Friday, 22 May 2020

Trigs | Snowdon, Snowdonia

It is less than a week before Christmas and the guy at the Youth Hostel reception desk is looking at me like I'm nuts. "You want to go over Crib Goch?" he repeats, "At this time of year we'd only recommend that for people who really know what they're doing, you know, people who've spent a lot of time in the hills." This should annoy me but actually it makes me laugh, what does a person who spends a lot of time in the hills look like? I'm evidently giving off the wrong vibe as I hold my beer and quiz him in the bar the night before my planned ascent.

I love the idea that people think hill baggers are still 'anoraks'. Obvious in the daylight. I continue to shock new friends that I can bore them for hours with my supposedly needless trivia about trig points. I confirm to the guy on the front desk that I definitely fall in to the camp of "know what I'm doing", hence the quizzing. "I'm just trying to ascertain how much ice is up there: is it crampons and ice axe kind of weather or not? Happy to carry stuff I don't need just in case just thought I'd ask your opinion." I then find out the route of the problem: he's not actually been over Crib Goch himself. Ever.

There are many routes up Wales' highest summit, Snowdon, and many are wonderfully friendly to beginners. Personally my love of the hills doesn't involve snaking up behind hundreds of other hill walkers so for me the natural route of choice is Crib Goch, in deepest winter. On the 20th December I make my bid for Wales' summit. Heading out of the YHA which is happily perched at one of the highest starting points for Snowdon, Pen-y-Pass, this crisp morning leads the valleys around me to be lit with the most phenomenal ethereal light while clouds trap the sunlight above me. I follow the easily marked Pyg Track until it splinters off to it's much unfriendlier elder brother of a route, the Crib Goch climb.

Crib Goch is a knife-edged arête which translates as 'red ridge' in Welsh. As I slowly pull myself along the ridge I'm delighted that while there is fresh snow, there is no ice making for really enjoyable climbing. On the day I'm there the ridgeline opposite, along with the famous Miners Track and the lake, Llyn Llydaw, keep swelling in and out of the mist and I feel like I have been lost to a dream world. It is believed that much of J R R Tolkein's vision for The Lord of the Rings came from the time he spent in North Wales and you can see why. For hours I see no one, which surely is not a statement many can say on their ascent of Snowdon.

Once over the knife blade of Crib Goch's summit, the kind-of-path threads it's way onwards before curving over Garnedd Ugain's trig point and continuing round to the left and the giant of Snowdon makes itself known with the surprising path convergence of my route and the railway line. There are no trains at this time of year and a smattering of other walkers pass cheerily but with hurried pace as the chill has started picking up and it has begun to snow. The mountain is reminding me that winter is here.

At the summit itself I gaze longingly at the cafe and dream of hot chocolate I could buy on days other than a wintery December before climbing the final twisting stairs that lead to the trig point itself. This trig is of special significance, as the highest point in Wales it was crucial in the triangulation of 1802 that led to the first accurate map of Wales by the Ordnance Survey. The Surveyor's work on top of the mountain, using a 200-pound theodolite they had had to carry up the mountain, was hard going due to the tapered nature of the summit but the discomfort they faced in triangulating from such a point was offset by the view, described by a witness at the time; 'Snowdon lies right in the centre of the British world, and commands from it's summit, views at once of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and of the intermediate islands of Anglesey and Man.' (This quote is taken from Rachel Hewitt's wonderful Map of a Nation: A biography of the Ordnance Survey).

The view from Snowdon (1085m) has the potential to be as astounding today but on the day I reach the summit I'm nearly blown off sideways by the snow that is now attempting to lodge itself in any crevice I have failed to cover with waterproofing material and the sky is a thick white of snow drift which doesn't lend itself to great views. I quickly skim off the summit and head South down the Watkins path to cross the summit of Y Lliwedd. This amazing ridge line gives views back of Snowdon and Crib Goch that make this longer route down worth the effort and I eventually drop back down on to the Miner's Track which feels like a motorway compared to some of the paths I've ventured on today.

The Miner's Path drops me back off at the Youth Hostel and inside I order a whisky from the same guy at the reception desk. He's slightly impressed and slightly surprised by my order but as I settle down in front of the roaring fire of the hostel bar and pour over The Mountains of England and Wales (Volume 1: Wales) by John and Anne Nuttall I think he starts to realise that underneath my rather sheep-like appearance, an anorak of a wolf lies.


"A week ago, when I left home,
I little thought that I should come
To Snowdon's châlet - thence to see
The sun in heavenliest majesty.
Moonlight and mist at night-fall threw
A veil o'er all; - one argent hue
Enclos'd the earth, while far above
Gleams of a brighter world of Love
Wafter the soul beyond the sky,
Far, far, into Eternity!
But when the morning broke, and day
Once more resum'd his brilliant sway,
I saw - but words can never tell
That fire-line on the horizon creeping! -
At once upon my knees I fell,
And, for my very joy, much weeping!"
Written on the Summit of Snowdon, September 11th, 1845, Rev Henry Wellington Starr, 1845
Tragically, on the Rev Starr's second ascent of Snowdon in 1846, he had an accident on the descent. The weather had been poor and he'd chosen to climb alone something rarely done at the time. His body was discovered by a huntsman in 1847.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Trigs | Pitch Hill, Surrey Hills

It's a beautiful 25 degrees in May in the UK today which is obviously an absolute rarity. I've spent the morning at the more famous 'true summit' of Pitch Hill's parent, Leith Hill, the second highest point in the South East of England having great fun attempting to run up and down the steps that lead from the Windy Gap car park to the tower that sits proudly at the summit.

While Leith Hill is an amazing viewpoint, it holds nothing to it's much less well known child of a hill, Pitch Hill. Just further up the road, I have parked in 'Hurtwood Car Park 3' and while the name is less than inspiring this area is far from. The Hurtwood is an area of 2000 acres of privately owned Common land in the Surrey Hills that feels like it has been pulled straight out of a Lewis Carroll novel.

Rather than following the most direct line up to Pitch Hill, I head out West along a narrow footpath and past The Warren, a small summit with a privately owned windmill sitting proudly on top before turning left to lose some height as I descend South down Horseblock Hollow, picking up an access only road and footpath that cuts back across the Warren lower down with beautiful views all the way across to eventually the South Downs.

At the end of The Warren a network of tiny incredibly steep paths lead me up towards Pitch Hill. These routes up crisscross and snake up the hill in such a steep manner I feel like a naughty schoolgirl creeping in to the woodlands along long forgotten paths. At times I am almost crawling, dragging myself up the path through the dense woodland until I suddenly hit a clearing that opens out to my right and the summit of Pitch Hill. After tapping the trig point at the top I continue to the far corner and the main Viewpoint where a small information board has been built in memory of the founders of the Long Distance Walkers Association, Alan Blatchford and Chris Steer. You can see why they would have chosen to put a memorial here of all places. I catch my breath and take in the 270 degree vista that enables me to see all the way out to the Shoreham gap and the channel beyond.

South East England opens up before me and in the beautifully quiet woods, I feel like I am a million miles away from London - just 30 miles away as the crow flies to the buzz and hum of Canary Wharf and the centre of town. Here I find myself in a moment of true serenity, caught between the rays of the sun, the dense wood and the eye wateringly beautiful views.


"The heathland earth enmeshes secret glass, come see through this
cyclists flicker and echo down braided greensand paths,
their hunt in the forest ripping new wounds
in land enriched by scars. Lightening, flash-bulb blue,
ghosts the moment, lost voices alive in birch and oak,
at hide-and-seek inside the fort's enclosure.
A grasshopper's shed skin clings to a stalk - what's flown,
flies here still, its breath a maze of insect shadows."
Greensand Way, John Wedgewood Clarke, 2016

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Trigs | Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh

I'm standing on top of an ancient volcano in the middle of the second largest city in Scotland. Arthur's Seat is a glorious central hill summit with fantastic views over the city and out to the sea.

At 251m this sleeping giant is a must do while visiting Edinburgh. I find myself in Edinburgh every August for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world and I will at least once every summer therefore make the ascent to the top of this sleeping giant.

Arthur's Seat sits within Holyrood Park and my favourite ascent involves tacking on a climb of Salisbury Crags as well.

Starting at my favourite arts venue (which also has a fantastic cafe) Summerhall on the edge of the Meadows, I make my way down the majestic former fronts of Edinburgh's beautiful old houses on East Preston Street passing the old Commonwealth pool as I continue down Holyrood Park Road. I've snuck out at lunchtime in the middle of a busy festival day packed with seeing shows and the festival atmosphere spills on to the sunny streets with music and laughter filling the buzzy atmosphere. While there are many things to adore about the fringe festival, the overwhelming volume of people is not one of them and I start to break in to a jog as I hit Queen's Drive, the circular road and footpath that runs around the edge of Holyrood Park. I head away from Arthur's Seat itself, skirting the park to the left first and watch the looming Salisbury Crags rise to my right as I leave behind the crowds and the noise. As I pass the Scottish Parliament on my left I start to hug Salisbury Crags following Volunteer's Walk before turning almost a complete U-turn to start to follow the line that takes you directly over this summit.

As I start to hit the expanse of cliff that forms the Crags I am hit with my first really proper view of Arthur's Seat rising up to my left. I follow the Crags all the way over to rejoin one of the main ascents to Arthur's Seat itself, Pipers Walk. In 1778 soldiers from the Seaforth highlanders mutinied in this very spot and the regiment's piper paced the path playing hence the name. Today I can make out some of the pipers playing for tourists back in the centre as I follow the curling path up towards the summit, my run now reduced to a walk due to the gradient. As you hit the summit itself there is a final scramble to get to the top and my quiet escape suddenly finds me once again surrounded by tourists, selfie sticks in their hands throwing quizzical looks at my heavy breathing and even heavier running style.

I climb the final few steps to the trig itself from where you get the most amazing 360 degree view all the way over to the sea and beyond. I quickly touch the trig and I'm gone, flying down the most direct route, heading East towards Dunsapie Crags down the grassy slope that eventually leads me back on to Queen's Drive. Heart pounding I slow down from a wild fall to a gentle jog, as I skirt Holyrood Park once again on Queen's Drive before exiting the park the way I'd come. Back at Summerhall I'm salty and sweaty and shot with even more quizzical looks as I queue with my running rucksack for the tiny bathrooms. I'll change from my secret hill bagging ways back in to an arts professional just in time for the next show to start: heart full once again of the joy of the hills.


"I visited Edinburgh with languid eyes and mind; and yet that city might have interested the most unfortunate being. Clerval did not like it so well as Oxford; for the antiquity of the latter city was more pleasing to him. But the beauty and regularity of the new town of Edinburgh, its romantic castle and its environs, the most delightful in the world, Arthur's Seat, St Bernard's Well, and the Pentland Hills, compensated him for the change, and filled him with cheerfulness and admiration."
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, 1818

Monday, 18 May 2020

Trigs | Stiperstones, Shropshire Hills

The light has just started slipping down the sky and the sunset over Wales is opening out in to the most beautiful array of colours.

I've parked at The Bog visitor's centre, a lovely little former mining village that now is a tiny hamlet on the edge of the Shropshire Hills. The Shropshire Hills are wonderful because while they have some of the wilderness and feel of other national parks in the UK, by being slightly lower they are far less visited and the evening I've come to Stiperstones there is a beautiful stillness over the village of The Bog.

Stiperstones is part of the group of hills in Britain known as Marilyns, hills with a 150m drop on all sides. Amusingly they were named Marilyns by Alan Dawson in his 1992 book The Relative Hills of Britain as a counterpoint to their Scottish mountain cousins, Munroes. Marilyn. Munro. Get it? 

From the main car park, you cut across a field slowly climbing until you hit The Shropshire Way, a bridleway that climbs through punchy pockets of heather before opening out on to a glorious long ridgeline with multiple forked up quartzite stones. These jagged outcrops in total run for an incredible 5 miles causing a dramatic summit for its modest 536m. One of these outcrops is even poetically named Devil's Chair. 

As you open out on to the summit ridge you see in the distance one of the most remarkable placings of a trig point ever: on the highest jagged quartzite, known as Manstone Rock, amazingly a trig has been cast at the very top. A scramble to the top later and you can cling on to the narrow depression in the centre and lean back in to nothingness.

The night in question I scrambled up bravely, thinking myself somewhat impressive in the half light of the evening. After I'd summited and gingerly made my way back down, through the twilight a fell runner came peeling out of the skyline and after a swift acknowledge of "Evening" threw himself up and back down in less than 10 steps. It rather put my cautious clamber to shame. But locals loving their hills has always been one of the joys of a truly great summit: loved by many, in many different ways. Loved through seasons, times of day, stages of life. The mountain is always there for you when you need it and no matter how you arrive or depart.


"They came at last, trotting in file along a narrow track between heather, along the saddle of the hill, to where the knot of pale granite suddenly cropped out. It was one of those places where the spirit of aboriginal England still lingers, the old savage England, whose last blood flows in a few Englishmen, Welshmen, Cornishmen. The rocks, whitish with weather of all ages, jutted against the blue August sky, heavy with age-moulded roundness. 
[...] At length they stood in the place called the Chair, looking west, west towards Wales, that rolled in golden folds upwards. It was neither impressive nor a very picturesque landscape: the hollow valley with farms, and the rather bare upheaval of hills, slopes with corn and moor and pasture, rising like a barricade, seemingly high, slantingly. Yet it had a strange effect on the imagination."
St Mawr, D H Lawrence, 1925