Series 2 – 39: 1994 – The Final Run-in

Esk Pike

The glorious summer gave way to my September holiday, six precious days towards completing a course that had come down to only ten fells remaining. I drove up on a grey Sunday, ensconced myself in Keswick with greater ease than I’d had in June, and set out immediately for Clough Head, the lowly yet prominent, bluff northern terminus of the Helvellyn range.
There was little need to ‘walk myself in’ for this week, but it was still an awkward ascent, initial steepness and a need to get through a ring of crags succeeded by an interminable convex slope, chasing an ever-retreating skyline under clouds grey enough to threaten rain. Which duly came on the descent northwards, via the rocky White Pike and down to the Coach Road, a long trek back to St John’s in the Vale and the car. Thus I closed the Eastern Fells.
I was impatient to return to Keswick: United were live on Sky that afternoon, and whilst I was against this dumbing down that BSkyB were starting to spread, it was hypocritically frustrating to find that culture had not been sufficiently debased in Keswick to find a pub open at 4.00pm on a Saturday.
Nor did the weather co-operate the following day, keeping me off the fells and threatening to derail my planned ascent of Blencathra. This was the infamous day of travelling via Sharp Edge: sun at first and bright skies gradually being filled by grey cloud: the wind taut on the Edge in a darkening world, and then that moment when I found myself having to shuffle off a shelf to drop – yes, drop – onto a knife-edge arête, before taking an unsupported step on this narrow edge of rock, drops on both sides, before clinging to the far side and dragging myself onto and around another shelf.
If it were to be done, it had to be done quickly, and decisively, and I got across unscathed, though my heart thumped wildly for five minutes. Only, having got across, and not having the remotest prospect of going back (not twice. Not the same day), I was quickly stopped as I reached the cloud-line at the base of a scramble that, at that time, I couldn’t face. I’d lost my nerve.
Out of sheer luck, there was a professional Guide on that same route that day – the only Guide I have ever encountered on the fells – who caught up with me, recognised my funk, took me under his wing and got me up the rough section, leaving me to recover on an easy, closed-in rise to the summit.
I crossed to Blencathra’s other peak, Foule Crag, passing the massive white quartz cross that has lain so many decades in the saddle between, and then, having ascended the Northern Fells‘ most sublime summit, I closed that book with its most ridiculous: Mungrisedale Common, an unsightly, shapeless pudding of a ‘fell’, a sheep pasture that, even so, has a thin line in the grass leading to its apology for a summit, a parasite on Blencathra’s back. But a Wainwright, nonetheless.
Two books completed in two walks, and the same again a day later as I headed out to shy Swindale, the furthest east one can go and still be in Lakeland.
I’d visited it one day previously, thinking to collect its sole fell, Selside Pike. I’d been charmed at its sylvan beauty and otherworldliness, but I’d gotten my geography horribly wrong and climbed onto the ridge at the wrong place, very far from the Pike. Now this was the one Far Eastern Fell left to me, and I had chosen it for today for a specific purpose.
There’s no public parking in Swindale past Truss Gap, two miles before the valley head, but I drove to the road end and, with politeness and hope, asked permission to park in the farmer’s yard until about 3.00pm. Provided I wasn’t still there after tea, he was willing to give it, so I climbed out of Swindale via the old Mardale Corpse Road, giving me easy access to Selside Pike, And, courtesy of the Outlying Fells, I made a roundabout return over two foothills, to the falls tumbling out of Mosedale and through the moraines in the valley floor.
By 3.00pm, as I’d promised, I was out of the farmer’s way and heading across the Lowther Valley to the M6 and Manchester. You see, I had booked my week off before United knew their draw in the first ever Champions League group stage, and there was a home game against FC Gothenburg on the Wednesday night: had to go back for that, hadn’t I? (We won it, 4-2)
I had always intended to belt straight back to the Lakes on Thursday but the teeming rain made haste unnecessary and I headed for Ambleside in my own time – which did not preclude me from leaving my ‘time’ behind. I had taken off my watch downstairs after returning from the match the previous night, and had left it on the couch. It was there still.
It didn’t matter much if I was killing time in my car and various villages, but the week ended in splendid sun and September clarity and I had another Big Walk, another to be added to that splendid pantheon of that Glorious Summer, and I had nothing by which I could tell the passage of time whilst I was on the fells.
Or did I? I did, though: my Test Match Special Cap Radio. This led to the unusual, and unrepeatable experience of a grand long day’s walking timed to a day’s broadcast of Radio 4.
For the fourth time that week,I was en route to closing up a book, this time the Southern Fells: the most used, most cracked and battered of the family’s set. Oh yes, they may have been mine now, but they were still the family Wainwrights, and they always would be.
For the last time that year I had a walk that took me over a captured peak to gain missing summits, but then I hadn’t seen a thing from Bowfell first time round. Through Oxendale and climbing to the flatlands below Pike O’Blisco, the vast moorlands rising with ever-growing anticipation to the spiny top of Crinkle Crags, with the justly famous Bad Step and the succession of summits, and the views immense all round.
The long descent to Three Tarns, with Bowfell Links in clear view, and that river of stones down which me and those two guys from Trafford Ramblers had descended out of the unseeing cloud. Somehow I got talking to this bubbly blonde in blue cycle shorts who was staying in Ambleside, and me so concentrating on my beloved tops I didn’t recognise the chat-up possibilities until I was halfway to Bowfell’s top.
Down to Ore Gap again, and this time across it and ascending to Esk Pike, the last fell, and on again as far as Esk Hause once more, only a few weeks since the day I’d climbed the Pike. This time I was arriving and departing by two more of the different routes that make this the most dangerous place in all Lakeland to be caught in cloud.
I started the long tramp down to Angle Tarn, and the truly painful additional 300′ climb to the top of Rossett Gill beyond, listening to a fascinating magazine programme item about a professional biographer who would write ordinary folks’ biographies, telling their life-stories to their heirs.
And this too was the day I set out to trace the old pony route down Rossett Gill, quietly finding all the landmarks, all the remains of long-disused paths that, a little over a decade later, would have vanished completely. I traced the pony route in solitude down to Mickleden, convincing myself of my own credentials as an experienced walker, before sinking my right boot into soft sedge to the ankle and half-marching, half-squelching down Mickleden and going home.
The vagaries of the weather left me with four fells to go: two final books, two walks, and plenty of time to fit them in in this final year of achievement.
I got away in mid-October, a cold, grey Sunday, climbing out of Stonethwaite to Greenup Edge Pass, insisting on doing things ‘right’ by reaching the top of the Pass and not taking shortcuts that would enable me to escape its gruesome wetness. From there it was an easy, steady climb to the top of Ullscarf, geographically Lakeland’s most ‘central’ fell, and after that a long descent over fairly indeterminate ground, hunting out the half-hidden top of Great Crag, before a steep zigzag back to Stonethwaite.
I had fallen short. There was one more walk required, one that would not take place in 1994 after all, that would not give me a neat, decimal, quarter century from first to last. Last, instead, would have to be first, in a new year for which no other plans existed or could be made, for, much as I’d half-dreamed of being able to return to favourite places, old haunts long unseen, I’d steadfastly refused to plan beyond that final day.
The picture is of Esk Pike, Bowfell and the Crinkles, seen from outside the circuit, from Great End. This year saw me undertaking four of my ten favourite walks in the space of little more than two months. I’d relive this year again, any time, work or no work.

Interlude – “I have under my arm the best children’s book of 1937.”


“I have under my arm the best children’s book of 1937.”
“Oh? When did you finish it?”
The above words were an understandable exchange between Arthur Ransome and his polite publisher, Jonathan Cape. But Ransome was not referring to his forthcoming Swallows & Amazons novel (in respect of which he would have been entirely justified in self-aggrandisement) but a work that is perhaps the strangest, and most wonderful part of the entire story of Ransome’s work.
The book to which Ransome referred was The Far-Distant Oxus, which Cape would indeed publish, as well as its two sequels. And it was a Ransome novel in all but a couple of details. That it was set on Exmoor rather than on the Lake, and centred upon ponies, not sailing. And that it was written by two teenage school-girls, Katherine Hull and Pamela Whitlock.
Hull and Whitlock went to the same boarding school but, being in different houses, did not encounter each other until caught in a rainstorm. They discovered a shared interest in ponies and Arthur Ransome books, and decided to write their own story: “for children, about children, by children”.
Unlike the enthusiastic but amateur Dorothea Callum, the girls planned their story in a most professional manner. They discussed their characters, their setting, the Ransome-esque fantasy of Exmoor as Persia, and the river around which the adventures would be set as the “Far-Distant Oxus” of Matthew Arnold’s epic poem Sohrab and Rustum.
Then, their story planned, the girls took turns to write a chapter at a time, swapping their work at the end of each chapter for the other to revise. And in this manner, which was as unusual, but as effective in practice, as Ransome’s own approach, The Far-Distant Oxus was written.
(Ransome’s practice, after Swallows & Amazons itself, was to plot each novel in great detail, then, on any given day, pick up and work on whichever chapter he felt most interested in writing, creating his books like a crazy quilt, in far from chronological order.)
Oxus is an enthusiastic, vibrant book, whose antecedents are not hard to guess. There are, once again, six children, this time balanced equally between boys and girls, and split across three families: the Hunterleys, Bridget, Anthony and Frances, arriving at Cloud Farm for a summer holiday, whose parents are in Sumatra (a rubber plantation?), the Clevertons, Peter and Jennifer, who live not far away with their (widower?) father, and there is Maurice. We’ll get back to Maurice.
As a story, Oxus is far less structured than any of Ransome’s novels. The Hunterleys love ponies and want to ride. A note from Maurice invites them to a late night get-together at the watersmeet, where they team up with him and the Clevertons for the summer. There’s no story, really, just a rush and tumble of things done.
The children build a log hut (in a single afternoon, complete with windows), run away with prizes at the Village Fête and win a pig (which they name Sohrab, most unfairly). Maurice acts in an amateur play, they ‘adopt’ a wild foal which they name Ruksh, and when it’s caught up in the round-up, they set it free at night.
The second half of the book is taken up with a week-long expedition down the Oxus to the Aral Sea on a home-made raft, and an overland journey back. Then it’s back to school, though not without a quite intriguing, and mysterious ending.
That the authors are children is quite clear from the bravado with which they go at everything, the implausible skill everyone has at everything, and the airy dismissal of the adult world and its concerns for their well-being. Mr Cleverton is impossibly complaisant, allowing Peter and Jennifer do anything they want, even to the point, when Jennifer develops a heavy cold on the last day, of allowing her to go out at night to climb in the dark onto Mount Elbruz, the highest point around, where the children are setting off a beacon.
He also disappears off all the time, indulging his pastimes with his friends, and leaving his already unsupervised children completely free of any adult oversight.
On the other hand, the Hunterleys are under the nominal care of the Fradds of Cloud Farm, except that when they do things the Fradds don’t approve of, like set off behind their backs for a week-long expedition, they never have to face any comeback.
The children’s effortless superiority at everything is excusable in itself, but it is attached to the book’s least appealing trait, and one that does not come from Ransome. Whether at the Lake or on the Broads, Ransome’s worlds are completely democratic. That there is an ingrained class system can’t be doubted, but in his world everyone is an equal, of value whatever their role or station. If there is a hierarchy in Ransome, it is of skill, not class.
In contrast. Hull and Whitlock’s children are opinionated, and constantly aware of their superiority. As the book goes on, and they travel to and from the Sea, their patronising comments, and their distaste for working people who aren’t on farms, becomes ever more noticeable.
But let’s remember that this isn’t a social novel, and that, just as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five were superior to everyone around them, Hull and Whitlock, in their lack of experience, are in this respect a product of their times. It’s an indication of how much Ransome is the better for his refusal to go down that path.
On a more positive note, Hull and Whitlock are far freer with their characters than Ransome, mixing and splitting the families with irreverent abandon. Like Ransone’s children, the Huntertons and the Cleverlys are in thrall to a moral code that, strictly, derives from an older era. But they can discuss their future, and their ambitions, without being tied to family duty as are the Walkers, and their fantasy of converting Exmoor into the Persia of Arnold’s Persia is ultimately more of a sideshow to the sheer joy of what they are doing for the moment.
And there is an element to The Far-Distant Oxus that is never even dreamt of in Ransome: sex.
It’s never on the surface, never overt, but it’s an ever present sub-text, a product of Hull and Whitlock’s subconsciouses at the ages of 14 and 15 respectively, from the very moment Maurice is seen, at a distance, in the opening chapter.
Who is Maurice, and what is he? Maurice is a Mystery, with a capital M. He’s 14, sunburned, dark-haired, lithe. He’s hypercompetent, and the other children look up to him, especially the girls. He is the great unknown of the book: Peter’s friend from the year ahead at (boarding) school, surname unknown, the boy without a tie. He sleeps out on the moor throughout the summer, first in the woods, then in the miracle hut the children build. He avoids questions, and the one time he is directly confronted and challenged to explain who he is, he flares up in anger and runs off.
At the end of the book, Maurice, the unquestioned leader, sets the children to building the beacon on Mount Elbruz but disappears for the afternoon. He’s back for the beacon-burning, but rides off abruptly as the fires die down. In a memorable sequence, as the children await his return, four more beacons flare into light across the tops, one by one, until the night ends it dark.
There’s no sex in Ransome, not even the merest trickle of sexuality among the older boys and girls as they start to grow up, but it’s here in Maurice: the ideal boy, at the cusp of turning into a man, an unapproachable hormone-stimulus about which an adolescent girl could imagine almost anything. Ransome couldn’t have written anything like that, but Kathleen Hull and Pamela Whitlock could, out of their own senses, with a patent lack of calculation.
The Far-Distant Oxus, with Ransome’s backing, was enough of a success for two sequels to be written and published, Summer at Oxus and Escape to Persia. Whereas Oxus has been republished twice in the last two decades, its sequels have yet to escape from rare book heaven. The girls wrote a fourth novel together, Crowns, before ending their partnership.
But its a testament to Ransome that he inspired such enthusiasm, and an even greater testament to Kathleen Hull and Pamela Whitlock that they rose to enthusiasm to produce a genuine book, an odd, but deserved addendum to the Swallows & Amazons series.

Series 2 – 38: 1994 – The Glorious Summer

North from Great Borne

It began with a false start. My firm had a client who lived in Askam, an old Westmorland village just off the route to Haweswater, who needed a visit. I’d planned a weekend in the Lakes, and so arranged to see the man on the Sunday. I drove up Friday night after work, a sweltering night but one on which the shimmering outline of unidentifiable Lakeland fells swam into view not far past the end of the Blackpool Motorway, the furthest south I’ve ever seen the hills.
But I could only get Friday night in a Keswick Hotel – not guesthouse, a Hotel – in which I watched World Cup Football under a sheen of sweat, and Saturday dawned with cloud, wrecking my day. I still got up Grisedale Pike and Hopegill Head again, despite finding them swathed in cloud. I wandered in a silent landscape, droplets clinging to my beard, and then down to Coledale Hause, still shrouded, and not free of cloud until halfway down to the Valley.
I rang our client from Braithwaite, hoping I could see him that day, but no joy so, with no bed for the night, I drove home, and made a special journey back the next day – in hard rain for most of it – to serve my firm.
But that was just a false start. A fortnight later I was back, not on the Friday night as I’d quickly learned that High Summer was not the time to make impromptu attempts at weekends away, but for the beginning of five glorious consecutive Saturdays. Each began with the six o’clock alarm, hit the road for seven, cross the Cumbria border about eight and the hills to enjoy for as long as I wished, since no streams of traffic left Blackpool on Saturday nights.
I was back to Grisedale Pike and Hopegill Head, but this time under clear blue, with the wind across the peaks, and this time the full Coledale Horseshoe.
I’d done almost all of it before: Grisedale Pike and Hopegill Head: Eel Crag and the interloper, Wandope: Outerside and Barrow: three walks now blended into one round, a great day of steep ridges, fast climbs and striding out across the tops all day. In terms of the Wainwrights, the point of the walk was almost the least of it, a fell called Sail: a rounded, green dome squeezed between bulkier fells, with a summit cairn easier to see from above on the descent from Eel Crag than in the lush grasses of its top.
It was a great day’s walking in my favourite part of the Lakes, seven tops for the sake of one tick and a wonderful time. It was also a poignant moment: Sail was the last of The North Western Fells. The last book I’d opened became the first to be closed until I’d reached my goal.
A week later it was the contrasting surroundings of the low, wet, frequently drab ridge separating Derwent Water from Thirlmere. I arrived early, took the narrow road to Watendlath Tarn, paid for the maximum four hours in the little car park at the farm, and set off uphill.
First, a steepish ascent out of the valley, on the only ‘pass’ in the Lakes to cross a summit. I only climbed as far as the wall above the valley before veering off north on a slanting path that, very gradually, rose towards the ridge itself: too slowly because, after an interminable walk distinguished only by the fresh, clean air, I cut across easy ground to the ridge and headed back south.
Armboth Fell lay off the ridge to the Thirlmere side, a bog-dodging trek to a raised point that was actually lower than the ridge itself. Then High Tove, gently rounded, wet underfoot, that ‘pass’ crossing its summit rather than a col to either side because the summit was somewhat firmer underfoot. And more slutch-avoiding, bog-dodging, liquid grass circling as far as High Seat, from which I made a direct return to Watendlath, not without having to climb a locked gate to get onto the road.
And back at the car in a minute or two under those four legitimate hours!
Next, I went to the Helvellyns, for a parcel of fells surrounding the big one itself. Early enough to park in one of the limited spaces at the entrance to Grisedale, I strode in shade through the woods and in scorching heat across the flank of the fells to the Hole in the Wall where Red Tarn and Helvellyn’s face, between its two Edges, first appear.
I had on my Test Match Special Cap Radio – a baseball cap with a tiny AM radio pouched in one side, earphones like dangly horns and a miniature aerial to be tugged up out of the brim. England were playing South Africa at Lords (it was the infamous day of Mike Atherton and the dirt in his pocket) and England were starting the day needing about twenty to thirty runs to avoid the follow on.
As I walked back to add Birkshouse Moor’s summit to my tally, Phil De Freitas cracked off the necessary runs, aggressively. My film ran out when I tried to take a picture of Helvellyn from the cairn, so I sat down to put another one in. A couple were approaching from down-ridge: he, with balding head, a big white moustache and a proper walking shirt like Dad used to wear, looked as if he would be interested in the cricket, so I told him about the follow-on being avoided.
Over the next hour, as we followed our paths, our routes kept converging and I kept him up to date on the score. We toiled up the ridge of Catstycam, when the wind suddenly tore my Cap Radio off, and I had to scramble down about thirty feet to retrieve it.
Our ways parted on Catstycam. He asked about my plans and I jokingly said I was “Collecting”. “2,000 footers?” he immediately asked, with an enthusiasm that rapidly subsided when I admitted it was Wainwrights. “Oh dear,” said his companion.
Suddenly, I had a thought: could this old gentleman to whom I’d been chatting actually be the noted writer, climber and Guardian Country Diarist, A. Harry Griffin?
But it was back to business, and the grandest part of the day as I headed for Swirral Edge, the less famous ridge to Helvellyn. I loved every step of it. It’s not an independent ridge like Striding Edge, more a steep rocky prow, but it was hand and foot all the way and a great glory to top out and cross the short turf to the cairn.
Busy as ever, busier even than my last visit here, under cloud.
I crossed to the top of Striding Edge, drinking in the view and looking down on the perspiring masses dragging themselves up. In the case of several ladies, it was definitely looking down from above, and I shamelessly took advantage of my perspective until it was time to march on, across the broad top of Nethermost Pike with its three summit cairns, from each of which one of the other two looks higher, and then Dollywaggon Pike, an old favourite of my parents for some never-learned reason.
I descended the infamous Dollywaggon Zigzags, keeping to the curves, to Grisedale Pass and a long, sunshine retreat down the valley, to the shade of the woods and my broiling car.
My fourth Saturday took me across the Lakes to the far West, to Ennerdale, which is about as far as you can go starting from 6.00am in Manchester. To the west of the High Stile range were two more fells, Great Borne and Starling Dodd. The former was accessible from the rarely used Floutern Tarn Pass, rarely used because it flounders into the morass of Mosedale Head, behind Hen Comb.
I was a bit concerned to see signs plastered everywhere: “No Wainwright Routes Off This Path”. A local explained to me that the farmer had put them up, but nobody really knew if he’d any right to. Still, the Pass was a public footpath, and I doubted his remit extended that far. It was an easy, grassy route, from which I diverted at the top, onto the curious little ridge of Floutern Cop. Then, after carefully picking my way across a very glutinous piece of land, I got a foothold on Steel Brow, much of it a steep, rough scramble, which took me to a surprisingly indefinite top, split by a shallow valley.
That valley pointed the way onwards, along a broad, grassy ridge, to Starling Dodd, an easy route. The fell itself has little to distinguish it beyond airiness and loneliness, but that’s not to deprive it of its status as Wainwright’s last. Not in life, but in the Illustrated Guides: the final fell from which notes, sightings and photographs were taken, despite the presence of a comely woman hoping to meet Mr Wainwright (who instead gave his name as Walker. A. Walker).
Instead of the standard return, on my way back down the ridge I sought out a curl in the grass that became a trickle, a stream, a gill and a descent onto Floutern, leaving me a short climb to the Pass alongside the shy, narrow and, frankly, dull Tarn, and down again to Ennerdale Water.
And then came the sequence capper, one of the finest days I have ever had out walking in the Lakes. Like the Coledale Horseshoe, it was a walk that produced a single new summit whilst covering old ground, but it was magnificent, my third glorious day in five weeks.
I’ve written about it at length already, for this was Scafell Pike from Seathwaite, and all three of the Pikes that go to create the famous fell, but so what?
Arriving at Seathwaite under a 9.00am Saturday sun, every minute seeing two more cars parking in the run up to the Farm. Across the fields and rising to the entrance to the Taylorgill Force ravine. Hot enough to take off my shirt and walk bare-shouldered and chested. The long approach to Sty Head, the Tarn placid and blue. A ham and salad filled pitta looking down to Wasdale Head. Finding the Corridor Route and walking it end to end in a state of bliss that I didn’t want to end. Revisiting Lingmell, a quarter century after my other visit, the cairn a jumbled wreck but looking up at the Pike for I am about to take the route my Dad never did. The stony, busy ascent without a break, the last lap across the empty plateau, the summit again.
It’s crowded, disgustingly so. I practically have to force my way to the cairn because my being there displaces some ignorant lout from being the highest person in England. I take myself off to the south cairn, from where the wind blows, silencing those behind me, overlooking Eskdale, Mickledore and Scafell Crag.
Descent and reascent, into and out of a steep col. Turning off to traverse, carefully but confidently, balanced rock, all edges and angles and risk at every step, to Broad Crag. Descent and reascent, into and out of another steep col. Turning off to traverse the long back of Ill Crag, afternoon sun turning the Scafells into shimmering, backlit, silhouettes, impossibly close. A diversion along a surprising grassy rake onto the broad top of Great End, the highest point in the Lakes that’s below 3,000′. Descent, finally, to the cairn at Esk Hause, the meeting place of paths, the gateway to fells  and dreams.
The long, tiring, reluctant descent, following a miniature gorge through a fold in the rock to Grains Gill, the greatest highway to the highest land, here a demanding route of exit, to Stockley Bridge and the final mile to how far away your car had to be left in the long ago morning.
Of such days are dreams made. Of such summers are memories made.
And a postscript. I went into work on Monday, bought the Guardian, flicked through. Harry Griffin had written that day’s Country Diary, about a hot Saturday in the Helvellyns, and a young man in a Viking Helmet who said to him, “They’ve avoided the follow on!”
The photo looks north, from Great Borne, towards the Buttermere Valley and the fells around it, dappled in sun. These were the kind of days I enjoyed in that priceless summer.

Christmas and Kirsty MacColl

It’s getting to be impossible to hear it now without tears in my eyes.
It’s twelve years now since my then-wife rang me at work to break the news that she’d died, and every year it gets harder to hear this, her most famous song and she but a guest, without thinking of the years and the music that she never made, and how that little collection of CDs in the cabinet never gets bigger.
But it’s impossible not to have tears in my eyes because of the song and the story,and because every year it comes back, not because someone reissues it or starts to promote, but just because people think of it at Christmas, and understand it as a vital part of whatever meaning still attaches to this silly time of year. Because A Fairytale of New York is the Christmas song from inside you.
There’s a piece in the Guardian this week, about how the song was written and arranged, over two years, how its story changed, and how Cait Riordan, the Pogue bassist who was supposed to sing the female part, left the band to go with then-producer Elvis Costello, leaving the gap to be filled.
It doesn’t surprise me to learn that A Fairytale of New York is, like others before it, two songs by different writers married together. That slow, wistful opening, based on the piano, with the rest of the Pogues standing around waiting was written and rewritten by Shane McGowan, and the jaunty, swirling, Irish dance tune of the glorious motion comes from Jem Finer. The first demo, with Riordan, is available on YouTube, but it’s an unformed, uninspiring, incomplete attempt a long way from the song that we know.
For the best part of two years, the Pogues kept trying until, in the middle of a hot, baking summer, working with producer Steve Lillywhite. The difficulty with the two halves of the song was overcome by Lillywhite’s suggestion that each be recorded separately, and be run together. And Lillywhite suggested his wife, Kirsty MacColl, for the female vocal.
The band were unconvinced. MacColl’s career was at a low point, due to a crippling stage-fright, and her confidence was low. But Lillywhite took the tapes home, went through everything with MacColl, rehearsed and re-rehearsed her in every nuance, and brought the tape back the following day. Not being tone-deaf idiots, the band grabbed at it.
What’s the song about? Everything and nothing. It’s the perfect Christmas song for being the anti-Christmas song par excellence. It begins in the drunk tank, and no-one can ever really be sure if it exists outside the head of the drunk McGowan portrays. MacColl is his long-standing partner, herself an addict. The couple simultaneously love and hate each other. They tear each other apart over what has gone wrong for them. But McGowan confesses his deep love for MacColl and in the spirit of Christmas, hopes for better times. Around them, the rest of the Pogues create a compelling, involving, swirling sound that envelops us all.
It reached no 2 on its original release in 1987, kept from the top of the UK charts by the Pet Shop Boys Always on my Mind (though the Pogues were more excited by it getting to no 1 in Ireland). But it’s since the advent of the Download era that it’s blossomed into everyone’s favourite Christmas song, going Top 6 in 2005, 2006 and 2007 and top 20 every Christmas since then. As I write, is the highest placed Christmas song in the chart, at 27: so that will be eight consecutive years.
Naturally, the song’s attracted covers, and it’s attracted controversy in recent years, over MacColl and McGowan’s cross-insults of “slut” and “faggot”. Some cover versions avoid the naughty words, such as the one by Ronan Keating and Clannad’s Máire Ni Bhraonáin, in which the latter appears to sing something that sounds like ‘haddock’, not that I was listening closely by then for fear of profaning my memories by even recollecting this version.
But it’s come too late for Kirsty MacColl to know. In December 2000, on a Mexico holiday with her teenage sons and her new partner, with praises still ringing over her album Tropical Brainstorm and its enthusiastic adoption of Latin-American rhythms and sounds, MacColl was killed by a powerboat racing through an area restricted for swimmers, pushing her children out of the way and taking the impact herself.
A Fairytale of New York helped to rebuild MacColl’s career, restoring her self-confidence and enabling her to face live audiences again. Because of that success, I was able to add three more CDs to my collection, including that last Tropical Brainstorm. It’s an album full of life, enthusiasm and curiosity, and it was clearly going to be the beginning of a new phase in her music.
But, as I said, with each year that it returns to mind, the enduring sound of Christmas, it gets harder and harder to hear this song without tears. Underneath that magnificent tune, behind that confident, brilliant singing, the song is about sadness, loss and deprivation, and only the hope of things getting better, and there is no longer any chance to hear Kirsty MacColl sing it again.
Christmas as pain. That, I believe, is why this song means so more than all its shallower, more cheerful alternates.

(Updated 8 December 7.57pm)

Up to no 15 in the UK Charts now. With two more pre-Xmas weeks left, it looks like a top 10 position for the fifth time is almost certain.

Arthur Ransome: The Great Summer – Part 1

coot club

In 1935 Arthur and Evgenia Ransome sold their home at Low Ludderburn, above Coniston, and moved to Pin Mill, on the Suffolk Coast. They also bought a schooner, which they named Nancy Blackett, and which they would use for sailing off the east coast, and on the Norfolk Broads. Ransome planned a new story, to be set in his new environs. Because he did not have the years of familiarity with the Broads that he had with his Lake, there was to be no creating of a personal environment, rather an accurate depiction of the Broads as they were, with a new gang of children to enjoy its challenges.
Like many authors, Ransome looked into his own work for inspiration and new ideas. Inverting a previously depicted situation is one trick authors use to kick-start a new book, and Ransome had the material – and possibly a touch of guilt, as Hugh Brogan suggests – right in front of him.
Swallowdale had depicted a clash between the modern, free expectations of the children and the Victorian sensibilities of the Great-Aunt. Ransome had aunts of his own, who he got on with famously, not one of whom was anything like the strict, authoritarian, terrifying GA. He owed them a better portrait.
The book was to be called Web-footed Grandmother, and this time round it would be the boat-dwelling Grandmother who was the free spirit, and her grandchildren who would be buttoned up, begloved and staid versions of adults, unable to understand fun. The Prim and Propers would be sent on holiday with their Grandmother, the new gang, the Coot Club, would help teach them to sail and the acid test would be whether the Prim and Propers would turn into real children by the end.
But Web-footed Grandmother foundered on one tiny detail: Ransome could not come up with appropriate names for the Prim and Propers, and without that they would not come alive for him. This impasse was resolved by Evgenia, making a rare positive intervention into her husband’s writing, by suggesting Dick and Dorothea.
Ransome resisted the idea. The Swallows & Amazons series was over, he was moving on to new places, new characters. But the story-teller in him couldn’t but recognise the story before him. Of COURSE the D’s would want to learn to sail after their experiences in the north during the winter. They would come on their holiday all full of anticipation to learn, be dreadfully disappointed when they realised that their boat was to be no more than a houseboat, and of course the Coot Club would take on their training. Out went the jolly Grandmother and in came Mrs Barrable, Mrs Callum’s former art teacher, artist and sister to an famous portrait artist whose call away to a commission left Teasel moored near Horning, and the chance of an impromptu Easter holiday for the Callums.
Thus was born Coot Club the book, the book that Brogan considers to be Ransome’s finest. It is a superbly-realised children’s adventure, combining the thrill of discovery and accomplishment, a voyage to the south Broads with two members of the party in pursuit on a series of strange boats, and the finest, most dramatic of endings, as the Hullabaloos finally catch up with Tom Dudgeon, stranded on the mud of Breydon Water, crash their Margolotta and put themselves in danger of drowning, and are rescued by the Death and Glories, three small kids in an old sailboat, with the skill and professionalism of boat-builders’ sons, saving the Hullabaloos from a horrible death.
Ransome builds his story in his usual, careful manner, but that story goes to the heart of what is finest in this book: that it is a picture of the Norfolk Broads at a moment in time when it was passing from its past into its future. The Hullabaloos – visitors from London charging around on the motor cruiser Margolotta, heedless of their lack of seamanship, lack of thought for others and of their own rudeness – represent the tourists beginning to flood into the area, a force that will change things irrevocably. Tom Dudgeon and the Coot Club, and Mrs Barrable and the Ds, represent the old Norfolk, of peace, quiet and working life. The glory of the book is that the Hullabaloos are held back, this time.
As for the Coots themselves, Ransome takes a step away from his comfortable middle-class world. Tom, the Doctor’s son, may lead the Coots, with the aid of Port and Starboard (Nell and Bess Farland), twin daughters of a Solicitor. But the Death & Glory’s – so known from the name of their boat, and their self-image as pirates – are working class kids, Joe, Bill and Pete. Ransome does not condescend to them: if the D&G’s are behind their fellow Coots, it is because they are younger, not because of their class. And they, in the end, are the saviours when it comes to the Hullabaloos own ignorance.

Pigeon Post

Having turned the Ds into Able Seamen, it was obvious to any story-teller that they would have to display their newly-acquired skills to their old friends, so for his sixth novel, Ransome returned to the Swallows and Amazons and the Lake. But, as in Swallowdale, the adventure was to take place on land, and, as in Coot Club, Ransome looked into his own work and inverted it: to follow the snowbound winter, there was to be a summer of blazing heat: cloudless skies and tinder-dry woods, and an overwhelming fear of fire that has led retired Colonel Jolys to form a volunteer fire-fighting force in case of the worst.
Ransome sets things up quickly. Holly Howe and Dixon’s are full until later in the summer, so everyone is staying at Beckfoot, camping in the garden. Adult supervision, such as it is, comes from Mrs Blackett, who is harassed by having decorators in for a full redecoration. Captain Flint is in South America, prospecting for gold, and Nancy is again furious with him for not being there in school holidays. She’s determined to show him up by finding Gold at home, and the place to look, according to the local miner, Slater Bob, is on High Topps, near the head of the valley of the Amazon River.
High Topps was actually the working title for this novel, before Ransome settled upon Pigeon Post (which refers directly to sending messages by pigeons, and was not some sort of advance outpost of the Coot Club, as I naively imagined as a child). The pigeons, introduced adroitly in the opening chapter, carry messages from the children’s’ eventual camp to Beckfoot, and will play a vital part in the climax. Incidentally, the pigeons’ names indicate the extent by which Ransome did not condescend to his readers: the first is, prosaically, named Homer, but when two more arrive, Captain Flint gleefully names them Sappho and Sophocles, the former a decidedly two-edged twist.
And there’s another animal on the children’s mind: Captain Flint has written to tell the family to ‘be good to Timothy and give him the run of my study.’ Dick, as the resident scientist/naturalist, has worked out that this can only refer to an armadillo, and the children have converted a boot cupboard into the expected exotic pet’s cage.
The children can’t prospect High Topps from Beckfoot, but in this overheated summer, they cannot camp without water to drink. Atkinson’s farm, on the edge of the Topps, is ideal, but is already occupied by a stranger, a tall, thin man in a felt hat who’s been hanging around Beckfoot: the gang nickname him Squashy Hat and take him for a claim-jumper, especially as he too is interested in mining. The only other farm, Tyson’s, is down in the valley and will only take the children if they camp in the orchard, and come in to regular evening meals, so paranoid (and rightly so) is she about fire.
Everything is frustrating, and Roger, who, unlike his dutiful elder brother, is developing a personality as a mischievous, slightly rebellious boy, starts to show some of his own initiative. It is he, getting bored combing the Topps under the hot sun, who decides to sneak away from his siblings and friends, and how accidentally discovers the little gully (the Gulch) in which the first signs of gold are found. It is also he who leads the younger children into an old mining tunnel that leads all the way through to Slater Bob’s mines, at grave but unconscious risk to them all, as the tunnel collapses behind them with great finality.
Relief comes from Titty, the imaginative, highly-strung girl who, when the children make a desperate attempt to dowse for water, to find a real camp-site, discovers in herself an ability she fears and loathes, but which, in the end, she uses to locate a spring to supply a camp on the edge of the Topps.
Once the Gulch is discovered, efforts concentrate upon mining and smelting. It proves to be an all-night affair, with a charcoal burner’s ‘pudding’ and an absolute disaster when the gold disappears in the process. Mrs Tyson turns up, horrified at the steam being released, threatening to have the children sent back. Dick cycles to Beckfoot, to carry out tests in Captain Flint’s study. John, Nancy and Peggy go off to the Gulch to get more ore, only to find that Squashy Hat has found it. Susan supervises the rest of the children in catching up on much-needed sleep. And a car pulls away, not noticing that a discarded cigarette has set the grass alight.
Ransome navigates through this multi-formed disaster with ease. Squashy Hat, like Dick, turns out to be very capable in a crisis, and the elders shelter with him in their mine. At Beckfoot, Dick’s tests fail to prove the ore to be gold, but Captain Flint, arriving in a very timely manner, carries out another test and confirms that they have found a very pure strain of copper – the very thing he’d really been looking for in South America. At the camp, the children are woken by the sound of flames: they send a desperate message with the only pigeon available: Sappho, the unreliable one, who can’t be relied upon to fly direct. Fire. Help. Quick.
And this time Sappho turns up trumps. The message gets to Beckfoot, Captain Flint calls in Jolys’ fire-fighters and their prompt arrival gets the fire under control and saves the whole valley from being burnt to the ground. The missing-presumed-dead-on-voyage Timothy turns out, of course, to be Squashy Hat, a mining engineer too shy to confront a gang of children! All is well, and the real summer, and the Lake, awaits everyone.
As the book cover now states, Pigeon Post won the Carnegie Award for Children’s Literature in 1936, the first winner of a prize that continues to this day and, in the 21st Century, has been won by such authors as Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman.

Series 2 – 37: 1994 – To Begin With

Mardale Waters 2

It was a momentous year in the making. Having broken the long duck in 1993, United would go onto to win Back-to-Back Premierships, the second by being top of the table for all but 28 hours of the season. My lowest moment – learning from a former contemporary of mine in Altrincham that, had his very respected and well-established firm known I was unsettled, vacancy or no vacancy they’d have made room to get me – was followed by the possibility of escape, when my firm agreed to let me out of my contract if they could get an acceptable replacement for me.
Most of all, it was the year I was going to realise my goal. I was going to accomplish something that had taken strength, skill and commitment. Only not at first.
I had no chance of getting to the Lakes before my April holiday, and when I did it turned into something of a bitty week. Having failed to plan for the closing stages in anything like a professional manner, the remaining fells did not lend themselves to easy collection. There had been insufficient Sunday afternoon walks down the years, and too many isolated tops.
At least I had good weather over the first couple of days. Bakestall, more properly a summit than a fell, behind Skiddaw, brought me fully into the Dash Valley, along a narrow road of four gates, a long walk towards Skiddaw House, climbing beside Whitewater Dash, the falls, and then a stiff uphill pull on grass, struggling with the first serious walk of the year.
I remember thinking of the less obnoxious of my two Senior Partners and the complete horror he would have at the thought of this being a holiday activity: a thought I could easily understand just at that moment and a memory I would draw on three years later when my first novel came to life unexpectedly on a felltop not that far away. And I remember a descent on steepening grass as hang-gliders floated silently in the air, not much above me.
The next day took me into Borrowdale, to Rosthwaite Fell, another isolated top that provided me with a none-too-exciting experience: so little so that my memory of the day is mainly of getting back to the car in early afternoon and sitting there for over an hour. The cricket commentary was on from Antigua: Brian Lara was batting, was approaching the highest ever score in Test Cricket, against England, and I sat there willing him on, at every delivery afraid of the disappointment.
But Lara made it, and I roared him on, as all true cricket fans will do: unlike football, a great feat is no less great for being accomplished by an opponent, or against your own team.
The sun persisted into the next day, when I introduced myself to a kind of walk with which I would become familiar that year. Some lone fells were not isolated, but lay in the heart of magnificent territory, left behind by earlier, shorter walks. So I was back on the road to Hayeswater again, not for the Round I’d devised for myself, but for a direct ascent onto Rest Dodd again, and a return – headache free – down Brock Crags.
The point of the walk was, however, to tick off The Nab: a narrow, steep-sided green fell enclosed within my personal valley, Martindale. But, by being so, it lay wholly within the Martindale Deer Forest, and to ascend it was trespass.
Like all such walkers who put their personal needs before their conscience, I came in from the rear: a descent from the tedious Rest Dodd onto the Nab’s long back, picking my way past punitive peat-bogs to its lowly summit and retiring to safety without being seen by keeper or deer. The irony of it was that the deer are unaware of boundaries, and the only ones I saw all day were on the far side of Brock Crag, in public territory.
Since that time, The Nab has become publicly available, but still the only accepted route is from the back, and Rest Dodd. Unlike the trespass, the peat hags have not obliged anyone by disappearing.
Three days, three fells, but once I transferred to Ambleside, the weather turned foul on me. Walking was impossible and there was no Big Walk conclusion, but I couldn’t confine myself to the car for two days, so I chose Seat Sandal, the eastern sentinel of Dunmail Raise, whose summit might be invisible, but which had a wall reaching almost to the cairn.
It was a nostalgic expedition. Twenty years earlier, the family had ascended to the top of Grisedale Pass, ascending by the shorter, easier Tongue Gill, returning by Great Tongue. I came down full of beans, feeling fully capable of turning round and doing it all again, not a feeling shared. I took the same approach today.
The narrow confines of the gill were shrouded by the cloud above. Much of the path was reconstructed by the National Trust, a necessity that I hate. The wild is the wild and that’s why we go there, not to walk garden paths. But the necessity was demonstrated when I reached the limit of the constructed path, which immediately became a trench, almost a foot deep.
From the top of the Pass I climbed roughly beside a prominent wall, following it in thick, grey cloud until it levelled off. I correctly judged where to cross it, and walk some twenty yards to the large cairn, marking the highest point of nothing: I might as well have been indoors. But I had refused to let the elements get the best of me, and I could always return when day was brighter.
So it was back to my car, following in old footsteps down Great Tongue. Trodden Ground is acceptable when the difference is twenty years.
But, despite the meagre returns of my holiday, I was eager to improve. Once the football season was over, once I had had my first FA Cup Final – all those years of Cup Final Day on TV and now I was actually there – once United had demolished Chelsea and it wasn’t until we were 3-0 up and had won the Cup that I remembered we were the Champions, and we’d won the Double as well, then Saturdays were free for great weather and more tops.
Great Walks abounded. I ascended Skiddaw for a second time by the Tourist Route, and once more crossed Lonscale Pike as a descent, but these were to accommodate a first visit to Skiddaw Little Man between. Wainwright praised the magnificent sweeping view from its summit, and the approach from behind that saved it for the last second, and I dutifully followed instructions, and it was everything he promised it to be. I am usually a restless walker, eager to hurry on to the next top, rarely staying above ten minutes even when eating. But on Little Man, I sat a half hour, just turning my head to sweep backwards and forwards across that panorama. Amazing.
Though Wasdale belongs to Great Gable, its true patron fell is Kirk Fell, a bulky, grassy, solid chunk of mountain that saves its photogenic crags for the hidden Ennerdale flank. It can be walked as an energetic start to the Mosedale Horseshoe (and it featured prominently in an ITV play of many years ago, entitled ‘The Mosedale Horseshoe Club’) but that would entail the steep, straight, unremitting direct ascent that I wasn’t going to tackle under any circumstances.
Instead, I set myself towards Gable, and the steep prow of Gavel Neese, as if aiming for the Napes Ridges and the Hellgate screes. At the right moment, I veered off towards Beck Head, and the rocky scramble onto Kirk Fell’s broad top, with little tendrils of cloud threatening to spoil the day at the wrong moment.
Having crossed the fell, I descended circumspectly to Black Sail Pass and the steady return to Wasdale Head.
And, to make it three Sundays out of three, a week later I was back, back to Mardale, to Haweswater and the heights at its head. Again, a long walk was the key to sweeping up an overlooked summit, but though Mardale Ill Bell was the summit going in the book, the highlight of the day was the ascent of High Street by its most exhilarating route, via the Long Stile/Rough Crag ridge.
Not a step of that climb was without delight, in the ground underfoot, in the changing views of Haweswater from full length to a panorama, as the ridge curved across ninety degrees, in the intimate views of Blea Water and Small Water in their respective bays, collectively known as Mardale Waters. A magnificent ascent.
My plan was to traverse Mardale Ill Bell to Nan Bield Pass and descend, but I was still too fresh, and the day not too far advanced, so I threw away my plans and ascended Harter Fell again, crossing its summit to the third cairn for the most spectacular view possible of the lake. And I descended that path to Gatescarth Pass, the one that I’d seen from the slopes of Branstree only five years earlier, but which had seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Less than twenty years before I had climbed this way on trackless grass: descending, the path was in bad repair. It would not be long before the National Trust would have to become involved again.
I’d begun.
The picture is of Mardale Waters, with Small Water in the foreground, and Blea Water below High Street and the Rough Crag ridge backing it. You should go there: the day will live in your memories for ever.

Arthur Ransome: The “Swallows & Amazons” Quartet – Part 2


Evgenia was no doubt still doubtful, but Ransome had given himself an insurance policy, incorporating reference in Swallowdale to the wherry holiday the previous Christmas, and the story, not to mention Titty’s enthusiasm for their made-up old sailor Peter Duck extending to his appearing as an almost imaginary friend from time to time in Swallowdale.
Peter Duck is the children’s story, and it’s plainly a juvenile version of Treasure Island. Captain Flint has hired a boat, Wild Cat, to take the children on an ocean voyage, but his adult shipmate lets him down at the last minute. The old sailor, Peter Duck, who has been at sea since he was a duckling, steps into the breach and the Wild Cat sets sail. Unfortunately, Mr Duck has a past: decades before, as a cabin boy, he saw treasure buried on a remote, all-but Caribbean island. Mr Duck has no interest in this treasure, but Black Jake does, and Black Jake will follow any ship on which Peter Duck sails, assuming that this time will be the time the old man seeks his treasure. And if it isn’t, well, a boatful of children? Easy to board and seize Mr Duck, and coerce details form him.
The story of the treasure thrills the children, but it excites Captain Flint equally, and he succeeds in persuading Mr Duck to finally get the monkey off his back, by finding that treasure for himself. Reluctantly, the old man agrees. This leads to hi-jinks at sea as the Wild Cat loses the Viper, digging for, and finding treasure on Skull Island, an earthquake and sailing away with the treasure with a storm brewing. But Back Jake’s men are gaining, and there is a rifle shot.
It’s at this point that the story collapses inwards. The children are indignant about the gunfire, rather than scared, though this starts to fall away when a random shot breaks the arm of Bill, the young would-be sailor abandoned by Black Jake. What will they do to us, asks Peggy. Nothing: they can’t do anything, Uncle Jim hurriedly and determinedly says. Peter Duck and Bill exchange glances, for they know and will recognise that there is very much more than nothing that an angry Black Jake will do, should he get aboard, whilst the story in the children’s mind rejects the reality of the form. The fiction breaks down, the story becomes transparent and Ransome briefly peers through, bringing an adult’s knowledge of evil and violence into a story where it has no place being.
There is, however, a deus ex machina on the very near horizon, in the form of a waterspout that sucks up Black Jake’s ship, and makes it vanish into thin air, a solution that would be satisfactory if this were still only something the children had concocted. But the treasure, which turns out to be diamonds and pearls, has been found, the Wild Cat returns, Bill’s arm mends and he is adopted as Peter Duck’s grandson.
Because it was Ransome, the book was a success, though not on the scale of the other books in the series that are not fantasies from the children’s imagination. And because Ransome was Ransome, there was no place for Webb. This was the children’s story and it would be illustrated by the childrens’ own drawings, an apt reflection on Ransome’s own artistic skills. But once again he was drawing (this time literally) into the books, with sparse pen and ink pictures that correctly illustrated the reality of various scenes, and before long Webb’s art would be gone from the first two books, replaced by Ransome’s own work.

Winter Holiday
For the final book in the Swallows & Amazons series, Ransome found a new technical angle, one that, so far as I am aware, had never been applied to children’s literature. Winter Holiday was set in the second winter, and it introduced two new children, Dick and Dorothea Callum, known as the Ds. More than 75% of the book is seen through their eyes, mainly Dorothea’s, who is an aspiring author, albeit with a very juvenile and highly romanticized style. Through it, Ransome is able to portray his familiar characters from the outside, and its an often surprising view.
The Callums represent another extension of Ransome into his own books. Dorothea obviously represents his literary side, which had started to come out at the age of seven, but Dick, younger, more serious, was the scientific side of the author. Dick often seems oblivious to what is around him, as he concentrates upon the things that fascinate him, but in times of crisis, when clear headedness and intelligence is needed, he is fully capable of taking charge.
The story is set just after New Year, in the final week before the children are all due to be returning to their various (boarding) schools. The Amazons are at home at Beckfoot, the Swallows at Holly Howe whilst Mrs Walker is taking Bridget to the Mediterranean, where her father is stationed (this is the foundation of a continuity error that will conflict with a later novel, but then it is not the only one across the series). And the Callums are staying at Dixon’s Farm, whilst their mother accompanies their archaeology Professor father on a dig in Egypt, to make sure he remembers to eat.
That the Ds will meet the Swallows and Amazons is expected by everyone, inside and outside the story. The first sighting is of the sailing children on the Lake in the Beckfoot rowing boat, but things properly start when the Ds go star-gazing in the Dixon’s barn up the hillside, and ‘signal to Mars’ by flashing their torches towards Holly Howe. The formal meeting occurs the next day, and this is where Ransome, almost gleefully, shows his existing character to be dismissive of the London children, who have no experience of sailing, the countryside or even how to light a fire without paper. In fact, beneath the veneer of middle-class politeness, the Swallows and Amazons are positively patronising to the Ds. Dick is a possible addition as a scientist, but what Dorothea can do? Even after the Callums unconsciously prove themselves, thanks to their regular attendance at their local ice-rink, to be better skates than all the other children put together, the Ds still occupy the role of novices who have to have everything explained for them.
It’s been a cold winter, and its getting colder. Everyone expects the Lake to ice over, as it did in 1897 (the memories of which Ransome draws on heavily for this book), but if it does, it won’t be until the children are all back at school. That is, until Nancy contracts mumps. She’s quarantined from the other children, and, more importantly, they’re quarantined from returning to school until Nancy has recovered without any of them catching the disease. The chance of an iced-over Lake, and the fabled expedition to the North Pole, is back on. Except that the children have also lost their driving force, adding another wrinkle to Ransome’s expedition into new territory.
The book navigates various adventures in the surrounding countryside in the guise of Arctic training. Dick rescues a cragfast sheep that belongs to Mr Dixon, earning the Ds a powerful ally in the ordinarily taciturn farmer, who recognises, where the children are oblivious, that there is a rivalry between the Holly Howe kids and the Dixon’s pair, and comes up with sheep and rabbit-skin gloves and hats, and even an ice-sledge for the Ds, to match that from Holly Howe.
There’s even a signalling system introduced between Holly Howe and the Barn, based on the hoisting of squares and triangles to convey various messages. This was a direct lift from the system Ransome himself had devised with a neighbour over their fishing expeditions, and whilst it’s charming in itself, it is definitely more than an in-joke.
The North Pole finally becomes a viable expedition when Captain Flint, eager to see the frozen Lake, returns from his travels and negotiates with its owners for its use. Nancy is approaching a return to the world, and once this occurs, school must quickly follow. So the plan is that, if Nancy passes the Doctor’s examination, she will fly a fag from the Beckfoot flagpole, and attend the frozen-in houseboat for a banquet, to be followed the next day by the North Pole expedition, with Captain Flint. But several factors intervene.
The first is that the Ds, who know nothing of the plan, having been off with Mr Dixon when it was discussed, see the flag at Beckfoot. Unbeknownst to anyone but Dick, who has it written down in his little notebook, a month before Nancy had casually stated that this would be the signal for the drive to the Pole. Setting the signal, they set off, believing themselves to be behind, and hoping to catch-up with the expedition. The second is the snowstorm that blows up at midday, trapping Nancy at Beckfoot. With the inexperienced Ds skating right into the heart of it
It’s the first time that Ransome judges exactly his climactic drama. The Callums are genuinely in danger, a danger that comes plausibly and naturally, yet which is escapable by the children is an entirely believable manner. The Ds have learned enough from their elders to escape the storm and get ashore. Dick’s own coolness in the snow enables them to find shelter, a refuge that it takes a long time for them, understandably distracted, to determine is the North Pole itself.
This element of the story is interlaced with the growing concerns and actions of the other characters. The adults start a search for the children lost in the storm, Nancy sees the crude Morse signal being flashed from the Pole and sets off into a clear, freezing night, to find her friends, and the Swallows and Peggy discover the signal and follow the shoreline of the Lake to its head.
Thus, instead of an orderly, adult-managed expedition, the children get there under their own steam, in three waves, in straitened circumstances, completing their quest properly. Even Captain Flint and Mrs Blackett make it to the NP in the night, to provide unnecessary but appropriate adult support.
And thus it was. Ransome concluded the Swallows and Amazons series with the fourth book, and prepared to move on to his next project.

Series 2 – 36: The weather has the best of it

For some now-forgotten reason, I didn’t visit the Lakes again until Summer was past its peak, and then it was less a walking expedition than a date!
I’d tried the Guardian‘s ‘Soulmates’, or whatever it was being called nineteen years ago, and met a bright, intelligent, arty woman who was an Assistant Museum Director in Lancaster. As she was a fellwalker too, a day out was indicated, and I collected her on my way north, to Borrowdale and Seathwaite.
Of course I’d chosen a file on my list of remaining fells: Seathwaite Fell, another northern outlier of the Scafell range. Not a spectacular walk, but an enjoyable effort. We ascended by the orthodox Sty Head route before breaking off to make a pathless ascent towards the crags that rimmed the summit, following an easy breach onto the high ground. There was an easy stroll across the broad top, my first visit to the photogenic Sprinkling Tarn, a descent to Sty Head summit and a return by the Taylorgill Force variation, my first exposure to that fascinating ravine.
I think we met up only once more before she started seeing a non-Guardian guy: a colleague who’d been carrying a bit of a torch for her for some time, who she went on to marry. Good luck to her, we were suited for friends but not otherwise. It was a different kind of day, but what I recall it for most was standing at Seathwaite Fell’s cairn, surrounded by a circle of high, high fells, adorned with paths.
Famous paths, prominent routes, ways to high adventure. Every one sticking out, visible from miles around. Scratches, scars on the landscape, inflicted by people like me, worshippers of the fells, eager to be in the heights. We were cutting the fells to ribbons. I had never understood that so clearly before, never realised that the only solution was to ban us from the hills. For a hundred years if necessary, if it took that long to recover.
Did it stop me walking any more? No. I was just as big a hypocrite as everyone else who professed to care. Not with thirty-odd fells on my list to walk.
I knocked off another couple to the east of Blencathra a couple of weeks later, a pure, clear, sunshine Saturday in shy country. Two cars had parked there before me: when I returned, about half three, there were cars everywhere. I’d descended off Carrock Fell on a mystery path, a zigzag series of steep flights unrepresented in Wainwright – and not added to the Chris Jesty revised Second Edition, despite its clear presence from the north. In the midst of the Blessed One, there was still discovery, even for slaves like me.
The other thing I remember the day for was listening to the football on the radio: United – Champions after so many years – were at Southampton and Eric, playing his first game of the season, scored a precision chip that I wanted to see on MOTD later.
So far, so good, but my holiday away, at the beginning of the month, was not to be anything like so bright. I got up and down Hartsop-above-How, a sickle curve of a ridge rising out of Patterdale, whose summit is little more than a place where the ridge levels out briefly, a walk where the only variation route back was the other side of the wall. Sunday at least was dry and clear, but every other day of the week suffered.
There was no walking on Monday and, after transferring to Keswick on Tuesday, I took myself to the Stonethwaite Valley, at the head of Borrowdale, intent on two small fells that would at least be below the threatening cloud-line, come what may.
I still wanted dry weather for Eagle Crag, a fell of fearsome aspect, because I was going to do the direct route, and this meant putting myself into some precarious positions. Eagle Crag, and its associate, Sergeant’s Crag, lay in the corner of the Greenup Valley and Langstrath, geographically distant outliers of High Raise, Lakeland’s supposedly most central fell.
And after years, decades even, of the sight of Bowfell rising nobly at the head of Great Langdale and Eskdale, I was anxious to finally see its third aspect, at the head of Langstrath, though the clouds did not look propitious.
I crossed the beck at the gateway to Langstrath, waded uphill through waist-high (and wet) bracken that left me damp from the waist down. But there was no going back on this route: crossing a rickety stile where a broken fence abutted a cliff-face, beyond which a way along the foot of the cliff leads to a short, near vertical gully, up which I scrambled, emerging on the left at the top and having to circle around its head to progress to the right on a long, grass shelf, conscious of the lack of protection on my right and the steepness of the slope: then a scramble up a series of pathless green shelves until emerging near a tiny peak that proved to be the narrow summit.
That was when I finally started to believe I could do the difficult, dangerous ascents.
Sergeant’s Crag was half a mile along a mostly level ridge, with the path ‘behind’ the top. Rain was obviously closing in now and would reach me before I got to my other top, so I dragged on waterproofs and continued, picking out the cairn more by luck than judgement because by then it was tipping down, and it didn’t stop.
The ‘proper’ route back was to continue on to Stake Pass and reach the valley from there, but that meant heading further away from the car, and those who have the dialect will already know that Langstrath means ‘Long Valley’, so I negotiated a slow, careful, trackless and steep way directly downhill and marched back along the broad, flat path. Unlike on Yewbarrow the previous year, my waterproofs kept the rain out, but my glasses were soaked and thus, returning through the wet woods, I was unable to get a clear look at the flash of red that I am sure was my first ever Red Squirrel.
It seemed no better the next day so, after the traditional trip to Cockermouth, I motored further on, a first, and only visit to Whitehaven (I would pay my only visit to Workington a few years later, but that was for football, instead of filling time until the air seemed dry enough to chance a small hill). Come the afternoon, I motored back to Loweswater and added Hen Comb to my conquests: a grassy, narrow fell, isolated on three sides by the brutally wet Mosedale Head.
Big Walk Day was at least dry in the air, but the clouds were hovering at exactly the wrong level for me. I had chosen the High Stile Range, three massive, stern fells fronting to Buttermere, and turning steep backs on Ennerdale. A long steep ascent of Red Pike commenced the day: a long, straight angled walk, diagonally climbing the lower face, a level transit on rock to the entrance to Blackberry Comb and its deep blue Tarn, and the scramble onto the ridge, with the cloud dogging my shoulders for the last fifty feet or so, flickering the view.
High Stile, in the centre, was even higher. I crossed in safety, the view unseen but visibility sufficient to keep to the path. There were a couple of moments as I stood there, brief blowings allowing a glimpse through the curtain, hinting at the spectacular view beyond, but again it was not to be: not unless I wanted to turn and walk back, once I was firmly committed to the narrow ridge to the Range’s third fell, High Crag. Because the cloud burned away and the tops were stark under a streaming sun, too hot to turn back to, not with so many miles to go.
Over High Crag, down steep, knee-cracking screes, over the subsidiary rocks of Seat, to Scarth Gap Pass, and the return once more, this time without TV Sheep Dog Trials below me, and lastly the Lakeshore path to Buttermere Village.
The holiday may have been over, but the walking year not quite. There was a clear and sunny Sunday east of Kirkstone, claiming the sprawling Caudale Moor and the last of the Hartsop Dodds, during which I stood aside to let a fellrace shoot past me on Threshthwaite Mouth, and there was that unbelievable day on Yewbarrow.
There were twenty-eight summits left. Another year should do it. I had climbed more fells than that in a calendar year, even when the calendar excluded November to February for the lack of late light. 1994 would be a good year. I would achieve my ambition.
The picture is of Eagle Crag, as seen from the road entering Stonethwaite. The direct route goes up that face. Any earlier year, I’d have looked at it with trepidation but longing. Who wouldn’t want to be able to climb that? And now I had.