Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike

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Reviewed by Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com
This review has been read 6,831 times

Last year's film by Terry Abraham, The Cairngorms in Winter, met with rave reviews (not least here on UKH). With its sprawling cinematic beauty, its meditative pacing, and the quiet way that it went about letting the mountain landscape simply speak for itself, The Cairngorms... captured the essence of its subject magnificently. His first feature film looked a tough act to follow, yet Abraham has pulled it off, dodging the trap of the difficult second album/novel/movie syndrome to produce a work that stands very much on its own merits. Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike is a rather different film to its predecessor, but no less captivating - and still recognisably his work. From the opening summit daybreak sequence it's clear that you're in for a visual spectacle.

Life of a Mountain dvd cover, 144 kb

Shot in all seasons and weathers over a twelve month period, the film captures a 'year in the life' (or rather, lives) of England's highest peak and its surroundings, particularly Wasdale.

But unlike The Cairngorms... it's not all about the mountain. This time Terry has widened his frame to encompass the human as much as the natural world, exploring hillgoing culture and hill farming traditions through a rich cast of characters.

There's fell running legend and local sheep farmer Joss Naylor, who seems a lovely man; the eloquent (and well–dressed) shepherdess Alison O'Neil; local broadcaster Eric Robson; and walking guidebook author Mark Richards to name but a few. National Trust wardens labour back-breakingly to maintain the eroded trails of England's highest crowd magnet; Wasdale MRT are out in force; outdoor writer (and 'star' of The Cairngorms...) Chris Townsend backpacks and camps in the remote recesses of wintry Eskdale; the BMC's Hillwalking Development Officer Carey Davies expounds on the work they do while revelling in a cloud inversion; climber Alan Hinkes pokes around on a damp, cold Broad Stand and thinks better of it (a situation that I and doubtless many others have shared, and one all too familiar to Wasdale MRT too).

"The film explores hillgoing culture and hill farming traditions through a rich cast of characters"

Some rear sheep on Scafell Pike's slopes, some work to manage this heavily trodden mountain landscape, and others just come for fun. What unites them all is the central presence of the Lakeland fells, specifically the Scafell massif, in their lives. They all talk with passion about the mountain.

Esk Pike at dawn from Great End, 108 kb
Esk Pike at dawn from Great End
© Terry Abraham

The Cairngorms... was uncluttered by narration or unnecessary dialogue, putting the mountains to the fore. Terry Abraham pulls a similar trick here with people. His presence is entirely behind the camera, we never once see or hear from him. His subjects speak for themselves, seemingly unguided, a device that gives each person a distinctive, dare I say authentic, voice. There's no apparent storyboarding behind it all, none of the heavy handed narrative arc that's so clunkingly obvious in a typical TV documentary. Through his two films to date Terry Abraham seems to have developed a hallmark light touch that's greatly to his credit.

"The Scafell massif is one of the most impressive chunks of upland scenery in Britain, and I've never seen it looking so majestic on film"

The humble herdwick sheep plays a starring role too. With a name that's pure Norse this hardy native hill breed dates back hundreds of years, we're told, and much is made of the sheep farming traditions that have shaped the 'natural' landscape we see today – the close-cropped turf of the high fells, the ubiquitous drystone walls of the dales. Perhaps, like me, you feel that parts of the Lake District could do with rather less grazing and a few more trees. There's no ecological challenge in this film but I found, as I watched, that I didn't mind. Life of a Mountain is about the mountain we have, and the way we got here. It offers a glimpse into a way of life marked by generations of continuity, a patrimony, as Alison O'Neil puts it towards the end. The Lakeland we know and love is as much a cultural landscape as a natural phenomenon, the film tells us. And it manages to convey that fact without once looking preachy or manipulative. By way of balance we do get to watch a bit of tree planting, hard graft by the look of it, being carried out in some of the deeper, steeper folds of the land that the sheep don't fancy much. Here's a positive message, I said to myself, a sign that we can improve the look of the Lakes, and its habitats, without undermining hill farming as we know it. Herdwicks will probably still be up there nibbling away the saplings long after people have stopped climbing Scafell Pike for fun.

Alison O'Neil and friend, 124 kb
Alison O'Neil and friend
© Terry Abraham
The legendary Joss Naylor, 107 kb
The legendary Joss Naylor
© Terry Abraham

I have to admit I've a tendency to underestimate the sheer mountainousness of the Lake District, but Life of a Mountain helped rekindle a long dormant admiration. It might not be high, it's certainly over-used, yet the Scafell massif remains one of the most impressive and distinctive chunks of upland scenery in Britain, and I've never before seen it looking so damn majestic on film. The lingering panning shots, the time-lapse boiling clouds and totally cosmic star sequences, the gorgeous light on grass, rock and snow – with absolutely no commentary at all the filming alone manages to convey Terry's love for this landscape, his sense of awe. There's something more than superficial affection going on here. Let's call it a feel for the sense of place.

'Scafell Pike - It's more or less just a heap of stones, but it's a unique heap of stones' says Joss Naylor, who recalls first going up the mountain to gather sheep as a very small boy in about 1940-41. He's still at it now. But for any serious fell fan the high point of England is really the least part of the massif, and accordingly the film devotes far more attention to its lesser summits and the wilder flanks away from the standard trade routes – the incomparable Scafell Crag and East Buttress, dank and mysterious Piers Gill, Ill crag, Little Narrowcove, Pen and the wilds of upper Eskdale secreted away at the foot of the mountain – the wrinkled complexities of it all are captured superbly.

Filming on Great End, 105 kb
Filming on Great End
© Terry Abraham
Terry Abraham, 93 kb
Terry Abraham
© Terry Abraham

I know nothing of filming and less still about editing and the rest, but it's clear even to me what a herculean labour this film must have been. It's two hours long, for heaven's sake, and while it could probably have lost 20 minutes with no loss of impact, the full two hours didn't begin to drag. To my eyes there's no obvious padding, though I guess it helps to be a sucker for endless lavish landscape shots. This much finished article must represent untold hours behind the camera, up on the hills at all hours and in all weathers, and the really impressive thing is not only that one man film production company Terry did it all himself, but that the end result is so good.

'I've lost count the number of storms I've camped out in and mileage I've covered in the area' he told me back in March this year, when filming was yet to be completed.

'I've spent much of the past 12 months out in a tent on a fell top somewhere rather than my own bed at home!'

'It's been a real labour of love and I'm in no rush to produce similar again for quite some time' he admitted just last week, doubtless still in recovery mode.

'It's just been too much for one person to undertake and I consider myself extremely lucky to have reached the end goal. It's been heart-wrenching that I've had to shorten or delete so many scenes too.'

Well to me the finished product was worth the work (though I'm glad he did delete those scenes). It's a little more polished and professional than his earlier Cairngorms effort, but equally passionate. Life of a Mountain 'cements Abraham's position as one of the finest new independent film producers of recent years' says the DVD blurb, and I think that's entirely fair - at least in the field of mountain films. As a mark of its success I've been left with a newfound inspiration to go poking about in some of the Scafell massif's less-visited corners. Let's hope we don't all end up there at once.

 


Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike premieres 10th May at the Rheged centre, Penrith. The premiere is sold out so a second screening is being held at 3pm 11th. A 40-minute edit of the film and a Q&A session with Terry Abraham take place at the Keswick Mountain Festival 15th May - see

The film is available to buy as a download in full 1080P HD from Steep Edge £15 

And on DVD from Striding Edge £14.99 (free shipping if ordered before 10th May)


 

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This review has been read 6,831 times