► WEST HIGHLAND WAY, PART 1 – MILNGAVIE TO CRIANLARICH (MAY 2022).

From the 13th to the 15th of May, 2022, I walked the southern fifty miles of the West Highland Way path in Scotland. A fulfilling, ‘re-discovering oneself’ walk after a difficult couple of years. Especially pleased with how well my knees coped, having had suspicions of cartilage trouble – I am 57 – but they did fine.

Simple tireness and sore feet brought the walk to an end. I’d had a nominal plan to do another couple of twenty-mile days, then wild camp above Fort William to drop down to the railway station there, but didn’t feel the need.

The walk cheered me up. I started off in low mood, but after a while trying to identify what was bothering me, whittled it down to just three things. One, concern about the slightly dodgy locality where I’d left my car before catching the train. This was trivia, I decided. There were no valuables in it and I am thinking of selling the thing anyway. If a window got smashed, so be it. Two, my tight personal finances. Well, just got to be really disiciplined. Save, save, save! Live on Jack Monroe recipes and keep everything turned off at home. Worry number three, I realised, was really just an ephemeral, unsettled feeling due to recent changes in personal circumstances, a ‘nameless fears’ thing. Once I’d recognised where the feelings were coming from, they pretty much disappeared.

Now the Victor Meldrew bit … I’m lucky to have walked the Way many years ago when it was new and soft underfoot. I don’t personally think it’s so good any more, at least not the southern half. The track by Lomond is ridiculously undulating and degraded in places, and there are so many annoying walkers!

There are individuals or groups rather full of themselves, often dressed in brand new, smartly-pressed hiking gear, stomping along too-rapidly for their own good and giving chipper ‘mornings’ and ‘hiyas’. There were campers hogging some of the best spots with tents the size of bungalows, decked inside with items of household furniture, their owners’ SUVs parked nearby.

A bothy I’d intended to use had been commandered by a single group of fifteen youths. The ‘head’ invited me stay, speaking as if he owned the place, but said they might ‘party’, whatever that meant. I smelled cannabis.

Heading up to Crianlarich, three thirty-something males with stubbly beards, wrap-around dark glasses and all wearing the same streamlined helmets and black T-shirts, came thundering down the narrow path at high speed on huge bicycles – the kind that look like motorbikes, just without engines – with zero consideration for anyone else. I chose not to jump aside for them, and the lead biker began some comment directed at me through bared teeth and curled lips, but he was past and distant before I had the opportunity to benefit from his wisdom, which, in any case, was drowned out by the rattle of his own barely-controlled machine.

The runners were different. They tend to have a positive and more understanding take on other path users. I’ve done a little running myself and happily step aside so they don’t have to break their rhythym, usually geting a smile and thanks. One used it as an excuse to stop and we chatted for some time. He was training for the West Highland Way Untramarathon later this year.

I’d like to say there were plenty of chatty, cheerful walkers, but they do seem in a minority these days, but I’ll remember with pleasure Kate and Pat, two elderly ladies bravely taking on the Lomond section, and a 20-year-old Japanese girl walking on her own, who asked how I was doing. She had skied, bungeed and hiked in her own country, but admitted that she’d under-estimated the walk and was also thinking of stopping at the fifty-mile mark.

At the end of the walk, not really wanting to be bothered with bivying one last time, I decided to hang around on Crianlarich railway station platform. There’s a lovely little heated waiting room there, and, lounging on a bench, I unexpectedly found myself sleeping solidly for five-and-a-half hours, my mobile alarm waking me at 06:00.

A good trip, and being a fan of train travel, rather enjoyed the eight hour journey back to Leamington Spa, where my car was exactly as I had left it, untouched. Looking forward to doing the rest of the West Highland Way.


Advice for anyone contemplating the walk (Milngavie to Crianlarich):

  1. This stretch is hard going in places, especially by Loch Lomond, very uppy-and-downy. It catches a lot of people out, forcing them to end their walk prematurely. Unless your’re super fit, break it up in to a couple of sections. I have walked the first fifty miles in one go twice in the past few years as excercises in deliberate extreme walking, and can confirm it to be a more than ordinarily exhausting section.
  2. Camp, or, if you’re wealthy enough, pre-book accomodation at suitable intervals. It’s a busy trail and bothys may be full to caspacity. I camped Drymen and two-thirds of the way up the lake side (and would have spent the third night on the hill above Crianlarich, were it not for my waiting room sojourn).
  3. Midges … I used Avon ‘Skin So Soft’, after seeing it recommended on a YouTube video. Seemed to keep them at bay and smells nice too. One 150ml bottle of the Avon stuff should last a week. Pat (one of the older lady walkers) approved of it, “or just wear lots of perfume”. She said a friend of her’s had used some expensive DEET-based spray, but the midges seemed to like it and swarmed all over her even more.
  4. There are shops at reasonably regular intervals on this southern part of the walk, but it is still possible to get caught out with food. Keep the pack topped up with a couple of days of rations. I eat cold, not wanting the extra weight of cooking equipment.
  5. Scotland’s climate means water is never far away, and it’s safe to drink direct from the waterfalls and fast-flowing streams where they’re coming direct from the mountainsides. I carry a 750ml bottle with incorporated water-filter (various brands, I use ‘Water-to-Go’) from which I can keep a plain 750ml plastic bottle filled up. I try to remember to keep a spare bottle top in the backpack. It’s so annoying when you stop for a drink, drop the top and can’t find it again.
  6. I walk with a single Leki pole. The extra point of stability is so useful when clumbering about of the rougher bits of path. Many walk with two poles, but I prefer to have one hand completely free. I have a rubber stopper on the end of my pole (and a spare in the backpack) to be kinder to the path surface.

► WILLIAM McKNIGHT DOCHARTY – BIOGRAPY / HIS METHOD OF CHOOSING SUMMITS.

NOTE: I had posted an experimental file here – a list of Docharty’s Welsh mountains – but decided was not of the quality I desired. For anyone who downloaded the file, it is mostly correct in it’s identifications from a ‘bagging’ point of view – the first version was missing a whole page of Docharty’s data, didn’t include Carnedd Uchaf (which Docharty promoted to ‘top’ status in 1962) and included the wrong Foel Fras (SN 76548 92610 instead of SH 69616 68124), and also lacking other information which I thought would be of value. All being well, the complete file, including England, Scotland and the Isle of Man, should be posted first of March. The Irish data will be more time-consuming, so will be posted at a later data.

Some more notes on Docharty’s life, argely from an article by Robert M. Campbell – a copy of which he kindly forwarded to me – published in The Munro Society Journal, no.4, 17 Dec 2016. The article includes a more detailed discussion of Docharty’s methods than given here, and compares them with other lists, such as the Corbetts and Grahams.


William McKnight Docharty was born on 3 August 1895 in Ruglen, South Ayrshire. He had an older brother Joseph, born in 1891, and sister May, 1898. His parents were the landscape painter Alexander Brownlie Docharty, and Catherine McKnight, a teacher. Alexander’s uncle, James Docharty, was also an accomplished landscape artist.

Little is know about William’s early life, but by 1901 the family had moved to Glasgow and he took employment with the P&O company. When war came along he joined the King’s Regiment (Liverpool), eventually becoming a Major. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 for leading two companies as a temporary captain during action on the Western Front. He sustained a serious leg injury in October 1918 at the second battle of Le Cateau [almost losing the limb, but over a period of a decade managed to recover full use of it, according to his own notes in the foreword of his 1954 book].

In 1929, returning from a P&O posting in Cairo, he was very struck by the mountain scenery on a visit to the Jungfrau/Eiger region in Switzerland, and within a short time became a dedicated mountaineer, counting John Montgomery Thomson, son of the founder of the SMC, as a close friend and mentor. It was Thomson who gave Docharty the idea of surveying the 2500-foot hills of Scotland, and the pursuit of these passions occupied the rest of his life. William died in 1968, aged 72.


Docharty’s method of choosing tops was based on studying contour rings on Ordnance Survey maps, sometimes modifying his choice of what to include based on personal judgements about the surrounding topography or actual visits.

In the 1954 volume, Docharty explains that he has only included tops from 2500-2999 feet in Scotland because Munro had already detailed higher elevations, but …

… in Ireland, Wales, and England where the area of higher ground is so much less than in Scotland, every “top” of 2,500 feet and over has been noted … the minimum requirement for consideration of an eminence for the “Tops” column is ONE 50-foot contour … In the case of Ireland the minimum is ONE 100-foot contour on the ½-inch Survey of Ireland Maps … In my opinion, however, some of these elevations lack the individuality for inclusion in the “Tops” column … Now and then while on excursion a “top” or eminence unrecorded on the maps has been discovered …

Docharty, W. M. (1954) A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops, Darien Press Ltd, Edinburgh, pp19-20.

His supplementary volumes published in 1962 extended these studies down to 2000 feet.

In presenting his findings Docharty uses tables of sometimes mind-boggling complexity, which may in part explain why his lists have never achieved popular ‘checklist’ status. In addition to this, different criteria are used for different parts of the British Isles, the lists are a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data and the listings are discontinuous and split between the 1954 and 1962 publications. Many of the lesser tops never benefited from a personal visit, so it could also be considered an incomplete work.

However, all this is judging the work purely from the point of view of a checklist, which does a great disservice to something quite remarkable. The three volumes are a record of the author’s fascination with montane landscapes and were never intended for popular consumption, instead being produced as gifts for friends, fellow enthusiasts and selected institutions. They are a semi-autobiographical account of his exploration with the additional function of acting as a memento – something to look back on in his later years. The books are beautifully produced objects, being printed on high-quality paper and include large, fold-out panoramic photographs taken by Docharty himself with a Leica camera..


► WILLIAM McKNIGHT DOCHARTY (1895?-1968) – ‘A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops’.

There are many lists of hills and mountains covering the British Isles – the ‘Munros’, a list of Scottish mountains maintained by the Scottish Mountaineering Council, the ‘Marilyns’ (hills with 150 metres or more of climb), the Hewitts (Hills of England, Wales and Ireland over 2000 feet with 100 feet of climb), the ‘Wainrights’ of the Lake District, the Corbetts (Scottish hills from 2500 to 3000 feet with 500 feet of climb), and so on. A lesser-know list is that of William McKnight Docharty, privately published in 1954, with a further private publication of supplimentary lists and information in 1962.

William was born in 1895 in South Ayrshire, the son of artist Alexander Brownlie Docharty (1862-1940) and his wife Catherine McKnight. There were three children in all, William, his elder brother Joseph and younger sister, May.

William served with the King`s Liverpool Regiment during World War I, achieving the rank of Captain, was severely wounded in action and received the Military Cross, a medal awarded for “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operation” (only about 3000 were give out over the whole conflict).

After recovering from his injuries William became a passionate climber as well as pedestrian explorer of mountains in Britain, Ireland and abroad. In 1948 he became the thirteenth person known to have climbed all the Munros and in 1960 the second to have climbed all the Corbetts.

In 1954 William privately published his book, ‘A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops’, followed by two supplements in 1962. Only a small number of copies were ever printed and gifted by William to various individuals and institutions. They occasionally appear for sale, sometimes fetching hundreds of pounds. I have been very fortunate to gain access to a set and am going to reproduce some of the content here for the interest and enjoyment of others.

The books are still in copyright, so I need to make it clear that this information is for personal, non-commercial interest only, and should not be reproduced without reference to the original publication or linked with any commercial activity whatsoever – e.g., being reproduced on a web site which involves commercial activity.

This transcription will take some time, so will be the main activity on this blog for the next month or two (or more?). When complete, I’ll combine all the information together on a single referable page.

The references for the original books are:

  • Docharty, William McKnight (1954) A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops, Darien Press Ltd, Edinburgh.
  • Ibid (1962) The Supplement to A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops and a Selection of 1,000 Tops under 2,500 feet – Vol. I – The Foreword and the Lists, Darien Press Ltd, Edinburgh.
  • Ibid (1962) The Supplement to A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops and a Selection of 1,000 Tops under 2,500 feet – Vol. II – The Epilogue and the Panoramas, Darien Press Ltd, Edinburgh.

So here goes … extracts from the foreword of the 1954 publication:


FOREWORD

Rather than allow these Lists to lie fallow, it has been suggested they might be of interest and use to friends with whom it has been my privilege and pleasure to walk the hills. In the hope, therefore, these friends may care to accept copies, I have had this very limited edition printed to offer as mementoes of comradeship on high ridges and wind-swept plateaux. The Lists, however, may appear something of an enigma without some explanation as to the why and wherefore of their existence, so the following remarks are offered in explanation.

Until late 1933, save for Ben Lomond from Loch Ard side, when on Army leave of absence in June 1916, I had stood on no Scottish hill. In the autumn of 1918, when we had at last heaved ourselves clear of the clutches of that remorseless sea of mud from whose dead hand we had struggled so long to be free, I was again bowled over on 9th October as we deployed at the approaches to Le Cateau. Unkempt, bemudded brown brethren moving up through the debris of battle, on whose grey faces was the indelible print of that wearied sadness of soul we understood so well, hailed greetings in the jargon of the trenches and with covetous nostalgic glance at yet another lucky one with a “blighty.”

In quick succession, however, I suffered two serious relapses, and on 25th October, save for a providential collapse on the operating table, I should that day have become a one-legged cripple. As I slowly recovered – I can hazily remember the surgeon telling me the war was at last over – that left leg, too, miraculously began to mend of its own accord. Although it made surprising recovery, none the less, when discharged in August 1919, I was just another of those “medically unfit for further military service,” and throughout the next ten years enjoyed only indifferent health with the leg under almost constant treatment.

Having taken up an appointment in Egypt at the end of 1922, I was on my way home in the summer of 1929 on furlough and to undergo further surgical treatment at Roehampton, when I broke journey at Interlaken and one forenoon booked for the Jungfrau Joch (11,340 feet), With my companions from the train I passed from the elevator to the little plateau of snow. The revelation of blinding sunlight, dazzling peaks, sparkling snow underfoot, and the vast expanse of the Aletsch Glacier held rne spellbound. Later I treated the inner man to a gourmet’s luncheon in the hotel restaurant, the while my eyes continued to feast upon the amazing panorama. But among drowsy and slumbering fellow-passengers on the way down a feeling of anticlimax overcame me. Conscience whispered that, like Adam before me, I had tasted of something to which I was not entitled and that the crystal atmosphere and virgin snow deserved something better than such casual visitation, the litter of orange peel, banana skins and discarded sandwich paper, or the grinding out of current musical numbers on portable gramophones.

And such was the impact of these promptings that before I alighted at Interlaken I found myself committed to the mental pledge that should the coming operation yield the results promised I could onc day return and on my own feet seek to reach the summit of the Jungfrau and so through my own exertions pay tribute to that lovely mountain, rendering her the homage which reaction unequivocally told me was so rightly hers.

When the plaster was removed from my leg in October the surgeon pronounced the Roehampton experiment successful, but it was not to be until after a lapse of four years, in August 1933, that I could redeem my pledge, approaching the Jungfrau (13,670 feet) from the Aletsch Glacier and the Concordia with a peasant of Fiesch as my guide.

Excluding 1929, I visited the high Alps of France, Italy, Switzerland, and Austria on eight occasions, to be halted by the outbreak of war in 1939, and after the war, stopped for good by a disinclination to travel abroad now that my wife was so dependent.

It was in the autumn of 1933, too, when I had returned from Egypt for good, that I first met John Montgomery Thomson who, in his turn, awakened in me enthusiasm for our Scottish hills, and many a fine excursion we have had together.

But whether on Alpine snow or rock or on our own lower ridges, I pray to be forgiven if I ever cease to be reverently thankful to Almighty God, who on that fateful 25th October 1918 not only spared my leg but my life so that I might know of His great work in the fashioning of the mighty hills, and learn anew each time I visit them their lesson of eternal truth, wisdom, and peace. As complement to that lesson, I was also to be taught the choice of whether I am bond or free on the hills – slave or master of circumstance and of what lies ahead – is in my own keeping.

To be free, with thoughtful care I must assure preparation and preparedness in plan, outfit, and person, and in the event, stage by stage, regretting the ampler endowments of none other, exploit to fullest advantage the gifts He has entrusted to me. On the other hand, whenever through thoughtlessness, neglect, or arrogance I deviate from these simple rules, nothing is more certain than that swiftly and surely bonds are laid upon me. Such, too, is the wealth of satisfaction which derives from unfolding achievement, it is prudent to keep the spirit of that satisfaction alive lest anticlimax reveals itself as drab companion of the accomplished task.

After ten or twelve days in Wester Ross and Sutherland in the autumn of 1947 it became evident, if I was to be granted several more years of fitness and opportunity to visit the hills, I would soon have to make up my mind about the type of expedition to plan for holidays after the spring of 1948. Nor did it take long to discover the choice must be one of two contrasting alternatives: To devote myself to a second series of excursions with the “Munros” and their 3,000-foot subsidiaries once more as the principal objectives, or to open up a new series on fresh ground with these no more than incidental.

Although I spent my ten or twelve days in the autumn of that year (1948) visiting the 3,000-foot hills of Ireland, Wales, and England, those two excursions from Mallaig left a profound impression upon me as to the latent possibilities of excursions on hills of sub-“ Munro” standard. By May 1949 the decision had been taken in favour of the second alternative mentioned above, and the idea of these Lists conceived, although the first, that covering Scotland, was not completed until the winter of 1950-51, to be followed by those for England, Ireland, and Wales at intervals during the ensuing twelve months. Lakeland was again visited in the autumns of 1949 and 1950 with emphasis on the fells under 3,000 feet, and Ireland-east of the Shannon – with like emphasis in the autumn of 1951. West of the Shannon I explored for ten days in September 1952, and in October 1953 I returned to Wales to make acquaintance of some of the lower hills listed herein.

The six spring holidays of the usual duration in 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, and 1954, as also the autumn holiday of 1954, were, on the other hand, devoted to selections of hills from the Scottish List, and I must confess that from all twelve pilgrimages to these lower hills I have derived the greatest satisfaction.

England, or rather Lakeland if the high fells near Appleby are included in that area, with its pastoral background epitomises something serenely attractive – but so elusively subtle is it that when I seek to analyse the spell Lakeland casts upon me I discover the only words to do it justice have already escaped me. I do, however, claim the gem of Lakeland is Wasdale with its cirque of majestic hills – best seen from Yewbarrow (2,058 feet) – towering above the jigsaw of massive stone walls, lush green pasture, tiny church, and three or four scattered dwellings, which together in their turn are inseparably Wasdale Head.

In Ireland, of the highest hills Brandon and the MacGillycuddys in the far south-west are outstanding. On my second visit Mullaghanattin (2,539 feet) and Knockduff (2,572 feet), which sandwich the remote Ballaghbeama Gap (852 feet), denied the views of the MacGillycuddys from the south-west and south I had gone to see. And it required two visits to Purple (2,739 feet) above the Gap of Dunloe (795 feet) to secure glimpses of the grandeur of that great range and the rugged crest of the eastern Reeks as they slipped into and out of the ceaselessly forming mists in the moisture-laden atmosphere. In parenthesis there is a unique feature in the Irish landscape which strikes the hill walker as soon as his view begins to expand: This is the light green maze of carpetry woven by the Lilliputian fields and their borders of neglected hedge or thick wall, which latter seem to have been the depository throughout the ages for the plague of stone encumbering the countryside. This green patchwork can cover as much as three of the four quarters of the compass and extend as far as the eye can see. But west of the Shannon both hills and countryside change.

Of Wales I have least experience, as I have spent only two of these holidays there. But one dramatic picture framed itself out of the turmoil of rain, high wind, and driving mist which haunted me throughout my three days on the loftier Welsh ridges. It occurred as I was passing southwards from Aber over the Carnedds on an uncomfortably bad day. As I approached Carnedd Dafydd, however, one or two rifts of watery blue appeared in the dome of the grey prison of mist wherein I moved and from which I had hitherto been unable to detect any loophole of escape. These were soon followed by fitful shafts of sunshine spasmodically contrasting white curtains of drifting mist in the deep Ogwen cut against the forbidding wall of the Glyders beyond.

With her back towards me for a few enchanted moments I imagined I saw through tired eyes the form of an elegant lady of earliest childhood days. She was dressed for conversazione or ball in white and black evening gown and train which, characteristically, she lifted gracefully clear of the ground with one hand encased in the white arm-length kid gloves of those spacious days, as in the other her ivory and white ostrich feather fan spread itself slowly open. For a moment she hesitated on an imaginary threshold, and then, without the rustle of her silks and satins reaching me, faded from view into the dark portals of the Glyders. As she disappeared I was brought back to earth with a start to realise I had, in fact – in elusive distant mood – had my first glimpse of Tryfan, perhaps the most graceful of all mountains throughout these islands.

Compared with this fleeting vision, next day’s traverse in blinding rain and blanketing mist over this lovely little mountain from Ogwen, round the mightier Glyders to Elider Fawr and down into Nant Peris was sodden anticlimax. I look forward to the day when I may see all the mountains of Snowdonia, but especially Tryfan, standing free and untrammelled below high skies.

When I returned to Wales in October 1953, Tryfan again eluded me, but beyond the long ridge of Cnicht from Moelwyn Mawr (2,527 feet), and later from Cnicht (2,265 feet) itself, there were imprinted on my memory never-to-be-forgotten pictures of the Mountains of Snowdonia rising majestically in the clear north-west air with Y Wyddfa, Crib y Ddisgl, and Y Lliwedd the central figures of a noble company. Captured, too, as I reached the ridge of Arenig Fawr (2,750 feet c.) a few days later, I treasure in mind an exquisite early morning vignette of Snowdon, over seventeen miles distant, rising beyond some light diagonally cast cloud, the clear fresh silhouette being the only visible feature on the horizon, the remainder of which was dark, obscure, and ominous.

When I moved south I did so without anticipation or enthusiasm, but what pleasant surprises awaited me. On the ridges of these southern hills, but especially on Brecon Beacons (2,906 feet), when I turned my back on the  concentration of intensely industrialised valleys falling towards the Bristol Channel, I was richly rewarded when I looked out over the northern cwms to the colourful patchwork of field, llyn, and woodland. I was immediately reminded of Ireland, but the scene here while less vividly green and much less expansive, is compensated by a design richer, bolder, and more varied. Then I was to discover country lanes green-turfed underfoot, hedged between berry-laden holly, wild rose and thorns and deeply sunken, or bowered under sunlit autumn-tinted oak and ash, which lead downwards from the open hill sheep and pony grazings and highest farms towards the rich northern agricultural valleys with their herds of Hereford cattle and flocks of heavy-fleeced meadow sheep.

Railway lines thrust their way across the high boundary separating the two widely contrasted worlds which combine to make up South Wales. Alike in the cabins or close-by cottages of the signalmen where the lines breast the summits, and in the hotels in the townships far below, I enjoyed a hospitaIity and friendship at once spontaneous and humanly kind. There was but one sad note, and that was struck each time I encountered far-flung aeroplane wreckage – stark reminders of the remorseless toll these lovely hills are levying on erring or crippled aircraft.

Turning once more to Scotland … [the] grandeur, grace, or technical problems of a hill do not necessarily increase with height, nor does it follow the character or interest of the ridges are enhanced, or a view improved, the higher we go. In fact, and this is the point I seek to make for my Lists, it is only since I began visiting these lower hills have I seen, appreciated, and enjoyed the full majesty of the mightier ones in “Munro’s Tables,” to which classification Scotland’s hill walkers like me owe so much. The ridges are familiar from momentous days spent upon them and the tops are easily identified, but most of what now confronts the eye – the wide open corries, nestling high-level lochans, bluff’s, cliffs, and buttresses – are new, and within the framework of the familiar skyline these new features combine to focus the complete picture into true proportion and perspective.

What I claim for Scotland is in no sense less true in the case of Ireland, Wales, or England, which I think is supported by panoramas taken during those past few years. As examples I have paid tribute to what meets the eye from Yewbarrow and Purple. In Scotland I can suggest nothing finer than Liathach, Coire Dubh, and Beinn Eighe across Glen Torridon from Sgùrr Dubh (2,566 feet) – it should be Sgùrr Bhàn, as the true top is a very white quartzite “cap”; An Teallach across Loch na Shellag from Beinn Dearg Mhòr (Larachantivore) (2,974 feet); from Sgiirr an Fhidhleir (2,285 feet) north-west to north-east; or from Creag Rainich (2,646 feet) round from the south-west to the north.

Mountains by the nature of things are solitary and aloof, and, I believe, disinclined to unburden themselves to the multitude. Despite popular clamour to the contrary, I hold that when we would enjoy the full confidence of the hills we must let them commune with us alone. While Sutherland and Wester Ross – and Kerry and Connemara in their contrasting Irish ways – are outstanding in this respect, I claim equivalent enjoyment can be had almost anywhere in these islands by those who find they cannot match their skill against the Alpine giants. And for good measure they will discover themselves exploiting an enterprise and freedom peculiarly their own far from the distractions of that stifling heat from which escape is only possible at highest Alpine levels and the crowds who have responded to the efficient advertising machine of the Playground of Europe.

And if I may leave a good wish with you on behalf of our Scottish hills, I should like it to be a crisp north-west breeze in your face before which the mists are reeling to disclose the vast blue firmament, in which not far above your head sail scattered squadrons of lofty snow-white spinnakers of fleecy cumulus, whose dark shadows stride swiftly athwart the course you have set on the ridges; around and beyond on other slopes and on the foothills below the speed of the shadows perceptively slackens – perhaps even they notice the gradient ; while in yonder distances – offspring of the north-west wind – they are anchored like single islands or archipelagos on a placid tropical sea of palest powder blue.

W.M.D., Giffcock, October 1954.

Docharty, W. M. (1954) A Selection of some 900 British and Irish Mountain Tops, Darien Press Ltd, Edinburgh.

Thanks to Rob Woodall, Michael Earnshaw, Myrddyn Phillips, Robin Campbell and others for their comments, corrections and contributions.

► ACROSS THE ISTHMUS – A WALK ACROSS THE SOUTH-WEST PENINSULA IN JUNE 2016.

This is the story of a walk I took across the south-west peninsula isthmus in June, 2016.

The south-west peninsula ‘isthmus’ is the neck of land which separates southern England from the Devon/Cornwall peninsula, and it is almost exactly 33 miles across. I fancied walking across the isthmus using a route of my own devising, which, with all the twists and turns would mean a stroll of at least 50 miles.

Having planning the route carefully, I bought my train tickets, and on the 20th of June, off I went. My plan had specific goals:

  • Locate exactly where the ends of the isthmus are.
  • Walk in the night – I’d never done this and wanted to try it, having met someone a few weeks beforehand who was keen on night walking.
  • See how easy it was to travel light – just a few clothes, stuff needed for hygiene, food, water, a camera, and a handful of other essentials.
  • Find out how far could I walk in one day.
  • Discover how practical it is to follow a home-made route like this– a hodgepodge of footpaths, bridleways, permissive paths, farm tracks and minor roads.

20 June 2016 – AXMINSTER TO BEER.

Catching the 09:00 train to Axminster on the 20th of June, I occupied myself by sketching odd things during the journey down. There was no conversation on the train, people being plugged into their mobile phones, buried in books or newspapers or just not being willingly communicative.

Arrived Axminster at 1 p.m., I stepped on to the platform and took the first of what I estimated would be a 150,000 footsteps. I wandered up to the main road through the town to have a look at the scene. Nothing remarkable, but felt good and quietly exciting to have finally got there. Walking back through a small industrial estate by the station and squeezing through a narrow alleyway, I was immediately in the countryside being stared at by farmyard cows. The walk had begun.

The weather was good and there was no rain the first day. From recent indundations, however, there was still plenty of water running off the fields such that some minor roads were running water courses.

My first goal was to reach Beer Youth Hostel, where I would spend the night. Although theoretically an easy day, I kept up a rapid pace, anticipating possible hold-ups, delays or diversions to my intended route and possible loss of my bed.

Passing Doatshayne Farm (SY280952), I noted a sign by a small cage with eggs in it and an honesty box, reading:

EGGS! We have re-homed 20 ex-caged hens So apologies if you get the odd pale yolk in your box. Hopefully they will be back to full health after some TLC. Thanks.

One of the many styles I encountered. Many were in good repair, like this one above Sellers Wood Farm (SY280939) others were rotten and slippery with moss and algae, or in places where the landowner wasn’t so bothered about their preservation crossed by barbed or electrified wires, hidden away in impenetratable thickets or lying in decayed fragments on the ground.

Higher Bruckland Farm (SY282932).

One never quite knows what is going to be beyond the next gate or style. At a spot called Higher Lane (SY267909), the route turned out to necessiate ploughing through an acre of fern jungle – a machete would have been useful – but then emerged through some ancient but clearly well-to-do metal gates to run beside the grounds of an ancient manor house. In walking a route like this, rather than a recognised long-distance path, one encounters such an entertaining variety of landscapes and challenges. Both kinds of walking have their values, of course. I’m not advocating one over the other.

Green Lane (SY277916). The pools of water turned out to be a sign of things to come.

Came across a relic of the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001. The farming community organised something called Green Wellie Support Day. This notice at Parsonage Barn (SY262906) was still readable, amazingly, 15 years after the event.

I could hear the waves crashing half-a-mile inland, but it was only when right above Seaton that the sea came into view.

Spent a very comfortable night at Beer Youth Hostel.

21 June 2016 – BEER TO MONKTON WYLD.

Started out at 3 am the next morning.

Beer village, 3:15 am

Seaton sea front at 4 am. Light already. One has the entire place to oneself walking this early.

Sign by Seaton Gold Course.

The Lyme Regis Undercliffs were beautiful, a winding footpath with curiosities around every corner and orchids growing on the cliff top – I identified a Pyramidal Orchid, a Spotted Orchid and (I think) a Greater Butterfly Orchid. Although a five-mile cliff-top walk, the sea is rarely visible, just occasionally through the dense woodland.

After 3½ hours walking through the Undercliffs, Lyme Regis suddenly appeared. It was 8:30 in the morning but there were people playing bowls already. I remember there being some interesting odds and ends between the boulders along the coast, all sorts of natural and industrial sea debris, but my main interest was finally seeing the inward curve of the coast as I approached the southern point of the isthmus, still one mile away, seeing in reality what I’d studied as a map feature for so long.

Standing at the precise point of the southern apex of the isthmus – the low cliff is a soft mudstone, with the coast here being gradually being eroded away.

My last view of the English Channel.

Having spent some time on the beach, at 10:30 a.m. I turned inland.

My home for the second night was the independent hostel accomodation at Monkton Wyld Court. This, I discovered, was a commune. The dozen or so people who live there managing their own water supply, farming organically and recycling as much as possible. Some of the people were temporary volunteers, but for the others it is their permanent home. Their key principles are sustainibility and mutual respect.

They make an income from educating others in their land management methods, running part of the house as a travellers hostel and selling surplus produce. Any surplus income is divided amongst the people as their ‘stipend’. As the only guest, I was invited to eat with them and had a rather luxurious room all to myself.

22 June 2016 – MONYTON WYLD TO BRIDGEWATER MOTORWAY SERVICES.

Started off the next morning at 03:15, walking by torchlight and the light of the moon.

Hawkchurch church porch, 03:45 am, breakfast – an orange.

And then it rained for four hours. I rather enjoyed this, strolling happily along with umbrella deployed.

Shangri La! Stocked upon sandwiches.

Thanks to Sainsburys and the like, never went hungry on the whole walk. Carried water as well, but in reality drank mostly tea and coffee – almost every village shop I passed had a coffee machine.

Arrived, very soggy, in Chard town centre at 9 am. Bought a fresh shirt in a charity shop and felt (and looked) better, and then took a short excursion to a spot called Snowdon Hill, a small prominance just west of Chard – couldn’t resist scaling this little Snowdon, having done the bigger one several times.

My plan for this day was maybe to walk all the way to the Bristol Channel and sit out the short night on the beach, listening to the waves and watching the moon slowly sail across the sky.

The highest point of the walk was Combe Beacon (ST294122), a small hill outside Chard with a triangulation pillar on top. From there could see the Bristol Channel coastline, now only twenty miles away and the end point of my walk. I though at the time I might reach it with no more sleeps, but a couple of unexpected hiccups plus general fatigue were to modify that idea.

The end in sight.

First I got lost, sort of. Trying to take a shortcut to reach a track called Belcome Drove – it only meant crossing a single, empty grassy field – I found myself in a maze of stoutly barb-wired fences with surprisingly few gateways, and spent what seemed an age going backwards and forwards trying to find my way across what was only a few hundred yards.

Then came Fresh Moor, the valley between Combe Beacon and Buckland St Mary – and it was very fresh indeed! Numerous times I stepped on what looked like a safe clod of grass only to find my leg disappearing into deep, muddy slime. Thankfully I’d packed several thick pairs of socks. Once the water had squidged out of my boots, on went a dry pair.

The woodland at Castle Neroche (ST270162) was a lovely place and especially welcome after the trials of Fresh Moor. I rested on a tree stump realising that I was now feeling pretty much worn out. I slowed my pace, ate something, and gently carried on.

The significance of this photo is that it is the half way point between coasts – the precise point being the cat’s-eye in the foreground (ST 30097 19082).

Reaching Hatch Beachamp I was now on the lookout for accommodation. There was none. This was the case throughout the walk. When I walked across south Wales about twenty years ago, there were bed-and-breakfasts everywhere. Not here. The couple of places I did find said no vacancies, or perhaps they just didn’t want the trouble of a late-evening, bedraggled-looking walker to deal with.

Fortune smiled. In the middle of nowhere I came across a quality hot food van, ‘Layz Rick’s’. They gave me a huge bundle of chips with some delicious chicken strips. I felt I could go on all night with that inside me, and, indeed, that’s exactly what I had to do. I’d have continued without the food, of course – just the few small very snacks in my backpack – but the energy the meal gave was a great boost.

I knew of a farmhouse near a place called – I’d better not say – which offered accomodation, but the man there, in spite of a sign declaring vacancies, said his wife was out and he was busy preparing for a wedding party. He offered me a shortcut across his land which I took, and found it was interesting because of some curious remains which I later learned belonged to the Chard Canal, a venture of the mid 19th century which has lain derelict (and waterless) for a century and a half. The bottom end of this short cut was not so great as an overflow of slurry from a cow shed was covering the path.

I decided to use the River Parrett path. The walk fortunately coincided with a full moon. With that and a torch for the darker bits, this night-time walking went fine. I’d occasionally have a 15-minute or ½-hour rest, then carry on. It’s an interesting experience – owls hoot, things rattle in the undergrowth, the occasional startled bird sounds a warning as I pass. The eyes can play tricks, with distances being very deceptive – passing through one village I was certain I could see some white ponies shuffling about behind a fence, but when I reached the point there was nothing there. An illusion produced by the beam of my torch and my tired brain trying to interpret the flickering light and shadow. I’d seen them so clearly, even heard them gently snorting in my head. I’ve read since about how some extreme atheletes such as ocean rowers, high altitude climbers and long-distance runners can experience hallucinations, but just accept it part of the experience.

After a long tramp I was back in civilisation, sort of – the motorway services on the M5 by Bridgwater. This was four o’clock in the morning and VERY welcome. While physically reasonably fit – I’d done some long walks around Southam in the weeks beforehand – the soles of my feet were now really painful. After each stop, starting to walk again felt like walking barefoot on pointed cobbles. My plan at this point had been to lounge about in the town for a few hours, have a wash somewhere then do the final stretch to the north coast, but the lure of a shower and a bed was too strong. It was excellent, although extravagantly expensive – £88 – considering I was there for just a few hours.

23 June 2016 – BRIDGEWATER SERVICES TO STEART.

After a few hours sleep felt much refreshed. My camera and phone batteries had recharged. Pocketing all the complimentary tea, coffee and sugar packets I could find, set off again at eleven in the morning. Getting out of the services was surprisingly challenging – they’re designed for cars, not pedestrians – and I started off in the wrong direction. It took me an hour trying first one road then another, eventually finding myself back on track.

The Bridgewater Canal in the town centre (ST300364), a pleasant green spot.

The beams across the impressive Victorian canal-works which run through the town have the following carved on them:

NAVIGATORS / SINEW AND BONE / CRACK OF THE HAMMER / IRON ON STONE / RED QUANTOCK / WE CAME AND WENT / OUR LEGACY / A BOAT / COMING CLEAN / THROUGH THE HILL

[I later learned that this was part of a community arts project of the ?1990s, the lines of the poem being decided by school children.]

I navigated largely using GPS. When walking years ago all I had were maps and a compass – GPS being non-existent. Some good memories are of conversations with complete strangers, sharing coffee or chocolate bars and discussing what we’d seen and which was the best way to go. Now people are more often than not staring into their phones or shuffling through their music tracks with a frustrated look on their face, managing a mumbled ‘hello’ at most. Modern life.

Close to the end now, and with plenty of daylight had some long rests to ease the feet. Made the mistake of trying to use my umbrella as a walking stick and broke the handle off. Thankfully there was no more rain. Wandering through the grounds of Gurney Manor Mill was passed by a young boy driving a tractor, who kindly gave me permission to take a short cut across the land.

Coombwich village was a friendly place. The woman in the Post Office offered to fill my water bottles without me even asking, and they put their post office stamp in my notebook as a souvenir. An elderly lady in the shop who overheard me talking about my walk, a sponsered affair to benefit a dementia care charity, and gave me a £5 donation. I started to decline but she insisted, saying her husband had died with dementia and she thought it was a very good cause. Thank you, Betty of Coombwich.

A short walk out of the village and suddenly there it was – the Steart peninsula with the Bristol Channel just beyond. Fantastic.

I arrived at six o’clock in the evening. It was a good feeling to reach here at last, having stared at the point on the map for so long. I spent a couple of hours exploring and enjoying the sights and sounds of the beach, a mixture of shingle, sand and mud.

A small log washed up by the tide happened to point more or less precisely to the location of the isthmus northern apex.

The sky then started to do some magic tricks. There was a curious effect as the sun was setting – a sort of ribbon-like cloud high up caused a fan effect above the nearby Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station. [I have since seen this elsewhere and believe it to be caused by the sun shining through the ripples of a high-altitude aircraft vapour trail.]

A little later for a short time there was a sort of rainbow high up in the ice crystal clouds.

There was a beautiful sunset – I couldn’t have asked for a better finish to the walk.

My plan to sit on the beach listening to the waves as the moon sailed past turned out to be a romantic fantasy. With Stert being so flat, a keen, chilly breeze whipped across it. Plan B had been to shelter in one of the bird hides, but they were all locked and in any case were constructed in such a way that the wind whistled straight through them – perhaps to discourage people from doing exactly what I had been planning.

So, plan C … I said goodbye to the Bristol Channel and started plodding back inland. It was a long slog. I was very tired and the soles of my feet were aching more than ever, but I decided to take the roads, thankfully almost vehicle-free, for simplicity of route-finding even though the hardness of the tarmac was extraordinarily painful to walk on now. The knowledge that there’d probably be some quality food and drink at Bridgewater helped a bit.

24 June 2016 – HOME.

I arrived in Bridgewater town centre at three in the morning and sat on a bench enjoying NOT walking. There was a drunk shouting in the distance. I finished off my sandwiches and found a 24-hour petrol station and ordered a coffee through the window. Another passer by (not the drunk man) did the same. The attendant disappeared for ages, the man said he was always ‘doing that’, and we joked about what might be going on in the back room.

I’d had ideas of walking to a relative’s house about fifteen miles away that day, but seeing that there was a train departing for Bristol at 6 am, took that, then one to Birmingham, and then one to Leamington Spa and was soon home. My souvenirs were two miniature jam pots with a bit of water and piece of pottery I found in the mud on the English Channel side and water and a patterened pebble from the other.

[I kept the jam pots for a couple of years, but then the water went strangely black, so I discarded it, but still have the bit of pottery and the pebble – it would be nice to return them one day, perhaps repeating the walk with a few minor alterations and completing it in one single, continuous effort.]

The answers to my questions:

  • The north and south apexes of the isthmus are at grid references SY 35723 93090 and ST 25150 45180, and are 33.03 miles apart.
  • Walking at night was good. Lovely and quiet, although I did have the advantage of beneficient, mild weather conditions. Might not be so much fun in the cold, wind and rain.
  • The lightpacking worked fine. Being mild weather, I didn’t need much. Having walked with much heavier packs, it was a pleasent change to have something so much lighter.
  • The length of my route between the apexes was 60 miles. With other bits of walking I found I’d walked almost exactly 100 miles in 3 days and 15 hours, the longest day being Monkton Wyld to Bridgewater, a smidgen under 40 miles.
  • Self-designed routes? The way-finding was largely fine, although the northern third was a little more difficult, some paths poorly maintained.

[I did get blisters under the webs of my big toes, but they were not serious matters – I remember them stinging when having to plod through some slurry. When I got home, I also found I’d picked up what I was later told was probably a deer tick sitting just below by navel. A tiny thing, I thought it was a little scab at first. Googling what to do, I cautiously removed it, a surprisingly difficult job, and on NHS telephone advice went to A&E. A nurse cleaned the small wound and I was put on antibiotics. While I’d kept myself well covered while walking, this one had got in at the waistline where my T-shirt was flapping open, perhaps while I was cat-napping lying in the grass. Lesson learned!]

June 2016 [minor amendments December 2022].


► TO WALK LIKE BORROW.

A piece I wrote for The George Borrow Bulletin (Autumn 2017), with the kind encouragement of the late Dr Ann Soutter [1]. George Borrow (1803-1881) was a farmer and author who went on long walks, sometimes lasting days or weeks, through the British countryside.

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EARLIER THIS YEAR [2017] I went for a long walk through southern Wales. Ever since reading Borrow’s description of his three-hundred-mile trek in the book Wild Wales, I have at various times tried copying some of his achievements. This year I happened to be the same age as Borrow when he made his mammoth journey from Llangollen to Chepstow, so I devised a plan to walk the length of Wales using footpaths, bridleways, permissive paths and minor roads. I trained myself physically for the distances involved, asked advice from friends who are experienced walkers, acquired the necessary equipment and on 28 June set off from the southern-most tip of mainland Wales, my intention being to reach the north coast within a fortnight.

It didn’t quite work out that way. The boots I had chosen could not cope with the water-logged condition of the countryside, the first twenty-four hours of my trip coinciding with the downpour that followed the June heat wave. On top of this, a surprising number of the rights-of-way I’d intended to take were impassable due to poor maintenance, heavy overgrowth or deliberate blocking, adding many miles to my originally planned distances.

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By the end of the second day the impossibility of the task I’d set myself was becoming apparent. I sat on the hillside above Merthyr Tydfil looking down at the spot where, 163 years earlier, Borrow had strolled by, and I began thinking about the differences between long-distance walking in his day and now. With all my dedicated clothing, footwear, maps, GPS and other specialised equipment, I came to the conclusion that Borrow benefited from advantages not available to the modern walker, and that I would have to reconsider my plans if I was to attempt another such expedition.

Of greatest significance, it seemed to me, was that apart from some deliberate excursions over hills of special interest to him, Borrow was travelling by road. He was taking the most direct and least gradient-challenged routes between towns and villages. My route wandered all over the place and not infrequently involved steep ascents or descents, sometimes unexpected. One innocent-looking bridleway on the map took me on a seven-hundred-and-fifty-foot climb up a bracken-covered, sixty-degree slope and cost two-and-a-half hours with only one third of a mile distance gained. I thoroughly enjoyable the experience, but from my journey’s point of view it was clearly impractical.

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The road surfaces of Borrow’s day would have been relatively foot-friendly, being compacted dirt and gravel and probably well-vegetated in places, not unlike some of today’s National Trails. Excessive distances on modern metalled roads are a different matter, the constant pounding of the feet on the hard surface leading to painfully aching soles and ankles. There is also the matter of the traffic. So many drivers make minimal effort to give pedestrians adequate berth – on one country road I had to bury myself deep in a hedge when a van and lorry chose to pass each other parallel to me with complete disregard for my welfare.

Another advantage enjoyed by Borrow was the availability of accommodation. In that era of travel by foot, horse, carriage and rail, hostelries appear to have been plentiful. I live in a small town in the centre of England which once happened to be a hub of the stage coach network. When I was little there were still nine pubs in the town which had a population of only two thousand, a relic of that former trade. Some premises still retained the wide, arched yard entrances characteristic of such places.

These days accommodation is relatively sparse and often prohibitively expensive, and needs planning and booking well ahead to avoid disappointment. Last year [2016] I walked across part of southern England, assuming I would find places to stay along the way. There were none. I spent two nights walking in the dark and cat-napping in long grass, hoping that no other night-time wanderers or curious livestock would either bother or be bothered by me.

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To good roads and accommodation, the evident hardiness of the Victorian foot can be added. Borrow was, after all, a hard-working farmer living in a world of mainly pedestrian travel. No hopping in the car or even on a bicycle to get somewhere. I once met a French farmer’s son who told me how, in the summer, he rarely wore shoes. The consequence was that the soles of his feet would become as thick and as tough as leather and even sharp stones would not bother him too much. When he put shoes on again in the winter this layer would peel off like a snake shedding its skin. I imagine the soles of Borrow’s feet, and possibly pretty much everyone else in Victorian Britain, were of a similarly tough nature, not the soft, pampered appendages of today.

Of great importance, of course, were his boots, hob-nailed leather affairs. Borrow mentions needing them re-soled a couple of times during his Llangollen-to-Chepstow walk and on another occasion how sharp stones on a mountain track were cutting through them and hurting his feet, but little else. There were no alternatives, of course, which may have disinclined him to comment further, assuming his readers would be well-familiar with such issues. Perhaps walking on the relatively well-drained road surfaces and luck with the weather meant that for him moisture problems were not such an issue and his treasured worsted stockings seem to have done their job well.

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Not so with me, having to plough through tall, wet, lush vegetation on regular occasions. My boot problems were a mixture of bad luck and bad judgement. Bought especially for the purpose, they had proved comfortable on trial walks, but I realised later that I had never tested them in seriously wet conditions. They were desperately inadequate at minimising water ingress. Blisters or damaged skin in dry boots can be treated or tolerated, but long miles in permanently damp footwear eventually caused my skin to weaken and break. After three days of this, I had a rest day with my feet up and my boots drying, and the next day took a short walk to test things out. The skin, however, was damaged beyond immediate repair and the walk had to terminate.

I should add that I go on such walks knowing there will be difficulties, indeed looking forward to them, and I enjoyed every footstep of my journey. I’ll look back and recall with great pleasure such things as ‘the battle of bracken hill’, the hedgehogs patrolling the woodlands behind Rhoose in the dark, the many trickling streams, helping a farmer lift a ‘weed topper’ on to blocks so he could work on it, the countless bleating sheep, chatting with the occupants of the house at Pont-y-Meibion, and above all the unique, quiet beauty of the Welsh landscape with its subdued greys, greens, browns.

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I’d like to say that I had as many interesting human encounters as Borrow did in his book, but this was not really the case. Walking years ago I would find myself sharing chocolate bars and cups of coffee with complete strangers in the middle of nowhere, chatting in depth about paths, the qualities of different brands of backpack, the weather and numerous other subjects, but this is no longer so easily accomplished. So many people wander silently by, earphones firmly inserted and shuffling through the tracks on their iPhones, often with a frustrated look on their face, barely acknowledging others.

Thankfully, at the one Youth Hostel I utilised, people were more sociable – there was a woman who was walking the Beacons Way, another who invited me to join a holiday club, and a vegan, yoga-practising man who was reading a book about aliens secretly taking over the planet. We shared food, studied maps, made cups of tea for each other and chatted about the weather, past adventures and the gradual dissolution of the YHA. It was all very pleasant. Then we said our good-byes and went our respective ways.

After my three days and eighty-six miles, I took a few short walks to look at the scenery around Llandeusant and then made my way back to Warwickshire by public transport, then returned to Wales by car to explore some of the places l’d intended to travel through on foot. The most moving was Huw Morris’s grave at Liansilin. Having been impressed by Wild Wales at a young age, to actually be crouching at the same spot as the author thirty years after first reading the book was surprisingly affecting.

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I still have many questions for Borrow. How did he cope with the cold, wind and rain during his late-autumn walk and at a time when the climate had not yet completely recovered from what historians call ‘The Little Ice Age’? Was he just lucky with the weather? Did he really carry nothing other than an umbrella, a spare pair of stockings, a shirt, a razor and a prayer-book? What about food? He mentions hearty meals in some places, but how did he manage the majority of the time? Did he walk all day on last night’s supper? Had I really met him on my descent from the hillside above Merthyr, I would have dearly loved to study his boots and ask him that question most burning in my mind, “Excuse me, Mr Borrow, how are your feet today?” [2]

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Notes:

[1] Dr Ann Soutter FRSA (who authored under the name Dr A. M. Ridler), founder of the George Borrow Society in 1991. She also founded in the Lavengro Press in 2014 to publish rare or previously unpublished writings by Borrow. I had contacted the society regarding my walk and Ann encouraged me to write the article and also sent me a copy of some unpublished notes of Borrow’s she had transcribed. It was with great sadness that I learned of Ann’s death in 2018.

[2] Dr Soutter commented that in other writings Borrow described having generous breakfasts and also occasionally complained of sore feet.


► THE MUD LARK.

A story I wrote in 1985 and just rediscovered. I rather enjoyed reading it again (I hope that doesn’t sound big-headed) so thought I’d share the piece. I think there may be a bit of self-observation buried here somewhere. Anyway, here it is …

The Mud Lark.

Underneath his fresh brown coat of mud, the Mud Lark is a beautiful blue, grey and white. If you could catch a Mud Lark and scrub it clean, you would see these colours for yourself. This bird is, however, rarely seen in the clean state.

The first thing he does every morning is fall into the first muddy puddle or ditch he can find and roll around, pretending it is an accident. The Mud Lark spends the rest of the day in some thorny thicket or secluded tree top – he is not fussy – and makes an imitation of preening himself. He does not become significantly cleaner.

This is the way his whole life is spent, rolling in mud and pretend to preen. In the evenings he may find a couple of berries to eat, and then rests. With a little effort he could be as beautiful as any of the other birds, but nobody has managed to catch him yet, let alone tell him how fine things could be without all the mud.


► MEMORIES OF FATHER FRANCIS ‘FRANK’ HUGHES OF GLENRIDDING, 1915-1998..

(First posted .)

Chatting with someone recently, I learned of a Father Francis ‘Frank’ Hughes, born 1915, died 1998, who not only took services in Glenridding and but also helped with mountain rescue. The person I spoke with described him as ‘a lovely man’ and ‘a bit of a character’. With only a few passing references on the web, I though it worth making some enquiries from people who may have known him, and received the following comments. Although only a few snippets, they sketch a picture of someone who seems to have been quite an individual and who is clearly remembered with affection. Thank you to all who provided information.


Report on a walk taken c. 1995, PPRuNe web site (28 Oct 2007):

It was in the days when the late Father Frank Hughes was still alive so we headed round to his home where the door was always open (literally) and we were able to change into the dry things whilst he prepared hot drinks for us. He was a wonderful man who thought nothing of going out at stupid hours to rescue people whose car had had an argument with a wall on Hardknott Pass and bring them back to his home.

He worked for many years with the Patterdale Mountain Rescue team and was also the founder of The Kendal Bowmen. He only ever took one holiday – to visit the Leper Colony for which he raised funds. When asked why he never went away he would simply say “who needs to go away when I can just look out of my window and see all this?”

Comments provided by members of the ACHILLE RATTI CLIMBING CLUB:

He would give out Yorkie bars out at the end of mass, the only reason I agreed to go.

Yep Yorkies after mass. I think he was a keen archer. He really helped his community. There was an article about him in a National newspaper. Great photo of him in the kitchen at Bishop’s Scale serving tea after the charity walk.

Father Hughes used to drive over from Glenridding to say Mass on Saturday evenings. He would come throughout the year, often in challenging weather conditions. There used to be a little church at Glenridding, St. Philip Howard, and Fr. Frank lived there.

[The] father who took Saturday mass at Langdale who was referred to as the late father Hughes because he was always running late.

He wasn’t young in those days, and not very big, but he was fit and active and, indeed, much liked. He had contacts in Liberia, and would preach about the corruption there, and ask us to pray for the people.

We were in Tyn Twr [a club hut in Snowdonia] and were having ‘words’ in the lounge. We didn’t think [he] could hear us, when we went into the kitchen he said he couldn’t concentrate on his prayers. He also told us of a time he was crossing private land when the landowner challenged him, he challenged the landowners right to refuse him access. The landowner explained his ancestors “… fought for this land”. The father replied, “As did mine, shall I fight you for it now?‘”

A long time ago now … in the hall at the Grisedale Horsehoe Fell Race. Father Hughes happily passed the race time by playing the piano beautifully. As I listened and watched him his love of playing the piano was obvious.

From ACHILLE RATTI CLIMBING CLUB publications:

[Father Hughes] suffered a stroke earlier in the year and is now home again and convalescing.” [ARCC Bulletin 89, June 1983.]

“The latest news I have is that Fr. Hughes is making good progress and should soon be back with us.” [ARCC Journal 1991.]

… much appreciated [was] the hospitality at Father Hughes’ house at Glenridding. The only complaint was that the abundance of food and drink made the climb up Mires Beck and Catstycam heavy going.” [A walk report in the ARCC Journal, 1994.]

“It is with sadness I that I report on the death of Fr. Frank Hughes, our club chaplain or as he would have rather put it the Late Fr. Hughes, and for those of you who may not understand that phrase, he usually arrived late for Mass here in Langdale, having driven over the Struggle from Glenridding to get here, and would introduce himself as the ‘Late Fr. Hughes’. He was everyone’s idea of a priest, a lovable character, kind and generous but with a very stubborn streak. He had a number of minor accidents whilst travelling over the Struggle to Bishop’s Scale in the ice and snow, but refused to listen to any arguments about not coming at all in the winter months. He was a great friend to all of us and will be sadly missed.” [Derek Price (Chairman), Minutes of the AGM, ARCC Journal 1998.]

“Father Frank Hughes, a former Club Chaplain, I will always remember for his outlook on life and his hospitality. His piano playing will always remain with me.” [Mountaineering Reflections, by John Braybrook. ARCC Journal 2005.]

A note from the WWW.JOURNEYING.CO.UK (a Christian walking club) web site:

A wonderful man who was to become a good friend of Pilgrim Adventure and who, until he was too old and ill, loved nothing more than to climb the great hills.” [19 Jan 2021.]

Comment from B… R… (the person who first told me about Fr. Hughes, inspiring this blog post):

Thank you so much for taking the time for this research and article. I remember Father Hughes so fondly from my childhood holidays. Yes! He was a keen archer! I’d forgotten that part. He gave me a lesson one day. He was all of these things that people describe him as. Mostly, he was kind. It was lovely to read all of these memories.

From PATTERDALE MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM:

Fr. Frank Hughes was a full [Patterdale Mountain Rescue Team] member and is now deceased. He passed away some years ago in care of the nuns at [a Catholic retreat in the southern Lake District]. He had moved to Glenridding to a bungalow and chapel that was built on the lowest row of new houses behind the garage. The chapel had been built by some catholic charity possibly linked to the Achille Ratti catholic climbing club, and Father Frank used to celebrate the only mass between Penrith and Windermere.

He was a very generous man and regularly took gifts and presents out to leaper colonies for the affected children.

He was a team member in his sixties, but in a very ‘pedestrian’ way – never a climber, but he did turn out on call outs and searches. I remember one overnight missing peron search on the side of Kirkstone/Red Screes, in thick snow [we] lost contact with Father Frank. As we approached Caiston Glen, we had to get the team to turn around begin to search for Frank. He turned up about a hour later at Brotherswater Hotel from who knows where. When we tried to argue with him about wandering off in a whiteout, his only answer was ‘Never worry about me, I will be alright because God will look after me, have you found the misper yet!

On another call-out he frightened the casualty by leaning over him in his dog collar, telling the poor bloke that he was doing “last rights” today. I do remember him taking some very wet and ill equipped folk back to dry off and sleep at the cottage more than once. His other forte was to bring either soup and a bowl of chips, or coffee and cake across to us when we used go collecting with the Landrovers on the village green at Easter.

Sincere thanks to members of the Achille Ratti Climing Club and Patterdale Mountain Rescue for their help with this article..


► THE BOULDERS OF BERFEDD.

I have wandered around the slopes of Cwmffynnon and Moel Berfedd, Snowdonia, many times over the past twenty five years. The slopes are dotted with boulders deposited by retreating Ice Age glaciers 10,000 years ago. I see it as a kind of sculpture garden and have given a number of the boulders names.

There’s a path to the lake via a little gate by the side of the hostel at Pen-y-Pass.
Sunrise over Cwmffynnon from Crib Goch, with the eastern Glyderau (left) and Moel Siabod (right) in the background. The patch of water towards the horizon on the right is Llynau Mymbyr.
The gateway to the mountainside.
The Carp, with Crib Goch behind.
The Whale (with a tail).
The Jumble.
The Elephant Hide Rock.
The Tripartate Stone – Llyn Cwnffynnon side.
The Tripartate Stone – Pen-y-Pass side.
The Bison.
The Laughing Whale.
The Ball of Twine.
The Row. After having stood there for something like 10,000 years, the central stone of this little collection fell (or was it pushed?) sometime between my visits in 2015 and 2018 and is now broken in two.
The Quadripartate Stone.
The Brioche. (It just reminds me of those little chocolate brioche rolls that I’ve bought many times at the local petrol station.)
Wave Rock.
The Sliding Stone.
The (broken) Bowling Ball.
Adam and Eve.
The Perched Stone.
The Eye – a feature in the wall of an old shepherding enclosure.
The Perched Pyramid. It also reminds me of the Sphinx.
The Island.
The Bench.
The Hammer.
The Waterfall. There’s a video HERE.
The summit of Moel Berfedd. The collection of lichens at the very highest point has barely changed in the few years I’ve been photographing them.
The Cave.
The view from inside The Cave. The main peak to the left is Crib Goch, with Snowdon just visible to the left (it appears lower, but is actually 532 feet higher).
Goats.
Llyn Cwmffynnon.
Llyn Cwmffynnon with the Cwmffynnon valley beyond. Mole Berfedd is the hill on the right, with Moel Siabod in the centre at the back. The hills of the Glyderau range are out-of-picture to the left.