December 2008

The High Places: Leaves from a Lakeland notebook

A. Harry Griffin; Illustrations by A. Wainwright

Published by Frances Lincoln Ltd; £12.99

In recent years there has been an explosion of outdoor blogs, online diaries relating individual experiences of the outdoors and revealing opinions on everything from particular routes to the best kit to use. Fifty years ago Harry Griffin was a countryside blogger writing in an age before the internet, compiling both the Guardian’s Country Diary and a weekly “Leaves from a Lakeland notebook” in the Lancashire Evening Post.

The book brings together a selection of his weekly columns that span four decades from the post war years onwards. A time when Britain and the world experienced an ever quickening change whose effects reached even the remotest valleys and fells of the Lake District. As you progress through the seasons you get a real feeling from Griffin’s evocative writing that he is experiencing and observing the gentle change of a way of life that had stood still for centuries. His description of summer days spent bathing in high tarns or his accurate observations from the highlight of the fells calendar, the Lakeland Show, suggest wistfulness for the “good ole days”.

Yet this isn’t a book stuck in the past as many of the themes tackled retain a resonance for us today. It highlights the ever changing nature of our countryside that still continues. Griffin rails against the congestion caused by holiday time traffic, expresses his dislike of cairns unnecessarily appearing on the hillsides and comments on the inappropriately equipped trudging up the slopes of Scafell Pike. Thoughts many of us continue to share today. It is easy to imagine what his response would be to some of the new challenges Lakeland now faces, surely his column would be at the forefront of campaigns against windfarms?

The cynic will raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of Alfred Wainwright’s illustrations as just another example of the publishers cashing in on the Wainwright franchise. They never seemed to serve any other purpose than that, the familiar pen and ink drawings do not distract but they do not add value either. For this is a book of carefully crafted words that provide far more compelling images, full of colour, light and shade.

Griffin’s passion for the fells shines through every word, his description of familiar summits remain sharp and provide a fresh perspective for even the most jaded of walkers. To make Skiddaw sound like an attractive proposition takes real skill, even the eulogy to that worn out mountain, manages to capture its special nature away from the crowds that many of us have experienced and even more have missed.

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A year in the life of the Isle of Skye,

Bill Birkett, Frances Lincoln Ltd, £14.99

This is the latest in the “A year in the life of….” series of photography books from Bill Birkett. Previous editions have seen the Lake District extensively covered as well as Glencoe in Scotland. They mix a blend of background information on the area, illustrated with an extensive collection of photographs from around the year.

This approach attempts to show the real Isle of Skye, no attempt is made to hide the fact that more often than not this is a damp, misty place. A damp, misty place Skye maybe but this gives the island a mysterious romanticism that is displayed in Birkett’s photographs.

There are very few picture postcard photographs, with cloud free azure blue sky or perfect golden sunsets. Instead we are presented with an everyday portrait of Skye, hazy vistas, distinct peaks shimmering after recent rain or jagged Cuillin summits stabbing through swirling clouds. Putting all of that aside, one of the most arresting images is of the Staffin-Uig Pass almost impassable with Christmas card white snow sharply defining the towering crags above the road.

For once the text that accompanies the photographs is of added benefit rather than a distraction. An extensive introduction covers the history and geology of the island, before dealing with three broad geographic regions, Strathaird and the Red Cuillin; the Black Cuillin and Trotternish. Within these sections elements of both Gaelic and Scottish literature and culture are interwoven within the text to provide a rich sense of place.

Birkett has produced yet another fine coffee table tome that you can pick up from time to time to dip into and enjoy the moody atmosphere that makes the misty isle so special.

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It has been a little while since the latest edition of The Scottish Mountaineer was published along with my debut book reviews. It is a wonderful feeling to see your words in print on the glossy pages of a magazine and I hope that I will get the chance to do so again.  Members of the Moutaineering Council of Scotland automatically receive a copy of the magazine as part of their subscription. Non-members are able to purchase copies in newsagents in Scotland but I am unsure of its availability elsewhere.

I have posted the two reviews that appear in the last edition. As I have a small pile of walking related books for Christmas a few adhoc reviews will appear on the blog in the New Year.

An interesting campaign has been launched by Roseanna Cunningham, the SNP Member of the Scottish Parliament for Perth and Kinross. In a feature in yesterday’s Sunday Times she reveals a plan to establish a Pilgrim Way from Iona to St Andrew’s across 200 miles of some of the most beautiful countryside in Scotland. Along the way walkers would retrace some of the steps that St Columba‘s 6th-century monks trod as they fanned out from Iona Abbey taking the Christian message to the people of Scotland.

The plan is to link many of the small villages, settlements and ancient churches of Argyll, Stirlingshire, Perthshire and Fife. Not only would it be a stunning walk for its scenery but it would be a fascinating trail back into the country’s early Celtic history. The thought of a long-distance trail that takes in islands, ferry journeys and quaint little villages really excites me.

The idea is not just to celebrate our countryside and heritage but to act as an economic stimulus for many of the small communities that would be on the route. I know from living in a village that lies on the West Highland Way what a lifeline walkers and tourists are for local businesses and people. The Sunday Times article emphasises the cross-denominational support the plan has already received but it will also need support from the walking community as well. A Facebook group, Campaign for Pilgrim Way (Scotland), has already been set up where you can register your support.

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I hadn’t realised how long it has been since I last posted on my blog. I really must do better. I have no excuses other than I didn’t have the motivation to blog and got out of the habit.

I have found the best way is to set aside 10 minutes each day, as writing time. When I don’t do that, I don’t blog.

I have some inspiration again now and hope to blog some intersting things in the next few days.