The Angry Corrie 65: Jul-Sep 2005

Frank Showell Styles, 14 March 1908-19 February 2005

Glyn Carr, clinker and Cnicht: the long and happy life of Pip Styles

As was mentioned in TAC64, Showell Styles has died at the age of 96. Like Harry Griffin, he was one of the last links with people who frequented the British hills before the war, and I cannot think of his passing without the Runrig refrain, "The old boys are leaving, leaving one by one", coming to mind.

Pip (as he was universally known) first went to the hills, probably with his parents, at the age of 16 and remained committed to the mountains for the rest of his life. During the years before the second world war he mostly frequented North Wales and was particularly fond of the Rhinogydd, which at that time would have seemed particularly wild and remote to a young man brought up in the English Midlands. It was to the Rhinogydd that we went on the first occasion he took me out on the hills, in 1951. We cycled from Porthmadog to the foot of the Roman Steps, from where we climbed Rhinog Fawr, with Pip reminiscing about the past and ruing the passing of the way of life he knew in the area before the war.

He spent his early years working in a bank, hated it, and in the late 1930s gave it up to go on an extended walking tour through France and the Pyrenees. Naval service during the war took him to the eastern Mediterranean, where he was one of two survivors from a ship torpedoed by the Germans. Typically, wherever he was at that time he never missed a chance to get on a hill. He wrote a climbing guide to Malta and climbed in the Lebanon and Palestine. There is a tale of him cycling westward from Alexandria in search of some rocks to explore with the retreating British army streaming past in the opposite direction. He was already an aspiring writer, with articles published in Punch. He had also written his first novel, Traitor's Mountain, a murder mystery set on and around Tryfan.

With the war over, Pip's parents retired to live in Borth-y-Gest, across the Glaslyn estuary from his beloved Rhinogydd, and he came to live with them and set out to make his living as a writer. He became a prolific author, with over 160 titles to his name. As well as the mountain books, he wrote seafaring historical novels. He also wrote detective fiction using the pen name Glyn Carr, with his main character being a mountaineering Shakespearian actor named Abercrombie Lewker. These books gave plenty of scope for his encyclopaedic knowledge both of the Bard and the mountains.

image from The Angry Corrie

In the 1950s he produced The Mountaineer's Weekend Book, an anthology of mountain writing that has stood the test of time. This contains a fair amount of his own work, including the classic "Ballad of the Idwal Slabs" - too long to include here, but if you don't know it seek it out. There are other humorous items which he wrote under the pen-name C L Inker. He claimed that he retired in 1974, but the writing of novels and articles for the mountaineering press continued well into the 1990s.

Of course his mountain activities continued unabated. In 1953 he led a small expedition to Lyngen in Arctic Norway - and, when his plans for a Himalayan expedition were thwarted, he returned there with an even smaller expedition the following year. I was fortunate to go with him on that trip, and it was tremendous to explore unclimbed peaks and glaciers on a sub-alpine scale with one of the most experienced mountaineers of his generation. His puckish sense of humour was much in evidence, and I particularly remember how he would test our wakefulness in the mornings with increasingly outrageous puns. The following year he made it to the Himalayas, and his book The Moated Mountain describes that trip. Soon after that, he moved to live in Croesor where he kept the village post office, did some guiding, and of course continued to write. It was here that his young family grew up and he began to amass his multiple ascents of Cnicht. It was typical of him that one day in 1994 he came home and announced he had been up for the last time. His total number of ascents was 879 and he never went there again.

He always enjoyed devising and achieving hill-related objectives, and once held the record for the fastest round of the Welsh 3000s - not a very good one, he said, as the next team to try it beat his time comfortably. He also, on an extended walk, slept out on each of those summits using a minuscule tent he had designed and made himself. He once "beat the bounds" of Beddgelert parish in a single day - a walk of over 25 miles and 18 summits, eleven of which are over 2000 feet. I wonder whether anyone has done it since. Another of his walks he called the Welsh coast-to-coast. This started at Liverpool Bay and followed high ground in a loop around Snowdonia to reach the sea again near Aberdyfi. One could go on, but you will get the general idea.

He bore the physical failings of the last few years with fortitude, telling anyone who asked that he had a wealth of memories to reflect upon, and so it is difficult to feel sad at the passing of someone who led such a full life. But we have lost a true gentleman of the hills, who passed on to me and to many others who knew him a fine sense of respect for the mountains, their environment, their dangers and their literature.

Dewi Jones

Tessa Carroll: Wednesday was my favourite day of the week as a child - the day the library in my Lakeland village was open. The children's books were all along the lowest shelf of the long wall of glass-fronted dark wooden cases: better than Satterthwaite's sweetshop by far. A certain amount of bravery was, however, required to face the faded and rather badly stuffed otter with strangely gappy teeth that stood in a glass case on top of the bookcases, guarding their treasures; it terrified me as an infant and still gave me the heebies when I encountered it again on a recent visit home.

I must have been about ten when I came across those books with such beguiling titles: The Shop in the Mountain, The Ladder of Snow, A Necklace of Glaciers. I lived with mountains all around, but the shops were in the village - how could there be a shop in a mountain? How could snow be a ladder? And what on earth was a glacier? The author had an equally mysterious name: no brusque initials, like C S or A A, or plain straightforward names I knew, like Enid or Hugh, but the softly sibilant Showell Styles. Thirty-odd years on and I remembered little of the books' content, just the pleasure of their reading, a pleasure renewed on recently acquiring a couple of second-hand paperbacks for considerably more than the 2/6 original cover price. Then I was reminded that the eponymous shop in the mountain is in a high and tiny village below Cnicht, masquerading as "the Aran", where the young English protagonists manage to run the shop, catch a bank robber, rescue an injured hiker, and discover a Roman legion's camp, not to mention learning Welsh and reuniting their widowed mother with her old flame.

So when the Ed and I were planning a visit to Porthmadog in spring 2000, and he casually mentioned that he hoped to visit a certain Showell Styles, I couldn't believe it. I hardly believed he was a real person, let alone a well-known writer on hills. As for the idea that I might actually get to meet him... short of walking through the back of a wardrobe into everlasting winter, this was as good as it got.

That trip to North Wales had many memorable moments, but the highlight was that meeting with Pip himself. Small and still very spry at 92, he showed us round his office lined with photos of expeditions to Norway and the Himalayas and copies of his own books; and yes, there were those lovely old hardbacks of The Shop in the Mountain and the rest, along with the typewriter on which he'd written them. A rare day and a rare man.

Ed. - Pip's kindness and good humour became evident as soon as he and I entered into correspondence in the late 1990s - a correspondence that began with an enquiry about those 879 ascents of Cnicht and then grew to encompass the hills and writing generally. This was around the time I also started swapping the occasional letter with Harry Griffin (see TAC63 pp4-5), and while both men were informative, helpful and unfailingly prompt in their replies (something which put me to shame), it soon became apparent that there was at least one notable difference between them. Harry's tone - his default tone, to use a neologism - was of wistful remembrance for the hills he loved. To read him was to encounter an almost sentimental sadness about sprightly days on the slopes, days that were now coming to an end. Pip, by contrast, didn't seem sad at all, and retained such a boyish enthusiasm that someone who read his letters and was then asked the age of the author could well have made a guess some 70 or 80 years adrift from the truth.

Quite why this was could only be explained by one who knew him far better and far longer than I did, but there is surely some connection with Dewi Jones' comment about Pip's decision to retire from climbing Cnicht at a time of his own choosing. He later did the same with its smaller replacement as a doorstep hill, Moel-y-Gest, and it would appear that he simply realised - and accepted - that he'd been wonderfully lucky and should, in effect, get out while the memories were still happy ones, while the going was good. Harry, by contrast, fought against the dying of the light, at least in terms of physical ability, to the very end.

One final observation, to show just how long a life Pip Styles enjoyed. On the occasion we met, in his and Jean's lovely house in Borth-y-Gest, he made a comment about first having climbed some well-known hill "shortly after the war". For a moment I was confused, finding it hard to imagine that his first ascent of whatever hill it was hadn't come until the late 1940s. Then I realised, and smiled at the realisation: he meant just after the Great War, when he had been the young boy that he in many ways remained.

TAC 65 Index