Thursday 26 January 2012

Lundy Sketches

Satan's Slide: Original photo-Ken Latham

Milky sunshine heralded our first morning on Lundy, after we had travelled over the previous day on the Oldenburg. Unusually (for Mick Wrigley and myself) it was an easy and uneventful crossing from Ilfracombe on a virtually flat sea. It was well into October, but it was a warm, sunny morning and the journey was enlivened by the antics of numerous Gannets and Petrels flying close to the boat in the gentle swell. Late that afternoon we abseiled down the Old Light Cliff, and dashed up the old classic Albacore before it got dark.

The top part of the route is pretty grotty and we were glad that the abseil rope was at hand, but the main pitch was every bit as good as I remembered from twenty years ago. We returned to this crag later in the week and Mick led Asafoetida, an absolutely top class Extreme, with a superb 5b pitch on immaculate rock. This first evening we wandered back past the Old Light to the doss, in the dark, the wind coming optimistically firmly from the east. A clear sky seemed to bode well for Sunday and indeed the next few days.

After the usual "boys away from home" breakfast, we sorted the gear and set off for somewhere new. Mick and I had visited Lundy a number of times but had never climbed at the extreme north end on the crags close to the North Light. The walk over the island, across the three walls, is always a pleasure and on this increasingly bright autumn morning it was particularly so. It felt good to be back at this lovely place and there was not another person to be seen all the way to the lonely northern end of the island. The further we went, the more goats we saw, dozens of them, many with impressive sets of horns.

Diamond Solitaire: Ken Latham

The walk to the North Light took about forty five minutes and by the time we got there it had clouded over a little. The sea was relatively benign by Lundy standards and there was just a gentle breeze. The route we had gone to climb was The Pearl, a single pitch Hard VS rumoured to be excellent. Access to the top of the buttress alongside Storm Zawn was simple enough and a straightforward 100ft abseil soon saw us next to a beautiful rock pool just above sea level, at the foot of the route. From where I stood The Pearl looked bloody steep (even for Lundy 5b) but Mick was soon uncoiling the ropes, raring to go for it. He tied on and set off boldly up a very steep little groove above me. The protection was good and despite complaints of dampness in the main corner of the pitch he was soon tied on at the top.

As Mick was climbing I paid the rope out with care, lashed to sound nut belays. I took the opportunity to look out to sea and to watch the numerous large seals that had swum round to take a look at us. (Lundy does a good line in very large seals. These were the largest I've ever seen in Britain.) At one point, I was watching my hands as I paid out the red and yellow ropes through the belay brake, when suddenly the sun came out and bathed the granite wall in golden morning light clearly picking out the complex texture of the ancient Lundy granite. It was a superbly lonely spot, no-one knew where we were and it felt as isolated as anywhere I've been in the south-west (the foot of Carn Gowla in a big sea is perhaps the only contender.)

The pitch was hard but fair, fingery on the crux with some unwelcome dampness just where it mattered and an energetic layback exit to complete an uncompromising little number that quite tired us both. The rest of the day was spent in a more relaxed manner. We had a quick stroll up Albion (surely one of the best VS routes in Britain) and then moved over to the foot of the Cheeses. The afternoon was well on and the day was developing a lovely October feel to it. We abseiled in and rounded the day off with Pete Thexton and Ken Wilson's gem Immaculate Slab. The sea was dead flat and the perfect granite of this superb climb was bathed in a gorgeous autumnal ochre light. As Mick said, you could do that route every weekend and never tire of it. It was growing darker as we sorted the gear at the top of the crag and a hint of drizzle livened up the gentle walk back to the doss and then the pub.

Later in the week the sunny weather deserted us for a while and one morning in particular dawned very dull and dismal, though fortunately without rain. The wind had got round to the south but the sky was brightening slightly so we packed the sacs, threw in the big abseil rope and set off past the Old Light and along the cliff top path. We crossed the Quarter Wall and carried on until we were above Deep Zawn. Here we considered the moot point of the weather (i.e. was it going to piss down or not?) Meadow Pipits scuttled around in the grass near us, while away to the south we could hear the regular crack of rifle shots as the annual goat culling got underway. We decided to take a gamble with the weather and abseil into Deep Zawn and climb The Serpent. I found a bomb-proof pair of thread belays in the boulders above the zawn and Mick abseiled in down the seaward face.

As soon as the rope went slack, I clipped in and followed him down as I slowly descended I took in the surroundings and they were mighty impressive. The zawn itself cuts deeply into the hillside above, the walls are plum vertical for over 200ft and the distance between the South Wall and the North Wall is probably no more than 70ft. On this particular morning, the place was particularly dark and oppressive albeit with a flat sea, but with the sky rapidly darkening out to the west. I am susceptible to the atmosphere of places I admit, but this was something very special. It was my first visit to Deep Zawn and the primeval character of it was only too obvious as I looked across the dark, sinister water to the gob smacking lines of Gracelands (E6) and Underworld (E3). Just around the corner were Stone Tape (E3) Quatermass (E2) and the truly awesome looking Supernova (E5). I marvelled at the strength of mind and sheer courage of Pat Littlejohn and his mates in venturing into this place in its initial development, and there are few locations in the south-west as intimidating as this.

As we sat there the sky continued to darken and the sea started to get rather more lively. The vertical walls of shiny green granite plunged straight into the waves, while as you looked out from the zawn there was nothing but wild ocean for 3,000 miles, to the shores of Nova Scotia. Today the swell on the sea was gentle, but sometimes it must be an utter maelstrom in that dark confined space, a cacophony of rain, waves and gale force wind. I shuddered at the thought of it there on a dark, moonless night when all the malign forces of wind and sea are unleashed from the west. Apart from our blue abseil rope, there was not the slightest indication that mankind even existed in this place.Place yourself there, ten thousand years ago and it would look no different, the only creatures are the birds and the seals, it is truly their place and I almost felt we were intruding.

Just to add to the increasingly oppressive atmosphere, strange sounds were coming from the back of the zawn; howls and almost dog-like yelps echoed off the walls. I realised that this was of course adult seals mating, and sometimes fighting. These strange sounds were juxtaposed with the continuing crack of the rifle shots on the moors above us, as the goat culling continued. The combination of these two sounds, the oppressive character of the zawn itself and the increasingly threatening weather was quite unsettling. For a few moments, I really felt as if we shouldn't be there, that we were not welcome and that we clearly did not belong there. There were no other climbers on the island and no one had a clue that we were here in this deeply impressive place. From Deep Zawn north to the Devil's Slide is perhaps only  ten minute walk but a greater contrast with the white, sun-kissed granite of The Slide would be hard to imagine.

I unclipped from the abseil rope, having fixed a secure belay looking into the zawn. Mick and I started to sort the gear out, when suddenly the sky darkened some more and the heavens just opened. It absolutely poured with rain, drenching our route (and everything else!) We waited awhile to see if it would relent but if anything it got worse. I watched Mick prussic out up the abseil rope as mist rolled in off the vastness of The Atlantic. Below us the seals were still howling, while above us they were still busy goat killing. I clipped the prussic clamps onto the blue rope, took a last look around, stepped up, slid the clamps up the rope and started the journey out of the zawn.

Mick plods slowly up the hill with all the gear, while I haul in 200ft of wet (heavy!) abseil rope and the weather sets in for the day. We are both wet through, but the trip into Deep Zawn had been strangely satisfying for me. Neither Bosigran's Great Zawn, or anywhere at Gogarth or Pembroke could compare with the lonely desolation of this place particularly on an atmospheric late autumn day. We sorted the gear, shouldered the sacs and strolled back for a pint in the pub. As I said though, certainly not a wasted day and a glimpse of just how wild some of Lundy's west coast is. Later as the rain hammered on the pub windows, I thought again of the birds and the seals at home in Deep Zawn and wondered if we were the last people to go into that place this year.

Every evening we make the walk down the hill to the warm embrace of The Marisco Tavern, for a few pints of Old Light Bitter. This is a splendid drop brewed at St Austell and a world away from the days of the infamous Puffin Bitter thought by some harsh observers to be brewed from sea water! Most nights the pub is cheerfully busy, with plenty of friendly chat and a guitarist and mandolin player in the corner of the bar giving it a traditional feel. It is very late in the season (third week in October) and we are the only climbers on the island. However, the bird watching lads are out in force, with bird books and laptops on the bar tables. Their often serious and scholarly exterior turns out to be misleading and suitably loosened up by some beer they turn out to be a bunch of good lads. There is great excitement one night, after a particularly rare Pipit has been sighted close to the pub and the birding lads eagerly tell us about it. We also check out the climbing log book that is kept behind the bar and turn the pages of stories of epics, genuine thrills and sometimes real wit and humour.

Someone has written in large letters: "Gary Gibson is the biggest disaster in the history of British climbing." We mull on this awhile and agree that while Gary has his critics, this is somewhat harsh to say the least. Most regular climbers owe Gary considerable gratitude for his extensive efforts over the years.
Once the chat (read bullshitting) gets fully underway, we invariably drink at least two pints more than we should as old geezers in our fifties and soon it is time to leave. We stumble out of the pub and into the (often) pitch black Lundy night to make the walk back over the fields to the doss. If there is no cloud, the stars and the moon are sometimes fantastically clear despite the loom of light on the horizon from Devon and from the Swansea area. Other nights, visibility is nil and the westerlies drive the rain in almost horizontally as you struggle up the hill, over the stile and hurry to the cottage to get a late brew on.

The night sky on Lundy is counter pointed by the often wonderful morning light there. Because the island is so small, the sunlight strikes the sea all around it and the vibrancy of the light is sometimes quite startling. I once discussed with Jim Perrin the respective merits and sense of place of both Snowdonia and the Lake District. We agreed that while the Lakes are truly beautiful, Snowdonia has the extra factor of mystery and to my mind Lundy shares that dark Celtic quality. It is not difficult to imagine pirates and other outlaws there, and despite its now generally peaceful character the island has a violent history. I can easily imagine there to be ghosts there and in the depths of the night (when the electricity goes off) the place can easily seem isolated and primitive. These thoughts though are easily offset by a bright morning and the prospect of some of the finest granite climbing in the British Isles.

And now another Lundy trip is drawing to a close and Mick and I are walking down past Millcombe House and through the trees towards the island's landing stage to board the Oldenburg to sail back to the mainland. We are somewhat apprehensive, as the sailing time has been brought forward two hours due to a force seven gale rushing in from the west. It is thought that if we do not sail this afternoon, we may not get off the island for a couple of days. Neither Mick nor I are remotely good sailors, so a full English breakfast and a couple of pints have been taken on board---at least we'll have had something to chuck up! In fact, the trip back to the dry land of north Devon is considerably worse than we expected, with enormous seas that made it hard to credit that we were in fact within the Bristol Channel.

It is by far our worst ever Lundy crossing and the scene on the Oldenburg is one of Olympic level puking. I escape this unpleasantness (only just) but poor Mick suffered a grim journey. At one point, the boat is followed for about thirty minutes by an RAF Sea King helicopter and we wonder what they know that we don't! At long last, we make it back to the fleshpots of Bideford and are glad to once again be on dry land. We load the gear into the car and head north up the M5. Four hours later and we're supping pints in a Derby pub and reflecting upon a good trip with the full variety of the Lundy experience. The island is a unique place and in the right weather a rock climber's paradise. It is one of the great climbing adventures in Britain and if you haven't been I urge you to make the trip. Believe me the mystery of Lundy will call you back.

Diamond Solitaire:Original Photo: Ken Latham

Steve Dean 2012

Monday 23 January 2012

This week: Steve Dean sends a postcard from Lundy.

 Satan's Slip:Photo Ken Latham

"Apart from our blue abseil rope, there was not the slightest indication that mankind even existed in this place.Place yourself there, ten thousand years ago and it would look no different, the only creatures are the birds and the seals, it is truly their place and I almost felt we were intruding.

Just to add to the increasingly oppressive atmosphere, strange sounds were coming from the back of the zawn; howls and almost dog-like yelps echoed off the walls. I realised that this was of course adult seals mating, and sometimes fighting. These strange sounds were juxtaposed with the continuing crack of the rifle shots on the moors above us, as the goat culling continued. The combination of these two sounds, the oppressive character of the zawn itself and the increasingly threatening weather was quite unsettling.

For a few moments, I really felt as if we shouldn't be there, that we were not welcome and that we clearly did not belong there. There were no other climbers on the island and no one had a clue that we were here in this deeply impressive place. From Deep Zawn north to the Devil's Slide is perhaps only a ten minute walk but a greater contrast with the white, sun-kissed granite of The Slide would be hard to imagine. I unclipped from the abseil rope, having fixed a secure belay looking into the zawn.

Mick and I started to sort the gear out, when suddenly the sky darkened some more and the heavens just opened. It absolutely poured with rain, drenching our route (and everything else!) We waited awhile to see if it would relent but if anything it got worse. I watched Mick prussic out up the abseil rope as mist rolled in off the vastness of The Atlantic. Below us the seals were still howling, while above us they were still busy goat killing. I clipped the prussic clamps onto the blue rope, took a last look around, stepped up, slid the clamps up the rope and started the journey out of the zawn.'

Later this week a new and previously unpublished piece from respected climbing writer Steve Dean. Best known for his acclaimed biography of pre-war legend, Colin Kirkus. In 'Lundy Sketches' Steve paints a beguiling picture of climbing on the magical island of Lundy twixt the coastlines of Devon and South Wales.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

On Arran: Millennia Deep

Ancient footprints are everywhere

The first day of September and we’ve taken the ferry from Ardrossan to Arran to make our first visit to the island which lies only twelve miles out in the Firth of Firth and is only 10 miles wide but, as we soon discover, is a world unto itself: an place of ancient footprints, where a short walk can lead you to places where you really sense that you are just a murmur in the whispering sands of time.

We’re staying in Lamlash, in the elegant row of green-painted cottages that form Hamilton Terrace, facing the sea and the bulk of Holy Isle out in the bay. The island has had religious significance since the 6th century when the Celtic Saint Molaise lived there as a hermit before it became the site of a Christian monastery.  Today it is owned by Tibetan Buddhists who offer retreats and have established a Centre for World Peace and Health.

On the green before the bay stands the Arran Clearances Memorial, consisting of three sandstone slabs, boldly expressive of a desire to stand firm on native ground.  The Clearances (Scottish Gaelic: Fuadach nan GĂ idheal, the expulsion of the Gael) saw large forced displacements of the rural population as part of a process of agricultural modernisation forced through by brutal landlords. When the crofters in Glen Sannox in the north of Arran had to make way for large scale sheep farming, many of them saw no other option than to emigrate to Canada, and they departed from Lamlash. A plaque on the monument poignantly recalls their departure in these words:

" Erected on behalf of Arran clearance descendants across North America to their brave forefathers who departed from their beloved island home to Canada during the clearance years 1829 to 1840.' Here at Lamlash on April 25th 1829 part of the clearance (86 souls) when embarking on the brig Caledonia (196 ton) the Rev.A.Mackay preached from The Mound  formed by the departing his text “Casting all your care upon him: for he careth for you” 1st Peter ch.5 v.7. The Caledonia arrived at Quebec City June 25th 1829. The group was the first of more than 300 Arran colonists of Megantic County, Province of Quebec. The largest group, more than 400, had as their destination the seaport town of Dalhousie, New Brunswick to be pioneer settlers of the Restigouche-Bay Chaleur District. “Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is highland”.

You can drive round the island in little more than an hour, the road hugging the shoreline for most of the way. There is also a coastal path which, like the road, takes advantage of the raised beaches that encircle the island.  After the last Ice Age there was a massive release of weight as the ice melted, causing the land to lift and create the raised beaches.  In the stretches where the path lies across the raised beach the walking is easy. Kildonan shore on the west side of the island is an example of such a stretch, where wooded cliffs rise beyond the meadows where sheep graze.

Or looking towards Drumadoon Point on the stretch from the King’s Cave, reputedly used by Robert the Bruce on his way to seizing the Scottish crown in 1314, to Blackwaterfoot.  Drumadoon headland is composed of basalt columns, the result of the same series of volcanic eruptions 30 or 40 million years ago that also created the similarly-structured columns of Fingal’s Cave on Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway in Antrim.Apart from the coastal road, there are two roads that cross the mountainous interior.  The route from Brodick to Blackwaterfoot is known as the String Road and at its highest point there are stunning views towards the northern mountain peaks and the sea to the west and the east.

Arran is often described as ‘Scotland in miniature’ because the landscapes of the island are so varied.  One of our walks began in the well-tended parkland of Brodick castle and wound along paths in the woodland of the country park, now owned by the Scottish National Trust.   Follow one of these paths and you will reach the peak of Goatfell, the highest mountain; we took a path that followed Merkland Burn as its rushing brown water cascaded down the fellside through a series of waterfalls and rock pools shaded by firs and deciduous trees.

We emerged from the woodland to picnic on an empty beach on Brodick Bay, golden sands stretching away to Merkland Point to the north.Another day we walked out along Kildonan shore towards Bennan Head, through meadows where sheep grazed and the last of the summer flowers bloomed.  Scattered among the shingle were drifts of dog daisies. Among the taller grasses were the delicate, green-veined white flowers known as Grass of Parnassus – given that name by the Flemish botanist Mathias de l’Obel who was so inspired by its beauty that he named it after the holy mountain of Apollo and the Muses.

Here, too, clustered among the heather were clumps of Bog Asphodel, that at first sight looks like two different plants, one red, one yellow.  But both are the same plant – the red ones being the anthers, while the petals are yellow.

‘Does the song of the sea end at the shore or in the hearts of those who listen?’ reads the inscription on an elegant seat, carved out of sandstone and positioned facing the sea.  On the water we could hear the bubbling calls of curlew as oyster catchers swept back and forth over the calm sea.  Further out to sea cormorants perched on rocks, characteristically spreading their wings to dry their plumage.  On the horizon, rising abruptly from the sea, loomed the distinctive, solitary shape of Ailsa Craig,  the uninhabited island that is the granite plug of an extinct volcano.

In the summer of 1818, John Keats and a friend embarked on a walking tour through Scotland. They travelled along the Ayrshire coast from Ballantrae northwards with Ailsa Craig constantly in view. Later, att the King’s Arms Inn in Girvan, Keats wrote his sonnet on Ailsa Craig:

Hearken, thou craggy ocean-pyramid!
Give answer from thy voice-the sea-fowls’ screams!
When were thy shoulders mantled in huge streams?
When from the sun was thy broad forehead hid?
flow long is ‘t since the Mighty Power bid
Thee heave from airy sleep, from fathom dreams?
Sleep in the lap of thunder, or sunbeams,
Or when grey clouds are thy cold coverlid?
Thou answerest not, for thou art dead asleep!
Thy life is but two dead eternities -
The last in air, the former in the deep -
First with the whales, last in the eagle-skies,
Drowned wert thou till an earthquake made thee steep;
Another cannot wake thy giant size.

We walked towards Brennan Head.  Our walking guide suggested that colonies of seals can be seen basking along this stretch.  I was sceptical: when I’ve read this sort of thing before, all we have seen, at best, is a bobbing head out to sea. But, as we skirted one of several basalt dykes that cross the beach here, we were met with the pleasing site of a large number of seals basking, each precariously balanced on an outcrop of basalt. We sat and watched them for some time, occasionally shifting and grunting, as the larger beasts sometimes elbowed the younger ones off their lump of rock.  As the afternoon wore on, more seals swam into the bay to join the basking group.  All in all we counted over 40 seals.

According to an interpretive plaque along the beach, as many as 200 common seals relax on the rocks along Kildonan shore, returning day after day to the same spot, only to disappear with the incoming tide when they return to the sea to feed.

As I write this, on my desk is a barnacle-encrusted pebble of some kind of igneous rock, collected from the shore near Lochranza. There seems to be poetry in this object, combining as it does two contrasting time scales – the biological time of the barnacle that typically lives for between 5 and 10 years, and that of the rock itself, quite possibly a small chunk of the Cambrian schist that outcrops along this shore, laid down some 550 million years ago.

On our last day on the island we walked from Lochranza along the coast path to a place known locally as the Fairy Glen. Along the way the path meant a scramble over an angular rock formation with distinct layers that dipped and rose at different angles.  This site has great significance in the history of geology and is known as Hutton’s Unconformity.  In 1787 the father of modern geology, James Hutton, visited Arran searching for evidence that would confirm his suspicion that the accepted idea – promoted in 1645 by Archbishop Usher – that the earth was a mere 5000 years old was wrong.  Usher had calculated from the Bible that the earth began on 29 October 4004 BC, but Hutton’s encounter with the rock formations at Lochranza helped prove his theory that the earth was far older than anyone had previously imagined.

The rocks at Lochranza are a juxtaposition of layers of very old Cambrian schist's and much younger sandstone. Sedimentary rocks like the sandstone and the original core components of the schist's were deposited on ancient sea beds in horizontal layers and then, over eons, processes such as heat, pressure and folding forced them up at an angle.  Between the sandstone and the metamorphosed schist's, Hutton realised, there is a huge time-gap.

A year after the trip to Arran, in the spring of 1788, Hutton set off with John Playfair to the Berwickshire coast and found more examples of unconformities.  Playfair later wrote:

   " On us who saw these phenomenon for the first time the impression will not easily be forgotten…We felt necessarily carried back to a time when the schistus on which we stood was yet at the bottom of the sea, and when the sandstone before us was only beginning to be deposited, in the shape of sand or mud, from the waters of the super continent ocean… The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time; and whilst we listened with earnestness and admiration to the philosopher who was now unfolding to us the order and series of these wonderful events, we became sensible how much further reason may sometimes go than imagination may venture to follow.'

But I have never felt a sense of millennial time so intensely as on Machrie Moor: a track leads on through meadows where sheep graze to open moorland where the only sounds are of curlews piping and the wind rustling the bracken and purple moor grass.  On Machrie Moor stand a series of Bronze Age stone circles, about 4000 years old and made of red sandstone or granite.  In the words of Seamus Heaney, in ‘A Dream of Solstice’, they stand

Millennia deep in their own unmoving
And unmoved alignment

The first people on Arran to leave visible traces of their lives were Neolithic people, who lived on the island in the period between 4,500 BC and 2,000 BC. They were farmers, and traces of their field systems have been found on Arran, as well as other stone structures such as hill forts like the one on Dunadoon Point.

But it is the enigmatic stone circles on Machrie Moor that form the Arran’s finest collection of ancient monuments. The first  megalithic monuments here  -  a series of timber circles – were constructed towards the end of the Neolithic period (around 2000 BC).  No remains of these timber circles can be seen today.

What can be seen are the stone monuments that were built to replace them, the six stone circles whose grandeur make this site so atmospheric and which were added for almost two thousand years during the Bronze Age.  There is no real certainty about what these monuments were used for, but it is safe to assume that they had some kind of ceremonial function, possibly related to their alignment with the midsummer sunrise at the head of Machrie Glen.

The tallest of the stones stands eighteen feet high and, with the moor stretching towards the distant mountains and the stones towering above you, there is a very real sense that you are standing in a sacred landscape.

This is a Bronze Age landscape of outstanding importance.  Though there has been some excavation, most of the site remains unexplored, largely buried in the peat that destroyed the way of life here.  About 3800 years ago, climate change brought colder, wetter weather leading to the build up of peat.  The peat-bound, infertile moor where these monuments stand would once have been rich farmland supporting a thriving community.

Heedless, unheeded of the years they stand;
The rain drips off their chins and lichens spread
A moist green skin along each stony hand
That gropes among the bones of the grey dead.
They did not see the forests flow and fall -
Junipers blue wave by the fellside shore -
Nor barley batten by the coddling wall,
Nor purple ploughland swipe across the moor.
They hold death in them. Skulls have moulded ears
That deaf remain to curlew, crow and dove.
The human winds blow past them; each one fears
The hoarded ache of malignant love.

- Norman Nicholson, ‘The Megaliths’

John Ormond, friend of Graham Sutherland and Kyffin Williams, wrote this poem, ‘Ancient Monuments’, in which he conjures the men who worked the stone and created the ‘back-breaking/Geometry, the symmetries of solstice’ that we see today.  For the rest of that day I pondered where these stones were wrenched, and how those people could have moved them.  The next leg of our walk took us down to the shoreline between Machrie and Blackwaterfoot.  There lie stretches of sandstone pavement, exposed and scoured by the sea.  Was that the source of these stones?  And if so, how did they haul them two miles from the shore, to an elevation of five hundred feet or so to the moor?

They bide their time of serpentine
Green lanes, in fields, with railings
Round them and black cows; tall, pocked
And pitted stones, grey, ochre-patched
With moss, lodgings for lost spirits.
Sometimes you have to ask their
Whereabouts. A bent figure, in a hamlet
Of three houses and a barn, will point
Towards the moor. You will find them there,
Aloof lean markers, erect in mud.
Long Meg, Five Kings, Nine Maidens,
Twelve Apostles: with such familiar names
We make them part of ordinary lives.
On callow pasture-land
The Shearers and The Hurlers.
Sometimes they keep their privacy
In public places: nameless slender slabs
Disguised as gate-posts in a hedge; and some,
For centuries on duty as scratching posts,
Are screened by ponies on blank uplands.
Search out the furthest ones, slog on
Through bog, bracken, bramble: arrive
At short granite footings in a plan
Vaguely elliptical, alignments sunk
In turf strewn with sheep’s droppings;
And wonder whether it was this shrunk place
The guide-book meant, or whether
Over the next ridge the real chamber,
Accurate by the stars, begins its secret
At once to those who find it.
Turn and look back. You’ll see horizons
Much like the ones they saw,
The tomb-builders, millennium ago;
The channel scratched by rain, the same old
Sediment of dusk, winter returning.
Dolerite, porphyry, gabbro fired
At the earth’s young heart: how those men
Handled them. Set on back-breaking
Geometry, the symmetries of solstice,
What they awaited we, too, still wait.
Looking for something else, I came once
To a cromlech in a field of barley,
Whoever framed that field had real
Priorities. He sowed good grain
To the tombs doorstep. No path
Led to the ancient death. The capstone,
Set like a cauldron on three legs,
Was marooned by the swimming crop.
A gust and the cromlech floated,
Motionless at time’s moorings.
Hissing dry sibilance, chafing
Loquacious thrust of seed
This way and that, in time and out
Of it, would have capsized
The tomb. It stayed becalmed.
The bearded foam, rummaged
By wind from the westerly sea-track,
Broke short not over it. Skirted
By squalls of that year’s harvest,
That tomb belonged in that field.
The racing barley, erratically-bleached
Bronze, cross-hatched with gold
And yellow, did not stop short its tide
In deference. It was the barley’s
World. Some monuments move.

The power of these stones on Machrie Moor is palpable, a testament to the power of art and humankind’s sense of something spiritual beyond the everyday. In ‘Bridestones’ from the collection Remains of Elmet, Ted Hughes, inspired by the Bride Stone boulders on the moor above Todmorden, wrote of the ‘Crowding congregation of skies./Tense congregation of hills’ and of the sense that in such a place, ‘electrified with whispers’,  ‘You do nothing casual here’.  Which is just about right.

Scorched-looking, unhewn – a hill-top chapel,
Actually a crown of outcrop rock -
Earth’s heart-bone laid bare.

Crowding congregation of skies.
Tense congregation of hills.
You do nothing casual here.

The wedding stones
Are electrified with whispers.

And marriage is nailed down
By this slender-necked, heavy headed
Black exclamation mark
of rock.

And you go
With the wreath of the weather
The wreath of the horizons
The wreath of constellations
Over your shoulders.

And from now on
The sun
Can always touch your ghost
With the shadow of this finger.

From now on
The moon can always lift your skull
On to this perch,
to clean it.

We left Arran after only four days, but vowed that we would return.

 Holy Isle-Lamlash Bay

Words and images:Gerry Cordon.
First published on That's how the light gets in 

Thursday 12 January 2012

Ron Fawcett-rock Athlete...Review

The following review was originally penned for inclusion in one of The Climbers Club publications and left with the then editor, Tim Oliver. Tragically Tim died quite suddenly and the review and other material disappeared. I've managed to unearth the original review and offer it here somewhat belatedly in the hope that it may stimulate some fresh interest in the work of one of our most iconic rock climbers in the post 70's era.

For those who began climbing in the 1970's and 80's, the name Ron Fawcett was never far from the front pages of the climbing press.  Alongside Pete Livesey- playing the role of the cynical and slightly arrogant John Lennon to Big Ron's more wholesome McCartney figure- the pair were hugely influential in the new age of rock gymnastics. Those who devoured the climbing media in print or film in this halcyon era could not avoid 'sausage fingers' and ' four eyes' leering out at them. All singlets, sweat and brutal intensity!

However, as Livesey reached his peak and observed a future of decline which presaged an early exit from the game, Ron Fawcett picked up the baton and took  young pretenders like Jerry Moffat and Ben Moon head on. Now the story of those golden years has been told with great success (Winner of the 2010 Boardman Tasker Award) in 'Ron Fawcett-Rock Athlete'. Ostensibly this is the Fawcett autobiography although as the whole world and his wife is aware, it was actually pulled together by respected outdoor writer, Ed Douglas. Ghost written autobiographies are always difficult to deal with.Suggesting a Cheryl Cole-esque trip through La La land.Charmless,superficial and in truth,a waste of good trees!  It is to Ed and Ron's credit that such a readable work has emerged from this much maligned creative structure.

The book opens with a famous Fawcett article which appeared in High magazine in 1987,detailing a memorable day when he set out...and climbing 100 'extremes' in a day.By using this as a device to set the scene, Ed Douglas has cleverly unveiled his subject as someone who was clearly out of the ordinary. Now the scene is set for those readers who are not that familiar with this Fawcett guy. A household name perhaps for those of a certain age and based in the UK, but for Fred Schelp sitting on his porch in Boulder Colorado or 19 year old Ben Krank in Basingstoke, the name Fawcett stirs just a vague echo from the past.A prince from a lost kingdom which is now impossibly remote from the perspective of a new century.

From his working class Yorkshire roots in the small Yorkshire village of Embsay, Ron emerged from the fag end of sixties hedonism and forged out a career in climbing at a time when earning a living from the activity was a rarity. His professionalism built on a reputation for stirring first ascents of future classics like The Cad, Lord of the Flies and Strawberries. With Pete Livesey carving out his own niche with routes like Right Wall and Footless Crow, Big Ron pushed the envelope even further by using the appliance of science to ratchet up the ante.

Religiously training in the manner of a modern day MacLeod or Pearson. Eschewing the party animal life in order to tweak out that extra one arm pull up or add an extra dozen press ups to the 2000 he usually did before breakfast! This was one lean mean climbing machine! Interestingly,one of the few climbers operating at Fawcett's rarefied level at the time and very much considered a rival was North Wales based John Redhead. In the book Fawcett recalls that the Redhead big ticks such as Margins of the Mind and The Bells-The Bells were considered as rites of passage even to rock gods like the Yorkshire brothers in arms.

This actually leads us into an area where the remarkable Fawcett story could be seen as lacking that extra dimension.. Despite his supreme skill and devotion to the art,Ron is very much the Yin to Redhead's Yang. Whereas as Redhead was the seen in the role as the wild bohemian misfit.Climbing death defying routes through magic and meditation; Antagonising the climbing establishment at every turn. Ron Fawcett was very much the sort of climber who fitted into the mainstream.He was respectable,hard working and even had a moustache.I'm sure even Geoffrey Wynthrop Young would have approved of this quiet self effacing figure!

In autobiographies it is usually found that the darker the character the more interesting their life and hence their work. In Rock Athlete you will not read of Ron soloing a desperate E7 in a heroin induced haze, chasing German climbers around Snell's Field with a fire axe in a drunken rage or participating in wild orgies in dank Welsh caves!. Ron doesn't do the Sex & Drugs & Rock and Roll thing. He was much too concerned with keeping his body as a temple and his mind finely tuned. However he does reveal that in a dark period in his life he was prosecuted for shop lifting. I'm sure that made the front page of the Oswaldthwistle and Heckesslike Bugle..Oh... and did you ever hear of the time Paul Williams slipped a vodka into Ron's half a shandy? Got quite merry he did!. OK...I made that last one up but you catch my drift.

Another thing that comes through is the fact that Ron Fawcett was very much a parochial north country rock climber as opposed to the all round mountaineer. Apart from the odd sortie to Yosemite,Verdon and the odd European venue-often accompanied by friend and fellow rock master, the late Wolfgang Gullich--Fawcett was never much of a winter climber, Alpinist or explorer of the greater ranges. In fact even within the UK, Ron's tale is essentially concentrated in his beloved Peaks or North Wales were he lived with Gill Kent for four years. The Scottish mountains,Lakeland crags and Cornish sea cliffs do not appear to have fallen very often within Big Ron's regular orbit ?.

However,as one of the UK's first climbers to actually earn a sponsored living from the sport,Ron was never far from the visual spotlight with seasoned film makers like Sid Perou and Leo Dickenson putting him through the paces. Leading cutting edge routes such as 'Lord of the Flies' upon which what might be considered his catch phrase emerged..'Come on arms...Do your Stuff'!'  as well as friends looked away in fear... some of his well reheased routes.

For some readers of this review who have picked up on the lack of variety in his climbing regime and the sheer ordinariness of his personal life,might be led to deduce that Rock Athlete is not for them. A somewhat one dimensional trip down memory lane or rather a lane with the Peak at one end and North Wales at the other.
However,even allowing for the lack of geographical variety and despite lacking the sort of edgy character that stimulates a host of Whillans-esque anecdotes,there is more than enough within these pages to engage the reader and lead on to the quite poignant final chapters.

With middle age approaching and after setting such a high standard for such a long period,Ron inevitably fell off the pace as the new generation of rock athletes nosed in front. In this period he took to the relatively new sport of parascending and like a lot of climbers he embraced fell running with a passion. Quickly gaining experience in both sports, it was in fact to parascending that he turned to develop a new career as an instructor. Working professionally for High editor, Geoff Birtles' outfit. It was while working as an instructor that he suffered a serious injury in a fall to earth which virtually ended his career as a leading rock climber.

Despite this injury,after recovery he continued to climb although with less passion and commitment.As the 90's and the new millennium unfurl, Ron is still very much the athlete.Mixing more modest ascents with parascending and fell running although it is within the latter activity that he finds some success and satisfaction as a competitor in the veteran category. Competing for the famous Dark Peak Runners and winning many events.

In his personal life,his relationship with Zanda brought him two lovely daughters and new responsibilities.As parents and friends gradually departed the stage,Ron's life followed a predictable course until,sadly, by the latter part of this decade his marriage had ended and Ron had to define a new role for himself- as a single parent in straightened financial circumstances. As things stand in 2010/11 Ron appears to have recovered his equilibrium and adjusted his life accordingly. Still to be found at the Climbing Works wall in Sheffield,out sporting himself on some sun dappled boulder on the moors or gliding up hill and down dale on those long spindly legs of his.

The other week I was wandering through the Gwydr Forest in North Wales with one of Ron's few equals on the rock face in that era,the aforementioned John Redhead and I mentioned that I'd been reading Rock Athlete....'Ahhh yes'..mused John R... 'Really nice bloke Ron...really nice'. I guess there are worse things to be called than nice and at the end of the day it goes to show ; even nice guys can do extraordinary things.

John Appleby

Tuesday 3 January 2012

This week:Tony Moulam on the loneliness of the long distance guidebook writer

A youthful Ian McNaught Davies on Castle Rock in the Lake District: Tony Moulam

" I said my farewells to Robin and set off on my bike into the night and on to Tyn y Weirglodd, where I was to have an interlude, again instructing scouts. We had a good week, attaining quite a high standard, with the best routes achieved being Angel Pavement and Adam Rib, besides Deep Chimney on the Far West Buttress of Cloggy.
I returned to Pen y Gwryd, intending to continue with the field work for my guide. However at dinner that night Chris Briggs introduced me to a Mrs Fearon, whose 17 year old daughter had been bitten by the climbing bug. Chris had recommended me as a careful and conscientious climber to whom she could safely be entrusted. Jane was tall, slim and very eager to start. Even the boring walk over to Craig yr Ysfa didn't deter her and on our first day, whilst ensuring she got the easier pitches, we led through on Amphitheatre Buttress. Amphitheatre Rib and Beaumont's Chimney followed, whilst the sun shone benignly down. For the rest of her holiday we were joined by Peter Snell and Keith Ingold, and thus reinforced, we did a new route on Black Ladders. Jane's red setter pup had accompanied us to the top of the cliff, and obediently stayed there as vie scrambled off down the gully. When we returned from the depths he greeted his mistress ecstatically and we named the climb after him, in tribute to his patience. Jane had to go home with her mother after this but the weather continued fine so that the guidebook work did too. Various gap filling new routes were made with Peter Snell, Brian Blake and Adrian Horridge and then, for a sort of holiday, I teamed up with Arthur Dolphin for the Milestone Superdirect, including the Final Block. This fine top pitch had had very few ascents since Menlove Edwards first led it in 1941. The intimidating crack actually proved to be quite easy, it was the approach diagonally up the slightly leaning wall on very small and flaky holds that proved to be the crux.'

Later this week; veteran climber Tony Moulam recalls his experiences after the war when many areas of North Wales remained virgin territory and great routes...such as his own classic, Mur y Niwl..remained as unclimbed lines traced on a photograph. An extensive and fascinating feature illustrated with contemporary photographs taken by the author and previously unpublished.