In Festive Mood Part Two

In Festive Mood002

Post:  I cannot let this moment pass without an explanation for the illustration of the summit of Kirkstone Pass shown above.  In those days, the ‘Cycling’ weekly paper used to run a monthly competition for the best story of the month to be published by ‘Cycling’.  I am pleased to tell you that at some time in the following year Charlie won one of those monthly prizes, which was a Patterson print of Kirkstone Pass printed on board, and which I possess and reproduce below.  Charlie has cleverly altered the drawing so that the figures have passed round the corner and only the footsteps and wheeltracks remain.  When Charlie’s article won its prize, he must have decided to write it up in his journal for 1928, copy Patterson’s picture but changing it slightly, add two other illustrations of his own and put the whole thing to bed.  I have always said that Charlie was very gifted.  And I am right.

In Festive Mood003

At breakfast the next morning we decided to go skating.  Three had purchased skates on the outward run, anticipating the ice, and Jack and I were offered a pair each by mine host.  So fitted, a general move was made up the mountainside to a little tarn about a thousand feet above, which was frozen quite hard.  This was wonderfully placed in a clearing in pine forest, sheltered and rocky.  We donned our skates.  None of us had ever worn skates before, so after the first five minutes we got together to make resolutions and to feel our separate ‘bumps’.  A thin bar of steel like the back of a knife is no support, especially when cycling shoes gave play to ankles that ought to have been strapped up in heavy boots.  We resolved that skates ought to be like smoothing irons for comfort.  It was also universally agreed that ice was too slippery, for as soon as we touched the surface our legs always shot from under us.  We went back to our mishaps with that hard gleam in each of our eyes that speaks determination.

We persevered.  Soon it became evident that we were born figure-skaters.  Weird and wonderful figures we made quite involuntarily, assuming many positions.  I watched Tom cross that ice in poses I never dreamed he could have twisted himself into; Fred W. displayed a genius for going backwards, though he always concluded on his neck.  He said that was an essential part of the performance.  Jack had an attractive style of his own which consisted of throwing up one leg then the other in wild abandon like a Red Indian dance of war, but sometimes he would forget himself in his enthusiasm and throw both his legs up at the same time, then he would come down with such a thwack as to send tremors through the ice.  H.F. was what I like to call a lazy skater.  Whenever I took notice of him he was sat down, travelling at a fast rate.  At first I wondered how he could get that speed from a sitting position, but I watched him and found that he started on his feet, then sank down all at once as though he had suddenly tired of the whole business.  My suggestion that he strap his skates to the double seat of his knickers and so make the most of them caused a general collapse.  For my part I tried every conceivable position including a glide on my nose, and the only kind of skating I could not master was on my feet.  I worked on the thesis that if I must fall I would fall as comfortably as possible, spending much time in pursuance of this desirable end and achieving some little success.

Two other things besides skates, just as necessary.  I shall bring next time, a bottle of good embrocation and a large roll of sticking plaster.  Our enthusiasm over-come at  length by the call of hunger, we gave up skating, seeking a way home down the white-fringed Grizedale Beck.

A real New Year dinner awaited us.  Turkey, plum pudding – a veritable array of good things under which the table groaned.  They were certainly doing us well !  During the lazy interlude following it was suggested that we go up to Aira Force, the prettiest waterfall in Lakeland, so we got out our machines, and, groaning under the influence of the dinner, slowly wended along to the Matterdale branch road, half-way up Ullswater, where the path for the waterfall starts.  Crossing snowy fields and glittering woodlands to Aira Force.  What a picture – a silent, motionless waterfall !  All silver bars and ropes of glittering diamonds, great, rounded slabs of pure glass, with, deep in this sparkling palace, just a thin trickle of water.  Words fail to paint the picture as we saw it, Aira Force in the grip of ice!  The same frosted beauty held the woods – the fields – the mountains – everywhere except in the choppy waters of the Lake.  Of all the lakes, Ullswater never freezes.

While the bright beauty of the heart of winter was in such evidence, the tragic side was near us too.  For quite a long time we stood watching a robin which kept hopping closer to us.  A cold winter is a hard time for the birds.  We watched until it seemed to be appealing for a morsel to save it from starvation.  A very pretty bird, but forlorn, it seemed, and from pity I turned to sorrow – none of us had the tiniest crumb of food with us.  All the way back to Glenridding I felt kind of miserable because we had to leave that bird hopping about in the snow, vainly searching for the morsel that might mean the difference between life and death.  There is a human parallel, even here, “In England, now, …….”

When we got back, the two defaulters had arrived, having been held up at Kendal the previous night.  Our party was now made into ‘We.R.7”  John Leigh is the lad for making a party go, a pianist of the first order either on popular dance stuff or classical, and an organiser to boot.  Jack (J.T.), the other, is a sport – our ‘nominee’ for ‘membership’ of which more anon.

We all went down to Patterdale and across the end of the lake, walking a mile or so along the opposite side, where we found a sheltered bluff.  There we sat, singing songs while the dusk slowly gathered over the waters of Ullswater, pale-ing the glimmering snow, and then the mountains grew fantastic and hazy.  However can I describe the glories of Lakeland in winter !

After tea snow began to fall heavily, at which hopes ran high that we might be ‘marooned’ ere Tuesday.  In that was the excuse for a prolongation of our short holiday.

John got away on the piano, and soon established himself with the two maidens, who, by this time, had fully emerged form their shell.  We tried a bit of dancing too, but dancing on a carpet is the direct antithesis to skating, so we decided to play games.  You know the kind of games.  As there were only two girls to seven of us, the games were very one-sided, and as they were nearly all organised by John they were mostly ‘one-man’ as well.  At any rate, John came in fairly prominently.  This lasted until the enterprising John bade fair to become the sole male player, when we gently withdrew him, and a sing-song replaced the farce.  At 2am we settled down in complete darkness to a period of ‘table-rapping’ by ‘spirit’ signs, also organised by the sprightly John.  Mistletoe-in-the-dark was the logical outcome of this, and here John had no more than his due portion of the game.  At half-past three we broke up and dispersed – to bed.

 

          Part  2                         THE  GREAT  PARTY

 

“This is a notable couple and have met

But for some secret knavery”.                             The Tanner of Tyburn

“Why sleep they not when others are at rest?”            -With apologies to Byrom

We lingered under the warm enclosure of the bedclothes.  A cold grey morning after a late night makes one appreciate the seductive qualities of a good bed, and the beds of mine hostess are beyond reproach.  Chuckling from the direction of John’s bed was followed by the rapid flight of six pillows, for peace is the keynote of morning restfulness, but John had germinated an idea.  When it came to us, he had it worked out, complete to a detail, watertight, certain of success.  He out-lined his brainstorm over breakfast.  We would have a party.  Call every young inhabitant for miles around, open out with a whist drive, then a first class dinner and sing-songs, games and what-not.  We asked the girls to gather the village up and bring its best attractions in at, say, 7.30pm.  We were only just in time, as they were going to organise a village dance in the schoolroom in our honour, but John’s idea was better, they agreed.

In Festive Mood January 1928

In Festive Mood001 It was a happy idea that decided the ‘We.R.7’ rendezvous for their New Year holiday.  A cycle-tour at New Year has many apparent disadvantages, but the ‘We.R.7’ had found the advantages far in excess.  They always do.  Two New Years had been spent at Ffestiniog, which place, though owing its quiet beauty to its wild position, can become outlandish beyond possibility in a day’s ride.  Rain and wind had twice combined their mighty forces, without success, to keep Ffestiniog beyond our reach, though our condition of arrival had both times been precarious.  A freak day, or snow would leave Ffestiniog absolutely inaccessible, for except from the coast the roads all cross the mountains, and are often blocked for weeks at once in winter.  Ispytty Ifan sent a heavy, third class lane to 1590 ft, hard after a day against the wind; Cwm Penmachno reaches the same height, but was harder still, and from Bala the seventeen miles road over Arenig was a ‘teaser’.  Mists, gradient, and a shocking surface tells a tale at the end of a hundred winter miles.  That surface since then has been changed to smooth tarmac, and nobody who remembers the nightmare at night in mist, will grudge the change.

We wanted a change, so Patterdale or Ullswater was suggested, and we agreed that Patterdale would fill the bill.  Kirkstone Pass was the only way, except for a detour of thirty miles or more by way of Penrith, but Kirkstone’s 1476 ft was little to worry about – a spice would be added by the crossing.  Besides, at least one pass is the qualification for the outward run.  The CTC handbook gave us Mrs Blacklock’s at Glenridding, a mile beyond Patterdale: we wrote for board for seven – three nights, and the reply assured us of ‘the good time coming’.  We were split up into three parties, three to make a full-day run, two to get off at noon, and Jack and I on the tandem expected ‘fetching’ our destination in a fast afternoon ride.  We two were just then in the heyday of our tandem activities.

That very few envied Jack and I when we steered away at 2.30pm that bleak last day of the Old Year was plain to see.  News was in the papers of great snowstorms that isolated the southern half of Britain that week, and dismal jimmies fluently prophesied ten-feet drifts in Lakeland.  These things troubled us not at all – we meant to cross Kirkstone if it was the remotest possibility.  On Belmont moors icy roads made us gang warily; a snowstorm raging on the summits was left behind as we descended to Abbey Village, and then, with clear roads, we raced coming darkness to Scotforth for tea.

A dark highway, a fast-moving tandem, and a good light – what is more thrilling?  With a strong wind behind and the pedals circling without apparent energy (we rode the tandem ‘fixed’) we took in belt upon belt of approaching roads, and reached Kendal in four cycling hours from home, at 7.30.  We had twenty mountainous miles, and high hopes of being in for supper.  For six miles to the Troutbeck lane beyond Staveley the road is pimply but along the little lane the ‘collar work’ really commences.  We ‘shanked’ a great deal up to the snowline.  As this lane was not by any means new to me I thought I knew it, but we took a wrong turn, swept down a long snow-strewn incline, walked up another, and entered a fairyland of snowy pines.  We eventually reached a fine hall surrounded by subsidiary buildings, and were put right by a chef who came out resplendent in white with a French accent and a strong aroma of whisky.  So back we sped through the pines and down and up to our turning.  At length came the true descent with bulky white ghosts of mountains growing round until we reached the pretty little church and bridge at Troutbeck, where starts the ascent of Kirkstone Pass.

The moon came out.  If ever I enjoyed a cold frosty night it was surely this magnificent New Year’s Eve over Kirkstone Pass.  The road was fairly clear of the snow that lay in drifts along each side and shone in the moonlight on the mountains.  Pictures of alpine grandeur rolled away in the blue – the deep, lovely blue of perfect night in mid-winter.  The silence of the world impressed us……..  we became aware that the end of another year was there, in the cold gleam of that night’s moon.  We had struggled through a year of passionate outbursts…… winter had shown us its wildest…… spring had roared – slashed her way through the tender shoots of Nature ……summer was a fitful dream of little spells of sunshine and long weeks of cloud, rain, gales and floods….. autumn had died at the birth of her, winter had entered at the death of summer.  But with scarcely two hours to live, 1927 wore the calm robes of queenly beauty.  We had weathered a wild year gladly – with a smile, but that brilliant Old Year moon brought a tear somehow.  The happiest retrospection holds a little pang that can hurt.

We were scarcely conscious of the summit until the snowy gorge of Stockgill opened out at our feet.  Yes there was Kirkstone Inn, unlighted, the hour must be late.  Jack had a watch.  The time was 10.15.  Patterdale lay six miles away down the Pass; our destination seven miles, the summit was clear of snow.  Just then the lamp went out – a refill was necessary, but I waived it.  There was a moon and not a policeman or indeed, a human being about.  Seven miles was less than half an hour! With our customary recklessness we plunged down the moonlit gap.  Ere the first bend Jack tried a rear brake from his handlebar, and stopped the back wheel immediately.  I felt the back of the tandem convulse, slide sideways, then jerking the front wheel to correct the skid, ran along the snow-choked gutter.  Ice !  The bend was rushing up to meet us when I steered into the snow again, for there was our only hope of checking.  The rear brake was tried again and sighed with combined relief when the machine slowed a little.  On the bend a drift had piled itself across the road. We cut through that drift like a launch in water, encountered a dreadful spell of ice again, and then the road became dry, shining in front like a grey ribbon; we sped down there with whirlwind velocity, reached Brothers Water, reedy in the silvery light, and in the wandering lane to Patterdale almost ran amok in a crowd of people on the road.  At that Jack refused to break the law another minute, and we charged the lamp again.

So magnetised by the beauty of the night were we that we failed to recognise Glenridding, riding along blissfully unaware till Aira Force, three miles beyond, was reached.  We did not regret that point: to ride back was a delight.  The moon tracked a silver way across the lake…. Ullswater….. the mountains sharp-prowed above, softer in distance, met that infinite blue.  We concluded our ride as 1927 had one unforgettable hour to live.

Three had arrived, Tom and the Wigan lads, which left two not accounted for.  We wondered if they had yet crossed Kirkstone…. they did not arrive that night.  The time-honoured custom of letting New Year in was performed according to local rites by the two dark members, Tom and Hindley Fred (hereafter H.F.), an enjoyable procedure to judge from the noise under the front door, where mistletoe was hanging.  There were two girls at home, the right type for such an occasion, and, as they later proved, game for anything.  There were toasts, we settled down and the girls gave us a sing-song.

At 3 am we went to bed.

*         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *

Across the Dales February 1930

Across the Dales001 Upper Ribblesdale was in angry mood.  The mountains were cleaved into ridges by grey mist-banks, borne on the cold easterly winds; the trees, deprived long since of their clothing of leaves stood alone or in open groups, naked and miserable; the brown moors even seemed to sulk at the day, and here and there terraced limestone, dirty grey, ran with water.  There were hamlets that huddled as if sheltering each other, but with scant success, and isolated farms that pressed their stone sides against the wind and the rain.  The road was hard; interminable little hills ascended to points where the free wind swept across unhampered, and where the rain it bore along in a horizontal track stung like a whip.

I have seen Ribblesdale like a gem in summer, all gleaming under warm skies and kindly sunshine.  The moorlands, brown as they always are, have been alive with living beings like the virtuous curlew and the hoarse grouse; lambs have skipped and dozed and bleated with thin throats, and their black-faced parents have foraged the coarse, spare grass with undisturbed tranquillity.  In summer time the riverside fields have yielded their lot – hay and wheat, and where triumph from the encroaching moorland has been greater, other crops have flourished.  The trees too, even those isolated survivors in windy spaces, have held leaves to show the world they live, and round about the farms men and women, with noise and bustle and many a shout have plied their endless fight against nature.  Little winds from west and south have helped us up the dale, and we have greeted the country folks with a smile or a ‘good day’.

Across the Dales002 This day on the threshold of February made us wonder if summer could ever come here again.  Perhaps it was that human folk had given up their losing fight and gone away to the warmer plains for ever.  We had no place there, the wind seemed to cry, but we continued just the same, for man can defy the elements and push himself against their will.  He loved to do it sometimes; in the creeping, tortured road beneath us he had set a permanent seal to his defiance; down below, in the dale, his road was strips of metal on which his vehicles ran with speed that defied the very easterly gales.  We met a burly farmer down the road, and knew then that Man only rested behind stone walls.  Spring and the bleating, frolic-some lambkin would come again; the sparse fields would nourish growing things that spelt life to man and beast, and the bustling and day-long toil would come with the sun.

There were places in these hills that never heard the wind, that knew no light but the occasional candle of the timid humans who knew their sufferance was only in hours what ages had built and ages did not destroy.  Now, when Winter ruled above, there was no place for man; only swirling water that did not stay, and darkness that never moved.  There were vast places where light or man would never go, and in them beauty grew unknown…….fated never to be seen.

Can it be wondered then, that as we slowly pressed our way to Ribble Head, the elements and these thoughts occupied our minds.  We had been out at morning, and had faced those elements all the day except for a rest at Worston near Clitheroe.  Dusk overtook us at Ribble Head, where we turned for Hawes, along a metalled road that was abandoned to the night.  A good, metalled road, yet deserted as the windy fell tops themselves.  Man had graded it carefully, lest his road across those hills should not bear its worth, but his winding tilts were devilish hard that day, and we were glad to walk long stretches of it.  There was snow near the summit and the cold rain held sleet.  We passed the fork-road where through the mist a single finger-post pointed ‘Dent’ towards the northward wastes, then in a little while a window gleamed its light and we sought shelter and tea there, at the ‘Inn’ on Newby Head.

A hundred years had brought two changes there.  We had tea at an old, misused sideboard in a large room.  In the open hearth a peat fire burned but did not spread its warmth to us; the floor was flagged and sand-sprinkled; the roof (or ceiling rather), was supported by massive beams of oak; food lay on the bare table – the remains of a meal; and three young children crawled on the dilapidated rug that constituted the only floor covering or ran up and down the sanded floor with iron-shod clogs.  The two men-folks were busy giving each other haircuts all the hour we were there, while the woman; middle aged wife of one, sat sewing clothing that would long have passed out of ken in town.  The two changes – a Ribble bus company timetable, and a fine wireless set that gleamed new in such a careless, ancient room.  There, at 1,400ft, miles from the nearest village and isolated by gale-swept moorlands, we heard the sports results from throughout Britain, the weather report from Manchester, and the news bulletin relayed from London.

We went out from that big room cold, but the outer void was colder.  It was black, welded into a frozen whole, in which the Nor’easter played unhampered.  For a space we could not pierce the black because our acetylene lamps had frozen; the first blue flame announced our success at last, but we had only shifted the zone of activity – we almost cried with frost-bitten fingers.  Our haste to get down to the sheltered valley, five miles down the night received a jolt when brakes too easily jammed the wheels, which slid quickly off the perpendicular.  The road had become a sheet of black ice.  Two miles below the wind growled to a silence and the road was again wet.  Rain began.  The steep end of Hawes with windows pale through curtained light assured us we had come to rock bottom at the head of Wensleydale.  We only required that assurance of Hawes, and we left the bulk of its one main street behind with less than a glance.  We crossed the dale to Hardraw.  The Buttertubs Pass begins its ascent at Hardraw (you can hear the roar of the Force from the buttressed road); I had crossed the pass once, on a broiling Bank Holiday weekend, when crawling cars crossed too and people covered the moors almost like maggots on choice Limburger after long isolation, but not so admirably camouflaged as the insects are.  We expected nothing moving on the pass, except the northeaster, and its sleet, and we were right.  The gradient is easiest from Hardraw, but at a thousand feet we reached snow.  A sludge at first till the Pass proper, then the snow deepened, hung on our feet, jammed our wheels.  The going got hard at 1,500ft, for the Nor’easter was gusty with frozen sleet slashing at us, and the deepening drifts under-wheel.  A mist came down or else we climbed up to it, and our lights came back at us.  The road then was buried with nothing to tell its boundary from the moorland bog, but the faint track of a cart that had crossed hours before.  We were lucky, for that was our only guide to the summit.  Our slow plod was rewarded with a final drift three or four feet deep through which we almost swam to the cart track, faint but still faithfully present on the other side.  That was the summit at 1,726ft.

The descent began, hardly easier, but for a time sheltered.  I could smoke a cigarette at last!  The snow underfoot got us in the legs which became heavy, wearied.  On the right a grey gaping Nothing kept us to our solitary cart tracks; on the left the tousled white of the bank must be eyed with suspicion.  Once, in a flash of memory I recognised a landmark that had seated a motoring party at tea one August afternoon, and to test my memory I found a loose piece of independent rock and threw it into a snow cornice.  It sped through, awakening a hollow cataclysm of noise in the depths of the hill.  “One of the Buttertubs”, I said to Fred, who grimaced and suggested a closer attention to the friendly cart tracks.  The cart tracks certainly saved us from complications.  Half a mile further down the road shook itself clear of snow and slid down like a precipice to the Swaledale road at Thwaite, just above Muker.  Four miles, four hours!

The next three miles climbing round Kisdon Fell put the finishing touch to us.  We admit quite frankly that we were ‘knocked’.  Cathole Inn at Keld was hailed with relief.  It was built with the one purpose to receive us on that Saturday night.  The dales-folk knew their business; cyclists often arrive like we did, starved, tired, wet, and no questions are asked – requirements are known.  There was a fire in the front room, deep armchairs, books, and from the blackened roof-beams huge bacons were swinging, the table was very old and heavy, and on one snug end of it a festive supper was laid.  Various food and good, with strong coffee to stimulate yawning reaction; the food was home produce or stored for this very night – for us, we felt.  The dalesfolk make you feel like that.

With half an hour to midnight we went to bed.  Up above, on Buttertubs, the nor’easter was driving sleet into the drift.  A grey mist possessed the wilds; the tracks of a single farm cart lumbered over the pass……… maybe now they were buried under the new snow.  At the undefined roadside slender cornices of snow hung over silent pits to launch the wandering sheep into oblivion.  We went to sleep………

The bedroom window abutted over the road.  Fields of wearied green beyond, and moorland fellsides hugging them within narrow limits; the sky was grey and cold like the mist had been last night, and the nor’easter was still blowing, not so hard, perhaps, but the wind was only resting and in a few hours would renew his power – perhaps with rain or snow – or sleet.  February was here now.  Yesterday had still been the first month of the year, but today was a definite stride ahead.  Old people and weaklings dread the month, for February kills, but Spring is cradled too, and lower in the dales the snowdrop – the crocus too if the month is kindly – will push through the winter earth.  There was a stride forward in that grey Sunday morning, for February had entered the dales.

The ‘Cathole’ did us well.  Breakfast was the result of years of close study as to the basic needs of cyclists about to cross Tan Hill.  Not that Tan Hill is such a terror to face; it is hard – any mountain crossing must be hard, and it is long, but we knew that deep snow lay on the way – untrodden, maybe, and the breakfast fare laid for our assimilation was calculated to help us, to fortify us.  The threat in the sky came to pass at that breakfast table; rain settled down, and capes and sou’westers came out.  We faced the mountains again after the merest introduction to the infant Swale, bawling along on its deep-set course down to gentler meads.

Progress at first was not severe, for after the stony road had taken one leap out of Swaledale head, it settled down to a gentle tilt along a moorland depression – Stonesdale – to the snowline.  The snowline was definite; one minute the road was clear, the rest we floundered across a drift, and thereafter the Cathole breakfast proved its worth.  There are some old ruins at Ladgill; we missed the road and found the ruins, for no friendly cart tracks, not even single footsteps, had left their marks on virgin snow.  We found a ditch too, with a stream underneath, and the water was cold to the feet.  The road regained, our pace settled down to a long slog, with many a stop to scrape the stuffed snow from between the mudguards and the wheel, or to debate which was road in the unbroken expanse of white.  The rain ceased.  Then ahead a black speck showing against the snowy folds of moorland resolved itself into Tan Hill Inn, the highest in England (1,732ft) and we reached the fork road just beside it.  From this point we anticipated a long series of swoops to the Vale of Eden, but the snow was the best scotch of the day.  Riding was a farce, unless it was done for fun down the steeper parts, for heavy drifts across the road always concluded in a hectic skid.  Snow is soft; often it received us hands first in wild dives, but it is never conducive to speed unless skis are used.  We didn’t carry skis, but shall do so next time!  A wild descent round an elbow called Taylor Rigg placed us in lower, clearer climes, but the road wriggled uphill again almost to its original altitude.  Views were blotted by the grey mist that hung two hundred yards ahead, waiting for night to call it nearer.  Just above Barras the road became visible underneath a thinner coating, and we slipped down to freedom in an exhilarating glide.  Kirkby Stephen at 2.30pm, five hours, 14 miles.  We thought we had done well !

We had lunch in Kirkby Stephen, and changed our stockings, our only contribution to a dryer existence, for the rest of our clothing would have to ‘dry’ on.  At half past three we toiled up the long climb on the Sedbergh road.  After that we drifted; the nor’easter had regained its old power, but now pushed us from dead behind; the road was all falling down a winding stream-fed dale with billowy fells bright with snow-tops, couchant on each side.  It was beautiful.  At Cautley the spectacular waterfall, Cautley Spout, lying back in a ravine, was a glassy line of spate, then we drifted through Sedburgh, and sat back waiting, it seemed, for village after village to be ‘lapped’ back, and for familiar scenes as lovely as ever to unroll themselves and roll up again behind till we came again.  The final stage of Lunesdale was by lamplight, we climbed up through Lancaster to tea at Scotforth.  Contrast?  Morning miles; 14 in five hours: afternoon; 43 in two and a half hours !

The going continued good, and Preston receded to Walton-le-Dale.  At Bamber Bridge Fred forked off for his Wigan; I endured many thousands of setts towards Bolton in company with a Manchester lad who was ‘all out’.  The kind of fellow who rides a ‘stripped’ machine and gears up to 85.  He had done Blackpool the previous afternoon in half the time we had crossed the hills from Newby Head to Keld.  I crawled with him for many miles enduring his talk of a speed he could not then even strive for, and at length, as my way turned from his, I decided that he would never see the Dales by his own power.  Blackpool, perhaps, but………………….

 

Behind the Ranges October 1929

Post:  This October 1929 story of Charlie’s has an unexpected 1956 update!  (I couldn’t have put all this in Charlie’s books because they are about him, but on this website I can include other relevant items, so here goes).  The four people standing before you at Easter 1956 just below the summit of Moel Sych (2,713ft), are left to right, Fred Dunster, H.H. Willis, myself David Warner, aged 16, and ‘Bart’ a gentleman with the surname Bartholomew.  We were all attending the very first – inaugural – RSF Easter Meet, and the photograph was taken by Fred Dunster’s time delay camera on his tripod.  I should explain that this mountain is a peculiar shape, in that the space to the right of this summit is a pretty sheer fall of well over a 1000ft down to a small lake Llyn Lluncaws. Charlie has had other adventures on this mountain at other times, including one where his wife-to-be nearly slid over the edge, complete with bike, a very frightening moment. This incident is described in full in an article dated 1932, repeated in Charlie’s book Volume Two, ‘Further Adventures’, page 101.  In this day and age Charlie would be described as foolhardy for tackling this crossing in the weather prevailing, especially as there was no mountain rescue teams in their times.  Maybe he was lucky to only just contract pneumonia and get over it six weeks later!

Behind the Ranges took place on the weekend of 5/6th of October, 1929.  The weather across those two days is described by Charlie in his diary in one word, ‘Deluge’.  It also involved a total mileage of 170 miles over the two days, and his companion would have been one of the We.R 7.  One other historical point, Fred Dunster later became the Rough Stuff Fellowship Secretary, serving the Club for some years.

Moel Sych Summit 1955001

 

 

Behind the Ranges001

 

Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant !  To you, my reader, just another of those atrocious Welsh names perhaps, a name heard or read sometime, somewhere, and forgotten; a name unknown to the heedless world; a place unseen except to an occasional wanderer or a traveller straying beyond his latitude.   But to a comrade and I a place of substance, a reality deep in the heart of the mountains; a place not easy of access; to our dreams – and now to our memories – a place of “laughter and inn-fires”.  Reader, look behind the ranges and behold – Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant !

It so happened one fitful Saturday morning early in October, that I turned my wheel against the wind towards those distant inn-fires and the joys of comradeship that I should find at Llanrhaiadr.  There was a hard tussle, a battle royal across the plains to Chester; a battle broken only by a stop for lunch at a quaint Cheshire home-stead.  Though skies gloomed Nature was in a gay mood, for in the park of Eaton Hall Autumn had traced a gorgeous pattern.  Man too, had done a share; the Golden Gates glittered with a new gilding and all the lesser gates were newly silvered.  Life was there – a grey squirrel lurking for prey, red squirrels, gorgeously plumed pheasants, and, of course, prolific bunnies scuttling away on every side at my approach.  I cheated the wind by seeking the shelter of the border hills to Cefn-y-Bedd, and gave way to the temptation of footpaths – in Nant-y-Ffrith.

Nant-y-Ffrith is always beautiful.  In a land of exquisite valleys none ever seem to be quite like Nant-y-Ffrith.  Summer lingers late there, and all the green livery of summer was there that gloomy Saturday afternoon; only along the topmost ridges Autumn had started to tinge the green.  A month yet ere this even-hued seclusion would be turned into a riot of living colour.  While I still lingered there the drowsy sky filled up and rain began to fall.  Head to a wind-driven torrent, I crossed the open moor from Bwlch Gwyn, and descending into the Llandegla ‘basin’, I sought shelter and tea at homely Ypento.  There I fretted an hour and a half away, waiting till I cared to wait no longer.  The rain had settled in.

I crossed the Horseshoe Pass.  There was a mist up there and drenching rain and with it a wildness that overawed me – a lonely desolation on the erstwhile busy Horseshoe Pass !  During the descent a not uncommon, but no less undesirable incident occurred.  My brakes failed to grip the wet rims as I was approaching the double loop of the ‘horseshoe’:  I grimly watched the front wheel splice the water on the road with increasing impetus, and the steeply cambered bend rush upon me.  My fingers strained at both cables, until, on the very bend itself the brake blocks creaked complainingly and froze to the rim – the wheels locked, and in a skid I swung round the bend and found myself gliding easily round the second twist.  The nick of time !  Thence all was well.  The mist was above now, and the mountain slopes were revealed aglow with effusive dyes.  Down in the Vale it was dusk and Llangollen was lamplit and snugly wet with people hurrying along the streets or stood in groups in sheltered places…..  I left Llangollen, facing precipitous ‘Aullt-y-Body’ with, ever before me, the picture of ‘laughter and inn-fires’ at Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant, still far behind the ranges…….

As I tramped the long steep lane I wondered if all this was worth the while, and cursed myself for the doubt in me.  The pall of darkness descended; I lit my little oil lamp and laughed at its impotent flicker – laughed at it and wondered why I hadn’t got a better lamp – laughed as I struggled on through filth and ooze, or as I stumbled over a stony outcrop, and wondered again – why I laughed !  Near the ragged drawn-out summit a belt of leafless trees screamed in the wind, and there, in hazy silhouette, I saw a horseman stopped still, weird and unreal.  What an experience that was – the steep road and driving rain, the screaming trees, the cloudy darkness, the silhouetted rider.  As I stood there taking it all in, the horseman moved and then with a clatter of hoofs he passed me and I was alone again, tramping, tramping……… tramping.

For just a short time I was able to essay a ride – more of a skid and a jolt – until the road tilted downwards so steeply that I dismounted again.  I knew Allt-y-Body of old !  Down I ran, down till the hazy lights of the Vale of Ceiriog shone below through the rain, down again till the houses – the lights – the warm glow of the wet main street  of Glyn Ceiriog, and people again and……. the road, the dark, wet, silent road once more.

It was a good road along the upper Glyn Valley, hedged by the shadows of mountains, edged by trees, by rocks, and crossed by streams that babbled in the night.  Up and down and sinuously round bends it ran, past occasional farmsteads and through one or two dimly shining hamlets, each sheltering its little knot of chatting men who shouted a musical “Cymric” Good Night! to me as I passed.  There was comfort to me in each of the courteous calls !  In the narrow depths of that valley the wind was but a low murmur sounding from the pines above, and travel was easy and loaded with glamour.  Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog was dimly lit from the diamond windows of its two inns that face each other across the village square, marked the end of the road, and in one of those inns I rested and refreshed myself – not in the ‘flowing bowl’.  I talked with the company, a grizzled group of mountain men who were playing dominoes for pints of beer and laconically passing the days-old news around.  There was one lank individual with a weathered face and muscle in every movement of his six-foot body who told me he had tramped the Berwyns for thirty years, who knew their highland whims and every treacherous yard of them.  The Berwyns were his; in the telling of tales he displayed a love, a passionate love for those upland wastes with all their many-headed moods, and I admired that love, envied him of it !  It must be a great thing to know and to love with understanding, such things as that broad ribbon of mountain peaks, the Berwyns.

Once again the shrouding uselessness of the cape, and this time the last of the ranges; the last, the hardest, crossed by a lane that really was no more than a track at times, a heap of stones here – a morass there – a puzzle-in-the-dark  with the snare of the great invisible Berwyns as a trap to the unwary.  It was a trap of steep falls and branching lanes that led to the cold heart of them.  The Berwyns heart is cold, even with the lives of men who love them.  Wild….. a grim land of mists and steeps and echoing nothingness…..

There came a long, steep climb with but the absurd glimmer of a little oil lamp to light a yellow pin-patch of the grey blankness that swirled around.  I felt myself breaking up like an old ship near the summit, for, as later events proved, I was in none too fit a condition, but I pulled myself together as I thought of the last five miles and the end of the road…..”laughter……  and inn-fires”.  At the summit I mounted, and in a reckless mood probably born of weariness, I plunged out of the grey into the black mouth of a sunken lane diverging on the left.  Trusting to intuition (an untrustworthy sense at best), and to some knowledge of this country, I crashed along over loose stones which more than once threw me into an alarming skid in the slime that followed.  Once the evil glimmer of water ahead made my heart leap, but in a twinkling I was beyond it with nothing more than a cold douche over my already saturated feet.  Many other lanes converging into this one, once made me fear that I had gone wrong, a dread thought in the exhausted condition I was in and with a mountainous nowhere on all sides, but I received an exiting assurance when the road dropped away like a chasm below me, and jamming both brakes I jumped away from the saddle.  Well enough I know that descent !

And so came a last steep fall to a little lighted street – Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant.  I was not disappointed; welcome blazed in the lights of the inn, and soon I was enjoying a scrub, shaking the dirt and the damp of four ranges from me.  Even while I was so employed, in came my comrade as wet as I had been, with a story as adventurous as mine – an afternoon’s hard ride, and – the ranges.  He spoke with a voice that burned enthusiasm as fuel and glowed with love for a game he had chosen as his.  Like the mountain man of the inn at Llanarmon a great love was his…… and he was not alone in it.  That night , as never before, I had felt the love of it, and even in weariness, the joys of it.

Then down to company…….. comradeship…….. laughter…..and inn-fires !

*         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *

It was still raining when we awoke next morning; it was still raining at breakfast, and when we left the friendly shelter of the inn it was raining still.  Over the bulky mountains the rain-clouds hung and the sky was cold and grey.  Our chosen route climbed constantly, with the swollen Rhaiadr stream chattering below and the slow fires of Autumn burning overall.  We agreed that everything was lovely.  In four miles the road ended at a farm, in a complete cul-de-sac, and there we viewed Pistyll Rhaiadr, “The Spout of the Cataract”, thundering in spate.  I will leave it to John ‘Ceiriog’ Hughes, the Glyn Valley poet of a hundred years ago to describe it in his own Cymric tongue.  The translation is George Borrow’s:

“Foaming and frothing from mountainous height

Roaring like thunder the Rhyadr falls;

Though its silvery splendour the eye may delight,

Its fury the heart of the bravest appals”.

Our chosen way was a hard way, and seemed a grim way too – over the highest Berwyn.  The outlook was repelling, a constant downpour, dense mist above, and steaming hillsides – but Autumn was there in all its beauty, and the tangled bracken seemed to leap in tongues of still flame to meet the curling clouds.

A ‘short cut’ soon led us into difficulties; a promising path that ended in dripping bracken, and the subsequent performances ere we reached the true track involved climbing walls, crossing a swollen stream and clambering up a steep slope.  Our feet were drenched by then, but that, we soliloquised, was inevitable sooner or later.  The track was good and we enjoyed a long walk uphill with the russet and gold of the bracken on each hand, and the valley behind, with Pistyll Rhaiadr a fleck of white shining through the rain.  But the track ended with dramatic suddenness, and threw us away from Autumn into a land of bog and brown grass and outcropping rock, a desolate scene as grand in its barrenness as the valley behind in its loveliness.  Not the least sign remained to show us the track, and wide bog-areas, sluggish, slimy streams, and tough tangly heather gave us a foretaste of that to come.  We struggled up to a ridge, and found ourselves gazing on a dark little lake bounded by reeds on three sides, and on the far side by scree – below the mist-capped crags of Moel Sych, Berwyns highest peak.  Picture it if you can, reader: picture we two, the only things in that wild region, gazing in awed stupification at all around us, solitudes seeming infinite in grey mists on looming heights, and silence weirdly profound below the dull roar of the wind on the crags above.

Mutely we moved on, skirting the tarn (Llyn Llyncaws) and peering anxiously at the crags – looking for the green ledge that would mark our path.  We knew it was there, somewhere, and we had to go that way – the only way a bicycle could be taken across Cader Berwyn.  We detected it, a faint zig-zag of green on the sombre grey, from the top of the scree to the ridge.  Only a year ago we had traversed it, after a wearying search and an endless trail over long bog-slopes.  This time we meant to make no mistake; we struck out boldly up the scree in a direct climb.  We soon   discovered that there was no easy way…… a thousand feet of sheer desperation on that scree !  From yielding sod and slimy bog-holes, rock and shale cropped out, became the crowning difficulty, and the scramble became a struggle, the struggle a crawl, till oft-times we mounted on hands and knees inches at a time, with the bikes somehow across our backs.  I grit my teeth now – as I did then – when I think of it, the times we slipped and cut our knees or barked our shins till we ignored the pain in the general exhaustion, or in the greater pain of a collapse beneath the bikes.  Our fingers often tore up fugitive sods wedged in the crevices as we grasped them in the effort to save ourselves, and the cumber-some bikes often added to our confusion by bringing us down heavily, whilst all the time the untiring rain streamed over us.  We reached the ledge, and that was little better – infinitely more dangerous, we thought, as we warily skirted the crags and listened to loosened shale bounding down from rock to rock into the welter of mist below.

At last the ridge – the summit !  At two thousand six hundred feet we stood and watched the grey vapours now below steaming up as from a great cauldron, occasionally parting for a moment to give us a glimpse of the cliffs and dark lake below the scree.  That was all we saw, but we were impressed more there than with all the impressing scenes on that memorable weekend.

Obviously it was foolish to delay:  we were wet through and the cold wind chilled us to the bone.  Ahead now were brown wastes bounded by mists, swept by the wind, and trackless except for treacherous sheep-trails that wandered everywhere and led nowhere.  We had profited by a bitter experience of such on those bleak moors, and so, unconcerned by the blankness around, we pushed our way into a wind that sent warning spasms of cold running through us like the striking of fever in the body.  We came to a tiny stream and followed it closely, watching it gain in volume, until, to our delight, we struck a track – rough, but how infinitely easier than the miles of pitted bog behind !

Suddenly the curtain lifted, and the vast stage lay set before us – a splendid prospect of moors above moors, mountains behind mountains, red and purple and gold shining, smiling in the rain.  That was not all.  The rain ceased, the track improved, and soon our stream took us into a fertile valley with farms, fields and woods – and then sunshine, warm, beautiful sunshine.  From the desolate to the sublime !  We rattled down that track, through gates, a farmyard, across a ploughed field, over a water-splash to a road, a sunken, muddy lane, but a road – down to Llandrillo in the sweet Vale of Edeyrnion, and to the Corwen road.  We had barely reached a favourite house at Cynwyd for a late lunch when the grey ousted the blue, and the rain came down again.

There followed a bathroom scene in which towels, cold water, and massage did much to still the involuntary shivering which still racked our limbs – legacy of exhaustion and Berwyn !  The healing influence of a cosy room, a fire and tea-dinner worked wonders.  Time sped by until……….

The road again and the constant douche of rain again; the wind dead behind, making the thirty-three hilly miles to Chester comparative child’s play.  With the shining wet streets behind we pursued a lamp-lit course back to the quaint Cheshire homestead for tea.

Now a gale was blowing – and still the rain.  On the homeward side of Warrington the wind blew one of us clean of his bike, providing us with many a thrill ere a turn of the road gave us its assistance.  At Winwick we separated, my comrade for his Wigan coalfields and I for my home in the Town of Cotton.

Thus ended our search behind the Ranges.  We won through in spite of weather conditions that were fiendish, conditions that laid me low for many weeks following, for I had started with a shadow overhanging.  They called us the “dammedest fools” at home, and maybe you, my reader, will endorse the verdict.  We don’t deny they may be right, but you cannot know – they cannot know – who do not love the hills.  They may kill us, these wilds, but we shall love them.  They lash us with their fury, yet how our hearts do yearn for their very fury !  They have bound my friend and I in a tie of comradeship that took each of us through so much to meet at the hospitable inn – and to face together hell itself across Cader Berwyn.  Others had started – but just we two had faced the worst and found the best.

Reader, go across the ranges and forget not the almost forgotten name…..  Llanrhaiadr-yn-Mochnant !

[Charlie was certainly right about a ‘shadow overhanging’, he contracted pneumonia after this weekend effort, and was off his bike for seven weeks.]  

From out of the Past (Part three)

Post:   The route described here has always been one of Charlie’s finest – finest for its deserted grandeur, and finest for the frequent worst weather a lone cyclist ever endured or travelled.  He rarely seems to venture on this road with a companion, it is almost always a solitary crossing, and one must ask is this from choice Charlie, or do the others shy away?  Even now, these moors are really deserted and wild, the road a long one and traveller’s infrequent.  What more could a young cyclist, intent on the wild and lonely places, hanker after?  Charlie has the gift of ticking people’s boxes I feel, making them hunger for the loneliness of the mountain track and the scaryness of the open moors.

 

I have recorded impressions of misty Arenig in the past.  Mynydd Migneint and the wide gap between Arenig Fawr and Arenig Fach may just as well be fifteen thousand as fifteen hundred feet above the waves at Portmadoc, on some occasions.  Nowadays the Powers that Be in County Merion have seen fit to put a layer of tar over the turbulent road that somehow links Bala and Ffestiniog.  Unless the same Powers keep a watchful eye on their new surface, I predict a rapid degeneration to the old state, for a tar-engine and steam-roller did the job between them, and the irreproachable surface was simply placed down amongst the channelled ruts of the old track.  Within twelve months ripples had appeared, with here and there the outcrop of stubborn grit-stone pushing triumphantly through the rolled out, shiny blackness.  There were little water-channels too, and water never was kindly disposed towards road surfaces.  The fact that the Blaenau Ffestiniog had slate to send across the border for English roofs, and this upland pass was the most direct practicable way caused a railway line to be built under the very cliffs of Arenig the Larger; this line ascends in tedious twists above the Afon Tryweryn, and leaves Arenig by the barren Cwm Prysor, towards Trawsfynydd.  A good strata of limestone added to the woes of our moorland col, for someone scenting financial elevation began to quarry that side of Arenig, and now a large works and a small village cluster beside a little railway station.  But in the last few years, following the rehabilitation of the road surface, a great new reservoir was built at Trawsfynydd to drive dynamos for electrical power, and now slender pylons of steel carry living wires through Cwm Prysor and across the moors to Bala and – England.  Welsh current for the people who live under Welsh slate.

You cannot close your eyes to these things.  A railway is not beautiful, but our English railways are often put into tune by Nature; the single Great Western line by Arenig does not intrude upon your vision – I was unaware of its presence on my first visit until the screech of a whistle and a puff of smoke drew my attention to it, and near Llyn Tryweryn I saw the arches of a viaduct.  The limestone quarries are a blot upon the scene, but Arenig is too fine and mighty a mass to be marred by a single quarry that bites at an insignificant corner.  Steel pylons will never be lovely, but unlike many people I cannot think of them as atrocities.  They hardly blend with the scenery, I admit, but they are actually no worse than telegraph poles.  We have become accustomed to telegraph wires, and there’s the difference.

I am diverging.  I said that on some occasions, Mynydd Migneint can be as wild as though thousands of feet were added to its altitude.  Through the winter months grey banks of mist, and clouds descending from Arenig Fawr enclose the pass for days at once, till the hours of daylight may amount to no more than the odd four in twentyfour.  I have been up there in semi-darkness at mid-day.  At night travel is adventurous, though that is improved now by the new surface on the road.  In the days when a tar engine and steam roller had never been pushed over the pass, I have spent hours on that seventeen miles, nerve-racking hours of peering vainly into grey blankets that swathed the night and seemed even to keep sound away, straining eyes for the gates that never seemed to appear, but which always came just when I had relaxed for a moment.  Even the brown road has become merged into invisibility at such times, till hardly a glimpse could be caught under wheel, let alone ahead.  The road channelled water-courses, furrowed, ploughed, piled with loose stones, often steep with sharp bends and nothing but a ditch or a moorland fringe to protect it from wandering sheep.  How often have I jolted off the very road itself into ditch or tangly, bog-woven heather !  People at Bala and Ffestiniog have expressed a kind of wandering awe that I dared risk “the mountain” as they call it.  “What of the mist?” they have said, for it is common knowledge on each side of Arenig that mists are paramount there.

I have punctured up there, and wished I had three good hands instead of two frozen lumps of uselessness; I have walked miles aface a wild blast; I have been soaked in torrential rains; I have emerged at last below the mists drenched and weary, with eyes an-ache.  Seventeen miles at the price of seventy.  Hours of it.  Yes, and I would do it again tomorrow, that seventeen miles.

As I have been (and still am) rather fond of Ffestiniog, it follows that over Arenig by both wild ways to Rhyd-y-Fen has been a frequented pass of mine.  I have in mind one night early in May, some years ago.  In May, mark you, but a wild night, with dusk welling up even as I left Bala.  A westerly wind that had the saving grace of summer warmth had nagged me, and there had been rain in patchy quality, and as I climbed up by Afon Tryweryn  from Fron Goch, more patches of rain floated across.  With darkness the mist came down, and once again I repeated the old process of trying to see through the damp, dense, veil.  I hadn’t much time to give to the crossing, for Ffestiniog never keeps very late hours, and I was chancing on a bed there, so I pushed forward as fast as the wind would allow, but faster than common sense advised.  I passed the little temperance house called Rhyd-y-Fen; left the gate behind that marks the beginning of the last climb to the ruined farm at 1507 ft, and had tramped almost to the summit when suddenly the mist lifted, and not a vestige remained.  In place a full round moon shone down peacefully in rolling wastes of moorland that struck me by their infinite solitude.  It seemed that I alone lived then, and all other things were dead.  But what surprised me most was the sight of a phenomenon rarely seen……. A lunar rainbow forming a broad amber arc in the western sky – a perfect half-circle touching the moors on each side.  I saw it fully five minutes until a single wisp of grey mist floated up.  Shortly afterwards I was plunging and crashing down to Pont-ar-Afon-Gam in a welter of vapour as heavy as ever before.  I didn’t see Pont-ar-Afon-Gam, but I heard the coursing stream below, carrying its full flood to Rhaiadr Cwm.  Rhaiadr Cwm was just a roar in the dark, coming from the bedrock depth of a great Space on my left.  The Space was filled with Things that floated about, crossing my vision as I leaned (not too trustily) on the crumbling parapet of the wall.  I leaned and listened, and saw those shapeless forms splitting themselves and coming together again in raggy procession.  The people at Bala had called the ‘Things’ mists.  Maybe they were, but if you go that way, lean over the wall below Pont-ar-Afon-Gam, and watch them.  Perhaps they are mists…..  You can lean on the wall nowadays, since the road was put in order and motor-cars began to venture over Arenig, but that night in May empty spaces betrayed where Time had brought collapses here and there.  The displaced stones were lying below the precipice, four hundred feet down.  It is easy to leave the road when grey and black are the only universal hedgings.

From Rhaiadr Cwm I crossed another mile of vapoured wilderness, then my wheels rushed forward, downhill.  Then I dropped beneath the mist, shook myself from wispy vestiges, and descended on Ffestiniog in the mellowed beauty of a May night, a moonlit night.

From out of the Past (Part two)

Post:    I particularly like Charlie’s depiction of this old pack horse bridge to be found on the rarely used Foxup Moor crossing track.   His detailing of the stonework takes some drawing and didn’t he do well.  I first crossed this little bridge in the early 1950’s on a clubrun, and quite often repeated the run because it was perfect in every respect – a track that you could ride, almost always deserted and that delightful little bridge to enjoy.  Was I lucky or was I lucky ?

From Foxup, at the far end of Littondale, a track goes through a long depression below Pen-y-Ghent and ultimately emerges at Horton-in-Ribblesdale.  Littondale is not well known except to that increasing sect that travels map in hand, searching out unspoiled bits of Britain.  Motorists sometimes stray into Littondale, mostly by mistake because, as they speed up Wharfedale towards Kettlewell, Littondale opens promisingly on the left with a promising road quite as good as the Wharfedale highway for four twisty miles to Arncliffe.  Arncliffe is grey and solid and satisfying to these strayers, and so to them this typical dale-village becomes the end of Littondale.  Some, more venturesome, might cross the Litton by the old bridge and discover delight in the wilder reaches, following a narrow but quite decent road to Halton Gill, which appears first a mile away like a Swiss village clinging for dear life to the steep hillside.  There they turn back unless they have sufficient incentive and a good reserve of power to tackle the dusty byway that corkscrews into Silverdale, then makes their brakes give burdened groans down into Stainforth.

For he who dotes on those double-lines or trails of dots that exemplify the Ordnance Survey and Bartholomew, Littondale becomes a paradise.  He may be lured by the white bit of a road that leaps up a ravine from Arncliffe and strides over lonely places to Malham Tarn.  He may cross the pebbly river from Litton and find the green springing lane restful to his feet and Pen-y-Ghent across the Gill good to his eyes, until he reaches Silverdale Road.  If strenuous is his mood he might chance his strength on the zig-zag track above Halton Gill that takes him 2000 ft over Horsehead Pass to Raisgill in Langstrothdale.  Or he might search out the long-lost trail the ancients used to take them round the back of Pen-y-Ghent to Horton.

I travelled up Littondale on the fourth day of an Easter tour.  Where had been three of us at Kilnsey for lunch; but my two companions had already stayed on a little too long, and had bade me a hurried goodbye, heading westward into a great throng of homeward-bounds.  The day was sunny: Easter Monday on the highways is not a day of restfulness…… and I was free for another day.  My mood demanded peace, so I turned into Littondale.  My fancy was for the white lane that leaps over the fells to Malham, but I passed it by and formed new fancies as I crossed the bridge from Arncliffe.  At Litton I remembered the springing turf of the track to Silverdale road, but again I passed on, and passed the dusty by-lane that presses under Pen-y-Ghent.  At Halton Gill I hesitated; the Horsehead track was tantalising, and cool breezes were up there – the other side held lovely Oughtershaw and the head of Wharfedale in its moorland grip.  Yet again I passed on, along a rough lane to tiny Foxup, the last attempt at clustering humans have made in Littondale.  There the valley closes, is trapped by dark fellsides.  I would have to find that fabled path across to Horton-in-Ribblesdale.

The Path the ancients trod001

 

A first attempt along a cartway close by the beck failed where it reached finality at a farm.  The farmer sent me through a gate, up the grassy hillside, through another gate into a sheep pen, from which I emerged by another gate to the open fellside, high above the hamlet.   He had promised a track there, a faintly pressed trail, but had expressed doubt that I should get to Ribblesdale by nightfall.  “You will miss the track”, he had said: “but keep the gates in sight”.  Drowsiness lay on the moors that afternoon, for I missed the curlews and the grouse: the sheep strayed away without a sound, the sun had taken on an aura, and was sinking, and the becks were low-voiced.  They murmured.  No-one came: with an even stride I passed from gate to gate without trouble, for the turf was smooth to the feet, and the gates themselves were fairly new.

They even swung, had real catches to them.  My mood was tranquillity.  The track had a slight upward trend so that each wall and its gate made the skyline.  On the left a perfect upward curve in the land suddenly lost its symmetry to form the semi-sheer flank of Pen-y-Ghent, and on the right the narrow end of Littondale was shallowing rapidly to meet the ridge.  A higher ridge was behind.  For an hour I walked where I might easily have ridden, but I never gave riding a thought.  It did not seem quite the thing, someway.  Then a limestone gully crossed the path and looking up along it I realised that Pen-y-Ghent stood just above, aloof, with worn-in scars of many a waterway striking parallel lines down it.  Just after that I passed below a little line of outcrop crags, and lost the track.  The farmer had spoken truth…… the way the ancients had trod was obliterated.  At the next wall there was no gate, but a great gap through which I passed, and carelessly descended into a great basin, a perfect saucer in the moors.

I am writing as an impressionist now, and my impressions must be faithful or this book is untrue, unfair.  I am speaking truth when I say that my descent into that hollow place on the moors led me to a feeling akin to trepidation.  The place was eerie, as if haunted.  It weighed on me.  The sky had blazed all day, and now it was charged with a coppery heaviness that had smothered the earlier breezes.  Not a sound could I hear, not a living movement could I see; the wandering sheep, with unerring instinct had never tracked this place.  I knew something lay on the bed of that depression that I was confidently beginning to cross, and I reasoned that I, who was strong, had hardly known a moment’s fear in my life.  Why should I now fear a moorland hollow that was deserted and lost to sound or movement ?

I hesitated, pushed on, and hesitated again.  There certainly was something queer here, some brooding moodiness that was getting on my nerves.  The turf underneath was silent as a rubber pad, and sprang under the weight of my feet.  An ideal camp-site, but I shuddered to think of camping in that atmosphere.  As I pushed forward again I became aware of a sound, a faint, hollow murmur that I could not place.  The sound became louder in a few yards, a gurgling, muffled voice that seemed to rise underfoot.  The truth then dawned on me: a stream ran underground a few inches beneath me, it could not be deeper.  I moved forward again, and the sound died away, to be replaced by another, yet another, until the deep-voiced chattering came in on all sides, hollow murmurings from every side and eerie in the almost unnatural solitude.

I could not shake off that uneasy feeling  which had first assailed me, and as I approached the centre of this basin, a new quite natural explanation appeared.  My feet suddenly sank into bog; before I could retard myself I was knee-deep, and it sucked at me with great force.  I tore myself out of it, extricated a shoe just as that necessary piece of footwear was becoming immersed in green, slimy fluid, and back on the turf, surveyed the treacherous expanse.  I ought to have guessed the obvious at the sight of this moorland saucer without outside outlet.  It was a great sink into which drained all the water from the surrounding ridge, and as the limestone underneath, being porous, could not hold the water to form a lake or pool above, there was constant saturation of the surface.  Beneath that central bogland must be a great underground lake or an intricate series of channels to bear the water down to some other outlet.

Obviously it was foolish to attempt to cross there, so I turned sideways, skirting the bog and climbing the ridge.  Over the other side drowsy sheep scattered on my approach, I climbed a wall and dragged the bike after me, then covering a rough heather tract, I regained the track where it showed clearer in a dirty gateway.  Thence the going was boggy and well defined; I was able to reach a stream where I cleaned the mess from my legs by the simple, usual method of paddling while retaining footwear.  Clean wet shoes and stockings are preferable to the discomfort of caked slime !

Over the next ridge I espied a walled clearing and a hut, and descending into the clearing, came upon the great gap of Hull Pot, smooth, grey-walled, gaping to the sky.  Without ropes Hull Pot – over 100 ft deep – is nigh impossible to descend.  From there the wide sweep of Ribblesdale appeared below; on my left a huge ravine blocked by limestone cliffs, each cliff a tremendous step towards the head held a stream of pigmy size.  The track, now a road of sorts, led me down past an isolated shippon where a farmer was engaged.  From him I obtained a ready consent to camp in a lovely little hollow sheltered from the wind, and ere dark brought heavy banks of cloud onto the fells, was comfortably ‘bivvied’, and soliloquising on the crossing from Foxup by the path the ancients trod, and the weird ‘sough’ below Pen-y-Ghent.

From out of the Past (Part One)

Post:    This item, From out of the Past, is in three unconnected parts, and actually appears in Charlie’s Book Four on Page 131, but for me it summarises beautifully the love of cycling that both Charlie and I were able to enjoy earlier in the last century !

It makes it sound as though I am very old, and in some ways I suppose I am, but at heart I am still an adolescent enjoying life awheel and exploring everywhere. Parts 2 and 3 will appear in the next two weeks.

 

We humans are creatures of moods.  They pass across our life like some stray wisps of mist that foretell the coming of night on the mountain tops.  Sometimes we brush them aside like the wind disperses the mist; sometimes we cause them to stay a little-while until the next mood captures our fancy.  Our moods are mists on the mountains.  We cannot capture a mist, bringing it to our mountain from afar; we must push our heads into the sky and wait.  We have stormy days, when the mists of our mood drive past in quick succession, the one pushing the other off till night comes down.  We have clear days too, when the blue of our skies is faultless and barren, as the brazen weariness of an Indian summer sky.  But sometimes we have English days of summer breezes and straying wisps that we can hold.

I am hold of a mood, a mist obscuring the present, and bringing up the past.  The past, that is always better than the future or the present because it is distorted like the mist distorts the mountains.  Grandeur is assumed by little things, and big things loom in a high horizon.  I have much to draw upon, though my road-mind can only swing about in ten years of time.  Much can happen in a less space of time than that.

Those things that happened came marching out in the order of their happening like a long procession, but they are now memories, and are held in ordered sequence no more.  They wander back and forth at will, bumping about in their fat circlet of ten years like a small boat on a long anchor-rope.  The past works like that in the mind, and after all, the future is only a procession waiting to be released in the same way.  The present is in process of release, but the present lacks the cohesion of the future and the freedom of the past.  It is an everlasting Now that crawls a second at a time, leaves nothing behind and reaches no finality.  It is really immovable, in that it never had a start and has no journey’s end.  I don’t like it; I want to feel something more tangible.  In the future there lies something that now seems reachable amongst lots of unreachable things, so the future has the merit of clean, undamaged prospects.  We can dream ahead.

But the past has a concrete base.  What lies there belongs to me, to ransack and play about with at will.  Some shattered unreachable from the one-time future lies there, but there are a lot of things I did reach.  I can’t destroy the past, neither can I hide it away, except from you.  It is not a region of regrets like many pasts are, neither is it a land of never-never, bloated, puffed into magnificence by constant incursions into it.  They are assumptive, these memories of mine, but they have at least the merit of a grain of truth.

 

*         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *         *

There was an Easter spent at Nant Gwynant.  I remember one of the chaps who’s misfortune compels him to spend a third of his life in semi-somnolence at a bank.  On Easter Saturday morning the office desk chained him, so he must needs ‘sprint the rapid miles’ to make Gwynant that night.  In one of those very occasional bursts of fellow-feeling, I had promised to guide him to our camp-site, which he did not know, so we arranged to meet at Pen-y-Gwryd at 11.30pm.

The day was lovely.  I got away alone that afternoon; there are times when you feel like being alone for a while, and this was one of them.  I was on the bike; I think I had tea Rhyd Ddu, near the Snowdon Ranger; I know I crossed that magnificent little pass called Bwlch Gylfyn or Gyfelin.  There is a lake on the summit with an island in the middle that tradition asserts posesses moveable qualities, hence the name ‘Llyn Rywarchen’ which means ‘Lake of the Floating Sod’.  The lake isn’t striking, but there is a striking view of Snowdon from there, a finely contoured peak, and worthy of its title ‘Y Wyddfa’.  From that lake, looking in the other direction – down the pass – there  is a line of crags called Craig-y-Bere on the north side and overlooking the road.  They cannot be above 1500 ft high, but they hang over the pass as if tottering.

Strangely enough, you hardly descend ten feet before they seem suddenly to have flopped back and lost all their grandeur.  The bottom of Bwlch Gylfyn is marred woefully by quarrying; the first village is a long, dismal, stone-built place called Nanttle, and when I went through, the road to Caernarvon had no attraction to speak of, except a rare following wind and a gently contoured highway.  That is the fault of taking the Bwlch Gylfyn road; you come from a fine bit of Snowdonia and immediately descend into a country that is neither mountain or plain or even hilly.  It falls flat when you have just bloated yourself, so to speak, on beauty.  About two miles short of Caernarvon I turned along a lane to get to the Caernarvon-Beddgelert road about one and a half miles out of the first named place.  The wind, coming from the south-east, brought rain, real Welsh rain, and turning towards Beddgelert, I came up against it, rain and wind and those swinging contours that make you ‘flog it’ up-wind.  Night didn’t creep up, it jumped down as though it had been waiting on the mountains.  The loveliness of a Spring day had changed into a wild night as in Winter, February, or early March.

It was just then, on the first mile with that trying foursome that so often links together against the cyclist, that my mood changed suddenly enough to startle me.  Though I have really set out with the intention of describing it, I find that I can’t do it proper justice.  Maybe it’s a relic of primitive animalism in me that the conditions awoke.  Put it down as an absolute carelessness of anything, and couple it with savage joy; the savage joy of a wild thing.  That wind smote me hard with its needle-stings of rain, till my face might have smarted had I been capable of feeling.  I was incapable of feeling even the tough tug when the black road bent upwards; just stamping the pedals down as they came up.  Bettus Garmon, stretched in a long line of dim lights along each side of the road, crept back till an upward tilt and a tearing of the wind at my cape forced me to dismount. On that walk a noise came through the wind like an incessant chatter, and only some distance beyond where the wind had itself alone and whistled across a vast blank, did I realise the chattering sound had been the stream where it crosses under the road at Bettus Garmon.  Then I became conscious of a kind of dark spaciousness on the right, and I found it was Llyn Cwellyn.  There was a space of interior satisfaction at that, though why, I don’t know, because I didn’t much care if I never made my destination so long as the wind whipped me hard all the time.

I had got over that long start up which preludes a longer slant down into Beddgelert when a motor-car shot a pair of dragon’s eyes at me, and kept me fascinated till I could have run full tilt into them, but the instinct of human safety in me is stronger than the foolish fascination that lures ‘daddy-long-legs’ to the cruel candle flame, and I curved aside, inches clear of the purring shape that passed.  That brought me down to the bed-rock fact that my lamp was out.  How long I had travelled lightless I didn’t know: I couldn’t even be sure I’d lit the lamp at all !        In Beddgelert a few cyclists slouched under the porch of a hotel; a light or two shone without attraction; I crossed the bridge and made up Nant Gwynant.  The wind had lulled in the sheltered village, but in Gwynant it came up dead behind, and I soon passed Llyn-y-Dinas and climbed the little lane to the camp-site.  The boys were at supper, dry and comfortable, and pulled wry faces when I peeped in, drenched.  “Gimme a drink”, I said, asked the time (11pm) and bidding a “goodnight”, received a groan of sympathy in return as I turned back down the lane to keep my tryst.

Perhaps you have travelled up a deep valley in the black depth of a cloud-capped night, when the rain is falling and a cold breeze shakes the unseen trees above you.  You feel chilly little shivers at the gusts that come on the open places till the gradual, relentless gradient warms you up.  Down below, at the valley bottom you had arched trees over your head, not seen, but rather felt – a suggestion of inclosure and vague scents that come off the wet leaves, and rustlings in the dark mingled with the even fall of rain.  As you ascend you sense a change – you have become aware that the trees arch one side only, and a freer play of rainy wind, has come from the other side.  The valley is below you now; you are climbing higher above it all the time, and you try to remember what lies below and across, lake and rocks and  mountainside, as you have seen it by day.  Then you cast away a memory half-formed; the lake, the rocks, the wild farther slope have no immediate existence; they are of an age you have passed or have yet to meet.  Below you is the wind and nothing more.  You get back from your thoughts of Day, back to your rightful place in Night.  To your ears comes a sound – a noise – a clamour – and then the dying of it.  You have passed a stream that shouts, deep in its own ravine.  The trees have gone; the streams go rushing by more frequently; the road takes on a steeper tilt; the wind comes up stronger, colder, and the rain has a drive with it.  The sound of water that came and went at frequent intervals dies with the last thin trickle, and you have the wind and the rain, and a leveller road…… you reach the summit.

Thus I came to Pen-y-Gwryd at 11.30 on a wild Easter Saturday night.  At Pen-y-Gwryd there is a vastness around; the threshold of things great…… a little plateau below the great bulk of Snowdonia, where three roads branch their various ways; where man has set a small hotel and a few contemptible sheds.  I was sheltered, but far above on Lliwedd and Crib Goch the everlasting roar of the wind sounded like ceaseless breakers on a distant shore, pounding, pounding, in a timeless existence.  Nothing more – not even the faintest silhouette of a peak, not the stir of life nor the flicker of a lamp other than my own sulky glimmer too weak to reach the floor.  Staring into Night, and with thoughts such as attune themselves to a mood borne in Night, I passed the midnight hour unnoticed.  Then came the realisation that my friend had not appeared; I went back into the drizzle and pushed against the wind down the open emptiness of Cwm Pen-y-Gwryd, venturing further towards Capel Curig.  That way he must come.  Then a light wavering ahead, drawing closer – a faint, bulky silhouette, and a shout of welcome.  My friend was with me……… the spell was broken.

In the Highest Pennine – Part One

 

 

In the Highest Pennine011Jo’s enthusiasm runs high on the unexplored.  When she is prospecting the possibilities of forgotten passes and ancient pathways she could not be happier, unless it be upon the actual exploration.  Every dotted line across the hill-shading of our maps is sure to receive attention sooner or later.  The fascination of the ‘dotted line’ dates from the first time she cast eyes on an Ordnance Survey in her earliest cycling days.  Someone had informed her that all dotted lines are tracks, and Jo implicitly believing, set her heart upon a certain wavering, heavily emphasised line that passed from peak to peak in the rough regions of Shap, regardless of the laws of natural contour.  The route lacked any track, but Jo’s boundless enthusiasm carried her over a long series of disheartening obstacles before she discovered that she had been attempting to trace a county boundary !

In the course of time one learns to understand maps more thoroughly.  Experience is a hard teacher, and in the case of exploring alleged tracks encumbered with a bicycle the lessons are sure to be remembered.  Difficulties crop up which people who never leave the roads cannot imagine.  It is generally believed that Britain is a settled country where Nature is well tamed, but that is far from the truth.  A man may yet get lost and never be seen again, or may wander for days in desolate land without habitation of any sort.  Paths over the mountains are often too faint to be traced with certainty; climatic conditions may be such as to make a moderately difficult passage impossible, even in summer.  The person who frequents the solitudes faces, at times, pitiless conditions which call for determination and much careful thought.  That is half the pleasure of it.  He alone has the right to say if it is worthwhile.

High Cup Nick is a natural phenomena in the limestone of Cross Fell, and is reached by a track of sorts [now part of the Pennine Way] between Teesdale and the Vale of Eden.  The name, High Cup Nick, is very expressive.  It fascinates.  Jo had talked of it for months, a prelude to certain action at the first opportunity, for High Cup Nick is just beyond the range of an ordinary weekend.  The chance came when the Cotton strike of 1932 took place.  Jo works in the mill, I was unemployed.  As it was desirable to cover much ground by Saturday evening, we arranged that Jo should leave Preston soon after noon, and I should follow with all speed from Bolton.  By thus minimising delay we hoped to make camp on the high ground between Brough and Middleton-in-Teesdale, a hundred miles from home.

After a long dry spell, the weather had broken.  A night or two of heavy rain and drenching showers during the day with strong westerly winds told too plainly of the best we could hope for.  I started late, riding hard across the paths of many a fierce downpour until the turn for Quernmore valley put the wind dead behind.  After tea I entered Lunesdale.  The river was a swirl of spate; at Caton by Lancaster it flowed brown and full-lipped, encroaching the low fields; at Kirkby Lonsdale 12 miles higher the river boiled over the rocks in mad endeavour.  All the twentysix miles of the Dale to Sedbergh were changing panoramas of threatening clouds in a windy sky, brown fells reflecting the sky in moods from sullen to gay, and always chattering waters within sound.  Dusk in Rawtheydale, a gradually rising road, the noisy stream at hand, shapely mountains between which the road pursued a winding way.  Cautley Spout was a white flake in a ravine already filled with night.  Jo was still ahead; I lit my lamp and rode harder along the lonely highway, over its final steeper pitches to the black, windy summit from which the dim lights of Kirkby Stephen lay scattered below.  At 9.30pm in that highland railway town the silence of sleep had already settled.  Under an inky canopy I crossed the Vale of Eden to Brough, that ancient, stone-built village clustered below the ruins of its castle.  Brough lives in less fearful days now – Brough was abed and secure, with only the wind wandering abroad.

Jo was riding well.  I had seen nothing of her, and felt the cold hand of doubt.  Was she really ahead?  I could only go on.  The wild road that crawls over the fells to Middleton-in-Teesdale pulled me up, and I faced a long walk uphill.  High above me a light flashed, and hopefully I signalled back.  The light remained stationary, so I hurried until I came within hail.  “Thank Heaven it is you!”, came the response, “I’m tired out”.

Jo had waited until after the usual time, then fearing I had got away early, she had hurried.  For eighty miles we had chased each other with no more than a few minutes between us!  Below the summit there was a bridge over a peaty burn; gratefully we camped in the lee of it.

The morrow began cold and stormy.  A passing shepherd peeped in to congratulate us on the choice of a comfortable place on the rain-sodden fells and held our attention with tales of winter storms and inky mists when even these weathered old hill-men had lost themselves for hours at once.

Our journey eastwards crossed a high ridge at 1,574 feet and took us over miles of purple moorlands swept in turn by sun and rain, till Teesdale lay below, and we swooped down into Middleton.  The main road up the dale gave us a hard struggle in the teeth of the wind.  We saw the distant fleck and heard the roar of High Force a quarter of a mile away heading the steep ravine.  The next half hour yielded three miles of hard pedalling to Langdon Beck, where we abandoned the highway.  This road, on its way to Alston, becomes the highest main road in England at 1,942 feet.  This is a land of high roads threading their difficult ways over the highest Pennine – the bleakest country below the Cheviot.

Behind a wall we shivered through lunch, a meal which terminated abruptly in a rush of rain.  We tramped along a stony track for four desolate miles of successive summits, wind and rain raking us all the time, and ahead on Cross Fell, such a grey swirl of cloud as might dishearten less enthusiastic travellers.  The track, in a shocking condition, tumbled us down to Cauldron Snout, that waterfall with the expressive name which must surely bring many people enquiring ‘what’s in a name?’  Normally the Tees descends a series of great steps; this day it was a raging slide of white water, fearful to look upon, and shaking the very earth about it.  At the foot of Cauldron Snout, Maize Beck pours in, forming the angles of three counties, Durham, Cumberland and the North Riding of Yorkshire.  A decrepit hut close by saved us from a terrific storm that swept down from Cross Fell with an awful show of cloud.  By a small bridge above the falls we gained access to Cumberland, and following the course of Maize Beck, through several fields – hardly won intake from the predominant moors – crossed stiles and gates to Birkdale, reputed the loneliest farm in England.  We had tea there.

No modern complications disturb life at Birkdale.  The nearest neighbour lives two miles away, the nearest village is eight, and the nearest railway station eleven and a half.  From the first of May until the end of September the postman comes twice a week (if necessary), but for the remaining seven months not at all, the reason for which is plain to see when one looks round at the vast wilderness of black fells and their intersecting maze of peat hags with brown becks, so often unfordable.  The old farmer spoke of long weeks of isolation when the snow makes the whole region inaccessible, the search for buried sheep, the relief when all are safely penned and the stock warmly stabled.  All life marks time, waiting patiently for the release of Spring.  Four people and a tiny baby, then only ten weeks old, shut away from the outer world, provisioned already against the Autumn floods.  The young woman with the baby turned to Jo and said with deep fervour, “Oh, if I could only go to the warm south for a few weeks!”  Even then, so early in September, the great shoulders of the Pennine had the stamp of winter upon them.  She feared the winter with her baby in mind, but the old farmer thought more of the big thaws that change the clean, far-stretching snow into wild torrents of water.

Our host displayed interest when we announced our intention to cross the fells to Dufton in Edendale, eight miles away.  Came questions.  Were we used to fell country?  Did we know of the hundred traps set by nature and the weather-demon?  They were manifold on Cross Fell.  Unwary travellers are better away, initiating themselves on the more gentle hills of the south, not causing trouble and inconvenience to the shepherd folks at the busiest season.  His tone softened at our reply.  We were no plains-people out on a day trip.  Not strangers to the hills.  Our whole beings were wrapped up in them.  They were our life, and our experience was nothing light or shadowy.

The discouragement was not unjust.  People often come to Birkdale for the purpose of crossing High Cup Head, usually day-trippers woefully unprepared in the matter of clothing and equipment, expecting to find a kind of mild moorland footpath.  As a rule they come back hours later, baffled.  One party set off at noon in high summer, wandered through the day and night, and regained Birkdale by a mere chance at 4am, utterly worn out.  There was recalled the rare pluck of a girl who had twisted off the heels of both shoes, had limped through the night with a large nail drilling her foot, whilst both feet were badly cut and bleeding.  She had suffered agonies, but had the spirit to smile and cheer the rest of the party.  Commonly people came back to Birkdale later than midnight, begging for accommodation.  The shepherd vigorously denied the existence of any track for the first two and a half miles, though the Ordnance Survey show one.  He said he was willing to post the whole route if approached on the matter by the authorities, an offer that must be  regarded as very generous.  If there is mist about he advised nobody to cross.

[To be continued on Christmas Eve]

 

Sunday, 10 December 2017 – Website Update !

Now it is time for the unpalatable news, we have run out of material – well not quite – to publish on the website.  All of Charlie’s stories and journal entries have now been published, either on this website or in the four volumes of Charlie’s books.

However, what has not been published are the odd jottings and poems and occasional MSS that pop up out of his many records.  There are also many small photographs stuck into his photo albums which can be scanned, although I fear we will lose some detail in the black and white reproduction.  But I am going to have a go.  So all is not yet lost.  In order to preserve continuity and keep our readers interest, I am reverting to Sunday only posts and thus making what we have left last a few months longer.  I truly hope you will find this proposal acceptable.

I do have a problem with the material in Charlie’s four volumes already published.  To serialise them on this website will undermine those followers who have invested in the published books, and I do not think that is fair.  So unless I am inundated with requests to carry on regardless and serialise the books on this website we could be looking at the end of this website in the fullness of time.  I will do my utmost to keep things going as long as possible.

Finally, with regard to the engaging story of Charlie’s travels in the Caucasus mountains, published last week, it was all fiction.  But you must admit he did have the descriptive gift of writing to paint a picture !  In fact, one of our RSF members, Steve Gregson, who has worked all over the world as an oil pipeline engineer, and who has at least knowledge of the Caucasus, was given this story to review by me, and his comments sought.  Steve said it all rang true, although he did not know it was fiction at the time of reading, as I needed him not to know that it was written as fiction.

Charlie’s original manuscript relating his travels in the Caucasus – or so we thought, buried somewhere in the mountains of material I have, was signed and dated, and that date was the day before he took off for a fortnight’s cycle camping in the Scottish Highlands.  Game set and match to Charlie I think?

Somewhere in Caucasus

 This fascinating account of an extended trip by Charlie and his wife Peg, (her nickname changes several times during their lives !) detailing their travels in the Caucasus mountains one summer in the late 1930’s was a real tour de force. 

SOMEWHERE IN CAUCASUS

         by Charlie Chadwick

        I am writing perched on a slab of rock that commands a breath-taking view down a tremendous gorge that must be a quarter of a mile deep.  We are nine thousand feet by the altimeter, sheltered by a cliff from the sun, and we command a view across a ravine of great waves or rock and earth rising to profiled peaks of snow.  The scene is quite common to travellers in the higher Caucasus, but of a beauty and spaciousness unimaginable to people whose misfortune is permanent imprisonment in England.  They cannot possibly comprehend the startling brilliance of these tapering spires of snow against the blue of a sky utterly unlike the blue of English skies any more than they can visualise the wild ruthlessness of these regions when swept by storm fiends.  In the Caucasus you live like that and mould your fancies to the fanciful caprices of the Alps.  They are tender sometimes and sometimes they are terrible; they give shelter and a precarious existence to a host of little human races that reflect their surroundings in their many moods.  We are in love with the Caucasus, but sometimes I feel our love is not reciprocated, and then I wonder why we love them, but love them still.

Peggy (his wife’s other nickname is Jo) is just now engaged in patient barter with a leather skinned old Lesghian for a trinket which he is unwilling to lose.  She will get it, and my pack will be the heavier for it.  Fully a fifth of the hard-pressed rucksack is taken up by the kind of ornamental souvenir dear to the feminine heart, and if we travel these ranges much longer they will become a problem in transport.  I have repeated many times that I do not mind how many times she tries her wiles on the natives, but I do mind carrying cargo of this description up and down about twenty thousand feet a day for weeks on end, until we reach a ‘postie’.  There is a small ebony box exquisitely carved which she wrested from a filthy old brigand in the Kutai country.  She says she would not part with that box for all the world, as she considers she risked her life for it.  She risked mine too, for his cronies set envious eyes on our packs all the time she was wrangling, and I was glad to get away.

Life is very hard here, and is lived to the limit sometimes.  For three weeks now the weather has been gorgeous, the day temperature on the exposed ranges often exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and for three weeks we have not pitched our tent at night, being too tired.  Without supper we have just rolled up in our sleeping bags and slept like logs till the sun has scorched our faces, or the morning dew, falling like heavy rain, has roused us.  Often we have the opportunity to sleep in the huts of the village or mountain people, or in the occasional rude farm shelters, but we rarely do so for very good reasons.  Though usually hospitable to their last crumb, these people don’t seem to know the meaning of cleanliness.  Godliness is not a strong trait with them, but if cleanliness comes next it lags a long way behind.  The places crawl with insects to which they appear marvellously invulnerable, but we are, on the other hand, marvellously vulnerable, and a night spent thus takes days to get us back to our original comparative comfort.  Coupled with this plague is usually a stench which is only exceeded by the next door neighbour !

Sometimes the food we are able to obtain is hardly enough for one, let alone two healthy travellers, but we share it out and if we are short we simply have to go without until we strike kindly peasants or can gather fruit for ourselves.  Hospitality in this poverty-stricken country is a matter of common courtesy, and scarcity, even famine, is not new to these people.  More than once the inhabitants of remote regions have waxed ecstatic at our arrival, and for Peggy (who is always treated with great respect and often with deference) the very best is only good enough.  The very best used to seem very bad, but now the common black bread we used to abhor, the awful treacly liquid they call coffee, and a greenish abomination known as cheese go down quite well.  Indeed it is a treat to get this cheese and black bread at the same time, and if we are on the European side, we may even get a nasty kind of vodka instead of coffee.  The peasants seem very sorry when we leave them, especially the children, for Peggy is always a favourite among the kiddies.  We called at one hamlet stuck on a ledge half-way down a precipice, and when we asked for food the place was ransacked, each house contributing some small item.  At another place an escort volunteered to take us through several versts of forests which were infested with unpleasant things such as bears, bandits and wolves, though wolves are hardly dangerous in August, and bears prefer more rocky regions.  Ghouls and spirits seemed to be denizens of these particular parts according to the headman of the hamlet, so we submitted to the escort.  Two mules were brought along for us to ride, but two versts sufficed for us to decide that mules were never intended to give bodily comfort to English people, and after that we walked.

Each day our way has been up mountain sides for thousands of feet or down precipitous slopes along tracks often painfully steep and dangerous, often as faint as the tiny wisps of cloud across a Caucasus sunset.  Once we traversed through a bed of cactus-like plants that differed from its American prototypes only by its superior prickliness.  These grow in little patches of desert land in low places such as plateau’s in the foothills, where the sun beats down on the dust called earth till it literally burns through the shoes.  It is better in the gorges, though at the bottom the heat produces a heavy, deadening atmosphere and travel is much more laborious through bog, marsh, or amongst great masses of boulders thrown down by the towering crags above.

Peggy surprises me.  She has the endurance of two men and ten times the enthusiasm.  It is she who makes the trail along this wilderness – she who faces up to natural barriers as bravely as one would do if no dangers exist – who faces terrifying passes as though she were merely crossing the little Larig Ghru of Scotland !  And when trifling dangers are present she shrinks to me with little shudders that are admirably well acted !

Last Tuesday we reached a spur of the ridge east of Elbrus (Elbrus is the highest peak of the Caucasus, 18,526 ft ) from where, at 7,500 ft we obtained a magnificent prospect of the ‘foothills’.  These foothills are about the general height of the Scottish Highlands, and as wild as Inverness-shire.  Amongst them was the town of Tabu nestling in a green fold, and besides a population of 25,000 boasts some fair-sized buildings and a railway termini, a branch of the Baku Railway of Cis-Caucasus (European Caucasus).  Civilisation – a bath, a change of clothing and a square meal of white bread and real butter was within two days walk, but Peg was unmoved, unyielding to persuasion, and led the way back into the brutishly inhuman regions of the Elbrus system.  After five months wandering between peaks and gorges, from glaciers to sweltering forests where you can get the icy blast of winds from the snows and breezes as hot as the breath from a furnace-tuyer in the same day, this turning away from a spell of comfort and plenty required some strength of will !

But we will have to make contact with civilisation soon.  Our packs contain a pile of MSS we have not had the remotest chance to post for six weeks, a growing pile of ornaments belonging to Peg (to which I have referred) a dozen rolls of exposed films and only two rolls unused, and some fine species of the flora of this latitude carefully pressed in a linguistic book on Russian that is as much use in this cosmopolitan land as a guide book to Abyssinia in the Antarctic.  Our boots, repaired time after time in a cruder way each time, have broken, letting water in like a sieve, our clothing is patched in places and in places beyond patching, our rucksacks have at last bursted [sic] here and there where the bumps they have received have been too much for the Manchester spun yarn they are made of; our camera has had far rougher use than it was made for, and is patched up, and my razor has gone past the sharpening stage.  It is a week since I shaved.  Yesterday I caught Peg cutting a notch in her stick with it to celebrate seeing a grizzly bear.  Five notches represent five bears.  It is a great joke when we see a bear.  Peg flies in one direction and grizzly ambles off in the other !  Although harmless enough in summer if they are left alone, the brown bears of the Caucasus are an abiding terror to Peg.  Snakes, toads, and bears are her bogeys.  She would go miles to avoid seeing a snake although they are not common and usually sneak away on our approach.  The same with toads or frogs.  Once the sight of two of these harmless creatures made such an impression on her that she lay awake all night and had breakfast ready just after dawn, the sooner to get away.

The most important reason for our evacuation of these provinces is the approach of winter.  Although the sun shines so strongly now, by the end of the month the autumn storms will close the passes and all the heights over four thousand feet in deep drifts of snow for the next seven months.  The gorges will be flooded with torrents, and the upland farmers will have come down to the more kindly lowland country with their flocks and cattle.  We shall perhaps return then to civilisation, to that bath, to a change of clothing, to a square meal – and to cigarettes.  I haven’t had a smoke for ten days !  It will feel great to roll in luxury in a railway carriage along the hot coasts of the Caspian Sea, across to the Mediterranean – to sail for home – unless Peg gets it into her head to drag me off in search of the sun and the warmth that she loves as much as travel itself – to some other outlandish country in the Tropics.

Peg has won the trinket; the leather-faced old Lesghian has tucked a knife into the recesses of his clothing.  That penknife looks like mine.

Yes, it was my knife.  She says we can manage with the razor………

We are to cross the Zakatel Pass onto the Asiatic side before the snows come down.  Peg says so.  Fourteen thousand feet up, across the Neo glacier, and as rough a track as she can find.  That means another week before I can post these notes.  Never again will I entrust Peg to make the route.  Weird and wonderful are the workings of a woman’s mind, though I have ceased to trouble.  She will have her way.

The sun is going down and twilight is unknown here.  We must go lower yet – the night winds are cold at nine thousand feet.   Au revoir !