Thursday, 24 October 2013

How to climb Snowdon

For a start, you don’t use the railway. Who would dream of travelling on a train that’s given to falling off the mountain? All right, it fell off on the opening day in 1896 and has never done so since, but never mind the safety issue, it’s just cheating. Snowdon is a mountain and you climb it. Or you claim to have climbed it. George Burrows claimed to have climbed it in a couple of hours in 1862, accompanied by his daughter wearing a crinoline (it was his daughter wearing it), and to have seen magnificent views from the summit, whereas anyone who has climbed it knows that there’s a high probability of not even being able to see the summit when you’re standing on it, let alone anything else.

What you do see at the top is the café, which used to be dire, and is now far far better – unless you arrive in lousy, windy, wet weather, exhausted and longing for a hot drink, only to find it shut. In which case, it’s worse than dire.

I‘ve been climbing Snowdon once a year since about 1978, primarily to convince myself I can do it. Haven’t managed for the last couple of years due to arthritic knees, which is very depressing, but I’m going to do it again if it kills me.

My first attempt, from Llanberis… no, it wasn’t really an attempt. I and my sister set off from Llanberis wearing skirts and sandals, because we were passing through and thought a stroll was called for. We did miraculously reach the half-way café (is it still there?) before turning back, but seeing the mountain, a real mountain, rising up before us, and a footpath showing us the way, we decided we’d return with proper boots and rain coats. For years, we continued to climb from Llanberis, because it seemed so obviously safe. If a train could do it, surely we could.  Eventually, we discovered the other paths, and, after trying them, concluded that the Llanberis path is not only unnecessarily long, but also slightly boring. Matched only, in this, by the Snowdon Ranger path.

The best path, if you want to have a scenic walk and cheat, is the one that starts at Pen y Pass. Cheating, because the car park which is the start of the path is already halfway up the mountain.  This is really a double route. Take the left hand fork for the Miner’s track, via the lakes, or the right hand fork for the Pig (or PYG) track, and if you make it to the top, you can return by the other route and make a round trip of it (who wants to retrace their own steps?). Back in 1984, going Up the Miners and Down the Pig was, of course, a political statement, but it has probably lost some of its meaning by now.

One of the benefits of the Miner’s Track is that it takes you past the lakes, Llyn Llydaw and Glaslyn, and if you can’t cope with the thought of carrying on, but you are embarrassed at the sight of small children frolicking past you as you wheeze and pant and clasp your sides, you can always pretend that you only intended to walk to the lakes, and never had any intention of going any further.

If you do decide to go on, you have to cope with The ZigZag. Our coping mechanism for this was Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. You get two squares at each turn. This ensures that you are actually heavier by the time you reach the top, instead of several pounds lighter.

The paths from Pen y Pass are very popular. So popular that we’ve had to give up trying to park there on several occasions. The Rhyd Ddu path, from the other side of the mountain, is usually a lot less cluttered with people. It benefits from a great pub at the bottom and a spectacular ridge at the top, and it was also just about within walking distance of our Beddgelert campsite. Within easy distance at the start, that is, but it seemed like a million miles away by the time we got back to the bottom and realised that we still had a couple of miles to walk before we could collapse, groaning, on our deflated lilos.  I would say that the Rhyd Ddu path is not the most interesting, at least on its lower sections, but it was on the Rhyd Ddu path that I first saw my Brocken Spectre. In fact the only time I saw my Brocken Spectre. It’s something you can go through your whole life and never see, so if you want to know what a Brocken Spectre is, it’s your shadow cast onto the top of clouds that are below you – except that it’s a shadow only you can see. Three of us were standing on the Llechog ridge, looking down on clouds, and each of us saw our own shadow, but nobody else’s. Very weird, very enchanting.

The most challenging of the listed routes is the Watkin path, starting from Pont Bethania between Llyn Gwynant and Llyn Dinas, the lowest starting point of any of the paths, so you have the highest climb. After all, if you’re going to climb a mountain, you might as well climb it all. It’s a route that has wonderful views throughout, up towards the summit and back down into the Gwynant valley, taking you past beautiful waterfalls, with pools where sweaty walkers can’t resist swimming in the summer. It’s a stretch that always reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s Inversnaid; ‘Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern and the beadbonny ash that hangs over the burn,’ and it leads you to Plas Cwmllan, an old house wrecked by war-time target practice.
 The route then passes the Gladstone rock , where a plaque commemorates an address given by an elderly Gladstone on the subject of the rights of small nations. As he had climbed a good way up Snowdon and was addressing a crowd of local Welsh, you can hardly blame them for assuming he was referring to Wales, although he was actually talking about the Balkans. An easy mistake.
After the Gladstone rock,  the path climbs – seriously climbs – up past  and through abandoned mines and slag heaps, to the ridge, Bwlch Ciliau, between the sheer cliffs of Y Lliwydd and the summit proper of Snowdon. A note about this ridge. Climb in thick cloud, as we did on our first attempt, and you don’t really appreciate where you are. Whatever the weather, sometimes you really need a pee. Modestly clambering behind a rock when you’re on Bwlch Ciliau in order to relieve yourself might seem like a good idea, except that clouds on Snowdon can lift as quickly as they come down, and you can find yourself, knickers around your ankles, in bright sunlight, facing across the lakes to a group of boy scouts climbing up the Miner’s Track. It is worth the embarrassment however, because after Bwlch Ciliau, you have to climb the last slippery slithering scree slope at the top of the Watkin path and if, like me, you’re not very good with heights, sheer drops and balance, you may very well want to wet yourself.
This is why I no longer take this route up the Watkin, much to the relief of all boy scouts. What I do is follow the lower part of the path, past the waterfalls, up to Plas Cwmllan, and then head off across the valley – admittedly, you do have to wallow through a couple of acres of bog – and scramble very satisfyingly up the ridge beyond, to join the last section of the Rhyd Ddu path, taking in the narrow Bwlch Main ridge (don’t attempt it in a high wind). The best of all possible worlds.
What you do not do is take the route via Crib Goch. I did. Once. Mostly on hands and knees, and at one point I did decide just to freeze and wait to be rescued by helicopter. Don’t do it.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Scott of the Pond

Everyone knows about Captain Robert Falcon Scott of the Antarctic. They know how he sailed in the Terra Nova with a band of fellow explorers in 1912, intent to be the first to reach the South Pole, only to find that Roald Amundsen had got there first by eating his dogs (typically disgraceful foreign trick), and that Scott and his companions perished in a blizzard on their return journey. They know that he was a magnificent hero of the Empire who honourably gave his life in the exercise of gallant British pluck in the most inhospitable place on Earth, a national icon: the epitome of glorious failure – or alternatively, that he was a typical ill-prepared, glory-seeking bungler, responsible for the deaths of himself and his companions.

What very few people do know is that Scott set sail on his fateful  expedition from the boating pond in Cardiff’s Roath Park. I know this because I have seen the lighthouse memorial erected there, to Scott and his companions, “Britons all, and very gallant gentlemen.” I was with my great aunt who explained its significance, because she was a great aunt who delighted in stories of ghoulish horror. This is why Scott is always confused in my mind with the grisly fate of three children who plunged to their deaths from a crumbling cliff in Taff’s Well, and an Edwardian picture book with an illustration of an escaped bear creeping up on a small toddler whose mother is looking on in horror. Took me some years to get it straight that Scott did not fall off a cliff and was not eaten by a bear.

I had to rely on my great aunt’s explanation, because when I first saw the Roath Park memorial, I was far too young to read the inscription. As I grew older, naturally I began to wonder. All very well setting sail from that spot, but how did Scott get his ship out of the boating pond?  There came a time when I thought to read the inscription and learned that he had actually sailed from Cardiff Docks.

Such a disappointment.

Monday, 2 September 2013

The Great Devon Novel

I’ve been delving, as I often do, into the branch of my family that came from Devon, and while mulling over lists of Devon parishes, I couldn’t help but think that they could surely provide an entire cast list for a new novel. I don’t know what exactly will happen in the novel, but I do have the characters.

Peter and Mary Tavy –newcomers to the district from the Big City, who don’t fully understand rural ways.

Martin Hoe is the village postman. His brother Morte is the undertaker.

Stockleigh Pomeroy, retired brigadier and his wife Berry, stalwart of the W.I.

Marian Leigh runs the post office

Brampford Speke: the schoolmaster, who lusts after Penny Cross, a dressmaker

George Nympton is the local blacksmith, Drew Steignton runs the garage, and Clay Hanger is an odd-job man.

Sampford Peverell is the squire up in the big house, and Cheriton Fitzpaine is, of course, his wicked nephew, who has seduced housemaid Rose Ash, much to the fury of Bratton Fleming, her gamekeeper sweetheart.

Heanton Punchardon is the wild-eyed Methodist lay-preacher who seriously annoys the bee-keeping Reverend Churston Ferrers.

Tamerton Foliot is understood to be a writer of obscure Lawrentian novels that no-one has read.

Holcombe Burnell is an avid birdwatcher, slightly suspiciously wandering the moors.

Broadwood Kelly is an itinerant tinker, usually drunk.

And the eccentric lady in the cottage by the river, who is guaranteed to rescue and nurse any injured wildlife, is, of course, known locally as Ottery St.Mary.

There are so many more. Jacob Stowe, Crwys Morchard, Peter Marsland, Brad Stone, Milton Damerel and his brother Syd – any suggestions?

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

For unto us

My money’s on George William Albert Wayne Jason Tiger Charles. Whatever he’s called, as a committed republican who finds the whole notion of monarchy painfully embarrassing, I ought to object to his predestined role, but to be honest, I can’t be bothered. The monarchy has no power, its prerogatives are an illusion, an allegedly elected prime minister controls the government and kings no longer ride out at the head of their feudal armies. Today’s monarchs are there to cut ribbons and put on fancy dress for state occasions. It’s a rather sad uncreative role to force on a poor baby from its birth. What if George William Albert Wayne Jason Tiger Charles really has it in him to be an experimental physicist? A brain surgeon?  An outspoken crusader against landmines? Tough. He’s doomed to cut ribbons and put on fancy dress, because The People like the monarchy, and they like it especially because it doesn’t mean anything at all.

Not so long ago some people still nursed the idea that the monarchy and all its voodoo paraphernalia did matter, so we had the unedifying spectacle of Prince Charles being mated with an approved young virgin of the right class instead of the woman he wanted to marry because he, and those around him, genuinely believed that the kingdom and the heavens would fall if the genetic purity of the line was not maintained. Now, even the royals understand that the nation would shed many a tear but otherwise would survive without a tremor if the entire Royal family were obliterated, so William was free to marry the daughter of a costermonger  from the Old Kent Road – or whatever. I quite hope George William Albert Wayne Jason Tiger Charles will turn out to be gay and marry a man. That would put a hawk among the hereditary pigeons.

It’s ironic (surely not planned) that the royal birth comes in the middle of the BBC’s production of the White Queen, in which the arrival of royal babies is presented as the source of unmitigated woe and strife. I can only wish that I didn’t make replica antique furniture for a living. Watching the White Queen, all I can do is scream “Why, why, why is all the furniture Jacobean, when it’s supposed to be the 15th century?”  Like Walter Bagehot’s monarchy, it remains a mystery.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Why I love Ken Livingstone (and the People's Book Prize)

Listen, Boris, I don’t want a bike. I want to be able to get from Lancaster Gate to St.Paul’s by underground, which is only 7 stops, without having to take out a mortgage on the house. What’s happened to tube fares? Time was, I could spend the day skipping round London on the tube and still have change from two farthings. Or at least still have change from a couple of £50 notes. Bring back Red Ken.
Oh, and the People’s Book Prize Do was fun in a slightly hysterical way. A sort of convergence under a lot of gilding, in which only the waiters seemed to be quite sure what they were doing.  My considered thoughts on it? Well, the goat’s cheese went surprisingly well with the smoked salmon – didn’t overwhelm it as I had feared, and the confit of duck with fig was excellent although I thought the dauphinoise potatoes a little too rich as an accompaniment. One spoonful of delicately wilted spinach does not add up to 5 a day, but overall, very good.

Oh yes, and there were some prizes. Which I did not win, although I was one of the three finalists for the Beryl Bainbridge award for first book, so I got to stand on stage and pretend not to feel an idiot.
And I got to race Frederick Forsyth for the toilets at the end. Not many people can say that.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Hang 'em high

Suddenly, the death penalty is back on the menu and as ever, a majority of people want it. I can understand why they want it, just as I can understand why people want to believe in life after death. It makes them feel better. It would make us a more barbaric society, but that wouldn’t matter to those who support the death penalty.

What else would it achieve? The death penalty could be regarded as a deterrent. Well, it is probably true that no one who has ever been executed has gone on to commit another crime. Would it act as a deterrent to those still only thinking about committing murder? If it did, US states that have abolished capital punishment would have higher murder rates than those that retain it. They don't. They have lower rates. No one commits a murder because the penalty is only life imprisonment and that’s okay. They commit murder, or rape, or burglary or speeding offences, because they don’t expect to get caught, so penalties are irrelevant.  It’s the likelihood of being caught that would make the difference.

But the majority of murders don’t involve rational calculation. They involve blind rage, panic or stupidity and the thought what might follow doesn’t come into it. Murderers can be calculating if they are terrorists, of course, but if their ultimate personal goal is martyrdom, I don’t see why we should use the machinery of the justice system to oblige them. Much more irritating to them to shoot them in the legs and cart them off to hospital.

There is the argument that the death penalty would satisfy ‘justice.’ An eye for an eye. The theory is that if someone takes a life, justice requires they should pay with their own. There’s a major flaw in this argument.  There’s a tin of baked beans at my local supermarket. Its price is on the shelf. If I am willing to pay that price, I am entitled to have the baked beans. It’s a matter of commerce. Life, death and murder don’t fit in this model. The price of murder is death? What if I am willing to pay with my own life? Does that entitle me to murder someone else? Murder can’t be paid for. It is beyond price.

There is the notion that the death penalty would bring closure to the survivors of the victim. Yes, I imagine that if someone I loved were murdered, in my grief and rage I would want the murderer hanged, drawn and quarter, boiled in oil, slow roasted, flayed alive, torn apart by horses. I would probably also want to be dead myself. Should the state kill the murderer in order to satisfy my desire for revenge and kill me to satisfy my suicidal urges? Or should it help me through both, back to something resembling sanity?

The only rational argument for capital punishment that might make any sort of logical sense is the argument that killing murderers would save time, space and money in comparison with keeping them in prison for years. Then save even more money by disposing of the old and disabled too.

No, there really is no rational argument for capital punishment, but that won’t stop people demanding it, because it would make them feel better. It would make them feel empowered in a world where bad things happen outside their control. To restrain someone, render him utterly helpless, even denying him the possibility of suicide, so that we can then, coldly and ceremonially, put him to death;  what greater sense of power can there be? As any serial killer can probably testify.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Oh my chevalier

This morning, in my workshop,  I had a greater spotted woodpecker sitting on my window sill, looking at me while he decided whether to trust me not to move while he went for my peanuts. A greater spotted woodpecker at a distance of four feet is astonishingly gory. That red bum isn’t just a a splodge of scarlet, as it looks from a distance. It’s gouts of blood smeared on white feathers. I was itching to reach round and clean him up just as much as he was itching for the peanuts.
Then this evening, I took a walk up my lane and found a red kite standing on the air just 30 feet directly above me. Standing on the air evening though a fair gale was blowing. He rippled against it. I couldn’t move. It’s like a rainbow. How can you not stand and stare at it?
"I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,
Dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
 Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion."

Thursday, 23 May 2013

London Town

I am going to London.  When I was young, going to London meant an exciting train ride and a visit to the Tower and the Natural History museum. These days it means a nerve-racking drive and a chance to sell stuff. And this time, the stuff I am selling is myself. I am going to the People’s Book Prize award ceremony because, yes, my novel A Time For Silence has made it to the finals. Gulp. It is a black tie event and I’m hoping they’ll let me in even though I don’t possess a black tie. Or indeed any sort of tie.

It will be in Ave Maria Lane by St. Paul’s Cathedral. I find it wonderfully reassuring that Ave Maria Lane is still there. Having produced a dissertation on Mediaeval London when I was taking my history degree, I was convinced that I knew the streets of London like the back of my hand, and I was completely thrown when I actually visited the city and found that everything had changed. Apparently, there was this big fire in 1666, which demolished all the best bits. But not Ave Maria Lane!

Now it just remains to be seen whether I can get through the award ceremony without behaving like a rabbit caught in headlights. Watch this space.

And meanwhile, feel free to vote at

No compulsion. But please.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Wipe Out

I remember, I remember, the place where I was born.  I remember it in great detail, some of it in large blanket chunks, some in a rag bag of disconnected jigsaw pieces, but the memories are a part of me. I remember my old route to school, the post-war houses set round tatty greens and the multi-storey flats that were being built as I walked by.  I remember the Rough, a wilderness of nettles and hawthorn and sinister culverts, where we made dens, and the playing fields and the swings, and the copse under the railway arch where you could find wood anemones and wild strawberries.  I remember the walk to my aunt and uncle’s house, a mile away, past the parade of shops with the hardware store that stocked everything from fork handles to four candles, and the off-licence that sold Double Diamond and, to the very sophisticated, an occasional bottle of Hirondelle. I remember the billowing folds of aubrietia on the low walls in their garden, the china on display in their cabinet, the books on their shelves.  Somewhere in my memory is every crack in the pavement, every pane of glass, every tree root, every corner where the shadows fell.
Now I’ve been back to the place I left nearly 30 years ago.  It’s not the first time I’ve been back. The usual reason: a funeral.  It has always felt odd, going back, finding that a place has continued to exist without me, but I have never before felt so uncomfortable about the way the world that once fitted round me like a glove has been overlain by a layer of life that has nothing to do with me.  The old glove is still there, that’s the trouble.  Its seams are splitting and the lining’s ripped, but it is still recognisable as my old glove, under the entirely different mitten that has been plonked on top of it.  The multi-storey flats still stand, looking as if they wished they were scheduled for demolition, and maybe they are.  The culverts in what was the Rough are still there, lurking behind the brand new community centre that has replaced the hawthorn bushes.  The copse is still perched on the stream bank, marooned now beyond a brand new link road and roundabout.  The parade of shops still stands, but now they’re Indian restaurants and betting shops, and I have no idea where anyone goes to buy fork handles.  At my uncle’s house, the low walls still stand in the garden, but without the aubrietia.  There’s different china in the cabinet, and different books on the shelf, but the same table that I remember from 50 years ago.  Part of me wants to go nosing in and unearth as much as possible of the old, just as I remember it, but I think, on the whole, I would prefer, from now on, to return and find it all swept away, bulldozed into oblivion, demolished, remodelled and rebuilt, by the people who claim it now.  Then my former world can safely travel with me, as pure memory that no one else can trespass on and mess with.  What this means is that I am getting seriously old.  Bugger.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013


So, if Cameron wins the next election, we shall have a referendum to establish whether we stay in Europe or flounce off on our own.  The new terms that Cameron wants to negotiate will probably keep a free market open for businesses and bankers, but will opt us out of the sort of EU rules that protect us common working plebs, but I don’t suppose we’ll have a chance to vote on whether we want the old or new terms.
But a referendum about staying in the EU might turn out to be pointless anyway, because we shall already have had the referendum on Scotland’s independence by then.  The president of the European Commission suggests  that if Scotland votes to go it alone, it will not automatically be a member of the EU, but will have to apply for membership as a brand new country.  If that does happen, surely the same will apply to whatever is left of the former U.K, because England isn’t a member of the EU in its own right either.  Nor is Wales.  Northern Ireland is a possible, perhaps, because the country that is a member of the EU is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,’ so at least it gets a mention.  But Great Britain came into existence when the two former kingdoms of Scotland and England (which included Wales) were united in 1706.  If Scotland drops out, Great Britain will no longer exist, so neither will the U.K.  What we’ll be needing will be a referendum to decide whether we should apply to be allowed in to the EU.  And the EU might say no.  In fact, if I were them, I would.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Bang Bang

A woman likes guns.  She likes shooting them and she believes she’s going to need them to keep the world at bay, so she collects them, because she has a constitutional right to own them.  Her son takes them, kills her, several teachers and 20 primary school children.  If a boy is disturbed, inclined to suicide or violent outbursts, even if only for a brief drunken or confused moment in an otherwise sane and balanced life, the ready availability of guns makes a very nasty outcome depressingly inevitable.  The gun lobby in the USA responded to the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, by suggesting that the obvious solution is to have armed guards in schools.  Of course, the solution is more guns.
After the Dunblane massacre in Scotland, the British response was to make the private ownership of handguns illegal.  I like to think that the Firearms (Amendment) Acts of 1997 were not so much a piece of criminal legislation as a constitutional statement: We, the People, abjure any right to carry instruments that are designed purely for the purpose of harming other human beings.  It is impossible, as a Brit, to make any sense at all of people who believe that the constitutional right to own, carry, and shoot firearms provides a vital bulwark against the threat of tyranny.  Most sane people understand that the best bulwark against tyranny is the ballot, not the bullet.  Most sane people see that the stockpiling of guns by weirdo militias is an invitation to tyranny, not a bulwark against it.  Most sane people see that one person’s right to carry guns destroys everyone else’s right not to have to. Listening to the gun lobby’s response to the Newtown massacre, and hearing of the impossibility of anti-gun legislation in the USA, I begin to wonder if we occupy the same planet. 
And then a couple of unarmed members of staff in a school in California bravely talk a disturbed gunman out of carrying out another massacre and I think maybe there is hope for the sanity of the human race.