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Tuesday, 12 April 2016


I have long been an eclectic reader but there is a genre of non-fiction that has inspired me. I am talking usually about authors who have organised small projects themselves, largely unsupported and travelled alone, or with another companion who are telling their story as it happened with all the ups and downs, often with humour, and above all giving the reader a powerful feeling for being there on the journey. These tales do not give the impression of being published primarily to earn money, but more from a genuine desire just to tell the story.


1895 - Sailing Alone Around the World                  Joshua Slocombe

The first person to sail solo round the world in a boat he allegedly built, more or less himself. Socombe is not shy,  giving us many examples of his prowess, but his achievement as an unsponsored lone adventurer has given him a significant and deserving place in history, and for we readers, an all time classic read.


1952 -Mountains of the Midnight Sun                   Showell Styles

Styles at 44 organises an amateur mountaineering cum exploration expedition to North Lyngen, an unexplored peninsula north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. Styles and his three younger companions have a series of pure amateurish adventures. This is a salutary example of how such things can be achieved without elaborate and expensive organisation.


2005 - Race Against time                                        Ellen Macarthur

Ellen achieves the fastest solo sail around the world (71 days). The book is in coffee-table format with the benefit of superb photography and modern production, but its value comes from the fact that most of the text is taken from Ellen's own emails and video diaries produced on the spot with  total frankness and vivid description which can only come from the spontaneity of conveying events, thoughts and feelings as they happen. The voyage alone, never mind the race (against time) would have been one of the greatest ever human achievements, but remember this was also a race and despite enormous difficulties Ellen never stopped racing.


2004 - Feet in the clouds                              Richard Askwith

An account of a year in the life of a competitor in a sport many people haven't even heard of - fell running. The book gained the Best New Writer award for 2005 from British Sports Publishing. Even if you think you would have no interest in the subject I guarantee you will just keep reading to the end.


1980 - The Big Walks                                Ken Wilson and Richard Gilbert

Another coffee-table book and marginally included here, not particularly for any literary merit. I discovered it a few years after its publication and as an already reasonably serious fell walker it gave me further inspiration for longer walks and in particular my longest walk ever - Across Lakeland -Shap to Ravenglass - 42 miles. That took me over 17 hours. At Ravenglass I met a guy called Roger Putnam in his garden and he told me that his pal Tom Price had contributed that walk to The Big Walks book and they often wondered if it could be done in a day !


1978 - Hamish's Mountain Walk              Hamish Brown

Discovered when I was halfway through completing the Munros. Hamish was the first person to complete all 289 Munros (mountains in Scotland over 3000ft) in a single three month non-stop backpacking walk. Hamish is, or was, a schoolmaster at a private school in Scotland where he introduced many pupils to mountains and the outdoor life. He is an accomplished writer and this account is a classic, and also a useful reference for Munro baggers.


1913 - 15,000 Miles in a Ketch               R.R. Du Baty

My greatest ever find in a secondhand bookshop. This gem is the account of two French brothers in their early twenties who set sail with a crew of four from Boulogne in 1907 to the Kerguellen Isles in the Indian Ocean. To cover their costs they spent eighteen months on the islands killing seals for their oil which they stored in barrels. One may feel put off at the idea of killing seals, but it is well handled by Batty, and it was not a blood lust, but the source of their finances, because they sailed on to Australia and sold the oil and the boat to cover the cost of getting back home. Baty was encouraged by an English journalist to write the book and he did so, surprisingly, in English language, and even more surprisingly with an evocative and descriptive style.


1996 - Clear Waters Rising                    Nicholas Crane

He walked from the north-west tip of Spain to Istanbul non-stop over seventeen months and 10,000kms. Again this was a personal story with no sponsorship or grand organisation, and the quality of the writing shines through.


1999 - Two Degrees West                    Nicholas Crane

A project after my own heart. We don't have to follow long distance routes that others have devised, and here Crane opted to walk the two degree longitude line running from north to south through England allowing himself only a kilometre each side of the line. The account is full of anecdotes and ingenious means of keeping within the parameters, and there is also much humour. A good example
of making things happen.


1987 (published 1994) Walking the Watershed                        Dave Hewitt

I reviewed this book on a post here  CLICK  which gave rise to a lot of discussion comparing it with Peter Wright's book covering a similar project in a different style. Here is a copy of my review of Dave's book which largely sums up the essence of the books I am writing about here.

 Walking the Watershed - David Hewitt (ISBN - 0 9522680 1 9)

What is it really like, to experience a serious long distance backpack?

Read Dave Hewitt’s book and you will absorb the whole atmosphere.

This is an honest and comprehensive journal of Dave’s 80 day, 850 mile walk of the Scottish watershed, which included over 100,000 metres of ascent and 45 Munros. The walk was done in 1987.

Writing a daily account without endless repetition is not easy, but my interest never wavered due to an identifiable and pleasing style, with avoidance of clichés, and frequent use of original and often amusing simile and metaphor. 

Dave fearlessly records his low points, and the doubts he had from time to time as well as giving us uplifting word pictures of the best of Scotland’s landscape.

It is interesting to learn that a long trip like this takes on a different dimension which only becomes apparent after a couple of weeks or so, as you begin to see it as a way of life, with a relevant adjustment to the mental approach.

Dave describes the rambling thoughts and motivations and uncertainties drifting through the mind as he plods along, and much of this will, I am sure, be familiar to fellow backpackers.

Although walked in 1987 the book was not published until 1994, and I do wonder about the amount of detail. Either Dave kept an unusually comprehensive journal, or he has a phenomenal memory.  

If you have climbed a good number of Munros, or completed the lot, you will have the added attraction of visiting familiar venues and comparing notes, and sparking off many memories, but its best attribute is in conveying palpably what it is like, in all respects, to trek through wild landscape for an extended period with the sometimes pressure of achieving a goal you have set for yourself.


1958 - A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush             Eric Newby

Just  one of the best travel books ever. Don't be fooled by the modest, self deprecating style. What they did was remarkable.


2003 - Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland      Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter

Included here because this was a labour of love and dedication in the same spirit as many of the above authors. Marjorie, at the age of 86 finished re-painting the entire British flora to a standard that puts photography to shame. Richard Fitter wrote the clear and helpful text at the age of 96, and his son Alastair produced location maps that made identification easier in a subject that is difficult in that respect. A classic for the non academic enthusiast and a great team effort.



Anonymous said...

That is a great reading list Conrad.
I gain most of my backpacking inspiration from N Crane's Clear Waters Rising.
I would add H W Tilman's sailing adventures on Mischief for the seat of your pants action, John Muir's books for wilderness philosophy, and Chris Bonington's Quest for Adventure for exactly that.

Sir Hugh said...

BC - Welcome - it's good to see there is at least one fellow reader out there ! Yes. I go along with the Tilman and John Muir. The common thread there is the ability to exist for long periods with almost no food. I have not read that particular Bonnington book, so it has gone onto my to-do list

Having read all the Tilman seagoing books they have not stuck firmly in mind which is a sad failing for me with many books and not necessarily the fault of the authors. So, the books I listed are the ones that did leave me with a strong, lasting memory, and therefore it is a very personal selection. But I am certainly interested to hear from others of books which have genuinely inspired rather than being just a good rollicking or dramatic read. When I look at my list I realise that they are all accounts of events that lasted over a fair period of time rather than an account of a single, shorter event. There are others I could have included, Shackleton, Scott etc., but the ones I chose are on my shelf and the ones I feel sort of close to.

afootinthehills said...

An excellent list though I haven't read all of those books. To the 'The Big Walks' I added Classic Rock, Hard Rock, Cold Climbs and Classic Walks to my collection, all of course in the same format. It was you Conrad who recommended Nick Crane's 'Clear Waters Rising' to me which I thought a superb read. I must now read 'Two Degrees West'.

In 2007 we met Ellen MacArthur near Loch Bharcasaig in Skye when we were returning from a walk to The Maidens and not long after we'd bought her book, 'Taking on the World'. She kindly signed a piece of paper we had in a sack adding 'go for it'!

Hamish's Mountain Walk is, as you say, a classic and captures the period perfectly. I thought the photographs in later editions, stunning though they were, out of place for a walk done in 1974 but apparently the originals were lost. We have a first edition signed by Hamish when he spoke at a local bookshop in 1978. I re-read it once a year and I used to love reading his accounts of trips with his pupils in early editions of Climber and Rambler along with articles by Showell Styles.

I enjoyed Dave Hewitt's book up to a point but found the deatil too much really.

Since it is on our book shelf I would add 'Shackleton's 'Endurance'

Thanks for this list Conrad.

afootinthehills said...

Lynne has just reminded me of Myrtle Simpson's 'Viking, Scots and Scraelings' 1977. A kayaking trip on the Greenland coast with her three young children. Also by the same author 'Home is a Tent' and 'Due North' We borrowed these books from the library shortly after publication and remember being inspired by her, although the detail is now long forgotten.

If the name happens to be unfamiliar to you Conrad, here is a link to some information and a video.

Roderick Robinson said...

Another great travel book, written by a Frenchman (name forgotten), describes the vicissitudes experienced by a quartet of French lads driving a Deux Chevaux from Tierra del Fuego to Los Angeles. Very French I have to say; very laconic. And I fear a counterpunch to your assertion about immediacy. The adventure may be immediate but the best writing is almost always the product of reflection and correction. This holds true even when the aim is to convey immediacy. Ref. Maurice Herzog's Annapurna - yet another Frenchman. You no doubt believe I live in their pockets. You can, if you wish, and as you have done before, label this as my obsession. I freely confess. Robert Browning has a lot to answer for.

gimmer said...

i agree with your other comment-ers - one of the most interesting and thought-provoking posts of all time:
as with the others, it made me wonder what books have had the sort of influence on me that these have had on you.
I cannot honestly recall that any 'mountain' or 'outdoor' books as such have had that sort of life-long dynamic effect that these have on you, although Elizabeth Arthur's Antarctic Navigation (fiction) or her Island Sojourn (fact) have had a late infuence, and Into the Silence was humbling indeed, but in different spheres there are others - it would be pretentious to mention some (eg Ceasar's Gallic Wars or the Aeneid - 'facilis descenus averno' hanging over me like a sword of Damocles ) and oddly, the ones I recall most were fiction - Fame is the Spur, Rogue Herries and the chronicles - and some biographies - Dorothy Hodgkin, of course, and 'autobiographical history' eg The World Crisis - I suppose Clausewitz must feature also, but probably the most seminal was Hope and Memory by Todorov, dissecting 20C totalitarianism, and which finally takes the palm.

gimmer said...

- and I forgot to add the most important of all
Scouting for Boys
Camping and Woodcraft
where would any outdoorsman be without these !

Roderick Robinson said...

Grannie Robinson read Rogue Herries (I haven't). I thought both you and Gimmer should know this.

Sir Hugh said...

Afoot - thanks for your contribution. That is what I was looking for. I will be researching some of your suggestions.


RR - I agree up to a point about the post action writing, but you can't get away from the drama anguish and honesty that comes through from Ellen when sourced from logs, emails, sound and video diaries produced in real time.


gimmer - Ok, but has your study of military history given you inspiration? Has it influenced you to take certain courses of action? As you know I have read Rogue Herries (RR please note) and although it is a fine novel with many familiar and nostalgic Lake District references I can't say that it inspired me, by which I mean influenced me to proceed with some particular action. Scouting for boys I suppose was an influence - it was a long time ago, but I think even then at that young and less critical age there were aspects of it that we took "with a pinch of salt".


RR -For the record, I thought you should know, I also have read Rogue Herries, and it wasn't from a Granny Robinson recommendation - note the optional spelling of granny.

afootinthehills said...

I was about to make a similar comment to your first reply to RR. I think one if the reasons Hamish Brown's book, for example, is so effective at immersing the reader in all that he is experiencing is precisely because the book is essentially his daily journal. His account of almost becoming a hypothermia victim in Knoydart is a good example.

A counter to that I suppose is W H Murray's 'Mountaineering in Scotland', a book which influenced me more than any other has ever done.

gimmer said...

I'm pretty sure that specific, direct inspiration from others' writings is quite rare and sometimes, even often, ill-fated - but your citation of 'influence' in thinking and possibly in motivation is both the more likely and more likely to be useful and beneficial - eg Clausewitz' 'doctrines' - organisation, planning, persistence, endurance and intelligence - have wide relevance in business, politics, mountaineering - and even local affairs - not just for defeating the French or Russians in pitched battle! These may even be the common, but sometimes faint, threads running through the other books listed - Herries, Hodgkin, Churchill all - what cannot be denied is the failure of these 'exemplars' to have much actual influence . . . or made much difference . . . despite wishful thinking it might be so !
Was it not Coolidge who said (I paraphrase) that genius (ie inspiration) without planning and persistence is the hobgoblin of the destitute down the ages.

Anonymous said...

What a great idea - books that have actually had an influence. I've read and reread Hamish Brown, Nicholas Crane and also John Hillaby's long walks, although I've never actually embarked on a huge journey like any of theirs. In a similar vein look out for 'Mean Feat' by John Waite - less well known, but also very good.
The 'Big Walks' books were more directly influential - my Dad had them and loved the idea and we walked some very long routes when I was in my teens - the Derwent Watershed in the peak for instance.
I've given this some thought and I think personally I'd have to choose the Evans' scrambling guides to the Lakes, 'The Winding Trail' edited by Roger Smith which I've turned to again and again, and 'Food for Free' by Richard Mabey which got me looking closely at plants and fungi trying to identify them. His essays also inspired me with the idea of doorstop walks frequently repeated and the richness of both the familiarity that brings bit also the changes with the passing seasons and years.

Sir Hugh said...

beating the bounds - Very good. you have understood exactly what I was getting at. I will be having a look at some of your titles.