Saturday 29 December 2012

Hills of Home

A late evening call from my friend John and a quick check on the BBC Weather was enough to call off the planned walk for the next morning, low cloud, drizzle, poor visibility etc, but as is often the case it would have been better to look out of the window, the morning was glorious with a warm breeze and a cloudless sky, the best laid plans of mice and men eh! With my list of household chores duly ticked off and the day looking better by the hour there must be a 'to do' tick before the girls get back from school.

There was a 'Derelict Barn' scene that I had wanted to take an image of for ages and the sun would have been just right and the visibility was crystal clear so I headed off in the vicinity of Penygroes to drop off a note with Joe the gas delivery driver and then the  new A487 to my barn spot, big disappointment, the barn looked great and the light was perfect and there were even some perfectly sited livestock to add drama, the only thing spoiling the scene were traffic lights, council waggon's, a huge tarmac eating machine and nowhere to stop, hell.

Another slight to the mind and eye and to anyone who wants to take an image of the peaks of the Rivals and the Lleyn Peninsula are three new wind turbines that have sprouted up in the name of renewable energy and a quick buck to the land owner no doubt, it will soon be impossible to take a photograph of a landscape or seascape without these hideous monstrosities so I carried on to the next available turning space and then had a thought, Cwm Pennant, haven't been there for years and never with my camera, don't know why, this was a too good to miss opportunity.

Just past Dolbenmaen a left turn brings you on to the very narrow lane that leads to the head of Cwm Pennant some three miles further. The road sort of pulls you along very easily and tempts you to want to know what's around the next corner, the road follows, as many old roads do the path of the river Dwyfor that flows gently from the slopes of Moel Hebog, Moel Lefn  and Moel yr Ogof that look down into the bowl of the valley on all sides, there is no escape from here to the Gwyrfai valley on the other side except by a steep uphill trek over 'Bwlch y Ddwy Elor' and down to Rhyd Ddu, my birth place.

The very name 'Bwlch y Ddwy Elor' gives this place a feeling of antiquity and 'Hiraeth' it translates as 'The Pass of the Two Biers' and I remember my grandfather telling me tales that he had been told of the struggles that took place to carry the dead from one village to another over the hillside, swapping the 'biers' on the summit ridge and then carrying the deceased down to the chapel for burial whilst taking the empty bier back until it was required another time.This gap in the col is itself at 427 mtrs above sea level so a sombre journey carrying a deceased family member especially in winter months must have been a hard and sorrowful undertaking.The link between Rhyd Ddu and Pennant must have been significant and I assume because there is no cemetery in Rhyd Ddu the dead were buried in the chapel in Cwm Pennant, it seems a long way and difficult to fathom why such undertakings would take place in so remote a spot.

The day I was there, despite it being a glorious Autumnal day the chapel looked forlorn with a somewhat 'down in the dumps' feeling to it,the path into the graveyard was overgrown and it took some effort to open the gate, on inspection the guttering was falling off the sides and the door was well and truly bolted, I suppose it rarely gets much use these days and the relatives of the dead and buried have moved to pastures new leaving their ancestors in pastures old. Looking at the stones I came across some very old inscriptions and one was dated 1632 and 1636 respectively for a young couple , the woman being 20 years and the male  (her brother/husband?) only 22.

Strangely, nestled amongst all the dark slate headstones there were some newish white marble ones which stood out like sore thumbs, although the slate quarrying here ceased many years ago and must have originally supplied the headstones I found it rather sad that they had to resort to importing such an alien rock to a valley full of slate.

“BLOWS the wind to-day, and the sun and the rain are flying—
  Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups* are crying,
  My heart remembers how!

“Gray, recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
  Standing stones on the vacant, red-wine moor,
Hills of sheep, and the homes of the silent vanished races
  And winds austere and pure!

“Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
  Hills of home! and I hear again the call—
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the pee-wees crying,
  And hear no more at all.”

                                              Robert Louis Stevenson

*Whaups: Curlews

There can be no doubt that this valley is one of the most beautiful of all the mountain valleys in Wales and the poet Eifion Wyn who grew up in the area has two lines in his poem 'Cwm Pennant' which has found its way into Welsh folklore , "Pam, Arglwydd, y gwnaethost Gwm Pennant mor dlws? A bywyd hen fugail mor fyr?"    roughly translated it says: ‘O Lord, why did you make Cwm Pennant so beautiful and the life of a shepherd so short?’

These few words sum up the whole of Cwm Pennant and its geology, industry and the very people who live here and existed amongst the most dramatic backdrop possible. If you are to be interred anywhere then this sacred spot would be hard to beat, you can rest in peace for another millennia without the though that there may be a chance you could be tarmacked over or have a huge wind turbine shaking the ground you lie in, it just seemed a safe place to be with its grazing sheep and gently flowing river to keep you company and only a raven's tumbling flight to the summits of spirits, where you would be amongst the sleeping warriors awaiting their call to arms once more.

The Autumn colours were overwhelming and the silence rather difficult to get used to, there were no jets flying despite the clear skies and no farmers on their quad bikes to break the solitude and in all the time I was there i met only two others who had cycled up the valley from Garndolbenmaen.we chatted for a few minutes, mainly about their ongoing battle with a huge wind farm development that was going to despoil their village near Welshpool and had caused great divide between folk who had been friends and neighbours for many years before the development raised its head. after putting the world to rights we went our separate ways, they to explore the upper reaches of the cwm and I to head back down the valleys winding track.

I stopped at the little bridge that crosses the Dwyfor higher up the valley to take some shots, the pools here were perfect for a spot of summer swimming or just about paradise for a picnic lunch, on the whole six mile round trip I hadn't passed another vehicle at all and stopped here to have a brew from the flask, I got to thinking about the rivers name and why do so many think of it as Dwy (two) for (sea), it doesn't make sense for it to be called a river that flows to two seas and the head of the cwm has a spur off called Bwlch Dwyfor and it is from here that the river has its source as well as the flow off the peaks.,after some research I discovered that its name derives from 'Big Holy River' and there is a tributary, the River Dwyfach, the 'Small Holy River'.a spiritual spot indeed.

There are some magical names doted around the cwm: Rhwngdwyafon- Between two rivers, Cwm Llefrith- The Valley of Milk,  Cwm Sais- The Englishman's Pass it all sounds a bit 'wild west' and probably stems from the pioneers who came here to mine the ore and quarry the slate, leaving behind them some great signatures which will live on for future generations to ponder over.

Hut Circles and House Platforms abound throughout the landscape which shows that the valley was much utilised prior to 'modern man's' exploits to extricate the ore and the stone, it must have been a perfect shelter for iron age settlers and agriculturalists from the middle ages drawn by its  abundant timber sources and the constant supply of water, once the timber clearance took place and the ground being even and fertile due to past glacial deposits it was ideal for settlement and animal enclosure.The sea was also within close proximity and easily accessible for fish, shellfish and seaweed for drying and composting, so with all its attributes this cwm provided the perfect natural and secure enclosure that was needed.

Although I had to return home I was reluctant to leave such a beautiful place having spent such a short time here, I could have easily spent the whole day exploring its hidden gems, mind you it was a stunning day compared to the last time I was here, some 25 years ago, we came to 'do' Hebog from the Pennant route but the more we climbed up the road the worse the weather became and on arriving at the head of the valley it was more typical of a day that had been forecasted at the beginning of this tale, that particular day we quickly turned turtle and headed to Criccieth for some stunning ice cream, it must have been an age ago as Cadwalader's at the time were like Henry Ford, 'you can have any flavour you like as long as it's Vanilla' as that was the only choice available.

Evening meal was Fish, Chips, Peas and Gravy from the 'Castle' chippy opposite, the fish suppers were so good here that my climbing buddies Gary and Bob and I drove all the way from Liverpool one evening just for that and then all the way back, 200 miles round trip, you'd need a mortgage for the fuel alone for that these days let alone the Fish Supper.

If you need some solitude and an escape from the crowds, especially in midweek and the sun shines down on you then take a trip up to Cwm Pennant, bring a flask of Quarryman's tea and some sandwiches on big hunks of home made bread and get into the spirit of the place,you won't  be disappointed I can guarantee you, of course don't tell any body else about it.

Ken Latham: First published on Dragonsnappers blogspot
All photographs-Ken Latham

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Dead Climbers Society

About twelve years ago, I turned up at the family home in Llanrwst, North Wales of John Kerry, a long deceased climber of local repute. I was hoping the family had found the late climbers journal which detailed all his first ascents in the area. An extensive domain which stretched from the lower reaches of the Conwy Valley around Betws y Coed to the sea.

Some decades previously,Tony Moulam- who was in the process of writing a new Climbers Club guide to Carneddau- had also visited the Kerry home, accompanied by Harold Drasdo where the local tiger showed them his comprehensive journal detailing his first ascents in the area.The fascinating thing for me- who at the time had a small part in a forthcoming Meirionydd guidebook-was the fact that most of the Kerry climbs were on unknown and unlisted crags in the area. If we could find 'The Kerry Files' it would open up a whole new area of climbing in North Wales.

John Kerry was hardly a household name nationally, but amongst the local climbing fraternity in the 60's and 70's, his name was synonymous with hard first ascents in the area. Most of these new routes were on isolated crags and quarries scattered down the Conwy Valley. An area which to this day has never had it's many isolated crags and climbs documented. It might surprise climbers who believe that pretty much all of North Wales and indeed UK climbing venues have been recorded, documented and published through guidebooks, but in fact dozens if not hundreds of crags and climbs have never seen the light of day in a guidebook. Many of these 'new' crags will belatedly feature in the next Carneddau guidebook for the first time when it is published, but not the Conwy Valley crags which still retain their mystery.

John Kerry had died in his mid 40's of heart failure induced by a bout of pneumonia. He was found in a caravan during a harsh Scottish winter. A painfully premature death of an unsung Welsh hero far from his home in the small market town near the head of a valley, which is in character is lush and fertile. In contrast to the harsher uplands of Hiraethog and Carneddau which contain it.

As a local activist, John had created something of a personal fiefdom within the valley on crags which even to this day never see the white paw of a climber. Crags like Rhyd y Creuau which looks down on the A470 near Betws y Coed and where- according to Harold Drasdo,another local activist-  he had made over twenty first ascents in the 1970's. Many which were hard extremes. As someone who climbed about six lines on spec there in the 90's, I can say that the crag is never going to become a post modern classic by virtue of the encroaching trees and its vegetated face. Certainly on a recent visit the crag looked dank and unappetising. However,who knows what gems lie beneath it's green mantle?

I imagine that when Kerry climbed there 40 years ago,it was relatively open and clean as the mix of mostly oaks and birch trees would be mere saplings then. I can remember climbing there with Harold Drasdo one warm summer's day and nearly falling off the climb I was on as a sudden dark shadow fell over me. Was it a tumbling boulder... a giant bird.. a falling climber??? was a hang glider practically clipping the top of the crag above my head!

Al Leary on John Kerry's classic E1-Dinas Mawr Eliminate:Photo Mike Bailey

Last week,on my way up the valley towards the coast, one of John Kerry's mystery crags hove into view as I rounded the straight towards Tal y Cafn. It's pale stone face capped with impressive overhangs stood out, illuminated in the searing winter sun set in a deep blue sky. A mile further on I had a 'sod it' moment and turned the car around and headed back to take a look. The ground below the crag  is heavily wooded and the frozen, steep ground made the going tough. Reaching the crag I discovered the path beneath the crag had been taken over by vicious blackthorn trees and brambles. However,the main cliff looked impressive beyond its thorny barrier, with a dramatic outlook looking straight down on the  languorous Afon Conwy winding its way to the nearby sea while in the distance, the snow capped Carneddau range completed the painterly vista. Another impressive piece in the Kerry Gold jigsaw...another slice of the mystery.

It appears that the Kerry journal is still lost and his-quite possibly-hundreds of first ascents are lost with it. Although there are some recorded climbs we know about in the Betws y Coed area, many of which are starred routes or at least will be when the new guide comes out. At least a fair few of his many climbs were recorded via the conventional channels. It has now become common for us when engaged in exploring a remote local crag within Kerry's fiefdom, to find a rusting old peg in an outrageous position and shout down, 'looks like John Kerry's been here'!

Those years ago when I followed in Tony Moulam and Harold Drasdo's footsteps and arrived at the Kerry household, his sister brought out a rucksack which had been brought down from Scotland after his death in 1991 and which had not been opened since. With all due reverence and respect I carefully emptied it out on the living room carpet. Amongst the usual tat of the crag rat, a school exercise book with some notes. Sadly, they only related to some new climbs he had done in Scotland. I looked at his passport.  His photograph showed a bearded aquiline face with a fixed intense stare. Just as I imagined he would look. A hard climber.. 'a loner' according to his sister but a loner who had found the uncharted cliffs and quarries of the Conwy Valley a perfect arena for intensive pioneering. Will the Kerry files ever turn up? Probably not but I for one think his exploits and what he represented is worth remembering and bringing to a wider audience.

Some climbers with a far inferior pedigree in terms of creativity are relatively well known while John Kerry is now largely forgotten. Like so many other talented climbers who saw their star burn briefly and brightly before disappearing over the horizon into the void.

*Following the publication of this article, I was contacted by Colin Ogilvie from Glasgow who climbed with John Kerry in Scotland. Colin offers this fascinating insight into JK's activities up North......

"I still live in Glasgow where John was resident from about the mid to late 1970's, and climbed and socialised with him on several occasions. John continued his pioneering of routes on Welsh crags that others had failed to see the potential of here in the west of Scotland, notably in Kircudbright on such sea cliffs as Meikle Ross in 1975, and close to Glasgow at Craigmore where he gardened out numerous good short routes and also at Auchinstarry and other quarries near Kilsyth, where again the Kerry ice axe and brush were used to good effect and some excellent routes discovered.

Most of these routes are still popular with local climbers. John had no personal transport of his own (like many of us) and often travelled by bus to these crags, complete with gardening equipment!
Auchinstarry, like many quarries is partly flooded and soon after the first routes were done in about 1976 or '77 the water level started to rise making access more difficult. It so happened that the Planning Officer based in Cumbernauld at the time who had responsibilty for Kilsyth was a Mr John Kerry, and before long the the Council had been persuaded of the potential of the quarry as a recreational resource! The water level was lowered, and it was made safe for water sports. A level path was constructed around the water perimeter giving access to the climbs; landscaping and a car park were built, all due to our man. This area is still in use today, and enjoyed by many local people.

It does not surprise me that records of John's new climbs in Wales are hard to obtain. He did not record any of his climbs in Scotland in the established Journals, though he did contribute to a Guide book to the aforementioned crags, published about 1977 by a local shop, Highrange Sports, entitled Western Outcrops, Volume 2. What he did do was create a lot of good routes from some pretty unpromising raw material, a fact not appreciated by many people.

Many other climbers active at the time in this area besides myself will remember John well, having like me held his rope whilst being bombarded with falling debris on occasions. Names that spring to mind are Jim Reader, and Ken Johnstone. As far as I know his ice axe was reserved for gardening crags, not climbing snow and ice. John was a good rock climber and as well as his pioneering of local outcrops in Scotland did some of the established hard classics in Glencoe such as Yo-Yo, Unicorn, Carnivore and Shibboleth.

 I don't know of many ventures farther away except for a whole sunny week spent at Creag and Dubh-Loch in the Cairngorms with  Ken Johnstone, where John was allegedly sustained by tins of Irish Stew as was his habit. Other than that, I heard that he later gave up climbing and had gone underground as a caver! "...CO: Glasgow...January 2013

One of John Kerry's 'lost crags' in the Conwy Valley.

John Appleby 2012

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Echoes of a Dream - a crag rats

Cover/Richard on Hanging Crack, Doverstones: Gordon Stainforth

I was flicking through Colin Wells' bumper mountaineering book- 'Who's who in British Climbing'-  trying to find to no avail, Alan 'Richard' McHardy amongst the 'Mac's. Despite a full compliment-from MacInnes to Macleod...McHaffie to McLure- there was no mention of someone of almost semi mythical status? A true hard man and post war tiger who like his more famous contemporaries from the great Northern working class climbing communities, was in the creative vanguard. Forging standards and creating classic climbs on the as yet under-developed cliffs of northern England and north Wales.

A frequent visitor to The Alps with people like Tut Braithwaite and Pete Minks, Richard became a central player in the English invasion during the 50's,60's and 70's. A time when northern hard cases arrived on motorbikes and in beat up vans and created a disparate community of climbing bums to the disdain of their sophisticated continental cousins!

But first things first. Alan Richard McHardy was born in the Manchester area in the early 40's and graduated towards the great outdoors via the frequently trodden path of Peak and Pennine exploration. After scaring himself on easy peak routes he finally discovered that actually, the rock climbing malarky was something he was quite good at and went on to became a talented original member of the Alpha Club who boasted people like Paul Nunn and Al Parker amongst its brethren.
From these early days,he went on to become a highly respected member of UK climbing's' elite. Not least for his incredible soloing exploits where his calm disposition and astonishing strength saw him soloing climbs which were at the forefront of of UK standards at the time.

Richard McHardy on Fork Lightning Crack-Heptonstall Quarry

In common with his working class contemporaries,trips abroad had to be financed through a variety of manual jobs,from factory work to joinery although he did find himself engaged from time to time as an outdoor pursuits instructor.Including a stint at Plas y Brenin in North Wales. It was while working at PyB that Richard experienced a life changing event from which he was lucky to survive. In a chapter prosaically entitled 'broken head' Richard recalls how a serious fall from a chossy route on Carreg Wasted saw him unconscious and at death's door for four days before doctor's considered him well enough to be put back together again.

 The shattering of his skull brought on an epileptic condition which was triggered at intervals,by physical trauma. Not an uncommon event if you were climbing at the cutting edge. Despite the condition and despite suffering occasional epileptic fits, Richard never gave up his life style and simply tailored his work and his outdoor life accordingly. Thankfully,he never suffered an epileptic episode when soloing a route like Cenotaph Corner or Vector !

Despite his foreign campaigns in the Alps and Yosemite producing a series of British firsts-including,the first all British ascent of Salathe Wall with Paul Ross- his forays into the world of mountaineering in greater ranges,brought only frustration and disappointment. He decided the Himalayas just weren't worth the effort and concentrated on UK/ European and occasional US jaunts.

For those like me who are fascinated by that unique era of British climbing in the second half of the twentieth century,when working class climbers gathered in their parochial tribes and went forth and established themselves on the world stage; Echoes of a Dream is a real treat. Absorbing, fascinating and illuminating. As Richard says in his final passage..'Most climbing books describe monumentally difficult achievements or major epics. I hope I have described the life of the ordinary crag rat and of all the other climbers I have met along the way'...Most people reading this would agree that Richard is rather modest in describing himself as 'an ordinary crag rat'. 99% of active climbers will never go anywhere near touching on his incredible life and times on the crag face.

RM and Paul Ross on Mammoth Ledge, Salathe Wall, El Capitan 1973: George Homer

For lovers of atmospheric climbing shots originally captured on print and slide,'Echoes' is liberally illustrated with evocative images,showing the man himself and many of his former partners,in action on iconic climbs and crags.

Written in an honest and understated style, Echoes of a Dream fully deserves to reach a wider audience.Particularly for those readers who find the post 50's era, something of a golden era in British mountaineering.A time of rapidly developing standards,of larger than life characters and of course,of incredible achievement. It's certainly one of the best books of its type to illustrate the unique northern climbing culture which sprang out of the great northern conurbations in the post war era.

Privately published, Echoes of a Dream-A Crag Rat's tale' can be ordered from the author's website

John Appleby

Friday 7 December 2012

Kurt Jackson: Catch the Light

Kurt Jackson paints: seascapes in which every glitter of reflected light on the water’s surface is detailed; rivers in their varied moods and waterside shades of greenery; and trees in their many forms and patterning of light and shade.  His paintings are meticulous in their observation of the details in a landscape, yet they are, simultaneously, abstractions as expressive as the most crystalline poetry.

I’ve loved the paintings of Kurt Jackson since discovering him on a holiday in Cornwall in 1999, when we were there for the total eclipse of the sun on the morning of August 11th.   He had an exhibition at The Great Atlantic Map Works Gallery in St. Just, called crossing the peninsula…painting the path of totality.  The paintings on show were the result of three days spent walking across the Cornish peninsula following the path of  the centre line of totality.  Cornwall – and most especially the far western lands of West Penwith is a favourite place of ours, and the place that Jackson has made his home and his primary subject since 1984, when he settled near St. Just.

I have two beautiful books of Kurt Jackson’s paintings, Kurt Jackson – Paintings of Cornwall and the Scillies (1999) and The Cape (2002), which features paintings of land- and sea-scapes around Cape Cornwall and nearby Priest Cove, with additional text by the poet Ronald Gaskell.  I would like to have more, but the catalogues of his exhibitions sell out almost instantaneously and only rarely reappear on Abebooks or Amazon, always at staggeringly inflated prices.

But recently an excellent book, comprising almost a dozen essays on Jackson and lavishly illustrated with examples of his work, was published.  Entitled Kurt Jackson: A New Genre of Landscape Painting, I received it as a birthday gift, and have just finished reading it. There are essays here by poets, nature writers, painters and art critics – they include Howard Jacobson, Helen Dunmore, Mark Cocker, Bel Mooney and Richard Mabey – who together weave a rich portrait of an artist and environmentalist  with a deep understanding of natural history and ecology, politics and environmental issues.

It’s in the foreword to the collection, written by John Russell Taylor, that the idea of Kurt Jackson representing a ‘new genre of landscape painting’ is developed.  He suggests that Jackson is a traditional painter in the sense that ‘you cannot see any of his paintings…without being aware of a great underlying body of tradition’ that includes, for example, ‘Turner’s later, more abstracted works’ and ‘Constable’s more private watercolour sketches’.  But, Taylor argues, ‘these are only the foundations on which Jackson’s personal style is built’.  The artist has clearly also absorbed the wild, spontaneous mark-making of American Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, as well as the practices and objectives of German Neo-Expressionists like Anselm Kiefer, with their commitment to an art that stimulates the imagination and expresses human emotion:

    Hence the frequent incursion in Jackson’s work of apparently random dashes and blobs of colour, which cannot be explained in terms of detailed observation but are very important in conveying the spirit and feeling of the scene as they strike the observing artist.  Then there is his developing interest in the quasi-sculptural application of non-painting elements to the surface of his canvases.  Sometimes it may be incorporating the material observed – such as sand or pebbles – to ‘represent’ itself.  Sometimes it is a metaphor, or even a sort of pun, as in his Cornish painting Catch the Light (2002-3, where the catching of the very present but wholly impalpable light is conceived almost literally as something that could be done, with a real fishing net attached to the front of the canvas.

For myself, I think it’s that gift of being able to ‘catch the light’ – whether shimmering on the sea in the noonday sun, or fading as dusk deepens in some woodland glade – that defines Kurt Jackson’s magic.  In his analysis, John Russell Taylor continues:

    And there is yet another important element of Jackson’s art which is wholly untraditional.  I mean, of course, his use of scribbled inscriptions, along with more formal printed words and phrases.  One can readily find parallels in contemporary art, from Cy Twombly … to the early works of Ben Nicholson.

    One feels, looking at these extraordinary works, that the documentary element – making some kind of record of what is before the artist’s eyes – is important, but it is only one strand.  Equally present are how the artist feels about what he sees, and how, at some deep, instinctive level, he apprehends the spirit of time and place.

Kurt Jackson was born is 1961 in Blandford, Dorset and spent much of his childhood developing a passionate interest in nature in the wooded lanes and fields of semi-rural Herfordshire. He was already painting his finds from field and stream, annotating his drawings and watercolours with scientific details.  His parents were both artists, and the family travelled extensively across Europe and the Middle  East, a formative experience that finds expression, perhaps, in his predilection to work outdoors in all weathers, and his active support for environmental campaign groups such as Greenpeace, whose expeditions he has sometimes joined as official artist in residence.

There’s one aspect of Jackson’s biography that sets him apart from most other artists: he is a scientist with a degree in Zoology from Oxford University.  While travelling in Greece in his early twenties he met two men who had just graduated from that course, and he developed a burning desire to do the same.  At Oxford he spent most of his time painting and attending courses at Ruskin College of Art, but he gained his degree and continued to travel extensively and independently, painting wherever he went. He travelled to the Arctic alone and hitched across Africa with his wife. So he has acquired a broad experience of environments and cultures which has enriched his work with a unique insight and an attention to detail. He moved to Cornwall in 1984 where he still lives and works.

Since settling in Cornwall, a central concern of Jackson’s work has been to document with meticulous observation the landscapes and seascapes of West Penwith.  But his work has not been confined to that southwestern peninsula.  He has painted many rivers (often tracking their course from source to sea) and in numerous places, from the isle of Arran to Greece, Andalucia and Mali.  Wherever he is, whatever the landscape he is seeing, Jackson’s work is, as Bel Mooney rightly observes in this book, ‘infused with joy’.  She goes on:

    The artist’s own physicality reaches out to meet the teeming, testing, tantalising aspects of life: leaf, grass, bark, flower, water and stone.  Each painting transcends what is merely observed: it is a totality of experience.

At a time of concern about the fate of our woodland, Kurt Jackson’s depiction of trees and the ecology of the wild places that surround them is timely. In his essay, ‘Green Chaos: Painting the Forest’, Richard Mabey observes that in Jackson’s paintings:

    The patterns of light and shade, the thick impression of the paint, the sudden detonations of colour and embryonic forms, echo the vitality and inventiveness of the natural processes they signify.

He regards Jackson’s woodland paintings as being landscapes ‘seen literally from the grass roots’, and in this respect compares Jackson’s paintings to the poetry of John Clare (one of Jackson’s favourite poets in fact).

Jackson’s series TwoWoods (2oo4) explores the interior life of two contrasting habitats: Ashcombe Wood near Bath and Skewjack Wood in Cornwall and Mabey notes how Jackson’s paintings of Ashcombe, a wood with origins dating back to the end of the last Ice Age (such as Ashcombe, sun sinking, sycamore, hazel, oak, above) are studies of the depths of the wood, that ‘in their dappled latticework suggest the intricate transactions between light, time and living tissue that create the fabric of these ancient places.

Loud wind through the tree tops, low winter sunlight through the twigs, sun sinking, sycamore, hazel, oak. It feels like the beginning of Autumn, September 2003 is,for Mabey, a more spacious painting:

 Light filters in through the treetops. The tree trunks are straighter, more gracious.The text hints at uncertainty, at a palpable mystery in the surfaces of the wood. It might, in fact, be the beginning of spring.Woods lock their history inside them, but they reveal cyclical traces, and the spring bud is already formed at the moment of the leaf’s fall.

 Bel Mooney’s essay, Two Trees/Five Senses/A World, is also provoked by paintings of trees: in her case of figs and olives, part of a series painted by Jackson in Kardamili, a small village on the coast of the Mani peninsula in Greece. Mooney owns one of these – a ‘precious painting’ whose origins she seeks out in a meeting with the artist.  She learns that Jackson first visited Kardamili as a 12-year old after his father, inspired by reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book on the Mani peninsula, drove the family there in an old Land Rover.  In 2005 he returned with his wife Caroline and their three children to live in a small stone hut at the top of the olive groves so that he could ‘paint it properly’.  Terre d’Oliviers, big buzzy flies and hot happy grasshoppers within the shade of this olive tree (below), painted on his duvet cover, was one result.

Speaking of the layers of meaning in these paintings, Mooney writes:

    However,there are always deeper issues at stake as each painting is made. Past and present lead all of us inexorably towards a future we have to contemplate, even as the present minutes pass. With the wider dimension in mind, the olive tree in my own painting is transformed into a significant emblem. Jackson loves places that are passed on through generations, where people work the land as their forefathers did. That is how it would have been in England once: the sweetness of apple orchards nurtured organically, sustaining generations. But that is no longer the way of life, except in areas as remote as Jackson’s adopted Cornish home. So the olive groves of Kardamili represent an ancient transaction between humans,culture and the land.There has been a settlement in this region since the ancient time of Homer, and the olive – symbol of peace, wisdom, plenty and a  victor’s crown – has supported people with wood, useful foliage and, of course, in Homer’s phrase ‘liquid gold’ for food and light. Some olive trees are thought to be more than one thousand years old and fossilised leaves are about fifty thousand years old. For eons, Olea europaea has sustained the daily life and customs of peoples of the Mediterranean.

Having written just a few days ago about a film in which Jewish settlers set fire to ancient olive trees belonging to Palestinian villagers, I was struck by Bel Mooney’s next words:

    What’s more,the olive tree is a basic element in maintaining the stability of a whole eco-system. Because it can take eight years before one produces its first crop, dependable cultivation needs an unchanging environment, which in turn requires political and economic security. This can be seen in the correspondence of the historical decline of the empires of Greece and Rome to the destruction of olive orchards. Since 2000, more than half a million olive trees have been destroyed by Israeli bulldozers – an act of destruction blasphemous to those who revere the ancient symbolism of the olive branch, as well as an ongoing annihilation of Palestinians’ essential livelihood, which depends on the olive tree for fruit, oil and wood. In Homer’s time, courts sentenced people to death if they destroyed one olive tree. Those reduced to helpless despair and rage at the destruction of the rainforests and the corresponding oppression of indigenous tribes might think that an entirely appropriate retribution.

This is an absorbing and revealing collection of essays, lavishly illustrated on good quality paper.  It would satisfy anyone already familiar with the work of Kurt Jackson, but also serves as a useful introduction to his paintings.  If I have two small quibbles it these: there is some repetition in the various essays (that have, I suspect, been gathered together from various original sources), and very often the illustrations don’t match the accompanying text.  Never mind, it’s still a lovely book to have.

Kurt Jackson

Gerry Cordon 2012: First published on That's how the light gets in. Nov 2012)

Friday 30 November 2012

John Redhead's Colonists

John Redhead and photographer Tony Loxton:

‘Colonists out’ is the title of the latest book by rugged individualist John Redhead. I use that descriptor deliberately, rather than overplayed clichés such as ‘enfant terrible’ or ‘the controversial artist/climber’, because one of the main thrusts of the book (and it thrusts vigorously in many directions) is the author’s desire, nay insistence that the rest of the world accept him just as he is, and accommodate him without imposing upon him a need to conform, to adapt or to change in any way whatsoever in order to ‘fit in’.

At the beginning of the book, we meet Ochre, a lurcher pup adopted by the author. Ochre lives, wolf-like, in a feral state on the hills, feeding himself at the expense of the local wildlife. No tame hound he, Ochre refuses to do what is required to become that, to the extent that John sleeps out in the barn with this kindred free spirit in order to bond. One imagines they could be hard to tell apart.
Ochre makes other appearances in the book, not least on one occasion where he chases, kills and eats a new neighbour’s cat, an act which Redhead finds “beautiful to behold”. He almost comes unstuck though when the cat’s owners appear, searching for their lost pet, necessitating a hasty cover-up of the grisly evidence.

I found this particular anecdote not easy to swallow, being the keeper of several much-loved cats, whom I regard as friends and companions. I would feel some considerable degree of antipathy towards anyone who stood by and watched one of my furry friends be torn apart. His reaction when his young son is rudely snubbed, elsewhere in the book, illustrates Redhead’s empathic nature, but such empathy deserts him here, even though I’m sure he realises that a loved pet is (to many) as much a family member as a child, and no mere prey animal. But then John, like most of us, is a bag of contradictions.

His refusal to compromise even extends to a resistance towards actively learning the language of his host community, be it in the rain-washed valleys of North Wales or the sun-baked mountains of the French Pyrenees.

Ah yes, community. Another target of Redhead’s thrusts. In ‘Colonists…’ he examines and dissects the notion of ‘community’, questioning and even attacking what he sees as the wholly spurious need of people to be part of a wider whole, and their hiding of their true selves amidst a clique, a group, a tribe, a religion or even the concept of a nation, by willingly conforming to its ideals and codes.
Conformity, such a necessity for acceptance in a tribal context, enrages him, and early in the book he rails loudly against ‘Rehoboth’, the name of the squat monolithic Christian temple to an absentee god, which sits adjacent to his sometime home in Nant Peris, and which so directed and corralled the lives of the local people, people who, the author suggests, were already cowed and partly broken by the dank chasm within which they dwelt, and by the harshness of their working lives, making them easy prey for the church.

JR with an installation piece for The Caban, Bryn Refail, Llanberis, N Wales.

He views the more closed-minded elements of the local community through an unsympathetic lens, with no hint of rose-tint, and is contemptuous of their insularity, their inward-looking rejection and resentment of those who are not of their tribe. The nationalist mindset is nowhere as ingrained as here in these shadowed valleys, where the language is the hook upon which their hats are hung.
The language, ah yes, the target of yet another thrust from the thrusting pen of the author, who holds it up here as almost an anachronism, an affectation, a historical curiosity dressed as a cultural necessity, which is misused as a means to exclude outsiders, and as a secret handshake for those who are members of the club.

And yet he adds that, was he Welsh himself, he would speak the language, and be proud of it. Redhead relates an anecdote in which his six-year old son, Ryley, attempts to converse with two local men outside his front gate, only to be pointedly ignored. The implication is that Ryley is ignored for being English, or rather, for not being Welsh, as well, one assumes, as for being a scion of the bohemian Englishman living (the bloody cheek!) in their old schoolhouse!

He ponders somewhat on the great romantic vision, projected by the tourist industry, of noble struggle (largely against the English) in the early history of Wales and finds in the reality, as with similar Scottish strivings for nationhood, as many foreign protagonists as natives, playing walk-on parts in a now re-written story which is selective and overlooks many less admirable facets of that history. He points out that Wales, as such, did not truly exist until long after the squabbling minor kingdoms which occupied the land post Norman conquest, which are oft-times held up as heroic founders of the nation, had turned to dust. In a land filled with mythology, not least is the official myth of the nation’s founding, fed to those too lazy to dig out the truth.

John (I feel able to use first name terms, having once enjoyed his tremendous hospitality) reserves particular ire, bile and vitriol - as he did when I met him ten years ago - for the despised hill-farmers.
These people, sepia-tinted and widely romanticized by the tourist board as hardy characters eking a hard living from the moors and mountains, keeping ancient traditions alive, are (he says) nothing of the sort. They care nothing for the mountains, whose slopes are nibbled bald by their “vermin” sheep, and they understand and appreciate those mountains less than do the weekend walkers and climbers, who come from outside the region. They care nothing for them, says John, yet claim custodianship over them, and resent those who venture onto their slopes for leisure and adventure, a point he illustrates with anecdotes of bug-eyed confrontations and the destruction of a grounded parapente by an enraged little man who claims he owns the mountain. Lunacy!

He recounts such unnecessary aggression as a commonplace thing, sometimes involving bulging veins, Welsh curses and loaded shotguns. Despite this, he is often amused by the farmers, finding likeability even amongst this antagonistic rabble, perhaps sensing the person that might have been, beneath the materialism and behind the nationalism.

He alleges that most farmers are as blind to the true nature of the environment that surrounds them as they are to the wellbeing of their sheep, which are no more than commodities to them. Not that John has much time for sheep. Farmers should fuck off and let trees take over! Graffiti artists spraying tags on crags do less environmental damage - way less - than farmers. Begone the lot of them, squatters where squatters should not be! Colonists out!

A controversial view? Or a view that many of us, lovers of the mountains, share, whether overtly or otherwise? I suspect the latter prevails more with each passing generation.
Although there is much criticism and denouncement of nationalism, and the attitudes which are fostered by it in some quarters, running through his narrative, I do not want to give the impression that JR has a downer on Wales or the people amongst whom he dwells whilst living there. On the contrary, he is at pains to point out that, as with anywhere, there is the usual quota of “sound people” in Llanberis and the surrounding area, many of whom he counts as his friends. Some of these ‘sound people’ make appearances in the book; ‘Barry Biscuits’, ‘Dangerous Phil’, ‘Goaty John’ and ‘Peter Poetry’ featuring amongst the more memorable names.

He contrasts attitudes in his part of Wales with the Wales of the South, where he sees a thriving culture of change and creativity, inclusive and cosmopolitan rather than exclusive, and which gives the language a true international context, a language offered and explained, rather than held up as a political badge or flag, draped over backs turned to the outside world.
Are such closed minds directed to that state by the closed mountains which hem them in? The influence of the land, where John believes the true spirit of Wales lies, on the people who abuse it, is brought into the light, leading to suggestions that the evisceration of the “sacred mountain” of Elidir Fawr has brought some karmic revenge upon those who wrought such violence, people who have for the most part lost any connection they may have once had with the land. The hill farmers aren’t the only ones blind to the bigger picture!

And yet, all is not lost, as John firmly believes that art can remake the lost connections between the land and the people. Art. But not politics. Perhaps therein lies the reason why right-leaning governments continually restrict and cut funding for the arts. Art encourages individualism. Art breeds questioners and rebels, free thinkers. The likes of John Redhead!

Redhead makes the point throughout the book that his true affinity is with the physical reality and inherent spirit of the land itself, rather than any artificial, imposed ‘nationhood’. He senses that the land, the mountains, the very bedrock, are like a living thing, bearing a soul or spirit which is in equal parts ignored and maltreated by the nowadays out of touch humans colonising its surface.
And yet, he finds beauty, terrible and savage maybe, echoing his admiration of Ochre’s cat slaughter, in the “great grey holes” of the deserted quarries: beauty to his eye and ear, and not least to those elusive senses which served him as a climber, stealing up the Rainbow Slab, on the margins of his mind.

A note here: anyone expecting gripping tales of his exploits on rock may be disappointed. Better to seek out a copy of his earlier book ‘and one for the crow’ which is a climber’s wet nightmare, complete with lots of epic photos (there are none here) and made ‘controversial’ (i.e. unstockable by some booksellers) by the cover-art; a photo of John as a grotesque figure with a giant papier maché cock (which also pops up - snigger - in ‘Colonists…’).

No, this book is about belonging and alienation, roots and rootlessness, and perhaps because of that, it speaks far more clearly about the author than anything else I’ve read about or by him.One of the surprising aspects of the book, given Redhead’s previous tendency towards the oblique and the abstract, is the straightforward autobiographical narrative. We learn much about the author, from his unhappy childhood, punished harshly for failing to memorise his times tables, through to the beginning of his climbing interest in the chalk quarries of ‘Little Switzerland’ near Hull, where he spent more time looking down than up, as his eyes followed the plummets of snapped holds into the trees below.

The evolution of the man from the boy provides us with a fleshed-out timeline of his various migrations and the phases in his creative outpourings, be it climbing, painting or, more latterly, soundscapes.                                                                                      

And in this timeline perhaps, we have a sense of what drives him; the magma chamber, hot wellspring of John Redhead’s volcanic spurtings. He seems permanently driven to let out that which he finds within himself, opening himself up, quarrying his soul like the ruined flank of the mountain he loved, ripped asunder above the gloomy defile of Nant Peris.

He claims to have served neither climbing nor art particularly well, and sees his climbs as ‘a contained aesthetic’, akin to a caged animal, which ran wild only at conception and first ascent. Once can still enter the cage, for sure, and still with uncertain outcome, but the hunt is long since over.
This finds echoes in his attitudes to art, and even to such prosaic activity as building, where the real excitement lies in the creation, rather than the finished object or structure. He says he finds building sites, where there is a constant progression and evolution, far more interesting than art galleries. He has a constant need for change and flux, which gnaws at him and spurs him on. It is hard to imagine him ever staying still for long.

Incidentally, he still climbs, it seems, though now more for the sake of it, for the craic, than for the baring of souls.
Perhaps this personal need for change, for movement, for release, and thereby, for self-expression, is what makes him so angry when he sees people compromising their ‘selves’ in order to be a member of the gang, to be anonymous, allowing the purity of their souls to be colonised by convention, by religion, by the expectations of others, rather than exposing themselves to the world. He is frustrated by people’s failure to exorcise those devils which posses them. Colonists OUT!

In John’s world, we are all hamstrung to a degree and, at worst, we are blind to the realities of the universe, inarticulate of the soul, and we fucking well allow ourselves to be that way! He himself forcibly shuns that, resists the colonisation of his soul by exploiters and puppet-masters, opens himself up and drinks in everything around him, exulting, as the seed of his creativity sprays wildly. Mind you, he also loves a chip butty, so he can be lured, with the right bait.

Inward looking as much as outward, Redhead also recognises in himself an innate need to migrate, coupled with antagonism towards settled domesticity. All part of his thirst for flux and entropy. No wonder he bonded with wolf-dog Ochre.

He finds that the comfort and materialism of an established home eventually becomes an obstacle to necessary change. His newly completed sound studio in Nant Peris almost prevents him leaving for the Pyrenees, and it is with difficulty that his inner voice, “The Trickster”, persuades him to pull up those deepening roots and leave, although the argument is persuasive:
"It rains all the time, the people are miserable, you hate the hill-farmers, you can't paint here, you can't go outside without getting into an argument or fight, there is no money, airy spirits and deformed slaves, the bloody sheep shit in the playground, the neighbours are snoops and keep checking the car tax discs and tyres, the, the, the, the hill is a shit factory, there's no golden plover, shot foxes, dead ravens, moles pinned on barbed wire, you talk to yourself…you're fucked here!"

Fed up with the gloomy and oppressive valley and the mentality of some of those around him, he ups sticks and departs for the light and space of the Pyrenees, which really puts a zap on his head, perhaps thinking that he will find a people still spiritually connected with the land and the mountains. And so he does, or at least partly so, and he finds the Pyrenees less mutilated and subjugated than their smaller Welsh counterparts. He also encounters as much nationalism, tribal parochialism, small-mindedness, cruelty and maddening bureaucracy as he left behind. But at least the Sun shines.
In another anecdote, almost an aside, he tells of an incident which should perhaps have forewarned him that closed minds and intolerance are not the preserve of the sun-starved.

He encounters a group of friendly young Berbers on a train in Morocco. Curious about John and keen to practice their English, they quiz him about Britain and the conversation gradually turns to religion. Asked what his church is like, he replies that he doesn't have one, and is met by blank stares, followed by assumptions that he must be a Buddhist! No. Hindu? No. Communist then at least, surely? No!

Unable to accept a complete lack of adherence to a faith, or at least a political ideology, they become angry, calling him "a dog", finding it inconceivable that he doesn't 'belong'. The very idea undermines their own convictions, their own faith. How can a man be just…a man?! A man cannot be his own master! But John loathes 'God', their god, anyone’s god, and the damage such gods do to the human mind and, through the human mind, to the land itself. God has replaced nature, and god represents a dead end, leading nowhere, connecting to nothing.

The Moroccan encounter is echoed in North Wales, where a friendly local farmer, seeking a democratic consensus on ideas for new community projects, approaches Redhead with a questionnaire. Asked his religion, John gives the same reply he gave the Berbers and, once again, the questioner is unable to accept 'None' so he ticks 'Buddhist', reasoning (reasonably enough I suppose) that it is the nearest thing on the list to ‘tree-hugging hippy’.

There are many funny anecdotes and observations in the book, some of them drawing from a dark well indeed. The narrative is shot through with a fizzing streak of his cutting humour, rarely descending to sarcasm but always, always focused and shot through with barbs of wit. He draws laughter even from those things he rails against and which grind his gears. He is not the serious frowner some may believe him to be. Serious clowner, yes.

Who among us could fail to snort tea and crumbs all over the pages at his attempt to purchase a soothing unguent for his itchy anus, an occasion when his resistance to learning the French language truly does backfire! I’ll leave the full details for your delectation.
Anti-establishment to a fault, the car-wrecks of John’s encounters with officialdom litter the highway of his narrative. Is it any wonder, given his world-view and his open resistance to rules and regulations, to being directed?

There is his exhibition at Electric Mountain in Llanberis, which provokes outrage amongst local councillors over a perceived slight to the virtues of the local womenfolk, and which leads to a torchlit Frankenstein-esque procession of angry mums, wielding billhook and rake, beating a path to his door to confront the monster.

John, of course - the charmer! - cuts off their outrage at the knees by taking the overheated ladies, none of whom have actually seen his work, to see it for themselves and make up their own minds (ahaa!), and their anger dissipates as they find truth and humour in his words and images. Crafty bugger. In this action, he impregnates the lot of them, in one go, with the sticky seed of independent thought and action, with a little bit of himself, in other words. No wonder he had to leave town! What offspring might he have fathered there, I wonder?

His initial flight from Wales actually takes him initially to the Basque country on the Spanish side of the border, to Catalunya. Here, he enlists the help of a motley crew of hippies, eccentrics and nut-cases, to help him find a suitable house. He mentions the sunshine frequently, in case you forget that this is not Llanberis.

 Twa Johns:Photo Tony Loxton

Endless visits to Catalan estate agents lead him to few suitable (or affordable) houses. However he keeps searching, perhaps largely due to the impossibly glamorous, perfumed, leggy young women who inevitably deal with the unwashed and slightly salivating Englishman who comes to them, looking for a run-down farmhouse in the mountains. 

Eventually, finding the Spanish side of the mountains to be too heavily farmed, and discovering streaks of nationalism there as hard and xenophobic as anything back in Cymru, he hops over the border to French Catalonia, which is also Basque and fiercely independent, yet with people somehow more open than their Spanish cousins. The mountains here are less tamed, wilder, and he senses that here at last is somewhere that will suit him.

Even there though, he finds unexpected and maddeningly familiar problems.
Petty French bureaucracy rears its frustrating head in the form of the cartoonish Didier, a humourless local Mairie official, who objects to the unsuitable parking of John’s truck. Didier makes it clear to John that he must conform and obey the rules, or he will not be welcome. Oh dear.

And it’s not just ‘official’ officialdom! In rural France, some traditions and attitudes linger sadly in the medieval, relative to Britain, and he almost starts a blood feud with the local Romany gangsters when he quite rightly points out the unacceptable cruelty of their caged circus lion. A caged fucking lion! In the 21st century! Unbelievable!

Unacceptable it undoubtedly is and JR, engorged with wrath, just arrived, speaking no French, has the audacity to attack and berate these gypsies, of whom the locals are openly fearful, and who (he discovers) have a propensity for violence and revenge. But it wasn’t just archaic attitudes to animal welfare, or clip-board Nazis from the mayor’s office which shot down John’s utopian balloon.
There was no “breakfast scene”!

No Full English - with extra banter - in a steamy café, just pastis, cigarettes and croissants, and at set hours only! The local way of life is hide-bound by custom and convention to the point of being regimented, and the lack of choice and availability staggers John. Croissants? Fucking croissants?‼ He can buy shit like that, he froths, at any time of day back in the UK, even in a backwater like Llanberis, which is a veritable melting pot of cuisines by comparison.  And the rigidity of the timings! Breakfast at 8 o’clock sharp! Like old English seaside landladies, the unwritten word is law.
'Zis eez not ze way we do eet, Rosbif! Not 'ere! Non!'

You conform or you starve. Not so much 'colonists out’, as colonists out of food.
It is at this point, one senses, that Redhead begins to realise that you can run, but you can't hide.
In growing frustration, and realising he can't get what he wants in either place, John ends up flying back and forth between France and Wales (must be bloody made of money); for fry-ups and good-natured insults with old friends in the greasy condensation of Pete's Eats, and sunshine and proper wild mountain country in the Pyrenees. He becomes a jack of all places, a manic figure straddling Europe, waving his giant fake cock, complaining and laughing at everything, fountaining his creative juices from whatever orifice is open at the time, incessantly in motion, goaded and coaxed and tempted by The Trickster towards his next move.

'It's a reet grand read' claims Northern author:Photo Redhead Collection

Brian Trevelyan 2012
Photographs:John Appleby(Unless Stated)

To order Colonists Out click here

Friday 23 November 2012

All the Young Dudes: Odyssey a climbing road movie review

Photo: Hot Aches

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!

 William Wordsworth:French Revolution.

I've an idea, lets get a climbing crew together,comprising of some of our brightest young stars and make a climbing road movie! creative ideas go this one,it has to be said comes off pretty well in one of Hot Aches latest flics-  Odyssey-a climbing road movie. Although somewhat contrived in conception compared to recent Hot Aches films such as The Pinnacle and The Long Hope which had a overall historic coherence, Odyssey is just a fun film but no less entertaining for that.

Featuring UK climbing's favourite poster girl, Hazel Findlay with fellow Brit James Pearson, Austria's Hansjorg Auer and French mademoiselle Caroline Ciavaldini, the shiny happy twentysomethings accompanied by the Hot Aches crew take to the road over summer and strut their stuff on some of our most iconic crags and routes. Kicking off oop north, the 1987 Merc truck trundles up to the Northumbrian outcrops where the team sport themselves in the sun on a range of short hard climbs while interviews break into the action.

The fab four are honest and engaging in these short inserts. Hansjorg Auer and Caroline Ciavaldini skillfully massage UK sensibilities by paying homage to our strict trad ethic which for a sports climber like Caroline appears eccentric but admirable. Hazel Findlay by contrast at one point appears to regret our strict adherence to our trad ethic which in her eyes has held UK climbing back technically before coming to her senses and sighing, 'but that's what makes UK climbing special'  Furthering her appeal to the Ken Wilson fundamentalists is secured when, after cruising Ron Fawcett's Gogarth E6-The Cad- she declares she would never bother climbing it if it had four bolts...why four?...because it would be 'too easy'. Feel free at this point to exclaim..'What the !!!.

Paul Diffley and Hazel Findlay doing what they do:Hot Aches

Despite sharing the screen time,there is no doubt that Hazel is the star of the show. Taking monster lobs and dissolving in a fit of giggles as her traumatized second bounces around staring at the soles of her rock shoes. Soloing up Soap on a rope-E4- on the Llanberis slate with the dark, fathomless cold waters of the flooded quarry pit just a toes' width away. Cruising up Nescliffe's Tombola-E7 and what looks like a pretty vegetated Pavey Ark -E6 which she declares one of the best routes she has ever done.

That's not to say that the rest of the team don't impress with their contributions. James Pearson who at the start of the film,sits in a Langdale camp site and tells us he is too weak to be a top sports climber and perhaps his days of pushing the envelope are behind him but then takes on two Nescliffe test pieces defined by their technicality and lack of protection-My Piano E8 and A thousand setting suns-E9 and then declares at the top.....'it was quite easy actually'!

Genial Austrian Hansjorg Auer impresses by making a ground up ascent of another Fawcett 80's test piece-Tremadog's Strawberries E7 and isn't he chuffed when he tops out! Deferentially doffing his cap to the routes creator and offering his amazement that such a bold line should be created back in the mists of time...1982!

James Pearson walking up Strawberries: Hot Aches

Caroline Ciavaldini-'one of the balliest climbers around' apparently gets stuck into Strawberries, Comes the Dervish and a Pemboke E8 and impresses with her tenacity. Strawberries proves a bridge too far but everything else falls under her Gallic spell.

It's interesting that North Wales is at the centre of the action. Apart from the Northumbian and Langdale sections,the action is centred on Tremadog,The Slate, Gogarth and Nescliffe just across the border.

Like all the Hot Aches climbing films I've seen, the action is beautifully shot and creatively edited. Filmed by Matt Pycroft, Matt Sharman, Dom Bush and Paul Diffley and directed by Dom Bush, Odyssey, running at just over an hour, is fine little film which captures the sheer joie de vivre of young climbers living life to the full and on the edge. As climbing movies go,it sure beats watching bearded middle aged men dragging their beer guts up crumbling Diffs!

John Appleby 

Odyssey-A climbing road movie is available as a DVD or download from Hot Aches

Friday 16 November 2012

The Central Pillar of Freney

Pete Minks preparing to bivi on the Central Pillar: Minks Collection

When I first knew Pete Minks he was finishing his apprenticeship as a plumber at Camell Lairds ship yard in Birkenhead. One Saturday night in the pub in Llanberis, Pete told me about him being turned down for a mortgage. The guy at the Building society had examined Pete's wage slips and told him he did not earn enough money. He then suggested that Pete should go and get a semi skilled job on the production line,making cars at the Ford plant in Halewood.

 I suppose if the guy had looked beyond the wage slips and taken account of the fact that Pete had a very secure trade, life would have taken an entirely different road for Pete and Noreen, his then girl friend. I recently self published a book and after finishing it I found an article that Pete had written in 1973 about our ascent of -the Central Pillar of Freney in 72. In the late sixties and seventies Pete became a very good climber and mountaineer and socially more than a bit wild. His record of major routes is massive. He died this year having lived in America for decades. After seeing Pete in Yosemite in 73 we sadly never met again. I hope the reader enjoys Pete's article as much as I have. Certainly the people who knew him will.

Richard Alan McHardy- 2012.

"Has anyone been for the weather forecast"? Afternoon storms again; just the right weather for swimming. Apart from a few days off, (festering) when I had done the North East Pillar on the Droites with Pancho, this had been the pattern for the last few weeks. I had also managed to pass 'Tut' Braithwaite onto Cliff Phillips.
I arrived back on the campsite one afternoon with 'tiger' Mick, to find Richard McHardy, who had just cycled out from England.

Ows yer arse mate"? It'll be better when I get off it, onto a route," "Well, what dyer fancy then...Central Pillar of Freney?"..."Okay" Christ what have I said!!! "Pete where's your helmet"? "Left it in the tent love!" Sue arrived back on Barbara McHardy's bike with my helmet just in time to catch us at the Telepherique station. "It's a good job Barbara doesn't know that I haven't got mine, or we'll never get away!" said Richard.

On the 'pherique we bumped into Pat and Shea who were on their way to do the Old Brenva route.    One hour later we were walking across the Vallee Blanche with the Walker Spur on the Grand Jorasses in profile; down, underneath Mont Blanc du Tacul; back, up through the crevasses and round past the East face of the Grand Capucin; easy ice onto the fixed ropes up to the hut on the Col du Trident. Half a dozen brews and a jambon sandwich then a couple of hours sleep on the table.

"Pete, wake up, it's gone twelve." "Damn it"s not raining. Okay, I'll get a brew on.."

Two hours, a jambon butty and a few brews later the four of us were descending the slopes down to the Brenva Glacier. Walking in the footsteps of the climbers who had managed to get away before us, within an hour we were underneath the Col Moore. Here we encountered the usual early morning rush hour crowd tackling the steep ice slope. We said goodbye to the two Irish lads who quickly soloed up the ice slope to the foot of the Old Brenva Route.

The way down from the Col Moore was steep and loose. We were about two hundred feet below the Col when a block the size of a table came hurtling past, only missing us by inches. We decided to wait under an overhang until the other parties had gone past-then we carried on down, kicking rubbish on top of them instead! On beneath the Brenva Face and the Eckpheiler Buttress, up the icy Peuterey Couloir onto the Col du Peuterey.
Looking up to the Freney Pillar from the south ridge of the Aiguille Noire: David Tidmarsh

It was now 10am and so far we'd taken nearly eight hours from the hut. We decided to stop for a rest and a brew inside an Igloo on the right of the Col. Within five minutes we were in residence and proceeded to brew up, eat and smoke in rapid succession. An hour later we forced ourselves to move out of the relative comfort of the Igloo and back onto the route. But outside the weather had deteriorated considerably. The Pillar had disappeared in cloud that had come over from the other side of Mont Blanc. We decided to wait and see if the weather would improve.

By 2p.m. the weather was still the same but we decided to go anyway. Retreat from low down on the pillar should be fairly easy if the weather became really bad. After a few rope lengths we came across a good ledge big enough to lie down on and before long we were preparing our bivi.

As with all bivouacs the dawn didn't come too soon. The weather was good- not a cloud in the sky. So after a quick breakfast we were soon back on the rock. At this point we were slightly off route but Rich soon put that right by leading up a superb pitch on steep rough granite to put us back on route.
On up steep exposed slabs, at about grade IV and V, with an overhanging corner, well laced with pegs. More slabs and corners brought us very near to the Chandelle. Here we found some bacon left by a previous party- I put it in my sack for future use.

A few more rock pitches followed by an easy snow are^te led us to the foot of the Chandelle. It was now 3p.m. and climbing conditions were far from perfect. The cloud still hadn't cleared and it was getting colder. A steep wall led round the are^te and up to the start of the crux pitch. This was a steep corner topped by an overhanging chimney-grade VI all the way but with pegs and wedges all the way up. The overhanging chimney proved awkward because my sack kept on catching. The final moves were very exposed but good jugs followed by a jamming crack landed me at the belay. By the time Rich reached the etrier that I'd left it was covered in hoar frost. Two more rope lengths brought us to a small ledge with barely enough room to sit down on. Here we brewed up and fried our bacon before preparing for another uncomfortable bivouac.

The night dragged on for an eternity. We were both cold, damp and uncomfortable. Most of the night was spent drinking a foul concoction which was supposed to be coffee! It was warm and wet but was beginning to produce ominous rumblings deep down in my intestines!Morning eventually came with a blaze of glory. Another fine morning. I sprang into action and regretted it immediately. I started by puking up last nights supper followed by an attack of diarrhoea of Himalayan proportions. This continued for some time during which I cursed the coffee and bacon and finally I cursed Richard who seemed to be completely unaffected. We packed up our gear and Richard led off up the final slabs. These were heavily verglassed and proved difficult. I followed behind determined to keep going despite puking every few minutes.

We abseiled to the breche behind the Chandelle and started up the steep snow are^te leading to the Innominata Ridge. The climbing was straight forward over hard ice covered by a layer of soft snow and we climbed together until we reached the ridge. Here I ceremoniously deposited a pair of soiled underpants which were beginning to cause us both offence. I was now feeling much better and was only puking occasionally. We soon completed the climb and finally stood on the summit of Mont Blanc. The weather was superb.

We descended to Chamonix that same day via the Vallot and the Gouter huts. Once back in Chamonix we settled down to some serious, undisturbed festering.

Pete Minks and Richard McHardy on the summit of Mont Blanc after completing the Freney Pillar

Peter Minks 1973: First published in The Vagabonds Journal 1973

Richard McHardy's autobiography 'Echoes of a dream-a crag rats tale' will be reviewed here in the next few weeks. Copies can be ordered by clicking on... Echoes of a Dream

Tuesday 13 November 2012

The Iceman cometh

It is August 2002. Myself and my partner, Jude Calvert-Toulmin, are in The Heights Bar in Llanberis, having been to do an on-line interview with John Redhead. It’s been a long day, but we are relaxing with friends in the pub. The bar is crowded, because it’s the opening of their new bistro extension.
John Redhead has vanished in the throng, chatting to old friends, leaving Jude and I to chat to each other and a few acquaintances we’ve bumped into.

Suddenly, a short tubby bloke in a blue check shirt and glasses appears to my right, looking like Ian McNaught-Davis’ dwarf twin brother.

“Are you a climber?” he asks. I reply in the affirmative.
“Bit chubby to be a climber, aren’t you?” says the short, chubby bloke.
I am about to tell him that he’s a bit short to be a climber, and also a bit cheeky not to be told to piss off, when he tells us: “Look. If you want a subject for your next interview, there’s your man!”

He points to a pinch-faced bloke of about fifty sitting cross-legged on a stool at the end of the room.

“Er, who is that?” I ask.
“That’s MICK POYNTON!!” replies the Time Bandit, seemingly unimpressed by my lack of recognition. “I can introduce you.” He adds.  I glance at Jude, who shrugs. We follow the Hobbit over to where Mr Poynton sits, a small court of admirers lagered around him (hey! Perhaps he IS famous!).

The impudent midget sidles up to his hero: “These two people are from the press, Mick!” he enthuses, indicating us.

We aren’t from the press at all, and have no real interest in any interview with some bloke we’ve not heard of. I open my mouth to correct him but he continues: “They want to interview you!”

I start to explain that no, we aren’t from the press, but Ronnie Corbett is off again: “Mick is the greatest ice climber in the country!” he tells us, excitedly.

 “Means nowt to me luv!” says Jude: “I know fuck all about climbing!”

The greatest ice climber in the country says not a dickie bird throughout this exchange, and fails to look enthused at the presence of the press. I attempt to engage him in conversation. So does Jude. He turns out to be not only the greatest ice climber in the country, but also The Most Miserable Man in Wales. Maybe we caught him on a bad day.

We are wasting our drinking time. I am about to go back to my seat, when the leprechaun says the funniest thing I’ve heard all night:
“How much do you pay then?”
“Er, sorry?” I reply.
“How much do you pay?! For the interview? I’ll want a cut of course!”

I exchange glances with Jude and we laugh: “Nothing! We pay nothing. People do these online interviews for free, out of the goodness of their heart!”

Sensing perhaps that the ice man is unlikely to want to do a free interview and, judging by appearances, doesn’t have much goodness in his heart either, Tom Thumb adopts a disappointed air, as though we’ve let him down.
We rise and leave him to his disappointment, and return to our friends, chuckling.

Footnote: I have since scoured old issues of Mountain and found references to Mr Poynton, so he does exist, and wasn’t a figment of my imagination. Whoever he is, he was having a bad day. Who the disillusioned leprechaun was, I have no idea, but I’d just like to say thank you, whoever you were, for making our day.

Brian Trevelyan

Friday 9 November 2012

Steve Ashton's bumper mountaineering eBook reviewed

The Ages of Ashton: From Alpine virgin to Sheffield underworld hitman.

For those of us who remember the late lamented High magazine,one name which stood out from its cast list of regulars was the one and only Steve Ashton. An outdoor columnist whose monthly pieces became increasingly surreal and left field as the years went by. As a traditional climbing columnist writing about  the merits or otherwise of  a Zebedee Gore Tex Kag,  or whether or not fleece Y fronts would enhance the outdoor experience for the winter activist, Steve began to go a bit mad!

To the chagrin of the earnest readers to whom climbing was a serious business and who really, really wanted to know whether mittens were a better bet than gloves or if in an emergency you could live on Kendal mint cake for a week, Steve began to morph into the SJ Perelman of the writing fraternity. His columns became increasingly funny and irreverent to the extent that by the time High passed on into history, his columns-if I remember correctly-appeared to be shrinking in proportion to the increasing surrealism. It was as if editor Geoff Birtles didn't want to fire him but thought that by contracting his space to half a page,he might just  get the message and bugger off!

One of Steve's features was  a zany mountaineering A to Z which was more Monty Python than Walt Unsworth. Now, umpteen years on, Steve's High pieces have been dug out,in some cases re-worked,added to and put out as an eBook through Blue Lizard Books as 'Diddly Squat's Encyclopedia of Mountaineering'.

An eBook. I can't imagine when Steve started writing his High pieces all those years ago; perched on a sawn off bar stool behind a typewriter; sustained by strong tea and Tippex- that he would ever have imagined his material being read in the future on a luminous Etch-a-Sketch ! All a bit too Flash Gordon for an old hack I imagine.

But here it is. Available now and costing the lucky purchaser peanuts. No..literally! Diddly Squat's Encyclopedia of Mountaineering costs less than a  300g bag of KP dry roasted peanuts although slightly more than Aldi's own brand.

I don't think Steve would be offended if I predicted that his work will probably not make it onto the Boardman-Tasker list next year. But then again, how many BT winners would cause the reader to spray coffee all over their keyboard?

John Appleby

Diddly Squat's Encyclopedia of mountaineering: Further information through Blue Lizard Books


J Dawes
A charismatically cinematic UK climber of lemurian nature (agile, tenacious and a bit of a monkey). No relation to film star Diana Dawes, the busty 1960s sex bomb. Born in 1964, Johnny ‘Dyno’ Dawes was blessed with an acrobat’s physique, a philosopher’s brain, and a warrior’s heart. He also had the good fortune to inherit a surname that could be wittily incorporated into a route name. All these attributes found their greatest expression in the Llanberis slate quarries when he created Dawes of Perception. Expect to see Revolving Dawes, Fire Dawes, and Shut them Dawes, as the inspired pretentiousness of youth gives way to the weary cynicism of middle age.
Notoriously dangerous mountain in Switzerland that has claimed the lives of dozens of mountaineers drawn to attempt its fearsome north face. After many tragic failures by European teams, north-American climber Clint Eastwood finally succeeded on the Nordwand accompanied by disaffected CIA agents and a Hollywood film crew. The townspeople of Grindelwald subsequently elected Eastwood mayor in recognition of his services to tourism.
 Euphemism for cleaning vegetation, lichen and loose rock from a potential new route, usually from abseil. Also, the practice of suspending hanging baskets from unsightly bolt hangers at Malham Cove and other Yorkshire limestone crags popular with tourists. Try a mix of sweet peas for their fragrant flowers, petunias for their long stems, and begonias for their blousy blooms. If planting a winter basket, combine winter pansies, primula and trailing ivy. If you underplant these with dwarf narcissus and tulips, you will have splendid display come springtime when the new climbing season begins
 A lightweight shell that protects the head from falling stones and ice. Helmets coordinate well with colourful alpine clothing so are widely used in that arena. Unfortunately, they clash with the skimpy tops worn during rock climbing magazine shoots and so have never become widely fashionable. To counter this, a recent BMC safety campaign displayed stoved-in heads atop metal spikes at the approaches to popular outcrops, but, unlike the falling rocks, this had a negligable impact.
Outward Bound
An adventure training philosophy that develops character by plunging students into cold mountain streams, dragging them up outcrops, and forcing them to endure celibate nights in sodden sleeping bags. This approach is at odds with the alternative philosophy Inward Bound, which leads to spiritual serenity through soaking in warm bubble baths, levitating up incrops during alcohol induced reveries, and sleeping under a king-size feather duvet with Miss Backlash and her astonishingly inventive sister.
Americanism for the act of making a successful ascent, as in: “You bitchin’ on my leg? Send that muthafucka, yo!”, to which the nearest British equivalent might be: “Are you serious? I’d say you have a jolly good chance of successfully climbing that route.”