Friday 27 July 2018

Villainography...The Landlord's Tale

The thirst for more of the life or legend of Don Whillans apparently remains unsatisfied. Here's a story no-one has heard as I heard it. I never checked it with Don. During the sixties and seventies a number of climbing clubs with Welsh roots or properties took to holding annual dinners in the Conwy Valley rather than at Llanberis. They favoured the subsequently demolished Victoria Hotel at Llanrwst or the Prince's Arms at Trefriw. At one of these Trefriw dinners the club chose to accommodate its invited speaker and some other guests in isolation from its members. They were quartered at the Fairy Falls in the centre of the village. The licensee at that time was a Yorkshireman called Midgeley, known to locals as Midge. In fact he worked full time as a forester but served drinks himself most evenings. His wife handled food and accommodation.

On one occasion I found myself making idle conversation with him across the bar of the empty lounge. Both of us had half an eye on the muted television news when, surprising me, the bearded face of our hero appeared.

Midge made a sharp hissing noise and his face stiffened. He lunged over to turn the sound  up as the report on Whillans vs. Lancashire Constabulary unfolded. He'd apparently seen it earlier.This fininished,he turned the sound down again. Then he unloaded himself.

'They got back about midnight. They'd all had a skinful but some of them wanted more. They were residents, they weren't that noisy. About half past one I told them I'd like to close the bar. A couple went right off, then the others except for that bugger. He just sat there, sipping away, half-glasses and pints in front of him. In the end I told him I was shutting, could he go up now. He got up, picked up a couple of pints and set off up the stairs. I ran up after and dodged past just as he reached the landing. " You can't take those to your room' I said. He looked at me deadpan. "Oh, sorry", he says, mock polite. Quick as a flash he tipped the drinks over the railing. Now I'd had a new hallway carpet fitted just a week before.' He paused.' So I it im'!

That resonated. In perfect innocence he'd pinched Don's punch-line.

'What happened?'

'He went straight down the bloody stairs, all the way to the hallway. He lay there a minute, not looking up, then he hunched his shoulders up against the wall, reached for his cap, and put it on straight. He looked up at me. He got on his feet and came up the stairs, head down. I just waited. 
He looked me straight in the face for a minute, then he gave me a really nice little smile and said Please....Can I go to bed now?" I stood there and watched till he'd gone through the door.
'He was a bloody menace, but....I liked the feller,' Midge said, shaking his head, mystified. 
I'm repeating remarks of over thirty years ago as accurately as I can but a problem has come up. I told this tale to Doug Verity a year ago -- at a funeral, where else? Doug laughed and said, "Oh, in Don's account the battle raged from room to room." So who was right? Somewhere out there Don's fellow-guests might have heard something. But which club was the host club? In any case, the incident seems to me to show both sides of Don's nature.

It happened that I read Jim Perrin's book only a month ago, causing memories of my own to resurface. In fact I never once climbed with Don or even saw him climbing. I always met him in pubs or at parties, where we had many lengthy conversations. Yet these encounters may have spanned as long a period as any other climber's. Possibly, though, the first would be disallowed as not proven.
From Whitsuntide 1950 the end of petrol rationing brought much more traffic onto the roads. That made hitch-hiking to the Lakes practicable so that gritstone became, for me, a local midweek indulgence. But in the April of that year my brother and I were still extending our acquaintance with unvisited outcrops at the limits of our range. One of these trips took us over the border to either Ravenstones or Dovestones in the Chew Valley. 
Image- Daniel Rees.
It was a grey day, cloudy but not wet. I don't know whether we had route information but we worked left to right along the crag climbing anything to our taste. We'd seen and heard no-one on the moor. Then, halfway along, we rounded a buttress and found two other climbers. I still see this clearly.

They were standing beneath an overhanging crack seaming the back of a shallow cave. I couldn't take my eyes off their monstrous rope, thick, muddy, a tangled heap lying in a pile. We each said where we came from but not, I think, our names. It was more a matter of "Where are you lads from?" They'd been working right to left. The big hefty youth never spoke. The short one, feet planted, shoulders back, with a flat, challenging stare, told us he'd just climbed the crack. He urged us to try it. He was in nailed boots. Clearly, it hadn't been touched before. It was obviously very hard but completely unappealing -- damp moss, the seam dripping, the finish a heather drapery. It was filthy. And it wasn't thirty feet in height. We'd come to climb full-length routes on clean rock. We declined, moved on, and didn't see them again.

By chance the 'The Villain' happens to include Don's diary entries for the last two weekends in April that year. They were for Ravenstones and Dovestones. That settles it for me and names the companion as Eric Worthington. This was a year before Don met Joe Brown.

I always enjoyed talking to Don. In the beginning it was rock climbing. For a while he overestimated my ability, probably because in making the third ascent of my hard climb on Castle Rock he'd had to produce an alternative finish in default of the normal finish. Some years later circumstances were reversed. Making the second ascent of his route Delphinus at Thirlmere, I thought I could dispense with his highest peg and straighten the line by climbing a steep little groove just to the right. I got up this only to find that I had to place one myself for the insecure exit. 

In fact, Joe, Don, and the Rock and Ice nucleus were hot on our heels on our own crags though Pete Greenwood and Arthur Dolphin briefly teamed up and raised the existing leading standard on Scafell and Bowfell. Apart from making their mark at Thirlmere the Rock and Ice even raided our home ground at Kilnsey and followed us to Dove Crag. I'd spent a bit of unrewarded effort on these two impressive cliffs. They lifted standards on Dove with Dovedale Grooves, and seven years later Don did it again with Extol.

I remember Don describing at length the ascent of the big pitch on the Central Pillar of Freney. At his high point, trying to climb it free to scorch the French pursuit, he realised that he wasn't going to get up or to get back. He knew he could hang on for a couple of minutes longer and he wasn't ready to drop off as an act of will. So he simply warned Chris Bonington to be ready for this sensational fall. Chris, desperate to have a go himself, told him to let go immediately to-save time. Reluctantly he complied!. Years later I had a letter from a Professor of Applied Psychology who was editing a four-volume series on skill studies. The second book was in process. Could I contribute a substantial essay analysing what factors seemed to be common to extreme performers in rock climbing? He'd written to Don first but he'd declined and suggested I should do it. I felt flattered by this recommendation.

Of course, what it really meant was that Don couldn't be bothered and was earning more from a single lecture than the fee for this task. But I enjoyed it. I was also asked to supply a selection of photographs from which only one could be chosen so I put together a batch from various acquaintances. They were sent on uncaptioned as requested but by chance the one selected was of Delpinus.

Of course, we all learned sooner or later what a monster he could be. When he moved to North Wales we heard the inside stories of events in Penmaenmawr. Long-term friends of Audrey Whillans were already established there and they were equally friends of Maureen and myself. Years earlier my own wife had had to discourage an advance, but then, didn't everybody's? In fact he mellowed as time went by and would even buy a round when reminded. 
In his later years his interests shifted. He was no conservationist but he drew a childlike pleasure from animals, birds and fish. At Penmaenmawr he had a big aviary and an aquarium. Just before his final journey we talked exclusively about snorkelling. Maureen and I had been to the gulf of Aqaba, he'd revisited the Red Sea. His instinct for self-preservation was still acute. Thinking he'd glimpsed a shark fin nearby he'd pounded over to a small rock barely breaking the surface. After three lonely hours there he'd realised that if he didn't make the longer swim back he'd die of heatstroke or dehydration. He hadn't enjoyed the trip back.

Despite his immodest cravings for celebrity, women and drink, and all the problems these caused, he was always able to delight with his wit and his uncompromising stance.These may have sprung from Northern folk wisdom but he made them his own. In a backstreet pub he looked sadly at the line of freshly poured pints on the bar. "Want to know how to sell more beer, love?" "Yer what? How?" "Fill the fuckin' glasses!" 

 'Villainography'..the original typewritten essay.

In the Dolomites, on his final journey, a group of British climbers was descending from a hut near the Civetta. They sat down to scan the face, trying to see whether they could spot Hugh Banner and Derek Walker, who were somewhere on the Philip-Flamm or the descent. They'd started from a camp near this point and Derek Price had agreed to collect their gear. He called over to ask for assistance and one or two amongst the group got up reluctantly. Frances Carr, better known as Frantic, also tried to rise but was detained by a heavy hand on her shoulder. "Never volunteer for owt " Don muttered

Harold Drasdo

Friday 13 July 2018

Ancient Stones and Wanderers

Hamish Brown :Photo-The Scotsman

I had the notion one sunny morning to oblige a reader and go seeking a stone called Clach nam Breatann in Glen Falloch. I had visited it once before, a long time ago, and I remembered it was hard to find for it is not on the map.  Clach nam Breatann is Gaelic for “Stone of the Britons”, and it is of significance because it marked the northern boundary of Strathclyde, beyond which was Pictland.

I made the mistake of parking at the Falls of Falloch, when it is better to drive a mile on up the glen, park at a good lay by on the west side and begin the climb by passing under the West Highland Railway by a cattle creep. You do not see the stone until vou have climbed a few hundred feet to a skyline beyond which it is conspicuous, perched on a pointed knoll. A local name for it is the “Mortar Stone” because from the south it looks like a piece of artillery.
Perched on its slippery top and looking down on the steep-sided glen, I thought of the Romans whose Empire stretched from the Black Sea to its north-westerly limit at Old Kilpatrick. They couldn’t use Glen Falloch to penetrate the north because of the Picts waging guerrilla war from these slopes. And even in the expansionist times when the Romans left and the power of Strathclyde grew, they could not contain the native Picts and the Scots from Antrim who combined in 843 to form Alban under Kenneth McAlpin.

Clach nam Breatann leaps into history when Robert the Bruce, in 1306, after his defeat by the English at Methven, headed west and was unlucky enough to fall in with the McDougalls below Ben Lui in Strath Fillan. Bruce was routed in that battle and forced to turn south. In Glen Falloch he paused with his 500 men at Clach nam Breatann before pushing down the eastern side of Loch Lomond to Inversnaid. The stirring events that broke English domination of Scotland were yet to come.

From the Stone you can drop to the railway in a north-easterly direction and find, in less than a mile, a path which takes a short-cut to Crianlarich. It is the soggy remains of General Caulfield’s military road, and it speaks of other conquests, the pacification of the Highland clans, the introduction of sheep and the exploitation of the Caledonian Forest. I walked along the path whose northern signpost was the snowy top of Ben More against which remnant Scots pines of the most southerly fragment of ancient woodland stood bravely.

During the summer I had followed Caulfield’s road right across Strathfillan and over Rannoch Moor, then across the Devil’s Staircase to Kinlochleven. This was for a new series of my television programme, Weir’s Way, and some of that journey made in a heatwave, with hordes of clegs and midges, had been memorable enough.
 STV crew filming 'Weir's Way' in the early 1970's

What surprised the camera team was to find that we had the route to ourselves. We met no walkers except in the Glen Nevis gorge, yet the roads were humming with traffic. One of the things I find interesting, working with different production teams, is how they grow to like the hills. Indeed, cameraman Harry Bridges has become a Munro-bagger on his own account and now claims a score of 20.

Perhaps some of this was due to a programme I did with Hamish Brown in the Arrochar hills with Hamish recounting his great trip across the Munros in a single walk of 1640 miles in 112 days and 450,000 feet of climbing. I was impressed at the lightness of his rucksack con­taining nylon tent, sleeping bag, stove, pots and food. I could lift it easily with one hand and reckon it was hardly more than 20lb.

Hamish grudges time spent in motor cars, and believes that to get the best out of the hills you should expedition across them, using bothies, or camping, carrying your own food and bivvy material. He can afford to look for novelty, since he has now done all the Munros five times. A few days before I wrote this he knocked on my door at 9am to talk about the sharp peaks of the Garhwal Himalaya where he plans to go next year as a member of a light­weight expedition to bag Himalayan Munros of around 20,000 feet.

Despite wintry weather, he was just back from a high camping trip in the Braemar copies of the Cairn­gorms, and as we talked he told me something of his background which was new to me. Born in Colombo in 1934, one of his earliest memories is of his parents going off to climb Fujiyama, leaving him disconsolate. But they did take him to the Valley of a Thousand Hills in Natal. A banker in Japan, Hamish’s father had to make an exciting escape from Singapore to reunite with the family in South Africa before coming back to Scotland. With such outdoor-loving parents, Hamish began on the right footing, though it was in the Ochils while at Dollar Academy that he learnt his stuff.

He grinned when I asked him what he had done in the way of work since his R.A.F. days as a National Serviceman. “Lots of things. I’m a ‘stickit’ minister – I was for two years an assistant in a Paisley parish. I gave it up to teach English at Braehead, Buckhaven, then went on to outdoor activities. I was there for twelve years, and readers of The Scots Magazine will probably re­member some of the articles I wrote of our doings.

“Now I’m a freelance moun­taineer/instructor, writer and lec­turer. I do mountain guiding by arrangement. I organise regular holiday courses in winter and summer. I just like being amongst the hills, and I have probably an unrivalled knowledge of the High­lands and Islands off the beaten track. I have almost finished a book on the long walk across the Munros. I’ve written fiction stories for maga­zines, and a guidebook to the Isle of Rum. I’m very happy – and very poor.”

But rich in experience through his travels in Ethiopia, Cyprus, Morocco, the Andes, Pyrenees, Corsica, Poland and most alpine regions of Europe. From among a lot of adventurous men I know, I cannot think of another who has crammed so much into a mere 43 years. The basic thing is, of course, that he is pre­pared to barter security for moun­tains, and has the capacity to enjoy a full life NOW, rather than playing safe and laying up treasures for his old age. Being a bachelor helps, of course!

Tom Weir. 1975: first published in the Scots Magazine