THE SIXTIES. A decade blamed by conservative politicians such as Thatcher and Blair as the source of destabil-ising liberal ideas. A decade glorified by those who were (or weren't) there as the fount of modern pop music and of progressive movements such as feminism. But how was it for hillwalkers?
An earlier generation of walkers were completing their Munros ... in trickles. The 1966 SMC Journal recorded a couple of completions that year, and observed that "Munroists are falling off in numbers", the new total being a mere 63 - although one of the recent crop was the soon-to-be iconic Hamish Brown. The early sixties completer Philip Larder reported having seen no one on 237 of his Munros - a bit like today's Grahams.
But youth was on the way with fresh reserves - my teenage self included. We were the post-war baby boom, and we lived in an increasingly affluent society in which we could afford gear and travel to the hills - although the couple of pounds I earned each week delivering copies of The Scotsman in south Edinburgh made the price of boots (£7-£8) seem Himalayan. And school clubs and scout groups could take you to the mountains without having to negotiate the now-endless foothills of safety regulations and leadership certificates, in those pre-Cairngorms Disaster days.
Schools of all kinds started many of us on the hills: the 1964 SMC Journal mentions a round of the then-five Arrochar Munros by the Cobbler Club at Kelvinside Academy - a pretty posh private school - while Hamish Brown at Braehead was taking groups of Fife pupils from mining backgrounds all over the Munros, bagging 507 (including reascents) with them. My own school, George Watson's College, was a private establishment, but with some redeeming democratic qualities. A decade earlier, they had tolerated that rebellious pupil but superb climber Robin Smith. Some of my teachers had even taught him. Smith died in the Pamirs about the same time as the school took some of us to the Cairngorms.
Looking back, some of what went on, in my school and elsewhere, would give modern heidies and education officers vertigo. Take the time we went to Ben Lui in winter conditions, with wooden ice axes but little else: I slipped and plunged a few feet over a small cliff but happily landed in a snowbank. Or take the trip made by three of us at Easter 1966. I, being sixth-year, was in charge of two younger lads. The teacher, "Horsey" Robson, dropped us at Dundonnell and we walked four miles to Shenavall bothy to spend the week on our own - isolation that would in itself cause bulging eyeballs in the edureacracy today. Most Easters these days there are over 30 cars parked at that road-end and a corresponding number of walkers and climbers in Shenavall, but in 1966 we had just one tramp and two MBAers for company all week.
We had two ice axes and one rope. Fortunately, on climbing Sail Liath and looking along An Teallach's sharp, ice-smored angles, we thought No. (Phew.) Next day on Beinn Dearg Mor we aimed for the fine gully that splits the west ridge of the south peak of this stunning mountain (not the SMC-recommended route, boys). Once into it, I used the rope to bring up the other two in succession, untying the end and throwing it down (don't try this at home) to bring the last man up. For the first time in my young life I experienced sweating blood as the shadows grew, four hours sped by, and we crept slowly up with no hope of retreat. Then suddenly with one bound we were free on top, basking in a gold and blue sunset.
Bold fellows we clearly were, so a couple of days later the younger lad Chris and I set off to climb the fabled A'Mhaighdean - the only maiden either of us had a hope with then - on a cloudy, still day. We entered the cloud on reaching the snowline and discovered that in a whiteout you cannot tell if you are going up or down. No problem - we had a map and compasses and I had Higher Geography - so we proceeded. We punched holes in the hard snow with our axes as we walked, and eventually came to a flattish area with a few stones lying around, which we surmised might be the summit. In our hearts we knew it probably wasn't, but it gave us a good excuse to follow the line of axe-point holes downhill - which we did successfully. There was no maiden that day, but there must have been a guardian angel or two.
THREE DECADES passed. I had completed the Munros, topping out on A'Mhaighdean, indeed. Now a Corbett-collector, and an overpaid assistant head in a school (who would have fulminated at any teacher sending kids into the wilderness alone), I sat in the lounge of the Fife Arms, Braemar, flicking through the weekend papers, and came across an article written by a cabinet minister about his youthful experiences on the hills 30 years ago. An Teallach, Easter and a bothy were mentioned (what a coincidence), and then the struggle in "the long snow gully that splits the front of the mountain opposite the bothy", and the relief on emerging from it into a "crimson sunset". Then to the ascent of A'Mhaighdean, steering blind in a white world, using the compass "and the marks made by our ice axes...". The cabinet minister for culture (since sacked by Blair) was Chris Smith, but I had never linked the politician seen frequently on TV with the young lad whose life I saved (having first imperilled it) on the Wester Ross mountains.
Just think, one slip back then in Cabinet Minister's Gully and our creations - my book on hill names, and more importantly his lottery commissioners - wouldn't have been around. By the way, Chris, the sunset was blue and gold, not crimson - though we both use purple prose.
LATE JUNE last year. High midsummer. TAC's editor and the in-house proofreader were deep on the Plain of Albion for the editorial sister's wedding. The great day proved much better than the polite duty such things often turn out to be, and the litany of food, registry office, food, church service, food, barn dance (albeit not in a barn) and mega-food in the form of excellent middle-England catering was a very enjoyable way to spend a slightly soggy Saturday.
Now it was the lunchtime after - and, rather than having hopped off on honeymoon, the happy couple had invited family and friends to nearby Chatsworth for a stroll round the estate followed by more food in the tourist restaurant. An excellent idea. It was a fine day, the big house itself was mobbed, but the estate, with its riverside meadows and ornamental woods rising to Peakland moors, looked as lovely as ever. The old duke had recently died, but the benign-patrician feel to the place (so different from keep-out-ish Haddon estate next door) remained. The aristocracy owning vast chunks of prime land might not be the best long-term solution to the world's problems (or even to Derbyshire's problems), but when done on the Chatsworth model few are likely to quibble, for now at least.
We escaped the crowds and ambled into a more spacious world, up on the moors above Beeley. There were still plenty of people around - Ben Lomond would have been quieter - but the throng had thinned enough to prompt grunts of greeting to passing walkers. There were a dozen of us, including a couple of kids, a bloke from Belgium and a female opera singer who had belted out three Edwardian songs to startling effect at the previous day's church service. And as is the way with a group of this size on easy terrain, we soon stretched and straggled into four or five conversational clusters along a few hundred metres of path.
It was somewhere high on the moor that three men and a dog came along the other way, striding north with markedly more purpose than our southward amble. I was chatting with the soprano at the time, but glanced up to see them approaching: the black lab running in front, then the three men abreast. Snapshot characterisation: the one on the right looked like he didn't get out much, and was yacking loudly into a mobile phone. Prat. The one on the left was a barn door, big and wide and wearing an LAPD sweatshirt. Not to be messed with. And the one in the middle ... strange, I didn't really see him, at least not to retain any image or to form any opinion. There was undoubtedly someone in the middle, but he was curiously anonymous and invisible.
It was only when we were another 100 metres on and the discussion of operatic technique had progressed a little further that we stopped and turned, drawn by the hubbub of excited loud whispers from the people behind us. They had seen what we had seen through: the middle bloke, the middle-aged one in the jacket whose back was now disappearing off in the general direction of Dronfield, had been a certain David Blunkett, member of parliament for Sheffield Brightside and, at the time, home secretary in Her Majesty's Government.
Crikey. It's not every day you meet the bearer of the one of the four great offices of state out for a stroll, but he was evidently a man of the people, mixing with his masses, taking a Sunday break from his responsibilities. Sensible man. The phone-yacker, we reckoned, must have been some kind of political aide. (To employ a fairly obscure TV analogy, he looked more like Josh Lyman than Joss Lynam.) Blunkett was in the papers at the time in regard to some dispute with the chief constable of Humberside, and we liked to imagine the aide barking into his Nokia, "Sack 'im!" The barn door was surely a minder, probably special branch and undoubtedly with at least one large weapon concealed about his person. The snap judgement that he was not to be messed with was spot on. The dog ... after brief discussion we reckoned we knew the dog's name, Lucy, but later research proved it to be Lucy's replacement, Sadie. Anyway, it was good to see the dog running around, taking time off from her duties, a bit like a pit pony being allowed above ground while the colliers took their ease. A bit like her owner, in fact. But Blunkett himself had been strangely characterless and uncharismatic: evidently not everyone had looked straight through him as we had, but even to those who had clocked him he was an average-looking bloke who just happened to have a massive wodge of power shoved into his pockets, far more power than the minder with the handgun.
So that, as you might expect, made our day. We wandered back to the big house and ate our baked potatoes and our quiche, but conversation never seemed to stray far from the political celeb met up on the moors.
IT WAS FIVE months later, by which time our man had become a fixture on the news bulletins, that the editorial sister sent an email drawing attention to a piece by Patrick Wintour and Clare Dyer in that day's Guardian, adding that this "might explain why we bumped into Blunkett that Sunday morning". What Wintour and Dyer had written was this: "They [Blunkett and Kimberly Quinn] went on holiday together to Greece with William and the baby accompanied them to Derbyshire where he stayed in a flat on the Chatsworth estate." And, it was later noted, "...their affair ended acrimoniously in August...".
Well, fancy that. We had been on the sidelines of a news story. And now jobless (sort of - he's still an MP) and loverless (presumably), Blunkett has even more time to spend on the permissive paths of middle England. He's maybe even up on the moors again just now, mapping out his comeback. As for us, we're wondering who might be bumped into next. Blair? - he's been known to climb a hill or two. Howard? Kennedy? Kilroy-Silk?
TAC 64 Index