Miles From Anywhere
The Ascent of the Wrekin - Up the North Face.
There is a foolish belief abroad that the biggest mountains are the best mountains. That is why there are so many unbelievably dull mountaineering films on television, with the climbers breathing hoarsely into the microphone, the commentary telling you that “by now every footstep had become a huge effort” and nothing to see but icy goggles staring out at you from carrot-coloured anoraks. But this idea that biggest is best, or the more likely you are to die on a mountain the greater it is, is only a reflection of the Guinness Book of Records attitude to life, the feeling that size is all and God bless America.
Great mountains are nothing to do with bulk. A great mountain should make you want to go straight to the top of it. When you get there, you should have a breathtaking view of 18 counties. There should be interesting flora all the way up and very little litter. Above all, a great mountain should look impressive in proportion to its surroundings, and not be too far from licensed premises.
On all these counts it is quite clear that Mount Everest, for instance, is not a great mountain.
Everest has the misfortune to be surrounded by so many similar mountains that most of them don’t even have names, only K reg numbers, and it has to be very carefully photographed to look impressive at all. There is hardly a view from the top.
For the last 10,000 ft, litter is the only thing to be seen apart from snow – it is said that the piles of rusty cans marking old base camps are now big enough to be marked on the maps. And the nearest pub is in some other country. Surely only madmen would want to climb that thing.
The Wrekin, on the other hand, may be 28,000ft lower but it’s a great mountain by every other test, as I have recently discovered. I first set eyes on it, though, 30 years ago when our family moved to a house on the edge of the Welsh hills near Wrexham. From the garden on an exceptionally clear day, you could see about twenty-five miles away a distant pyramid floating in the Shropshire plains, a tiny Gibralter twinkling on the horizon, which my father said was called The Wrekin.
Sometimes I used to gaze at it longingly, rather as AE Housman is said to have gazed wistfully at the Shropshire Lad from a distance, and hope that I might climb it one day.
That day came, finally, last Friday.
As any mountaineer will tell you, the choice of site for a base camp is all-important. I had already gone through the complete list of pubs and hotels of Salop and had eventually settled for the Buckatree Hall Hotel, which was ideal in three ways. It was open. It was licensed. And it nestled on the very flanks of the Wrekin itself, only about 500ft from the summit.
At six o’clock on this summer evening, therefore, I prepared conscientiously for the great ascent. I put on my dinner jacket (ideal for climbing as it is crushproof and doesn’t show the dirt, and you’re ready for dinner as soon as you return). I put extra-stout laces in my shiny black leather shoes. And I put my head into the hotel bar and said: “Could you point me towards the path up The Wrekin, please?”
“Climbing The Wrekin, are you?” said a man on a stool, who turned out to be the manager. “Then you’ll be needing a drink first. What’ll it be?”
“Are you going up the north face or the south side?” said the barman, pouring out a large gin and tonic. This is what I love about mountaineering. The camaraderie. The talk. The sitting around in bars instead of doing any climbing. I explained to the manager my theory about mountains being great not because of their height but because of their setting and scale, and included a side-swipe at Everest.
“It’s true”, he said. “If you go west of here you’ll find hills in Wales which are not nearly as impressive as The Wrekin, despite being that much higher. But I’ll tell you something else. If you go east of The Wrekin, how far do you think you have to go before you find a hill that’s higher, bearing in mind that The Wrekin is 1,344ft high?”
I tried to think of a bigger bump. Warwickshire? Rutland, perhaps? Well, East Rutland…?
“Russia. Yes, Russia. Believe it or not, there’s nothing between here and Russia that’s bigger.”
Extraordinary. To think, I mean, that at this very moment somewhere in Russia they are saying to visitors: “Yes, The Wrekin, there’s nothing bigger to the west of us till you get to The Wrekin. Vrekin. Near Shrevsbury.”
“Don’t forget”, said the manager, “that the record from the hotel bar to the top of The Wrekin is about twenty-six minutes. That was done by some fell runner from the north, though; most of us are quite happy with forty or fifty minutes.”
Fifty minutes? It was an even harder climb than I thought. I hired a porter to take my equipment. He agreed to go as far as the hotel door and no further. I pleaded and cajoled him to take it to the summit. Eventually we compromised and he agreed to look after it if I left it behind the reception desk.
The first stretch of ground after leaving the hotel is about ten feet of tarmac, which is quite dangerous if you don’t look both ways. Then comes a steep bank, which is also dangerous, especially if you fall back on to the road. After that you are suddenly in a vast wood, full of stately oaks, beech and birches. Leaving plenty of room under their branches for the sun to come in and the grass to grow; it is exactly like pleasant rolling parkland except that it is set about 35° to Shropshire.
After about five minutes’ really tough climbing things begin to get even harder as we reach the bracken line. The bracken was totally impenetrable and I really think we could not have go through it if it had not been for a clearly marked path. Then the path petered to a track. My black leather shoes found it harder to grip. Every step became a mighty effort.
At this height, about 1,000ft, the body is under strain, especially if you have recently taken a gin and tonic, and it can play very strange tricks on you. For instance, my eyes told me that the trees were suddenly thinning and the blue sky was very near. Yet how could I be at the top after only quarter of an hour…?
I stepped out of the trees into the open and nearly fell to my death, down a 300ft cliff. The most enormous quarry lay before me, a smooth yellow face falling away from my feet. Beyond the quarry the trees rose again, and beyond the trees, high up, with a television mast on top, was a very familiar shape. The Wrekin.
I had climbed the wrong mountain.
Down in the hotel bar again, I had my mistake explained to me. There was a big Wrekin and a little Wrekin. The little one is called the Ercall, and that is the one I’d climber. Did I not know the story of how The Wrekin was formed…?
There are, it seems, two explanations of how The Wrekin got there. One, favoured by geologists, is that it is an outcrop of igneous rock laid down years ago and now quarried for use as stone in the M54. The other, favoured by everyone else, is that it was created by the Devil. The Devil apparently wanted to destroy Shrewsbury and decided to do this by carrying a shovelful of earth across country and dropping it on Shrewsbury to kill the place stone dead. Nowadays, of course, he could get the same effect by putting in a modern shopping centre.
But he was fooled by an ingenious old man into thinking he was half a world away from the town, when in fact he was only ten miles, and dropped off the soil where he was. Hence The Wrekin. And cleaned the rest of his spade. Hence the Ercall.
“Never mind, sir”, said the barman. “You’ll make it all right tomorrow. We all get to climb The Wrekin sooner or later. Do you see this scar on my forehead? That was caused by The Wrekin. I fell off a rock up there when I was 11 years old, and I still have the mark. By the way, did you know that there are deer up on The Wrekin? Oh yes. I’ve only seen them once, but they’re there all right. Incidentally, if you do go up the north side, see if the firing range warning flags are up”.
The following morning dawned bright and early, and so did I several hours later. I breakfasted, refused the porter’s offer of help to the door, and walked 200 yards down the road past some truly magnificent rhododendrons. Then I found myself face to face with the North Face.
The North Face, which is really more like the north-west shoulder, or perhaps even the north-by-north-west buttock, is a smooth dark surface reminiscent of mushroom soup which has been allowed to dry out. It is almost sheer, or about 45°. Climbing it is tough without actually being arduous, a challenge, though not really a challenge; looking back, I think the best adjective is monotonous.
Halfway up, hanging on to a tree root, I was suddenly struck by the thought that mountaineering is the worst possible way of seeing the world, except for going round the world non-stop in a boat or flying round the world with Clive James. A mountaineer sees nothing except what’s two feet from his nose, just as the non-stop sailor passes 60 countries and knows none of them.
These days you sometimes see little babies being carried by father in harnesses on their front, with the babies staring inward at their chest. All they can see is a mountain of shirt, or hairy skin, inches away. Those babies are all going to grow up to be mountaineers.
So it was with great pleasure that the expedition finally came to the top of the North Face and rejoined the stately avenue that sweeps up towards this greatest of all Shropshire mountains and from which, thank God, cars are banned.
There were other climbers about, even at this early hour. Three Sikhs, laughing and joking in their own language or maybe Birmingham. A young man, earnestly kicking a football towards the summit.
I have seen many films about climbing the Himalayas, but I do not recall such a jovial mixed company being encountered on any mountain at 200ft from the top. I was passed at one point by a young man wearing a T-shirt saying GROPE INTO THE EIGHTIES who was telling his older companion: ”Well, I wasn’t caught but my mate was and I knew he would grass on me, so I decided to give myself up to the police”.
We reached the end of the trees and passed out into the grassy uplands beyond the tree line; the wind suddenly hit us from all directions. It was like the view from an aeroplane, at that magic height when you can still see things happening on the ground, sunny and endless.
To the west, beyond the Shropshire chess board, were the shadowy beginnings of the Welsh hills; to the south Wenlock Edge and the cooling towers which mark Ironbridge’s valley; to the east a distant haze which might have been Wolverhampton or just possibly Russia; and to the north a long, long plain leading to the garden 25 miles away from which 30 years ago I had looked up at The Wrekin.
The Times 13th August 1984
photography Alain le Garsmeur