Tuesday, April 30, 2019

don't push me cos I'm close to the edge

We went on another week-long holiday to the Lake District last week, of a very similar format to the one we took around the same time last year. This time I'm going to do the mountain-walking activity stuff first, just because that's How I Freakin' Roll, motherfuckers.

You'll recall that last time I was enthusing about having got two big adults-only mountain walks in; well we didn't quite manage that this time, but for good and interesting reasons that provided opportunities to do other equally interesting stuff. So while the big 12-mile circuit of Skiddaw that I'd devised will have to be kept in the back pocket for a future trip, we did get a couple of days out on the hills with the girls which I was, as you can imagine, unfeasibly proud and delighted about to what I imagine will be a tedious and embarrassing degree. So be warned.

Anyway, straight in, no messing, here's what we did. These are in order of distance and difficulty rather than strict chronological order (which would go 1,3,2 with two-day gaps between, if you're interested):

1. Cat Bells

We found ourselves in a position to take the girls out for a walk while my parents were looking after the boy. This presented a bit of an opportunity, since Huw is not as keen as either of his sisters on spending large amounts of time in the Macpac baby- and toddler-carrying device, and it would have been impossible for him to walk up a decent-sized hill, as gung-ho about giving it a try as he probably would have been, for the first five minutes anyway.

So we decided to take the girls up Cat Bells as an exploratory first outing, as we'd got them both some new walking boots especially for the trip. I suspect it's highly likely that this particular walk is a first outing for many kids who go on Lake District holidays, though despite its cuddly reputation the last bit of ascent from the north side (the more usual angle of approach) involves some proper, though not especially hair-raising, hands-and-feet scrambling. So it's definitely not a casual stroll you can take a pushchair on.

It also just happens that the starting point at the north end of the ridge was only about 10-15 minutes drive from where we were staying in Braithwaite, which was handy - in fact we spent more time driving around looking for a parking space than we did getting there. In addition to being a sunny Easter Saturday there was also a fell-running event on, so parking was at a premium, and we only avoided having to park a prohibitive distance away by getting lucky with someone leaving as we were approaching.

With two fairly young children (Nia and Alys recently celebrated their 7th and 4th birthdays respectively) there are a number of ways this could have panned out, many of them not good: deciding they hated it two minutes in, needing a wee every five minutes, wanting to be carried on the rocky sections, et frustratingly cetera. I'm delighted to report, though, that the girls absolutely smashed it, Nia with her natural athleticism and Alys, slightly shorter and chunkier of leg, with her trademark implacable determination not to be outdone by her big sister.

I mean, I don't want to overstate the achievement, as the round trip was a little under two-and-a-half miles, but everyone gave every appearance of enjoying themselves. Having a glorious sunny day with beautiful views of the Newlands valley and Derwentwater throughout helped, of course. Route map and elevation profile are below. Note that this is a slightly different version of the walk from the one which occupied fourth place in the Ordnance Survey's Britain's Favourite Walks list a while back - that one drops off the summit to the east to walk back along the path above the lakeside road, while we dropped off towards the Newlands valley to the west to take a more direct route back to the car park.

2. Haystacks

Fired with enthusiasm by the Cat Bells trip, Nia demanded to do another walk, a demand I was obviously more than happy to accommodate, even at the expense of a longer adults-only walk. My Dad, who after a quite debilitating bout of pneumonia a couple of years ago, and a heart-related health scare (which turned out to be a false alarm) last year hadn't done any mountain walking for a while (and who, to be fair, is nearly 77) wanted an outing too, so we decided everyone's needs would be best served by having a crack at Haystacks. This would fulfil Nia and Dad's desire for a walk a bit longer and higher than the Catbells one, and would enable Hazel and me to tick off Haystacks, which we'd failed to conquer last year as part of our Buttermere walk. Alys, having eloquently made her point with the successful ascent of Catbells, was more than happy to sit this one out.

There's some overlap with the longer, higher Buttermere walk from last year: same parking place at Gatesgarth farm, and much of the route of ascent up Scarth Gap Pass is the route we took to get down from High Crag at the end of the walk. The Haystacks route goes all the way to the top of the pass (which links the Buttermere valley with the wilder, roadless and less-frequented Ennerdale) and then turns west up a shortish scramble to the top of Haystacks at 597 metres (1958 feet). There's a rocky pile at the top with two cairns, each with a metal pole embedded in it. It's unclear which is higher but it's probably the one nearer the Buttermere side; obviously you have to put a stone on both just in case.

There are a couple of reasons for climbing Haystacks - one is the Wainwright connection as it was one of old Alf's favourite spots and his ashes were scattered around Innominate Tarn (where we stopped for lunch); the other is the general delightfulness of the plateau just to the south-east of the summit. As well as the gentle grassy descent to Innominate Tarn there is the larger and slightly bleaker Blackbeck Tarn, not to mention countless other pools dotted here and there. There are also fantastic views across Ennerdale to the vast bulk of Pillar and the more shapely summits of Kirk Fell and Great Gable, and down the Buttermere valley to Crummock Water and Grasmoor.

The summit path eventually skirts round to the north-east towards some quarry workings and then drops off down the side of Warnscale Beck and around the lower slopes of Fleetwith Pike back to the car park. Route and altitude profile info are below. Overall it's a splendid walk that packs plenty of excitement into its five-and-a-half miles, and barring a couple of minor falling-over incidents on the way down both Dad and Nia survived unscathed. A pint (and a J20 for Nia) in the Bridge Hotel in Buttermere village helped to revive everyone.

A couple of points: firstly there'd be a case for doing the walk clockwise rather than (as we did it) anticlockwise, since that way you'd get the longish walk in along the old quarry road out of the way first and would get the best views of Haystacks' rocky frontage on the way up, rather than having it behind you on the way down. It would also place the summit slightly after halfway rather than slightly before it, which I think is probably preferable.

Secondly, impressive rocky frontage or not, and for all Wainwright's understandable affection for the place, you'd have to say Haystacks has a fairly tenuous claim to be thought of as a "proper" mountain in its own right, rather than just an interesting rocky outcrop on the ridge between the higher ground of High Crag to the north-west and the plateau below Grey Knotts and Brandreth to the east. That probably explains why most of the Wainwright guides (picture is from my copy of this one) give a slightly hand-wavey estimate of 1900 feet as its height - it was never considered significant enough to warrant a specific survey of its height until Alf's advocacy brought it into the public eye (it turns out old Alf underestimated it by 50 feet or so). You can get an idea of the problem (not that it actually is a problem in any real-world sense) by noting that while Haystacks is a Wainwright it is neither a Hewitt (since it's under 2000 feet) nor a Marilyn (since it has insufficient topographic prominence).

3. Helvellyn

My only non-negotiable demand on these trips is that I get one full day to do a Proper Ruddy Expedition accompanied by whoever wants to come, is going to be able to keep up and is prepared to fit in with whatever absurd set of arbitrary challenges and targets I have chosen to build into the route. And so here it is.

One thing that had been bugging me for a while was that while I'd been up Helvellyn before, via a gruelling and fairly un-scenic slog up its western flank from the A591 at the southern end of Thirlmere, I'd never done it via the route generally agreed to be the best, and moreover the most exciting bit of fell-walk in Lakeland, Striding Edge. So given that you really want to be tackling Striding Edge in nice weather, and Easter Monday was a glorious sunny day, off we went.

We parked in Glenridding, only about half an hour's drive from Braithwaite, and headed off up to Lanty's Tarn, a partly artificial tarn occupying a dip at the end of the ridge which overlooks Glenridding and Ullswater. Apparently Lanty is short for Lancelot, the guy it was named after; I didn't sample the water (the level was quite low and it looked pretty murky) so I was unable to ascertain whether it really was lanty. We then headed round to the south a bit to join a path taking a diagonally upward course towards the Birkhouse Moor ridge, the far end of which is Striding Edge. The spectacular views down into Grisedale at this point dulled the pain of the realisation that (thanks to some slightly careless path-spotting on my part) we were going to have to do a longer detour than planned to bag the cairn at the far north-eastern end of the Birkhouse Moor ridge, something I had deemed essential to a "proper" traverse of the ridge (see "arbitrary challenges and targets" above).

Having done the out-and-back detour to the cairn we started the climb up to Striding Edge. The term is loosely used to refer to the whole ridge to the south side of the glacial corrie occupied by Red Tarn, but on the ground it's pretty clear that the rocky tower known as High Spying How marks the start of the exciting bit.

It's not really as fearsome as its reputation suggests, but that comes with the assumption that you're reasonably sure-footed and have a good head for heights, as the ridge is narrow in places, worn smooth by a gazillion boots in others, and the drop-offs to either side are steep. In other words it demands your full attention. On the other hand it's not exactly a knife-edge and you can walk along the crest pretty safely most of the way, with a couple of bits where it's probably prudent to put a hand down for support. Weather obviously plays a part, rain, high wind or ice would make it a good deal more challenging. There are drop-off paths on either side most of the way along if it all gets too much; obviously I disdained these and stuck to the crest. There's another rocky tower at the far end where the ridge joins the wall of the mountain which requires a bit of climbing to get up and over, but then it's just a steep scramble up to the vast rocky summit plateau. You can see from the altitude profile below (around the 8km mark) that the overall gradient of Striding Edge in this direction is actually slightly downwards and you have to regain some of that height to get onto the top of the mountain. Note that this is another mountain where the trig point doesn't quite mark the summit; the summit (at 950 metres, 3116 feet, the third highest mountain in England after the two Scafells) is the rocky area with the cairn over by the big X-shaped rock shelter.

After some lunch we started back; the return route goes the other side of Red Tarn via Swirral Edge, which is nothing like as sharp as Striding Edge but requires a steep and intermittently awkward downward scramble to get onto. Once you're on it it's pretty easy walking to get along to the subsidiary peak of Catstycam (2917 feet); some people bypass this in favour of a path which skirts across the contours to the outflow of Red Tarn, but those people are idiots. A slightly pathless drop-off the other side of Catstycam enables you to rejoin the downward path without any retracing of steps, and then it's a longish but steady and straightforward descent back into Glenridding and a celebratory pint in the back garden of the Beckside Bar in the Glenridding Hotel. I had a pint of Thwaites' Wainwright Ale, which seemed appropriate.

The general convention seems to be to do the walk this way round, despite the slightly longer low-altitude tail on it, just because it seems somehow right to use Striding Edge as a means of arriving at the summit of Helvellyn shortly afterwards, rather than just as a means of getting off a mountain you'd already conquered. I can tell you from our experience on a reasonably busy day up there that you would also be going against the flow of traffic in a way you might find made life awkward on some of the narrower sections. Wainwright did it this way round in his preferred version of the walk, which differs from ours slightly in starting from Patterdale rather than Glenridding, and in taking in the detour to Lanty's Tarn on the way down rather than on the way up (picture is from this book). My track log tells me the version we did was a little under 10 miles, which seems plausible, but also that it involved around 5800 feet of ascent, which seems less so - yes, there was a fair bit of descent and re-ascent, but this is a good 1000 feet more than on the Scafell walk. Maybe my new shoes were just excessively bouncy.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

the last book I read

Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami.

Our un-named narrator is a writer, though seemingly unburdened by the need to find regular work to pay the rent, buy food etc., which is nice. Living in Tokyo, he is haunted by memories of a mysterious and seedy hotel called The Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo that he once stayed in with an ex-lover (also un-named, for the moment at least).

Eventually, during one of his lengthy hiatuses between writing jobs, he finds himself compelled to return to Sapporo and seek out the hotel. He finds that it still exists, in its former location and under its former name, but bearing no physical resemblance to its former self, being a shiny modern well-appointed establishment. Nonetheless he books himself in and almost immediately strikes up a friendly relationship with one of the hotel staff. Her name is Yumiyoshi, which I think we're meant to reel backwards at the unusualness of, but as someone relatively unfamiliar with Japanese language, culture, and naming conventions unless it had been an obvious outlier like Godzilla or Kendo Nagasaki this distinction was always going to be lost on me, and probably on most other Western readers too.

Anyway, during a conversation with Yumiyoshi she reveals that she has had an odd experience while travelling in the hotel lift, wherein she was seemingly transported to an old, undocumented, dark, dank-smelling floor of the hotel. Sure enough the narrator mooches around for a while and eventually has a similar experience, though he is curious enough to explore the mysterious netherworld a little and end up in a room with a man in a sheep costume (who calls himself, reasonably enough, The Sheep Man). The Sheep Man explains (in rather vague terms) that the whole purpose of this murky parallel universe is to allow him (the narrator) to resolve some matters in his own life, find that which had previously been lost, and so on and so forth.

The narrator decides to return to Tokyo, but as he is about to leave acquires a travelling companion: Yuki, a thirteen-year-old girl abandoned in the hotel by her feckless mother and entrusted to the narrator's care for the return flight to Tokyo. Yuki turns out not only to be your typical surly and uncommunicative teenager but also to be your slightly more atypical borderline clairvoyant, with an ability to sense bad stuff in the future (or, in some cases, the past) by physical proximity to objects.

On his return to Tokyo the narrator continues to keep an avuncular eye on Yuki, who is staying alone in her mother's apartment, but also rekindles a friendship with his old schoolfriend Gotanda, who is now an established TV and film actor and whom the narrator had seen in a film also featuring his old girlfriend from the (old) Dolphin Hotel, who tuns out to be called Kiki, and who furthermore seems to have disappeared.

The narrator and Gotanda become regular drinking buddies, and even share a wild night with a couple of high-class prostitutes. All good fun until one of them turns up murdered carrying one of the narrator's business cards, and he gets hauled in by the police for questioning. Eventually they have to release him, and he returns to his directionless routine of hanging out with Yuki, drinking with Gotanda and trying to track down Kiki, interspersed with some strange waking dreams/visions whose meaning is unclear but seem to portend death. But whose?

Eventually he takes Yuki out for the day in a swanky Maserati that Gotanda has lent him and she has a clairvoyant moment at the end of which she announces that Gotanda is Kiki's murderer. The narrator confronts Gotanda with this accusation and he confesses in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way, and shortly after kills himself by driving his Maserati off a pier into Tokyo Bay.

This strand of the mystery resolved, the narrator returns to Sapporo and the Dolphin Hotel, renews his acquaintance with Yumiyoshi in a more satisfyingly penetrative way, and then almost immediately finds himself and her wandering the dank corridor's of the Sheep Man's mysterious netherworld. The Sheep Man is nowhere to be found, though. So does this mean his work is done? Both Yumiyoshi and the narrator have to pass through some mysterious wibbly-wobbly portal to emerge back in the hotel bedroom. So does this mean the loose ends are tied up and the narrator and his lady friend are free to live happily ever after?

I mean, who knows, frankly. A slavish devotion to, or insistence on, linearity of plot and definitive resolution of loose ends is probably incompatible with reading a Murakami novel anyway. For instance the whole business around who killed Mei, the prostitute from the narrator's wild foursome with Gotanda, is pretty much forgotten about, unless we're meant to assume that Gotanda offed her as well as Kiki. Maybe we are. This book, as most of them do, bimbles along in its own slightly dream-like way without it ever being very clear where it's going, nor even, at the end, whether we've got there or not. Which isn't to say the journey hasn't been an enjoyable one - all Murakami's usual tropes are here: sheep, women's ears, death, the main protagonist having to choose between one mysterious, unattainable and possibly dead woman and one more down-to-earth alive one. That last one can also be found in Norwegian Wood; the previous ones can be found in A Wild Sheep Chase to which Dance Dance Dance is apparently a sort of sequel. Whether it makes sense as a sequel I really couldn't say, as I remember very little about A Wild Sheep Chase other than that it featured sheep.

The books just mentioned are the only three Murakami's I've ever read. I'd be hard-pressed to choose a favourite, partly because the plots, such as they are, are so wispy and dream-like and relatively inconsequential (I mean, people die, but they seem so unlike "real" people that it doesn't seem to matter) that they slip through your fingers like smoke as soon as you've put the book down. As enjoyable and readable and idiosyncratic as they are I have some sympathy for the view expressed in this article, which dares to suggest that the received wisdom that Murakami is a Great Novelist and long overdue for a Nobel prize may be a bit overblown.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

none more black

Belatedly, here's the post-Christmas whisky round-up. And a bumper year it was too, featuring some of the old favourites like Jura, Highland Park and Talisker, but also a couple of new ones. Also, if I'm honest, featuring a couple of pre-Christmas impulse purchases by me of things that looked tempting and were on special offer.

As with a few previous entries in this list, what I propose to do here is consider a couple of head-to-head contests, not to whack you over the head with some sort of Verdict, but to consider how whiskies differ from each other and what sort of things one might wish to consider when a) deciding what you like and b) choosing what to drink on that basis.

Let's start with Johnnie Walker. We've been here many times before, in a sometimes bewildering kaleidoscopic array of colours. We aren't actually adding to the list of colours here as the new bottle is Johnnie Walker Double Black. Ask yourself how much more black it could be, and the answer is: none. This is a variant on the existing Black Label, which as you'll recall is one of my absolute favourite things ever. The Double Black variant supposedly contains a slightly higher proportion of Islay whisky and has been matured in pre-charred casks, both of which mean that it should be slightly darker and smokier than the standard Black Label. The obvious difference packaging-wise here is the funky blue-grey smoky bottle and the wood-grain effect on the box.

Best thing to do here is to tee up a glass of this and a glass of the standard Black Label, and I just happen to have a bottle of Black Label in the cupboard (another Christmas present). I actually acquired the Double Black myself off Amazon as they were knocking it out for 24 quid a few weeks before Christmas.

So here we go. They're pretty much exactly the same colour, for starters, so it's not as if there's some sort of Loch Dhu ridiculousness going on. Smell-wise they're very similar, and despite the claim of an extra whack of peat in the Double Black I'd be hard-pressed to tell them apart at this stage. The Double Black perhaps just has a slight rubbery edge a bit reminiscent of the Oban whereas the standard Black is a bit more cakey. We're at the outer limits of perception now though, to be honest. I need a drink.

Well, the contrast is a bit more obvious when you have a taste; here the extra peat comes through pretty clearly. It's still not Laphroaig, though, as it's quite polite and wrapped up in some nice cakey sweetness, but it's definitely there. It's a very palatable variant on the standard product, but not exactly a radical tearing-up of the formula. I'd be hard-pressed to say which I prefer, partly just because they are pretty similar. Highly variable and mood-dependent, I should think.

Secondly, by contrast, a face-off between two single malts, neither of which I'd tried before. Here's a bottle of 12-year-old Aberfeldy which I got as a Christmas gift (from my sister, I think). Back in the days of Scottish Munro-bagging holidays we used to plan our accommodation around access to Munros but also access to a distillery to visit, and I recall one year we toyed with the idea of staying near Aberfeldy village, since in addition to the obvious pull of the distillery it would have provided easy access to the mighty peaks of Schiehallion and Ben Lawers. Anyway, we stayed somewhere else in the end and consequently I have never tried the whisky.

Aberfeldy is one of those distilleries (Ardmore is another, for instance) which were primarily started up to provide whisky for a particular blender's blends, in this case Dewar's.

The second whisky here is Tamnavulin, which seeks to refute the old adage about distilleries beginning with T being generally rubbish. This one was another self-purchased one as Tesco had it for 22 quid before Christmas and I hadn't seen it on sale in supermarkets before. This one is actually called Tamnavulin Double Cask (no age statement) and is apparently the first whisky officially released by the distillery for about twenty years.

We're comparing apples and oranges here to some extent as Aberfeldy is in the Highland region while Tamnavulin is in Speyside. But I make the rules and I say these two get to go head-to-head. Let's do this. The Tamnavulin is slightly darker, presumably as a result of what the blurb on the box describes as "a sherry cask finish", though it gives no indication of what the duration of this might have been. You would say (quite wrongly) from having a sniff that the Aberfeldy was the younger and rawer of the two, as it has a bit of a hot magic markers whiff to it, whereas the Tamnavulin is a bit more woody and mellow. When you have a sip the Aberfeldy has a bit of tongue-puckering dryness to it but is a bit richer than you might expect from look and smell, while the Tamnavulin steams in all Charlie Big Potatoes with the sherry wood and something a bit dark and sweet and dangerous like, say, the Boston Molasses Disaster, but doesn't really follow through on it and ends up a little bit thin.

I have to tell you I came in here expecting to tell you that I preferred the Tamnavulin, but actually on the basis of the tasting I've just done I'd have to give it to the Aberfeldy. Ask me another day and I'd very possibly give you a different answer, though. Both are perfectly fine, if a little polite for my taste. I'd suggest if this type of thing is specifically your bag going with whichever one is currently on special offer in your local supermarket.

Monday, April 01, 2019

trying times

I'm not sure how I ended up watching this hour-long compilation of Welsh tries - possibly residual enthusiasm after our glorious completion of the 2019 Grand Slam a few weeks ago, possibly just some lazy clicking on stuff in the YouTube sidebar, or just letting the auto-play sequencer have its way.

Anyway, it's a compilation presented (with, frankly, far too much inconsequential chit-chat for my liking) by a pair of wily little Welsh scrum-halves of differing vintage, Clive Rowlands and Robert Jones (also, as it happens, father-in-law and son-in-law). Rowlands is more famous as a coach and manager of Wales and the British Lions, but as a player captained Wales to a share of the Five Nations Championship in 1964 and an outright championship win and a Triple Crown in 1965. His most famous feat as a player may well have been in 1963, though, in this game against Scotland at Murrayfield. The general tone of the newsreel voice-over is all Topping Rugger Well Done Everyone Jolly Bad Luck Scotland which conceals the interesting tactical choices made by Rowlands, principally involving hoofing the ball into touch whenever he got his hands on it. There were apparently 111 lineouts (yes, yes, all right, lines-out, if you prefer) in the match, a figure you can instantly compare with, say, the recent Wales-Ireland match in Cardiff and discover that there were 29, and with Wales' previous match in Cardiff, against England, which featured only 17. Legend has it that this was one of the catalysts for the eventual worldwide adoption of the "Australian dispensation" which outlawed direct kicking to touch outside of your own 22. 

Jones was more my era, and a fine player too, though in a different mould from the rugged Welsh scrum-halves of my formative years like Gareth Edwards and Terry Holmes. Probably much to his chagrin Jones may end up being best remembered for his terrier-like scrapping with Nick Farr-Jones on the Lions' victorious tour to Australia in 1989. 

Anyway, the video is divided up, in a slightly contrived manner, into categories starting with tries by position: wingers, centres, half-backs (Gareth Edwards gets a whole section to himself here), forwards, and then there are sections on crucial match-winning tries, spectacular long-distance ones, and then at the end a top ten run-down featuring most of the usual suspects, and no surprises with the top two: Gareth Edwards against Scotland in 1972 and Phil Bennett, also against Scotland in 1977. "That try" by Edwards for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973 was presumably ruled out of the running for not being scored in a Welsh jersey.

Anyway, the thing that caught my eye among the "match-winning" section was this try by Mike Hall against England in 1989, which turned a 9-6 deficit into a 12-9 lead which Wales retained until the final whistle to record the last of their 13 successive wins in Cardiff. It's the first time I've seen it since watching the match (as reminisced about here) live in a hall of residence TV room at Bristol University, and no amount of Google or YouTube searching will return the clip; you have to stumble across it as I did.

I'd forgotten some of the details beyond the basics of the hack-ahead and diving touchdown; one delicious detail that I had forgotten was that the two England players who principally conspired to let Wales in for the try were Rory Underwood and Jonathan Webb, the very same two players who were culpable for Ieuan Evans' try in Wales 10-9 victory at the same venue in 1993. 

As I mentioned and this article says, there has always been some doubt about the legitimacy of the grounding of the ball for Hall's try. The low quality of the video footage and the fact the the posts obscure some of the action make it difficult to reach a firm conclusion 30 years later, but to be honest it doesn't look as dicey as I remember it. It's interesting to reflect, though, on how one might retrospectively disallow some of the legendary tries of rugby history given the high-definition super-slo-mo multi-angle replays we've got access to these days. In addition to Hall's try there are probably a whole host of kick-and-chase touchdowns where the grounding might look a bit dubious on close scrutiny. A couple of obvious other examples: both the Barbarians try (Quinnell to Edwards right at the end of the move) and the 1977 Bennett try (Bennett to Burcher somewhere in the middle) feature passes which harsh critics might rule out for being forward. Elsewhere there are probably lots of undetected knock-ons, obstructions, feet in touch and clatterings into the corner flag to mar your retrospective enjoyment of great moments in rugby history.