Sunday Watch: Life of a Mountain – Blencathra


I suppose I could have counted this, and its predecessor regarding Scafell Pike, as a film and included them both in my film summer season, but either way it is always a pleasure to spend two hours of a cold but sunny Sunday morning in the Lake District, paying close attention to one of its finest mountains.

Life of a Mountain – Blencathra is the work of Terry Abraham who, not quite a decade ago, was an unemployed Liverpudlian who bought a camera, taught himself filming and spent a year on England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, filming the mountain in its many aspects, filming the life that goes on around it, talking to people and building the results of his efforts into a two hour documentary film, released on DVD and then broadcast on BBC2, even if edited down to one hour. The film received extraordinary acclaim and made Terry Abrahams a star. It gave him more money and resources to make a similar film about Blencathra.

Blencathra, or Saddleback as it was known in my youth, and still largely is locally, is in the Northern Lakes, the only mountain area to be isolated from the rest of the District, with no links over high ground. Like the other and higher mountain that dominates the region, Skiddaw (locally pronounced Skidder), it presents a front to the south, and what a front. The mountain consists of five fells, linked into one massive massif, with a brilliant symmetry of dark combs presented between them. It displays almost all its finery to open view, and for anyone with walking or climbing instincts, it is a magnet not just to the eye but the boots.

There are so many routes of ascent to choose from that Wainwright ended up giving Blencathra more pages than any other fell in his seven Pictorial Guides. He also revived the beautiful, romantic, original name. Saddleback was prosaic and merely descriptive, whereas broadcaster and walker Eric Robson traces the Celtic name to Blenc-Arthur, Arthur’s Seat, King Arthur. The intruder name still shows on Ordnance Survey Maps as a small capitals alternative to Blencathra, whereas I remember the days when there was a certain euphony between the paired names of Skiddaw and Saddleback, and it was Or Blencathra that appeared on maps in small capitals.

Abraham’s film is subtly divided into four parts, one for each season, but without any formal distinctions between sections being drawn in the film itself. It’s contributors are mainly local people, though broadcaster Stuart Maconie and comedian Ed Byrne also appear, and the film’s greatest character, as he was in the Scafell Pike film, is guide and TV researcher David Powell-Thompson, a transplanted Geordie and a calm, dry, experienced presence.

There is so much to see of Blencathra and over the film’s two hour length we see the mountain from all sides. But the majority of this is aerial footage, probably a drone camera, drifting without pattern or any real sense of the mountain’s construction, in silent scenes, or rather scenes set to a swelling orchestra. The music is pretty prevalent in this film, and there are even two songs written about Blencathra, not to mention a poem, all broadcast in full.

This is where I begin to express my disapointment. There’s a distinct change in emphasis from Scafell Pike to this, in that the film is far less concerned with the mountain itself and rather with the people who live and work about it. Life Around a Mountain might have been a more accurate title, but the film’s sub-title, A Year in the Life of the People’s Mountain, is a hint (excuse me, but ever since Tony Bloody Blair in 1999, I have become allergic to anything being described as ‘The People’s…’)

Sequenvces actually featuring the mountain are surprisingly rare, and many of these are actually looking at the mountain rather on it. There are only three sequences directly dealing with the ascent of the mountain itself, and two of these feature Sharp Edge, which to me is over-egging the pudding. Neither of these sequences show the bit of Sharp Edge that gave me my worst moment fellwalking ever, which is etched on my memory as if burned there by acid, which, given that Wainwright picks out this spot for special mention, is a strange omission. Is it me? Is my far-too-vivid memory of having to take one unsupported step, placing my life on my ability to balance on one boot on a blade of rock narrower than said boot, a false one? Or is it that nobody not being lowered from a helicopter by winch to hover, Superman-style, over the bad spot will do this with the need to attend to a camera in their hands overwhelming their primitive Survival Instinct?

Either way, the film does not match up to Scafell Pike in sheer fascination with the mountain itself. In the end, its stringest sequence turned out to be an unhappy coincidence. Abraham filmed this over the year from Spring 2015 to Spring 2016. He was engaged on a sequence about a working farm, run by a cheerful mother and a lacomic son, managing both the tiny farm and a successful guest business. This was December 2015, the month of the devastating rainstorms that flooded so much of my beloved country, causing irreperable damage – for who can put a countryside back together is less than a century? And even then make it look as it was? – and despite the mother’s forced oiptimism afterwards, it destroyed them. Those memories are very bitter: the new bridge at Pooley Bridge is modern, elegant and all-metal, but the old stone bridge, with its several spans, was both beautiful and of its place in a way the new bridge never will be. The destruction that time caused makes me want to weep.

A sad note on which to end. Blencathra is worth it because it’s next to impossible to make a bad film about the Lake District, though Abraham’s Helvellyn did its damnedest, and I’m always ready to look on places I’ll never see in real life again. But it could have been so much better, and Terry Abraham had already shown how it could, and should, be done.

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