I started climbing -well, walking, scrambling, occasionally crawling up- mountains in my early twenties. What became a mountain-habit began with a walk: a group of us got it into our heads to do The Ridgeway Path. This is an ancient track running through the South of England from Avebury to Tring. The experience left a deep impression on me.
From The Ridgeway we graduated to Kinder Scout in the Peak District. This was our first mountain. OK, so it was a plateau instead of a sharp peak (the “Peak” in The Peak District refers to a tribe, apparently, not the hills), but at least we had the satisfaction of climbing to the top and admiring the view. In so doing, we discovered one of the strangest landscapes in Britain: the huge expanse of peat bog over which the Kinder river winds, or “scouts”, until reaches the gritstone crags on the edge of the plateau known as Kinder Downfall. The names on the map tell you a lot about the place: Madwoman's Stones, Seal Stones, Ringing Rodger (a corruption, perhaps, of rotcher, an outcrop?). The place is riven with deep clefts in the peat, worn away by water. On the Kinder plateau it does not take a lot of imagination to imagine you're on the surface of another planet. We were hooked.
The aura that surrounds Kinder is, of course, enhanced by its history: this is the place where hill-walking in Britain became politicised. The story of the Kinder Mass Trespass is well known, as is Ewan McColl's song, The Manchester Rambler. I suspect many readers will know it, but will enjoy reading a few verses nevertheless. They tell the story of the conflict between the landowners and the ramblers, better than I can:
The day was just ending as I was descending
Through Grindsbrook by Upper-Tor,
When a voice cried, "Hey , you!" in the way keepers do,
(He'd the worst face that ever I saw).
The things that he said were unpleasant;
In the teeth of his fury I said
That sooner than part from the mountains
I think I would rather be dead.
I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler from Manchester way,
I get all my pleasure the hard moorland way.
I may be a wage slave on Monday,
But I am a free man on Sunday.
He called me a louse and said, "Think of the grouse."
Well - I thought but I still couldn't see
Why old Kinder Scout and the moors round about
Couldn't take both the poor grouse and me.
He said, "All this land is my master's!"
At that I stood shaking my head, -
No man has the right to own mountains
Any more than the deep ocean bed.
I'm a rambler, I'm a rambler, etc.
Next, we were off to North Wales. Another friend's eyes had lit up when he heard of our Kinder Scout exploits. Our next expedition, he insisted, should be nothing less than a traverse of the Welsh 3,000-foot peaks. In retrospect, it was an over-ambitious project: there are fourteen of them (or fifteen – it depends how you count them) and half way up the first one, we realized we were never going to make it. I said half way up the first one, but this is not strictly true. On consulting our map at the summit we discovered we had climbed the wrong one. This was Llwytmor, a mere 2,750 feet. In the end, some of us managed to climb four (or five – it depends how you count them), including Tryfan, which must be considered one of the most alluring mountains on the British mainland. It is often said to be the only one that requires you to use your hands to hold on during the ascent. We had a fantastic time and I still wonder how we managed to achieve what we did: we had opted to camp en route and were each carrying about 40lb! Some of us had shelled out good money -heaven knows why, looking back- on expensive gear. We might not have been wage slaves when we were up there in the hills – but fashion slaves? Hm.
If only I'd read WH Murray back then. Shortly after the war, he spent five days rock climbing on Rhum with a friend, Michael Ward, who he describes as a “a magnificent rock-snow-ice climber”:
“Ward had excelled himself. He turned up wearing the torn and patched jacket of an old lounge suit. The patches were of black cloth, probably cut out of wartime curtains, and they had been clumsily sewn on by himself. However, the jacket served to cover a navy blue rugger jersey, which was all that he wore underneath (the weather was cold). The trousers were particularly shapeless, even for navy-blue serge, and most wonderfully frayed. He might have passed for a tramp, utterly down and out, were it not for that upright bearing – and a food-filled rucksack. He had brought no change of clothing from London.”
from Undiscovered Scotland (1951)
I've climbed Tryfan many times since. There is a farm at the foot of it, Williams Farm. Occasionally I've camped there. I have memories of going there with my children when we all climbed the mountain together and, years before that, with various friends. Of sitting round in a tent playing cards, while rain drummed on the roof. Of driving to nearby Bethesda one night, and returning with a box of Mr Kipling's “exceedingly good” cakes. (Fondant fancies, in fact. Food can seem so much more important when it's cold, dark and there's no telly). Of a solitary “skinny dip” in a stream at 6am one Easter. Unforgettable stuff. Come to think of it, it's about time I went back.