This one’s something I read earlier this year, posted now as a Christmas recommendation for anyone who knows a hillwalker. It’s the sort of book that has something for anyone who is even vaguely interested in British hills.
It is subtitled A View of 16 British Mountains. The sixteen mountains are: Beinn Dearg (the one round the back of Liathach), the Black Mountain, Cadair Idris, Crib Goch, Cnicht, Cross Fell, Shiehallion, Ben Loyal, An Teallach, a selection of Assynt hills, Askival, Ladhar Bheinn, Loughrigg Fell, Great Gable, Bein Macdui and Ben Nevis. So a fairly mixed and scattered sampling from across Britain.
Simon Ingram is editor of Trail magazine, so no stranger to outdoor writing.
Now, I have to confess I’ve never read Trail in my life. I pick it off the newsagent shelf occasionally, leaf blankly through its brightly coloured pages, sigh, and put it back again. I’m a member of that a silent majority of hillwalkers who don’t read outdoor magazines and don’t endlessly prowl gear shops. We wander the hills wearing the same old gear every year until it wears out, and then we venture grudgingly into a shop to try to buy something new that’s as close as possible in every way to the old stuff we had before. We are suspicious of any hill activity that involves the words “challenge” or “adventure”, because we look on the hills as places that offer comfort, quiet and contemplation. If we find ourselves being “challenged” or “having an adventure”, then we’re pretty sure we ‘ve just done something wrong, and we try very hard to learn from the experience so that it doesn’t happen again.
So, to be honest, Ingram’s descriptions of his own hillwalking experiences seem a little overwrought to me. He seems constantly to be having adventures—setting off late, flirting with terrible weather, being forced to change plans late in the day, and fretting about gear and water and navigation and exposed ridges. I kept feeling that he could avoid all this if he just, well, sorted himself out a bit better. His description of An Teallach, in particular, is so full of episodes of awe and foreboding that it reads more like a trip to the Gate of Mordor than a day hike up a lovely big mountain.
Fortunately, the sixteen mountains aren’t actually what this book is about. They are just the narrative hooks from which Ingram hangs fascinating discursive essays on pretty much all things hill-related: mining and rock-climbing, natural history and weather, painting and poetry, history and geology. He has a great sense for a telling anecdote and a colourful character. We read (among many other things) about the Welsh potholers squeezing through into a new chamber, only to find themselves in a disused mine being used to store dynamite; the marvellously improbable nocturnal encounter between Bill Tilman and Jim Perrin in the summit shelter of Cadair Idris; Norman Collie‘s panic attack on Ben Macdui; the alligators on the Hebridean island of Rum; and the odd characters involved in running a weather station on Ben Nevis and a physics experiment on Schiehallion.
So, apart from intermittent twinges of worry about the sheer intensity of Ingram’s relationship with some of his chosen hills, I enjoyed every page.