When you can’t be on the hills

When I’m not actually hiking on the hills and mountains, I’m usually reading something related to them. This doesn’t always have to be a book of course (I spend far more of my time than is probably healthy poring over maps planning out new routes to try out one day, even more so now I have the excellent OS Maps app for Android). But, generally speaking, I’ve found that I tend to have a book about the hills relatively close at hand most of the time.

From time to time I’ll do reviews of mountain-related books, but for today I’m going to go over a few of the books I’ve really enjoyed reading over the years, many of which I dip into time and again, especially on the winter nights where darkness precludes hiking (unless I get into night hiking at some point in the future I suppose!)

An absolute favourite series of books (I’m sure a great many of you reading this will concur) has to be Alfred Wainwright’s classic Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells, produced in seven volumes. I was lucky enough to get a copy of the 50th Anniversary edition at Christmas a few years ago and they’ve travelled with me everywhere since, always kept close at hand. These books, from the character of their presentation, to the traces of Wainwright’s humour sprinkled throughout, to the beautiful imagery within them, are a true homage to hill walking, managing to capture something of that sense of adventure we all feel when heading out onto the fells and contain it within each volume. Each individual fell is lovingly presented with all sorts of details about the surroundings, local traditions and individual features that no other guide somehow manages to capture. These are books to relish.

Another of my favourite books is Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind, which explores Western civilization’s changing perceptions of and attitudes to mountains. Macfarlane charts the change from a general shunning of mountains to the veritable mountain worship we see around us today, where every high street has an outdoors shop and hiking up to the hills is one of the nation’s favourite pastimes. More than this however, Macfarlane also details his own changing attitudes to the mountains (going from adrenaline junkie to more placid connoisseur of the hills) and parallels this with Mallory’s obsession with climbing Everest, an obsession which eventually proved to be fatal. I’ve read all of Macfarlane’s books bar his latest (which is on my list of books to buy) and can highly recommend them all. They’re beautifully written and thought-provoking works that’ll inspire you to put on a pair of boots and get out to the hills.

Another must have for all British peak baggers has to be The Mountains of England and Wales by John and Anne Nutall. The Nutalls catalogued the English and Welsh peaks over 2000ft, for which service to peak-bagging these peaks now hold their surname as an eponym, in just the same way that Lakeland fells are now often referred to as ‘Wainwrights’. We can go further down the rabbit hole by saying all Wainwrights are Nutalls of course, but not every Nutall is a Wainwright…anyway I digress. This two volume book is an essential resource for anyone seriously contemplating bagging all the Welsh 2000 footers (as I am), but one of the many things I like about it is that the artwork and drawings for the book hark back to Wainwright, having something of that surveyor’s hand-drawn quality about them. This is a great book to read while you can’t be out hiking, and it’ll spur you on to making many more trips into the hills.

Finally, I love reading about a bona fide adventure, and in my younger years was seriously contemplating emigrating to Canada, spurred on in no small part by the sheer beauty of Canada’s vast wildernesses. In my avid quest to find out as much about Canada as I possibly could stumbled upon the writings of R.M. Patterson, a former banker from England who emigrated to Canada in the early twentieth century and settled first in Alberta and latterly in British Columbia. During his time there he took up ranching and also went to great lengths to explore the Canadian interior both on foot and by canoe as the voyageurs, the commercial fur-trappers who explored so much of Canada, had done. His accounts of his epic trips make for fascinating reading, and two that I’d recommend are Trail to the Interior and Finlay’s River.

But enough from me; what are your favourite mountain/exploration books, and why?

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3 thoughts on “When you can’t be on the hills

  1. In the Guide Book category: the Nutalls also wrote a 2 volume ‘Tarns of Lakeland’ which is well worth having, and any guidebooks by Aileen and Brian Evans and worth getting your hands on. (The Scrambles Guides, Short Walks in Lakeland (3 volumes)).
    Descriptions of walks undertaken: ‘Hamish’s Mountain Walk’ and ‘Hamish’s Groats End Walk’ both by Hamish Brown, anything by John Hillaby, Richard Adams Nature Diary about a year of dog walks on the Isle of Mann. ‘Clear Waters Rising’ by Nicholas Crane, ‘The Gentle Art of Tramping’ by Stephen Graham, ‘The Ascent of Rum Doodle’, ‘The Munro’s in Winter’, ‘Mean Feat’. There’s a few which spring to mind. There are many more. I’m a bit obsessed with walking literature.

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    • Thanks for the suggestions! I’ve got ‘Hamish’s Groats End Walk’ but have yet to get his other books. Another book I can recommend is Sinclair McKay’s ‘Ramble On’ about the rise of the modern walking movement; my great uncle was part of the mass trespass at Kinder Scout, so the book has a particular resonance for me.

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      • I haven’t read ‘Ramble On’ I shall look out for that. Morris Maples ‘Shanks’ Pony’ is good on the history of walking. ‘The Shining Trail’ edited by Roger Smith is a superb anthology (almost certainly out of print as are a lot of the books I’ve mentioned). ‘The Shining Levels’ by John Wyatt is about walking but is brilliant on the Lakes. Also Harry Griffins books, especially the ones compiled from his news paper pieces.

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