Paris en hiver

Quelques images mis à jour de Paris.

La Défense

Au bord du fleuve à Neuilly-sur-Seine, à nuit.

La Louvre

Quelques-unes des expositions les plus intéressantes du Musée National d’Art de France.

Les Sculptures

La Renommée montée sur Pégase par Antoine Coysevox 1702

Les Couples

La Diane d’Anet c.1550

Athéne Parthénos, dite Minerve au collier

Un assemblée de mort

Venus de Milo

La Vénus de Milo 120 avant JC

Les Peintures

Murale par Giovanni Bellini

Jardin de Tuileries


Danger of Death

Caution Walkers: reflections on crossing the Aonach Eagach ridge, Glen Coe.

According to a random statistic, which I stumbled upon when Googling about Facebook, and which by no means am I able to verify, the average Facebook user is connected to eighty community pages, groups and events. An exaggerated claim perhaps. I checked. I have fifty-five! One particular Facebook group I am a member of is ‘Munroaming’ a lively, active community run by the blogger and outdoor journalist Fiona Russell for those interested, as so many people are, in ‘bagging’ all 284 Scottish mountains as surveyed by Sir Hugh Munro’s as having above 3,000 feet in height. It was here that one dull Sunday afternoon, as I was watching the Mancunian raindrops stream tearfully down my patio doors, I posted that I was interested in completing the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glen Coe and was looking for a bit of company, being a bit of a Scottish novice (my Munro tally is barely into double figures) and not knowing anyone with the necessary skills to accompany me. For several days my post sat unacknowledged. There was the occasional ‘like’ but nothing concrete, and I began to consider postponing the whole enterprise until the spring, when up popped a notification and suddenly the game was on. I had been contacted by a gentleman named David who had completed the infamous ridge walk once before but who was keen to do it again. Suitable dates were discussed, two other likely suspects were enrolled in the offensive and before I had any second thoughts, I was driving north along the M6 motorway towards Glen Coe.

The Aonach Eagach ridge, stretching along the northern side of Glen Coe, is something on an enigma. Often described as the most challenging ridge walk on the British mainland, it is a real feather in the cap of any aspiring Munroist. Part of the mystery of the ridge is artificially maintained by the many tall stories about it, usually in the bar of the Clachaig Inn at the western end of the ridge, but also scattered liberally about the Internet on walking forums. One veteran of the route posted about how he and his friend took a wrong turn and descended too early towards the afore mentioned Inn, his friend sustaining three broken ribs as a result of falling on the steep, lose scree.

It is fair to say that there was something of an air of trepidation around the campfire at the Red Squirrel campsite that evening as the four of us, myself, David, Mick and Stefan, began to get to know each other a little better. Later that night, lying in my tent before I drifted off into a restless sleep, assailed by dreams of being pursued through an unending labyrinth of corridors by an unseen adversary, the thought did briefly cross my mind that although it was statistically unlikely, there was the very real possibility that the very next day could be my last. Thankfully, I was able to dismiss the thought as morbid paranoia.

We elected on an early start, the myriad guide books and internet postings indicating that this was going to be a long day, packing ourselves and our day packs into one car, whilst leaving the other at the campsite. From the layby on the north side of the A82, just beyond the Three Sisters’ viewing point, we began the steep, zig-zagging climb to Am Bodach, rising some 800m above the level of the road, a lethargic morning mist still veiling the summit in cloud. 

Just to the west of Am Bodach the ground dropped away steeply about 20m and we paused, nervously, for a few minutes to gather composure. We had collectively agreed to take a safety rope with us just in case one of us became cragfast – there was no contingency for all four of us becoming cragfast! But as the swirling mist began slowly to rise above the precipice of The Chancellor beneath us, the presence of two early bird walkers at the foot of the crag gave encouragement. I shouted down to them, asking how difficult they had found the descent. “You’ll be fine,” they shouted back, “just take your time.” So packing away our flasks of tea and coffee we nervously wished each other well and after a very brief discussion about who should lead, “no you first,” “no really, after you,” we set off. In actual fact this first and most nerve wracking down-climb of the ridge, a diagonal descent across the crag, was with close concentration, a firm hand and a slow and steady pace, completed with relative ease. I was reminded just how agile and adaptive the human body can be when put to the task. 

The four of us re-grouped at the foot of the crag, glancing back to the glistening wall of black volcanic rock with a collective sigh of “well, that wasn’t too bad,” aware that more challenging ground lay ahead. A clear path snaked its way seductively upward without complications to the summit of Meall Dearg at 953m above sea level. Famously, this was the final Munro to be completed by the Rev. A. E. Robertson in September 1901, making him the first person to complete a full round of the Scottish mountains defined by the enigmatic Sir Hugh Munro. Legend states that Robertson first kissed the summit cairn, then his wife. There is no mention of how they tackled that pesky down climb off Am Bodach.

From the summit of Meall Dearg the centre, and most challenging section of the Aonach Eagach revealed itself, like a bride lifting her veil, a veritable rollercoaster of Rhyolitic rock, undulating westwards for two kilometres, its vertiginous flanks falling abruptly more than 800m on either side, meaning a simple stumble could deposit you variously by the shores of Loch Leven to the north or at the foot of the multitudes of sightseers congregated at the Three Sisters’ viewing points on the A82 road.

Taking the appearance of a sinusoid, the main difficulties of the Aonach Eagach occur not in scrambling up the numerous gullies and chimneys facing eastwards, but in having achieved the crest of a razor sharp pinnacle, being confronted with a steep, precarious descent as the sinusoid undulates towards the summit of Stob Coire Leith. My personal preference on such rocky descents is to face inwards to the rock, although I appreciate that this may be an unnerving concept at first, but having gained confidence through practise, this method of making those notorious down climbs gives far greater stability than the facing outward alpine bottom-shuffle we have all resorted to at one time or another.

Meanwhile, on the Aonach Eagach, the mojo had kicked in, and the heady combination of exposed altitude, adrenaline and sheer delight, had resulted in a Peter Pan euphoria. Of course such exhilaration brings with it a certain danger, and by the time we reached the crux move of the Crazy Pinnacles, rather than nervously concealing an uncertain anxiety, I was having to restrain the desire to leap onto every piece of exposed rock shouting “hey, look at me Ma!” The crux move on the Crazy Pinnacles of the Aonach Eagach is a very exposed step out to the left with questionable handholds. I had watched a young man half my age struggle to complete it moments earlier, and so despite my state of mountain ecstasy, somewhere in my subconscious the Wendy-like voice of reason shouted loud enough to be heard, “maybe next time,” and I stepped to the right to where a good friend had told me there was a work around of much less risk. That most human instinct of self-preservation had kicked in and the words of alpinist and fellow Mancunian Don Whillans echoed around my head, “The Mountains will always be there, the trick is for you to be there as well.”

From the col beneath Stob Coire Leith all serious difficulties ceased, and we were able to fully take in the sheer magnificence of our situation in the landscape. On the summit of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, at 967m the highest point on the ridge we paused for a late lunch before carefully picking our way through the clast strewn boulder fields of Cnap Glas.

Arriving at the Red Squirrel campsite some eight hours after we set off, we were greeted by preparations for the various Glen Coe Marathon events to be held on the following day. On the road from Glencoe village signs had been erected proclaiming “Caution Walkers!” Caution indeed!

The appointed protocol demanded a rendezvous at the infamous Clachaig Inn, with ale aplenty and mountaineers’ tales as tall as any fisherman’s, but there was the small matter of getting my car back from the top of Glen Coe. Mick very kindly dropped me at the Three Sisters’ viewing point, and as I drove below the Titan ridge we had just traversed, instead of taking the turn for the Clachaig Inn, I swung out towards Glencoe village where the sun was beginning to set beyond the Meccano outline of the Balaculish Bridge. Somewhere to the west, beyond Loch Linnhe, beyond the crepuscular hills of Ardgour lay the Black Cuillin Ridge. A quick glance on the Internet confirmed that more than a Facebook group posting would be required in preparation to tackle that behemoth. 


  1. From the north layby on the A82 just to the west of Allt-na-reigh climb the steep path to the summit of Am Bodach.
  2. With care descend the crag to the west of Am Bodach to reach the beginning of the ridge. Continue westwards without difficulties to the summit of Meall Dearg.
  3. With extreme care negotiate the ridge as it undulates westwards, crossing the “crazy pinnacles” to reach Stob Coire Leith.
  4. Easier ground rises to the summit of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, the highest point along the ridge.
  5. Descent westwards following the steep path towards the village of Glencoe.

Distance: 10 km (6.2 miles)

Ascent: 1,070m

Time: 8 hours

Start/Finish: The path to the summit of Am Bodach starts from the north layby on the A82 just to the west of Allt-na-reigh. It is sensible if possible to leave a second vehicle somewhere at the western end of the ridge. If this is not possible then shanks’s pony or hitching a lift work just as well.

Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Explorer Map, Glen Coe & Glen Etive 384
Harvey’s Mountain Maps 1:40,000 Ben Nevis & Glen Coe

This article first appeared in the October 2016 edition of TGO Magazine.

Alderley Edge Mines Open Day – Engine Vein

Twice a year the Derbyshire Caving Club (DCC) open up one of the old mines at Alderley to visitors. It’s a great opportunity to experience some of the history of mining at Alderley and to get a glimpse of the extent of historic excavations. I went along to reacquaint myself with subterranean Alderley and to take some photographs.

The sandstone escarpments of Alderley Edge, as distinct from the residential town, have been described by the relatively recent Alderley Edge Landscape Project (AELP) as “an anthropogenic landscape, of remarkable richness, rarity and antiquity”. The AELP was a co-operative undertaking of The National Trust and The Manchester Museum at the University of Manchester, conceived in 1995 and formally wound up on 2005. Further information about the project can be found on the DCC website at 

Geologically, the Alderley escarpment is composed of Triassic conglomerate sandstones some 240 million years old that were laid down in an arid environment prone to flash floods, which brought down debris from the surrounding mountainous areas, rich in mineral deposits. The earliest evidence of mining at Alderley dates to the Bronze Age. The main ore extracted was copper, but cobalt, iron, lead, silver and even gold were also found. In their book Prehistoric Cheshire, Victoria and Paul Morgan recount how an oak shovel found by 19th Century miners in a section of mine at Brynlow to the south west of Engine Vein, has been radiocarbon dated to approximately 3,700 years old. A large number of stone hammer heads and similar tools were also discovered in material that had been used to backfill the open cast mine. 

The Blue Shaft, Engine Vein
Bear Pit, Engine Vein

Darkness on the Edge of Town

In the depths of winter lockdown, with gyms & health centres closed, two friends decided to take matters into their own hands.

Summer was a blast! With an early finish from work I could be up on the hills to the east of Manchester before half the city below had finished eating their tea, as the evening meal is often referred to in these parts, with a good three to four hours of daylight remaining.

But as the season drifted inexorably towards autumn the once warm evenings became shorter and cooler. I felt the darkness closing in around me like a pack of hounds circling a fox. With gyms and swimming pools closed there seemed little alternative, and I imagined myself gaining weight, and losing what fragile grip on sanity I had, as the sedentary months of winter stretched before me. 

It was Alison who came to the rescue, suggesting a short twilight walk by the River Bollin. When we met at the National Trust car park the last embers of the day and familiarity of the location meant that use of head-torches was a choice rather than a necessity. As we wandered through the crepuscular woodland, the smell of bonfires and cordite upon the air, Alison mentioned she had been doing some research on local trails. She suggested we attempt to complete some of the trails in sections. And so every Tuesday evening after work we set out with head torches and ample supplies of batteries, into the darkness on the edge of town. 

Alison, checking battery levels.

When it comes to nocturnal perambulations, Alison and I have form. Some years ago I learned there was to be a lunar eclipse on the winter solstice. For some reason lost to me now I decided it would be a great idea to observe the celestial phenomenon from the summit of Snowdon. In my imagination I had pictured a pleasant afternoon stroll to the summit in perfect conditions, returning to Pen y Pass beneath the Milky Way. 

Almost inevitably the Welsh weather had other ideas. By four o’clock in the afternoon, with light rapidly fading, we had made it as far as the obelisk at Bwlch Glas but were at that point forced back by the icy blast of air streaming over the col. Temperatures were so far below zero that my thermos flask completely gave up the ghost, the contents turning into an icy Frappuccino. We quickly descended to Glaslyn and returned to Pen Y Pass via the Miners’ Track. 

Overcoming Night-time Anxiety
The idea of walking in the dark may seem undesirable, illogical or just plain dangerous, but with a little knowledge and preparation there is no reason why the hours of darkness cannot be put to good use.

For those new to night-walking I recommend starting local. The first local trail Alison and I decided to tackle was the Ladybrook Valley Interest Trail. This sixteen kilometre trail makes use of suburban green corridors that follow the Ladybrook, a tributary of the River Mersey, from Lyme Park in Disley, Cheshire to Cheadle in Greater Manchester. Walking on one evening a week and breaking the route up into circular sections it took us five weeks to compete the trail. 

Next we turned our attention to the Goyt Way. Also sixteen kilometres in length the Goyt Way follows the River Goyt – another tributary of the River Mersey – from Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire to Etherow Country Park in Greater Manchester. Again we planned circular routes and completed the trail in four weeks, working our way up-stream passing through the village of Marple Bridge and the industrial town of New Mills, despite freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall. 

Snow cover brings pluses and minuses for night-walking. As with daylight walking snow can hinder navigation by covering up footpaths. None-the-less, we found a blanket of white on the ground had the affect of reflecting ambient light, a considerable aid to navigation, at times rendering our head-torches redundant. Another unexpected bonus of night-walking in winter was seeing farms and villages bedecked with Christmas lights. 

Having reached the official end of the Goyt Way at Whaley Bridge we planned additional routes to continue south into the Goyt Valley, following the former route of the Cromford and High Peak Railway to Bunsal Cob. The sodium lights of suburbia now far behind us we headed onto open moorland, traversing the ridge from Pym Chair to Shining Tor that forms the boundary between Cheshire and Derbyshire. From this vantage point, we looked down onto a million lights, spread out across Greater Manchester and the Cheshire Plain. Through the crystal clear air we could see the illuminated cooling towers at Fiddler’s Ferry Power Station, near Widnes and the distinctive chain of red lights on the television transmitter at Winter Hill, some forty miles away as the crow flies.

Alison at the trig point on Shining Tor

The first step on the path to confident night-walking is to be confident with daylight navigation techniques. The skills used to navigate in poor weather conditions on British hills need only slight adaptation to be as effective at night. 

A number of organisations offer opportunities to learn navigation skills. The National Navigation Award Scheme (NNAS) provides accreditation of over three hundred companies offering navigation training throughout the UK. There are three levels of award: Bronze, Silver and Gold. For those wishing to gain a broader understanding of hill walking, Mountain Training UK & Ireland offer a range of accredited courses and awards. In addition to navigation techniques, Mountain Training courses cover aspects such as walk planning, clothing and equipment, weather, hazard & emergency procedures and environmental awareness. Some of these training courses have specific night navigation content. I would recommend this programme for anyone who is looking to be a walking group leader. For up-to-date information check the NNAS and Mountain Training websites. 

Myself on Shining Tor

Map or GPS?
For a long time I was something of a Luddite with regard to GPS technology, but here we are in the third decade of the twenty-first century, equally cursed and blessed with hand-held devices. I have to confess that much of the navigation on our evening walks was aided by one or two apps on our phones, specifically Viewranger (now known as Outdooractive) and the OS Maps app. However, I would be failing in my duty if I did not offer a strong warning about over dependency on GPS devices. Batteries, specifically lithium batteries, do not perform well in cold weather conditions. As most smart phones are powered by integrated power sources, carrying a spare is not an option. Portable power banks provide some security but it is worth considering that any device might become inoperable in freezing temperatures. You cannot beat having the back up of a paper map and compass. 

Light Source
I’ve stressed the importance of carrying a map and compass as back-up for GPS devices, but without a light source a map is unreadable. In order to leave your hands free I recommend using a good quality head torch. However, even modern LED light sources can suddenly die, as happened to me on one of the sections of the Goyt Way. Therefore, not only should you carry spare batteries for your primary light source, but also carry at least one other light source as back up. Most importantly, do not rely on the torch on your phone. If you are using a GPS app on your phone to navigate and the torch to provide a primary light source the battery will deplete in minutes rather than hours.

As exciting as night walking can be, it is important to keep in mind that you are not on manoeuvres with the SAS and as such it is vital that you are visible to others, particularly when making use of country roads. Small, portable lights can easily be attached to clothing and rucksacks. I have found the Silva Simi range, available in white (for front) and red (for rear) particularly useful for this purpose.

St Mary’s Shrine, above the A5004, Got Valley

It will come as no surprise that at any time of year the absence our primary heat source means that nights are invariably several degrees cooler than the daytime. This is especially so in winter when night temperatures regularly fall below zero. The importance of keeping warm cannot be overstated. Traditional advice about base, middle and outer-shell layers certainly applies here. I also recommend carrying additional layers of clothing in your rucksack. Duvet gilets are particularly good for maintaining core temperature and can easily be worn over a waterproof jacket. Similarly, do not rely on only one pair of gloves. Even in thermal gloves, fingers can rapidly become numb when exposed to minus temperatures and wind chill. A pair of oversized woollen mittens slipped over the gloves will quickly return heat to the extremities. 

Well equipped for night walking

Spring Again
Winter was a blast! With increasing confidence of walking in darkness we had taken on the trails and bridleways of the western Peak District and had stood on snow covered hill tops looking down onto the shimmering lights of the conurbation below.

Our weekly nocturnal wanderings had become something of a harbour in the tempest, a focal point in an otherwise dismal and at times seemingly interminable winter. As the days began to lengthen and the last patches of snow melted from the groughs of Kinder Scout, we considered bringing things to an appropriate end. But on reflection there was no logical reason to do so, and our weekly night-time walks became sunset walks. That’s the really amazing thing about the seasons: the cycle just keeps going round and round. 

Nant Gwrtheyrn and the Englishman who wanted to learn Welsh

The first time I came to Nant Gwrtheyrn I came at night like a broken king.  It was late October. I had been walking in Cwm Croesor to the east of Aberglaslyn, exploring the abandoned quarries of Rhosydd and, being underground, had lost track of time. By the time I reached Croesor the light was quickly receding. I recovered my car and drove westwards as the evening spread it raven wings over the sky.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and with my car poised above the steep, switchback, single-track road that descended into the dark heart of Nant Gwrtheyrn, the thermometer on my dashboard threatening to dip below zero, I cursed my tardiness, wishing for just a few moments of the incandescence that not an hour ago had graced the heavens. Gingerly I threaded the car down the steep track, winding through the dense evergreens until the outline of the quarrymen’s cottages appeared in the glare of my headlights. I killed the engine and was immediately plunged into darkness. I fumbled around in my rucksack for my head torch. 

Nant Gwrtheryn

Upon trying the door of the language centre office I found it to be locked, as was the café, the chapel and the bookshop. At just after five thirty on a Thursday evening in late October the ‘ghost’ village of Porth-y-Nant was, not for the first time in its history, utterly deserted. Again I cursed my poor timekeeping. I had told the office staff that I would arrive by four o’clock. I now had the prospect of nowhere to sleep that night. As I considered a drive back to the Victoria Dock in Caernarfon, I noticed, from the corner of my eye, a single light in the window of one of the cottages at the far end of the terrace. I tried the door of the tiny cottage named Arfon and found it unlocked. Inside, on a table by the window, beneath the bedside reading light, a small handwritten note proclaimed “Hello Mr Galloway, Croeso i Nant.” I was touched by the thoughtfulness. The door key had been left on the table beside the note. For one cold dark autumn night too close to Hallowe’en for comfort, I was alone in possibly the most isolated village in Britain. 

On my most recent visit to Nant Gwrtheyrn I came at midsummer, arriving before four o’clock in the afternoon, the brilliant sun still high in the sky above a silver Caernarfon Bay as I took Bara Brith and Earl Grey at Caffi Meinir. Now better know as a dramatic location for weddings, the original vision behind the restoration of Nant Gwrtheyrn, as imagined by Dr Carl Clowes in 1978, was to create a centre to promote the heritage and learning of the Welsh Language. With the assistance of the local authority of Cyngor Dwyfor, the charitable trust Ymddiriedolaeth Nant Gwrtheyrn was able to purchase the village from ARC Aggregates and basic restoration under the management of the Manpower Services Commission began. The first Welsh course was held ‘yn y Nant’ at Easter 1982, albeit with very limited resources, the village as then not being connected to the mains electricity grid. Restoration work continued and by 1990 all of the original quarrymen’s cottages had been restored to provide comfortable accommodation for guests. The former quarry manager’s house, known as Y Plas, became the focal point for learning. By 2008 over twenty-five thousand people from twenty-seven different countries had visited ‘y Nant’ specifically to learn Welsh. 

However, despite the success of Ymddiriedolaeth Nant Gwrtheyrn in achieving its core objectives of promoting the Welsh language and creating employment for the local area, the future of the Welsh language is still far from secure. Census figures indicate that although there has in the past thirty years been a small increase in the number of people identifying Welsh as their first language, as a percentage of the total population of the country the figure has marginally fallen, mainly as a function of migration into Wales from England and from the wider European community. Figures from 2011 show that of a population of just over three million people approximately five hundred and sixty-thousand speak Welsh on a regular basis, approximately 20% of the total population. The age group with the highest density of fluent Welsh speakers is the over 65’s.

For many the promotion of the Welsh language is seen as a matter of survival. However, to the vast majority of people living to the east of Offa’s Dyke, the matter is not one of urgency. We live in an age of saturation media where the dominant language is English and, let’s face it, the dominance of the English speaking North American market is only likely to consolidate the worldwide dominance of this language globally. By comparison, the survival of the Welsh language is, as it always has been, very much an up hill struggle. As a former girlfriend, a language graduate from Oxford, used to tell me, the difference between a language and a dialect is that a language has an army and a navy. Perhaps today that army and navy has been superseded by corporate dominance of the Internet. 

Distribution of Welsh speakers, UK Census 2011

And what of it? What would we lose if Welsh were to decline into oblivion, as have many other minority European languages? In order to answer that question we need to understand something of the origin of Welsh. Welsh evolved some time in the early sixth century AD from Common Brittonic, the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Celtic Britons. The Brittonic language probably arrived in Britain during the Bronze Age and was most likely spoken throughout the islands south of the Firth of Forth, to the north of which Pictish remained the dominant tongue. English on the other hand is a Germanic language closely related to Frisian, which was most likely brought to the British Isles by one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to Britain during the sixth century AD and ultimately derives its name from the Anglia (Angeln) peninsula in the Baltic Sea. Welsh then has the greater claim to be in direct lineage to what might be described as an indigenous language of the British Isles, although in reality the precursors of what we know today as modern Welsh and English were both brought to the archipelago by immigrants. So much for the pompous bigotry of certain nationalistic political organisations currently extant in British culture. An adequate public education system would do much to banish their xenophobic nonsense forever but such educational investment is unlikely to be forthcoming from establishment ideologies that favour private education and place restrictions upon state education funding and who themselves obtain political benefit from social division and a mind-set of blind nationalism within the population. 

Laying the politics of language aside, the question I am most often asked when I inform people that I am learning to speak Welsh is ‘Why are you learning to speak Welsh?’ Although I often feel aggrieved that I might not be asked a similar question were I to inform said people that I was learning to speak French, Spanish or Mandarin, although given the traditional aversion amongst the English to learning any foreign language there is a fair chance that I would, it is in fact an appropriate question to ask. Appropriate enough for it to be included on the course registration form for prospective students at Nant Gwrtheyrn. However, as a visiting ‘Saes’, of the available options on the form I had to look pretty far down the list to find an appropriate choice. The available options included:

  • Because I moved to Wales
  • For work purposes
  • Regain the language
  • National pride
  • Child in Welsh medium school
  • Partner
  • Wish to learn more about Wales and her culture

This left me feeling like a bit of an oddball: a Welsh learner who is not Welsh, who does not live in Wales, who is not in a relationship with a Welsh person, who does not have children attending a Welsh medium school, and does not require Welsh for work. Let me tell you though, I am not on my own. Attending the same course were two ladies from the United States, both as it happens coming from New Mexico although ironically never having met before their trip to Wales. I identified greatly with their desire to learn more about their Celtic heritage and to find something of interest counter to the stream of banal mainstream consumerist culture to which we are subjected daily. 

Reasons for wanting to learn Welsh

For me however, there are other reasons not provided on the administrator’s list, which during my most recent stay at Nant Gwrtheyrn I pondered for some time. What exactly is it that I am searching for in this strange, alluring, beautiful if sometimes hostile – both in climate and culture – country located less than forty miles to the west of the place where I was born? 

Welsh Learners

In his book History on our Side, a memoir of the 1984-1985 miner’s strike in Wales, Hywel Francis speaks of a collectivism and sense of community throughout the South Wales Valleys, the spirit of which saw those communities through months of what could only be described as state persecution. It was of course this collectivism and sense of community that Thatcher set out to crush in the 1980’s. The miners’ strike had little if anything to do with uneconomic pits. 

Set against the harsh reality of post-Imperialist, post-Thatcherite, post-Brexit Britain it is perhaps easy for me to view Wales through rose tinted glasses,  to make of it a type of Shangri-la for a dispossessed idealist. None-the-less I still see something of that sense of collectivism and community in parts of Wales, the enterprising ventures of Carl Clowes at Nant Gwrtheyrn being a case in point. It is a culture that for me stands out against the vacuity of the post-imperialist individualism propagated by corporate Britain and its establishment benefactors. In truth this individualism is nothing more than the denigration of individuals into units of consumption, who more often than not render themselves addled by cheap alcohol and bloated by junk food. I see that we have now reached a point where neo-capitalist ideology, neo-liberalism, Thatcherism, call it what you will, is so engrained in the consciousness of the British people that nothing is seen to have value unless it creates wealth. In this respect learning Welsh will always be seen as a fancy, an addition to a wish list subject to available funds (always, of course, in limited supply). 

Nant Gwrtheryn

It would be easy for me to wax lyrical about my relationship with this curious nation, especially as I have for much of my life chosen to remain in England to take advantage of the economic security of life there. None-the-less, the history, culture, people, places and yes, the language of Wales have figured large in my past, continue to do so in my present, and, God willing, will do so for many years to come. 

Taking a Stand

Broad Stand, as the notorious flight of granite steps on the eastern flank of Scafell is known, is a death trap. A quick look at the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team website will confirm the number of incidents that have taken place at this accident black spot. These range in seriousness from a family of four and their dog who had become stuck on the ledge half way up the crag, to a fell walker found dead beneath East Buttress on 2 July 2017. 

Not recorded on the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team website is the descent of Broad Stand made by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge on 5 August 1802. Coleridge set out from Greta Hall, his home in Keswick, carrying little more than a change of under garments and some simple writing materials, bound up in a “natty green oil-skin” held together in a net knapsack. Through the Newlands Valley he climbed by the waterfall of Moss Force, then descended into Buttermere and took tea at the Inn by the lake. From Floutern Tarn he descended into Ennerdale and spent the night at the home of John Ponsonby at Long Moor. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1802

Coleridge departed Long Moor after tea and arrived late at St. Bees. He was unable to find suitable accommodation and was forced to spend the night in his clothes at a “miserable pot-house”. He lingered at St. Bees a day then walked on to Egremont, from where via Gosforth he followed the River Irk upstream to reach Nether Wasdale.

Having spent the night at Wasdale Head, Coleridge climbed in the fresh morning light to Burnmoor Tarn, then followed the torrent of Hardrigg Gill to the rocky summit of Scafell itself, where on a natural table of granite he took from his knapsack the paper and pens he had placed there upon leaving Greta Hall and began to compose the letter to his friend Sara Hutchinson from which the details of this account come.

Symonds Knott, Scafell

By three o’clock in the afternoon the wind had begun to gather around the summit such that Coleridge sought his descent from the mountain. He found himself at the narrow gap between what contemporary climbers know as Eastern Buttress and Scafell Crag. It was here that he began to experience difficulties.  He lowered himself down a flight of three granite steps to a narrow ledge. Finding himself unable to continue further down the crag he attempted to retreat the way he had come. To his dismay he found the ledges out of reach and became crag-fast.

Lying on the narrow ledge Coleridge describes entering into a “prophetic trance” (possibly induced by a gram of laudanum) during which he became emboldened by the “powers of Reason and Will”. It was then that he noticed a narrow gap in the rock below him, through which with some difficulty, he was able to pass and thus avoid injury. This gap is known to climbers and hikers alike as “fat man’s agony” and confirms the identity of Coleridge’s descent as Broad Stand.  

Inspired by Coleridge’s heroic if slightly foolish adventure, I determined to experience for myself the perils of Broad Stand. Considering discretion to be the better part of valour, and not wishing to become a statistic on the Wasdale MRT website, I decided to employ some professional assistance in the form of a qualified mountain guide. 

My rendezvous with Matt le Voi was at the Lake Head National Trust car park early on one of those bright, otherworldly Indian Summer mornings that somehow materialise out of the North Atlantic, surprising the human inhabitants of Cumbria as much as the flora and fauna. Along the well-worn path beside Lingmell Gill, Matt and I strode under the September sun, turning now and again to see how it sparkled off the shimmering length of Wastwater, filling the view behind us as we climbed. 

Matt le Voi above Wastwater

At the approach of Mickledore, Matt suggested we climb the steep scree at the foot of Southern Buttress. Here, carved into the fine-grained andesite of the crag, one can discern the shape of a cross beside which are carved four sets of initials and a date, 21 September 1903. The cross marks the location where four young pioneers of climbing fell to their deaths from the lofty precipice of Scafell Pinnacle above. The names of the four young men killed that day are R W Broadrick, H L Jupp, S Ridsdale and A E W Garrett, all members of the Climbers’ Club, which had been newly founded is 1898. They had been attempting to repeat the ascent of Scafell Pinnacle, which had been first made by Welsh rock pioneer, Owen Glynne Jones some years earlier. 

Climbers’ Club Memorial, Mickledore

As the late summer sun crept behind the mountain above us, I felt a chill come upon me, the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention. Here in the highest ‘Corrie’ in England, bounded on three sides by immense towers of rock, stories of tragedy and death gather like the hooded crows that sweep down from the rocky heights. 

Just before the outbreak of the First World War, Siegfried Herford, a mathematics graduate of Manchester University, ably assisted by George Sanson, a zoology graduate from University College London, made the first ascent of Central Buttress on Scafell Crag. The crux of the climb was a flake crack, which Herford was able to surmount by standing on the shoulders of Sansom, acceptable practice in those days, precariously held in place by a rope threaded around a chockstone near to the top of the flake.

Siegfried Herford was killed by a rifle grenade in France on the 28 January 1916. Stories of sightings of Herford’s ghost, lingering around the base of Central Buttress, began to circulate among the climbing community thereafter. The mountaineer and author Bill Birkett describes how, in the early 1980’s he was descending from Scafell Pike on a bitter, snow shrouded November day, when, approaching the col of Mickledore he noticed walking towards him from out of the swirling mist, the figure of a young man dressed in Khaki drill. Birkett thought nothing of it until he noticed the man was wearing puttees above his boots, a fashion more readily associated with the British Army of the early 20th Century than the 1980’s. Some years later the notorious chockstone that had held Herford and Sansom in place on Central Buttress, became dislodged and fell, killing the climber Iain George Newman. 

Broad Stand was for once dry. There were no excuses. Aware of the many accidents in this spot we set up a belay from the narrow crack in the seemingly impenetrable defences of Fat Man’s Agony. I watched as Matt disappeared through the narrow gap and found myself alone, the only sounds the clink of karabiners and the down draft of ravens wings. Time ticked away slowly and I began to feel a cramp in my calf, shifting my weight from one leg to the other whilst still maintaining the belay position against the cold grey rock, my knuckles whitening around the umbilical chord of rope threaded through the crevice in the rock. It was a good ten minutes more before I heard Matt’s voice calling down from somewhere above me, informing me that he was safe and I could begin to climb. 

Being of slight stature, I was able to squeeze through the vice like fissure in the wall without too much hindrance.  I popped out onto the first rock step where with ease I was able to follow the line of Matt’s rope to the left via a series of outward sloping ledges onto the second rock step. Here, my heart surged into my mouth and sweat began to collect on the nape of my neck. With Broad Stand you see, the structure is all wrong – or right – depending on your viewpoint. What first appears to be a series of relatively benign rock steps leading to higher, more manageable ground, takes on an altogether more alarming prospect because of the angle of fracture of the rock, dipping at about thirty degrees to the South.  This means that the whole structure leans outwards towards the precipice of the Eastern Buttress, making Broad Stand a bit like the House of Fun at an amusement park, but without the laughs. 

It was going to be a leap of faith. I shouted for tight rope and pushed out with all my strength, grappling for the finger hold and finding it securely. “Get a grip!” shouted Matt, and I hauled myself up onto the next ledge, eventually finding my feet on the coarse forgiving granite. I crouched there for some time, regaining my composure and allowing the tide of adrenaline now coursing through my circulatory system to subside, looking down into the heart-stopping drop below.

Myself and Matt on Symonds Knott, Scafell

At the summit of Symonds Knott, lazing under a resplendent blue sky, Matt and I ate a celebratory lunch of cheese sandwiches and chocolate washed down with instant coffee before walking to the cairn marking the summit of Scafell. Turning to the West the early afternoon sun shimmered on the surface of Wastwater as we descended the long, grassy slope of Green How, arriving triumphantly at the National Trust car park, where I thanked Matt for his assistance and waved him goodbye. 

Having time to spare I wandered around the head of the lake to Overbeck Bridge where a small shingle beach extended a little way into the lake. There being no one around I slipped out of my walking clothes and into the cold, heart-stopping waters, seeing beneath me the rounded cobbles give way to the bottomless blue of England’s deepest lake. I floated on my back for some time, soaking my heat-sore feet in the mountain clear drink. My gaze scanned the rugged skyline to the East, finding the rocky cleft between the peaks where, not three hours ago, Matt and I had climbed on the very rocks that once had detained Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and recalled the words he had written to his friend Tom Wedgewood.

“I do not think it possible, that any bodily pains could eat out the love and joy, that is so substantially part of me, towards hills, and rocks, and steep waters! And I have had some trial.”

Great Gable from Wastwater

A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of The Great Outdoors Magazine.

Together We Stand

Nine Standards, a line of nine dry-stone cairns, standing proud on the skyline above the Cumbria market town of Kirkby Stephens, approximately half-way along Wainwright’s coast-to-coast route and just seven kilometres west of where the Pennine Way passes the famous Tan Hill Inn, provoke the inquisitive hiker to ask questions about their origin. One might imagine there would be many local legends and stories to tell about these enigmatic sentinels, placed by some unknown party high upon the gritstone moorland. But ask a local livestock farmer or passing farrier about the origin of these hurrocks of stone and you are more than likely to receive a shrug of the shoulders than any elaborate mythological tale. Fascinated by the prospect of an unsolved mystery linked to two of the country’s most famous long distance footpaths, I set out from Kirkby Stephens early one morning to investigate.

The path climbing from the River Eden folded around the ruins of Hartley Castle and entered a coppiced hazel wood where wild garlic grew in abundance. Over thousands of years the water of Ladthwaite Beck has carved its way through the Carboniferous limestone rock like a knife through wedding cake. Tilting steeply to the West, the rocks provided a path of least resistance for the ghyll as it cascaded in parallel to the ancient stratigraphy. 

Passing the remote settlement of Ladthwaite the path climbed onto Hartley Moor where the Nine Standards appeared on the horizon like a vanguard of petrified Daleks from a 1970’s episode of Dr Who.  A slightly more plausible explanation given for the position of the cairns is that they were built by local people during the medieval wars between England and Scotland to give the impression of an army encamped upon the hill, and hence, the idea suggests, deterring any potential Scots marauders.  The clear flaw in this theory being not only that the cairns are only visible on the skyline from the west and not from the north, east or south, but also that there are just nine cairns – no great army.  As I drew nearer to the cairns along the path that ran beside Faraday Gill (Ghyll surely Mr Ordnance Survey?), it became apparent that the cairns themselves were of a variety of shapes and sizes and appeared to have been designed to represent more than mere figures standing on a hill.

Dry Stone Cairns on Nine Standards Rigg

A W Wainwright mentioned them in his description of the coast-to-coast route, and although rightly dismissive of frankly patronising notions that they were built by local miners or shepherds who had nothing better to do, he regarded them merely as boundary cairns. The Standards sit on the boundary between the ancient counties of Yorkshire and Westmoorland, which is also the watershed dividing the Pennine Hills east and west. From here the Eden runs west to the Solway Firth and the Swale runs east to the North Sea.  Due to the exposed position of their location, the notoriously harsh winters of the northern Pennine Hills and the natural human instinct to climb on them, the cairns do suffer occasional structural damage and require intermittent maintenance. The last major re-build was commissioned by East Cumbria Countryside Project in 2005, which means that the cairns are currently in pretty good condition. Visitors are requested to treat them with respect, ensuring no stones are removed.

But what of their origin? How old are they and who built them? If we disregard the rebellious Scot deterrent theory, we must look elsewhere. Dr Stephen Walker, himself of Kirkby Stephen, has undertaken an extensive search of archives both local and national in an attempt to establish the facts about these strange cairns. His findings are remarkable. 

The cairns appear on the 1862 Ordnance Survey Six Inch (1:10,560) First Edition maps of Westmorland. They are marked on a variety of tithe, enclosure and estate maps dating from as early as 1738. They are mentioned on many boundary rolls, or perambulations as they are also known, written between 1400 and 1699. A perambulation was simply a list of landscape features which marked the boundary of particular estates, parishes or townships. The oldest historical reference to the cairns is contained within a transcription of a perambulation of Gilbert Gant, Lord of Swaledale, dating to sometime from the late 12th or early 13th century, thus proving that the Nine Standards cairns were standing above Kirkby Stephens no more than a hundred years after the Norman Conquest.

Prior to 1066 there is currently only speculation and hearsay. In 954 AD, Eric Bloodaxe, the last independent Viking king of York was ambushed and killed by Earl Maccus, son of Olaf, as he crossed the pass at Stainmore, now the route of the A66 from Scotch Corner to Penrith. Tradition held that Eric was buried at Rey Cross, but when the site was excavated to make way for the new dual-carriageway in the 1990’s, no burial was found. Only four miles to the south-west, do the nine standards mark the actual crossing point of the Pennine Hills used by Eric and thus his grave, and those of his noble companions?

Moving further back in time, in 118AD the Legio IX Hispana of the Roman Army was ordered north from York and, according to some scholars, was never seen again, allegedly annihilated by the Picts. It has been suggested that the nine standards are a lasting memorial to the defeated ninth legion. The obvious flaw in this theory being if the legion was wiped out, who was left to build the Cairns?

In his book, Nine Standards: Ancient Cairns or Modern Folly*, Dr Walker is clear and vociferous, “They were not built to give the invading Scots the impression that an English army was camped up there. Nor were they a job creation scheme for indigent lead miners by some eighteenth or nineteenth century philanthropist, still less a ‘folly’ built by one of the more deranged landed gentry, as some have suggested. They are in fact ancient and demonstrably so.” Nor are they simply boundary cairns. In number they are unique in the British landscape, repeated on no other watershed or county boundary from Sutherland to Cornwall. They are undoubtedly a work of art, created by a Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin of the time. Their very presence is meant to communicate a message. We have simply forgotten what the message was. 

Nine Standards: do the cairns commemorate a long forgotten battle?

A striking curiosity about Nine Standards Rigg, the hill upon which the cairns stand, is that its name is derived from the cairns themselves and hence post-dates them. They are not, for example “Old Harry’s Cairns on Backstone Hill”. The implication here is that for the topography to be named after a man-made feature, the feature must be very old indeed. Within the Brut y Bryttaniat, a 15th century manuscript copy of a 12th century script in Kymraec (Old Welsh), which was translated in to Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth, an account is given of a battle between the Britons and the Saxons at York in 504AD. The manuscript states that the Saxons were routed and fled into the mountains to take refuge at a place named “mynydd daned” or toothed mountain. The Britons rallied and attacked the mountain at night, slaying the Saxons. If “toothed mountain” is taken as a description of Nine Standards, this manuscript may indicate that the cairns date to as early as the 6th Century. 

The landscape around Kirkby Stephens contains other mythological echoes. Pendragon Castle, the supposed birthplace of Uther Pendragon lies just 6 miles to the south-west. Some would suggest Arthurian associations with the cairns. The 6th century British cleric Gildas places a Romano-British commander by the name of Ambrosius Aurelianus at a battle against the Saxons at a place known as Badon Hill, location now unknown. It is my own belief, and nothing more than a belief mind you, that Baidon Hill is the lost name of Nine Standards Rigg and that each cairn was built to bear the flag or “standard” of each tribe of the Britons who defeated the Saxon hoards there. The watershed west and east would be a most likely location for these two armies to meet, the Saxons having arrived form the east, Ambrosius Aurelianus from his Welsh stronghold in the west. Could Ambrosius Aurelianus be the historical fact behind the mythological legend we know as King Arthur?

Rhead, George Wooliscroft & Louis. “Arthur Leading the Charge at Mount Badon” from Tennyson, Alfred. Idylls of the King: Vivien, Elaine, Enid, Guinevere. New York: R. H. Russell, 1898.

But all this is speculation and conjecture. In the mists and shadows of time, names and places become confused. Distorted and manipulated by subsequent generations the truth rapidly becomes the first casualty of history. It is perhaps astounding then that no formal archaeological investigation of the Nine Standards has ever been undertaken. Until that time, it is only natural that people will look to the cairns and attach their own stories to explain their presence. For now the origin of the curious nonad of dry stone cairns upon Nine Standards Rigg must remain a mystery.

*Dr Walker’s book is available from Hayloft Publishing Ltd

This article first appeared in Cumbria Magazine, February 2014

Circle of Seasons

2020 has been a pretty dreadful year for most of us, but even in the darkness there is light. Circle of Seasons is my homage to some of my more positive experiences in 2020.

The music is Circle of Seasons by Tori Amos from her recently released EP Wintertide. It can be ordered in various formats from Tori’s website, here

All videos and photographs were taken by me during 2020.

St Stephen’s St Stephen’s

It has become something of a Boxing Day tradition to walk from Tegg’s Nose Country Park, through Macclesfield Forest, to visit St Stephen’s Church, also known as the Forest Chapel. Walking through the forest on the day after Christmas Day the traditions of centuries hang heavy in the air as the tamarisk mosses hang from the naked limbs of the trees. 

In a quiet corner of the forest, close by the Iron Age earthworks of Toot Hill, crystal clear Peak District water emerges from a spring in the forest floor. Each year at this location someone dresses a small spruce tree with Christmas decorations. A notebook protected in a small plastic container nearby contains comments of passers by and there is a little tin for donations. To whom the donations might go we can only presume as this information is not provided by the mysterious decorator of the tree. I like to think this has some connection with St Stephen’s but the genius loci of the place has more of the votive pagan tradition about it than anything related to the Christian church. I make my offering and descend Charity Lane, leaving the shadows of the forest behind me. 

The Forest Chapel stands in a isolated depression among the northern hills of Macclesfield Forest, a stone’s throw from the curiously named Bottom-of-the-Oven. 

As the dates above the gabled entrance indicate the chapel was almost entirely re-built in 1834 following a fire, but stands on the site of a former chapel of ease constructed in 1673, the stone bearing this inscription having been preserved from the original building. In about 1720 Francis Gastrell, Bishop of Chester noted that the church had not been consecrated and so was dedicated in the name of the martyr Saint Stephen.

St Stephen’s Church, The Forest Chapel

To step inside the Forest Chapel is to step backwards in time to the austere non-conformist existence of the families who eked out a harsh living from the bleak Pennine moorlands for some five hundred years since the Royal Forest of Macclesfield became common land in the 15th Century. The interior is unostentatious, the basic structure being a single rectangular room, the nave and chancel having no discernible division, covered by a simple oak-beamed vaulted ceiling. A simple stone altar set against the east wall is overlooked by a Victorian stained-glass window. 

I sit for some time in the peaceful solitude of the chapel. Here too is erected a Christmas tree. In addition to the customary baubles and fairy lights the hand written prayers of visitors hang from the boughs of the tree. I pack away my flask of coffee in my rucksack and head out once again into the forest.

From Standing Stone car park I climb Buxtor’s Hill. A cold damp wind sweeps across Piggford Moor making the ascent of Shutlingsloe arduous. On the crest of the hill I tuck myself into the relative shelter of a fissure in the Chatsworth Gritstone and eat Stollen, thick with marzipan, which I wash down with coffee. 

A fissure in the rocks on top of Shutlingsloe

Shutlingsloe is an anchor in my landscape. The little whitewashed summit monument, once of importance to the Ordnance Survey in the measurement and mapping of this anomalistic archipelago of islands we call home, is without doubt the triangulation pillar upon which I have placed my hands more than any other. Here I place my hands once again, now to steady myself against the buffeting wind. 

To find shelter I descend once again into the forest, pausing at Nessit Hill to admire the panorama over Trentabank and Ridgegate Reservoirs. By Bottoms Reservoir I pick up the Gritstone Trail and make the arduous ascent to the summit of Tegg’s Nose Quarry. An information board here informs me that the rocks of the quarry date from the Carboniferous geologic period and were laid down in a mighty river delta some three hundred and fifty million years ago. In comparison to this age the quarry men who split these rocks open a hundred years ago seem my contemporaries.