Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Sailing a Long(ish)boat - July 2018

One of the original Roskilde Ships in the Ship Museum

Ever since reading Magnus Magnusson's 'The Vikings' in the early 1980s I had wanted to visit the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde (at the head of Roskilde Fjord) in Denmark.  The museum holds the permanent exhibition of five original Viking ships excavated in the Fjord in 1962.  They had been deliberately sunk as Block Ships some 900 years earlier at the end of their working lives.  Their excavation has allowed the authentic reconstruction of the vessels to take place and a number of discoveries have resulted from this experimental archeology (e.g. we know that the life of one of these vessels was around 35 years as the iron nails rotted and damaged the surrounding wood beyond repair in that time).  I achieved this ambition in September 2017 but missedout on the chance to sail one of the vessels that day as I had not booked in advance (sailings can be booked on the museum website between May and September).

Roskilde Cathedral - A Unesco World Heritage Site

In July 2018 I returned with Marie and Matthew, this time with tickets for an 1 1/2 trip in the fjord.  There are several replicas used to provide trips but I was lucky enough to sail in one of the newest vessels and the one that 9 months earlier I had viewed under construction (the master boat builder at Roskilde is Faroese and builds using traditional skills).  When one sails thes ships it is easy to realise why the vikings were so successful.  The ship has an incredibly shallow draught - we sailed  in less than 18" of water without so much as scraping the bottom - and without the use of anything other than a light breeze were able to maneuver with ease using the sail alone having used oars only to leave the harbour.

The ship we sailed - under construction Sept 2017

Monday, 7 January 2019

A disappointingly boring heritage

For my birthday I treated myself to an DNA testing kit with the idea that I would find out a little of my ancestors.  Born in the east of England (formerly part of the Danelaw) of an English father and Irish mother I suppose I should't have been surprised by the results but I do admit I was hoping for something a little more exotic than this:

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Route Submitted for TGO Challenge 2019

As Mike Tyson once said - 'everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face'.  Well my plan for next year's challenge has been submitted for vetting.  Hopefully neither the Vetters nor the reality of the Challenge shall punch me too hard in the face.  This year will be my 1st challenge since 2015 and as I have been away from the hills for a couple of years I decided on a familiar start point Shiel Bridge from there the plan is:

The Saddle
Soouth Glenshiel Ridge
Fort Augustus
Corryarrack Pass
Monadh Liath
Mar Lodge
Jock's Road
Glen Clova
Fetteresso Forest (last done in 2012 before the Wind Turbines were installed)

With luck I should meet up with a few old friends along the way.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

There’s Always the Hills by Cameron McNeish

 I was lucky enough to buy my copy of this book directly from Cameron after he had given a talk on his life in Banchory during the summer.  In this autobiography Cameron looks back on his childhood in Govan, his early interest in Athletics and his discovery of the Outdoors as a playground and the realisation, after a variety of ‘normal’ jobs that, with luck, hard work and perseverance a living could be made from one’s hobby.  The result has been a career now decades long, and continuing, in which Cameron has become a guru on the nature, history and culture of Scotland’s wild places.

Cameron’s early life, though marred by the early death of his father, seems to have been a happy one from his recounting of it here.  Today, as in the past, many youngsters, on leaving school or university, are pressured into deciding on a career before they even know themselves.  They can take comfort from Cameron, who would take seven years after leaving school to find a job, as the warden of Aberdeen’s SYHA Hostel, that gave him the time to plot what he actually wanted to do.  In the meantime he would marry at the age of 21 and work as a policeman, a part-time barman, selling weighing machines, selling insurance and spend a year in the financial sector. Even getting the SYHA job was not easy due to sectarian discrimination the appointments board of the 1st hostel he applied for turned down his application n the grounds that his was a mixed marriage – his wife was Catholic.  Once the appointment at Aberdeen was made however, Cameron discovered the nearby Cairngorms and never looked back.  Soon he became the warden at Aviemore SYHA and eventually, through beginnings in writing outdoor articles for local newspapers, would become the editor of ‘The Great Outdoors Magazine’ and author of a number of books on Scotland’s Mountains.  After a stint on Saturday morning radio, a chance conversation with Richard Else who was then covering a Chris Bonington expedition to Mount Elbrus would lead to TV career that began with ‘The Edge – One Hundred Years of Scottish Mountaineering’ and would lead on to ‘Wilderness Walks’, some episodes of which can be found on You Tube and which inspired the title of this book, and the series of walks that have become essential watching each Christmas on BBC Scotland.

As age has slowed him down, Cameron continues to work in the outdoors and to carve his own path.  A health scare is overcome and the worries it brought about are recorded here with honesty but phlegmatically.  Cameron’s response to old age is to recognise that one needs to modify expectations though he still treads his own path.  Mountaineering and guiding take less prominence than pack rafting, cycling and travels in his campervan through which new adventures are still pursued (walking and back packing are still in his repertoire though less prominently than before).  McNeish is clearly his own man, obviously he has made compromises but this book is the record of a life that is continuing to be well-lived and should provide inspiration to us all that we can choose our own path provided we don’t fall into the trap of forever wanting more ‘stuff’ we simply need to recognise what is ‘enough’ and to work hard at living the life we desire not what others desire of us. 

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Book Review: Crusader: By Horse to Jerusalem by Tim Severin; read 22 May 2018

Nine hundred years after the First Crusade, Time Severin and Sarah Dorman set out on horseback to follow the 2500 mile route of Duke Godfrey of Boullion and other Crusaders, from Belgium to Jerusalem travelling through the modern lands of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia (itself today consigned to history), Bulgaria, Turkey and Syria.  The horses chosen were a riding school palfrey (Mystery) and a Heavy Ardennes (Carty), the latter a descendent of the war horses of Crusader cavalry – what Severin calls ‘the Main Battle Tank’ of its day. This Journey, after many years of marine expeditions was a return to long distance land expeditioning by Severin (in 1961, whilst at university he had travelled to China on a motorcycle following Marco Polo’s route).

Track of the 1st Crusade and Severin's Journey

The book’s dust jacket claims, not unfairly, that it is a ‘dazzling synthesis of adventure, practical history, and exploration’ which is also a claim made on the jacket of the author’s next book ‘In Search of Genghis Khan’* which makes me wonder whether Crusader had sold as well as expected.  It did not matter to me as I read the book on publication in 1990 and have just revisited it.  Times have changed; when this journey was made, the Iron Curtain was still drawn across Europe; border checks remained even in Western Europe as this was prior to Schengen and the Customs Union; the Lebanon was a no-go zone for Westerners which forced Severin and Dorman to detour through Syria (and Jordan) to reach Jerusalem – today an impossibility.

The book tells the story of sourcing and training suitable horses to recreate the journey as well as of the journey through a now lost Europe - I am sure you can no longer find Bear trainers in Bulgaria - though it was done just over a quarter of a century ago. In communist Hungary they add a 2nd palfrey (Szarcza) to the team as the huge Carty is extremely uncomfortable to ride, this emulates the Crusaders as their heavy horses would have been used as pack animals until they would be mounted battle.  After an unpleasant journey through Yugoslavia, the expedition is lauded and extremely well looked after in Bulgaria- a result of Severin’s network of friends and again in Turkey. 

Battle of Dorylaeum 1097

The story of reception of Duke Godfrey’s army, and those of the other crusaders by Alexius in Constantinople is recorded as is the decimation of the Peasant’s crusade by the Seljuk forces of Kilij Arslan at Civetot in north-western Anatolia .  The main crusader army would gain some recompense by investing Nicea though by subterfuge this city was obtained by Alexius and was not sacked despite a long, and generally incompetent siege of the crusaders.  It is just past Nicea (somewhere in the likely locale of the Battle of Dorylaeum) that the expedition is halted for the winter and the horses handed over to the safe keeping of a retired jockey for the winter, a change from the original plan decided upon by the need to rest horses and people (Severin had lost 20lbs in weight and Sarah had broken her foot in a fall the day before the stop).  The expedition had travelled at the same speed as the crusaders and it had taken just over 4 months to reach this point.

As it turns out, this is as far as Carty gets, unable to settle in the winter quarters despite the attentions of former jockey Remzi, he is retired to a horse farm in Vienna, he is replaced for the second year’s travels by the diminutive and spirited Zippy.  Sadly, Mystery, is destined not to make it to Jerusalem either as she dies, probably as the result of a blocked intestine, by a river on the approach to Syria after the winter break.  The Hungarian horse Szarcza would also fail to make it to Jerusalem, breaking own in the Syrian desert and being given over to a horse owner in Jordan just before the journey is completed.  The fact that neither of the original horses make the whole journey is perhaps a pointer to the crusaders own problems on their journey 900 years earlier as it’s likely that they too lost many horses through wear as much as war.

Duke Godfrey attacking Jerusalem

This book describes an extraordinary journey made in modern and medieval times.  It is well worth a read as both a history and a travelogue if one can still get a copy I would highly recommend.  The book is a reminder that history never stops as we see the story of the First Crusade told whilst we see for ourselves the significant geopolitical changes since Severin and Dorman made the journey just 30 years ago. 

* ‘A dazzling synthesis of exploration, living history and adventure'

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

2017's Best Podcasts

This year I have mostly been listening to Podcasts whilst cycling around Denmark.  The usual suspects  BBC Radio 4's podcasts - In Our Time and Great Lives plus the Friday Night Comedy - have been much enjoyed travelling companions but for me 2 independent Podcasts have stood out:

James Holland's Chalke Valley History Hit and;

Dan Snow's History Hit have proven to be very high quality productions with fascinating topics.  

The Chalke Valley History Hit provides roughly hour long talks recorded at Chalke Valley History Festival's over the years and topics this year have ranged from Andrew Marr's take on Brexit and Tory leadership contenders to succeed Theresa May to Bettany Hughes' history of Istanbul.  Himmler's Great Niece talks of the struggles of the family in coming to terms with their infamous relative whilst James Holland tells the story of Dunkirk. For me though the best episode was undoubtedly the one in which Jung Chang spoke of the Empress Dowager Cixi.  This particular episode talks of a figure that will be unfamiliar to Western Audiences by an author with a superb grasp of modern Chinese history and who herself witness Mao's cultural revolution 1st hand.  If you listen to nothing else from 2017 listen to this podcast.

Dan Snow's history hit has a similar wide sweep but is wonderfully prolific and reactive to ongoing world events with 'emergency podcasts' on Theresa May's calling of the UK General Election in 2017 and then another on the unexpected outcome of that election, the troubles in Catalonia and the toppling of Confederate memorial in the US as well as Donald Trump's policy of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital provide great topics for Dan and his expert witnesses to provide historical insight on these current events.  The rate at which Dan produces high quality insightful podcasts is stunning - sometimes new episodes appear on a daily basis and the historians who contribute are leaders in their fields - from Margaret MacMillan to Mary Beard to Anne Applebaum to Niall Ferguson

Highly Commended:

Other podcasts that I have dipped in and out of this year include:

Brian Moore's Full Contact which given how much I dislike Moore's commentary on rugby matches on BBC has been a revelation as it is balanced, informative and very enjoyable though I tend only to listen on International weekends it has been a must listen in a Lion Year.

Remainiacs - only recently discovered this keeps me in my happy place.  Ian Dunt and crew with 'a no flim flam Brexit podcast for everyone who knows that leaving the EU won't be un morceau de gateau. We're not sick of experts and we won't shut up and get over it.'

The Outdoors Station - Bob Cartwright has passed the 10 million download mark thisyear and still produces this excellent podcast the highlight this year for me being his 2 Moors Way Trip from South to North across Devon.  Bob also produced a You Tube record of the trip well worth a watch.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Ascent; a life spent climbing on the edge by Chris Bonington; read 28 November 2017

I am no climber, and never will be but have enjoyed, both vicariously and with envy, the adventures of Bonington though it is now over 30 years since I read Bonington's 'The Everest Years' that lead me to go on to read his other autobiographical works – 'I chose to Climb' and 'The Next Horizon'.  I was dubious whether a new autobiography would add much to what I had already read, other than to refresh my memory, especially as 'The Everest Years' had ended with the then 50-year-old author's summiting of Everest it was unlikely that age would bring greater adventures. How wrong I was.
Of course, there is familiarity in his re-telling the tales of the Eiger, Annapurna, K2, the Ogre and Everest adventures but not only did the author continue to climb in the Himalaya in his sixties and elsewhere – notably in Morocco - into his seventies (indeed the book opens with his climbing the Old Man of Hoy aged 80 in 2014) but this is also a more personal book than his earlier autobiographies.  There is much more here on the author's earlier life with many gaps filled in by his mother's unpublished autobiography.  The early unconventional (for the 1940s) family life is covered with honesty – his father's desertion and his mother's arguments with her own mother, her same sex relationship and attempted suicide are all here.  Also here is the story of his own long 1st marriage to Wendy and the support she gave not only to her often absent husband but also to the partners of the many climbers lost on expeditions – the roll call is long as Bonington, in reflective mood, notes that 'Four of the eight lead climbers on Annapurna's south face died in the mountains, all of them great friends. Of the four of us who climbed Kongur, I have been the only survivor for over thirty years, after Al Rouse died in 1986.'
As Bonington was a trailblazer for the professionalisation of Mountaineering in Britain – and one of the 1st to make a reasonably good living from it, not only has he been the face of Mountaineering in the British media for 50 years he has had to work to maintain that position in order to continue to earn his crust.  It was this logic that drove him to be a reporter covering the Eiger Direct climb and after a stint of photo-journalism covering Blashford-Snell's 1968 expedition that led him back to lead expeditions in the Himalayas in the 70s and early 80s.  In that time, the nature of the game changed from siege to Alpine style climbing and for most of this period Bonington was away from home and at the same time Bonington's fame, if not fortune, grew. When asked 'how I justified it when I had a wife and two sons. There is no justification; it was my thirst for adventure, undoubtedly selfish, that drove me on' Bonington is honest but I feel a little too hard on himself – after all he did need to earn his crust though undoubtedly his family paid a price.  With frank honesty he discusses that price that was paid as he chronicles his oldest surviving son's late teenage drug habit and run ins with the law.  This could be laid at the feet of an absent father but happily Joe is today himself a successful businessman in outdoor adventure so, perhaps, his father's influence has been more favourable than he credits.
The final chapters of this superb book are both poignant and inspirational.  They tell of the tragedy of the developing illness (MND) and  loss of his wife, Wendy and the intense grief that this brings but they also tell of the development of a new romance and that love is never closed no matter one's age.  This is an enthralling and inspirational book that should make anyone's Christmas reading list – you don't need to be a climber , or even an outdoors person to enjoy it.  The final words I shall leave to Sir Christian Bonnington:
"What I wanted was to make every single day of my eighties mean something, get out and climb and walk, enjoy my grandchildren, keep working and make life as rich and exciting as it possibly can be."