Saturday, 4 August 2012

Diversions

Harold Drasdo

This is an account of one of the most popular hill walks in Mallorca: the Archduke's Path from Valldemossa. It is outstand­ing for its historical associations, for its theatrical changes in terrain, and for its panoramic upper views. For Maureen and myself it is an indelible memory through a rash impulse on my part which held us in suspense for an hour.
It was November 1997 and we were based in the town of Soller on our first visit to the island. Our apartment had been recommended by Peter Hodgkiss, and belonged to an American adventuress called Lou Landreth. She had proved herself an invaluable source of informa­tion. We'd not found it useful to hire a car, which would restrict us to returns to starting points, since the bus services gave widespread access. We were using the guide to Mallorcan walks written by a CC club member, June Parker. Already in its second edition, it had been revised only three years previously.

Any general guidebook will tell you that George Sand and Chopin spent the winter of 1838 in the monastery at Valldemossa. George Sand was the pen name of Aurore Dupin. At eighteen she had married Baron Dudevant, abandoning him nine years and two children later. Moving to the Bohemian quarter of Paris she took up socialist and revolutionary causes, wrote erotic novels, had a succession of famous lovers, and thoroughly scandalised polite society. In 1837 she met Chopin and a liaison developed in which she was probably more carer than lover. Not yet thirty he was already afflicted with the tuberculosis that was to kill him. The Baroness decided that a spell in the warm south would improve his health and in the November of the following year they took the little steamer from Barcelona to Palma, almost the earliest tourists on record there.

Anyone interested should read Sand's book- A Winter in Majorca, or at least Part III of this fascinating memoir. The island was then in a condition somewhere between feudalism and the England of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Government had recently expelled the monks from Valldemossa and was now letting their bare cells to visitors. These were in demand in the scorching summers by wealthy people from Palma. In winter there were no takers. In mid-December, 1838, Sand and her small party installed them­selves. The only other occupants of the enormous building were a few villagers who had settled in and claimed some custodial function. In fine weather it remained an idyllic spot. In bad spells it was a survival test, a time of privations, of icy winds blasting through cells, corridor and cloisters, with scarcities of food, pilfering of the little they could get, and a general hostility towards them. (They weren't married, then} didn't attend the church, the man had a much-feared illness worsened by his stay here, the woman wore trousers and smoked cigars and her children were running wild.) Yet it was here that Chopin wrote the 24 Preludes and when his treasured piano finally caught up with them they were able to listen to the new music.

That was Valldemossa 170 years ago. This is the Archduke's Path. We set off up the Cairats valley... delicious. The track rose steadily through mixed woodland with successions of trees,many of which we couldn't name.

We were moving in dappled sunlight, the temperature refreshingly cool. At intervals the evidence of activity from earlier time was on display - the hearths of charcoal burners, a kiln of the lime producers, a pit for compacting snow to produce summer ice supplies.
Above the tree-line at the Font d'es Poll the ascent eased and we diverged north-east to take in the western summit of Teix. This rising only as a cone on the high plateau here was already occupied by a few groups of contented walkers soaking up the sun. It's the culminating point in this block and looks across toward the high peaks – Puig M;Dqor. Massanella. Here we ate our lunches and enjoyed the slight breeze. I noted that Teix is just two metres less in height than Carnedd Llewe­lyn, the centre-piece of the view from the windows of our own house.

Back on the main path we picked our way generally westward across the high ground. The area was almost bare of trees and the scatters of spiny bushes had the character of desert vegetation. It was the perfect location for a Spaghetti Western.
Beyond this the sensational part of the walk begins, the Archduke's masterpiece. The Archduke was Ludwig Salvator, a descendant of the Habsburg-Lorraine emperors. He first came here in 1867, aged twenty. Shortly afterwards he returned, bought a huge swathe of land and remained until the First World War called him back, a year before his death.

His estates became his toy. Walkers are indebted to him for the marvellous excursions he created. Conservationists are grateful for his protection of old buildings, for his detailed studies of plants and wildlife and for his scholarly enquiries into every aspect of the island's life and culture. He also found time to indulge himself with a succession of local peas­ant girls so that a trace of the Holy Roman Emperors may run in many Mallorcan veins.


Now the carefully eased and graded pathway follows the spine of the ridge. To the south the wooded valleys wind back to Valldemossa. To the north-west there's the narrow coastal strip, not a mile wide, and the sparkling sea through half the prospect. Two downward steps and the limestone wall drops for what feels a thousand vertical feet and there are no breaks in it, and there are no vantage points from which it can be viewed. I wouldn't want to traverse it on horseback as the Archduke did. It is exposed enough by Shanks's Pony. Along the way we edged past oncoming guided German tour groups who greeted us cordially. Finally the arete ran out in a descent and we arrived at what I assumed to be the Coll de s'Estret de Son Gallard.

It was at this point that we, or I, changed the plan. "There is a path leading down to Deya here on the right," June Parker had written, using the old spelling. We'd only passed it by, one of the most pictur­esque villages on the island, on the bus. I wanted to set foot there. Nevertheless, I paused. A notice stated that it was private property or private hunting, I can't remember. The entry to the tight little valley was barred by a barricade of cut thorns stretching across to the ruins of an old hut. Beaters drive thrushes, a pest in the olive groves, up the ravines and the hunters pot them and anything else with wings.
June Parker had mentioned the unauthorised closure of old paths and confrontations with new landowners. Rather like the pied-noirs who'd gone back to France after Algerian independence, wealthy settlers from North Africa and other parts had relocated here more recently, buying large closely guarded estates. Gangsters, someone had called them.

However, in fading red paint on the hold shelter the word 'Deia' was visible with an arrow pointing down. A narrow gap had been forced between the barricade and the masonry. We squeezed through and set
off We found ourselves on a nicely graded path, an old mule track maybe, looping down through woodland as delightful as that of the morning's ascent. Rapidly we lost hundreds of feet until we felt we must be level with the foot of the huge wall we'd passed over. But even­tually we saw ahead, stretching from side to side, a ten-foot fence of tight, new, one-inch mesh topped by angled barbed wire. The coast road wasn't a half-mile distant.

A yard or two beyond the fence the track now led into thin air. A quarry had been blasted out and the path's resumption could be seen a hundred yards away. The ravine was quite narrow at this point. To the left the fence ran into steep rock with a vertical wall beneath. On the right it curled around the quarry and the shrubs weren't quite so dense. I followed it until it ended above steep ground. Maureen joined me and we lowered ourselves from saplings and their exposed roots until I was stopped, hanging down the sheared face without a foothold. It was a compacted clay, quite hard with occasional embed­ded pebbles, almost like a young conglomerate. We were thirty feet from level ground. Fifteen feet below there was a sloping ledge banked up with debris and dust. I could drop and hope I'd stop but I'd be covered in filth and might well damage myself.

Then I saw that Providence had intervened. Within reach of my right shoulder, protruding horizontally from the clay, was the fractured thigh-bone of some large mammal. Five inches of it was exposed and the break had given the end three or four sharp spikes. It wasn't exactly the jawbone of an ass but if I could free it, it would make a good tool for carving out holds. Working it one way and another I extracted it. The joint end made a good palm butt. I hacked away until I'd cut a deep slot or pocket to lower myself further. Then the same thing again and I reached the ledge, balancing myself as catcher. Maureen repeated the moves and moments later we were on the quarry floor.

We regained the track and followed it through the thinning wood­land. For some time we'd been hearing dogs barking continuously in the Deia direction but no buildings were in sight. My anxieties returned. We'd heard already that some of these estates were patrolled by loose guard dogs. Pausing under the last tree cover we saw that only four hundred yards of open ground separated us from the road. The path seemed to have petered out on ground tracked by vehicles. Then we saw that a fence like the one we'd circumvented ran along the road­side as far as we could see in each direction. And then, that to our right another fence ran from the roadside back up the slope toward the escarpment. Behind it, with concentrated rage, two Alsatians were howling at us. I'd fenced us in but the dogs were in an adjoining prop­erty. There was no sign of life in our compartment.

I studied the fence. A line of spaced trees stood on its further side. Eventually I saw a single point of weakness. One tree had a drooping bough reaching over the fence, curving within eight or nine feet of the ground. We sprinted across the exposed space. I hoisted Maureen, she dragged me, we shinned along in tandem and moments later we were on the public highway. Deliverance.

Sitting on the bank, we composed ourselves, then set off to walk the two or three miles into Deia. There was almost no traffic on the road. Very soon as we reached the dogs they began to pace us, barking in a frenzy and hurling themselves furiously high up the fence so that it shook for a long way to either side. That was alright, but what if we arrived at a gap or a hole somewhere? After some hundreds of yards, however, we passed by the imposing ornamental gates of this estancia, some distance up the slope. Soon afterwards, having done their duty and seen us off, they loped back to headquarters with sore throats and tender paws.

Darkness fell before we arrived at Deia. The through road passes above the old village but although we'd ninety minutes to spare before the last bus, we felt like sitting down. Close to the bus stop we found a delightfully seedy bar with provocative murals on the walls and only a half dozen young locals in session. Here, in contented frames of mind we attended to our raging thirsts, talking in the bar and reviewing our day. Then we were in the beaten old bus, grinding over the high ground and straining round the hairpins into Soller. We'd done the best part of the Archduke's Path, we'd taken in Teix, we'd committed a wilful act of trespass or an assertion of ancient rights, depending on point of view, and we'd very nearly been into the old part of the village of Deia. We were ready for something to eat.

My plan on starting this piece was to end with a note on Ronnie Wathen, resident in Deia for many years though he also had a base in London. He'd died suddenly four years before our visit. Now I find he's too big to fit in a paragraph and can't be constrained on a page without a note on the poet and writer Robert Graves.Ronnie was the lucky inheritor of enough income to make working for pay unnecessary. He was a climber, Alpine Club and Climbers' Club, and one of the three founder members of the Newton Club which demanded an 80ft free fall as entry qualification; this at a time when most climbers tied on with a simple bowline. I'd first met him in 1957 when he joined our groups in the Pennines, the Lakes and in Ireland. In that year he made the first ascent of Pumasillo with a Cambridge University MC party. He followed up shortly with big routes in the Western Alps with Chris Bonington, who could recognise a strong porter when he saw one. And he was still climbing in Mallorca in the year of his death.

Ronnie Wathen:Photo-Terry Gifford

He was a serial traveller, sometimes a nomad moving from country to country, sometimes a householder making regular excursions back to old haunts or out to new lands. On all these journeys he lived very simply, picking up something of the language and making friends amongst the very poor. He was a family man with an Icelandic wife, a son born in Spain and a daughter born in Greece. He was a poet, producing collection after collection in the least ortho­dox styles and metres I've ever come across.

He was a musician. dedicating much of his later life to the mastery of the Irish bagpipe, the uillean pipes. (Lou Landreth had said that she'd occasionally taken a very early walk into the hills only to hear Ronnie playing the pipes from the summit of a crag a thousand feet higher. That may be the best distance to listen to the Irish bagpipe, an acquired taste.)

He was an incurable eccentric, arriving at quite formal occasions in skull-cap or fez. I'd last seen him at meets in Snowdonia not long after we'd been paired as judges on a Boardman-Tasker panel chaired by Livia Gollancz.Ronnie's reason for building a house in Deia lay in the intensity of his admiration for Graves. Graves was widely known in Britain as the author of Goodbye to All That and I, Claudius but he was massively productive. He'd long been resident in Mallorca and was greatly respected there, though each of his houses was a vortex of wildly unorthodox relationships. He'd even been formally declared a Son of Deia. Ronnie wanted to be near him, to make friends, to debate the world with him.

Graves even knew something about climbing. In 1914, in his final year as a schoolboy at Charterhouse, he had fallen under the influence of one of his masters, George Mallory, and a friendship developed which was to continue until Mallory's death. Graves was recruited for visits to Snowdonia and on one of these they joined a well-attended Climbers' Club meet at Pen-y-Pass. There he found himself sharing ropes with the great figures of' the period: Winthrop Young, Harold Porter and the O'Briens, amongst others. He climbed some of the most prestigious routes of the era and wrote lucid descriptions in a school essay. Within a few months everything changed and he was in the trenches of the Western Front or in hospitals for the rest of the war. He was critically wounded and became one of the small group of men who were to read newspapers reports of their own deaths in action.

Ronnie's plan succeeded for a while. Unhappily it became clear that the great man's mind was clouding and discussion eventually became impossible. By that time Ronnie had developed a taste for the company of the new expatriates settling in the village and he was still making journeys up and down the bagpipe belt from Ireland to Nepal. All that came to an end in September 1993.
Robert Graves: Photo-Peter Stark (National Portrait Gallery)

Harold Drasdo..first published in the Fell and Rock Journal 2010