"... in the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it. I wish to get the Concord, the Massachusetts, the America, out of my head and be sane a part of every day."
Thoreau's Journal, January 7, 1857
This week I have enjoyed my annual walking holiday, this time in the lovely Cotswolds, England’s largest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where the hills are green and the houses are yellow. Every day I have climbed one of the hills in the northern section to see views across to the Malvern Hills and beyond to Wales. On the top of Broadway tower at 1,024 feet above sea level one can see panoramic views of 12 counties.
All of us learn to walk at about the age of one and then some of us learn to walk again, in my case at about the age of eleven. I was lucky enough to attend a school with a fine walking tradition. Camps were held in the Lake District to introduce boys to the character building traditions of camping in the wettest valleys in England. To escape from these valleys involved walking, including climbs up steep passes to local mountain tops. I found all this exciting and invigorating. Even as a boy who had most of his growing in front of him I would dog the footsteps of the master who led the walk and then, once allowed, race with a handful of others to be the first to the summit.
I attended three Borrowdale camps with Manchester Grammar School in the Whitsun holidays of my first three years as well as a less demanding camp one summer in Grasmere. All of these gave me a love of mountains and lakes, the challenge of the climb with its false summits and the intense satisfaction of gaining the top.
With this experience I was able to gravitate to the more challenging treks organised by the school. While the camps were in fixed locations on trek we carried our gear from site to site. Ian “Basher” Bailey, one of the most charismatic masters in the school, enthused us with the attractions of Scottish Trek which he led. He taught me English in my second year and history in my fourth and used a substantial part of teaching time to apprise us of the progress he was making in negotiating routes across the great landowners’ estates in the wildest parts of Scotland.
In the summer of 1965, as an immature 15 year old sixth former, I joined Scottish Trek which had the particularly attractive route of the Western Highlands via Fort William and Ben Nevis, then across to the Isle of Skye and back to Mallaig in time to see the Highland Games there. It was a wonderful experience and an important rite of passage.
The following summer I joined Foreign Trek which had the even more ambitious and attractive target of circumnavigating Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe at 4810m. This would take us through three countries, France, Switzerland and Italy, and was my first experience of travel abroad. We travelled by train across France through Paris and then down to the mountains near the Swiss border. We took the clockwise route around Mont Blanc finishing in Chamonix.
At each site we would pitch camp for a few days and as well as occasional rest days take so-called excursions up to higher points without our camping gear. Our party was about 45 strong including 4 masters and I suppose we all took it on trust that they had the experience to lead us.
On one excursion I had my doubts. From a site in Courmayeur at 1224m in Northern Italy we planned to climb up to the Rifugio Torino Nuovo at a height of 3382m above sea level, well above the snow line, even in high summer. We had no climbing equipment but as we climbed up to the summit it was clear that our masters, “Artie” Khan and Brian Phythian, were unsure about proceeding. I was, as always, near the front and I was glad of it because there were many loose rocks and some of these were dislodged and went hurtling down past the heads of those below.
Finally we made the summit and it was decided to descend by cable car rather than risk the downward descent on the difficult surface. We had ascended more than 2,000 metres, a greater climb than is possible in any part of the United Kingdom from sea level to the highest mountain tops, but taking risks that today would be completely ruled out under health and safety legislation.
To emphasize the dangers while our school party was trekking round Mont Blanc, Richard Harris, my first year form master, was part of a separate group making an attempt on the summit. Unfortunately bad weather overcame them and all of the party lost their lives.
Less dangerous but still with plenty of exposure to the elements were two hikes I undertook with the Senior Scouts. As part of gaining one’s First Class badge it was necessary to take a two-day hike following map directions that were sealed until the hike began. Two scouts were to travel together neither of whom had passed the badge. A close friend Neil Culliford was ahead of me and invited me to accompany him. The hike was in a tough part of the Peak District and involved a very cold night at the head of the Goyt Valley. The following day the farmer’s red setter followed us. After some miles we realised he had adopted us for good and finally we had to return him via the local police station. Whether distracted by the dog, or the cold, or just by our own inadequacies, Neil failed the test so when it was my turn some weeks later I asked him to join me.
I collected my map directions and as it was now late autumn we did not have to negotiate the heights of the Peak District but the lowlands of the Cheshire plain. What the planner had not taken into account was that the M6 had by now been built across this plain and so we had to find foot bridges across this in both directions thus extending our hike enormously. Perhaps it was because of this that I was deemed to have passed and so became a First Class scout!
The highest mountain I have climbed is El Teide in Tenerife. This is the third largest volcano on Earth. Like Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea (the first and second largest volcanoes), Teide is a shield volcano. Elevation at the summit of the volcano is 3,715 m. My climb was not as great as when we reached the Nuovo Rifugio Torino as it started with a coach trip that took us to a near point but we still climbed the last 500 metres or so and many people found the effort too great as at that height oxygen starts to be thinner and even healthy people may not be able to manage it. Back in 1977 I managed this without difficulty but I suspect it would not be so easy today.
These days my walks are less ambitious but no less vital. Walking has become my most important form of exercise having displaced golf (I’m no good and its not aerobic), tennis (ditto), squash (certainly aerobic but you need to be fit to play squash not play squash to get fit), and the gym (certainly aerobic but boring and expensive). Walking is virtually free although I do use a gallon of petrol to explore new walks. Over the past 25 years or so I have explored large areas of Surrey, Kent, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire. One of the great strengths of England is the fantastic network of historic rights of way well maintained as footpaths and bridleways. I mark these on my maps and have a spider’s web of markings. In this way, while only walking 6 or so miles at a time, I sometimes complete long established routes in an eclectic manner.
On the way I usually listen to music or sport on the radio or to one of my talking books. This doubles the pleasure and gives me marvellous exercise in the fresh air with great views of the English countryside listening to entertainment.
Until recently every Boxing Day I would go on The Boxing Day Run with a neighbour, a run for charity organised by two local professionals which ‘ran’ for 25 years. In our case this was a walk but it was livened up by the setting of cryptic clues to be solved at various map references. Points were awarded both for times and correct answers and even though our younger competitors would always finish well ahead of us on times we were able to do quite well, winning once and coming third on another occasion, by getting most of the answers right, thus demonstrating the principle of the Tortoise and the Hare.
Copyright David C Pearson 2013 All rights reserved