My Mountains: Nick Crane

Nicholas Crane is a broadcaster, author, geographer and cartographic expert. He says: "I grew up in a house without TV but with plenty of books, and I was close to two good public libraries. So, the progression from reading to writing seemed natural. Then I found that magazines and newspapers would pay me for articles. In my early 20s, I was lucky enough to get a book commission from Penguin and I've been a full-time writer ever since."

Nick has gone on to write more than a dozen books over a career spanning almost four decades, including Bicycles Up Kilimanjaro in 1985 and Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1987; A Mountain Walk Across Europe, which won the 1997 Thomas Cook / Daily Telegraph Travel Book Award; Great British Journeys in 2007 and The Making Of The British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present in 2016.

Loving the
Loving the "extreem wildernes" of Sandwood Bay
© Nick Crane

He has recently published (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) his latest book, You Are Here: A Brief Guide to the World. The book is a "celebration of the vital role of geography in our understanding of the big issues facing humanity and the planet today".

In recent years, Nick has become best known for his TV work, presenting five BBC2 series: Coast, Map Man, Great British Journeys, Nicholas Crane's Britannia and Town. He says: "Making radio and TV documentaries is another form of story-telling, more abbreviated than book writing yet more direct and immediate. If book writing is a leisurely glide through thermals, TV is a freefall parachute jump – with a hard landing guaranteed."

He has received several awards including the Royal Scottish Geographical Society's Mungo Park Medal in recognition of outstanding contributions to geographical knowledge and of the Royal Geographical Society's Ness Award for popularising geography and the understanding of Britain.

He adds: "Through my writing and TV, I'd like to think that I've encouraged others to explore – and value – our landscapes.

"Beyond my daily business of writing, working with charities has also been a large part of my life. My first job was a Touring Development Officer with the Cyclists' Touring Club.

"In the Eighties with my cousin Richard Crane, I undertook expeditions in Africa and Asia, raising money and awareness for Intermediate Technology Development Group (now Practical Action).

"Subsequently, I worked for Afghanaid and served on the board of the Society of Authors and as a Vice President of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. Between 2015 and 2018, I was President of the Royal Geographical Society, which was an immense honour and in many ways a culmination of a lifelong enthusiasm for geography".

Nick was born in East Sussex in 1954 and was brought up in Norfolk. He now lives in London with his family where he says: "I do normal stuff like shopping and spending months in libraries."

I'd like to think that I've encouraged others to explore – and value – our landscapes  © Nick Crane
I'd like to think that I've encouraged others to explore – and value – our landscapes
© Nick Crane

What is your first memory of walking in the hills or mountains?

My first proper walking trip was a three-day youth hostelling tour of the Peak District with my mum when I was about nine. She organised the whole trip.

It was the first time I'd taken a journey on foot and for long afterwards, I used to gaze at the Ordnance Survey maps, astonished that we'd covered such a huge distance. Dovedale, to me, was as exciting as the Grand Canyon.

Who introduced you to the joys of the great outdoors?

Both my mum and dad were keen on the great outdoors. For dad, it meant mountaineering and for 60 years he climbed in north-west Scotland every January. I started going with him as a teenager.

We saw eagles and ptarmigan, brocken spectres and the Northern Lights. We waded icy rivers with our boots around our necks and methodically picked our way along ridges like Aonach Eagach and the Cuillin.

To this day, I've never come across conditions as savage as those in Scotland in January.

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

It was probably an evening, aged about 14, when I walked down the southern slopes of Dartmoor after two days in a white out and rain, navigating with map and compass using dead-reckoning.

Coast, hills, moorland or mountain ridges?

Coast and mountains for me, please. When they come together at sunset, the beauty swamps you like a tsunami. Right now, I'm remembering the descent to Glen Brittle after a summer film shoot on the Inaccessible Pinnacle, with the Hebrides looking like leaves on beaten copper.

photo
Otherwise known as Map Man...
© Nick Crane

photo
"I've never been lonely in the mountains..."
© Nick Crane

Are you a fair weather or "any weather" walker?

Any weather is fine. The point is to be immersed in the elements, whatever they are.

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

Svaneti in Georgia, because I've recently returned from an 11-day hike along the Trans-Caucasian Trail with my son. My most recent walk is always my favourite.

The 10,000km mountain walk along the European watershed walk from Spain to Turkey. I did it between 1992 and 1993 and think about it almost every day.

The Cadair Idris loop from Minffordd, with the addition of a picnic beside Llyn Cau and pots of tea in Paul's cafe afterwards. It's the perfect day trip [see our Route Card - Ed.]

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

I've walked all night under a full moon but you do need to be sure of your surroundings. I think it's easier in limestone country, where the rock reflects the moonlight. Chalk country is fun under moonlight, too.

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

There have been a few close encounters, including a bear in the Tatras; a ferocious electrical storm high above Gavarnie in the Pyrenees; a freezing night in a plastic bivi bag on a snowshelf on the wrong side of An Teallach in January; a navigational slip during a storm in the Picos de Europa and blizzards in the Hindu Kush that blocked the passes.

Mishaps are a source of experience, or, as my mother used to say, "Learning the hard way."

"I like the big mountains..."
© Nick Crane

You have presented many successful TV programmes about walking. What are the challenges?

The challenge with outdoor filming is not the presenting but the filming itself: Humping the camera, sound mixer, batteries, tripod and so on up mountains or into inaccessible regions. The cameraman and sound recordist work far harder than a presenter.

I've spent a fair bit of time filming while hanging from ropes or fighting rain and gales on mountains. On days like that, the film crew become superhuman.

I remember a night shoot on a mountain top in the Highlands. The boss of Tern TV, Harry Bell, had volunteered to work as an extra porter that night, humping equipment up the peak.

We were making a film about the Ordnance Survey retriangulation of Britain, and there were teams from Dundonnell mountain rescue on the summit of adjacent peaks with powerful lamps that we wanted to film during a simulation of surveying.

After we'd got the sequence filmed, dismantled the OS canvas tent and tripod and packed everything into their 1950s wooden crates, the long descent started. It was a nightmare in the dark, and at one point I saw Harry trip while carrying a huge fishbox full of uneaten sandwiches.

Drenched to the skin and frozen, he was on all fours collecting every sandwich from the bog in the dark, but he never complained; an exceptional chap.

On another shoot, I ruined his favourite leather walking boots. So that I could keep my own boots dry, Harry lent me his for an extended river-wading sequence.

Who would be your perfect walking partner?

I'd settle for Timothy Pont, who travelled tirelessly to and fro across Scotland in the late 1500s producing a set of sketch maps that were used to create the first atlas of Scotland. One of his maps is labelled "Extreem Wildernes", which would be my kind of place.

Are you happy to go solo?

I've never been lonely in the mountains so, yes, I'm quite happy to potter solitarily. There is always so much to think about. Alongside the weather and route finding, my geographical curiosity is usually turned up to max, so I'm kept busy figuring out why the landscape looks the way it does.

Walking boots or trail shoes? And why?

Generally boots, because I like the big mountains. I used Zamberlan in the Hindu Kush; Brasher Boots on my walk along Europe's mountain ranges; and Salomon to walk the transCaucasian Trail. On most of my film shoots, I used Raichle trail shoes. I use the best footwear for the job.

How do you navigate?

In the past, I used map and compass, but the transCaucasian Trail would have been near impossible without GPS map apps. We used maps.me but a couple of German guys we met were using komoot.com, which included contours and seemed far better.

What three items are always in your rucksack?

Map, Compass, Notebook (& pen).

What goes in your pack as a guilty secret?!

An extra pair of socks

What one piece of walking clothing do you trust/favour above all others?

Boots are always the key item to get right. If your feet feel fine, the world is a beautiful place. I bought the Salomon boots I used in the Caucasus the day before I flew to Tbilisi. Cotswold Outdoor in Covent Garden did a great job of both fitting and recommending the right boots for the job. They were comfortable throughout and I didn't get a single blister.

The trick (in my experience) is buying a size larger than you might think necessary. Chris Brasher used to tell me that if you can't fit a finger between your heel and the back of the boot, they're too small.

Your favourite walking food/s?

Whatever local food I can find. I'd rather eat something weird than carry a heavier rucksack.

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

Wales, I think. For the variety of peak and rolling upland, estuary and cliff, woodland and pasture. Every view is packed with geographical stories.

What is your ultimate walking dream?

There are too many to list … For their variety and beauty, I'd like to walk the Pyrenees from end-to-end again. I've always fancied the Apennines end-to-end, either on foot or by bicycle. And I still haven't walked the Norfolk coast path…

Will you be walking until you are 103?

Unlikely, but I'll do my best.


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