Friday 30 July 2010

Letter to Sara Hutchinson

Greta Hall.

Dearest Sara.....

I had a glorious walk - the rain sailing along those black crags and green steeps, white as the wooly down on the under side of a willow leaf, and soft as floss silk. Silver fillets of water down every mountain from top to bottom that were as fine as bridegrooms. I soon arrived at the Halse [Newlands Hause] and climbed up by the waterfall as near as I could, to the very top of the Fell. But it was so craggy - the crags covered with spongy soaky moss, and when bare so jagged as to wound one's hands fearfully - and the gusts came so very sudden and strong, that the going up was slow, and difficult and earnest - and the coming down, not only all that, but likewise extremely dangerous. However, I have always found this stretched and anxious state of mind favourable to depth of pleasurable impression, in the resting places and lownding [sheltering ] coves. The thing repaid me amply: it is a great torrent from the top of the mountain to the bottom. The lower part of it is not the least interesting, where it is beginning to slope to a level - the mad water rushes through its sinuous bed, or rather prison of rock, with such rapid curves, as if it turned the corners not from the mechanic force, but with foreknowledge, like a fierce and skilful driver. Great masses of water, one after the other, that in twilight one might have feelingly compared them to a vast crowd of huge white bears, rushing, one over the other, against the wind - their long white hair shattering abroad in the wind.

Moss Force

The remainder of the torrent is marked out by three great waterfalls - the lowermost apron-shaped, and though the rock down which it rushes is an inclined plane, it shoots off in such an independence of the rock as shews that its direction was given it by the force of the water from above. The middle, which in peaceable times would be two tinkling falls, formed in this furious rain one great water-wheel endlessly revolving and double the size and height of the lowest. The third and highest is a mighty one indeed; it is twice the height of both the others added together, nearly as high as Scale Force, but it rushes down an inclined plane - and does not fall, like Scale Force. However, if the plane had been smooth, it is so near a perpendicular that it would have appeared to fall - but it is indeed so fearfully savage, and black, and jagged, that it tears the flood to pieces - and one great black outjutment divides the water, and overbrows and keeps uncovered a long slip of jagged black rock beneath, which gives a marked character to the whole force. What a sight it is to look down on such a cataract! - the wheels, that circumvolve in it - the leaping up and plunging forward of that infinity of pearls and glass bulbs - the continual change of the Matter, the perpetual sameness of the Form - it is an awful Image and Shadow of God and the World. When I reached the very top, where the stream flows level, there were feeding three darling sheep, with their red ochre letters on their sides, as quiet as if they were by a rill in a flat meadow, flowing clear over smooth tressy water-weeds, and through by long grass - Bless their dear hearts what darlings mountain sheep are!...

I went to Lodore on Sunday - it was finer than I had ever seen it before. Never were there three waterfalls so different from each other, as Lodore, Buttermere Halse Fall [ Moss Force], and Scale Force. Scale Force is a proper fall between two very high and narrow walls of rock, well tree'd - yet so that the trees rather add to, than lessen the precipice walls Buttermere Halse Fell is a narrow, open, naked torrent with three great water-slopes individualised in it one above another, large, larger, largest. Lodore has its walls, but they are scarcely walls, they are wide apart, and not upright, and their beauty and exceeding majesty take away the terror - and the torrent is broad and wide, and from top to bottom it is small waterfalls, abreast, and abreast. Buttermere Halse Fall is the War-song of a Scandinavian Bard. Lodore is the Precipitation of the fallen Angels from Heaven, Flight and Confusion, and Distraction, but all harmonized into one majestic thing by the genius of Milton, who describes it  Lodore is beyond all rivalry the first and best thing of the whole Lake Country. Indeed (but we cannot judge at all from prints) I have seen nothing equal to it in the prints and sketches of the Scotch and Swiss Cataracts.

Lodore Falls

Samuel Taylor-Coleridge: 1802

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Coming up: Samuel Taylor Coleridge...Letter to Sara

"I had a glorious walk - the rain sailing along those black crags and green steeps, white as the wooly down on the under side of a willow leaf, and soft as floss silk. Silver fillets of water down every mountain from top to bottom that were as fine as bridegrooms. I soon arrived at the Halse [Newlands Hause] and climbed up by the waterfall as near as I could, to the very top of the Fell. But it was so craggy - the crags covered with spongy soaky moss, and when bare so jagged as to wound one's hands fearfully - and the gusts came so very sudden and strong, that the going up was slow, and difficult and earnest - and the coming down, not only all that, but likewise extremely dangerous.
However, I have always found this stretched and anxious state of mind favourable to depth of pleasurable impression,'

This Friday...the Rime of the ancient fell walker. Samuel Taylor Coleridge goes walkabout in the English Lake District.

Friday 23 July 2010

Ecodefense......A field guide to Monkeywrenching

Rebels with a cause:Foreman Drasdo and Abbey.

Freedom begins between the ears...Edward Abbey

The following review was written twenty years ago by Harold Drasdo- respected elder statesman of the UK climbing community as well as being a life long anarchist and environmentalist.He reviews a book which has never been out of print since its first publication in 1985. The book was written by Dave Foreman-uber eco warrior-and great friend of Edward Abbey. The US eco-anarchist whose rip roaring novel-The Monkey Wrench Gang- inspired an entire environmental movement into being.The radical Earth First! group. A movement which embraced a non hierarchical structure.A group without leaders or membership but which existed as a loose coalition of independent cells spread throughout the world and who initiated their own campaigns.

One of the main weapons in the Earth First! armoury was 'monkeywrenching'. The action of ecotage or more precisely of carrying out non life threatening acts of sabotage against those corporate owned machines which would tear up the wilderness areas in pursuit of private profit or public utility.
Ned Ludd Books published the first two editions, with Abbzug Press publishing a third edition. The book was first published in 1985.

“Tentatively called Ecodefense: A Handbook on the Militant Defence of the Earth, the publication was to be a radical environmental version of William Powell's Anarchist Cookbook. In it's final form, brought out by Foreman's own Ned Ludd Books (suitably named after the nineteenth-century British worker who destroyed supposedly labor-saving machinery), Ecodefense: A Field Guide To Monkeywrenching gave practical , detailed instructions on how to decommission bulldozers, pull out survey stakes, spike trees, and generally harass and delay resource industry plans.

It was an immediate success; dog eared copies of it could be found in the backpacks of young environmental militants literally throughout the world. This kind of popularity led Oregon's Williamette National Forest supervisor Michael Kerrick to denounce the book in a white paper presented at a congressional hearing, in which he peevishly threatened to 'close the entire [national forest logging] area to unauthorized entry' if the ecotage described in the book took place. As good as his word, Kerrick soon thereafter introduced the controversial and legally questionable policy of closing national forests to the public whenever environmental protests were expected. It is no exaggeration to say, therefore, that Ecodefense changed forever the way public lands policy was made in this country and perhaps even abroad. Ecotage was, as Getty learned, a new factor in making environmental policy.'

Somewhat appropriately in 2010,we have seen the established 'green' movements such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth coalesce with the state and its corporate masters into an amorphous technology worshipping entity. Witness the recent celebrations in the UK at Friends of the Earth headquarters and the Scottish chamber of commerce who jointly celebrated the Scottish government's granting of planning permission for a 150 mile super highway of pylons across Scotland which controversially passes through the Cairngorm National Park.

Liz Cameron, chief executive of Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said that the decision was “precisely the kind of positive action the government must take to create the right environment for business to flourish and represented a huge step forward for investment in renewable energy resources.” whilst  Duncan McLaren Chief Executive of Scottish Friends of the Earth " .....Welcomed the decision " !!! The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which....Animal Farm: George Orwell.

Perhaps the message of Ecodefense has never been more apposite in the UK given the fact that its natural environment has never been more at risk from an energy policy born of government  PR spin and the desire to create huge profits for the energy corporations who appear to have have all the UK political parties in their pocket.. Oh....and the fact that in the UK and across Europe the lunatics really are running the asylum !!!

Monkeywrenching, for better or worse, is one of those Americanisms, like backpacking, destined to displace our older English words. It's tempting to define it tightly as the unauthorised decommissioning of vehicles and heavy equipment in the name of the natural environment. In fact, that only seizes on the more daring and spectacular of a wide range of field-tested operations. In Britain we'd say that they amount to throwing a very heavy spanner in the works. In this important book almost every tactic discussed is illegal and risks severe penalties. It's a saboteur's manual.

A word about its immediate antecedents. In the sixties Edward Abbey, sometime Park Ranger at Natural Arches, Utah, wrote his wilderness classic, Desert Solitaire. In it he boldly confessed to yielding to a couple of most unrangerlike impulses. Some years later his successful novel, The Monkeywrench Gang, took up the theme in earnest. In 1980 the militant Earth First! movement (always written with an exclamation mark) was co­founded by Foreman, Haywood and others and since then totally independent groups have formed throughout the United States. These groups vary somewhat in their styles and policies and may or may not include serious monkeywrenchers. Foreman has published Earth First! The Radical Environmental Journal for a decade now and includes a column. `Dear Ned Ludd' sympathetic to monkeywrenching.

Ecodefense is into its second edition and fifth printing. Notwithstanding the fact that large numbers of copies must have been sold to policemen in false beards, to state agencies and to captains of industry, its obviously become a cult bestseller. Its updated every 12 to 18 months. Suggestions are welcomed but the editors don't want your name and address. They'll simply take note of your comments and then burn letter and envelope. Similarly, no record is kept of orders. In any case their security, they just happen to mention, is' looked after by two good friends, Messrs. Smith and Wesson.

Its not possible, here, to outline the history that's led the ecosaboteurs to take this extreme position. Say simply that conservationist legislation has proved ineffective in the face of money. Its been subverted, circumvented or overridden by business interests, industrial tourism and the off-the-road joyride of affluence. The last great road less areas are shrinking like spring snows and the majestic animals and trees, grizzly and redwood, mountain lion and Ponderosa pine, seem doomed to take their final bow. As an appeasing gesture the world of finance may be prepared to set up a zoo or an arboretum. (It will raise the question of more economic admission charges at a later date.) The ecoteur says no to all that.

It may be helpful to describe very briefly the most widespread form of monkeywrenching, tree spiking, recommended as suitable for the whole family. Please don't misunderstand. It takes place in the remaining virgin forest, not in plantations. (Timber has to come from somewhere and surely not from Brazil.) The trees are spiked, usually with six inch nails, the heads being clipped off just before the final driving. It doesn't hurt the tree, it saves its life. To avoid the remote possibility of injury to foresters the nails aren't placed where they might cause kickback or a broken chain. They're intended for the expensive blades of the automated sawmill. Since the timber may be scanned with metal detectors and the very difficult task of extraction attempted, ceramic pegs are now being introduced though, in fact, helical nails are virtually irremovable.

Communiques are issued sometime after the exercise which, if possible, is carried out years in advance of projected timber sales. The logging of wilderness areas is economically marginal anyway and the industry is hit where it hurts, in the pocket. The nailing of only a few trees has proved sufficient to deter some clearances. In massive operations in Meares Island, British Columbia, several thousand trees were spiked.

Ecodefense discusses a very wide range of strategies and I can only mention a few. How to discourage road construction in road less areas. How to deal with the drivers of off-road vehicles. How to handle intrusive signs and advertising. How to free potentially dangerous wild creatures from traps. And there is one very interesting line of thought. If you ever read The Grapes of Wrath you may recall a dialogue between Tom Joad and a tractor driver who is helping evict his own countrymen because he is desperate to feed his wife and kids. That exchange can stand for many situations. The ecoteurs are now trying to find ways to shift the confrontation higher up the chain of command to the headquarters and homes of the invisible people who initiate the devastation of wild country.

Everything is examined in fine detail. For instance: 'The classic act of monkeywrenching is messing around with a bulldozer.' The editors concede that there's more than one way to skin a Cat. 'You can totally dismember it with a cutting torch. Or you can just cook it.' These approaches probably have a therapeutic value but they don't get the vote of the experts. The introduction of additives to fuel is dismissed; it only clogs filters. The beserker attack upon visible piping or tyres is derided as too obvious. To learn the preferred ingenious methods you will have to read the book.

The movement, as you might have feared, already has its martyrs but it's hard to see how it can finally be suppressed since it consists of very small and entirely autonomous groups which make no attempts to communicate with or even to identify each other. Soloing is sometimes practised though it's clearly more dangerous. Normally the ecosaboteur will operate only with a few very close friends of many years' standing. A full 60 pages deals with security considerations. Throughout, a rigorously ethical stance is maintained. Never deliberately endanger human life, including your own. So, for instance, work on vehicles must always ignore the braking and lighting systems. The movement declares itself non-revolutionary. It cares only about the protection of nature.

The first response of a British reader might be of awe at the courage of the monkeywrencher who risks liberty and in some situations perhaps even his life. The second might be of amazement at the lengths and the expense he goes to in equipping himself, often seeming to violate his own cardinal principles of simplicity and security. But the third may be the dismayed impression that it's all a bit over the top. In that case he should immediately read the first two chapters again and suggest other options. Over here our extremists seem to be concentrated in animal liberation and hunt saboteur groups, all very British. And they're not even all non-violent. But in an undedicated and sporadic manner monkeywrenching has been going on here for a long time perhaps, as the publisher's imprint suggests, we invented it? and if we think hard enough many of us must admit to having succumbed to impulse or to passion on the odd occasion. It would be foolish to do so ever again without, as a matter of prudence, reading this book first.

If the American ecoteur were to land on these shores, what would he make of the scene here? Every thing's kinda different. He'd see that a lot of energy is absorbed by access problems rather than by conservation issues and he'd notice that some of those wanting access aren't going to be a help to conservation. His interest would be excited by talk of the Northern corries and the Flow Country and he'd tell us exactly what to do. But I think he'd make suggestions for our rural and urban areas too. If developers willingly pay the derisory fines for ignoring Tree Preservation Orders, why don't we nail all protected trees? Is it even an offence? However, these lines of thought are premature in this review. What is needed is a full-scale debate. Is it true that widespread monkeywrenching is the only certain way to protect wild country?
One small difficulty. Ned Ludd Books has no British distributor. It is possible to buy Ecodefense here but you'll certainly have to search around and it may cost you about 10 pounds. Simpler and cheaper, if you have a friend visiting America this year, to ask him to bring one back. One way or another you're going to hear more about the subject. The Ecowarrior may be coming this way soon.

Harold Drasdo©
first published in HIGH-1990.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Coming up: Ecodefense revisited.

"Monkeywrenching, for better or worse, is one of those Americanisms, like backpacking, destined to displace our older English words. It's tempting to define it tightly as the unauthorised decommissioning of vehicles and heavy equipment in the name of the natural environment. In fact, that only seizes on the more daring and spectacular of a wide range of field-tested operations. In Britain we'd say that they amount to throwing a very heavy spanner in the works. In this important book almost every tactic discussed is illegal and risks severe penalities........ It's a saboteur's manual.'!

This Friday, We revisit Dave Foreman's classic Ecodefense manual which was first published in 1985 to great controversy, with respected elder statesman of the UK climbing community and life-long Anarchist and environmentalist...Harold Drasdo.

Friday 16 July 2010

Mountain Rescue in North Wales..the early years

Barbara James Collection©
Barbara James is one of the UK's most respected female activists. Despite inherited eczema and allergies which made Barbara James different from her classmates,she was lucky.The severity of her eczema had lessened when her teacher introduced her to the Snowdonia hills.In 1964 she became a full time mountaineering instructor and mountain rescue first aider in Capel Curig at a time when there were few females instructing or leading difficult rock routes.

Divorced in 1976 and with a mortgage to pay, Barbara needed a job, and became the first and possibly the only woman civilian to be employed by MOD to train soldiers.At the Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion in Folkestone she learned another language, new codes of behaviour, and to lead expeditions.

After early retirement, Barbara took her first holiday in I I years. She was probably the second person to go, unaccompanied, to the magical Falkland Islands soon after the conflict.Alone she walked up Tumbledown, communed with wild life and was told that "Anyone can learn to fly". So on return, her 50th birthday present to herself was to get a Private Pilot's Licence.A year later she flew a Cessna 40 hours solo around Florida.

But nothing Barbara had done was as challenging as surviving alone after moving to Tenerife. Only the magical El Teide National Park and the genuine, spontaneous kindness of the Canarians ensured her return. Barbara James now lives happily in her Mediterranean retreat and part of the year in North Wales.

Mountain rescuers require not only technical skills but also expert first aid training. Perhaps today it is hard to believe that in the 1960s there was no recognised first aid specialist training until Dr Ieuan Jones Senior, Accident Officer in the Bangor C&A hospital created a course that would train lay people throughout the UK. Ieuan had gained experience when dealing with severe back injuries in the mines near Mansfield; later his skills helped to save life in the Gulf War. He did more to save life than any person I know.

Pre-war, and for a while afterwards, mountaineers were few, most were university trained, many knew to each other and when injured, they rescued themselves. The official history of rescue in mountains started in 1933 when the Joint Stretcher Committee, after 1946 to be known as the Mountain Rescue Committee, was formed by members of two renowned clubs, the Fell and Rock Climbing Club (founded in 1906) and the prestigious Manchester-based Rucksack Club (founded in 1902). The latter also founded the British Mountaineering Council in 1942.

Eustace Thomas, born in 1869, designed the Thomas Stretcher with a strong aluminium frame, canvas bed and pull-out carrying handles; only its wooden runners occasionally needed replacing. This stalwart stretcher, plus a first aid sack and a casualty bag, was left where it might be needed. In 1934, Dr Wilson Hey bravely flouted the law and stocked morphine at some rescue posts until, by 1949, the NHS contributed first aid equipment and morphine.

By the 1950s, not only were the numbers of hill walkers and rock climbers - from a wide variety of backgrounds - increasing but also mountaineering centres with full-time staff had arrived. In the Ogwen Valley the old lady who owned Ogwen Cottage gave the stretcher and first aid rucksack to the rescuer with the best footwear. In 1959 she sold her cottage to partners Ron James, Tony Mason and Trevor Jones. They started Ogwen Cottage Mountain School and the residential instructors, their friends and nearby mountaineers did all the rescues.

The early 1960s an increasing number of school children, youth groups and other young people were being introduced to mountains. Without basic training courses and qualifications for teachers, scout and youth leaders, sadly an unacceptable numbers of accidents, hypothermia cases and fatalities were happening. (NB Equipment then was very basic. It was still uncommon to wear waterproof trousers on wet days or crash hats on rock climbs and varying sizes of car and plane nuts, threaded onto slings, were rock climbers’ protection).

Before the end of the 1960s the first courses for teachers and youth leaders (the Mountain Leadership Certificate) and for professional instructors (the Mountaineering Instructor’s Certificate, MIC) had been designed and were running. (My MIC certificate, signed by Jack Longland and Fred Bristoe, is dated 5th August 1969.)

Whilst Ron James improved the technical side of rescues - he arranged for the Thomas Stretcher to be expertly split into two parts for ease of carrying uphill and he experimented with the Perche Barnarde and the Mariner stretchers and the Tragsitz that he had imported from abroad. Ron also founded the Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Organisation and ran training courses for carrying the Thomas stretcher and lowering it vertically down a cliff face with a ‘casualty’ for the enthusiastic volunteer rescuers who had varied full-time employment and hill experience. However the first aid training then available was a very basic St John’s course. It was woefully below the standard required.

It was after two tragic accidents that our first aid skills took a stratospheric leap forward. One person had died from a broken nose because at that time ‘leave treatment to the rescue team’ was general practice; a casualty was lying on his back with blood filling his lungs. Not long afterwards, because the ground was rocky and access with the stretcher was difficult, an injured person was picked up and carried towards the stretcher party. Death was due to severe internal injuries being caused, or compounded, by the untrained lift. I was more an observer of casualty care than a participator until one man’s initiative improved mountain rescue first aid training throughout Britain.
In 1967 Ieuan had put together a slide lecture that pulled no punches. In the University of Bangor’s New Arts lecture theatre every Thursday evening for a term, I enjoyed every minute of his fascinating talks and his challenging sense of humour. We soon learned that the number of puffs on his cigar, on a scale of one to three, would indicate the gory level of the next slide. He showed these pictures, many taken in hospital, in an attempt to accustom us to seeing unpleasant injuries; after three puffs it was not unusual for someone to pass out - often a man with a goatee beard! After the lecture we migrated to a nearby pub. It was a wonderful experience to be able to discuss with Ieuan topics raised in his lecture.

The practical training sessions and the very time-consuming individual practical examinations were run by Ieuan’s wife, Joan, a highly competent, very strict nurse. Ieuan’s advanced course was no less compelling thanks to his skilled teaching and the final part was a day spent in casualty. Wearing a white coat I felt the leg’s break, saw the x-ray and watched the leg being straightened and finally plastered; this invaluable experience will stay with me for ever.

On the first MIC course it was very noticeable that those of us in North Wales who were lucky to have benefited from Ieuan’s expertise were better trained that instructors from other centres in the UK. Soon scout groups and university climbing clubs, heard about Ieuan’s course, so those of us who had passed his instructor course ran the basic course around the country. Ieuan’s course did more to save lives on mountains, both in Britain and abroad, than any person I know. His courage in that era to train lay persons to diagnose and to make decisions on the mountain, often in far from perfect conditions, was unprecedented, yet he has received no reward. Ieuan was a very brave doctor and those unlucky enough to be injured owed him an enormous debt. For over twenty years, his hand had guided rescuers throughout the whole of Britain, yet most of the casualties never even knew his name. Sadly Joan died in 1992

'Itching to climb' can be ordered through.

Barbara James 2010© 

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Coming Up: Barbara James...mountain rescue development in N Wales.

 "Mountain rescuers require not only technical skills but also expert first aid training. Perhaps today it is hard to believe that in the 1960s there was no recognised first aid specialist training until Dr Ieuan Jones Senior, Accident Officer in the Bangor C&A hospital created a course that would train lay people throughout the UK. Ieuan had gained experience when dealing with severe back injuries in the mines near Mansfield; later his skills helped to save life in the Gulf War. He did more to save life than any person I know.'

This Friday, Barbara James describes the early years of mountain rescue in North Wales and pays tribute to the unique qualities of Dr Ieuan Jones who played a central role in the development of the rescue service in North Wales.

Friday 9 July 2010

Jim Perrin's West...The loping hare kicking rainbows from the dew.

And they are gone-aye ages ago.
these lovers fled away into the storm

There is a point and a time of day when travelling south down Nant Francon when the west face of Tryfan is revealed in all its glory. 'Tryfan's Cinderella face' I was to describe it as years later after spending weeks climbing up and down its ridges,faces and gullies and jotting down notes on every aspect of its recorded climbs until I could finally get around to rewriting the entire section for the Climbers Club Ogwen guidebook. Today, that possibility did not remotely surface on my radar. I could just relax in the rare position of being a passenger and take in 'all that useless beauty'. Jacs’ Peugeot cruised through Ogwen Cottage and we craned our necks to see if anyone was enjoying the early evening sun on Milestone Buttress.
We had driven to Caernarfon from Jac's home on the moors above Cerrigydrudion to look at a V Dub van that I had seen in a free ads paper. I had been mortified when Jacqie turned up one day at my house waving a wad of cash and asked 'where is it then ?' 'It' being a VW camper I was selling and had sold to someone else when after a week, I presumed she wasn't interested. In my guilt I promised to find her an even better bus...' it was a bit of shed actually Jacs..needed a bit of work'
We pulled into the Stables in Betws y Coed and brought out our drinks to join the tourist throng who crowd the yard in front of the bar on evenings such as this. Swilling back my Old Speckled Hen I watched Jacqie and Luke- my youngest son- share a bowl of chips..'haven't eaten all day...I'm starving!'. I casually remarked, 'Debbie was saying that you've had contact with Jim Perrin recently? '.I'd known that in the dim and distant past that Jacs had hung around with someone who had literally inspired me to take up rock climbing and whose writings and uncompromising politics was in sharp relief to the flacid posturings of so many egos whose words adorned the climbing magazines.
 'Yeh..I've seen him' was the guarded response as she lifted the house red to her lips and looked away. Not wishing to pursue the topic if it was awkward I veered off and asked when she was going to go climbing with me.

I knew that Jacs had climbed in the past and was part of 'the scene' but she never took it beyond..'Yep..I might go grimping with you some time'. 'Grimping'; never heard it called that-must be a Lakeland thing? Jacs was from Kendal oop north although like me she had lived in NE Wales for a long time. The triangle twixt Cerrigydrudion, Corwen and Ruthin had seen a steady stream of boheimian invaders arrive from all points of the compass during the early 70's and 80's. Artists,Buddhists,New Agers,Hippies,drop outs,self sufficiency freaks you name it. They came,they saw and they..well..assimilated man !. Escapees from the urban ghettos ,drawn to this quiet corner of north Wales by the space, natural beauty and cheap housing.
In my own village it was said you could not swing a cat without hitting an artist!. John Sampson - grandfather of the writer Anthony Sampson-had arrived in the Edwardian age to study the unique dialect of the Welsh Romany Gypsies who had settled here and who remained up until the 1930's-bringing the arch boheimian and enfant terrible of the Edwardian art world, Augustus John with him.
In modern times everyone from Brian Eno to Ralph Fiennes has passed through. John Sessions once stopped by with an artist friend to use my loo!
Jacquetta was just one artist who had arrived here and continued the tradition. Her discipline evolving into stained glass work of unique delicacy and rare beauty. Although she was not what I would consider a close friend as such, she was the best friend of a close female friend of mine and as such I would see her often when I dropped in across the valley. Sharing vile herbal teas and bowls of mung bean and nettle broth or some such equally disgusting concoction that these arty new age women seem unaccountably fond of ? The dubious health benefits being somewhat diluted by a partiality to roll ups sprinkled with dope and a bottle or three of red wine!  If there was a thread which linked this sisterhood of the vine it was the fact that they were all strong willed artistic women who had either extracted themselves from relationships or in Jac's case, was about to. One male 'victim' of this process was to describe this little circle as 'The Witches coven !'.
By virtue of being on my own after separation and being a single parent struggling to make ends meet, happily I was granted honorary witch status .

Mynydd Hiraethog

It was just after our Caernarfon jaunt that I met Jim Perrin for the first time with Jacs at that rather gloomy tavern on the A5- The Saracens Inn- a few miles twixt our respective homes. There was no great show of affection between the pair and I could detect no signs that their coming together was anything more than two old friends trawling over past times before moving back into their respective worlds. Within a few weeks I had finally got Jacs out onto the rock face but she for one would not be donning her rock boots. She’d asked me if I’d take two of her children and their friend climbing and she would tag along. Toby and Jessica would be in their later teens and as fine,enthusiastic and good looking youngsters as you could wish to meet. I decided to take them to a strange little crag which I’d discovered a few years previously and was yet to hit the guidebooks. Craig y Tonnau (Waved Crag), a small very steep little outcrop of amazingly rough gritstone and decked out with a never ending supply of bucket holds. Perfect for novices I thought and quiet and secluded in a forest clearing. As we walked down the forest track on a balmy late summer’s afternoon, Jacs casually mentioned that Jim would be joining us.
As I led the youngsters up Spring Lightning, Jacs relaxed in her heather nest while Jim prowled around,frozen shoulder keeping him off the rock and clicked away with his SLR. From my perch atop the cliff I watched as they sat together. As the evening drew the heat from the sun and a breeze stirred the branches, he casually put his arm around her and drew her to him, heads touching and faces wreathed with quiet contentment. It was the first sign I’d seen of a rekindling of passion. How could I ever imagine in a million years on this day richly spiced with the hope of summer that just beyond the turn of the season we would all move into a new world touched by tragedy and loss. Death rides a pale horse and the course he charts is revealed in all its ragged glory in a book which will be seen as Jim Perrin’s valedictory masterpiece ‘West’.
If this is the most circuitous introduction to a book review ever then I apologize. It feels only fair to set the scene and point out the difficulty of offering a totally objective review. West is a remarkable book which will be rightly acclaimed for its raw beauty and searing honesty. But West is not the whole story . There are other versions and interpretations.And other writers of the story.

And so it begins. Jim has fled West..far far West to the storm wracked Galway shores to find solace and company with a former lover who promises to look after him . His beloved wife by Pagan ceremony on the western shores of  the Lleyn, Jacquetta and son Will are both dead. Torn from his life within 9 months of each other. From here on in the tale is masterfully constructed like an epic poem. Interwoven with dreams and nightmares,hope and despair.But each word underpinned by great love.  By now Perrin is nearing the end himself and like George Orwell on Jura, crucified by TB and fighting to finish 1984' before he dies; propped up in bed with pillows,typewriter precariously balanced on the stained covers;kept alive  by strong tea and strong cigarettes- Perrin too fights on to finish his version of what Edward Abbey called his 'big fat book', The one which will finally take him 'outside the stockade'.  His Pyrenean lair a distant refuge from where by necessity he has had to escape to to disentangle himself from those who would cluck and clutter around him at home.Killing the project before completion.
What both works have in common is that they were crafted in passion and pain. For Orwell and Perrin they were books which HAD to be written.

The book begins under grey skies as Atlantic breakers pour down on Galway shores.I had only reached page six however, when a paragraph sprang from the page which was crafted with naked rage and regret. It explains why throughout the book,children,siblings and friends have been air-brushed from the story. But more of that later.

West is constructed as an artist constructs a  landscape. The elements created before being filled in. Not for Jim the boring linear narrative. West bobs and weaves.Coming back to the future before pressing forward to the past. Using 'Pre-Histories' as a device, events and experiences are painted in. Early life in Salford is vividly brought to life. A hard life where love was absent until kindly grandparents took on the parental duties from useless warring mother and father and that diamond hard intelligence brought escape through academic success and university education. From an early age,the hills offer their siren call. Their majesty and mystery drawing him to a world which would later define him.
The pre-history years when Jac and Jim first meet in south Liverpool only to fracture when Jac arrived unexpectedly in Llanberis Pass after breaking off a tired relationship and committing herself to him- only to have climbers idling against the stone wall beneath Dinas Cromlech- point him out to her,casually soloing Cenotaph Corner. Still graded an 'extreme' rock climb and demanding of a calm head and strong limbs. It was too much to bear. The wild fun loving criminal who played chicken with Al Harris above the slate quarries and partied and doped his way across the whole crazy psychadelic 70's scene was patently not a man who was ever going to love honour and obey. Their parting created a 28 year void which neither ever filled successfully. Within that span,young Will Perrin arrived...and departed. A son who Jim as sole guardian clearly adored and cherished. Their lives together are beautifully laced with humour and affection. The young toddler whose faltering steps would eventually take him into UK climbings premier league. A modest, self effacing virtuoso whose self induced death at 24 shocked everyone who knew him and virtually drew a line under his father's climbing career which was already teetering towards its denouement through physical injury and a calm,measured understanding that in that area,there was nowhere left to go. The season had turned.

Jim mentions how these days in the mountains it is the moments of rest which contain the greatest measure of contentment. Not chasing ever on towards some distant goal. Advice likely to wash over those fell runners,mountain bikers and climbers charging headlong towards....what ? Oblivious to the ' loping hare kicking rainbows from the dew' or a Kestral pouring into sunlight. Late on in the book he appears to reject the climbing game altogether as a false religion. Fulminating against those who climb because their lives are so abject and retched that they cannot face themselves and their sad tortured empty lives. However it is to that defining game that he returns, to seek closure with his father by scaling the Old man of Hoy around the time of his 60th birthday. His detachment from the modern climber though,is never more evident  than when he lambasts climbers for being one of the most detached communities of all from the natural environment . Anyone who has ever followed a debate on one of the climbing forums on the industrialisation of the uplands,islands and coast by wind farms would know how true that is!  The overwhelming majority parroting the hollow mantras of the state and its corporate chums . Jim Perrin would no doubt say that these are not climbers but sportsmen. Braying middle class yuppies for whom the great outdoors is nothing more than a roofless gymnasium. " Ya...Jez sent a V8...yah I know... awesome dude!' Those who Ed Drummond describes as 'having an infantile obsession with numbers'. They should hang their heads in shame but Jim would point out that if you are bone from the neck up that action is a physical impossibility!

Jim Perrin...Lord of the Crooked Path: Photo Ramblers Assoc©

Needless to say, West is a book which will pass over the heads of the majority in the climbing community. For them let me point them at something by some public school all action hero who also has a TV series on Channel 5 or some American blockbuster set in Patagonia where lots of people die but the hero by dint of having God on his side succeeds against the odds.Right...that's got rid of them..shall I carry on.

The subtitle 'A journey through landscape and loss' says it All. West is a river which passes through different countries both real and imagined in the turning seasons. Hosting a cast list of lovers,poets,dreamers and schemers with Jim and Jacs the axis from which they all spin. Their foreign adventures which includes visits to the West Indies, Spain, Vancover and Turkey are recalled in roseate detail.However,it is back home in Wales that the magic and mystery of the natural world is most impressively brought to life. Candle light delineating the delicate bark of a rotting Scots Pine. A blackbird that sings itself to death, a dragonfly caught in a sunbeam which is taken in a breath by a tumbling hawk. A raven which watches Jim for five minutes before flaring in a purple aura and ascending to the sky. There is magic in this world and though the unkind would suggest youthful excesses with LSD might explain his sense of wonder, those who travel down the same road and who hold the same Blakeian belief that 'everything that lives is holy' would recognize this self evident truth.

Llanrhaeadr church yard...Place of a ritual that was as good natured as it was lively and debauched.

With young Will Perrin's life in the ascendency, Jim moves away to give his son the space he feels he needs to develop and finds a place which very quickly  becomes a motif. Llanrhaedr yn Mochnant nestles in the southern Berwyns close to the English border.Aesthetically it offers picture postcard characteristics.The traditional grey and white stone cottages which pour down the hillside to gather around the winding high street and squares.The ancient church at the heart of the village, graveyard scattered with the old leaning stones which spill down to the sycamore shrouded waters of the Afon Rhaeadr. The vast majority of the names in Welsh rather than English for despite its proximity to England, Llanrhaeadr's history is markedly Welsh although these days it has not suprisingly, seen a large influx of weekend cottage owners,retirement couples and commuters. Despite his obvious affection for the place, Perrin at times is Trollopesque in his descriptions of pert middle aged female estate agents who will literally bend over backwards to accomodate their clients; of ladies who lunch who enquire as to his expertise in an appreciation of the female genitalia and when a flash of white in a midnight graveyard ramble is more likely to be a set of heaving buttocks than the flashing wings of a barn owl!. Whether by accident or design, Jim has recreated Dylan Thomas's Under milk wood village of Llarregrub in the Berwyns!

The humour and warmth displayed in in these sections is quickly forgotten as the tragedy which underpins West is brought home. The deaths of Will and Jacs almost unbearable in graphic detail. Although at least in Will's case,his death brings his father some semblance of closure. A moving funeral and poignant scattering of his ashes within the roots of a rowan tree, Will's climbing buddies had planted in one of the Llanberis slate quarries. Sadly,the legacy of Jacquettas' passing appears to have brought only confusion and anger. He writes almost despairingly about how her funeral was delayed for two weeks week as her family organised 'a party'. The pain of watching disrespectful mourners departing Bangor crematorium after her funeral,snapping away with mobile phone cameras before rushing on their way .Leaving Jim alone to press the button which would consign Jacquetta's mortal remains to the cleansing fire. The scattering of her ashes by her children on waters which may have once but no longer of any special significance for her.

What readers of this moving love story will never discover within the pages of West is that Jacs had three beautiful children whose life she shared. Include her many close friends and siblings and my earlier comments about characters airbrushed from the tale might be understood.
'The party' was in fact a wake which was organised to allow Jac's many friends and family members to attend.
I did not witness an unseemly and disrespectful headlong rush to escape from the Crematorium chapel. I witnessed those who loved Jacs embracing her wicker casket, placing flowers and whispering their goodbyes before respectfully departing to continue with their lives, despite the fact that a great void had been created.
I saw Jim standing alone within the gardens of the crematorium and went over to him to offer my condolences and support. 'You know.' he said 'I stood here not 9 months ago at Will's funeral' before sinking back into tearful reflection.  I think I offered a hopelessly asinine reply along the lines of 'what a terrible year you've had' with a solidaritous squeeze of his arm. At least I didn't say 'Never mind...time is a great healer' or he would well have been justified in laying me out !
We returned from Bangor to Jacquetta's home on the moors betwixt Foel y Garn and Carnedd Filiast for her wake. Jim was not amongst us. I never saw him again after that day.

A few weeks ago I stood in the mid summer gloaming on the bridge in Llanfihangyl Glyn Myfyr which spans the beautiful Afon Alwen and watched as Chinese lantern rafts were passed down the riverbank,from hand to hand to be released on the waters. Idly drifting downstream before they were consumed by the weir unseen but sounding its presence in the gathering gloom.. It was the wake of Debbie-Jacquettas best friend and the last of 'the witches'...all gone now. Proud,beautiful artistic women all struck down in their 40's and 50's. I stood  leaning over the bridge with Jessica-Jacquetta's beautiful daughter and asked her if she ever heard from Jim Perrin these days and did she know that he was not too well?...She'd heard something she said. 'I believe he's living in France now' and nothing more was said. Perhaps the words of Dickens best summerised her mother's love affair with someone who failed to ignite any great affection in those around her....'It was the best of was the worst of times'.

Under a pink new moon,Jessica and I walked across the void between the arches and looked down to follow the progress of the lanterns on the water. One or two had made it to the foaming waters of the weir but the majority had been caught in an eddy and becalmed now, just bobbed  in the shadow of the bridge, their guttering flames briefly flaring before being consumed by darkness.

Since writing this review, the veracity of the story- in particular relating to Jacquetta- has been called into question by her family. In the interests of freedom of speech and the right of reply, can I direct you to the Jacssisters blog where the family offer their own version of the events which appear in the book.

John Appleby©2010

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Coming up: Jim Perrin's West....A journey through landscape and loss.

We slithered down a steep shaly crag to a shingle bank on this prettiest of little rivers which flows down from Mynydd Hiraethog- the moors of longing

" And so it begins. Jim has fled West..far far West to the storm wracked Galway shores to find solace and company with a former lover who promises to look after him . His beloved wife by Pagan ceremony on the western shores of  the Lleyn, Jacquetta and son Will are both dead. Torn from his life within 9 months of each other. From here on in the tale is masterfully constructed like an epic poem. Interwoven with dreams and nightmares,hope and despair.But each word underpinned by great love.  By now Perrin is nearing the end himself and like George Orwell on Jura, crucified by TB and fighting to finish 1984' before he dies- propped up in bed with pillows...typewriter precariously balanced on the stained covers...kept alive  by strong tea and strong cigarettes- Perrin too fights on to finish his version of what Edward Abbey called his 'big fat book', The one which will finally take him outside the stockade.  His Pyrenean lair a distant refuge from where by necessity he has had to escape to to disentangle himself from those who would cluck and clutter around him at home.Killing the project before completion.

What both works have in common is that they were crafted in passion and pain. For Orwell and Perrin they were books which HAD to be written."

This Friday,John Appleby reviews Jim Perrin's valedictory masterpiece West.

Friday 2 July 2010

A winter day at Harrison's

Gordon Stainforth soloing Unclimbed Wall in 1982: G Stainforth©

“The thing I remember most was the smell of the sandstone and the leaves on the ground,and of cigarette smoke....almost everyone there seemed to be smoking!”
Gordon Stainforth describing an early visit to Harrison’s in the mid sixties.

“I can’t tell you how much I’d like to be back at Harrison’s, but you can’t climb with a bloody Zimmer!”   Al Alvarez (recently).

“Harrison’s Rocks, a miserable outcrop for London picnickers!”
The late Robin Smith.

Although I’m fortunate enough to have lived in Derbyshire for most of my adult life, I am originally from that vast urban wasteland called South London. These days, by choice, my visits to the capital are rare but an invitation from my oldest friend to celebrate his sixtieth birthday had me driving down the M1 in bitter cold February weather. Needless to say, the celebrations were highly enjoyable, as the pints and the stories flowed and next morning saw me more than a little hung-over with a bad head. To quote Nick Lowe, it was a case of the full metal trilby! However the morning had dawned bright and sunny and I was determined to stick to my original plan to pay a visit to Harrison’s Rocks. I needed to get back to Derby that night, but the idea of visiting the outcrop came from an exchange of letters I’d recently had with Al Alvarez. In his letter Al had made it clear how much he had come to miss his regular visits to Harrison’s as he could no longer get around easily and he ruefully cursed the passing years:
“I can’t tell you how much I’d like to be back at Harrison’s, but you can’t climb with a bloody Zimmer!”

For myself, as of course for many others, Harrison’s is where it all started; it is where as an awkward teenager I first tried (with minimal success it has been said) to climb rocks. In no time, I was captivated by climbing and all that went with it and was making every effort to get out most weekends. Like Al and of course countless others, the sandstone outcrops of East Sussex and Kent hold a wealth of treasured memories for me. It was here that I tried to make that often fraught transition from school kid to adulthood and on the way I had a lot of laughs and met some excellent characters. Nonetheless, it was more than twenty years since I’d visited Harrison’s and this being a bitter cold midweek day, I was looking forward to having a quiet stroll around without many people being there.

Now, I’ve long subscribed to the notion that if you climb for long enough, in my case well over forty years, the intensive nature of the activity coupled with deep friendships you form cause your memories to be particularly vivid. Recollections of long ago can be triggered off by the most mundane things like a road sign or a trivial fragment of music on the radio. Today was to be something of a day of memories and of long forgotten recollections. Despite my hung-over state, I left my friend’s house and pointed the car down the A21, heading for the M25. A sign came up for a place called Green Street Green, a small village near Dartford. This was the home of seventies gritstone ace John Syrett before he went up to university at Leeds. I never actually met John, but I saw him climbing in Wales around 1970. My friends Tim James and the Stainforth twins Gordon and John climbed a great deal with John and had a very high opinion of him both as a climber and as a person. As I drove south I pondered on the great sadness of his early death in 1985, seemingly a victim of alcohol and deep depression. A prince among gritstoners, John’s contribution to Yorkshire climbing was considerable and his memory is still cherished by many.

My favourite approach to Harrison’s is to drive down to East Grinstead and Forest Row, our usual hitching route out of London in the early days, and then to head east along the quiet B2110. This allows you to appreciate the real beauty of this part of the Ashdown Forest. Here are pretty rolling hills dotted with areas of rich woodland and tiny villages with weatherboarding on the buildings, old Saxon churches and oast houses. It is a truly lovely part of England, and on this cold and sunny morning, I thought it had never looked better. Many years ago when I still lived in London, a climbing mate from Huddersfield came to stay. We envied him living in West Yorkshire with easy access to so many superb crags, but he was completely bowled over by the beauty of this part of East Sussex and Kent, something we at the time took for granted. On this bright morning his warm reaction to the place came back to me and I smiled at the memory. On this approach to Groombridge you pass through two particularly pretty villages, Upper Hartfield and Withyham. Upper Hartfield is where A.A. Milne the creator of Winnie the Pooh had a large house; the place where Rolling Stone Brian Jones died in the summer of 1969. Withyham is where you find the Dorset Arms, a wonderful country ale house of rare quality.

With it being midweek Groombridge was very quiet and I drove up past the station and the cricket ground, lamenting the passing of the much loved Festerhaunt. I drove down to the Harrison’s car park, to find only two cars there. The leafless trees rustled in the breeze and a light fall of snow lay on the ground; it was delightfully peaceful and I felt very glad to be back there after so many years. The walk up to the top of the crag is probably less than half a mile, yet I fondly remember as a youngster, it seemed never ending so eager were we to get our hands on rock! Living now as I do in very close proximity to the wonderful crags of the Peak District, it is easy to forget just how rock starved London based climbers are and how important these small sandstone outcrops are to them. One of the best overviews on visiting these places came from Jim Curran* back in 1991:

“The wonderful, heady smell of sandstone, leaf mould, hemp rope and sweat; a grim struggle, plimsolls flapping, up one of the two or three easy climbs we managed on a tight top rope; furtive skulkings down rhododendron-lined paths with the bulging rounded buttresses like big beer guts poking through the undergrowth……a long dark walk to East Grinstead station to catch the last train back to Victoria. There, sitting looking out into the dark night and the lights of suburban Surrey as London drew closer, nursing aching arms and fingers, I felt the stirrings of a strange elation that thirty years on is as addictive as ever.”

Walking up towards the crag, I met a friendly couple out walking a lively Springer spaniel but otherwise there seemed to be nobody about. I reached the rocks and peered down Slab Direct immediately noticing how the trees below the crag seemed to have been thinned out, giving quite a clear view over to the railway tracks. I scrambled down to the foot of the rocks and then had a wander up to the North Boulder. Despite the snow on the ground, many of the holds were chalked up and it was good to see that plenty of bouldering was getting done. The sun shone brightly through the leafless trees and I walked slowly along the foot of the rocks delighting in having the place to myself. I made my way to the foot of Diabollikal Crack and Slab Direct------something of a pilgrimage this, these were the very first climbs I ever did. We had travelled down from Tooting in a minibus, with very little idea of what lay ahead. It was May 1967, someone had a radio playing Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix and Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks, and we were really just after having a good laugh and a pint afterwards. None of us showed much talent for climbing, least of all me, but walking back to Groombridge that night something clicked in my mind. I’d enjoyed the day hugely despite showing little or no talent and with a like minded mate Dave Heddon, I was back there a week later with a borrowed rope. The passion for climbing just grew from there, augmented by the brilliant music of that period, the discovery of alcohol and the adventure of hitching up to Wales, the Lakes and Scotland. Nothing unusual in this, many people have gone down a similar road, but they say that you never forget first loves and I cherish the memory of those early visits to Harrison’s. The place seemed so beautiful compared to where I grew up in London, the air never felt cleaner and the beer had never tasted better.
Nigel Chadwick©

To the right of Slab Direct, next to the Hangover routes and Long Layback, is the fine wall that contains such classics as The Flakes, Coronation Crack and the Limpet. Over the years I watched some excellent climbers in action here and certainly sandstone with its own peculiar nature soon rewards those with the right combination of strength and technical ability, yet utterly confuses some climbers. I’ve seen the same thing happen at Helsby and particularly in Northumberland where many visitors are humbled by this rock type. In the late sixties and early seventies, I often saw people like the Holliwell brothers with their mate Robin Harper, Trevor Panther who always seemed to climb barefoot, Ben and Marion Wintringham and perhaps the finest of them all Martin Boysen who always seemed to look relaxed even on the hardest of routes. Later I recall seeing a young Mick Fowler here and powerful climbers such as Guy McLelland and Dave Jones. Northern climbers are often scornful of the Sussex/Kent outcrops because of the general practice of top roping due to the soft nature of the rock, but a lot of bold soloing has gone on over the years and continues to this day. The Holliwells were notorious for not bothering to use a rope and would sometimes notch up thirty routes in a session, though to quote Les, “We did take a few tumbles on the way!” The Harrison’s classic Slimfinger Crack (a fine strenuous 5C) was soloed as early as the late 1940s by the likes of Tony Moulam, Menlove Edwards and Johnny Lees and wide scope for considerable boldness on these rocks remains for future generations.

At the Kendal Mountain Festival in 2008, Jim Curran had an excellent exhibition of his paintings and drawings that included many images of the Sussex/Kent outcrops. I thought it very significant that Jim, who has travelled extensively amongst the great mountain ranges of the world, should find such inspiration for his work in a return to his own climbing roots. As I’ve already said we never forget first loves and Jim’s work was of great charm and captured much of the essence of Harrison’s and the nearby High Rocks. One of the paintings was a large work about 20ft x 10ft, of the wall at Harrison’s between Long Layback and The Limpet. It dominated the gallery and I joined other sad sandstone refugees who were picking out the lines of the various routes much to Jim’s amusement! It seems that early Sandstone addiction has this effect on many devotees. Gordon Stainforth started visiting Harrison’s in the mid sixties with his brother John, cycling down regularly from boarding school at Tonbridge. On one very funny occasion in a pub in Derby when we were shall I say somewhat well refreshed, Gordon stood up and commenced to enact every single move on the Harrison’s classic Niblick. His attention to detail was astonishing and  gave a clear indication not only of a healthy level of slight insanity, but a deep level of affection for the place just like my own. I’m pleased to report that no beer was spilt during Gordon’s performance! People in the pub looked on bemused as all this took place, but I know that such behaviour is not unusual among southern sandstone addicts.

The Niblick was on my mind as I continued to walk along the foot of the rocks, past a very wet (as ever!) Sewer Wall area with the fallen tree still leaning on the rocks. I glanced up at Sewer Wall and thought back ruefully to my first ever abseil there, a most unnerving experience. Like many climbers, I only abseil when it is really necessary and can’t understand why people do it for fun! I glanced down through the trees as a train rattled past on its way into Eridge station and enjoyed the gentle bird song in the trees. I was aware of that distinctive sandstone smell and could hardly believe that it was twenty years since I’d been to this place. When we first started climbing here, the routes we aspired to were Slimfinger Crack, The Niblick and Unclimbed Wall and with good reason. All three are excellent and require not a little strength and plenty of technique.

As I’d mentioned, so far I had met no one else at the crag, but as I approached The Isolated Buttress I was delighted to see that despite the snow on the ground, two people were climbing. Two greybeards (i.e. they were even older than me) were engrossed in the delights of the excellent Birchen Wall. One of them was halfway up the wall, top roped by his mate who was wearing an old overcoat. Frank and Chris turned out to be very friendly and were down for the day from somewhere near Croydon. They were keen sandstone regulars and enjoyed having the place to themselves midweek avoiding the weekend crowds. Frank had known Al Harris and Tony Willmott and we chatted awhile about times past and friends no longer with us. I was then offered the end of the rope, so I got my rock shoes on, tied on with a traditional bowline round the waist and turned my attention to Birchen Wall. It must have been thirty years since I’d done this lovely climb, but I moved steadily up the wall savouring the moves. The rock was bone dry, but very cold and I soon had numb fingers, but it was an unexpected treat to be climbing today and all too soon I was at the top.

We chatted a little more and then while they moved on to climb elsewhere, I carried on walking down towards the Unclimbed Wall area. This was always on of my favourite parts of Harrison’s with several excellent climbs to choose from. Talking to Frank and Chris caused me to think about Al Harris and Tony Willmott. I only met Al a couple of times but around 1969/72 I used to chat with Tony regularly and often in the YHA shop at Charing Cross where he worked. Tony came from Sutton and at that time was rapidly making a name for himself, particularly in the Avon Gorge. I fondly remember one occasion at Harrison’s late in the day when we were packing up, ready to head for the pub. Tony was in action, climbing that fine sandstone test piece Sossblitz. He was being heckled by his mates from the North London MC, but proceeded to cruise up the route (a particularly demanding 6B) giving a running commentary on how to execute each move amidst much general banter and laughter. Somehow that memory has always seemed to me, to sum up just what Harrison’s was all about.

In truth, I can never think about Tony without a pang of deep sadness, as his death at the age of only twenty three was a tragic waste, that deprived us of a charismatic and intelligent lad. He had just settled in Bristol and was getting established as an outstanding rock climber with some excellent first ascents throughout the South West. I was at Avon with my mate Sid when he had that fatal fall soloing home on wet rock and I’ve never forgotten the shock and dismay of everyone there on that awful afternoon.

I sat on a tree stump below Unclimbed Wall and fondly remembered the old days when a short walk from Eridge station, led to a crossing over the railway and a quick access onto the crag just below Unclimbed Wall. One delightful aspect of the Harrison’s experience is the reopening of the railway line from Tunbridge Wells, past High Rocks and through Groombridge, to join the main line at Eridge and the use of steam locomotives on the line. A lovely touch of nostalgia, particularly for those of us who remember steam trains in this party of England from our childhood.

What had caught my eye in comparison to visits many years before, was the degree of tree removal and thinning that had been carried out giving the place a welcome, much more open feel. A notice on one of the trees indicated that this process is known as coppicing, a process of well thought out management by the Forestry Commission. The sandstone is at its best when tree cover is reduced (i.e. at Bowles Rocks and increasingly at High Rocks) and this work seems to bode well for much of Harrison’s.

I walked back along the bottom of the crag and then dropped down to the lower footpath, which with the thinning out of the tree cover, gives a good wider view of the place. The afternoon was getting on now, the sun though still quite bright was low in the sky bathing the rocks in a pleasing winter light. As I looked up through the trees a train rattled past en-route for Croydon and then Victoria, but as the noise of the train faded away all I could hear was lovely birdsong and occasionally the voices of Frank and Chris who had moved along to climb the mega classic Niblick. Chris was halfway up the climb, as Frank belayed him whilst enjoying a fag. They were the only people I saw there for the whole day, and as I walked on I reflected on what a lovely contrast this was to weekends, when the place is nearly always badly overcrowded. Walking along the lower path was very pleasant. Somewhere quite near I could hear a woodpecker drumming away and despite the coolness of the afternoon, I sensed that the place would soon be covered in bluebells, always one of the great delights of much of the woodland in this part of England.
Gordon Stainforth on Slimfinger Crack 1968: G Stainforth©

I started thinking about a little of the history of the place, a crag that means so much to so many. In the late 1920s Nea and Jean Morin climbed here with companions such as Eric Shipton and Charles Marriot. The wonderful Unclimbed Wall dates from this period and in the early thirties Courtney Bryson produced the first guide to the rocks. How peaceful it must have been back then, long before the boom in popularity. The rocks are thought to be named after a local farmer William Harrison, who manufactured firearms there until around 1750. The Forestry Commission bought the land in the early 1950s and in 1958 the rocks were purchased by a group of climbers including Dennis Kemp and Joe Jagger, father of Rolling Stone Mick. The rocks are now owned by the BMC Land & Property Trust. Long may they provide pleasure for future generations, in this delightful rural setting. The relatively close proximity of London is always going to result in considerable pressure on this fragile environment but sterling work has been done over the years by a great many people and a huge debt is owed to Terry Tullis in particular.

I wandered back up to the crag, touched the sandstone fondly for the last time and then scrambled back up to the main forest path back to the car park. It had turned very cold now and I was glad of a wool hat and gloves. It would be dark in half an hour and to the north over London the sky looked full of more snow. I walked quickly back to the car, aware that I had the delights of the evening rush hour on the M25 and a 200 mile drive ahead of me. It had been worth it though, my hangover was but a memory and today’s visit to Harrison’s had been a delight and a fond reminder of so much. As I’ve grown older and I hope a little wiser, I have learnt to be wary of nostalgia as memory can so often distort and give an unbalanced sense of significance. Life should always be focused on the present and the future, but just occasionally some places, smells or perhaps pieces of music can ambush us all and our lives are the richer for it.

My first few visits to Harrison’s were followed a few weeks later by the wonderful BBC Outside Broadcast from the Old Man of Hoy. Like millions of others, I watched spellbound as our heroes laconically made their way up that amazing sea stack. The place seemed so excitingly remote and as a boy still at school I never dreamt that twenty years later, I’d climb the Old Man myself. To this day, the sounds of Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ and Traffic’s ‘Paper Sun’ transport me back to those gothic black and white images of the climbers and the reverential almost hushed commentary of Chris Brasher. Even to a total novice like I was, it was obvious what strange charisma was possessed by both Joe Brown and Dougal Haston.

From the peace of the woods around Harrison’s it was only about twenty minutes drive to the mayhem of the M25 and a reminder to me of how glad I am that I live in Derbyshire. The motorway became even more congested as I approached the Dartford Crossing. Whenever I pass this way, I’m always reminded of a conversation I had some years ago with Les Holliwell. Les described how sometimes on midweek evenings after work, he would meet brother Lawrie at the crossing and then drive over to Harrison’s or Bowles Rocks to try and knock off 15-20 routes before it got dark. In his words “We used to crawl home absolutely exhausted!” Now, north of the Thames over to Groombridge or Eridge these days is not too bad a drive, but they were doing this long before the M25 was built------they must have been knackered next morning getting up for work.

I drove through the Dartford Tunnel and on towards the north. It was dark and my mind wandered back to the kind letter I’d received from Al Alvarez, which had started me thinking of visiting Harrison’s after so many years. For many years Al was a regular weekend visitor to the rocks, part of a group that frequently included Ian McNaught-Davis. I remember sometimes seeing them there and the frequent good natured banter that was a feature of that team. Good natured banter and laughter; they are perhaps the things I remember best about those days down on the sandstone forty years ago. I can still hear the voices of my mates Dave, Sid, Ray and Mick encouraging and mocking in equal measure as the occasion demanded and then the tired, dry mouthed walk to the pub and pints of wonderful Kentish bitter. Pretensions deflated, good honest efforts admired, all parts of learning to be a bloke and not a kid any more------laughter, joy and good friendship.

As I continued up the M1, the snow from the north got gradually heavier and I only just made it back to Derby before the motorway was closed. I was very tired when I got home, but it had been a precious day remembering long forgotten joys of a place that has a place in the hearts of all London climbers. As I said before, I’m wary of nostalgia, but sometimes it can remind us of deep truths about our lives and of our depth of feeling for friends and special places. Good old Harrison’s! That little crag put so many of us on the road to countless delights and exciting times, long may this continue, for climbers still to come.

A Winter day at Harrison's: Andrew Hughes©

Steve Dean 2010©

My thanks to Gordon Stainforth , Andrew Hughes and Nigel Chadwick for use of their photographs.Not forgetting of course, Steve Dean for the article!