Friday 28 August 2015

The Climber's plants of Lakeland

Nameless Gully on the SW side of Robinson above Buttermere.
THE experts will tell you there may be up to 18.000 varieties of flowers, plants, mosses and ferns growing in the Lakeland hills, but there must be very few people, if any, able to recognise them all. Once I sat down on a shoulder of Grasmoor one very hot afternoon to do a count and found about 30 within the space of a few yards, but I could only identify about a third of them. I wish I was a better botanist. One of my climbing friends fills me with envy by his ability to recognise mountain flowers, ferns—and even trees in their winter garb—without hesitation. He will sometimes pause on his way up a steep crack or chimney on a little-climbed crag to pick out of some crevice a tiny flower or bit of grass, telling me its name and perhaps tucking it away in his pocket for later study. A scramble up any fell side beck must give him much more pleasure than it would do those of us who move about with much less experienced eyes. But even a little knowledge about the flowers of the fells is rewarding, and fairly easily obtained by a little study and patience.

Pyramedal Bugle:Kentmere.Photo Cumbria Botany
It is important, however, that the locations of the rarer plants should not be revealed for depredation is an increasing menace, and climbers and walkers should never dig out specimens and should restrict their picking  for identification purposes to the minimum. Lakeland's rarest flower, the red alpine catchfly, grows on the steep face of Hobcarton Crag, but it is not easy to find unless you know the exact spot.

The only other locality in Britain for this rare plant—apart from a reported sighting on Coniston Old Man—is said to be high in the hills at the head of Glen Cova in the Highlands. Hobcarton Crag was bought by the Friends of the Lake District many years ago because of its importance as a botanical treasure house and presented to the National Trust. Alpine Campion is also said to grow on the crag, but this shattered pile of blue grey Skiddaw slate is chiefly remarkable to the casual visitor for its bright green hanging gardens of bilberry which grow here in greater profusion than I have seen elsewhere.

A favourite mountain flower of mine is the tiny eye-bright and I have heard that the Lakeland variety is also found in Snowdonia but, so far as is at present known, nowhere else in the world. Probably the highest growing plant in Lakeland must be the dwarf willow—the smallest British shrub, often barely an inch high. This can be found on the top of the Scafells and on other high peaks, including Helvellyn, while comparatively rare plants grow in some of the deepest ravines in the central fells.

Classic Lakeland Gully. The G3 scramble 'Lorton's Gully' 
These include alpine Saw Wort (Saussurea alpina—named after de Saussure who inspired the first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1777) which may be found around Pillar, in Piers Gill, and among the rocks of Striding Edge. Botanists will tell you that among the rarer plants of Lakeland is the shrubby cinquefoil, the only mountain plant, outside the eyebright and the hawkweeds, which is not also found, usually in much greater profusion in the Highlands. They say you will find it on The Screes above Wastwater and also around Pillar Rock: at one time it was found on Red Screes but has not been seen there for some years. Moss campion used to grow near Grisedale Tarn although I doubt, with the tourist traffic around there, whether it still survives.

Many of the coves under the summit ridge of Helvellyn used to contain several comparatively rare plants but many have disappeared during the last half century. The lovely pink cushions of moss campion are also found near several of the least visited crags and purple saxifrage sometimes hangs in festoons around the Helvellyn ridges. Climbing up a mountain beck towards the ridges the walker may encounter many typical Lakeland plants, each one growing at more or less its most suitable height above sea level.

Euphrasia rivularis: Keppel Cove, Helvellyn.Photo-Cumbrian Botany
The common ladies' mantle of the meadows is also found in at least two species above 2,000 feet, the alpine variety being smaller with beauti-fully shaped leaves and an underlining of shining silvery hairs. The yellow saxifrage and star saxifrage, which are found in the wet ground lower down the fell, may also be growing in the gills, the former with its bright yellow flowers and deep orange stamens and the latter with its white star, crimson stamens and a yellow spot on each petal. The cut leafed saxifrage with its creamy white flowers may also be found near the mountain becks. The bilberry or blaeberry with its pretty pink flowers will probably also be growing nearby, while on the banks and along the lower ridges will be the little flowers that can bring so much colour to a June walk in the hills—wild thyme, heath bedstraw, common speedwell, some of the hawkweeds and the tormentil, the last named also being found near the summits.

And also mountain sorrel, dog violet, angelica, butterwort, alpine meadow rue and the lovely harebell. The hawkweeds of Lakeland are interesting. More than 70 years ago a clergyman botanist found two species of hawkweed for the first time in Britain on the side of Kirk Fell and they were not reported again until found in the same place 65 years later.

For a lifetime these two rare species—two plants of each—had apparently remained in this one wild spot in Lakeland, and nowhere else in Britain so far as is known. The crowberry will be found flowering n the fells in May or June and even buttercups sometimes survive quite high up in the mountains. The cowberry may sometimes be seen, often growing among the bilberry, and recognisable by its pale flesh coloured flowers and, later, its red berries. And then there are the juniper, the ling and the bell heather—indeed, many varieties of heaths and heathers—and a long list of berried plants, and the ferns and the mosses and of course the bracken —a menace to the farmer, but a beautiful changing carpet of colour, especially in autumn. One of my favourite flowers of the mountains is the delicate Grass of Parnassus, with its beautiful little petals, rather like a bleached buttercup but the flowers faintly streaked, almost like watermarks on writing paper.

Another beautiful little flower is the mountain or bird's eye primrose, which has pink lilac blooms with a yellow centre and leaves covered with white down. The mountain avens is also, particularly lovely flower. Its pure white petals is dark green leaves contrasting with the pink of the moss campion and the rich colour of the purple mountain saxifrage. The snow saxifrage has been found on Scafell, Helvellyn and High Street, while the alpine poa grass and black sedge are among the rarities seen in the eastern fells, and the common water starwort has been reported growing in Hard Tarn in Ruthwaite Cove. It is said that several carnivorous and insect eating plants grow on the western side of Derwentwater. One of these, the native sundew, is said to be capable of digesting meat as well as insect life, having perhaps acquired the taste in recent years from discarded sandwich fillings.

In the woods above Lodore grows, besides a very beautiful and comparatively rare fern, the yellow flowered cow-wheat which flourishes where there are plenty of ants. It is said that the seeds closely resemble ants eggs and that the ants, doubtless considerably baffled, bundle them about in all directions, thus spreading the seeds which quickly germinate. Also in the woods above Borrowdale may be found water and wood avens, goose grass, bedstraw, creeping thyme, burdock, snake weed, white and yellow water lilies, the giant horsetail, meadow sweet, ragged robin and the little eye-bright.

Grasmere is a good area for ferns while the limestone country around Kendal has produced the true maiden-hair. There's no doubt that the ability to recognise mountain plants can add immensely to the enjoyment of a day in the fells, in the same way as can some knowledge of mountain birds, the ways of sheep, the meaning of old tracks, the story of the old stone walls, the history of the miners of long ago, the movement of the clouds and a hundred and One other wonderful things that all help to make our mountains such fascinating places. But, most of all, we must learn to use our eyes for far too many of us walk to the crags or the mountain tops and see nothing, or at least very little that really matters.

A Harry Griffin: The Climber:September 1965

Friday 21 August 2015

Joss Naylor: The Way of the Warrior

Surely, I thought, Joss Naylor's heart and ambition was too big for his spare frame and spindly legs. These days nobody knocks 30 per cent off a record — indeed records are broken by fractions of one per cent. So when he told me, back in March, that he proposed to run the Pennine Way -all 270 miles of it - in three days, I really began to think that he had taken leave of his senses. After all, the existing record for this mammoth solo trip was held by Alan Heaton, one of the greatest fell runners of all time, bringing it down from four days eight hours to four days five hours. That is a fair margin to break any record by - three hours or some 12 miles. Obviously, 100 hours (four days four hours) was possible — indeed that was the target that both Bill and Alan had set themselves. But now here was Joss proposing to set himself a schedule of 72 hours.

Three months later, at midnight on Friday June 21 — the shortest night of the year — I drove into our impromptu campsite behind the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm. There was a deep silence over the little group of tents and we tried not to disturb them as we hammered our pegs into the rock-hard ground. Hard because this spring and early summer has been one of the driest in human memory. Three hours later, as the church clock chimed three, Joss strode off up the hill towards the Cheviots, to begin his long journey. He is 38 years old now, nearly six foot tall, a mere nine-and-half stone. He farms on the north side of Wastwater in the Lake District, running his sheep over Yewbarrow, Red Pike, Haycock and Middle Fell. He and his wife Mary do all the work themselves, long days and long nights of work, lambing and gathering, sheering and gathering, dipping and gathering. No wonder he is fit. And yet he still finds the time and energy to maintain his record as Britain's greatest long distance fellrunner.

There are men that can beat him in the shorter races, which means, in this context, any race that can be won in under three hours. But in the long ones, like the Vaux Mountain Trial or the Ennerdale Horseshoe or that ultimate test of endurance the Lakeland 24 hour run, Joss is the master. Having studied his technique over many years, I have always been surprised by the lack of power in his frame. There are no big muscles in his legs, no piston-like thighs, and this is perhaps why he has so little speed. What he does have is an astounding ability to whisper over rough country without seeming to expend any energy. It is the supreme quality of relaxation.

Early that Saturday morning, we, his support troops, drove around the Cheviots and approached the old Roman Fort of Chew Green from the South. The sun was just rising, sending low shafts of light across the hills, picking out the Roman fortifications so that they seemed to stand as high and proud as they did those long centuries ago. Soon the stoves were blazing and the bacon sizzling. We breakfasted well, knowing that we had to stoke our bodies for the long day ahead. And then Jeff Bull (one of the Ranelagh Harriers team that broke the Pennine Way relay record in 1971) came flying down the hill to say that Joss wouldn't stop for breakfast. He would keep on the skyline and he'd like a drink and a biscuit. We tried to catch him but we couldn't — he and his pacer Graham Dugdale were specks in the distance, sliding smoothly over the hills towards Byrness. It took him just three and-three-quarter hours to run from Kirk Yetholm to Byrness a distance of 29 miles, including the 2,676 feet of Cheviot itself.

Wainwright in 'Pennine Way Companion' (the classic guide to the Pennine Way) says of this section: This is not only the longest stretch of the Pennine Way without a habitation but one of the toughest, a test of endurance. Gird up your loins as they have never been girded up before . . . . the casualty rate is high. Strong men take a long, long day - Joss traversed it before breakfast! We were worried about his speed. If he was going to keep this up, we wouldn't be able to drive around to the pacemakers' change-over points. Besides, what about Joss? No human being could keep up such a pace for three days. Mountain Life’s (Shay Gorman, our advertising manager, and myself) took over the pacemaker's job through Redesdale Forest and along the river. I was running ahead trying to snatch some photographs and two miles of that was enough to exhaust me. Over Padden Hill and Lord's Shaw through Bellingham and Wark Forest he went, down to Hadrian's Wall. There at the Peel Farm car park, Ken Ledward and Tim Walker, who provided the main logistical support from Ken's Transit van, were brewing soup for lunch – 62.5miles completed and it was not yet mid-day.

A quick photograph or two and I dashed off to recce my next pacing section. From Walltown Crags across the A69, over Black Hill to the Kellah Burn. Waiting for Joss, up there on Wall-town Crags, one could look down and across the Border country to the North and imagine the Roman soldiers — far from home, patrolling that empty land against the wild Picts. Now the only enemy advancing from the north is the regimented teenage conifers, a dense impenetrable monotonous jungle of foreign trees. Oh, where are our native hardwoods!

Joss was slower now, just slow enough for me to keep with him and chat. He has had back trouble almost all his life and recently it began to affect the feeling in his legs. I asked him how they were. 'Dead', he said with 74 miles behind him. 'But then they were dead when I started!' The pacing schedule was working well. Masterminded by Ian Milne (another Ranelagh Harrier who was responsible for much of the planning behind the record breaking relay runs on the Pennine Way and over Offa's Dyke) the pacers took over at regular intervals of three or four miles so that Joss always had someone to talk to, someone to carry his drink and food, someone who was certain of every turn and twist of the way. The weather was perfect: overcast to keep the sun off his shoulders, not too hot and with a light wind from the north east.

The Pennine Way itself was in better condition that I have ever seen it. You could run on top of the ground instead of half way up to your knees in bog. And in the three years since I was last on the Way, the boots of thousands of walkers have worn a definite path. Now there is little doubt about the correct route. Joss was living off rock cakes and apple pie (home made by Mary) and drinking Accolade (a powder which you can get in most big chemists and which contains all the salts the body needs) and a mixture of orange and lemon squash liberally fortified with glucose. He was eating and drinking wisely — which means a little and often instead of a lot at longer intervals. There were eleven members of the support team: Ken Ledward and Tim Walker, Peter Trainor and Alan Evans from the Lakes, John Offley and Graham Dugdale from Thames Valley Harriers and five members of Ranelagh, Ian Milne, Jeff Bull, Shay Gorman, myself and with Bill Bird keeping up the tradition that past record holders of the great fell-running epics always seem to turn out to help another fellrunner to improve the record.

Stateside Joss
Already the support team were bonded together in admiration for this man Joss, who could run us all into exhaustion and then keep on for more. Through Slaggyford and Alston, over Crossfell and Great Dunn Fell he went, slower now in the evening sunlight, down into Dufton for a bath. We pitched our tents and invaded the Stag for pint after pint of well earned beer. We, the pacers, had run our 12 to 18 miles (except for Graham Dugdale who took the brunt of Joss' speed over those first 29 miles) but Joss now resting in his tent had covered 106.5miles in a total time of 18 hours 17 minutes — indeed, if you subtract his interim stops his running time was 16 hours 49 minutes, an average of between six and seven miles an hour. He stopped that night for five hours 48 minutes and at 0310 on Sunday, June 23, he was away over High Cup Nick bound for Cauldron Snout and Sour Hill Farm.

We waited at the farm for him to appear through the early morning mist. We waited and waited. And then Shay Gorman came running. 'He's pulled a muscle — he can't lift his left foot up properly'. While Ken and his boys fed Joss with breakfast, I got to work on the muscle. There was a spot high on the front of the thigh where it joins the body which when pressed sent spasms of pain shooting through his body. It seemed hopeless. The words formed in my mind: 'You've had it Joss — you won't get another 10 miles on that leg'. But I didn't say the words — not to this man! Massage and food, massage and food, and he was away again, picking up so much speed that he nearly confounded the pacemakers.

At Tan Hill Inn, the highest pub in England, he was still going strongly as Ken threw his Karrimor 'Instructor's Survival Bag' over him and fed him. Never has there been such a strange impromptu camp. Joss didn't want to sit down for fear of stiffening up, so tall men acted as poles, while the faithful Ken plied him with soup. I will always remember one section that bright evening — out of Gayle, past Gaudy House Farm and over the shoulder of Dodd Fell.The turf was green and springy, the sun was low and soft, and the wind whispered coolly. Wharfedale was behind us, Ribblesdale in front and all around is the incomparable Yorkshire fells. That is what the Pennine Way is all about — lifting fells and lifting feet, the quiet murmurs of the hills and good company.

I missed the last traumatic hours of that day as the pacers gathered around a tired Joss, reinforcing his iron will over Pen-y-Ghent and Fountains Fell, down to Tennant Gill Farm — 80.5miles in 21 hours. A long, long day. He was away late  at 05.10 on a bright and perfect morning with Malham Tarn and the River Aire glistening in the sunlight. Nobody, except Joss, will ever know how he kept going through that day. His left ankle was swollen, his feet half a size bigger, his lean face leaner still. We did mental calculations: he was still making four miles an hour including stops, and if he could keep that going  throughout the day and into the night then he could still — despite his injuries — arrive in Edale at 2.00 am on Tuesday morning and that would be the Pennine Way in three days.

Joss Naylor and friend oop on't fell
 But there has not yet been born the human being that could force an exhausted body beyond such barriers of endurance. At nine that night he came across Featherbed Moss (Wainwright: The place is a mess, a labyrinth of peat sponges that can be squelchily negotiated only by trial and error). Ahead was Black Hill....There is no foothold in this sea of ooze and the night. Six of us gathered around him as he set off across the peat — there was eight miles to go to the shelter of Crowden Youth Hostel and Joss now had the wear of 247 miles in his legs and heart. We blundered in the dark, missing the easiest route to the top of Laddow Rocks. One could sense the drop, one could feel the fatigue in Joss but not once did he stumble. And then there were lights, flickering up from Crowden.

I cannot name them all for I know not who they were, except that they were climbers and walkers and fell-runners come to assist this man, whose strength and will was as ten. 68.5miles, that was the distance that he walked and ran that third day in 18 hours and 35 minutes, and they were kind to him at Crowden Youth Hostel.He stayed there for a mere three hours 35 minutes, showering, eating and sleeping and then he was away at 03.20 on Tuesday morning. I last saw him at Snake Pass at five in the morning. Bleaklow behind him, Kinder Scout ahead. A mere eight-and-a-half miles to the finish.

He came down into Edale at 07.41 with 16 miles covered in four hours 16 minutes. Or, to put it all together, 271.5miles in three days four hours and 35 minutes. He had not done it in three days — but he had knocked 24 hours off Alan Heaton's record. No-one else could have done it. He ate and slept for a couple of hours, and then Ken drove him home to Wasdale......And there Joss milked the cows!
Chris Brasher: First published as ‘No one else could have done it' in Mountain Life Aug/Sep 1974

Friday 14 August 2015

The Children of the May Tides

Six year old Luke's first climb.The Coves,Knapdale,Scotland.

The following essay was recently re-discovered literally in the bottom of a drawer amongst various unpublished essays,journal extracts and poems. It recalls a magical week on the west coast of Scotland with some of my children and a family friend with her two offsprings. Despite the prose at times reading as purple as a Wino's nose and occasionally straying into 'Swallows and Amazons' territory, it nevertheless, captures-I hope- a special time in a special place. Staying in the West Wing of a magnificent Georgian house on the shores of West Loch Tarbert on the Knapdale Peninsular.Set amidst the wild coastal countryside which defined  the 1500 acre estate. An estate which sadly was quickly falling into disrepair and which would, within a few years, be sold off by the court to settle a complicated family dispute over ownership. Nevertheless, for one week in May it was paradise. The peninsular simmered each day under endless blue skies,mussels were gathered and mullet was hauled. Smoke curled from beach fires and virgin rock was climbed. We would return several times but never again would we quite capture the magic of that first week. Tragically, Debbie my companion that week died all too young three years ago.
Beyond the seal stacked rocks of Rubh'a Bharr Ruaidh,the morning ferry to Islay could be heard. Its fathoming engines breaking the fragile silence that lay over Ardpatrick point. Despite the early morning hour, the sun had ignited an azure sky and promised us another day of simmering shadows amongst the jagged, saltwater shores which corralled the bearded cliffs known locally as 'The Coves'. As climbing parties go, this was an elfin band of eager youngsters and a female friend with a chronic back problem and no climbing experience. However, the coltish spirit of my charges fermented in the warm Highland air and suggested that this would not act as a barrier to our climbing ambitions. Upon this day we would feast our limbs on rock as untainted by human hand as the furthest flung Himalayan peak. The pleasure of unwrapping the sharp cast of unburnished sea cliff, a tactile experience worth a thousand polished ascents of an established route.

The touchstone of our experience moulded under the same northern skies which had looked down upon George Orwell as he fought his final battle with TB and struggled to complete '1984' on Jura's mesmeric north eastern shore. I had always found an echo in Orwell's leftist libertarianism. His stubborn romanticism in the face of conventional political sensibilities a heady draught from which to draw inspiration. His 'crystal spirit no power could disinherit' as true now as it ever was.

A wrong turning and a long but ultimately rewarding journey around the peninsular on route to our temporary base, had revealed a crenelated frenzy of sea cliffs and caves which looked out to the salmon dusted islands of Islay, Jura and Gigha. 'The Coves' had never entered climbing folklore as the Gogarth of the north. I am sure that given the lack of scale on this gently woven mid western edge of the Scottish mainland, Patey, Smith, Marshall and Nimlin would have been frying bigger fish to the north and east of this gentle, luminous land of sea and sky. The only ghosts to haunt these quiet shores were the ghosts of fishermen and sailors whose lost lives gilded the rusting lobster pots and caught on the Atlantic winds.

Tumbling from our overloaded Citroen, we fell down through thistle rich fields which spilled into banks of fern and bramble. The rasping tendrils drew blood from Daisy's pale, bare legs; the crimson stains quickly drying in the warm, salted air. Emerging from the verdant groves we tumbled onto the cobbled shores of Porth Mor, which reeked of rotting seaweed. We gradually found the air sweeter as we moved beyond the arc of shore beneath the bramble groves. Slipping and sliding through shifting silver sands and clacking rocks, our raggle-taggle caravan wound its way through the secret rock pools and fingers of sea which reached into hollow channels of pocketed stone cleft by infinite tides.

Amongst the dessicated, blackened ribbons of seaweed, Siobhan stumbled upon three speckled eggs of an Oystercatcher who, upon being disturbed, arced away in alarm and berated us from the haven of a crusted rock half submerged in the crystal waters. In the shadow of a green tower we set down our sweat stained burden of rucsacs and ropes and toasted our arrival with Ki-Ora. As we lay on the pebbles beneath the tower, and out of reach of the rising tide, I contemplated the monolithic feature before us. Although the tower carried a fair amount of vegetation, there was enough clean rock winding down like the polished rail of a helter-skelter to suggest a feasible passage lay through the green sward. As we shook our sacs out, Luke stripped off and took to the aqua green waters beneath the tower, amazed at the shoals of tiny fish which exploded from his shadow. As Luke waded towards the fronded rocks which guarded the pool I anchored Liam to the rock and started to paw the pale stone before rising up on holds which were good and true. After 20ft of easy climbing I tossed a sling over a spike of rock and looked down upon upturned, brown faces, curious to discover if our Lilliputian sea stack ‘would go’ ?

Passing through a grassy section I descended into shadows and grappled with rock which was now steeper and looser than before. Pausing to place a cam, I gingerly crept through the difficulties, taking care not to trust these brittle stone bones with anything more than brief caress. After 90ft of gentle meandering I pulled out onto the virginal tip of 'Oystercatcher Pinnacle'. After passing a sling over a pale boss I tied on and settled back in my heather chair to drink in the day. To the west, the island of Gigha –‘God's Island’- sent its whistling white sands across the sound: Islay sweated; its rich, whisky brown body rolled in the Atlantic surf while Jura's paps drew lustful glances. Within this ultramarine canvas, sail cloth whispered and beyond the dazzling Sound of Jura, the amorphous surge of stone and wood drew out of shadows, fixing its sacred image on my yielding eye.

Oystercatcher Pinnacle.
One by one the youngsters-minus little Luke-clambered up the tower. Debbie delicately picked her way through the shingle bands knotted with driftwood and seaweed to frame photographs and offer encouragement to the brown limbed dancers who would join me in my green eyrie. Daisy, Henry and Liam all found the key to unlock the door; Siobhan let it slip from her delicate white hand and drifted back to earth on a nylon thread to offer her tears to the salted grass. Sometime later she emerged at my shoulder to after a death defying scramble up the back of the sea stack. Expecting my admiration and pleasure at her achievement, I could only of offer a parent’s anger and admonishment for her suicidal ascent. Once more I lowered her tearfully back to earth. The following day reprised the last with regard to the weather. A full blooded sun dazzled down and almost to the minute we found ourselves once again passing through the shadows which fell from our now vanquished tower.

The previous day I had reconnoitered the southern reaches of the coves and spied a delightful looking ridge which arched out of the sea like a gilded scallop shell the spine of which was pitted with stone  honeycombs. When I pointed out this obscure object of desire it was unanimously met by the approval of all concerned. ‘Honeycomb Ridge’ began as a lovely rough slab which ran up to meet the main body of the ridge. The ridge itself unfolded as a delightful dance over a rough, bleached cockscomb which sprang out of the sea to meet the heathery headland above. Technically little more than a scramble, nevertheless, the plunging exposure that was experienced once the ridge was gained shook Debbie's knees to jelly -it was her first ever climb- and prompted Daisy to curse Liam and Henry with the tongue of a stout soaked navvy when they attempted ill advised criticisms of her elegant climbing style! Siobhan put the disappointment of the previous day behind her and whooped with pleasure as she pulled up beside me.

Honeycomb Ridge
When we got down I geared Luke up and gave him a taste of rock with some little rites of passage over the lichen crusted rocks beneath the ridge. He grappled manfully with the task in hand, his scuffed trainers scraping the rock while tiny fingers coiled around sharp flakes. Reserving his smiles for later, his concentration was total and his expression showing his serious commitment as fingers danced over rock; feeling for holds unseen by naked eyes. Whether you are poised beneath 'the pudding stone' on Cenotaph Corner, or six feet above the shingle of Rubha Cruitiridh-five years from heaven or seventy five-this is it; the slow dance which all who climb experience. The steps once learnt never forgotten.

With most of the party content with the day's haul, Liam Henry and I left the rest of the party to beach comb whilst we wended our way further down the shore where the final climb of the day waited for us. Before I left base camp I wrapped one of the girl's swimming costumes around my velveteen head in a belated attempt to protect my burnt crown. Indifferent to the mocking sniggers of these disrespectful shavelings. ‘Yellow Buoy Climb’ bookended the Coves climbs. A 'severe' climb which started out as a wonderful slab which breached an overlap halfway and ended as a desperate struggle up a crumbling chimney which resembled poorly mixed concrete.For the first time in two days I contemplated the possibility of taking flight from the rock as I struggled to place protection in this nerve wracking chicane of sun dried merde!

Below and indifferent to my struggle, Debbie dozed on the melting rocks lapped by languorous waves. Occasionally she framed an action shot for posterity before retreating back into the warm arms of the sun. Eighty feet above the brown skinned boys of summer I tried to alleviate my anxiety by singing 'Mull of Kintyre'. McCartney's paean to these sacred western shores of Argyll worked its magic and soon my scratched, dusted hands grasped a sharp, solid edge and with one bound he was free ! As I brought up Liam and Henry, Luke and the girls wandered up to catch the action before retreating back with Debbie along the shore to strike camp.

As the earth began to turn its back on the sun, Luke and I followed the ragged caravan back through the headlands, stopping at a freshwater waterfall to dip our heads and cup the peat scented nectar to our lips. Feeling our way through the eye deep bramble and fern banks I scrambled above the rasping tendrils onto a boulder and pulled Luke up beside me to look back upon the canvas we had painted that day. Gigha sank  back and pulled the little island of Cara into its shadow. Islay and Jura shimmered in the gloaming as blood red fingers of cloud parted the temporal sky. In the field beyond the crooked stone wall which divided us, a farmer shouldered a lifeless lamb through his thistle studded field before tossing his cold burden into the boot of his Ford Escort van. All around us, in quiet rapture, this fine may day began its procession into night. Our sojourn in her season a blessed vacation from the dark winter we had experienced in the south.

Dunskeig could be seen across the loch from the ferry cottages beneath Ardpatrick. A rounded hump fringed with rough,untamed woodland from which pale steep cliffs rose above the dark hem which looked out over the entrance to West Loch Tarbert like the Gates of Troy. The cliffs could have been anything from 30 to 100 ft in height. From a mile away across the loch it was difficult to tell but rock is rock and we had our curiosity to satisfy.

The approach to Dunskeig involved either a twenty mile car journey around the loch or, more simply, a water bourn approach across the mile wide loch. The latter being no quicker but certainly, given the beautiful location, a more romantic approach to a crag you could not dream of. Liam, Henry and I stashed our climbing gear in the stern or our pea green boat and maneuvered her down the slipway, taking care not to tumble on the polished, seaweed coated rocks. With the launching trolly wheels submerged, the tiny craft floated free.

After dragging it clear of submerged rocks I threw in the line and scrambled aboard. Liam and Henry took an oar each whilst I made myself comfortable in the stern Apart from the occasional fishing boat returning to the narrow isthmus which connects Kintyre with the mainland, the loch was quiet and after a pleasant hour our little craft was pulled ashore in a craggy inlet. After dragging her clear of the tide we wound our way through the alder and birch groves which were rooted in a dark, wet, peat bog and emerged into sunlight on the heather slopes of the hill. It was clear that the cliffs of Dunskeig did not have the scale or quality we had anticipated. Little more than 50ft high and clothed in a luxuriant growth of lichen, I pondered the possible lines and settled for a feasible line which began from a sharp corner. Groove and Slab began as lovely ascent of a fine steep corner. Beneath the lichen was rock as sharp and firm as you could wish for. After 20’ of climbing, an awkward pull on to a narrow ledge allowed a pause in the proceedings and a glance to  right revealed a nice slabby finish. The final slab was delicate in places and required some conscientious gardening, but despite the lack of protection the line never felt serious.

The only heart shaking moment came when as I pulled through the final crack and a salvo of sound exploded from within the deep, dark confines of the crack. It appeared that the fissure was home to a nest of hungry young gulls. I expect they were as shocked as I when, for a brief moment in time,our worlds collided! We decided to pick out one more climb before rowing back home. Red Chimney was just that. A deep chimney of rust red rock which was reached via a short slab. Like its near neighbour, the difficulties never exceeded V Diff but nevertheless it passed off as a pleasant excursion which gave Liam and Henry the chance to practice the lost art of 'back and footing'. Given the time and inclination Dunskeig could cleaned up to provide say 10 short routes but given its inaccessibility and its lack of scale, this lonely fortress is forever destined to remain an echoing haven of seabirds- and who is to argue that this is not how it should be.

The cliffs of Dunskeig above the mouth of West Loch Tarbert
This was to be our last day of exploration on the gentle virgin cliffs of Kintyre and Knapdale. Under a delicate patina of viridian and ochre wisps of lichen lay rock which reflected the honest, unspoiled beauty of the land from which it grew.The cold, dispassionate descriptions of our modest explorations would lie unrecorded save this brief outline of our activities. The soft white page is no place for a rainbow of memories. Memories which nourish the soul in times of hunger.

There are places I'll remember,All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better,Some have gone and some remain.All these places have their moments,With lovers and friends I still can recall.Some are dead and some are living,In my life, I've loved them all.

John Appleby: 1997

Friday 7 August 2015

Slim Sorrell: Northern Grit

The Ox: Joe Brown and Pete Cargill get a lift from Slim Sorrell.Photo-G Kitchen Collection.
There'll never be another Slim Sorrell. Powerful climber and instructor, Gritstone and Cloggy pioneer, founder member of the Rock and Ice and a friend who was always cheerful in the face of adversity—Slim had many qualities. In fact it was the many good sides to his knockabout nature which highlight even more the manner of his death at the age of 47 in a macabre shooting incident at Cardiff. Slim, a hard-up pipe-fitter from Stockport, served his climbing apprenticeship in the tough, clinkers and-clothes line Manchester school of the late forties. The mines of Alderley, the barns of Castleton, clashes with the tar-pouring farmer of Windgather, bivvying in all weathers on Kinder and gritstone edges of the Peak. He was one of the early rope-mates of Joe Brown and the two of them joined one of the greatest of all small clubs, the now-defunct Valkyrie from the Derby-Nottingham area.

Nat Allen, Wilf White, Don Chapman, Chuck Cook and Don Cowan were among the leading spirits of The Valk. Slim and Joe joined them in exploring the Froggatt-Curbar escarpment when new routes were ripe for the plucking in those golden days of 1948 and 1949. Joe and Slim produced the impressive Eliminates and The Peapod and Slim's, name is perpetuated in Sorrell's Sorrow and Sorrallion. Over at Stanage Slim seconded Joe on the first ascent of the Right Unconquerable, one of the classics of grit. And when the 1957 Stanage and Froggatt guide was produced Slim was an obvious man to join the writing team. The Rock and Ice was the natural successor to the Valkyrie Club and in 1951 Slim helped to get it going with Joe and other names which were to become bywords in cragsmanship. Don Whillans, Ron Moseley and the ever-present Nat Allen.

Down in Wales Slim took part in the first ascent of Hangover on Clogwyn y Grochan and Diglyph and Octo on Cloggy. Joe led all three and Slim- ever-resourceful- seconded part of Diglyph by swarming up a knotted rope when the climbing became too technical even for him. My happiest memories of Slim are of those halcyon days when the Rock and Ice bivvied under Stanage or Froggatt and slept among falling plaster in the ruined farm of Bryn, Coch near the Snowdon railway. After a hard day on the crags Whillans and Moseley would be competing to see who could do the most press-ups or pull-ups. But it was Slim, with his boyish sense of fun, who invented the wilder games. When he tired of wrestling (having won all the bouts) he would organise a stone-throwing battle up and down the Llanberis Pass, an eating competition, or just a plain sleeping-bag fight.

Stories about Slim are legion. Once while bivvying on Dovestones in the Peak one wintry weekend he threw away the sheep's heart which was part of his ration. Next week the inseparable Brown and Sorrell were there again. Running out of food, Slim went to search for his sheep's heart, found it preserved in the snow and cooked and ate it! One raw, foggy day Brown was demonstrating the Cave Crack at Froggatt. Climbing in nails he moved out under the overhang, grasped the knob which was the key to the climb and pulled up into the jamming crack. When he was belayed Slim, a heavily-built character, began to follow him up. All went well until he came to the pull-up, when his hand slipped off the wet rock and he fell backwards. The rope broke and the horrified onlookers saw him plunge head first among the sharp boulders.

Brown descended with incredible speed and everybody ran to help what they assumed to be the injured climber. But Slim had fallen luckily and his main concern seemed to be the rope. He and Brown tested it with their hands . . . and once again it snapped. "My God," mumbled Slim, "to think we were using that rope on Cloggy last weekend!" Eventually the burly Slim became Constable Merrick Thomas Sorrell of Stockport Police. (Only his wife Dot ever gave him his Sunday name of Merrick among our gang). He won many commendations from his chief for when it came to chasing and apprehending, no thug or thief was any match for Slim. While on point duty in the centre of Stockport Slim would mischievously hold up four lines of hooting traffic while he strode across to a Stanage bound car and discussed the latest routes.

One of his jokes while in uniform was to grab one of his climbing friends in a Stockport street. Only after a curious crowd had gathered, thinking they were watching a smart arrest, would Slim let the victim go. After 13 years in the police Slim became an instructor at Ullswater Outward Bound School in the Lakes and later at Ashburton Outward Bound School in Devon. Slim put a brave face on one of the great tragedies of his life. His wife Dot had been one of the most adhesive woman climbers in the Peak. She is pictured leading Allen's Slab on Froggatt in the 1957 guide, and Dorothy's Dilemma on the Roaches is named after the problems she had in seconding the first ascent. 

But she caught polio and became an invalid. Eventually the marriage ended in divorce. Then,while they were doing Gillercombe Buttress above Borrowdale in 1972, Slim's instructor companion fell to his death. Slim eventually married his friend's widow and suffered a certain amount of innuendo in the Press. He was shot dead at a Cardiff college- ironically while 120 police constables were sitting an examination nearby. Slim's death shocked the members of the Northern climbing fraternity-particularly Joe Brown (Slim was best man at his wedding) and his former friends of the Valk and Rock and Ice. We cherish the Memory of one of the great characters of the crags.

Tom Waghorn: First published in Climber and Rambler Jan 1976