UKH

Mountain Literature Classics: The Big Walks

© Ronald Turnbull

Never has a simple grassy slope seemed so exhausting. Twelve hours before, we'd abandoned our tent in the middle of the night, groped through barbed wire entanglements at the back of the former Keswick railway station, walked briskly up Skiddaw and then briskly back down again.

A big book with big ambitions  © Ronald Turnbull
A big book, with big ambitions

Our feet had traced the length of Borrowdale, being somewhat surprised at the lack of traffic because of its being still seven o' clock in the morning. We'd followed the Corridor Path in stunning early-morning light. We'd headed up what looked like a likely line among the crags of Scafell, to find ourselves on a thrilling path right in the middle of the rockface, leading to a rather less thrilling loose grotty gully. (Okay, it was the West Wall Traverse; but it was surprising at the time.) We'd climbed down Broad Stand, and crossed the interminable boulderfields of Scafell Pike.

If I'd been a climber rather than walker, the same shock of the new would have hit me a few years earlier, with Wilson's 'Hard Rock' of 1974

And now mid-afternoon saw us on the long, pathless, pointless, western slope of something called High White Stones.

Why were we attempting this? Well, because we'd just walked the Southern Upland Way in 25 mile stints and were feeling pretty fit. But mostly because of a book David got six months before for Christmas.

West Wall Traverse: we wouldn't be here if the guidebook had been light enough to carry  © Ronald Turnbull
West Wall Traverse: we wouldn't be here if the guidebook had been light enough to carry
© Ronald Turnbull

Back in 1980, an 'inspirational' walking book had phrases like "viewpoint beyond compare" and "whence the walk along the ridge", and was written by an elderly but vigorous bloke in breeches and a beard. It had stunning black-and-grey photos, printed on the glossy pages only, and rendered at 120 half-tone dots to the inch. In the hillwritings of 1980, 'The Big Walks' landed as sudden and astonishing as an eagle I once came across on the peaty Deargs at the back of Glen Roy. Along with the similarly surprising 'High Mountains of Britain and Ireland' by Irvine Butterfield, it assured that sludgy monochrome photos of rounded hills on rather cloudy days would never again be good enough. No more would we be reading of belvederes, and stupendous panoramas. And as a bonus, no more grotty graphic design and pictures stuck in sideways.

The design and picture quality were a quantum leap in an age of sludgy photos and dull layouts  © Ronald Turnbull
The design and picture quality were a quantum leap in an age of sludgy photos and dull layouts

Good, lively design; good lively photos – and also, good, lively walks. Walks ranging from a crossing of Liathach at a mere 9 miles (but with scrambly bits) to the 40-mile Lyke Wake Walk and the Lakeland Threethousands at 46 miles with 11,000ft of ascent. Richard Gilbert and Ken Wilson supplied most of the walks, helped out by a roll-call of memorable names: Tom Weir on An Teallach, Adam Watson on the Cairngorms 4000s, Showell Styles on Tryfan, Harold Drasdo on the Rhinogs. Ken Wilson supplied the graphic design, as well as the spirit of risk and adventure (a spirit developed on cliffs all over the UK) needed to publish a walking guide selling (in my 1990 fifth edition) at £22. This is equivalent to about £60 today, the price of one well made walking boot. The weight, at over 2kg, explains why we weren't carrying it with us up Scafell, and so came to find ourselves half way up the West Wall.

The 25-mile Lochaber Traverse (Ben Nevis to the Grey Corries) is especially rewarding underneath some snow  © Ronald Turnbull
The 25-mile Lochaber Traverse (Ben Nevis to the Grey Corries) is especially rewarding underneath some snow
© Ronald Turnbull

If I'd been a climber rather than walker, the same shock of the new would have hit me a few years earlier, with Wilson's 'Hard Rock' of 1974 followed up by 'Classic Rock' and 'Extreme Rock'. Those books have become climbers' tick-lists; 'Hard Rock' still sells at an inflation-adjusted £60 on Abebooks. The 55 walks here have never featured in the same way as a 'to tread on' catalogue. Perhaps because these Walks are just too Big. But Ken Wilson's book lives on every time you see a non-sludgy photo, a well written mountain account, or even a decent font, right here on UKHillwalking.

Reading 'The Big Walks' at Keswick Moot Hall, pre-dawn start point for the Lakes 3000s walk  © Ronald Turnbull
Reading 'The Big Walks' at Keswick Moot Hall, pre-dawn start point for the Lakes 3000s walk
© Ronald Turnbull



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