Friday 26 February 2016

Blizzard on The Old Man

For as long as I can remember, Boxing Day has always been the day for going out on the fells. Christmas Day was always a lazy day — eating, drinking, dozing in front of the fire and singing around the piano — but the next day you went out, no matter what the weather, even if only for a short stroll down the lanes and across the fields. Sometime you just stumbled through the woods in the fog or got wet through in the Langdales. Several times we were skating on Tarn Hows in the sunshine and much later we went skiing in the Pennines. But once, more than forty years ago, either because the weather was too bad or because we had eaten too much on Christmas Day, we just went up to Coniston in the afternoon to sleep the night at the hut but do something fairly energetic the next day.

This but was a wooden garage, sited in a field at Coniston Old Hall farm, a hundred yards or so from the lake. It was the joint property of nine of us, and was one of the first climbing huts in the Lake District. Nowadays the field is a caravan park, but at that time we had the whole of the lake-shore to ourselves. We slept on rickety home-made beds under blankets that were invariably damp, and the place was heated by an old combustion stove that produced a fug you could hardly see through. Light was Provided by a couple of storm lamps and we cooked on Primus stoves. Often it was so cold — despite the stove — that we woke up in the morning to find an inch of ice on the water-bucket kept inside the door.

Incredibly, we bathed briefly in the lake every weekend, no matter what the month — it was a point of honour — and we either argued or played cards in the evenings. When we woke up this particular Christmastime, after the usual uncomfortable night's sleep, we discovered that several inches of snow lay on the ground. And, over porridge, bacon and eggs — we used to do ourselves rather well in those days — we decided to walk over Coniston Old Man; a mountain that we thought we knew as well as our back gardens at home. Just as we had no sleeping bags in those days, neither did we have any proper windproof clothing — in fact I don't think it had been invented. We just had old jackets and trousers, plenty of sweaters and scarves, motor-cycle goggles and Balaclava helmets.

But we all wore nailed climbing-boots and carried ice-axes and some of us had Boy Scout compasses. I can clearly remember, after all these years, walking up the hill behind Coniston railway station and thinking I had never seen so much snow. The village looked like somewhere in the Alps — although none of us had been abroad at that time — and the yellow lights from the lamps in the cottages shone out across the snow. It was a dark, murky morning and it was snowing hard. We trudged up the hill to the open fell and then turned right to follow the quarry track, except that no track was visible. The snow was already building up over the stone walls, and all the well-remembered features of the fellside had disappeared. Higher up, on our way to the quarries, we came upon a small crag, immediately to our left, which was completely encased in black ice, several inches thick, to its total height of perhaps forty feet.

By now a blizzard was blowing and it was difficult to see. The snow, and hail lashed painfully into our faces and at one time we noticed tiny specks of blood in the snow and assumed that the frozen snow had cut our cheeks. But as I have never heard since of hail drawing blood I can only assume that one of us had a nose bleed or some slight injury. All the same, it seemed dramatic evidence to us youngsters of the ferocity of the elements. Further on, the shores of Low Water loomed out of the mist and we saw that the tiny tarn was piled high with ice-floes so that the scene looked like a corner of Spitzbergen or the Arctic. It was perhaps ten minutes later when we realized that the conditions were becoming serious.

We were ploughing through soft snow knee-high and sometimes up to our waists, the wind and the driving snow were almost unbearable, and we were not even sure where we were. Visibility was down to a few yards, the snow had completely transformed the mountainside we knew so well, and there were black crags and drops into unseen depths — which looked much worse in the gloom and the storm than they actually were. We wanted to find some sort of shelter so that we could look at a compass and bring some life back to our frozen fingers. Nobody thought of going down. And then a miracle occurred. One of us suddently fell through a hole in the snow and, when he had recovered from the shock, found he had dropped through a hole in the roof of one of the quarry huts.

In a moment we all followed him, and, sheltered from the storm, were soon able to put on our reserves of clothing, get our fingers warm again and have a look at the compass — the first and only time I have ever had to use a compass on Coniston Old Man. We climbed out through the roof looking like Arctic explorers, with Balaclavas tied down with scarves and most of us wearing two pairs of gloves. With our circulations restored, some food eaten, and the general line to the top established, we pressed on without further adventures to the cairn and then down the other side of the mountain to Goats Water and back to the hut.

But the conditions on top of this simple fell were the most Alpine I can ever remember in Lakeland. In those days the huge cairn was about ten feet high, but, so deep was the snow, it was completely hidden. The wind was unbelievably strong, so much so that one of the party had his goggles blown off his face and irretrievably lost in the storm. And the normally easy descent to Goats Water was a slope of wind-polished ice so that we had to creep down supported by our axes, as if we were coming off the Eiger. Fortunately we were in nailed boots; in present-day vibram-soled boots without crampons, the slope would have been almost impossible for comparative novices and certainly extremely dangerous.

The Old Man of Coniston: WG Collingwood-1925: The Ruskin Museum.
When we got down to the but we stood our frozen clothes in a corner like suits of armour and photographed them. And in the evening at the Crown we had our first taste of mulled ale, done on a shovel over a blazing fire. 

AH (Harry) Griffin. First published in the Lancashire Evening Post.

Friday 19 February 2016

Mike Tomkies: Life in the Wilderness

Mike Tomkies,Moobli and a wildcat
Just now and then you read a book by an adventurous man which is so superbly written that you feel you must talk to the author. Not since Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, with its incredibly rich vision of the Western Highlands, had I been so powerfully moved.

What otters were to Maxwell—a source of inspiration giving meaning to his life when he most needed it — so, I felt, were wildcats to Mike Tomkies. Where Tomkies differed from Maxwell was that he had no wish to make pets of his wildcats. Having rescued them when they were abandoned by the mother, he felt it his duty to rear them and let them loose. But strange events conspired to turn the whole affair into an extraordinary story.

When I reviewed the book My Wilderness Wildcats, I had no clue as to where the wilderness was, for no place-names were given. The author obviously wanted to keep the location secret and, respecting his privacy, I didn’t even consider trying to find out.Then the unexpected happened: he wrote to thank me for the review. I replied suggesting we meet and so we did, at the remote post-office where he collects his mail once a week in summer – it was a blind date. What would he be like?

I had to wait longer than I expected before a tall and lithe figure, wearing a camouflage jacket, held out his hand and said, “Mike Tomkies. Sorry I’m late.” His manner was matter of fact, not effusive. The voice was English. The determined face had a fringe of whiskers and a chin beard, with a few grey hairs among the dark. I thought we would be off immediately to the remote road-end where he keeps his boat. Instead, he gazed at me thoughtfully, then came out with it:

“I should really visit a golden eagle eyrie. It’s important I look at it to see if it’s in use. But it’s a twenty-mile drive back the way you’ve come, then a steep climb to the foot of the cliff, and I expect you’ve had enough for one day.” The time was 4.30 p.m.

I rather liked the idea, even although mist was smirring as I put on my boots and transferred to his Land-Rover, while Mike ordered Moobli the Alsatian into the backseat. So back round the sea-loch we went and over a thousand-foot pass while he talked of eagles and the exhausting work of visiting every eyrie in one of the wildest stretches of Scotland.

“I did thirty-three treks last season checking over a score of eyries. I’ll tell you this—writing about wildlife is a lot easier than taking photographs of it. I spent five nights out in a small hide at one eyrie. The longest continuous spell was thirty-one hours. I felt terrible at the end of it. Even with a sleeping-bag it was freezing cold and uncomfortable. But I found out what I wanted to know—that the eagle hunts and brings in prey at night. The problem of flying into a cliff ledge under an overhang with trees and landing on it must be really difficult. I also discovered that it sleeps with its head under its wing like a duck, brooding its chick all the while.

“The big thrill was to be awake while the eagle was asleep, then see it push its head out, open its eyes, close them again and nuzzle down for another forty winks. I was waiting for the sunrise, and I’ll never forget the moment when the eyrie was touched with gold and I pressed the camera shutter to get my best picture of an eagle with its chick.

Moobli above Glencoe:Photo- Mike Tomkies

“My most terrifying moment was one day when the male rocketed straight at the hide as if to destroy it. But all it wanted was a sprig of heather from above my face, stuff I had used to camouflage my hide, to add to the nest material. There were four days when prey must have been scarce, so little was being brought in. I offered the eaglet steak that I had carried up to supplement its diet, but it wouldn’t eat it until the mother tore it up.

“I’m frightened of heights, and it slightly worries me that I have to take so many chances. I’ve had my pack blown off a ledge, such was the force of the wind. Eagles really test you. You can be exhausted, despondent, and in a state of exultation all in a day.”

We were over the pass now and contouring a fresh-water loch enclosed by spruce and larch forest.

“This is the place,” said Mike, pulling the vehicle in close and leaving Moobli as guard while the pair of us took a steep ride through the trees. An hour of steady plugging, and I happened to be looking up the face, when the broad, out-stretched wings of an eagle came over the ridge and dipped into the rocks.

Mike Tomkies' abode Gasken Cottage 'Wildernesse',on Loch Sheil.

“You’ve brought me luck. The eyrie must be in use,” said Mike, excitement in his voice.

Closer to the rocks we could see the big stick-pile of the eyrie on a precarious ledge. Soon I was up there, looking obliquely into the nest cup containing two pale eggs, while Mike traversed across by a different route. Now we turned for home, driving into heavier rain as we went west to the road-end where the fibre-glass boat lay anchored. A few carries of heavy gear down the steep bank, a pull at the outboard engine, and we were away into an out-of-focus world of grey water and creeping mist.

“Yes, it’s a dangerous loch,” said Mike in answer to my query.

I’ve had two narrow escapes from drowning—once when the boat was swamped in a squall and I had to swim for it. The boat sank, but I got some buoyancy from a box with a wildcat kitten in it and from a watertight attache case containing my valuables. I got some help from the dog, too, by grabbing his tail. Training it from being a pup to stay close to me paid off. The other bad moment was due to engine failure in stormy conditions.”

“Welcome to Wilderness!” were his next words as we pulled sharply into what was little more than a slit of inlet below a white croft house flanked and backed by noble trees. Even in the dim light it had welcoming charm. It was good to get in, light the Tilley lamps and have a dram while the steak was cooking on the Calor gas stove. I was too ready for my bunk to take much in. Eiderdown bag unrolled, I was asleep in minutes, and woke up to the steady drumming of rain on the tin roof.

Mike was already up and at breakfast of cereal and fruit in his own quarters, which combine his bedroom, office and living-room.

“Help yourself,” he nodded to the kitchen table, and I took the hint, for I, too, am not by nature talkative in the morning. However, once the fire was lit and Mike’s pipe of tobacco was drawing, he was ready to expand.

“I’m not quite a Sassenach,” he said. “My mother was a McKinlay Stewart from Islay, but she died when I was four and I didn’t know of my Highland connections until I was 42. At that time I was living in a log cabin which I’d built myself on a piece of virgin coast in British Columbia. No neighbours except deer, racoons, mink, bald eagles, skunks, pack rats, salmon and the odd cougar and black bear. I had cut myself off from my old way of life to try to write a great novel. In that wilderness, with a boat and a sea full of fish, I could live easily on five dollars a week.

“But the loneliness of living in the wilderness nearly broke me, especially the first long winter when nature seemed to be conspiring against me. I worked ten hours a day on the novel, trying to banish the pangs of solitude, but they kept gnawing at me. In three and a half years of patience-testing discipline I wrote and rewrote that novel. And the manuscripts are across the room from you in that wooden chest, still unsold.

“It was a purging experience. There were depths, but a change was taking place in me as I became attuned to the wilderness and drew more and more joy from its wildlife. Then I did a solo trek into the mountainous grizzly bear country, going back there later with a wise old Indian, a marvellous backwoodsman who really opened my eyes.” He has written about the experience in a book published in Britain last year called Alone In The Wilderness, which I have read and enjoyed since I saw him.

Two questions came to my mind. What made him leave Britain for the wilds of Canada? The other was- why did he leave British Columbia for Scotland when he was getting so much from the wilderness experience out there? He referred me to his Canadian book, and its opening chapter, “The Immigrant”, where he writes :

“Before my move from Britain I had found myself becoming bored and depressed. The reasons perhaps reached back to my youth. During the early years as a cub reporter in country villages I had dreamed only of making it to London. The British capital then seemed to me in my painful naivety a magic journalistic mecca where I’d be accepted into an exciting world of earls, politicians, glamorous women, movie stars and athletes.

“After more than a decade in London I indeed dallied with the illustrious, the beautiful and the swift. I was flying between Paris, Rome, Athens, Madrid, Vienna, New York and Hollywood, mixing drinks, talk, life and copy with vaunted famous names whose images I’d once worshipped as a village youth. Meeting whom I chose, writing about whom I liked, my name at the head of columns in widely read magazines, money simply Hooded in 1 became the complete hedonist. I went through sports cars like a frustrated racing driver, and reacted against my shy and awkward country-bred youth by squiring some of the world’s most beautiful women.

“It was around my 34th birthday that this fast life began to go sour. Quite suddenly nothing seemed to lie ahead but boring repetition. A self-contempt grew as I realised that I ought to be doing something more intelligent with my life. Material success was no longer enough.”

Living between man and the last wild places

Having changed horses in midstream around that age myself, I could understand his state of discontent.

“But why come back to Britain after being in a big country that you were enjoying?” He answers this question in the end chapter of Alone In The Wilderness titled “Time To Move On”.

“Canada had been good to me, good for me. It had shaken me from a city rut and had shown me a finer and fuller life here on this lonely cliff, five thousand miles from all I had previously known, my mind had been freed, I felt as if a new self had been formed … I had lived close to nature, seen both its beauty and its callousness, and been shown a path, a way that led beyond hope or fear, success or failure.

“I knew now the time had come to move on. I did not know when or where I would go, only that my life, minor and of little account though it was, would be bound up somehow in the future between man and the last wild places . . ”

Astonishingly, it was the chance find of a paperback which he picked off a rubbish heap in Canada which brought him to Scotland. The book was A Ring Of Bright Water, by Gavin Maxwell.

“As I read about Camusfearna and Maxwell’s magical description of the Western Highlands, it set me wondering if I could find a place like that in Scotland. The idea was reinforced by an article I’d read about the Adventure School which the Atlantic rower John Ridgway had set up in Sutherland.

“Uncertainties were resolved when the land next to mine was sold to city folk who began building log cabins on it. I sold up, came eventually to Scotland and visited the beautiful bay where Camusfearna used to stand. Then I drove north to Ardmore. I admired Ridgway, but I wanted not an Adventure School, but a wild place of my own to study. I started looking around and tried 14 different landowners without success.

“I visited Scotland again in March 1970, and it was on that trip I first saw Arisaig, and beyond its white sands, these strange islands- Rum, Eigg and the Cuillin peaks of Skye. I was so powerfully moved by the sudden impact of it all that I got out the car and kissed the ground. And it was from that moment onwards my difficulties were smoothed as I was passed from one helpful person to another, and got the offer of a dilapidated wooden croft on a small Atlantic island if I cared to make it habitable.

“I knew it was the place for me the moment I saw it, and I soon learned that the tides and currents of this coast were more dangerous than the Pacific Coast where I’d come from. There was a lot of boating to do, towing timber and cement and building materials to the house to make it weathertight. I needed cash to buy the stuff, and got it, thanks to an advance of £500 from a publisher for a biography of John Wayne which I later wrote on the island.

“And it was there, too, that I began writing about the wilderness experience in Canada. It happened because an editor friend of mine thought it would be a good magazine article. Strangely enough, as I sat down to write, I realised that it was exactly four years to the very day that I had arrived in Canada. Something unusual happened as I started to put down the log cabin experience. The typewriter carriage ran away with me. I typed right through the night and produced 30,000 words in three days. All the doubts and uncertainties and the hard treks came back to me. The result was more than a series of articles. It became my best book: Alone In The Wilderness.

“So much was happening every day there. I felt I had become a part of the natural life of the island. Seals would follow my boat for a hand-out of mackerel. I could call a kestrel down from the sky. I was adopted by a crow and I trained a young sparrowhawk. Crabs and plaice would ride on the waves right up to the very edge of my beach to snatch insects blown from the trees. Then when the tide fell, along would come the oystercatchers to pick up what had been left. Next would come the fox looking for bigger spoils cast up by the tide.”

While we talked the mist was lifting and the rain had eased. We put on our boots and Mike led me to the waterfall spouting white through the oaks and birches.

Moss, grey rocks, fragrant scents of the new leaf, the little garden he had created amidst his three acres, and the native trees he had planted were so much as he had described in his Wildcats book that I felt I had been here before as we strolled, with a background of woodland birdsong and sandpipers calling from the shore.

Tom Weir: First published in The Scots Magazine 

Friday 12 February 2016

Gone to Earth

I do not think you could call the lads real animal lovers. It's not that they actually hated animals, but just that they never thought about them, or if they did then it was with a cold detachment quite alien to our national character. This antipathy extended even to dogs. I doubt if any of the lads ever owned a dog, and if they did then the poor bloody mongrel would have had no doggy vitamins to slaver over, but would have had to make do with common steak like the rest of us. The image of Big Harry, for example, squatting on his massive haunches and murmuring "Poochy, poochy, poochy," to one of those little miniatures is not one which springs readily to mind, you must admit. He once kicked a bulldog up the arse, mark you, but that was because the savage brute bit him for tresspassing, so it should not be construed as a sign of affection.

I am fully aware that this sort of attitude puts the lads beyond the pale for many people. I mean all those animal lovers who spend hours grooming their horses so that they can hunt foxes, or pat their dog with real affection as they wait to empty both barrels into some unsuspecting grouse. And yet, despite this, the lads had a compassion which went deeper than one would imagine, looking at their craggy, weather beaten faces.

It puts me in mind of the time Sorrowful Jones took part in a fox hunt: not officially, of course, because Sorrowful was not really one of the county set. It happened one spring in the Lake District, when Sorrowful was out of work and spending a few idle days alone, wandering the fells and sleeping rough. He had started his walk in Langdale as usual; had a flaming row with a couple of blokes at the Wall End Barn, and escaped into a westering sun over Rossett  Ghyll to Wasdale, there to commune with nature. He made his bed by some big boulders below the awful scree slopes which sweep down from Scafell Crag: a cliff of sheer, black, forbidding rock and not the sort of place I would choose to sleep, myself. But Sorrowful is funny that way, something of a masochist. He's the only bloke I know who prefers to sleep on hard rock. I reckon he has a Japanese ancestor somewhere in his twisted family tree— although the permanent yellow cast to his skin comes from not washing too often.

He slept until the warm spring sun was into the sky, then he rose and stretched, batted the dust out of his clothes, and scrambled over to a nearby beck where he obtained a panful of water for the coffee which formed his breakfast. He had two sweet cups that morning, bulked out by a forgotten crispbread which he discovered in his rucksack, then he packed away his petrol stove and mug and prepared for the forthcoming day. And a lovely day it was too: such a day as can only happen in the Lakes in spring. The sunshine made the rocks glow with warmth, the becks tinkled like fairy pianos, and the new lambs bleated for their mothers in the valley below. The sky was blue, with puffs of pure white cloud to break the monotony, and even old Scafell itself seemed less broody, as though it acknowledged the day as perfect. What with all these signs of Nature's annual rebirth, and the warmth and promise of the day, Sorrowful felt pretty good. As he walked towards the cliffs he even burst into snatches of song: "Caviare comes from the virgin sturgeon, The virgin sturgeon is a very fine fish, The virgin sturgeon needs no urgin', That's why caviare is my dish.'

He was trying to remember the second verse of this immortal ballad, which had something to do with grandpa chasing grandma up a tree, when he came face to face with a fox. Now there are a great many foxes in the Lake District but this was the first time that Sorrowful had ever seen one so close, and it is difficult to imagine which was the more surprised of the two. On balance, I reckon the fox — seeing as how there are lots of foxes but only one Sorrowful Jones. Whatever effect the appearance of Sorrowful had on the fox's mind we shall never know, for the animal was already in a state of terror. It made no move to escape; instead it just lay on the ledge where it had ensconced itself, panting away so that its shaggy golden coat heaved in and out like the bosom of a film starlet doing weight lifting exercises. Although Sorrowful was not much of a judge of horseflesh, he could tell the fox was a young one, that it had been running hard, and that it was all but buggered, as the saying goes.

"Poor little sod," said Sorrowful, aloud to the fox. "What you been up to, then? Been tryin' to get up the crag, 'ave yer?" The fox just lay, panting, its eyes not leaving Sorrowful's grubby face for an instance. "You don't seem 'urt," Sorrowful mused on,"but yer must 'ave been runnin' like 'ell to get in this state." Then, cutting through the soft spring air like a butcher's knife, he heard the excited yapping of hounds, and looking up he saw the tiny piebald bodies of fifteen or twenty dogs rounding the shoulder of the mountain and scrabbling like mad things up the steep scree, darting this way and that, looking for the scent, their long tails waving with pleasure. Some way behind the hounds came the huntsmen, stumbling and cursing among the boulders but intent to be in at the kill. " 'Ello then", exclaimed Sorrowful to the fox, grasping at once the essentials of the situation. "You're in a right fix, ain't you mate? A bloody great crag up your backside an' a howlin' mob out front. They're out to get you, mate, an' no mistake." The fox kept its brown eyes steadfastly on Sorrowful's as if appealing for help.

Now I must make it clear that in the normal way of things, Sorrowful Jones doesn't give a bugger about foxes. He is not anti-blood sport and he thinks aniseed is the stuff you make sweets from, but right then, at that moment in time, he could no more have stood by and seen that fox slaughtered than if it had been a suckling babe in the path of advancing Dervishes. He had a sudden inner revulsion at the idea that people should turn one of God's cathedrals- Scafell- into a sacrificial altar. Before the fox knew what was happening, Sorrowful scooped it up and with a deft movement thrust it down the front of his anorak. Then he turned and ran towards the mountain for sanctuary. 

Scafell Crag does not show up well from a distance unless you happen to pick exactly the right vantage point, so that when you come up to it, it is something of a surprise, not to say shock. It is easily the biggest mass of rock in the Lakes; towering walls and aggressively thrusting buttresses seamed with steep, dank, gulleys, From the middle distance it looks formidable; from close by it looks impossible. And yet, when you know the place and have done mortal combat with it, you know it can be beaten. There are ledges and ways between ledges, and Sorrowful Jones knew them well. Clutching the fox to his breast Sorrowful scrambled to the foot of the rocks. At first he thought he would escape up the long shoot of loose scree known as Lord's Rake, but the idea of toiling up such a steep slope under a hot sun did not appeal to him one bit, and anyway, he quickly realised that the dogs could follow and even overtake him. Then he thought of Slingsby's Route, which is a climb generously supplied with holds, but he remembered that it involved a rather nasty chimney overhanging a big drop, and whilst there might be room in the chimney for him-self he was not sure he could manage it carrying a fox. So in the end he just hit the cliff slap on and began to climb.

He was barely in time, too, for as he stepped onto the rock the first of the dogs snapped at his heels. Their frustration at being so blatantly robbed of their birthright was something awful to hear. The going was easy and within a few minutes Sorrowful reached a broad, grassy edge, where he paused to wipe the perspiration from his brow and to see how the fox was getting along. He opened his anorak zip and the creature popped out its head to grin,wickedly at the howling dogs some twenty feet below. At this piece of impertinence they yowled even louder. "They're dead narked, Foxy an' no mistake," observed Sorrowful, giving his charge a pat on the head. Now, it is common knowledge that a dog is an animal with a fair degree of nouse, and these particular dogs being born and bred in the mountains, did not intend being thwarted by a bit of steep rock. When they discovered that they could not make a direct frontal assault on the cliff they switched off the old scent gland and reverted to natural cunning.

They scouted around to see whether they could reach Sorrowful (and his fox) by an outflanking movement. The moment Sorrowful realised what the dogs were about he knew he was in trouble. The ledge upon which he rested sloped down 70 his right and came so close to the ground that any dog with a bit of spring in its legs could easily reach it. Quickly, he pushed the fox's snout back inside his jacket again and so began to climb higher. A dozen of the dogs had meanwhile found the key to the ledge and had jumped aboard like four legged pirates. When they found that their prey had gone once again, their fury knew no bounds. They wasted no time in baying for the moon, but got to work sniffing their way around the problem. It was positively uncanny the way those dogs could find ledges and flakes with which in to ascend the cliff.

Before long some of them were once again level with Sorrowful, and of would have reached him had he not beaten a quick, upwards retreat. Fortunately for Sorrowful, the climbing was easy, but the dogs managed to follow, somehow. No sooner had he reached a ledge than some dog would appear on the one below. They were literally chasing him up the cliff. Of course, things couldn't go on like that for too long. The climbing got progressively more difficult and the ledges small and less frequent. The dogs began to feel the strain. They became fewer: half a dozen, four, two, until at last there was only one big hound, a black bastard with a brown eye patch, which kept up the chase. It seemed able to follow Sorrowful wherever he went, that dog. It scrambled up a chimney after him, and Sorrowful claims it even laybacked a crack, but that I find hard to believe.

He insists, however, that it was a damn sight better climber that Piss Eyed Pete, which I am prepared to accept.By the time the black hound called quits, they were a considerable way up the cliff and Sorrowful was dead scared. The holds had diminished to almost nothing and the ledges were negligible. He was lost on that gaunt crag, with only a fox for company. Somehow, he managed to keep going; always choosing what seemed the easiest way, until eventually he came to a great amphitheatre in the rocks. He recognised it at once as the bowl which funnels down into Moss Ghyll and his confidence came storming back. This was home ground. Within half an hour he was standing on the rocky summit of the mountain. He glanced around apprehensively just to make sure the black dog had not followed him, but the only thing to meet his senses was the distant barking of hounds, far, far, below, mingled with an occasional huntsman's shout and the frantic parping of a horn.

The fox scurried off, the moment Sorrowful opened his anorak, without so much as a glance back at his rescuer. "Ungrateful bastard," murmured Sorrowful. "I wonder if foxes 'ave fleas?" He scratched at the thought, but if the fox did have fleas it had taken them with it. The din from below grew to outrageous proportions. At first Sorrowful pretended not to notice but after a while the cacophonous sound jarred his nerves. It seemed as though the whole of Wasdale was a pit of howling canines. With a heavy sigh, Sorrowful picked up his rucksack and made his way towards Broad Stand, the easy way down. The noise disturbed the peace of the hills, and made him restless, but more than that he had developed an intense curiosity. He wanted to see what was going on down below. It took him far less time to descend the mountain than it had to climb it. There was just one short, nasty bit which demanded his attention and then he was able to slide down a groove which landed him on the narrow ridge dividing Scafell from the neighbouring Pike. From there it was only a matter of minutes before he was once again at the foot of the great crag.

Now, Sorrowful Jones is not the kind of bloke you can easily surprise. He has a poker face which he got through playing poker, and he has been around a lot. In his short but crowded life he has seen most things so that there is little left with which to surprise him. But when he reached the foot of Scafell Crag that day, he was amazed. Above him towered the great black buttresses of the crag, soaring for hundreds of perpendicular feet into the blue sky. At its foot, a group of huntsmen were dancing a kind of jig which at first sight, Sorrowful took to be some sort of ritual — like you see on those travel films from Nepal. When this flash of fantasy had passed, however, he could see that the huntsmen were not dancing at ail. They were hopping with rage. And they had just cause. Scattered all over the soaring face of the cliff on ledges great and small was a multitude of dogs. There were brown dogs on black ledges and black dogs on brown ledges. There were sitting dogs, standing dogs and dogs on the trot like caged lions. Above all there were howling dogs—for every single hound in the pack was stuck fast.

Sorrowful ambled over the scree to the dancing huntsmen and struck up a conversation with a fiery countenanced old boy who seemed to be in a position of authority,. "They're stuck, mate," remarked Sorrowful, indicating the dogs. The Master of Foxhounds gave him a look which would have withered a fully matured oak, but Sorrowful pretended not to notice. "How did it 'appen, then?" he asked, innocently. "The damned brutes must have followed the fox up the crag", replied the Huntsman "Extraordinary business, what? We were all too far behind to see it clearly, or stop 'em. Now they're stuck up there." He looked at Sorrowful hopefully and added, "You look like a climber, young fella: can't you get 'em down?" A young pup, which had been too small to keep up with the rest of the pack, had been standing by its master's legs, when suddenly it smelt the scent of fox on Sorrowful's anorak. With an infant bound it sprang at him, yapping excitedly. "Down Brutus! Down boy!" Commanded the Master. "Dammit! Don't you know the difference between Man and Fox, yet?

Can't think what's got into the blasted creatures today!" "I'm used to bein' hunted so don't mind me," said Sorrowful, catching the dog a clip on the earhole which immediately stopped its malarky. The pup looked hurt and puzzled: nobody had ever told him that if you came too close to a fox-smell it belted you like a steam hammer. "What about the pack?" moaned the Master. Sorrowful shook his head. "I'm only a poor soddin' rambler, mate, so I can't help yer.

He wandered away, leaving the huntsmen to solve their problem as best they might. Down the scree he went, then along a sylvan greensward until he came to the valley floor and the cluster of cottages and the whitewashed old inn from whose windows men first gazed at crags with eyes that saw truth and adventure. He bought a pint of ale and some bread and cheese and consumed his repast in the glowing warmth of the afternoon sun. That night he found again his old shelter spot on the rough stones and he lay down, contented. In front of him Scafell rose blackly etched against the purple night sky; an ebony outline of serrated towers. Less than an hour before, with the aid of torches and miles of rope, the last of the dogs had been recovered from the crag and the caterwauling had died away as the huntsmen returned home. Now it was still and dark and as Nature intended. Sorrowful belched loudly, turned over, and fell asleep.

Walt Unsworth: First Published in Climber & Rambler: May 1978.

Friday 5 February 2016

Wild America: A personal celebration of the national

Veteran outdoor journalist Roly Smith and acclaimed photographer David Muench have brought their respective skills to bear on a rather fine coffee table tome, 'Wild America: a personal celebration of the national parks'. Although the work will of course be of interest to US readers, it will probably be equally appreciated here in the UK where most people's knowledge of US national parks begins and ends with Yosemite and Yellowstone.

In fact the US National parks-of which there are now 59 across 27 states-precede our own by almost 80 years. Compared to the relatively recent first UK national park established in The Peak District in 1951, the aforementioned Yellowstone national park spread across Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, was established in 1872.

In 'Wild America' the author's offer a modest 21 of the sum total of US parks based on personal favourites. However, included in this 'Greatest Hits' selection are some real humdingers,including many of which were unfamiliar to myself. The vast majority are as expected,concentrated in West/Mid West of the United States with a high concentration around  'Abbeyland'; the mountains and deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. Only two parks in the East appear. Arcadia in Maine and Shenandoah in Virginia.
With roughly four pages allocated to each national park, Roly Smith's text combines his personal impressions and descriptive notes with historical details and anecdotes. Each section beautifully illustrated by David Muench's sumptuous photographs.

Some fascinating historical facts jump out at times. For example, when the Shenandoah national park in Virginia was created in 1935, the indigenous 'hillbilly farmers' were evicted off the land by the state. The theory being,that national parks had to be empty uninhabited wilderness. Perhaps that would explain the present day survivalist tendencies and paranoia displayed by the redneck constituency!

For the casual observer of national parks stateside,it has always seemed ironic-for me at least-that the land of the free appears to operate quite a rigid,structured and decidedly authoritarian approach to how its parks are used. For example,entrance fees and strict control over wild camping within the confines of the park. Edward Abbey in his essays describes taking a great delight in ignoring 'keep out' signs and tearing down fences in the wilderness areas whenever he had the opportunity! As a former national park employee,he was on record as lamenting the drift towards tourist consumerism and the taming of the wild places of south western America.

That being said, the US's approach to establishing national parks-the latest being the magnificent Black canyon of Gunnison, granted national park status by President Clinton in 1999- shows up the UK's rather timid approach. For example,anyone familiar with north Wales would ask why the boundaries of the Snowdonia park have been so arbitrarily set? Why is most of the wild Hiraethog, The Berwyn mountain range, The Dee Valley, even the Clwydians not included in an extended national park or even set in a new NE Wales national park?

Probably because the farmers and landowners object,as they did when the Cambrian Mountains were proposed as our first national park in the 1930's. But I digress; to get back to Wild America. It's only flaw as far as I'm concerned is the fact that the author is no Ed Ebbey. The approach is rather touristy and tame.Lacking the investigative spirit of ' Cactus Ed' the author contents himself to guided walks and looks on from a safe distance as it were. Without this spirit of adventure,the book lacks the excitement that a seasoned backpacker like say Chris Townsend would have brought to life.

That being said, it's still a lovely little book-just 96 pages- which I'm sure will stimulate interest in areas unfamiliar to the reader. The photographs are never less than exquisite and its a nice little work to dip into for inspiration when the grey skies of Britain threaten to tip you into depression!

Wild America will be published in the UK in April. You can pre-order it from Rucsac Readers 
John Appleby:2016