Between the sunset and the sea

No, not the title of one of my photo blogs (not yet, anyway): Between the sunset and the sea is instead the evocative, and slightly gnomic, title of the first book by Simon Ingram, Editor of Trail magazine (the title is taken from a line of a poem expressing the joy of climbing mountains by the poet Geoffrey Winthrop Young).

In it, Ingram takes us on a journey up a personal selection of 16 UK mountains (some of them just hills, though 😉 ), nine of them in Scotland, four in Wales and three in England (all of these in the Lake District). The book has been out for a couple of years now but I’ve not long picked it up – a tribute to the work a good bookstore can do to keep titles alive by the use of good browsing displays. A hill walker myself – albeit largely in the ambition than in the actual and effortful reality, my Munro bagging to date having reached the princely total of one – Ingram had me entertained, educated and substantially enthralled. Each of his sixteen chapters – substantial essays in their own right – has a one-word and abstract title (Vision, Science, Light…), lending an appropriate degree of sparseness, mystery and isolation, which Ingram then expands upon in terms of accounting for his choices of mountain within his individual themes, and then relating his progress up them (the climbs are, mostly, solo) interspersed with lively and carefully researched accounts of the place each one has in our folklore, our social history and our culture. Along the way, we meet (metaphorically) a sturdy cast of characters: those involved in the Kinder Scout trespass (whose cousins in Scotland are also worth paying tribute to); Welsh slate miners; artists and poets; dedicated (to the point of obsession) Victorian scientists, early meteorologists and geologists; land reformists; and eccentrics. And, of course, plenty of wildlife.

The effect in reading is akin to being dragged from one’s armchair up a mountain by a friend who’s both enthusiastic and intelligent about the mountain in question and its weathers, but also about its history and its place. Ingram would, it would seem, be extremely good company for a mountain walk (it is something of a surprise that the dialogue with the people he meets, or climbs with, is by turns rather stilted and somewhat laconic, his climbing partners in particular tending to contribute gruff practical reality in contrast to Ingram’s knowledgeable romanticism). And he has an acute eye not just for the things he sees but for memorable ways in which to phrase them – a ‘malingering’ of midges, for example, or a popular mountain ‘bewigged’ by climbers.

Beware, of course: for sometimes Ingram on his solo climbs gets it wrong in terms of equipment, sustenance or timing – somewhat poor form, you might think, given his day job – while his apparently unerring ability to get into risky scrapes on many of them might well endanger those with lesser experience. Additionally, his research very occasionally lets him down: poor folk cleared from the Highlands in the Clearances to make way for sheep and other ‘improvements’ desired by landowners could not in any way be said to be ‘thriving’: that they were clearly not thriving was, after all, the point.

Nevertheless, Ingram reminds us in a brief reference that processes similar to the Clearances also happened in England, under the Enclosure Acts (and, indeed, this was part of a wider European movement of rural depopulation and urbanisation as societies sought to provide sufficient growth to deal with the effects of technological change – a process that has interesting parallels to what is happening today under the so-called fourth industrial revolution). The Clearances were, essentially, a class-based attack on the poor; they were not, as may be easily assumed, a result of absentee (English) landowners visiting attacks on Scottish people (although, in some places, they may well have reflected part of the undoubted process of repression which carried on in respect of the havoc wreaked, within Scotland too, by the 1745 Jacobite rebellion). That such attacks happened on the poor in England and elsewhere in Europe seems to have something important to say in respect of the sovereignty debate, whether we are talking about Scotland vis-a-vis the rest of the UK, or the UK vis-a-vis the European Union; as well as the need to build unity among the working class regardless of background in defence against the attacks which are to come.

Ingram’s own preferences for not only climbing mountains via less established routes and in hostile weather but spending the night on them too is, I suspect, likely to mean that the book is more of interest to the fireside armchair walker than the climbing enthusiast who is, in turn, going to have to work a little harder to establish the practical functionalism of routes and practical difficulties – though these things are here, too. But in providing a wide-ranging and beautiful set of reasons to climb mountains other than (dread phrase) ‘because they’re there’, Ingram has done an excellent job in giving an additional helping hand to those of us who, while feeling the pull of the mountains, nevertheless manage to find too many reasons to stay in the comfort of our armchairs.

NB edited on 1 March to add the link to the piece about the Craigallian Fire memorial, which I’d read previously and searched unsuccessfully for when writing this review.

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