MANY HILLWALKING BOOKS are written by pro- fessional or semi-professional walkers, but most readers are amateur weekend fixers like Craig Weldon. That’s why his book will have wide appeal, and why, as Hamish Brown says in his introduction, it is a story “which could be replicated almost endlessly.”

So there’s the first hint that this book could be good: the great man has bestowed an introduction upon it. Flick- ing to the back, the list of useful websites is headed by TAC, the bibliography includes all my favourites, and the acknowledgements record thanks to familiar names includ- ing the Ed and Alan Dawson. This is indeed a likeable book consisting of very short pieces — some less than a page, few longer than three — each recounting a single hill day. The format works well: as Brown says, “After all, Munros, Corbetts, Marilyns are merely pegs to hang our adventures on.”

The story unfolds chronologically, beginning with Weldon’s Glasgow University mountaineering club days, and covers his Munrobagging burst (he completed aged 23 in 1997), Marilyns, Corbetts, “Furth of Scotland” when based in Birmingham, and finally his return to Scotland, “softer and happier”.

There is much that is familiar: the story of hillwalker as Everyman (or Everylad in the early years). There are a couple of epics, which of course don’t occur on classic giants but sneak up in unexpected locations, in this case on the Drumochter Geal-charn and on Sgurr Dhomhnuill. Generally what Weldon describes are the experiences which lead us to “have confidence in our abilities and to test the edges of them” — an approach with which I identify.

Other shared elements are the love of maps and in par- ticular of intriguing cartographic features that sometimes disappoint on the ground: the circular lochans on Ben Tir- ran, and the streams that diverge rather than joining as they flow downhill on Chno Dearg. (Coincidentally, Ham- ish Brown has also long had an interest in these — Ed.) Weldon laments the passing of the map mural at Nevisport in Fort William, and would appreciate why my apprehen- sion on registering for a new GP was reduced when spott- ing a montage of Cairngorms Ordnance Survey maps on the waiting-room wall.

A large proportion of the days described in The Week- end Fix are in rain and low cloud, but this is the lot of the weekend walker, frequently constrained to a single fixed day of release. And Weldon makes the often-overlooked point that walking in heat is unpleasant — much better to

One day like this a week will see me right

THE WEEKEND FIX, by Craig Weldon Sandstone Press, 2009, xx+218pp ISBN 1 905207 26 8, £11.99

Review: Val Hamilton

be cocooned in your waterproofs and to enjoy expending energy battling the wind.

There is much which I recognise, but also some boy stuff which I don’t share: burning off other walkers (pro- bably because I’ve never been fit enough to do it), or aiming to be last back at the hut — not to make the most of the day, but to have everyone else “think that we had done an epic”.

Some of Weldon’s insights are spot-on, such as the identification of Stuchd an Lochain as the hill where you have to accept you are a “dirty, geeky, list-ticking bag- ger”, especially if you link it with Meall Buidhe having come back to the road at half-time. He has a point in his view that Ben More Coigach is a hill so unjustly overlook- ed that “it should be given to another country, one that would treat it with more respect.”

Much of the book is about the buzz which a day in the hills can give to someone office-bound or otherwise feel- ing trapped in a mundane existence: “endorphin levels topped up, calmer and more philosophical if no happier”; “a brilliant day, fair set me up for the week”. For this reason, the section about “the whole miserable experience of visiting Knoydart” comes as a shock. While I too found Barrisdale disappointing and the walk in “a chore”, some- thing is seriously wrong with life when a hill day no long- er relieves the pain, even temporarily.

Following relocation to Birmingham, Weldon makes an effort to escape at weekends with Marilyns as a focus; but he is horrified when, on his first day out, looking at a Clent Hills view which is “mostly haze”, a punter ex- claims: “Isn’t that spectacular!” It is all relative, of course. The author’s return to Scotland, after this (probably necessary) interlude, seems at last to bring contentment, resuming where he had left off with his solid group of friends, “older, fatter and more confident”.

The Weekend Fix is not perfect. While there are some memorable, felicitous phrases, there are some clunky pass- ages, especially in the opening section, which feels as if it’s been rewritten too often. There are also too many typos, especially in place names, despite these being the obvious thing to treble-check. And it is strange to see the photo- graphs in the middle, which seem to be random snapshots of significance only to those portrayed. All they add is to the cost of the book.

But it’s a rare volume which could inspire me to climb Billinge Hill, an “awkward detour” off the M6 near Liver- pool, “a place which seems merely unprepossessing on the map but which, on investigation, generally questions your motivation, your commitment to a certain bagging ideal, and your philosophy of life. Frankly, if you can get all this quality psychology from an elevated piece of field, I would definitely recommend it.” I’ll be there on my next trip south.

18

Lost and losing it

Heights of Madness, by Jonny Muir Metro, 2009, xi+304pp

ISBN 978 1 84454 664 0, £7.99

Review: David Squires

THE CONVENTIONS of the Long Walk Book are well- established. Our hero throws aside the nine-to-five life in search of Adventure. The quest takes the form of a journey along a set route, or the ascent of hills on a particular list. It is not enough that the journey be com- pleted, or the hills climbed; there are Rules.

In some cases, the pilgrimage must be made entirely on foot; in others, bikes are allowed. More rarely, campervans and boats intrude. Friends question the sanity of the undertaking, but the hero is undaunted. After several months, and after various difficulties and dangers, he arrives at the final cliff top or trig point clutching a thick book of handwritten notes. Beaming relatives shake his hand and pass him a glass of cham- pagne.

Here the problems really begin. How to convert the notes into an entertaining book? Many have tried, few have succeeded. Jonathan Raban wrote of the painful production of Coasting: “I began to hate the and then, and then, and then form of the conventional travel book… When I told friends that I was blocked on the book, that I couldn’t seem to write another word without it seeming glaringly false on the page, I had a new title for my dog-eared pile of manuscript. The only thing you could reasonably call it, I told the friends, is And Then I Got to Bridlington.” Literary corpses litter the route. Even Bill Bryson was a dead man walking in A Walk in the Woods, his pedestrian account of the Appa- lachian Trail.

An added problem for the twenty-first century Long Walker is originality, at least if they wish to travel in Britain. Not only have all the obvious journeys been made (LEJoG and JoGLE, Round the Coast, the Munros), but they have been made in different styles: summer, winter, walking, running, with dog, etc. More recent Long Walkers have therefore been forced to consider more exotic targets such as lines of latitude or watersheds.

Undeterred by the long odds, Jonny Muir strides up boldly with Heights of Madness. Muir’s mission was to climb the 92 historic county tops of the United Kingdom in 92 days. His rules required that the journey be self- propelled with the exception of the necessary ferry crossings.

Many of the familiar devices of the genre are present. There is the Low Point, which arrives on a foggy Carn Eighe: “I was lost and losing it, and mountain madness was slowly gripping me. I was howling like a dog, swearing at the sky, jabbering nonsense.” There are the Characters, including a gay Swiss boy who pro- positions him in a Surrey youth hostel: “So, you are bicycling, ja?” And there are the Temptations: “Ro- many had tested my will to its limits. ‘I’m going to- wards Ronas Hill,’ she had said. ‘Would you accept a lift off me if I offered?’”

On the other hand, there are some refreshing innova- tions. Traditionally, the hero’s woman is depicted as a supportive, almost saintly creature. Muir’s girlfriend at the time, Fi, is more recognisably human. While she shows up for short portions of the walk, she clearly

regards the whole thing as an indulgence and there is a festering atmosphere between them for much of the time. Muir tells us that they split up some time after he had finished the trip.

Precedent is also defied in the approach to prepar- ation. Typically, the Long Walk involves a planning phase of military proportions: cached food parcels, marked-up maps and carefully spaced accommodation. Muir is bracingly disorganised, setting out with little more than a bicycle, grid references in his GPS and a few photocopied Ordnance Survey sheets from the local lib- rary. While this results in some route-finding cock-ups and long days, it is more appealing than the usual Gruppenführer style.

Muir worked as a journalist before the trip, and his prose style has more fizz than that of most of his rivals. Readers accustomed to the British tradition of under- statement might regard some touches as hammy (“howling like a dog”?) but the cliché count is low by the standards of the genre. Oddly enough, the sections deal- ing with East Anglia and the Home Counties are the most interesting, perhaps because while Ben Nevis and Snowdon are well-trodden in every sense, the high points of Suffolk or Huntingdonshire are not. One of the more lively episodes is a take-me-to-your-leader scene in which the hero asks a local to show him the high point of Kent. “Just there […] Between those two conifers”.

What of Muir’s achievement? Undoubtedly it was an impressive journey. A slight question-mark hangs over Haddington Hill, the high point of Buckinghamshire. He writes: “The Ridgeway took me deep into Wendover Woods, a flat plateau scattered with picnic tables, where a stone monument marked the pinnacle”. As David Purchase has pointed out, this stone monument is not actually at the highest point of the county. But no doubt Muir will be forgiven Haddington Hill, just as so-called “First Munroist” A E Robertson is forgiven Ben Wyvis. (Robertson wrote of Wyvis in his notebook: “near the top it came on heavy rain and as I did not want to get soaked, I turned”.)

Whether or not Muir reached the high point of all 92 counties, he is one of the few who have succeeded in creating a vivid book in this most punishing of genres. And also, for all its light-hearted tone, Heights of Mad- ness reveals an important fact: many of Britain’s county tops are once-beautiful places that have been ruined. Muir lists the culprits: “pylons, quarries, railways, reser- voirs, roads, transmitters and turbines”. Things can only get worse. Reading about a proposed windfarm near Morven in Caithness, he writes: “like many parts of the Highlands, this ‘wilderness’ was fighting for its life”.

19

www.000webhost.com