Having once set out to wander four weeks through northern England with only £17 in his pocket, Paddy Dillon decided that the life of a walking writer was for him. "It took me a while to realise that outdoor magazines never get published with any blank pages in them, and anyone is welcome to fill those pages..." he tells Fiona Russell.
Paddy Dillon is a full-time writer. He started as a magazine contributor, and now writes guidebooks almost exclusively. He has written close to 100 guidebooks and has contributed to dozens more. His coverage stretches from the Canary Islands and Azores, through the Mediterranean, the Alps, Britain and Ireland, to Iceland and Greenland.
Paddy lives in Ulverston in Cumbria, close to the start of the Cumbria Way. His family are mostly spread across Lancashire and Yorkshire.
What is your first memory of walking in the hills or mountains?
While my parents enjoyed a stroll, my father was happy just to visit the park, while my mother knew all the paths through the countryside and into the Pennines. Her knowledge came from my grandfather, who was a very keen walker and landscape artist, although I was never allowed to walk with him because my mother thought I'd just annoy him!
My first real experience of the fells came at the age of 16, on a school trip to the Lake District when I climbed the Langdale Pikes.
Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?
The main influence was a recently deceased teacher, Alan Lawson, who was keen to share his knowledge of the outdoors with his pupils. He'd written a series of guidebooks around Lancashire and Yorkshire in the 1960s, long before I knew him. I managed to track down copies and got him to sign them before he died.
When did you realise you would be a keen life-long walker?
It started at the age of 16, when I walked out of the house and walked for four weeks through Northern England, with only £17.33 in my pocket. My father yelled after me that I'd be arrested for vagrancy! Even before that, I found happiness just being outdoors in a tent, even if I wasn't carrying it from one campsite to another.
Do you prefer coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?
I like variety. So long as I'm out and about, then I'm happy. My main preference is for long-distance trails with plenty of variety. I love wild and empty places, but I find plenty of interest in the cultivated lowlands. I'm just as happy on a mountain pass or a peak, as I am exploring a castle or a country church.
Are you a fair weather or any weather walker?
Of course, I love fair weather walking, but I'll press on in any weather. I prefer not to be walking for days on end when it's cold, wet and miserable. When I'm working on a guidebook I can check routes no problem in nasty weather, but for decent pictures I'd have to make a return trip in good weather. Sometimes it's easier just to be out on the good days.
What are your three all-time favourite hill or mountain walks, and why?
I have to start by saying the weather has to be good. Even a favourite mountain can be absolutely awful in nasty weather.
1. Hoad Hill, Ulverston. It's only a 15-minute walk from my house and, on a clear day, I can enjoy views of the Lake District. On a really clear day, I can also see Snowdonia. It's my "any time" hill, which I climb more than any other. Whenever anyone visits me, it's almost certain that I'll take them up there.
2. Hvannadalshnúkur. It's the highest mountain in Iceland. It's an old volcano, with a crater plugged with ice, and linked to the enormous Vatnajökull glacier. The weather was perfect when I climbed it and I doubt I will ever climb it again because it's highly unlikely I will be there during another perfect day.
3. Puig de n'Ali, Mallorca. I've only climbed it once, in the company of a Mallorcan mountain guide. He told me I was probably the first foreigner to climb the mountain, which has a summit made of house-sized boulders. There was a visitor book and all the names in it were Mallorcan, until I added mine. [Ed. We know of at least one other non-Mallorcan ascent, but this may have been more recent].
Is night a good time to go walking?
Yes and no. It's great on crunchy snow under a full moon. It's horrible on steep and rocky mountains in rain, wind and mist.
Have you ever been lucky to avoid or escape a difficult situation in the mountains?
I've had a few trips and slips, or very occasionally found myself clinging for dear life on a rock-face, and I was once way too close to a lightning strike, but I've never suffered anything more than a small cut, a slight graze, a bit of a bruise and occasionally dented pride. I've always said that I'd be too embarrassed to call for a rescue, and would rather crawl under a rock and die.
You have written a great deal about walking. What were the challenges, if any?
It took me a while to realise that outdoor magazines never get published with any blank pages in them, and anyone is welcome to fill those pages. Editors and publishers like people who can deliver what's been agreed, in the correct format and on time. Anyone who can do that, and if content with meagre financial reward, will be welcomed with open arms. It still pains me that I was promised £30 for a magazine feature in 1985, and never got paid.
Who is your perfect walking partner?
It would have to be someone who understands why I need to stop and take notes and pictures at frequent intervals, or detour off-route to check things, without them getting annoyed or impatient. (People have tried, and failed, to walk with me!)
Are you happy to go solo?
Always, although in practice I go solo more than 95% of the time. If I walk with someone else it is either because they have arranged to go out with me, or because I simply meet them on a trail.
Boots, trail shoes, wellies or barefoot?
Lightweight trail shoes almost all the time. Boots, only rarely and most likely only on snow or on an extremely boggy trail. Barefoot, very occasionally, when short, green turf is suddenly available underfoot on a warm day.
How do you navigate?
I used to use map and compass all of the time, but now I use on-screen mapping and GPS. However, I don't use GPS to navigate. I use the on-screen mapping to navigate, and let the GPS record my track. The GPS doesn't tell me where I'm going. It just tells me where I've been and saves me measuring a route with an old-fashioned pedometer at the end of the day.
What three items are always in your rucksack?
Waterproofs, snack and first aid kit.
What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?
Nothing. I'm all about travelling as lightweight as possible. My guilty secret is more likely to be what I DON'T carry. If anyone gave me a list of "essential" items, I'd leave at least one of those things at home.
What are your favourite walking foods?
Generally, I'll eat whatever the "peasants" are eating, wherever I go. That could mean goat's cheese in the Canary Islands, dried cod in Iceland, Welsh cakes in Wales… I eat whatever local produce is available at the shops and I can carry into the mountains or along the trail. On a remote, long-distance trek with little chance of resupply, I'll carry any old dehydrated food. Quality doesn't matter, so long as it fills me up and keeps me going.
If you could only pick one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?
The Lake District. I used to walk there all the time, but these days I visit rather less, knowing that as it's on my doorstep and it's available whenever I want it.
What is your ultimate walking heaven?
Over the years, I've always had places at the top of my walking list, but Iceland takes some beating. The landscape is just so bizarre and there are so many great trails available. So long as you're prepared to carry everything and be self-sufficient, with a good weather forecast, it's truly awesome.
Will you be walking until you are 103?
Hopefully. I'm already over halfway there!
- Paddy will be involved in talks and seminars at the Adventure Travel Show, Olympia London, January 18 to 19, 2020.
- Also see: www.paddydillon.co.uk
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