Friday 25 April 2014

The Gentle Art of Boulder Trundling

The following essay is the outcome of an argument between its author and the Club Treasurer on the ethics of boulder trundling, in the course of which the former averred that this practice had received the sanction of many reputable mountaineers, and had, in particular, been mentioned with approval by Leslie Stephen in The Playground of Europe. Wilding threw doubt on the former statement and categorically denied the latter. On further examination he withdrew this denial but maintained that Stephen's remarks were not meant seriously. It was finally decided that the two disputants should argue their respective cases before a gathering at the Club Hut, and that the decision should be left to a single arbitrator. The parties agreed on Pryor as the judge, and that the following three questions should be submitted for his decision: 

1. It is possible to justify Boulder Trundling? 
2. ls there reasonable evidence that any mountaineer of repute consistently practiced Boulder Trundling ? 
3. Was Leslie Stephen serious in this passage from The Playground of Europe regarding Boulder Trundling?'

The cases were duly pleaded by their respective advocates before alarge and enthusiastic audience (fortified by one of Burton's'brews of rum punch in which the flavour of spirit could be distinctly smelt). At the end Pryor gave judgment for Wilding on the first two counts and for Forrester on the third. It had been agreed that all bets were to be settled by the Judge's ruling; but afterwards Pryor himself asked the jury for their opinion as a matter of interest, and found that they disagreed with his judgement on the second count, while agreeing with the other two. What follows is substantially the plaintiff's case, cut down and also slightly modified to suit the new circumstances of presentation. This explanation has been deemed necessary in order to make clear the general form of the essay. It has not been found possible to persuade Wilding to publish his counter-arguments. — Ed. R.C.J.

Boulder Trundling may be defined as the propulsion of fragments of the Earth's crust down mountain slopes of suitable inclination sooner than would occur from the interaction of natural forces. Like other sports and pastimes it has different phases and degrees. No one could object to pushing a stone weighing (say) 2 ounces down a 2 yard slope to drop 2 feet into 2 fathoms of water; while even l should draw the line at sending some tons of rock down High Tor Gully into a train full of widows and orphans on their way to Buxton. The sport, then, as l understand it, lies somewhere between these two extremes, and is one calculated to afford pleasure and profit to many right-minded persons and offence to few; that is, if practiced reasonably,with due regard to time and place. I may mention one particular spot where I have spent many profitable hours in moving some tons of rock downhill a little before it was due to go in the course of nature. This is a gully on the right of the Alport, some little distance below the waterfall. Surely there could be no valid objection to this: no one should get hurt; and although it leaves some marks, they seem without desecration.

Another charming boulder shoot is a Bowfell gully above Angle Tarn; the remembrance of a crowded half-hour of life in this gully is very sweet, and the marks left here are less obvious than on the gritstone. In any case it is quite arguable that the marks made look more natural than the nail scratchers of rock climbers. The latter, of course, are inveterate Boulder Trundlers. How often in reading the account of a new climb, do we not come across something like this: "The leader carefully examined a large slab on the left which would have been of great help in this difficult pitch, but it looked unsafe and moved slightly when tested. The leader and second therefore gave it a wide berth, while the last man, after being anchored from above, managed to send this dangerous rock hurtling  down the gully." 

All this however is beside the point. Boulder Trundling as l understand it is done for the sheer joy of the sport: there is no thought of the future - the present suffices. Consider a long slope, up which you have painfully toiled in the wake of a hardened grough-hound. At the bottom maybe is a vertical drop or a mass of jumbled rocks, and at the top there is a stone of inviting appearance and precarious tenure. You sit down above it, and after a necessary rest the feet are pressed against the rock. It moves perceptibly, but you can do no more from that point. You shift your ground and try again; still no luck! You excavate a little on the underside and have some more. You are not strong enough: some help is wanted and you shout for your companion. The force is now sufficient, and with the expenditure of a few buttons or perhaps some part of your braces the rock is moved from its bed and makes a revolution. lt gathers momentum . . . soon it is going really fast, and no matter what its shape it elects to travel on the longest axis. Speed increases rapidly now; sometimes the boulder will take great bounds and at other times scuttle close to the ground like a rabbit.

The zenith of Boulder Trundling is attained if it now meets solid rock in full face: the crash does one good to hear; the rock breaks into shivers, while part of it is ground absolutely into smoke. Favourable winds bring the scent of this smoke to you . . . and what an indescribably beautiful scent it is. Chesterton must have known of this delectable odour when he wrote of: "The brilliant smell of water, the brave smell of a stone." Or there is Boulder Trundling in a rock gully with great slabs - lots of them together walloping down in a confined space. A tarn on the Rhinogs has a steep face of bare rock on one side where you may trundle straight into deep water. Time was short on the only occasion l was there, so that I hope to go again to work out the course properly. I cannot analyze the delight of Boulder Trundling, nor say why it pleases — better men than myself have tried and failed. I can only say that it affords perhaps the purest joy we can expect in this terrestrial life. The first Boulder Trundler of whom we have any record is Sisyphus, who was so addicted to the sport — in fact he seems to have spent his whole life at it — that we really know nothing else about him; so that for our first instance of a well-known mountaineer who practiced the art we must turn to Moses.

Moses was the most celebrated climber of his time and has at least three first ascents to his credit, namely Mounts Horeb, Sinai, and Pisgah. In addition, he led a very difficult traverse of the Red Sea, which was effected without mishap despite the unusual size of his party. The magnitude of this achievement can be gaged from the fact that another party which attempted to repeat the traverse suffered total disaster. ‘The Red Sea by Moses's Route is now considered unjustifiable and has not since been attempted.

As regards Boulder Trundling by this great pioneer, it is recorded that on his way down after the first ascent of Mt. Sinai he came upon a slope of surpassing excellence,on viewing which he had but one idea in mind - to push the handiest rock down it. This rock unfortunately bore most important inscriptions, and Moses got into serious trouble for giving rein to his inclinations. I have always felt the greatest sympathy for him on this account. Before passing on to recent times let us take one glimpse at a medieval devotee of our sport. I quote from Arnold Lunn's book The Alps (pp. 30-31). "The Stockhorn is a modest peak some 7,000 feet in height. Simler tells us that its ascent was a common-place achievement. . . . Its ascent by Muller, a Berne professor, in 1536, is only remarkable for the joyous poem in hexameters which records his delight in all the accompaniments of a mountain expedition. Muller has the true feelings for the simpler pleasures of picnicking on the heights. Everything delights him, from the humble fare washed down with a draught from a mountain stream, to the primitive joy of hurling big rocks down a mountain side. The last confession endears him to all who have practiced this simple. if dangerous amusement."

I now come to modem mountaineering, and the first case I will cite is the behavior of Whymper on the occasion of the first ascent of the Matterhom. It will be remembered that there was a race between the Italian and English parties. On getting to the top and finding that the Italians had not yet arrived Whymper looked down the mountain side to see where they were, and on finding them wished to attract their attention. He writes in Scrambles amongst the Alps:“‘Croz! Crozl come here I’ ‘Where are they, Monsieur ?' ‘There - don't you see them - down there!’ ‘Ah ! the coquins, they are low down.’ ’Croz, we must make those fellows hear us.’ We yelled until we were hoarse. The Italians seemed to regard us - we could not be certain. ' ’Croz, we must make them hear us: they shall hear us l’ : I seized a block of rock and hurled it down, and called upon my companion, in the name of friendship, to do the same. We drove our sticks in, and prized away the crags, and soon a torrent of stones poured down the ' cliffs. There was no mistake about it this time. The Italians turned and fled."

Boulder Trundling in the dark sounds attractive, to judge by an incident during the ascent of Mont Pelvoux, as described in the same book. “This night we fixed our camp high above the tree-line, and indulged ourselves in the healthy employment of carrying our fuel up to it. The present rock was not so comfortable as the first, and, before we could settle down, we were obliged to tum out a large mass which was in the way. It was very obstinate, but moved at length; slowly and gently at first, then faster and faster, at last taking great jumps in the air, striking a stream of fire at every touch, which shone out brightly as it entered the gloomy valley below, and long after it was out of sight we heard it bounding downwards, and then settle with a subdued crash on the glacier beneath."Another mountaineer of repute who practiced  the noble sport was Sir Martin Conway, who says quite casually during his account in The Alps from End to End of an ascent of the Wilde Kreuz Spitze: "We amused ourselves by throwing stones down the slope we had come up and watching them vanish in the fog." It might be thought that although the sport was practiced by amateurs, no reputable guide would ever have anything to do with it; but this is not the case.

One of the most celebrated, perhaps the most justly renowned of all Alpine guides, is not found wanting. I refer to Jean Antoine Carrel. l quote once again from Amold Lunn's The Alps, where, describing an early attempt on the Matterhom by Carrel, his brother, and Gorret. he says:"They mistook the way; and, reaching a spot that pleased them, they wasted hours in hurling rocks down a cliff - a fascinating pursuit." I think it is not straining matters too far to suggest that ‘wasted’ is here used in the Shakespearian sense. as when  Portia speaks of. . companions ..'That do converse and waste the time together", no sense of reprobation being implied.The following passage is of supreme interest: "We waited patiently a long cold hour for the views that did not appear, and our geologist had ample opportunity  to indulge in the innocent pastime of stonebreaking. We had plenty of fun too in heaving great rocks over the giant precipice. This is a sport the fascination of which few members of the Alpine Club can resist, and I for one must in my time have rolled hundreds of tons from the tops of mountains." It might have been thought that l had invented this quotation especially for use on this occasion. Not at all ! it is the work of a very eminent mountaineer, of whom I  may safely say that there are few men whose words would carry more weight in the mountaineering world. The author is the late Mr. Slingsby, and the words occur on page 106 of his book on Norway.

Later on page 379 in the same work we come across the following: "A small cairn was hastily raised, and we hurried along a saddle to the south-western or highest peak. Loud were our hurrahs and many were the rocks which we threw over the gaunt precipices. Most new ascents are commemorated in this manner." I strongly recommend this book of Slingsby's to the youthful Boulder Trundler, as it contains several references to the sport. One more quotation before we pass to our last point. This time it is from an article on Skye in an early number of this Journal. ...

"We started at 10 o'clock and walked up the north branch of the corrie, stopping to inspect a very deeply cut gorge, into which we hurled boulders, which struck the pool at the bottom with a resounding ‘pomph'." And now for Leslie Stephen.The passage in The Playground of Europe occurs during Stephen's discussion of Rousseau, and I must give it at some length as the context is important to my argument. It seems clear to me that the author is here engaged in a perfectly serious attempt to show that Rousseau was a mountaineer at heart; and the reference to Boulder Trundling is a definite link in his reasoning. To suppose that his intention is merely flippant here is to suppose that his whole attempt to make out Rousseau a mountaineer is just a joke. and that would be too pointless a joke for a man of Leslie Stephen's wit. “Rousseau's sentiments must be gathered rather from the general tone of his writings than from any definite passages.

In the Confessions indeed there is an explicit avowal of his hatred for the plains and his love of torrents, rocks, pines, black woods. rough paths to climb and descend, and precipices to cause a delicious terror; and he describes two amusements so characteristic of the genuine mountaineer that we feel at once that he is on the right track. One is gazing for hours over a parapet at the foam- spotted waters of a torrent and listening to the cry of ravens and birds of prey that wheel from rock to rock a hundred fathoms beneath him. The other is a sport whose charms are as unspeakable as they are difficult of analysis. It is described somewhere (if I remember rightly) by Sir Walter Scott, and consists in rolling big stones down a cliff to dash themselves to pieces at its foot. No one who cannot contentedly spend hours in fascinating though simple sport really loves a mountain.’ No words of mine can emphasize this eloquent simplicity. When I go to Heaven, may my spirit join the spirits of Leslie Stephen, Slingsby. and the illustrious Boulder Trundlers of the past, present, and future, to spend eternity rolling asteroids and comets down the infinite abyss of interstellar space to meet in cosmic collision the multitudinous celestial bodies of the Milky Way; that in gorgeous impact all may be resolved into the imponderable protons and electrons of ultimate matter.

SJ Forrester. The Rucksack Club Journal-1931

Thursday 17 April 2014

Prisoner of War

Bill McKenzie,Archie McAlpine and Bill Murray,after the 2nd ascent of Rubicon Wall-1937:Photo Douglas Scott/SMC

Mountaineering in Scotland was the product of three years in prison camps. It was hammered out in Czechoslovakia and Germany. The first year, under the Abruzzi mountains of Italy, saw only a preliminary stoking of fires.One of Rommel's panzer divisions had scooped me up from the desert in June 1942. The first year at Chieti had nearly wasted away before I shed lethargy. My imagination took fire at last from two slow-burning matches. The first was my daily view of the Gran Sasso's snow cap. It kept mountains alive in my mind. The second was the recurring thought of a German tank commander, whose capture of me had an element of comedy that Samivel the cartoonist, might have enjoyed. I had seen nothing funny at the time.My battalion of Highland Light Infantry had been whittled down in battle to fifty men. My brigade in the headlong retreat to Alamein was left astride the coast road south of Mersa Matruh to stop the 15th Panzer Division.

Their tanks came in after sunset twenty abreast. Our two-pounder guns hit them on the nose at point-blank range. Their armour bloomed red where the shells glanced off in showers of sparks. The tanks staggered, but came on. They machine-gunned the ground for five minutes till all was still. Then the crews climbed out to deal with any survivors. I was one of the lucky few. I rose to my feet and was faced by a young tank commander. He waved a machine-pistol at me. He and it shook. He had been rattled about in his tank like a pea in a tin can, not knowing what hit him. He was just as raw-nerved as I. In his position, with crying need to release tension, I could imagine myself squeezing the trigger. I held my breath while he took quick stock. To my astonishment, he forced a wry smile and asked in English, "Are you not feeling the cold?" The question was not daft. The desert is very cold at night if one is still wearing shirt and shorts, but not till then did I notice it.

I replied, "Cold as a mountain top." He looked at me, and his eyes brightened. "Do you mean — you climb mountains?" He was a mountaineer. We both relaxed. He stuffed his gun away. After a few quick words — the Alps, Scotland, rock and ice— he could not do enough for me. "When did you eat?" he asked. I reckoned, "Two days ago." He led me over to his tank and produced bully beef, biscuits, beer, chocolate, and an army greatcoat, all British. "Take them," he grinned. "Loot from Tobruk." We shared the beer and toasted "Mountains."

An hour later, he and his tanks clanked away, heading for Cairo (he hoped). I was left to the less tender care of Italian infantry. I often wondered about that climber, whose name I never heard. He had come unbroken from the Russian front. I wondered whether he survived El Alamein. The wondering kindled my urge to write, but that was stultified by want of paper. The urge became compulsive. The clincher was my receipt from the Red Cross of Shakespeare's Complete Works, printed on thin India paper. As I took this in my hand, I could not help reflecting what excellent toilet paper it would make, thus freeing my ration of Italian toilet roll for use as writing paper. I felt confident that William Shakespeare would approve. I sat down to work that very day, but the page stayed blank.

I had no doubt what I should write. I should write about good climbs, and these only. My zest for mountains was felt and expressed on hard routes, on rock, snow and ice, and not only in walking the hills. I wanted to share the experience. That was the first compulsion (others grew later). Mackenzie, Dunn, MacAlpine and I had teamed up in 1936, when the time was ripe for progress. Almost nothing had been done on ice, or on snow and ice bound rock, for twenty years. We had taken to the long ridges and buttresses on Nevis and Glencoe. Planning in advance was needed to catch the right weather-cycles and take the rocks under snow and ice of the right quality and quantity.

Our aim was to climb the routes not when easy but hard, and sometimes with massive accumulations of ice. We made mistakes, and our first attempt on Garrick's Shelf on the Buachaille was one. I had taken the lead high up when I landed on a run of verglassed slabs at dusk, just when the worst blizzard in twenty years was breaking. We took fourteen hours to get down in the dark. We turned this defeat to good account — always thereafter we carried pitons and karabiners and maybe a sling to secure retreat. We never drove a piton as direct aid, but occasionally did for belays. Another lesson we learned was the practicality of climbing by torchlight if the winter route was known. Thereafter we devised head-torches, and proved them invaluable on the longer climbs when conditions would otherwise have stopped an ascent.

Apart from head-torches, the main equipment changes were the slater's hammer and long ropes. The normal ice-axe had a 33-inch shaft. The wrist strain of prolonged, one-handed cutting above the head was severe, and a slater's pick with a 14-inch shaft eased it greatly — the climbing time on a pitch could be almost halved. I reckoned that the ten shillings I paid to an ironmonger for my first pick was the best-spent money I ever laid down on a counter. I have rarely enjoyed anything in life more than cutting up a long, high-angled ice-pitch where the balance was delicate. The craft used had to vary with the quality of the ice: white, green, blue, black, brittle, and watery, each had a quirk of its own, which had to be learned until one could tell them apart at a glance and cut accordingly. We still used the adze of the long axe to cut handholds on white ice, for that was faster.

No climbers carried crampons on Scottish hills; they were not reckoned worth their weight, for the tricouni-clinker nailing gave a non-slip grip on hard snow, allowed much neater footwork than crampons on snow and ice-bound rock, and allowed too an occasional 'miracle' to be pulled off on thin brittle ice that ought to have peeled. I used to call such moves levitation for want of a better word — nothing so crude as a step up, but rather a float up, with no weight placed anywhere so far as humanly possible. It worked if you hit top form, and got Mackenzie and me up some nasty places on Garrick's Shelf, Deep-Cut Chimney, and the like.Hardly more than a dozen climbers in Scotland were involved in such work. The rest had little notion, and most none at all, of what Scottish rock could offer in winter. Many had the idea that our climbs were 'unjustifiable' (then a fashionable word for damning hard moves and routes). A few, when I first produced my slater's pick with its 14-inch shaft, had called me a poseur, for they had no conception of its use. I wanted to dispel ignorance of the rich harvest available on winter rock, and to propagate the fierce joys of fetching it in — I say 'fierce' in deference to Scottish weather.

Such were my limited thoughts when I first put pen to to paper in Italy. Without diary, maps, or books to refresh memory, I feared I should lack detail of the climbs, which could not be spun  out to chapter-length. I was right, but the daily concentration of  mind in trying to remember, continued day after day for weeks,  I gave at last a most astonishing result. Memory began to yield up what it held more and more freely, until it came in a flood. Every detail of experience was suddenly there, and in full colour. Nothing  had been forgotten. I discovered that memory safely holds all experience in minutest detail, and that what fails (from disuse) is the ability to pull the record out of its pigeonhole. The deprivation of reference material became a gain. Every climb had to be re-lived, which in writing terms means re-created.

I have since believed that the main reason for the dullness of many an expedition book is the author’s too easy access to diaries and printed matter. These allow him to write without re-living—a trap all the more easy to fall into when time is short and distractions many. The book, then, was going well when the Allies invaded Sicily late in 1943. The Germans dropped parachute troops on ' Chieti. We were herded into cattle trucks and trundled over the Brenner pass to a concentration camp in Bavaria. The place (Moosburg) was infested with fleas and bugs, and packed with 20,000 starving Poles and Russians. They fought over any black bread we passed to them. Writing was impossible for the next two months. I had no paper.

 We were moved at last to a camp in Czechoslovakia, Oflag ' VIII F at Mahrisch Trubau. I fell foul of the Gestapo on arrival. In a personal search they found my MS. The fact that I was secreting it on my person, not carrying it openly, aroused their worst suspicions. (A coded record of things seen in Germany?). l was photographed, finger-printed, interrogated. When I said what it was, and that I carried it under my shirt only for safer transport, they dropped their eyes to the desk and believed not a word. These were the first men I'd met who could put a shiver up my spine.They looked hard-eyed of course, but not mean or nasty, for that implies an element of humanity. I had not before appreciated how much good there is in the common criminal. The Gestapo agent was a man from whom all good had been wrung out, and the result was an animated corpse. My flesh crept. Not till then did I understand why this war had to be fought. I had known only Rommel’s  Afrika Korps, and they had my respect. The tank commander had won more than that from me.

War, I had felt, was a bloody lunacy. I Now I knew that this one had been inescapable. They had to let me go, but I never saw the MS again. Its loss hit me hard at the time, yet proved another blessing in disguise. At Mahrisch Trubau I began afresh, this time screwed to a new frame of mind by worsening conditions.The thousand bomber raids were unleashed on Germany. We 
were living on frosted turnips and potatoes—often only their peelings—a starvation diet of 800 calories a day. The guards dared no longer turn their Alsatians into the compound at night, for they went straight into the pot, and the skins would be hung over the fence before morning. Stray cats went the same way.

The Russians were on Rumania’s frontier. We had reports that the SS were under orders to machine-gun camp inmates on Russia’s path of advance. We agreed that no escapes should now be allowed. Our escapers I were invariably caught by the Gestapo, truncheoned, incinerated and the ashes returned to the camp of origin. The tunnels we'd made had to be freed from the searches that escapes entailed, and  so kept for emergencies. I no longer believed I’d climb mountains again, but felt blindly determined to get the truth about them on to paper. I no longer wanted to write just of hard climbs, or to enlighten anyone. I was writing because I must, all humbug shed off, and with it all understatement of difficulty, all exaggeration of danger, all reticence about feeling. The whole mountain scene was vivid in mind and detail. I now had good paper, had learned how to ignore distractions, and could write fast. I had in mind to say what I’d found of beauty, effort, fun, and delight. I would try for the truth only, and while knowing it could never be said, still I would try.

I finished the first draft on my birthday in March 1944. It was the day of the war’s greatest air raid. 4,000 planes had bombed Frankfurt. The fall of Rome and invasion of Normandy followed. We knew all this, for the engineers had built a wireless set and we published the BBC bulletins daily. When the Russians burst through Rumania that summer we were evacuated to Germany, and imprisoned in a former Luftwaffe barracks in a wood near Brunswick. I returned to the MS again and again at Brunswick, trying to get it right. My main anxiety was at first the Gestapo. They had still to be dodged, for their searches went on. They were maddened by our daily publication of the BBC News, to which their own people were not allowed to listen. They searched everywhere but the right  place. The set was plugged into the power line vertically under the electrified barbed-wire fence. The tunnel entrance was right out in the open compound, where they never thoroughly looked (the trap door was invisible). Random interrogations continued, but I would not again be caught with the MS on my body.A greater risk was soon bomb-blast.

The British and American armies were through France, and the Russians in Hungary. Day and night, the Allied air fleets were overhead. During these last nine months we saw neither sky by day nor stars by night -all was obscured by a vast pall of dust and smoke rising off the burning cities all around. Brunswick, Magdeburg, Hanover,and most others were engulfed. One daylight raid wiped out our German garrison, but we were unaware of it. Stupefied, we could see nothing through the wall of flaming trees round the barracks. I carried the MS under my tunic at all times, for the Gestapo menace had gone. They were off to more congenial tasks. A big purge was on following the attempt by Rommel and others to kill Hitler. Each time a general surrendered on the Russian front, public notice was given that vengeance had been taken on his family and friends. Earlier reports of the SS machine-gunning prisoners in eastern camps were confirmed. We knew it could happen here at any time.

Our twelve new tunnels running under the perimeter wire were kept A strictly unused. There had to be a last-minute chance of mass escape— supposing we were strong enough to make it. We had been given too little food for too long. TB was rife. My finger-nails were corrugated from vitamin-lack, and my hair thinning. l could no longer walk around the camp without feeling dizzy, nor climb stairs without palpitation of the heart. Hopes of survival had dimmed a bit. Day and night we dreamed of food; otherwise not once over the last year had I felt imprisoned. I lived on mountains and had the freedom of them. I waited on the machine-gunners without concem. Most of us had found our own ways of doing this. But we did prepare ourselves. At the end, the American 9th Army beat the SS to the gates. l remember still my first ration of one chocolate-bar—the swift run of heat through the body as if from neat whisky.

In May l945, I returned from the freedom of prisons to the chains of civilised society. Dent took the book. They asked for changes where I’d expressed myself too openly. I could see their point, but refused. The book had to be as it was, written from the heart of the holocaust, and not as if written on home ground.

WH Murray: Mountain 1979

Saturday 12 April 2014

Eric Gill: to the Mountain

IT WAS during the long cold winter of 1923 that the renowned artist and craftsman, Eric Gill, arrived on a dark and snowcast night at the head of the remote Vale of Ewyas, deep in the Black Mountains. Gill's journey of discovery with his young family on this most inhospitable of nights, brought him to a deeply secluded derelict dwelling which was to be the artist's home for the next four years. Arriving around midnight, Gill and his family entered the rambling Victorian Gothic monastery of Capel y Ffin. Gill later described his first vision of Capel y Ffin as "a weirdly exciting business." The old monastery stood in splendid isolation in the heart of the Black Mountains and offered Gill the opportunity to recreate his vision of an independent and self sufficient artistic and religious community living a life of creativity and spiritual fulfillment, gloriously divorced from the humdrum if hectic urban life.

Today Gill is best known as a sculptor and typographer of international stature. One of his best-known works is that of Prospero and Ariel which stands above the entrance of the BBC's old Broadcasting House. As a designer of typeface, Gill created the universally accepted Gill sans-serif and Perpetua, among more than half-a-dozen typefaces produced by this,the most versatile artist/craftsman since William Morris in the mid 19th century. There is a fine example of Eric Gill's work in North Wales. Gill was a frequent visitor to Chirk Castle on the Welsh/Shropshire border. In the early 1920s he designed and carved the town's war memorial, which stands in the centre of the bustling little village just off the busy A5. How many motorists travelling into North Wales must have passed by the monument without ever realising its significance and stature of its creator?

When Gill and his family moved into Capel y Ffin in August 1924, Gill had a dream to create in this "wondrously beautiful valley" a home and work environment that would attract an artistic colony of kindred spirits. He imagined that Capel y Ffin would soon become a rural idyll that would sustain and nurture a bohemian community of artists and crafts-people, drawing in the brightest and best of its contemporary arts movement. Coincidentally, 60 years earlier an Anglican clergyman, Father Ignatius, had held a similar dream. His vision,like Gills',was to transform Capel y Ffin into a centre for spiritual awakening and contemplation, sustained by a self-sufficient lifestyle. It was his dream to revive the Benedictine monastic lifestyle within the tranquil setting of the lovely Vale of Ewyas. The remoteness of the valley, sheltered geographically from the harsh realities of the outside world, seemed an ideal location to revive the high principles of the Benedictines. However, for Father Ignatius the remote position of Capel, with its uncompromising winter climate, defeated his quest and with his handful of followers,he was forced to abandon the valley.

Although Gill had intended Capel y Ffin to become a place of pilgrimage and high artistic ideals, his Spartan home failed to lure the host of like-minded artists and craftspeople from their metropolitan comforts. Despite his growing reputation in the arts movement, the flood of artistic creativity into Capel y Ffin was never more than a trickle of talent. During the early period of Gill's residency at Capel y Ffin he was joined by his friend, the highly regarded printer, Count Kessler. Kessler, however, was unimpressed by the monastic lifestyle that Gill had adopted and soon departed. After Kessler's return to more hospitable climes Gill was joined by the soon-to-be-acclaimed artist/poet David Jones. Jones's stay at Capel y Ffin from 1925 until 1928 was to be the Welsh artist's longest period of residence in his native land. It was at Capel y Ffin that Jones met Rene Hague, the printer. Hague was later to print Jones's epic poem In Parenthesis. In his poetry and art, Jones betrayed a deep fascination with the Arthurian legend. Capel y Ffin provided the artist with a rich source of Arthurian inspiration, for on his native hills and valleys Jones drew deeply, and readily transferred the inspiration the land gave into words and brush strokes.

Within four short years Capel y ffin was again empty. Eric Gill's dream-like Father Ignatius before him- had foundered on Capel y Ffin's geographical remoteness and a harsh winter climate that  deterred all but the most hardy. When Eric Gill crossed over the border into England he left behind him more than a gothic homestead; he left behind a dream that still draws people into rural Wales today. In his heart Eric Gill never left Capel y Ffin and the rugged land that so captured his imagination. He returned in the early 1930s to stay with one of his daughters, who had since settled in the area. It was during this period in the Black Mountains that Gill wrote his remarkable biography.

Throughout this work Gill refers to the rural idyll that had so inspired him in the Vale of Ewyas. Although factors outside his control had defeated Gill's inspiring plans for Capel y Ffin, he always remained true to his ideals and always regretted his failure to inspire others to join him in his artistic heaven deep in the Welsh mountains.

Today Capel y Ffin is a private residence, although the chapel built by Gill is open to the public. Above the altar is a painting by David Jones. An image of spiritual awakening within a building that resonates with Eric Gill's sublime vision of artistic and spiritual fusion.

John Appleby: First published as 'The Sublime vision of Eric Gill' in Country Quest Dec 1991

Friday 4 April 2014

Carpetbagging on Lliwedd

A few days later came news from Holland and I. A. R. that made me jump. There had been great doings after I left. More ascents of the Holly-Tree Wall, a new and apparently hair-raising climb—the Oblique Buttress—on Glyder Fach and a series of climbs on Lliwedd. It was the final episode on Lliwedd that gave me the shock. Holland, always very adroit with knee-jam methods in climbing, had been destroying the knees of his breeches at an alarming rate. Blodwen, the chambermaid at Pen-y-Gwyrd, used to get half a crown from him for each repairing job she did. This was becoming, since he tore them through every second day, a serious drain upon his pocket, so he gave her instructions to find something to patch with that would be guaranteed not to wear through again. What she found was a piece of excellent Axminster carpet, and for a while Holland was very proud of a red and green decoration that distinguished him from all other visitors in the region. It had its disadvantages, however, and from these derives my story.

He and I. A. R. had been climbing without a pause through a long spell of fine weather. Perhaps they grew stale. Whatever the reason, they were suddenly attacked by a fit of 'out of form' mistakes that nearly put an end to them both. One evening after a long day on the East Peak—up and down the Shallow Gully, the Great Chimney and Route II—they had gone up the Central Chimney as far as the Summer House. Puzzled, as others have been, by the route ahead, they came down with the intention of working it out thoroughly on another day. And next morning they were back early at the foot of the climb. The Central Chimney Route starts with a steep fifty-foot groove, then comes a traverse to the right with a tricky step up over a very steep exposed corner. Now the evening before they had been twice across the passage, up and down, without trouble or hesitation.

This morning, however, I. A. R. when leading found himself suddenly and without warning at a loss in the very middle of the tricky movement. As he wrote to me, the experience was utterly unexpected, something he had never known when leading before. It was like forgetting a familiar name. In a flash he forgot everything about the pitch, he didn't know where any of the holds were, or what he had done, or what he should do, and this in a position half-way between one balance and another, a position in which it was impossible to stop and wait. He was just beginning to fall off when his hand, wandering over the rock behind him and out of his sight, happened on a hold and saved him. Now unexpected holds are not common on such pitches on Lliwedd. He lost no time in rejoining Holland in the Chimney and explaining that he was 'off' leading for the day, and they agreed that they had better go to something easier.

They chose the Far East Cracks on Lliwedd's Eastern-most peak, partly because Holland had lately been fre­quenting it with Odell and others, and it was new to I. A. R. Holland had invented a special direct finish of his own that he was anxious to demonstrate. So down they went; I. A. R., still rather shaken, going first so as to have the rope above him. He had hardly come to the first halting-place when, with an exclamation, down came Holland sailing through the air on top of him! What had happened was this. He had begun his descent by curling his carpet-clad knee into the recesses of the groove in his favourite fashion, quite forgetting that it was not as his knees usually were. It slipped out, and, as at that instant he had no other holds, off he came. He landed luckily astride I. A. R.'s neck and the two of them managed to stay where they were. Though the distance they had to fall is not very great, it might have been quite enough!

It has often been remarked that mischances tend to come in threes. They agreed that they had better be very careful indeed about the third as they walked over to the Far East Peak. All went well up the climb, Holland leading, until they reached the beginning of his new direct finish. The whole thing is a long V-shaped groove, of the type so characteristic of Lliwedd, like a slightly opened book and very steep. It is punctuated by little patches of grass in the back of the V, which make ledges on which the leader can rest and the second man join him. At the top, the groove is closed by a wall, but there are ways of escaping to easier ground on the right and left which are usually taken.

Holland's direct finish went up quite straight for sixty feet or so, very exposed and even steeper than the groove below. The crags underneath plunge down for 400 feet and the steep screes at their foot make the height seem much greater.I. A. R. was placed in the last reach of the groove, standing on an earth patch which is about the size of a dinner plate, playing the rope round a belay as big as his thumb. Holland went on to attack the wall above. He had climbed up about fifty-five feet when I. A. R. was alarmed to notice that the method required for finishing the pitch was that very identical knee-jamming that had led to the' mischance in the Central Chimney. The rope meanwhile was finding the belay most unaccommodating and kept slipping off as it was paid out. The leader's progress now came to a halt and I. A. R. became more and more uneasy. Holland was stretched out, his hands high up on what were evidently none good holds. The carpet-clad knee was writhing and writhing in a shallow furrow, the other toe at full stretch wason a small hold below. Then it was brought slowly up to a sloping nick to the side; it slipped off; and. I. A. R. could see Holland's whole body shake with the extra tension.

His own position was then that described by Archer Thompson, a connoisseur in exposed situations, as follows...

 The spot thus reached is hardly a landing-place—it accom­modates one foot only, but the desired rest can be obtained by leaning well back against a projection; in this half-recumbent attitude above and athwart the crack we are in a good position to enjoy the circumambient air, a wide view of the face, and an unobstructed outlook over Cwm Dyli 

He was beginning to expect bad trouble and fortunately just then caught sight of a flange of rock on the right of his groove at about the level of his shoulders. Quickly he levered himself across the groove until he was lying braced with both feet on one wall and a shoulder on the other. Then he looked again to see how the leader was getting on. Holland was still in the same position wrestling with the same problem. Up again came the toe to the sloping nick, wavered on it, then the whole body lifted and the toe slipped off! Out came the carpet knee that should have taken the weight and the jolt plucked his straining finger-tips from their holds. Without a word Holland slipped down a little, then fell out backwards and came like a loose sack, head-over-heels, down the wall. At this instant I. A. R. noticed that the rope had again worked off the belay.A body is travelling fast by the time it has fallen fifty feet down cliffs of the angle of these. I. A. R. avers that Holland was making quite a loud whizzing noise in his fall before he caught him, and that he swerved a good deal in his flight. There was no use now in worrying about the rope, the thing to do was to catch the climber. Actually he landed, head down, face out, between the cliff and I. A. R., who clutched him wildly round the thighs. Then a moment passed during which, rather slowly, they realized that they had not gone; they were still on the crags and alive; and
then Holland began to climb up round the outside of I. A. R.'s bridged body and re-establish himself right-side up on the little grass ledge.

The first thing now was a solemn lighting of Holland's pipe. I. A. R. says that Holland's hands were absolutely steady as he sheltered the match. Then the vitally important question of the plaster-cast round Holland's arm had to he looked into. It proved to be a good deal chipped, but the arm inside was all right. Holland now was for having 'another shot' at the pitch. He always seemed to me not to know what fear is, and this was an example of his indomitability. But I. A. R. had been watching and had had enough. So he vetoed the motion. They went down instead, as quickly as they knew how, to easy ground. This evidently was right, for in ten minutes' time the effect of the shock showed. Though Holland remained as cheerful and composed as ever, puffing his pipe tranquilly as he worked his way down, every muscle soon began to shake and shiver. They were glad to get off the climb, coil up the rope and go off to Gorphwysfa for a soothing drink.

Later I came to know the scenes of these adventures better. Easter days, when there were snow-banks at the foot of the gullies, Whitsuntide days, when hawthorn whitened Cwm Dyli and overhung the bathing-pool. Odd week-ends whenever I could fit them in, framed between night journeys in which the endless serried lights of Crewe shunting-yards seemed the great gateway to the hills. Through a week of cloudless June weather, with Holland, with H. M. and Pat Kelly, I almost lived on Lliwedd's East Peak. We would get to the foot of the Avalanche Route or Paradise while it was still early, go up and down all the summer day, and would be lingering by the summit cairn late into the dusk. The sea-gleams turned from gold to silver, ' Siabod and the Glyders grew smooth and blue with haze before we ran down back to Pen-y-Gwryd for a specially arranged cold ten-o'clock supper. It seemed impossible to go down while the shadow of Crib Goch was still creeping up and the crest of Lliwedd glowing in the last sunshine.

How could one sit at a dinner-table through the most beautiful hour of the day? We went up most of the well-known Lliwedd climbs, though not the Far East Cracks! I remem­ber once the string of Holland's sack breaking, while I was struggling to move quickly down the Shallow Gully, and thinking my last hour had come as a shower of missiles began to bound and whizz past me. There is not much room to share with an avalanche in the Shallow Gully. But they were nothing more than oranges and we picked them up `good and juicy' on the scree.

Halcyon days, sunny, windless, the rocks dry and clean under our rubbers and Holland climbing tirelessly and magnificently, up the most hopeless-looking reaches of the slabs. His air of a Roman legionary fitted well with his iron con­fidence and grim cheerfulness. I shall never visit Lliwedd without thinking of him. I owe him some of my very best climbing days. To each group of climbers who are exploring Lliwedd extensively for themselves for the first time, its climbs—with their own variations—come to seem in a sense their possession. No mountain seizes hold of its devotees more strongly, and the bond is capable of appearing reciprocal. The very diffi­culty of identifying many of the routes, exactly, makes a climb seem more one's own, and it may reasonably be wished that detailed descriptions of them did not exist. Then every fresh visitor would taste more fully the savour of exploration.

Mallory once remarked as much to I. A. R. Coming from one who had put so many splendid new climbs on the crags, and in the. Climbers' Club Book at Gorphwysfa, he had to admit that it was perhaps Satan rebuking sin. This was just before he left for that last time for Everest in 1924 to reach, as Odell, who saw him last, still thinks possible, the supreme point of any climber's ambition.

Dorothy Pilley: Climbing Days-1935