The Angry Corrie 47: Oct-Nov 2000

TAC 47 Index

Legwork and legends

The High Summits of Wales: A Guide to Walking the Welsh Hewitts, by Graham Uney

(Logaston Press, 1999, xii + 322pp, ISBN 1 873827 65 2, 14.95)

Review: Alan Blanco

THIS HEFTY PAPERBACK is, in effect, two books in one. After a brief introduction to the concept of the Hewitts, Part 1 describes the hills and routes in each of 20 sections, working roughly north to south. Part 2 is a travelogue recounting the author's continuous traverse over all the Welsh Hewitts in June and July 1998, walking roughly south to north. Both parts stick faithfully to the hill names used in the Welsh TACit Table. There are also five appendices with the usual stuff about equipment, safety and navigation, a log book and a biblio-graphy. A loose insert gives details of the Welsh Hewitts Club, which anyone can join for 5 per year.

Coverage of the Hewitt classification (English, Welsh or Irish hills over 610m with 30m drop) is clear and concise, with acknowledgement of sources and an admirable ex-planation of why Uney chose Hewitts rather than Nuttalls (15m drop) on aesthetic and practical grounds. There are however signs of skimpy research and some strange assertions. Page 1: "at the moment there are probably around 1000 [Munroists] on the list". There were over 2000 at the time of publication. On page 2: "In Alan Dawson's list of the Murdos ... there are actually twice the number of Munros". Not really: 444 Murdos doesn't equal 284 x 2 = 568 Munros. Also on page 2: "This is a particularly unpopular group ... It is very likely that the list of Grahams has not been completed in total by anyone." Well, even at the time of publication there were seven known Grahamists (now 13).

Part 1 is largely descriptive, with mention of at least two routes for most hills. There are some good notes on geology and ornithology and lots about rock climbing, though little about the numerous scrambling routes (in Snowdonia in particular) likely to be of direct interest to more walkers. Again there are some strange assertions, eg: "Few English people feel the urge to make the pilgrimage to Scafell Pike's top, highest point in England, but this cannot be said for Snowdon", and "it is not known if this species [pine marten] has been totally wiped out in Britain". The assessment of Crib Goch as: "arguably the best ridge crossing outside the Isle of Skye on Scotland's western seaboard" might raise eyebrows in Glen Coe and Torridon.

There is some lumpy prose, but the text is mostly OK provided one accepts the liberal use of Poucherisms such as "lofty perch", "crag-girt corries", "distant vistas", "rocky defiles" and "huge gulfs slumping into the depths of the cwm". The best parts occur when Uney skips the history and the hackneyed phrases and includes a few personal comments. He rightly praises the Berwyns as "splendid walking country" and admits that "Blaenau Ffestiniog never fails to appal me", while his assessment of the Moelwyns strikes a good balance between the appealing and the appalling. Occasionally he really lets go, as when describing the top of Cribin Fawr: "the best I can suggest is that you leave your rucksack by the stile and run head-long around the small plateau for ten minutes like a crazed thing. Not only are you bound to pass over the actual top, but you will also provide any other walkers in the vicinity with a bit of light entertainment." I looked forward to his description of Llechwedd Du in the Arans - which sticks in my mind as a fine exercise in the exquisite pointlessness of bagging - and was not disappointed. "Peat oozes from every griff of heather or grass," Uney writes, "and eight-foot high mushrooms of eroded vegetation show dark sides of crumbling humus to the elements. These seem to float on a wash of black pools full of cotton grass ... Llechwedd Du ... is merely an exercise in bog-hoping." [sic]

The colour photographs are poorly reproduced by current standards, reminiscent of 1950s postcards. Some captions adopt that strange language found only in hill books, eg "Yr Elen in her winter cloak". This makes a change from "winter garb" and "winter raiment" but still sounds barmy to me. Including a few old paintings and drawings is not a bad idea, but 36 is about 30 too many for my taste.

The constant use of bold text for any hill name is irritating and disrupts the flow. There is a procession of arbitrary punctuation and gratuitous capitalisation, but no more than usual in current outdoor books. The text appears to have been spell-checked but not proof-read or edited, as there are few typos but some lovely homo-phones, eg "daring-do", "role call of climbers", "every new addition of Munros Tables", "bare this in mind" and "killed by lightening". I am ashamed to admit I noticed so many of these in the first two chapters that finding more became a motivation for reading the rest of the book.

None of the above pedantry would matter much had the text a strong vision and clear purpose. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For example, although I've climbed Snowdon by five different routes, my memory has faded and I rather hoped Uney's description would help revive it. It does this up to a point, but what the book fails to provide (for me) is any visualisation of the topography, of where the various routes start, or of the nature of the terrain on each. A clearer structure and better maps are needed, or more imaginative prose, to communicate a sense of what the hill is like. It's not structured enough to be a guidebook, and not inspired or literary enough to be a good read. This doesn't make it worthless, but the sad truth is I wanted to enjoy it more than I did.

For me, Part 2 was far more interesting than Part 1. Suddenly we leave behind crag-girt vistas and get into the nitty-gritty of stranded sheep, soggy sleeping bags, avaricious camp site owners and vindictive hostel wardens. There is also good self-deprecation, for Uney is not afraid to admit to errors such as failing to take a rucksack liner and so getting all his gear soaked on the first day. Although to some extent the tale is predictable, it's impossible not to empathise with the highs and lows, and one cannot help warming to Uney's enthusiasm and perseverance. The writing is more natural and personal than in Part 1, and all the better for it.

And finally, a bit of a rant. The first section (Snowdon) gets off to a bad start. The second sentence tells us: "legend has it that King Arthur slew a fierce giant called Rhita Gawr, and had a great cairn thrown over him on the highest mountain in Eryri." This kind of thing really gets my goat, especially as we're told exactly the same thing on p15, and King Arthur turns up yet again on pages 23 and 27. Now I haven't spent much time in Wales since moving to Scotland in 1989, but I have climbed 118 of the 137 Welsh Hewitts, some several times. Many were climbed in the company of various keen walkers whom I regard as intelligent and educated with a deep appreciation of the hills. I don't recall many hill conversations in detail, but among the usual chatter about paths and routes, crags and cliffs, views and news, I cannot remember anyone ever using the word Eryri or expressing the slightest interest in any royal activities, past or present. I also doubt that they were interested in the supposed whereabouts of some mythical creature murdered by a legendary bully. Who cares? Even were the bones of someone real, talented and interesting - say John Lennon or Payne Stewart - buried under the cairn, it would add very little to the experience of climbing the mountain.

I'll admit to having popped in to look at the remains of Mao and Lenin (as one does when in Beijing or Moscow), but even seeing their preserved bodies - more interesting than bones - was a very minor element of the exper-ience of actually being in China and Russia. So I wonder why so many hill writers feel obliged to pad their prose with this kind of pseudo-historical gibberish. Even where the history is supposedly true, it's rarely interesting: "By the mid-6th century, Christianity had begun to spread through Wales and St Peris, a Cardinal and son of Helig ap Glannog founded a religious centre at Nant Peris". Whoopie-do. Presumably we're meant to know who or what Helig ap Glannog is.

So, a verdict: some of the historical stuff is interesting, such as the account of the first ascent of Snowdon by train (in 1896), but on balance I'd happily swap the lot for some better maps. Worth reading for Part 2.

Alan's original booklet, The Hewitts and Marilyns of Wales, is still available: see page 10 for prices and offers on this and other TACit Press books.

TAC 47 Index