My Mountains: Chris Smith, First MP to Bag the Munros

© Chris Smith

For our series of chats with well known hill folk Fiona Russell meets Chris Smith, the first MP to complete the Munros and a member of the government responsible for our Right to Roam in England and Wales.

Now Baron Smith of Finsbury, Chris Smith was Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury between 1983 and 2005. During that time he served as Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment and Shadow Secretary of State for National Heritage, among other posts. In 1997, he was appointed to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet as the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and had a hand in the groundbreaking right to roam legislation.

"If I could pick only one area to walk in it would be Torridon"  © Chris Smith
"If I could pick only one area to walk in it would be Torridon"
© Chris Smith

A keen walker, one of Smith's first acts, as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, was to issue a message to the Ramblers' Association: "Let's make 'right to roam' a reality."

The Labour Government went on to legislate the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000. Chris said: "To this day, I am very proud to have been a part of the creation of this act. I was Secretary of State at the time and my signature can be seen on the front of the bill."

Chris is also a former president of the Ramblers' Association. He said: "I felt fortunate to be a president of the Ramblers. I was part of a group that promotes and lobbies about the benefits of walking."

After more than two decades in Parliament, Chris stepped down from the House of Commons at the 2005 general election. In April of that year he was made a life peer as Lord Smith of Finsbury, in the London Borough of Islington.

Another notable achievement is that Chris, now 67, became the first MP to finish a round of the Munros on Sgurr nan Coireachan (Glenfinnan). It took him 23 years. Of his final Munro hike in 1989, he said: "It was a fantastic day with about 20 friends and a reporter from The Herald."

Following his completion, some mountains were newly elevated to Munro status after remeasuring and there were three that Chris had not walked, all in Glencoe. "I decided to walk these new Munros too and I enjoyed a second completion of my first round a couple of years later," he said, laughing.

He has also walked around 80 Corbetts. He said: "If I am somewhere that has a Corbett that I have not walked I will go up. I think you meet a different type of person on the Corbetts."

His love of the hills started young - in the Lake District, 1962  © Chris Smith
His love of the hills started young - in the Lake District, 1962
© Chris Smith

What is your first memory of walking?

During my school, when I was at George Watson's College in Edinburgh, there were various third year projects and I was part of a trip to Kinlochewe in Torridon, in the north-west Highlands. The project was to measure the regrowth of the Old Caledonian forest, following the ravages of deer, and while we were there one of the teachers was very keen to show us the mountains. He was actually a prominent man in the SMC and had some first ascents to his name. He took us up Beinn Liath Mhor near Achnashellach, and this was the start of my life-long interest in the Munros and my love of Torridon.

When I was studying at Cambridge University and then working in London I would head off for expeditions to the Highlands. This would usually be at new year, Easter and in the summer with friends. We would hire a cottage and walk the Munros.

These days, I am lucky enough to have a holiday home in Torridon and it is still one of my favourite places to be.

I can also remember going walking in the Pentland Hills with my parents. We lived on the outskirts of Edinburgh then. I enjoyed the beauty of the hills but as a teenager I resented going walking with my parents and, in truth, the transformative moment was when I was with school friends on the Torridon expedition.

When did you realise you would be a keen life-long walker?

When my school teacher talked about Sir High Munro and his list of Munros, I knew then I would always have a love for Scotland's mountains.

Do you prefer coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?

I like mountain ridges very much but if there is a mountain ridge and a coastal view then that is even better. One of the great things about the Scottish Highlands is that you so often see mountain and sea in combination. That is very special.

"I have walked quite a bit on my own, and I enjoy it..."  © Chris Smith
"I have walked quite a bit on my own, and I enjoy it..."
© Chris Smith

Are you a fair weather or any weather walker?

These days fair weather is a preference but if I am only in the north-west Highlands for a week and the weather is not good I will still go out walking. As Alfred Wainwright once said: "There's no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing."

In any case you can never tell what the weather will be like when you set off. So often you start in glorious weather and then it changes as you walk higher, or it is the other way round. I simply go out and see what the weather will bring.

What are your three all-time favourite hill or mountain walks, and why?

That's is a difficult question to answer. My first would have to be Beinn Alligin. I have climbed it at least 20 times and I own a home at the foot of it. It is the perfect mountain because it is a bit of a challenge but it is not too daunting. Plus it is a circular route, rather than an A to B. The views across to the west coast and to Skye and the surrounding Torridon giants are superb.

Number two is Beinn Eighe, also in Torridon. The magnificent Coire Mhic Fhearchair, hidden from sight unless you walk there, is one of the finest corries in Scotland.

My third walk of choice is a more domestic one. It is a walk from Grasmere in the Lake District on Loughrigg Fell. It is one of the most accessible Wainwrights. I am very passionate about the poetry of Wordsworth ­and chairman of the Wordsworth Trust, which is located in Grasmere – and when I am in that area I always try to do this walk. It is not a difficult one but the views across to the south over Windermere and the Langdale Pikes offer a lovely sense of landscape and setting. The bluebells seen in the woodlands, when they are in season, are wonderful.

Is the night-time a good time to go walking?

No – not normally although there was one very memorable ascent of Ben Nevis at night-time.

I had enjoyed a wonderful week with friends at Spean Bridge one time. We had rented a cottage and every single day was wonderful weather so we were out walking a great deal. We didn't want the week to stop, so at the end we decided we would walk the UK's highest mountain at night. We took the tourist path and we were treated to the most incredible stars in the sky. You couldn't actually see much more than the sky and stars. Then at the summit we were treated to a display of the Northern Lights. There was a most dramatic red disc riding on the horizon and the light bled with other colours of purple, yellow and white. That was a good night to go walking but I would normally prefer daylight.

On the summit of Tom na Gruagaich, Beinn Alligin, his all-time favourite mountain   © Chris Smith
On the summit of Tom na Gruagaich, Beinn Alligin, his all-time favourite mountain
© Chris Smith

Have you ever been lucky to avoid/escape a difficult situation in the mountains?

A trip to the Fisherfields as a teenager is the one that most readily comes to mind.

A couple of yeas after the Torridon school trip I headed off with friends to hike into the Fishefield Forest. We spent a week at Shenaval bothy having carried in all our kit. However, this trip also turned out to include one of my scariest experiences in the mountains. The three of us were totally ill-equipped for a walk in a snow gully on a Corbett there. We did not have crampons and only a second-hand ice axe and one rope. Although the landscape in the snow was utterly beautiful we had no idea of the danger we were in. It was with incredible relief that we made it through that climb.

Who is your perfect walking partner?

I have quite a number of walking partners and some with whom I walk frequently. I also like to walk with my partner. The perfect person is someone who doesn't complain and doesn't shoot ahead too much and also doesn't want to talk all the time. I like a bit of conversation but I also want to have some quiet as well.

Are you happy to go solo?

I have walked quite a bit on my own and I enjoy it.

Boots, trail shoes, wellies or barefoot?

Leather boots.

How do you navigate?

I prefer a map and compass and I am not keen on modern gadgets generally. I do take my mobile phone in case of an emergency.

What items are always in your rucksack?

Head torch, whistle, spare pullover, flask of water, camera, bar of fruit and nut chocolate.

What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?!

Very occasionally a hip flask of whisky.

Your favourite walking food/s?

Fruit and nut chocolate, fruit cake – that's an essential actually – but really just general chocolate and cereal bars.

If you could only pick one area of Britain to walk in, where would it be?

Torridon, for sure.

What is your ultimate walking heaven?

I have never walked in the Himalaya and I probably won't now but I would have liked to trek somewhere in the valleys. The Appalachian Trail in America, in particular the New England section, is a place I would have liked to walk. And this is a general one and rather unrealistic, but I would like to walk every mountain I haven't yet climbed.

Will you be walking until you are 103?

I certainly hope so. I met a man on the Wester Ross mountain Slioch while I was on my way to the summit. He was jogging down and he told me this was his way to celebrate his 80th birthday. I hope I am like that when I am 80.

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17 Jul, 2018

Good to see that article, I occasionally wondered if he still went into the hills. I met him and we had a good blether many years ago, probably c.1991. Great bloke, a gentleman. 

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