bill, along with Brian Dodson, experimenting with a climbing harness they had devised, known as the 'Gatesgarth Sling'. Bill wore it from then on. It is not unlike the fully body harness favoured by many Continental climbers today and was designed to distribute the load in the event of a fall.
Bill has some fond recollections of the climbing scene in the forties. He regards the period as a very important bridge between Very Severe and Extreme climbing. There was, of course, friendly competition but this was good-natured. He remembers doing the Girdle Traverse on Eagle Crag, Buttermere, which on the right-hand side links the Double Cross and Half Nelson climbs about half way up. He believes that the route that Sid Cross meant to climb was up the lower part of Half Nelson, across the line of the Girdle, and then up the groove of Double Cross to finish, so making a very good route. They presumably could not climb the link pitch, the line of the Girdle. Bill remembers his mischievous thrill of satisfaction when A. T. Hargreaves closely questioned him on this section of the Girdle.

There was friendship too, and he remembers how alone in the Brackenclose hut in the 1930s A. T. Hargreaves and his wife Ruth befriended him and took him climbing. Also the Thompson brothers, if they passed you on the road, would flag your car down and stop their own and jump out. They would then immediately relate what they had climbed the preceding weekend, what they were about that weekend and what they intended for the following weekend. They would then jump into their car and head for the hills.
Bill also remembers that some routes went many years without second ascents. Such a route was Buttonhook Route (HVS) on Kern Knotts. Having watched Jim Birkett float up it and making the delicate traverse appear to be covered in jugs, it took Bill three attempts to make the third ascent because he could not get anybody to second the first pitch.
On his own Eagle Front, he returned to do the second ascent eight years after he had initially led it. "Walking through the farmyard at Gatesgarth I picked up a rusty four inch nail and put it in my pocket. I banged it in to a belay on at the end of pitch five—I wasn't going to do it without a belay this time!" There is, unfortunately, a piton in place these days.

Bill Peascod on the crux pitch of Scafell's Central Buttress:Photo Bill Birkett collection©

Bill wrote of the Crux pitch:
" The view of the Coombe below is interrupted by neither rock nor grass. The Wall above and to the left may be written off; only to the right does the way seem feasible, and on this ascent the traverse, across a Water Worn Slab on rounded holds, became increasingly "interesting" when a film of water made its presence felt on rubber soled footwear. When one gets into such a position the second none too happily placed, the ground a long way below, and progress in any direction only possible by movements which are attended by 'natural hazards' I think a climber must cease to regard himself as a member of a party, welded together by three strong strands of rope, and climb with the intensity and concentration of a man going solo on similar rocks. And so it was here. The final crack led joyfully to the easier summit rocks and we had made the second ascent to Eagle Front.'
Also on Ben Nevis on the first ascent of Minus Two Gully, G. G. MacPhee was belayed on the ground and was hit by a falling rock dislodged by Bill. Covered in blood Macphee announced he would retire to the hut and off he walked. "I thought I'd killed him," Bill said, "until he just walked off."
So that is the man Bill Peascod, one of Lakeland's greatest pioneers. I asked him what led him to climb so extensively in the north-western Fells, and he replied that the potential of his local crags was vast and that really there was no need to look further for new routes. "Doing new routes is like a disease. It possesses you, and you don't want to stop." His one regret was not doing the first ascent of High Crag Buttress (HVS), for after spending all day on the route he had failed to lead the awkward move at the top. Time ran out and Bill went to Australia. It was subsequently climbed in 1963 by another party, but they succeeded only by using pitons for aid.
After climbing with Bill Peascod, I came to the conclusion that there is no substitute for ability. In his own words, "Good climbers are born good." I would like to add, "Once a natural always a natural." As Bill drove me into Keswick along the Bassenthwaite Road, the sun was just setting over Cat Bells and Causey Pike. It was October, the autumn colours, had arrived, and a velvet glow hung in the sky. "You know, there's nowhere more beautiful than the Lakes," he said.


David Craig leads Bill Peascod's classic Dexter Wall (VS-5a US 5.9) with Bill himself on belay.Photo-David Craig collection.

Bill Birkett© First published in Lakeland's Greatest Pioneers, Robert Hale 1983.
My great thanks to Bill for permission to republish this piece and use his images.



Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Coming Up: Cumbrian legends- Bill Birkett on Bill Peascod

Bill Peascod

"The following week Border Buttress (HS) and 'Eagle Girdle' (VS) were put up. Then on 23rd June one of Lakeland's great routes was produced. 'Eagle Front' (VS), five hundred feet, forced its way up the main buttress. It was the best and hardest climb in Buttermere at that time, and it remains a superb climb today.
Only four weeks later Peascod was back again, accompanied, as on the preceding climb, by S. B. Beck. They climbed the main buttress again by a very serious route named 'Fifth Avenue' (320 feet). It is graded VS in the guide but I think HVS is the more appropriate grade. The crux pitch involves a 150-foot run-out of rope; it is hard, and the holds are sloping, a thoroughly frighten­ing piece of climbing. When Bill led it, he was climbing into the unknown, with no protection and on belays that were hopelessly inadequate. This was certainly one of the most impressive Lake District leads. He was only twenty years old at the time, and many fruitful years lay ahead.'


This Friday, Celebrated Lakeland writer and photographer, Bill Birkett writes about one of the great Cumbrian pioneers-Bill Peascod. The article was written just before Bill Peascod died-ironically for a Lakeland legend,on THE great Welsh cliff Clogwyn Du Arddu (Cloggy)- where he was climbing with Don Whillans and Bill Birkett himself. Surprisingly,although 2010 marked the 25th anniversary of Bill Peascod's death,the occasion appears to have been missed by the UK climbing media. Somewhat belatedly and in tribute to this surprisingly unappreciated pioneer, Bill Birkett's biographical piece offers a concise account of Peascod's life and times up until his premature death in 1985. In the mid 1980's just before his death, Border Television put out a television series presented by Chris Bonington-Lakeland Rock. One of these programmes featured Bill climbing his classic route Eagle Front with Chris.The DVD of this series is still available and well worth seeking out. Check out the Striding Edge site or Amazon for further details.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Too Cold for Crow

 Arenig Fawr in its winter raiment seen from the West


After a little time,meeting two women I asked them
the name of the mountain to the south, "Arennig Vawr
 they replied or something like it. Presently meeting four men,
I put the same question to the foremost, a stout, burly,
intelligent-looking fellow, of about fifty.
He gave me the same name as the women. 
I asked him if anybody lived upon it
"No," said he, "too cold for man."
`Fox?" said I.
"No! too cold for fox."
"Crow?" said I.
"No, too cold for crow, crow would be starved upon it

George Borrow Wild Wales, 1862.

As the crow flies,if the crow won't take advice, Arenig Fawr is 15 miles due miles due south from my House. Driving, it's more like 30 and it plays hide-and-seek. Between Nebo and Pentrefoelas it stands in absolute independence to my right. I lose it near Ysbyty Ifan after a brief full-frontal flash. As I climb up on to the Migneint it moves off left and ducks behind its small but shapely consort, Arenig Fach. Looping down to what used to be the highest filling station in Wales it gets behind my back. As I descend into the Tryweryn valley it's straight ahead and then it's off to the right again. As I park above Llyn Celyn it hides its head behind a massive shoulder. I've taken you in by the back way and by car. It's an approach light years apart from that of earlier travellers who put their admiration of the hill on record. It's about 25 years since I first went up the Arenig.At the time it's possible that the only thing I'd heard about it was that there's a memorial tablet at the summit to the eight Amercans who died there when a Flying Fortress crashed in 1943.
My map showed neither right of way nor footpath. anywhere on the mountain so I took the entry nearly everybody takes the gated waterworks track serving the old embankment of Llyn Arenig Fawr. On a fine day this embankment is a fine place to loiter. On a bad day the old cabin close beneath is an equally delightful place to loiter. This cabin is now maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association and perfectly appointed to sleep two or three small dwarfs.

The Arenig bothy 'perfectly appointed to sleep two or three small dwarfs'.

As I came within sight of the lake on that first visit my attention was taken by the cliff above the far shore. At that distance I judged it about 300ft high over a frontage of more than a quar­ter-mile. Terraced, broken, vegetated, but show­ing very steep rock. The half-dozen parallel ledges of the lower part seemed strikingly continuous, like a bedded formation, unusual. Nevertheless, this rock looked attractive and the headwall showed some impressive towers. That was the main face- the east face. Round to the left there was a south face of clean-looking slabs. Twenty minutes later, following the stream up to the shoulder, a splendid zigzag crack suddenly opened in the lower wall of the slabs. From higher still I was able to see a continuation weakness leading to a final chimney, almost roofed over by a gi­gantic block. I knew then that sooner or later I'd have to get to grips with the place.

A bit of time went by before I read in Moun­tain that Martin Boysen had made a route there. No details were supplied. I walked up the hill a few times, reminding myself I'd better get on the cliff pretty soon. I checked guidebooks and made enquiries. Finally I began to climb there, recruiting in turn my brother, Neville, Ken Richards, Duncan Boston and Dave Wrennall. A bit more time had passed. Somehow, we'd reached 1994 before I got going. A quarter-cen­tury had slipped away whilst I'd been sitting read­ing.
I'd call the cliff Simdde Ddu. (Say it: Shim-the Dee, with a short e in the middle; something like that). This name appears against it on the 1:25,000 but it just means Black Chimney and refers to an obvious feature. I suppose I ought to say Craig Simdde Ddu but I'll use an English climber's neat if illogical contraction.
I'll describe the crag briefly and I'll start with the south face. The slabs and walls around the zigzag crack are divided into three tiers by two heather ramps. These fine slabs terminate on the left in a squalid chimney. Left of this an undercut buttress holding a central heather field advances. From a distance this buttress seems hardly worth notice but it offers some amenable climbs. The south face, then, has a main slab area and a ter­minal buttress.
Across to the right from the foot of the zigzag crack a ledge runs up against the ridge dividing the two main faces. This is a strategic position. From there we've watched peregrine making swift passes along the front of the cliff. Curi­ously, growing from a crack at ground level we discovered raspberry canes, a long way from home, descended perhaps from the survivors of some Victorian picnic basket. Beneath this ledge, later, we found the carcass of a fox. Too cold for fox? Straight overhead there's an impressive bulg­ing buttress. If we could have climbed it, unlikely, I could have written a bizarre description: 'Start between a dead fox and a raspberry bush'.
Glance around the nose and you'll find you're already at mid-height on the main face. First there's a broad vegetated depression. Right again, high up, a tower stands out. It is, in fact, a colos­sal detached pillar balanced on the face and I'll call it the Trojan Horse. (You could hide under it, it might be movable, it's beneath the final wall).
I won't attempt to describe the approaches ex­cept to say that it's been reached both from the present viewpoint and from the foot of the east face. The Horse is perched on a clean steep wall, slanting up leftwards.
Beyond this area the most obvious feature is the wide amphitheatre towards the right-hand end of the cliff. On walking up to it you find that the cirque of rock surrounding it, barely a rope-length high, shows two simple lines. At the top is Simdde Ddu itself, a vertical vegetated cleft blocked by a huge capstone. It's a bit like TwIl Du. The left wall presents a slanting crack satis­fying the main specification for a four star route. .(The climb must be flanked by unbroken mar­gins of more difficult rock as broad as they are high).
See 'Heart of Darkness'


The author on the first ascent of Left Aisle: Simddu Ddu.

From the foot of this crack walk across left to the edge and look round the corner. An exposed and attractive rock ledge, reminiscent of the vie aux bicylettes on the Grepon, extends for a rope length. Above is the Topless Tower, barely 80ft high but vertical and not giving much away. North of the amphitheatre, high up, there's another band of clean steep rock. However, I'll suspend this survey there.
Climbing on Simdde Ddu, two sensations have contended in me. First, a time warp has shifted me a century back to the beginnings of the sport. The thread of path along the base of the east face looks like the work of sheep. We've seen no trace of litter, no print of boot. Sitting on a ledge in the amphitheatre on a rainy day, the curtain of water from the overhangs falls well clear of us, it was easy to imagine Owen Glynn Jones scrambling wetly up to join us. The ledge on the top of the Trojan Horse so delighted us that, idiots, we built a small cairn there. It will have to be dismantled. Against this, there's been the con­viction that countless climbers have laid hands on the crag. A peg in the zigzag crack — surely a listed piton until the explorer steps forward? — stated a case. There was something that looked like a threaded sling in a difficult position on the steep little dome down by the stream. The cliff felt haunted. Surely this groove ought to hold a clump or two of heather; this scar might show where a climber removed a loose flake; the holds on this slab come too obviously to hand; these stones, overgrown by heather, might once have been a cairn.
This is a detective story. We'd had some great days but now I wanted information. Charles Evans, I'm told, started scrambling around here and developed agility by evading Welsh Black bulls, not in evidence nowadays, on the lower slopes. In 1960 Pyatt listed unexplored cliffs on the hill yet in 1962 Poucher said that Simdde Ddu is'the occasional resort of the rock-climber'. Which rock-climber? I couldn't ask Poucher now. There was a legend linking Nat Allen with the place. When I'd asked him he'd agreed that there's climbing there and he'd agreed that it hadn't been written up. He'd seemed disinclined to say more and I'd not pressed him, there being no hurry. Now I couldn't ask Nat. Boysen's climb I could identify from a verbal. Derek Walker had been mentioned. I'd chase him up later.

Back to the Sumner household. Ten years earlier Fritz hadn't been able to help. He listened in silence while I reminded him that guidebook boundaries give him the hill. He seemed less than delighted. A snowstorm of new route descrip­tions from all over Mid-Wales was falling on to him. He thought the area ought perhaps to be included with the Moelwynion. Finally he came up with a name and address. The information. At this point I made a disastrous mistake.
The address to hand was incomplete, no country or postcode and three places of that name in two counties. I was in a hurry anyway, wanting to talk, and I knew the name. I bluffed my way through a string of unlisted numbers (what's all the secrecy about, over there in the ghetto?), got through the cloak of smoke around the movements of members of the Guides' Ma­fia ("He might be in the Alps. His wife might be with him." "He might be back this weekend. Or next weekend.") and reached Terry Taylor.
Terry Taylor was puzzled. He hadn't done any climbing on the Arenigs. Then he mentioned that there'd been another Terry Taylor hanging around Llanberis, though he didn't know him. ("You might get him through The Heights. Or through Pete's Eats.") I tried to get things straight. Was it one of his routes I'd done in the quarries? Probably, but they'd both made new routes there. I pro­cured more unlisted numbers, consulted com­munity leaders in the ghetto ("I think I know this guy by sight. I don't know who he climbs with." "Haven't seen him around for a while. He sounded Irish.") and reached more dead ends.
Back to the Sumners. This time I got Jill. She was pretty sure where he was located and thought he worked in some sort of Centre, maybe an instructor. Now that was a network I still knew something about. My name might even be remembered. Distinguished author of the first of the Ladybird Books on Outdoor Education. There are lots of Mountain Centres in the area in question and I drew a few blanks. And then I was talking to a lady who gave me a number. He was at another kind of Centre, a Health Cen­tre. He'd be away for a week but I'd hunted down the ghost of Simdde Ddu, Dr Terry Taylor.

Terry Taylor supplied details of 20 routes, ranging from V Diff to E4, led by himself and Jason Cooper, from 1990 onwards. He also drew my attention to an article about the mountain by John Appleby. This had appeared two years pre­viously "in another magazine" as they say in the trade. A nice piece, I had to admit. He'd antici­pated me, both in the climbing and the writing. And my feelings about the climbing were copies of Appleby's and he'd done his homework on J D Innes, on whom I'd consulted shelf loads of books and whom I have to produce as a key witness.
Still, I'd been enquiring before he arrived. I knew what had happened since he left, this is my story.
I found Appleby with only the obligatory de­lay. ("John here. Can't talk right now but leave your number and I'll get back." Then a little melody; then the pips.) When we spoke I started to introduce myself and he reminded me he'd called me some years earlier about an article I'd written for this magazine. He came across as a romantic, engaging but hard to pin down. No, he hadn't any written descriptions. He hadn't named all his climbs. He might not be able to mark them up on a photograph. But he could point them out on the spot and, come to think of it, he'd like to get up there again. He'd done about 10 routes there in the late '80s.

John Appleby on the first ascent of Viridian Groove (HVS-5b US 5.10) Arenig Fawr


I went further back. The ex-BMC Derek Walker gave me useful directions allowing me to by-pass the Derek Walker who works for a climbing books' distributor and find the Derek Walker who's written a guide to the Pyrenees. No problem there. The routes, from the early '80s, were named, described and dated in a hut log book. Hard evidence. Then, as we got down to detail, we worked out that we were on an­other hill, Arenig Fach.
I considered my next step. I could convene a symposium at my house or organize a meet at'. the cliff. However, there remained the tantalis­ing mystery of the Arenig File, in the custody of Fritz Sumner. The Climbers' Club dinner was imminent. Did I have the muscle to ask the Presi­dent to instruct the Area Guidebook Editor to tell the Mid-Wales Guidebook Writer to let me see the file? Or, while everyone was in Llanberis, ought I to go housebreaking in Staffordshire? A chilling thought stopped me; suppose I simply asked Fritz for it and he eagerly complied but refused to take it back? It was the news I wanted, not the responsibilities.

The Arenig File. In the event it added noth­ing startling. So here is what I know and what I guess, there are over 30 routes on the moun­tain. Two of these are on Daear Fawr on the
north end of the spur but they've been ceded to peregrines. There's a route on Y Castell, the big escarpment to the south of Simdde Ddu, and there are a couple behind the east spur. There are about 10 post-modernist pieces on and near Craig Bryn Dyfrgi, the outcrop by the stream; these reach up to E4 and perhaps 80ft. There are at least a dozen routes on the south face of Simdde Ddu at all standards up to E3, some of­fering three pitches. There are only four or five climbs on the east face so far. All the extremes were first climbed by Taylor or Cooper. At least half the routes at HVS and below, known to Appleby, Cooper, Taylor and myself, may have had earlier ascents. Boysen's is the earliest yet attributed. However, the file is still open and in­vestigations continue. It shouldn't be impossible to find Nat's companions on any excursions there. There are one or two other leads. And any gear freak could glance at the two or three old pegs in place and say: "These pegs weren't placed be­fore such a year because these pegs weren't made before such a year."
Some will say this enquiry is against my own interests since I'm losing the delicious sense of mystery I enjoyed. I can't accept that. Years ago, when I was working in outdoor education, one of our parties brought back from Tryfan an as­tonishingly delicate barbed and tanged flint ar­rowhead, spotted emerging from the eroded bank of the path between Llyn Bochlwyd and Bwlch Tryfan. The County Archaeologist classi­fied and dated it at a glance: Conygar Hill type, about 1800 BC. All I'm asking for is the name of the man who was dropping gear on Tryfan 3,800 years ago. Oh, and from what hut was he oper­ating? And what club was he in? Then the mys­tery thickens.
The great thing about climbing there is the regal position, as open a view as from any high crag in Wales. Some early visitors made particu­lar note of the hill and the reason is obvious. In central Snowdonia the road walker sees a sum­mit for half an hour and then it's shut out by its satellites; without a good map he couldn't say which is the highest. To pass the Arenig, how­ever, on foot or by pony and trap by the normal approaches from east or west must have made a long day; the mountain rising in imposing auster­ity beyond seas of moorland, drawing closer very slowly, hanging on interminably behind the trav­eller's back. The very first tourists, heading for Snowdon to Cader Idris, usually by-passed this area. Pennay and Fenton simply name the hill as a feature in a distant skyline. In 1788, the year of his alarming adventure on the Eastern Terrace on Clogwyn du'r Arddu, the Rev William Bingley remarks on it as seen from the Rhinogion.
Later travellers left testimonials. On a dark night in the autumn of 1910, out of funds and exhausted, James Dickson Innes arrived at the isolated inn then existing at Rhyd y Fen. The inn­keeper, Washington Davies, fed him and cared for him on trust. Innes saw the mountain next morning and it hit him like a blow. He was only 23 but already knew that time wasn't on his side. He had tuberculosis. He returned early next spring and persuaded his friend Augustus John, already a celebrity, to come up to see what he'd found. As a base they rented a cottage at Nant­ddu, a mile to the west for £10 a year. An Aus­tralian colleague, Derwent Lees, subsequently arrived to strengthen the team. This was a nov­elty, the Slade's first expedition sieges Arenig Fawr. As was the fashion then, the three paint­ers had been taught that the big scene was the South of France, the colour, the light. Over the next two or three years, each in his own way, they tried to fix this moody northern hill.
This whole episode is extraordinary but it's mistaken to picture these hard drinking woman­ising Bohemians holed up in monastic seclusion. The tide of local economy hadn't yet ebbed from the valley. The long-dismantled railway was still running and there was a halt at Arenig. There was the inn nearby. John had a special interest in gypsies and a craving to paint incompletely dressed gypsy girls. He already spoke Romani, giving the three artists an entree with the Cwm Tryweryn band so that they were able to camp with them. A strange assortment of visitors came to Nant-ddu. They included John's companion Dorelia, with some of his six young sons. Euphemia Lamb — Lobelia, to her associates in the bisexual square-dance forming up around the early Bloomsbury Group — a beautiful girl with whom Innes had walked from Paris to the Pyr­enees, stayed for a while. In 1912 Innes buried her letters in a silver casket in the summit cairn. (Sit down: the old cairn was scattered and pul­verised in the air crash.) Derwent Lees com­peted gallantly in all activities. He was a less gifted artist and must have been cruelly handicapped on this rough terrain by his wooden leg but it's said that he was just as successful with women.... interesting. The cottage itself was demolished quite recently and now there's only a Eurobarn and a long-deserted chalet at this forlorn spot.

For John and for Lees, this was a happy inter­val in their lives. For Innes it was the last chance. He looked at the hill in all conditions, often com­pleting two paintings a day, oils on small wooden
panels. I've seen none of the originals, now widely dispersed, but I have a sense of them from re­productions. He admired Constable, the attack of Turner, Japanese mountain prints. He learned something from Cotman and Wilson Steer. But then, surprisingly, he brought to bear on this cool hill very hot colour, as in Derain and Matisse. No clear debt emerges. By a route of his own he found a style somewhere between Post-Im­pressionist and Fauvist, crude, brilliant, intense, firmly designed. No hill in Britain has had so large a legacy from a single hand. 'Mynydd Arenig re­mained ever his sacred mountain and the slopes of Migneint his spiritual home', John wrote later.

Augustus John: Arenig Fawr

"Ah, Innes," my friend A K Richards, former head of an art faculty, murmurs reflectively; "an interesting minor figure." He's forgotten I do reassessments. 'Innes's Arenig scenes must be counted among the greatest achievements of Welsh art', a Phaidon Companion states: 'This in­tense working period has been cited as one of the most important in the development of modernism in British painting', another Art Dic­tionary says. Consider that: Modernism in Brit­ish painting began on Arenig Fawr. By the winter of 1913 Innes was gravely ill and went to Mo­rocco (where, desperate, he experimented with startling tobaccos) but returned to die in Eng­land. He was 27. 'When Innes died and the focus of John's interest shifted, something went out of English painting that left it colder and more pro­saic', Rothenstein wrote.
The elasticity of time defeats me. It can't just be counted in years, it stretches and contracts with change or the absence of change. A quar­ter-century since I saw the hill and a quarter-century again to the Boeing crash. Go back 30 years more and Innes was there. That's the odd one, an interval spanning a time when few mo­tor vehicles had been seen in these parts and an era of huge aircraft.
Ten years earlier, usually snubbed because he shows no trace of feeling and no sense of hu­mour, W G Fearnsides was examining the hill as closely as any climber, any artist, any shepherd. He saw through the hill. His paper of 1905, 'On the Geology of Arenig Fawr and Moel Llyfnant', must have cost months of arduous and solitary work, patiently distinguishing volcanic intrusions from the basic material. That bedrock is so dis­tinctive in type that the oldest in the succession of Ordovician rocks in Wales became known as the Arenig Series.
Go back another half century and George Borrow, the one man Inquisition, is loping along the road at his customary five miles an hour, in­terrogating everybody, arguing, scaring the wits out of the locals. Miraculously he closes the gap, admiring the spectacular isolation of the hill ex­actly as we do and talking to us as directly as a close friend. Having satisfied himself on identity he remembered that he'd seen it described in an old Welsh poem as 'Arennig ddiffaith', barren Arenig. 'Arennig is certainly barren enough', he reflected, 'for there is neither tree nor shrub upon it, but there is something majestic in its huge bulk. Of all the hills I saw in Wales none made a greater impression on me'.





 Harold Drasdo: first published in High-September 96


Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Coming Up: Harold Drasdo goes beyond the madding crowd















John Appleby on the first recorded route on the north side of Arenig Fawr-Rapscallion in July 1990.

 "Climbing on Simdde Ddu, two sensations have contended in me. First, a time warp has shifted me a century back to the beginnings of the sport. The thread of path along the base of the east face looks like the work of sheep. We've seen no trace of litter, no print of boot. Sitting on a ledge in the amphitheatre on a rainy day, the curtain of water from the overhangs falls well clear of us, it was easy to imagine Owen Glynn Jones scrambling wetly up to join us. The ledge on the top of the Trojan Horse so delighted us that, idiots, we built a small cairn there. It will have to be dismantled. Against this, there's been the con­viction that countless climbers have laid hands on the crag. A peg in the zigzag crack — surely a Listed Piton until the explorer steps forward? — stated a case. There was something that looked like a threaded sling in a difficult position on the steep little dome down by the stream. The cliff felt haunted. Surely this groove ought to hold a clump or two of heather; this scar might show where a climber removed a loose flake; the holds on this slab come too obviously to hand; these stones, overgrown by heather, might once have been a cairn.
This is a detective story. We'd had some great days but now I wanted information. Charles Evans, I'm told, started scrambling around here and developed agility by evading Welsh Black bulls, not in evidence nowadays, on the lower slopes. In 1960 Pyatt listed unexplored cliffs on the hill yet in 1962 Poucher said that Simdde Ddu is'the occasional resort of the rock-climber'. Which rock-climber? I couldn't ask Poucher now'

This Friday...one of Arenig Fawr's pioneer new routers,Harold Drasdo,undertakes a bit of detective work to uncover the mountains' lost climbing history and its unique place in British art.