‘Wild: An Elemental Journey’ review

As readers of the blog will know, when I’m not out and about in the hills I’m usually to be found reading about them, or reading about travels to some far-flung land. I’ve lately read Paul Thereoux’s excellent “The Great Railway Bazaar” about his exploits travelling by train from London to Asia and back in the 1970s, and I’m working my way through his equally brilliant ‘Dark Star Safari’. Reviews of these will probably pop up here in a while. But this post is about a book that’s been calling to me from the shelves in Waterstones for a while; ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey‘ by Jay Griffiths. The book centres on the author’s pursuit of wilderness and the wild in our modern world, documenting both her journey to these places, her experiences of them, and the manifest threats they face.

This is a book that’s captivated my imagination and frustrated me in equal measure, a book full of contradictions, as all good books are. I was immediately grabbed by Griffiths’ explanation of the roots of her longing to travel into the wilderness. Her epitomisation of the sterility of choices presented to us as ‘safe’ options growing up in contemporary Britain resonated with me; grow up, get a good job, get a nice mortgage on a house in suburbia, settle down with 2.4 children and be a ‘success’. I absolutely concurred with her description of this tame experience to which we’re all supposed to aspire, and the intellectual moribundity that underpins it:

“Everything was made into corridors: corridors of convention, corridors from term time to term time, corridors from school to university, corridors from sensibly studying maths to marrying an appropriate accountant. Intellectually, the corridors were supermarket aisles, tinned thought. Politically, the corridors offered one brand, off-the-shelf, rightwing views”.

This passage sums up so much of life in Britain for the majority today, and our cultural phobia of any sort of experimentation, our fear of doing anything differently, of being different, of non-conformism. I well remember being told by my first boss that it would be a waste of time studying medieval history because ‘there are no jobs in it’ and I could ‘just be a plumber’; consciously choosing to do things differently threatens conventional order, and people fear what is unusual because it casts their own choices into doubt. Lo and behold, after a lot of hard work at univeristy, I found myself a job working with all the skills learned in my medieval history degrees. But the immediate reaction from some around me to try and put me off an unorthodox course has always stuck with me. Griffiths sets her account up as a rejection of convention, arguing that wildness, by its very nature is antithetical to all forms of convention.

By extension, civilisation as we know it, with its conventions, orders, rules and laws, is entirely opposed to the wild world, to nature itself. She encapsulates this brilliantly in a diatribe against golf courses: “Golf epitoises the tame world. On a golf course nature is neutered[…]golf turns outdoors into indoors, a prefab mat of stultified grass, processed, pesticided, herbicided, the pseudo-green of formica sterility.” Reading this, I thought how apposite and fitting it was that at the apex of power in our corrupted Western world, the complete embodiment of its moral bankruptcy, arrogance towards nature, its greed and mindless stupidity, sat Donald Trump, golf course purveyor in chief.

There is a huge amount to commend about Grifiths’ writing, yet I find some of her arguments less compelling than others. The key one of these for me is Griffiths’ almost insatiable desire to try to pin all the world’s problems on Christianity, chraracterising it as somehow anti-wild, and only ever a brutal force of missionary colonialism, forever doomed to exterminate indigenous cultures. The antipathy between ‘wild’ nomadic and ‘civilised’ settled peoples is not one that can be laid at Christianity’s door; it predates both Roman and Greek civilisation, and in fact can be found at play in both ancient Indian and ancient Chinese civilisations. Similarly, to dismiss Christianity as some anti-wild force is historically and culturally illiterate; Christianity is the faith of the Desert Fathers, who deliberately left what they saw as the corruptions of civilisation to find God, and peace, in the wilderness, as did the Cistercian monks and nuns of the Middle Ages. The removal of oneself from civilisation to find oneself in the wilderness is a continual motif of Christian thought; it is why, all across the globe, retreat centres thrive; it is just such a retreat into the wilds that all Christians commemorate in Lent.

Similarly Griffith’s characterization of Christians as only ever being brutal ‘murderous’ missionaries hell-bent on enslaving and destroying indigenous communities conflates one specific chapter of one specific culture of Christianity’s history with the entirety of a movement which encompasses Roman Catholicism, the five autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Abysinnian and Egyptian Coptic churches, Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists; the list goes on; myriad cultures spread out across two millenia of human experience. It also completely fails to account for the heroic and inspirational example of men like Maximilian Kolbe, a man so entirely selfless that he volunteered to take the place of another prisoner in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and the countless millions of selfless and devoted individuals who have walked the earth before and since who aspire to such an example of love for their fellow man. It also, rather more pertinently, overlooks the fact that Christian lawyers and human rights activists are being threatened, intimidated, brutalised and murdered for standing up for the rights of indigenous peoples, particularly when those rights come into conflict with drug trafficking organisations or the oil lobby.

Finally, Griffiths’ caricature of Christianity, a convenient punchbag to which any evil can be ascribed without analysis, bears no resemblance to real Christianity at all. On the one hand Christianity is lambasted for its ideas that things can be ‘sinful’ and yet one of its most important proscriptions,  in fact one of the deadliest sins, is overindulgence, over consumption, taking more than you need from mother earth. Christian leaders across the globe have been at the forefront of efforts to call for environmental protections for years, precisely because, to a Christian mind, regardless of which culture of Christianity you hail from, destruction of the environment which Man has been given specifically to protect for the benefit of all life, is utterly abhorrent. The idea that Christianity is somehow diametrically opposed to the preservation and respect for wilderness and wild spaces when its values are inherently anti-consumerist and anti-individualist, is foolhardy. It also flies in the face of the example of some of the greatest conservationists ever to have lived, such as John Muir (born a Scots Presbyterian) and Grey Owl (an Anglican). In one particularly hysterical rant Griffiths states, apparently triumphantly ‘but the Christian god will never win’ contrasting it to the supposed opposing virtues of the wild human spirit. In a world run by a megalomaniac like Donald Trump, I’d be really glad to see some victories for ‘love your neighbour,’ ‘love your enemy’ ‘be humble’ ‘don’t overconsume’ and ‘turn the other cheek’. But then Griffiths isn’t really dealing with Christianity, so much as she’s projecting all of her own pet peeves onto a safe target, labelling the result ‘Christianity’ and attacking that instead.

Blaming Christianity for all the world’s problems is very fashionable (especially in Britain) and to a large extent an acceptable prejudice at present. It’s also intellectually lazy and largely without justification. This is also particularly striking given how passionately Griffiths rails against an ‘intellectual apartheid’ that we’ve created in the West, in which, full of the conceit that literacy is the only true measure of education, we’ve tended as a society to place a disproportionate value on Western thinking, to the detriment of the cultures of indigenous peoples. It’s an argument I completely agree with, and one that’s dealt with succinctly in the context of medieval literacy by Matthew Clanchy in his excellent From Memory to Written Record’. Given her passionate assault on the relative intellectual sterility of the West I find it surprising that in what comes across as a blinkered attack on Christianity (almost for having the temerity to exist) she effectively perpetuates one of the key strands of this apartheid.

One of the thoughts that struck me reading this book is how unfortunate it is that, as a species, by our very condition, we cannot help but despoil the wild as we attempt to advance our future. Much as I agree with Griffith’s passionate call for a defence of the wild, and believe that society would greatly benefit from a renewal of love and understanding for the natural world, some amount of depredation against nature is inevitable. Nature has currently given us as a species the opportunity to be the apex species of our planet, but it is a time-limited offer. For hundreds of millions of years prior to our ascension to the top of the pyramid, the dinosaurs reigned supreme, yet they never evolved the capacities to enable them to build a civilisation that could avert their eventual doom.

Nature has given us precisely the length of time it takes a six mile-wide object to be gravitationally perturbed from its position in the Kuiper Belt and hurtle onto a collision course with earth to make the most of our place at the top of the tree. We have until then to develop the technologies to avoid a catastrophic impact with our planet and so secure our future as a species.

Doing this of course requires the development of complex industries, specialisations of skills dependent upon finely-honed systems of learning, and the political will to make it happen. All of this inevitably extracts a price from nature, and I don’t think humanity can realistically live entirely at one with its wild roots and still prosper as a species longer than the dinosaurs did.

This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn to live in harmony with nature. We should make every effort to protect our wilderness and wild spaces, to encourage our children to love and revere them, and do all we can to pass down to our descendents as pristine a world as possible.

This book will delight you, fascinate you, challenge you, inspire you, and frustrate you in equal measure. Its flaws (and there are many) lend a quality to it, in the same way that all the most interesting characters in a good novel are the flawed ones. It’s a beautiful and evocative book, and it will make you want to head out to the wildest places you know and commune with nature. I’m glad I read it.

A Labour of Love

As most of my readers will know, I’m on a mission to snag all of the mountains of Wales, and as I found myself with an impromptu week of leave to take this week, I decided it was time to get out and about and get my boots muddy again. There are various definitions of the ‘mountains of Wales’ mostly revolving around their relative height from the surrounding land, giving a total, depending on who you ask, of around 140, 160, or 190 separate peaks to bag. Splitting hairs about relative height is a bit like the hillwalker’s version of train spotting or rivet counting, and while part of me is tempted to be virtuous and go for the ‘190’ set, I’m also aware that (in theory at least!) this is supposed to be fun, so we’ll see how it evolves!

 

Nevertheless, whatever definition I follow, there are peaks in every corner and nook and cranny of Wales, and this mission will take me to many far-flung places that I might not otherwise have visited. As with all exercises of this nature though, some of the peaks I bag will inevitably involve a bit more determined effort with perhaps a lower pain to reward ratio than others. The sweeping majesty of the high Carneddau is a very different proposition to some of the boggier morasses in other areas of Wales, and on one of my trips this week, it was to a set of peaks like this that I wandered.

 

Enter the Cwmdauddwr Hills. In Welsh, Cwmdauddwr means ‘Valley of the Two Waters’ and the hills take the name of the small hamlet a few miles from their base. These mountains are two of the most remote anywhere in Wales, and they rise out of more or less trackless moor and bogland close to one of the major reservoirs of the Elan Valley. As peaks that are fairly local to my base of operations they’ve been on my ‘to-do’ list for a while, but due to their nature I’ve been keen to try and keep them for as favourable a day as possible.

It’s not that the Cwmdauddwr Hills are ‘bad’ in any sense of the word, far from it, but all that I’d read on them to this point suggested that they were something of an acquired taste. Rising as they do in undulating moorland and upland bog, they are known to be a tricky navigational proposition to tackle, with few real paths venturing anywhere near them, and with those that do becoming impassable or tediously difficult to negotiate after sustained rainfall. That said, their remoteness lends to them an entirely different character to some of their neighbours to the north; this is one of those regions of Wales where you can truly feel as though you’re exploring real wilderness, with nobody in sight for miles, and not a trace of noise.

As Monday dawned a beautifully bright and clear day, I decided it was time I paid a visit to these elusive hills, and see them for myself. The two peaks I was chasing today were called Drygarn Fawr, at 645 metres the larger of the two, and Gorllwyn, which at 610 metres was only just large enough to register as a mountain by the current legislative definition. My plan of attack was to follow the valley of the Nant Paradwys as far as a pass known as Bwlch y Ddau Faen (Pass of the Two Stones) and from there strike out for Drygarn Fawr, several kilometres distant, and then to return to the pass and strike out in the opposite direction for Gorllwyn.

Parking up at Rhiwnant by Caban Coch Reservoir, I saw a couple of cars in the car park, but otherwise no signs of life. I took a mooch along to the junction of a bridleway with a minor road and got my bearings, taking a look at a very old traditional Welsh farmhouse now preserved for posterity dating to the early 1560s. I struck off along a minor road, from which my path soon led away and fairly sharply up through the farmland above the banks of the reservoir and the babbling river below. Striking along at a fair old clip it felt good to be out and about, with the sun beating down out of a cloudless sky, and the path all to myself.

The views back down to the valley were clear and excellent, and as I pulled away from the main path at a group of sheepfolds, the route ahead swung into the valley of the Nant Paradwys, and left all traces of modern human habitation behind. This was truly a wild upland valley, with smatterings of sheep tracks and, every few hundred yards or so, a bog to negotiate. The landscape here was one of tough, tussocky grassland, moorland bog and peat hag, and reminded me a little of the wilder stretches of the Plynlimons, only with perhaps more of a North Yorkshire Moors-like character to them as well.

After a while, checking the map, I’d reached the bwlch; there was nothing much there but a suggestion of a path leading in one direction, and a suggestion leading in another; neither were really any more distinct than many of the sheep tracks I’d seen earlier, but from my position relative to the river I knew this was the spot; not for the first time, I was glad I wasn’t attempting this hike in the thick mist, where landmarks might have been entirely obliterated.

I struck out right, dropping initially down a grassy slope, and finding myself ploughing through the first of several sections of bog on this part of the trail to Drygarn Fawr. Over the next hour or so, under a blazing sun I began the ‘Cwmdauddwr Dance’; following the path, negotiating a bog, veering off, retracing the line of the path, pressing up and over peat hags, and repeating from scratch, all the while keeping a reasonable view of one of the cairns of Drygarn Fawr in my line of sight. Eventually, I intersected a path that led away by slow degrees down the opposite side of the Nant Paradwys towards the valley, which happened to lead up over the shoulder of Drygarn Fawr and then dropped me just shy of the summit. It was here that I started to understand the challenge of these mountains; it was not so much to do with their height, but more the energy-sapping back and forth over the undulating terrain, coupled to a vast sense of space which was at once both arrestingly beautiful and occasionally unnerving; the sense of isolation was pronounced.

I stormed over the final few metres of the ascent to Drygarn Fawr, its majestic cairns well worth the hike to get here, the view opening up over a huge landscape, with the distant Brecon Beacons on the hazy horizon. Registering a trace of thirst, I began to retrace my steps, at first along the clear path that I’d joined earlier, before striking out once again to rediscover the path down to the bwlch. I had to admit, as I neared the bwlch, that I was feeling a little more worn out than I’d expected, and the constant to-ing and fro-ing over the moorland had taken more time than I’d realised; it was not the first time that day that I’d become aware of what seemed like a strange time dilation effect in those hills, where perspective and distance were so radically altered from the norm by the sheer sense of wide-open space.

Slightly grudgingly, I pressed on up the sides of a grassy slope, the path becoming less and less distinct with every step. With clear visibility my destination was always in view, but the key for me at this point was to find the most efficient way to get there, one that, where possible, avoided the bogs and peat hags without meandering so far around them that it added needless kilometres to my hike. In this quest I was greatly aided by boundary markers laid across the land, which I would find led more or less to the summit of Gorllwyn and which were, by and large, sited on the more reliable, less marshy ground. I say ‘by and large’ because on more than one occasion there was one plonked in the middle of a swamp, but on the whole it wasn’t too bad, and it was only every now and again I had to start doing some bog hopping. Nevertheless, the route there did have a few false perspectives, and I’d occasionally find that I had to drop down into a peaty morass between two folds in the land and emerge on the other side to get back up to altitude, all of which was pretty tiring by this point in the day.

Eventually however, I prevailed, reached the summit, and bagged it. Looking back over to Drgarn Fawr I realised how far I’d travelled; the peak with its cairns now looked miniscule on the far horizon, which was something of a vindicating relief given how tired, and particularly thirsty, I felt. It was as I was leaving Gorllwyn that I finished the last of my water, but I knew that, by and large, I was now on my way ‘home’ on the final stretch, so rather than stop to replenish it I pressed on. The rest of the hike back was uneventful save for a sudden roar which shook me; I looked up and saw a mountain rescue helicopter making a beeline over towards Gorllwyn and away down the valley. It was so peaceful up there, so silent with only the wind and occasional bleat of a sheep to disturb my thoughts, that the sound of modern machinery genuinely startled me at first.

I dropped down to the bwlch and, with a sense of satisfaction tinged with relief that I had actually done both the peaks rather than just the one, I headed back down to the valley. I realised that for all their essential beauty, a charm that was of a different character entirely to that of any of the other peaks of Wales I’ve so far tackled, I was glad that I’d got these peaks off my list. For all that the Cwmdauddwr Hills have their charms, I think it’ll be quite some time before I venture to them again; after about 20k of hiking in the heat over some deceptively energy-sapping terrain, I was looking forward to some hikes without bog hopping to do.

These are, in their own way I suppose, good hills, and would certainly be a brilliant place to run a navigation workshop; but, I have to admit, they weren’t my favourites, and I was glad that I’d chosen to tackle them under the most ideal of weather conditions; I doubt I’d have wanted to tackle Gorllwyn ‘as well’ if it had been tipping it down in thick clag! With that said, I now have only a handful of peaks to do on the border before Mid Wales is complete!

Nordic dreaming

There are some places in the world that are synonymous with beautiful wilderness and adventure. The Canadian Rockies, the Appalachian Mountains, the high Andes and the vast boreal forests of Russia are all places that to my mind sum up what wilderness really means, though they each emphasise different aspects of its qualities.

To these lands can be added the wildernesses of Scandinavia, in many places thanks to cultural and governmental protection virtually pristine, and in all places breathtakingly beautiful. For many years I’ve harboured the desire to visit these lands, and finally this September, I’ll be going. One of my closest and best of friends has found himself a job working for the University of Oslo in Tromsø, and so the stage is set for some Nordic adventures.

One of the many reasons I’ve always wanted to visit Scandinavia is the great cultural difference in the way that wilderness and the outdoors in general is perceived by Scandinavian people. It’s quite telling that in many Scandinavian languages nature is referred to with the definite article, becoming ‘the Nature’; the implication and cultural and linguistic association here being that nature is not something other, something from which we separate ourselves in our quest for ‘civilization;’ in the Scandinavian mindset we exist within and as part of nature, and to separate society from nature as ideas seems an unnatural, even abhorrent, concept. As such in Scandinavia the overwhelming majority of people spend time in the wilderness on a regular basis; time spent camping, hiking, fishing and, (of course!) skiing is the norm, not the exception. Tell someone from Scandinavia that you’ve just spent a month backpacking and skiing in the mountains with only the clothes on your back and a steely glint in your eye and you’re unlikely to raise an eyebrow as you probably would in the UK; it’s the norm, not the exception.

Scandinavia, and Norway in particular of course has considerable cultural and historic connections with Britain; for a large part of the Dark Ages much of Britain was effectively ruled by monarchs of Scandinavian origin, and they have left behind them a profound social and cultural legacy within our society, including our place names, language, cultural practices and, of course, our DNA. After all, in 1066, just a few days before the Battle of Hastings, England’s last Anglo-Saxon ruler Harold Godwinson defeated the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, an event after which large scale incursions of Britain on behalf of the Norwegian crown effectively ended.

The Anglo-Saxon royal house certainly had plenty of social and cultural connections to their Nordic counterparts (Harold Godwinson’s own brother Tostig had fled to Hardrada’s court upon his exile from England, and encouraged him to claim the throne) and it is arguable that had Godwinson’s flank held at Hastings days later and the Norman invasion been repelled, Britain might have evolved into a more Scandinavian-European than Franco-European polity.  In a sense, even the Norman invasion was a Scandinavian triumph of arms, since the Normans themselves were descendants of the same Viking raiders who had plagued the coasts of Britain for centuries beforehand.

With such a depth of historical and cultural association with my own homeland and such an enlightened outlook both on the environment and society in general, Scandinavia is a part of the world that is high on my hit list of places to explore and experience. Norway is a nation built for exploration and for wilderness adventures. In Britain we have our very own and greatly-cherished ‘Right to Roam’ legislation, finally won in 2005 after tireless campaigning from the late nineteenth century onwards, and countless social protests movements prior to this. The right to roam in Britain has a special place in my heart, as one of my own relatives, now sadly no longer with us, took part in the great mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932. In Norway, the right to roam, ‘allemannsretten’ (literally ‘every man’s right’) has existed since ancient times; it doesn’t seem as though the social upheaval caused in the UK by the hugely unpopular enclosure acts (whereby land once held in common was gradually enclosed for private use) has been part of the Norwegian historical experience.

Within reasonable limits, anyone, provided that they behave themselves while doing so (i.e. don’t litter or despoil the land) may roam anywhere that isn’t cultivated land, anywhere in Norway, whenever they like. Cultivated land can also be crossed outside of the period from April to October. Hiking, camping, fishing, skiing, exploring, are a way of life here, and for obvious reasons I can hardly wait to step foot off the plane and get on with the adventure. One absolute mission objective for the trip is to try my hand at skiing, something I’ve always wanted to do, though I’m absolutely certain that I’ll end up hooked and soon have to add it to my list of hobbies. But, after all, that’s what life’s about. As soon as I have more concrete plans, I will update the blog, but suffice it to say, adventure beckons once again!

All the secret places

_MG_8730_resultOne of the great joys for me of living in an area has always been the thrill of exploring all the hidden corners and less well-known places scattered around. It seems very often to be the case that people generate a certain set of ideas about an area and then act accordingly. So it is that Snowdonia has certain areas that are overwhelmed with tourists and visitors every year (Snowdon, the Ogwen Valley area, Cadair Idris) and others, sometimes mere miles away, that see virtually no footfall whatsoever, such as the Arans, Rhinogs and Berwyns.

As I make my hour long drive to work every morning I see roads leading off enticingly into high moorland, and narrow little one track lanes leading off the main trunk roads towards hillsides, forests and lakes, and I try to take note and promise myself I’ll get around to exploring them when I have the time.

Travelling south out of Aberystwyth on the main highway towards Llangurig and Rhyader, you sweep around the flanks of the Plylimon massif, a region of territory in which, as is the case with its larger neighbours to the north, finds itself beset by crowds tackling its namesake peak, but which features vast swathes of wilderness largely unkwon to the casual tourist. Long before you reach the convenient lay by near Eisteddfa Gurig from which the most direct ascent of Plynlimon can be made, you sweep through Ponterwyd, a hamlet a few miles from Devil’s Bridge (home of the famous waterfalls) and itself a place with secrets hidden away, like the mountain bothy tucked into the forests over the ridgeline.

Take the road north out of Aberystwyth towards Machynlleth and distant Snowdonia, and you pass through a chain of hamlets whose names have become etched in my memory as gatekeepers along the road back towards my university town and the many friends I made there down the years; Tre’er Ddol, Tre Taliesin, Glandyfi, Bow Street, Talybont.

Between Ponterwyd, to the south of Aberystwyth, in the heart of the Plynlimons, and Talybont to the north, stretches a fifteen mile long road which climbs steeply up from Talybont, hugging the side of Cwm Ceulan with precipitous drops into the valley below, before reaching a high mountain pass and turning in a series of sweeping corners towards mighty Nant y Moch reservoir. From here the road bowls along through the high, wild moorland plateau before eventually crossing the reservoir and dropping down towards sleepy Ponterwyd far below.

The terrain crossed by this gem of a road is every bit as ancient, windswept, wild and remote as the moorland that cloaks Plynlimon’s subsidiary peaks, where last year I wandered for hours without seeing a soul on my way to the source of the River Severn and the River Wye. It is a land of heather, boggy upland and forest where the wind rushes freely and where you can easily stop and listen to absolute silence.

 

Having recently discovered this wilderness playground, I drove out a few weeks ago and climbed up to the pass from the Ponterwyd side, making mental notes of likely good points for photography and stargazing as I went. Parking my car at the pass, I crossed the infant Afon Ceulan and hiked up to the summit of a small rocky prominence to take in the full sweep of the mountain road plunging into the valley below. From here, nestled among the crags, I could see for miles down into Ceredigion’s coastal plain, and far out to sea. I lingered, taking photographs and playing with perspectives, admiring the stunning view and savouring the solitude.

Turning back, I wandered back to the car and left it behind as I struck off ahead onto the minor track that led away from the mountain road, into the hills beyond. The trackway led to some long-abandoned mining works, traces of a long dead industry that now, as they crumbled slowly away year by year, were being reclaimed by nature, and rebeautified by her. Moving on in the bright sunlight of early afternoon with a sky of intensely deep blue throwing a lovely contrast with the gold of the moorland slopes and the deep greens of the evergreen forests, every view that caught my eye lifted my spirits, and the solitude of my sojourn was refreshing.

Distantly on the map was marked a point which intrigued me, a ‘Plas Y Mynach’ marked as an angler’s retreat by the side of a huge lake apparently generated through the construction of the reservoirs that throng the area. As readers will know I’m always ready to go on a mission to find a secluded cabin in the wilderness, and so I pressed on, wondering what I’d find, and whether it’d be open when I got there. The trudge there was warm in the clear heat of a mid spring day, the year reaching that lovely tipping point where you know that warm days have once again become the norm, and the promise of summer is just around the corner.

I made my way along side trails, crossing, and criss-crossing the main track just to see what lay around each corner, part of my process of exploration, of getting to know the land and of taking the time to uncover its secrets. Gradually, I reached a vantage point from where I could see the hut nestled below, and worked my way down to the trail which led over boggy ground towards its back gate.

Here, unfortunately, I found the gate padlocked, and the whole building sadly locked up, although the carefully mown lawn outside the front door by the path leading down to the small jetty and boathouse showed that someone clearly looked in on the place on a regular basis. It was definitely a secluded spot, and I knew just from a cursory view of the skyline that this would be an incredible place for astronomy on a clear night. I vowed to come back.

After a placid half hour just taking in the peace and tranquility, I made a gradual way back along the tracks and pathways towards the road over the pass. It had been an excellent afternoon of hiking and general exploration, and underpinning it all was the knowledge that this entire vast landscape was mine to explore freely, whenever I had the chance. I will never be a rich man in worldly goods, but I have the freedom of the hills, which give riches beyond measure, and fill my life with treasures of peace and fulfilment which money could never buy. Not for the first time, as I drove back down towards civilisation, I left the hills feeling incredibly lucky, already planning my return.

Wisdom from the saddle

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the fact that in an average year, I hike a hell of a lot in spring, summer and autumn and not so much, if at all in winter. This then leaves me spending spring trying to remember what hill fitness feels like as I slog up the side of a mountain somewhere, wondering vaguely at the back of my mind what on earth I’m doing.

But not this year. Because this year, I’ve bought a bike! Yes, that’s right, I’ve now joined the countless legions of speed demons on two wheels, and I have no idea how I’ve survived all these years without one! Besides being a self-evidently civilised mode of transport and a whole new way of getting out and about in the great outdoors, it has the added bonus that every time I head out on it I get a decent cardio and leg workout, and the benefits for my hillwalking are already paying dividends, as a recent hike into Bwlch Nant Yr Arian demonstrated.

As with hiking though, I find cycling allows my mind to wander and I inevitably end up pondering the meaning of life. What life is actually about has been a subject that’s occupied my mind more than usual of late (and I freely admit I’m someone that spends a lot of time pondering it anyway). But what spurred this recent soul searching was happening upon a fragment of poetry as I cycled along the Ystwyth Valley Trail earlier today:

Hold fast to dreams, for if they die,

Life is a broken-wingéd thing, that cannot fly.

Rather than dreams I think it’s probably better to re-phrase the above (though it would butcher the poetry!) as ‘things to work toward.’ Without things to work toward you do become a bit listless in life, and, after events in August last year I’ve realised that I need new challenges to press on towards achieving. These will probably present themselves in time, but what is key for me is not to go off the boil, but also not to get too hung up on the detail. Let me explain.

A Catholic saint (I don’t know which one, but I probably ought to) once explained the difficulty in finding ‘the meaning of life’ as he described corporeal existence as essentially looking at the back of a tapestry. What we see around us in the confusion of life, particularly when we endure difficult or painful experiences, are the knots and loose threads, and only a semblance of the true image. In experiencing the rougher parts of life, the bits that don’t go according to our plan or our perception of ‘how it ought to be’ we traverse the knots, bumps and rough cuttings of the tapestry, but we don’t really ever get a full appreciation of the overall picture, in this life at least.

In the end, to my mind trying to work out the meaning of life stuck at home is rather pointless, as is trying to measure my life against anyone else’s. Doing so causes you to get lost in the detail, and lose focus on reality. I’ve seen my fair share of disappointment and my fair share of joy. I’ve got my health, a fantastic group of friends and colleagues, a great family and a beautiful place in which to live. I’ve already achieved one of my things to work toward this year just in having finally bought a bike, and hence not being a lumbering, wheezy wreck on the hill at the close of winter this year. The nights are now firmly drawing out, spring is approaching and though I’ve hit my thirties very differently to how I was expecting to, I hope I’m now a little wiser than I was at twenty. Most importantly of all, wherever I’ve been in life and wherever I go, I have good people around me, really sound and inspiring people. In that sense and in so many other ways, as I belt along through the scenery, slog up the hills and hammer down the drops, I’m a rich man.

So as the year goes on I’ll update this blog with the things I’m working toward, because it’s important not to go off the boil. At the same time I’ll be out in the wild places again, hitting the trail on foot or two wheels (or four hooves if I can get round to booking some horseriding lessons again!) and continuing to count my blessings, because to be honest, I’m a pretty lucky bloke. If I manage to find any more wisdom from the saddle on my travels I’ll post it here.

Grief

This particular blog entry departs from the norm in not being particularly upbeat. I thought a lot about whether to write it at all, but in the end I decided to on the grounds that it first of all explains the drop off in my writing here, that second, I created this space in the first place in order to write, and third, there are many characteristics to what I am about to relate here that tie in with the theme of exploration and journeying that this blog was set up to engage with.

Recent events in my life have resulted in a total sea change in almost every aspect of it, in a very short space of time. These changes were not chosen by me and are to the negative. Those who know me well will be well aware of them and I needn’t go over them here, but suffice it to say that every major area of my life has been impacted by them.

I have always found a deep catharsis in writing and in the end I believe that every negative experience in life can be used in some way shape or form to help others, and it struck me that it might be worth writing about this experience in part for catharsis and in part for the benefit of anyone else enduring something similar who might stumble across this and find some solace in what I’ve written.

Being engulfed by grief is very akin in a sense, to a sudden and unexpected change for the worse in the weather when out on the trail. Suddenly and in its worst cases without warning, all of your familiar reference points are gone as a thick fog closes in. With grief, the landscape you’re traversing is an interior one, and unlike a hike you have no map or compass on which to rely once the gloom descends. The reference points you relied on are not just gone but shifted from their original positions and orientations altogether, and in order to work out where you now are, you first have to trudge through the murk and rediscover each one, and find out where they now lie, with all that that implies.

One of the peculiar qualities of grief is that it hits with a double blow in that on top of the loss itself, you are also immediately robbed of those qualities (confidence, self-assurance, self-belief, and trust in your own intuition) that you will most need in order to get to the point from which you can recover. Grief is an all consuming emotion in its initial stages and in truth there are some losses that you never really recover from, but merely learn to accommodate. The wound is still there, covered over by a thin scab, like the wafer-thin sheen of ice that forms as a mountain lake first freezes over at the end of autumn. There is a distinct surface in place, but not one that can yet bear any weight.

Over long time you come to an accommodation with (though perhaps never a true acceptance of) the loss, because just as out on the trail, you can no longer stay where you were when the fog first descended; to leave it and get back to some sense of the familiar, you have no choice but to push on. But still, for months afterwards, in the darkness of the long watches of the night it creeps back in unwanted, sullying sleep, and it is always there despite exterior appearances, walking with you as you go about your day.

It’s true of course that grief is a necessary part of life and of human experience. Without it, there could be no true appreciation of joy; it is a malignant counterpoint in life’s melody but also an inevitable one. Most of the old certainties of my former life are gone. What, if anything, will take shape to replace them is completely unknown. As you grow older you come to appreciate that your life has a landscape but that none of the features in it are ever truly permanent. They are all like wind-sculpted sand dunes, wandering on their own paths towards the horizon to be replaced in time by new, equally impermanent features. As you grieve and mourn the loss of those that leave, you hope also to welcome the new with joy.

I don’t have any answers to offer about all of this and I probably never will do. All I have is an experience to share and describe as best I can, and to attempt to learn from. In truth I have barely begun to process all that’s happened over the last few months and the enormous ramifications for my life that the consequences, rippling out one by one from the central shock wave, will have.

There are some moments in life that are so profound that you know that they will permanently affect your future course, whether you want them to or not. This event was one of them. I’m absolutely baffled about the course to take now, but I do know that I want to continue writing and retreating into the hills, and so hopefully, as the fog clears, I’ll be able to start writing here again more regularly.

Trail into the unknown

There’s a misconception out there that basically says that adventures have to be grandiose things, expeditions requiring supply drops, remote unexplored territories and, if the weather’s polar, a team of huskies for good measure. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking epic adventures and I’m the first to admit I’m captivated by the great tales of exploration out there brought to us by the likes of Shackleton and Magellan.

But we mustn’t forget that the unknown is everywhere around us, and that unless you happen to know every inch of your local area in detail, there’s very likely an unexplored corner of your world just on your doorstep. Seen in this light, adventure is all around us waiting to be had; all it takes is to don on a pair of hiking boots and decide it’s time for a hike.

I’ve been exploring the trail local to chez moi for a few months now, and it never ceases to amaze me how much beauty and tranquility there is packed away in this peaceful little valley in which I live. Not far from my home runs a trail which, in one direction, beelines towards the hills and high moorland around Cwmystwyth, and from which I could strike out onto the rest of the national trail network, hiking or biking as far as the Welsh border, if I wanted to (and further beyond, too). Until now however I haven’t hiked along the trail in the other direction, because that direction heads eventually after a peaceful mile or two towards a well-known Welsh seaside town and it was the direction that led off into the hills that had my interest first.

But the thing is, much as I might be very familiar with the eventual destination of the trail, I hadn’t a baldy what really lay along the route to get there as I hadn’t actually bothered to hike it yet. Therefore, a trail into the unknown lay at my feet, and I decided to hike. I set off under a beautiful blue sky, the storm of the previous evening having well and truly passed through leaving warmth and far more summer-like conditions in its wake. The trail ran along the river, eventually meeting a side trail to a secluded beach, probably known only to locals. As I headed further on, I moved past the disused railway bridge at which there is a junction for a minor road back onto the main road through the valley, and pressed on down the bridleway that led enticingly into the trees beyond.

The trail afforded sweeping views over peaceful meadows, and once again I felt lucky to live in such a beautiful little corner of Wales, with pastoral  vistas everywhere I looked and tranquility to be found around every corner. About a mile further on I stopped to take a look at a noticeboard and a few benches placed just off the trail, to discover that Natural Resources Wales had handed the woodland here over to a charity community group who were replanting ancient native species in order to improve biodiversity. They’d set up trails in the forestry beyond, and looking at my map I began hatching a plan for my return route.

I hiked the next mile into the hamlet beyond rapidly, and as the trail dropped down to meet the main road into town a few miles beyond I turned about and began heading back, with the weather still holding up nicely. It wasn’t long before I was back in the forestry again and, taking a more detailed look at the map, I plotted out a route that would take me up to the top of the ridge and then over the farmland beyond, from where I could intercept the tiny minor road that would then drop steeply back into the valley and leave me with only a short walk back to the house.

I set off up the trail taking the highest of the available routes, steadily climbing on the graded tracks. Here and there, information boards had been placed by examples of particular species of tree, including one I couldn’t remember encountering in the UK before, the Noble Fir. As I pressed on I spotted a wooden building through the trees, and sure enough, it looked as though the volunteers who’d built all the benches by the trail below had put together a small shack in the trees, complete with a fully enclosed roof, benches and seats for a group. It had the feeling of a secluded, secret hideaway, nestled as it was amongst the trees, hidden even from the other nearby trails that formed part of the woods. This in a nutshell pointed up what I love about hiking around with no particular aim in mind but to explore all the local trails and side trails. If I’d just stuck to the main trail through the valley below and not come exploring, I’d have had no idea that this place even existed; I felt as though I’d been let in on a secret known only to a few people.

Leaving the shack behind, I pressed on upwards and gained impressive views through the trees to the other side of the valley beyond. Eventually the trail left the treeline and broke out onto high pasture. Crossing fields, I got ever improving views in all directions as I neared the height of the land, before finally topping out as I joined the minor road and got a brilliant view out to Cardigan Bay behind me with the grey-green brooding hills of Plynlimon, Cwmystwyth and the Elan region completing the panorama.

Wherever I go on my travels I try to keep an eye out for good sites for astronomy, and this place seemed ideal. There was an almost completely unobstructed view of the sky in all directions, and high up at the top of the ridgeline overlooking the peaceful valley below, there was no chance of light pollution posing any real problems. With a clear night, especially in winter, this spot should provide an excellent base for observing deep sky objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy and the beautiful Triangulum Galaxy, three million light years distant.

As I headed back down the road wended its way through wildflowers, and butterflies were making the most of the sunlight and warmth. It wasn’t long before I was back down at the original trail again, and making the short journey from there back to the house. It had been an enjoyable afternoon hike and, as with all good hikes, I’d found plenty of interesting details just off the beaten track where they’d been waiting to be discovered. If I’d not headed out this afternoon, I’d still be oblivious to the existence of a peaceful hideaway in the woods, and I’d have had no idea that there’s a window to the deep cosmos less than a mile from home. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how to find adventure on your doorstep.

Thoughts

It’s occurred to me that one feature that might be nice to add to this blog would be range profiles. A few of my blog posts stray pretty close to giving a detailed description of some of the mountain ranges of Wales anyway, so creating a distinct feature on the site for each range struck me as a logical step forward.

Another reason for doing this is that as I continue to make progress on the Welsh 2000+ list, I’m going to be delving into all sorts of uncharted territory that I’ve never hiked before, and it’s only natural that I’ll get to know a given range of mountains quite well as time goes by. As such, readers who might not be all that familiar with the Welsh mountain ranges can discover them with me as I encounter them for the first time myself. Readers who know the ranges well will doubtless have suggestions as to interesting places to visit within each range, good routes to try or wild camping options. Hopefully, the range profiles can become another way in which I can interact with readers as the blog grows and gather a bit of a community of hikers around it. Also, they’d provide a logical place to attach my trip reports to, helping to anchor these more firmly into the fabric of the blog’s content.

Well, those are my thoughts for now, let me know what you think, and if you have any other suggestions for the direction of the blog, let me know.

Creating a mountain hit list

If you’ve been in to peak bagging for any length of time it’s probable that you’ve developed something of a mountain ‘hit list,’ peaks that for one reason or another you feel you just have to bag at some point. You’ll also probably notice that, often in the process of planning to bag one, you stumble across another peak on the map that you feel needs to be added to the list.

Mine developed over a number of years while I was at university, and while I’ve managed to bag a fair number of them I’ve definitely succumbed to the tendency to add more peaks than you bag. To illustrate this, take my hit list from about ten years ago, with links to information about each peak:

Scafell Pike (978m/3209 feet)- England’s highest, enough said.

Yewbarrow (628m/2060ft)- Because who doesn’t want to climb a hill shaped like an upturned Viking longboat?

Buachaille Etive Mòr (1021m/3,350 ft)- One of the most iconic mountains in the Scottish Highlands

Goat Fell, Arran (874m/2876ft)- Highest peak on the Isle of Arran, one of the Clyde Islands of Scotland. Again, an iconic peak with a very distinctive profile, and you have to take a ferry just to get there!

Ingleborough (723m/2372 ft) A mighty mountain in the Yorkshire Dales in England, one of Yorkshire’s ‘Three Peaks’ with (you guessed it) an Iron-Age hill fort on top.

Five years on, what’s happened to the hit list?

Scafell Pike– still outstanding because, I know, I know, I’m rubbish!

Yewbarrow– knocked off the list on a day hike with an old mate from university some years ago.Highly recommended, a great peak to bag.

Buachaille Etive Mòr– knocked off the list on a week long trip to Glencoe with my university hiking club in 2006. Brilliant day out and we even got a view!

Goat Fell, Arran– blasted out in September last year despite my desperate unfitness at the time. This one was a real labour of love; a trip report will be coming soon.

Ingleborough– I bagged this one several times during my time living in Leeds. This is a peak I could return to again and again; the Yorkshire Dales have a special appeal as I spent a lot of time there when I was younger.

So that looks fairly promising, doesn’t it? Only Scafell Pike to do and then my hit list is complete, no? Well….no. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from bagging peaks it’s that the more you bag, the more you want to hike into another range of hills and bag all the summits there one day too. So here’s a current hitlist (not the complete one though or we’d be here all day!) along with reasons as to why they made the list.

Pen Llithrig Y Wrach (799m/2621 ft) Who on earth doesn’t want to climb a peak called ‘slippery peak of the witch?’

Pen Yr Ole Wen (978m/3209 ft) This mountain has an incredible presence as it looms over the A5 near Ogwen Cottage, with several formidably steep routes of ascent. It’s an excellent vantage point and one I can’t wait to bag.

Carnedd Dafydd (1044m/3425 ft) and Carnedd Llewellyn (1064m/3491ft) I’d actually like to bag all of the Carneddau, which incorporate some 22 of the Welsh 2000 footers, but these two are on my hit list in particular because they offer the prospect of a spectacular ridge traverse to bag them, and they reference the names of two medieval Welsh kings.

Ben Macdui (1309m/4295ft) Allegedly home to Britain’s very own yeti, the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdui. Need I say more?

Suilven (731m/2398ft). Just take a look at the picture. And it has a bothy nearby too!

Pic du Canigou (2784m/9134ft) I spent a week on holiday in the Villefranche de Conflent area of the Eastern Pyrenees a couple of years ago, and this huge peak loomed large over the entire area. One of the driving purposes of my upcoming trip to France is to go back and bag this peak from the refuge 2000 feet below the summit.

Mount Toubkal (4167m/13,671ft) The highest peak in the Atlas Mountains, and the highest in both Morocco and North Africa as a whole. It’s also one of the highest peaks you can reach without the need for technical climbing skills (at least in summer). Plus it’s located in Morocco, a country I’ve always wanted to visit.

Mulhacén (3478m/11,413ft) The highest in Spain, and gives me an excuse to spend some time in the Sierra Nevada and explore southern Spain properly.

So there’s a selection of mountains on my hit list as it stands in 2016. Many of these should be done within a year, I hope, but I suspect some of the others will take longer to plan to go and bag. But each one should provide an adventure, and plenty to write about. What peaks are on your hit lists, and why?

 

Walking through time

Head out into the countryside almost anywhere in the UK and you’re stepping back into a landscape filled with traces of the past. The UK has been occupied by people since the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago, and it was occupied in the preceding interglacial period as well. The truth is that all around us there are dozens of traces of former cultures to be spotted; all you need to do is know where to look for them.

Some of the traces are very obvious of course; there can be no mistaking Stonehenge. But many are much more subtle, tiny little details that belie the ancient past of an area of ground. That sunken lane you wander through, trees over topping it and thick hedgerows on either side, likely marks the ancient boundary between two huge parcels of land. An earthen berm was built at each edge of the two parcels of land to separate them, and the dip between the two became a logical walkway. Over hundreds of years as the ploughs turned at the edge of the berm, the line became a permanent feature of the landscape. Thousands of pairs of feet wandering along in the dip between the berms created a trackway along the boundary, and as time went on and the land was enclosed hedgerows developed on either side. These natural lanes were sometimes developed into proper roads and sometimes left to nature; from them we have the holloways that can be found especially in the softer, chalkier soils of the South of England.

Again, looking across a quiet valley at a field on the other side, you might spot traceable lines underlying the modern surface, where hundreds of years of annual ploughing have left a permanent mark on the land. You may look up to that rounded hill in the distance and wonder why there is a hedge running in a circle near the top, or some definite lines running around the circumference of the hill. Again, it’s probable that the hill you are looking at, even if not marked on the map as such, had an earthen bank and ditch enclosure near the summit and was a defensive point. These were a defining feature of pre-Roman Britain, and the image accompanying this post shows one of my local examples at Coed Alltfedw; in the trees it is still possible to trace details of the earthworks that surrounded this site.

Once you start to know where to look, the whole landscape looks somehow changed and much richer. Each wander out reveals new features and helps to place you in the landscape, gives you a connection to all the hundreds of generations that have walked these paths before, have looked out at the same views, seen the same fields and trees and rivers. You are no longer just walking through the twenty-first century, but are immutably transported back through time, walking through the last four or five thousand years as well.

There are quite a few books out there that go into far more detail than I can here about the way our countryside has developed. A great starting point is F.G. Hoskin’s classic The Making of the English Landscape.  For a really vivid description of life in truly ancient Britain I’d recommend Frances Pryor’s book Britain B.C. Frances is one of the most influential and highly regarded archaeologists in Britain today and was for many years a key team member on Channel 4’s series Time Team. He has an excellent blog, In the Long Run, from where you can purchase many of his books.

Wherever you are in Britain I can guarantee you that the ancient lies beneath your feet and can probably still be seen no more than a few miles from your home in the fields and lanes around you. So next time you shoulder your rucksack and head out, keep your eyes peeled for those telltale lines in the landscape and see how far back in time you can go!