Feet First 2009

DECEMBER 30, 2009:??They shouldn’t be allowed out

IN THE news today: A man trapped on ice in a street in Bolton dials 999 and asks for assistance. There is ice in front of him and ice behind and he is scared he might slip.

Greater Manchester Police, who have already dealt with a 999 call from a woman whose cat is playing with a piece of string and it???s ???doing my head in???, advise him to extricate himself in the safest manner possible.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic a couple nearly die in a snowdrift when their sat-nav takes them along a remote forestry road instead of to their destination.

Is it only me who wants to bury their head in their hands and scream ???Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh . ??. .??? like Munch???s painting when they read stuff like this? Am I alone in the wilderness?

Trapped on ice in a street in Bolton? Jesus H Christ. When I were a lad in Lancashire, you woke up every morning to sheet ice on the inside of your bedroom window. Your taps were frozen in the bathroom ??? if you had a bloody bathroom. Ice on the street wasn???t a hazard, it was what they might call nowadays a recreational experience.

And as for sat-navs. Well, if you want to put your life in the hands of some orbiting hardware that???s being controlled by a pack of understaffed and probably underpaid IT types who wouldn???t know the backwoods of Nebraska from the backsteets of Bolton, that???s your affair.

But for heaven???s sake, what???s wrong with a bloody map?


DECEMBER 22, 2009:??Off to the hospital ??? we may be some time??

CAPTAIN Lawrence Edward Grace Oates famously stumbled out into the Antarctic wastes to die a hero???s death. His final words, ???I am just going outside and may be some time,??? are the stuff of legend.

We Brits have always stared danger in the face with a stern eye and a wry smile. We delight in impossible odds, we laugh in the face of adversity, we care little for our personal safety.

What???s an eye or an arm if you???re a Nelson? What???s a couple of legs if you???re a Bader, or a life if you???re a Mallory? Bring it on. We can take it. No problem.

Or can we take it?

According to Dr John Heyworth, and his colleagues at Southampton General Hospital, Britain???s accident and emergency departments will be full this Christmas ??? but not brimming with people who have fallen off Lake District crags or been bowled down Ben Nevis by an avalanche. No. Times have changed. We face a different set of dangers.

People are accidentally stabbing themselves in the hand while trying to remove stones from avocado pears.


Evidently this is an increasingly common occurrence. But it???s a peril Edward Shackleton was not obliged to face, thankfully. It could have been a turning point in history.

Other hazards include exploding Christmas tree lights that burn people???s eyelids; corks hitting people in the face; fingers getting in the way when carving the turkey; hot ovens; old people choking because they don???t chew their turkey properly; and eyelids caught in zips when people try on new jumpers.

Eyelids appear to be a particular problem. Besides the exploding Christmas tree lights and the flesh-consuming zips, people who drink more than their usual amount of alcohol over the festive season run the risk of falling asleep with their eyelids open ??? resulting in dry and exceedingly painful eyes.

What???s happened to us, hey?

Have we, as a nation, changed over the years? Or when the Boudiccas, the Harolds, the Tylers, the Cromwells, the Scotts and the Lawrences have been sifted out, have we always been a pack of pathetic bloody wusses?


DECEMBER 21, 2009:??Fancy a bus trip ??? or a slog up Kilimanjaro?

WHAT is it with old people? They get to a certain age and think: ???Well, I???ve reached a certain age so I should be slowing down a bit. No more loose women and clubbing. Bring on the bus trips, milky tea, and food that you don???t have to chew too much.???

Then they start buying the Daily Mail and the Sunday Post, and complain about their street not being gritted and winter fuel payments being insufficient to heat their homes to the temperature of the cactus house in Durham Botanic Garden.

And that???s why Darlington bloke Reg Alexander is such a breath of fresh mountain air and an example to us all.

At the age of 78 and after a lifetime of mountain walking, Reg has become the oldest person to climb Kilimanjaro. Not only that, he plans to return to the 19,341ft peak when he???s in his 80s.

He tells this morning???s edition of The Northern Echo: ???People think I???m mad, but I have got to have some objective in life.???

He???s not mad, he???s a bloody star. And he???s right. You have to have an objective in life. You have to keep going, keep pushing the boundaries, keep the grey matter functioning and the joints creaking.

Last word to Reg.

???You see these pictures of people in old folks??? homes, sitting around just waiting for the next one to fall off the perch. That would be no good for me ??? you might as well get out and do something.

???If you are going to drop dead, you may as well do it on top of a mountain.???


DECEMBER 11, 2009: Summit to grumble about

FORMER Prime Minister Tony Blair has added his tuppence-worth to the climate change summit in Copenhagen, saying a global deal will make change happen faster.

He says that to take no action would be “grossly irresponsible”.

Whoa . . .

This is a bit rich coming from one of the most irresponsible leaders ??? if not the most irresponsible leader – in British history.

We don’t need lectures on responsibility from the man who took us into an illegal war, a war which many still believe was nothing more than a cynical exercise to secure oil supplies for the US.

Nothing environmentally friendly about that. And all those oil wells and pipelines burning for days?

That was responsible leadership, was it? Weapons of mass destruction; secret missile installations; presidential palaces crammed with instruments of death; satellite pictures showing mobile chemical weapons production plants; Armageddon only 45 minutes away. Yeh, yeh, yeh . . . I don’t know why anyone should take this bloke seriously ever again.

Blair should keep his nose out. He is a discredited politician and his presence in Copenhagen detracts from the important decisions being made.

We need radical moves by the world’s governments for a cleaner, healthier environment ??? not yesterday’s people chipping in from the sidelines.

Give us a break.


DECEMBER 11, 2009: Mallaig??kippers, Arbroath smokies and . . . er, Cornish sardines?

THE following fish have several things in common: Arbroath smokies, Mallaig??kippers, Dover sole, Morecambe Bay shrimps.

Yes, they???re all great to eat, especially when you???re camping ??? as this photograph of a Mallaig??kipper being cooked to perfection with wild mushrooms (in my tent on a Hebridean island in 1977) illustrates splendidly.

They also have a regional identity, like Aberdeen Angus, Kendal mint cake, Grasmere gingerbread and Newcastle Brown Ale (unfortunately the old Dog is now brewed in Yorkshire, which does spoil the symmetry of things rather).

But what???s this that???s just emerged from the depths of obscurity? My word, the Cornish sardine.

Cornish sardines have become the latest British product to win protection under an EU scheme to preserve traditional and regional food specialities, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

They join other protected specialities such as Stilton cheese and Melton Mowbray pies.

Yeh, but . . .?? we???ve all heard of Stilton cheese, and Dundee cake, and Lancashire hot-pot, and Cumberland sausage, and Yorkshire pudding, but Cornish sardines ??? unlike the county???s world-famous pasties ??? are a bit of an obscurity, aren???t they?

And aren???t sardines already named after Sardinia, which is a place in its own right and not very near Cornwall?

And weren???t Cornish sardines until recently known as pilchards? And hadn???t pilchards ??? like Spam and corned beef, which were associated with post-war austerity ??? become a bit old-fashioned and, dare I say it, in need of a makeover?

Not that I want to pour cold water on the Cornish sardine???s unequivocal success. I shall certainly be buying a couple of tins of the little silver darlings to stuff in my pack.

But doesn???t the whole episode smell a little bit, er, fishy?

Anyhow, they???ll be great for on the hill, with a pinch of salt ??? physically and metaphorically.

Icelandic dried cod is good for on the hill as well. But you need your own teeth ??? or resilient gums.

And yes, I know. If you fry kippers in your tent then everything stinks of fish for days. But what the hell. Live dangerously.


DECEMBER 6, 2009: Global warming poll

IN one of those illuminating polls that challenges the credibility of the scientific community, the Sunday Telegraph informed us today that 46 per cent of the British public ??? that???s generally people with absolutely no scientific background and who take for granted the mind-stretching concept that the world is round ??? believe there is no proof that global warming is caused by humans.

The poll, carried out by ICM, found that 39 per cent of those questioned said climate change was not proven to be manmade, while seven per cent believed climate change was not taking place at all ??? despite the wealth of scientific evidence pointing in the other direction.

This is an interesting issue. I think we should have more polls like this.

For instance, what percentage of Britons believe in gravity? I mean, we???ve been told about it ??? Isaac Newton and the apple and all that. But how many people actually believe in it? Is gravity a fact? Can we be certain? Isaac Newton was from Grantham, for heaven???s sake. We???ve been diddled by people from Grantham before.

Should we accept the laws of physics at their face value? Is there always an equal and opposite reaction to every action? Does every body continue in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled by some external force to act otherwise?

I don???t know. Let???s ask the public. They can tell us ??? when they???re not watching the evil rat-killers on I???m a Celebrity, that is. And we can peruse the results in the Sunday Telegraph and all feel enlightened by the experience.

Anyway, the world isn???t round it???s an elliptical spheroid.


DECEMBER 5, 2009: REVIEW ??? Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall

I THOUGHT I???d done well when I ran the Darlington 10k in 1996 ??? then dashed to the summit of Clough Head from Dockray on one of those landmark birthdays you would prefer not to talk about.

But I???ve just read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, which is about ultra-running. And instead of feeling like a pathetic namby-pamby who collapses in a heap of sweaty arms and legs on the bedroom carpet after a six-mile jog around the lanes of North Yorkshire, I want to get on a plane to the Colorado Rockies and run the Leadville 100.

McDougall leaves the reader inspired. His book is about much more than the physical aspects of putting one foot in front of the other and moving them very quickly, it explores the origins of why humans run, why we climbed down from the trees and developed ??? at a very early stage ??? the skill of endurance running when no other species did. It ventures into the spiritual aspects of running and why it has become such a large part of modern life.

And it takes the reader from the wet and dismal streets where he or she might be plodding tonight, to the searing heat of Death Valley (where you have to run on the white lines because tarmac burns your feet), to the misty coldness of Leadville???s mined-out mountains ??? and the secret tracks of Mexico???s Copper Canyons.

Born to Run is McDougall???s quest to track down the legendary American wilderness runner Caballo Blanco and the Tarahumara, a tribe of Mexican Indians who are reputed to be the best distance runners in the world. How do these secretive people run like gazelles through valleys and over mountains, and for hundreds of miles? And how do they do it after a night on the corn beer and lechuguilla, a homemade tequila brewed from rattlesnake corpses and cactus sap?

McDougall provides some answers. His gripping account is a true story about real people, some of whom race for glory in ultra-marathons across the US, others who run because they were born to it ??? because it???s their way of life.

BORN TO RUN ??? The Hidden Tribe, the Ultra-Runners, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
Christopher McDougall
Profile Books


DECEMBER 3, 2009: A Bridge Too Shoggly (less yellow tape please)

SO I???m dropping off the fells behind Skiddaw and the light is fading fast. The ground is absolutely saturated after the rains and floods of recent weeks, and I notice ??? while crossing the Knott ??? there is a great scoop of rough and stony ground down in Wiley Gill where a landslip has occurred. White water is still streaming down the middle of it from the flank of Great Calva.

At the foot of the gill is a wooden footbridge with yellow tape wrapped around it. It has been closed off by Lake District National Park officials.

Steady on now chaps. I know a lot of Cumbrian bridges have been washed away or damaged in recent days ??? and with tragic consequences ??? but this is a footbridge in the middle of nowhere with a drop of 2ft into a beck.

I mean, what???s a walker supposed to do when he or she gets here? Turn back to where they came from? And this path is part of the Cumbia Way, for heaven???s sake. Where they came from could be Carlisle or Ulverston. Give us a break.

I shake the bridge and it seems sturdy enough. There again, I???m not a structural engineer with a load of letters after my name, so what do I know? What I do know is that if 20 burly blokes clumped across all at once, it might fall into the beck, and one or two of them might get wet and they???d all have a laugh.

So. A dilemma. I have dropped off Great Calva, I need to get to Carrock Mine where I???ve left the car, it???s getting dark ??? and there???s a bridge on my path all closed off with yellow tape. What do I do?

Walk across the beck, of course. No problem. The beck is neither wide nor deep.

This raises the question of whether there is a need for a bridge here in the first place. I suppose the less agile would benefit from one; and mountain bikers. But do we require such a fancy affair with handrails?

I have a solution which is simpler, more pleasing to the eyes, more structurally sound and more environmentally friendly. It???s what they used to do in the old days in situations like these. Chuck a couple of second-hand railway sleepers across.

If they get washed away, you pick them up and chuck them back again.

No problems. And less red tape. Or yellow tape, as the case may be.


NOVEMBER 30, 2009: A Freedom Thing

IT???S a freedom thing. It???s about independence, self-reliance, the pride in being your own master. It???s about controlling your own destiny, about standing on your own two feet and being counted. And it???s about the reversal of our relationship with the state.

Whoa . . . Where are we going here? What happened to sweaty walks up mountains and taking pictures of sheep?

Nothing, actually. It???s the same thing.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson stood on Manchester station this morning and launched the first phase of the Government???s ID card scheme. This is a long-running and controversial attempt to tackle terrorism, combat identity crime and . . . I forget the other reasons. At the moment ID cards are voluntary and will cost ??30, plus another ??77 if you haven???t got a passport. People opposing ID cards say the structure is in place to make them compulsory.

So why should I be bothered?

Will carrying an ID card hinder my walk around the Fairfield Horseshoe? Will that little piece of stiff plastic ??? encapsulating my biometric details ??? prevent me catching a train to Inverness and melting into the mountains without trace for a couple of weeks?

Well actually, yes, it will. It will mar the whole experience. Because with the introduction of ID cards, Britain changes alarmingly.

Look out of your window. Now. This minute. Look out of your window. What do you see? A busy street; an industrial estate; a sodden garden; clouds on the fellside?

It doesn???t matter what you see, because what you see is yours. That???s your country out there. It belongs to you. Not in a materialistic sense, perhaps. You don???t hold the deeds to it. But it is your country. It???s England, Scotland, Wales. It???s where you might have been born, it???s where you probably grew up and were educated, it???s where you sit right at this minute with not too many cares.

That street, that garden, that fellside ??? they???ve been yours since the time of Oliver Cromwell; since Parliament exercised its democratic right to rule this country on behalf of the people. ID cards reverse the status quo. ID cards represent Parliament ruling us, Parliament controlling us, Parliament holding our biometric details to counter a terrorism threat that Parliament is largely responsible for creating in the first place.

I own my biometric details. They are part of me. They are mine to do with??as I wish, not the state’s to take for its own shadowy purposes. I am a free man born in a free country. I can go wherever I want in my free country. And I will continue to do so.

But ID cards signify shackles. ID cards are biometric serfdom. ID cards are a surrender of pride, of confidence, of self determination, of democracy, of everything we have upheld and cherished for the past 400 years.

I won???t be buying one. And if and when they become compulsory I won???t be carrying one.

Keep walking, keep climbing ??? and keep your freedom. It???s important.


NOVEMBER 28, 2009: Coastal access

THERE is opposition to the Government???s Marine and Coastal Access Bill, which started its final passage through Parliament last week. Apparently it will cost the taxpayer ??50m and be almost no benefit to walkers.

Oo-er. Who???s saying this?

The Country Land and Business Association.

No vested interest there then.

According to the CLA??(can???t work out why it???s not the CLBA), because we are in the deepest and longest recession since records began, the Government should not be splashing our money around on ???what is no more than political posturing???.

There is a counter view to this. If we are in the deepest and longest recession since records began, then this is the ideal time to be spending money on schemes of this nature because unemployment is at its highest level for many years, people have time on their hands, these people need exercise and stimulation, and creating a round-England coastal path would provide employment.

John Mortimer, CLA South-West director, wants the coastal access section of the Bill scrapping.

Rather than a round-England route, he says walkers want better signs, better maintenance, better waymarking, better facilities, cheaper car parking and improved bus or public transport services to get to the coast.

No they don???t, John. They want all those things AND a round-England coastal route.

I???m not old enough to remember the mass trespasses of the 1930s (neither are my parents, actually), but it seems that every time a government attempts to open up another jealously guarded section of our country, the rich and landed interests get their guns out and shoot from the hip. We saw it in the Pennines all those years ago, when the landowners had the magistrates on their side and many fine men went to prison. We saw it again a few years ago when the Government pushed through its Countryside and Rights of Way Act.

When are these people going to get the message? This is our country too. We don???t want to steal it. We don???t want to damage it. We just want to walk across it.

The CLA says the Bill is a waste of money. Its experts could deliver a better outcome for walkers and at a fraction of the cost.

Fine. They should get on with it. It???s not as if??they haven???t had the opportunity. What???s holding??them back?

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