Tag Archives: landscape

Introducing Munros, Corbetts, Donalds, and Grahams

A view from the summit of Ciste Dubh in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland © 2011 Jasmin Cameron

Americans usually think of the British countryside—if they think of it at all—as an agreeable, rolling landscape, the image Britons tend to evoke by quoting William Blake on “England’s green and pleasant land”. But there’s great variety in these little islands: the Yorkshire moors; the Scottish coastal fjords, locally called firths, some of which are closer to Norway than to London; the famous white chalk cliffs in the southeast. And then there are the mountains.

The lighter dot on the upper right is the roof of our cabin, near Echo Summit, California

Yes, we have mountains here, but not like the ones in the US. The highest summit in the British Isles, Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands, stands 4409 feet tall—by American standards, not very high. Last month on vacation I, having had the good sense to marry into a family with a California mountain cabin, spent a week at 7500 feet in the Sierras, although I didn’t have to do any climbing apart from climbing out of the passenger seat of the rental (UK: hire car). I could look out my cabin window and see snow-topped Stevens Peak (elevation 10,061 feet) without even getting out of bed. That’s over twice as high as Ben Nevis, but still nowhere near as tall as the highest peak in the Sierra Nevada. That’s Mt Whitney—at 14,505 feet, the tallest mountain in the contiguous 48 states.

Stevens Peak, the Sierra Nevada, California

But before American readers smile at the height of the UK’s tallest mountain, they might consider this: expeditions training to climb peaks in the Himalayas (that’s where they keep Mt. Everest) have trained in the UK, where these wee Scottish mountains gave the mountaineers a good workout.

Some British peaks extend up into air that has come straight from the arctic with no significant land mass to moderate it, making temperatures more like those usually found at higher altitudes, and the moisture of the maritime climate here makes it seem even colder. Even in summer the weather patterns are famously unpredictable, tending toward clouds that descend with little warning, blinding climbers with fog. Shorter doesn’t mean easier. And winter climbing here presents all the dangers of winter climbing anywhere, including blizzards and avalanches. These mountains may not be so tall, but they aren’t to be taken lightly, either.

A view of the Grey Corries © 2011 Jasmin Cameron

Every year thousands of people set out to climb British peaks, scores of them as Munroists or Munro baggers—that’s bag in the sense of seize or capture, while Munro means a Scottish mountain over 3000 feet high. Munro baggers aim to compleat (the accepted spelling in the sport) the Munros, that is, to climb all 283 of them.

The name comes from Sir Hugh Munro, founding member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club and practitioner of two popular Victorian passtimes: mountain climbing, and classification of the physical world. While other Victorian Britons classified fossils or finches, Munro measured mountains. Nowadays his list of qualifying Scottish peaks—with a few changes from time to time as different methods of measuring come to the fore—provides modern climbers with a standard set of mountains to test their mettle, and the Scottish Mountaineering Club still registers Munroists’ compleations.

Mt. Shasta in California (14,179 ft), snapped on my recent vacation. But the intrepid Jasmin, to whom I owe a lot for the info in this post, has climbed Mt. Shasta, too.

Jasmin Cameron, registered Munroist 4244, says that by the time you bag them all, you’ll have learned to negotiate all kinds of terrain in all kinds of weather, and learned all manner of mountaineering techniques, up to and including abseiling (US: rappelling). She loves the “clagged in” (US: fogged in) days when you can’t see where you’re going, so she can test her navigating skills: counting paces to estimate distance, feeling the shape of the mountain with her feet, matching that to the contours on the map. The list of climbing gear, navigation aids, supplies, and safety equipment she takes on British climbs shows that this is a serious undertaking.

A boulder near the cabin is twice the size of our car; that's what I mean by 'boulder'. But in British English, 'boulder' can mean any biggish rock. You can imagine my reaction when I read "He picked up a boulder and threw it..." I mean, these Britons are a hardy people, but that's a bit much.

But BBC Radio 4 recently reported that more and more people are setting off with no maps or compasses, trusting GPS software to guide them anywhere they want to go, trusting cell phones (UK: mobiles) to call for help as all they need in the way of preparation for emergencies, and some get into big trouble. Jasmin has seen some of these ill-prepared people putting themselves at risk, the worst case being three French tourists who went up Carn More Dearg (4003 ft),  in the winter, in ordinary street clothes; she says their worst mistake was not wearing proper footwear. I would have thought their worst error was not having a map. They did have a sketch—of the mountain they thought they were on, but they were in fact on the wrong mountain. But they got down okay, and not everyone does; a few people die every year, it seems, from underestimating Munros.

A view of the Mamores, in the Grampian mountains of the Scottish Highlands © 2011 Jasmin Cameron

However you tackle them—and you can go in any order—not all Munros give equal climbing satisfaction. Some are more highly prized because they’re more difficult to climb, or just more difficult to get to in the first place. Sometimes the only way to a Munro is across another Munro, and remember that at the summit of the second mountain you’re still only halfway there; you have to get yourself back down, which in this case involves going up the first Munro a second time. And you may have had to walk into the wilds quite a distance just to get to the bottom of the thing in the first place. This is easier in the summer when days are longer—and in Scotland, this can mean daylight until after 11 p.m. In winter, though, the sun goes down around 3.

The cabin porch (approx. 7500 ft) where I like to read or work when I can get there.

If Munros—and Munro tops, which are subsidiary summits, over 3000 feet but not standalone mountains—seem a bit daunting, you can start out on their shorter relations, the Corbetts, Donalds, and Grahams (in order of decreasing elevation). If you’re a stickler for standards, you can bag Murdos, which—in an ecumenical blending of English and metric measurements—are over 3000 ft but also have a relative height of 30 metres. What’s a relative height? That which by any other name would be a prominence, a shoulder drop, or an autonomous height. (I leave you to look it up on Wikipedia, if you like.)

If you’re outside Scotland you can bag Furths, Nuttalls, Hewitts, or Wainwrights. And if you’re into irony, you can try Marilyns. The name is a pun on Munro (Marilyn Monroe, right?), and some of the mountains, or maybe hills is a better name for them, are so low they’re almost in my league (at least one of them is inside a town).

Lucy Adams, who later bought the cabin described; seen here with her donkey Jocko in the Sierras, circa 1925

I bag mountains in another sense, as bag can also mean to abandon. I like my mountains as backdrops to good books. The grandmother who provided my in-laws with their mountain getaway eventually got used to hearing most days that while other people were going off hiking or fishing, I planned to read on the cabin porch. She started picking out books for me; I’d find them on my bed when I arrived. The frailty of very great age confined her to the cabin porch, but when younger she knew the Sierra peaks firsthand. We have a letter from her husband to a relative who had asked that he stop her from going on a 2-week hike in the Sierras, alone except for a donkey to carry her gear; her husband asked how on earth they thought he could stop her from doing anything.

Lucy Adams (1898-1996). Grandmother on the cabin porch as I remember her.

So here’s to the unstoppable among us, from grandmother to the Munro baggers starting out this morning for the top of Ben Nevis. I salute you, from my comfortable chair at sea level, in the green and pleasant part of the country.

I’m grateful to Jasmin Cameron, who provided the lion’s share of the particulars above, as well as for help from the staff at the Fort William Tourist Information Centre in Scotland. All photos are mine unless credited otherwise in the captions.


Filed under Culture, Travel

A Visit to Miss Austen’s House

Living in the south of England puts me in easy visiting distance of the homes of a whole collection of classic authors, though I’m not sure what you call a group like that. If geese come in gaggles and lions come in prides, what about writers?  A booklet?  A folio?  A rejection of writers?

Jane Austen’s Chawton cottage from the street, which would have been a busy thoroughfare in her day

I’ve been to several of them—places such as Shaw’s Corner in Hertfordshire (as in George Bernard) or Bateman’s in Kent, where Kipling lived.  Undershaw, built for Arthur Conan Doyle, stands empty at the moment while protestors try to stop its redevelopment into flats; we had a memorable dinner there a couple of years ago during its restaurant phase.  I have even, on a few occasions, volunteered at Virginia Woolf’s house in West Sussex, spending the afternoon sitting in either her bedroom or her sitting room, making sure that nobody walked off with any books or damaged any upholstery, answering questions when I could.

But Jane Austen’s house is closer to me than any of them, so I don’t know why, in over a decade of living half an hour’s drive from the place, I’d never been to see it. If I were saving it for a rainy day, then–this being England–I’d had ample opportunity. Recently, on a beautiful sunny May afternoon, I managed to go have a look.

Looking across the courtyard at the rear to the bake house and other outbuildings (UK: outhouses — no, really, that is the term they use here)

The tale of how Jane Austen came to live in Chawton in Hampshire sounds straight out of her novels: The death of the male head-of-household leaves the heroine, her sister, and their mother in a perilous financial state.  A distant cousin saves the day when, having no children of his own, he adopts the heroine’s brother as his heir.  In due course this brother inherits a small handful of large country estates and can offer his mother and unmarried sisters a cottage, rent-free, for the rest of their lives.  This frees them from worry about how they will live although the heroine, a fine judge of class distinctions, is always conscious of the social divide between their little cottage and her brother’s manor house as she walks through the fields and woods the short distance between the two.

The house from the side garden

Edward Knight (Jane Austen’s brother; he changed his surname to that of his benefactor), lived in Chawton House, currently a library promoting study of the work of women writers; the cottage he gave to his unattached female relatives is now a museum showcasing Jane Austen, her family, and her times.

Cottage, by the way, is a word the Americans and the British use differently.  Setting aside those Americans, mostly in New England I think, who use cottage to mean a huge posh vacation home, most Americans on hearing that someone lived in a cottage would expect the place to be small, cosy, rural, picturesque, and probably thatched. Not so in England.  There’s no hard and fast rule, but almost any house below the size of a stately home can be called a cottage.

A bit of the garden, though most of it is lawns surounded with hedges and trees. The Austens also grew their own plants for dyeing cloth.

The Austens’ cottage is a three-story brick house with six bedrooms plus staff quarters, as well as a separate kitchen, bake house, and coach house, and—by today’s standards, anyway—a huge garden.  Even with all of that space, Jane never had her own study or any kind of privacy while writing.  She always shared a bedroom with Cassandra, her only sister, and wrote at a tiny table by the dining room window.

The dining room, with Jane Austen’s small writing table near the window.

Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own used Jane Austen as an example of how society cramps a female writer’s style.  Austen wouldn’t allow anyone to fix the creaking door of the dining room, because the creak gave her enough notice that someone was coming that she had time to pull a sheet of blotting paper over her work, to keep it secret.  The family knew she wrote books—her father was involved in early attempts to publish her work, and her mother and sister took over all the running of the household to give her all the time she wanted for writing—but their wider sphere of acquaintance did not; it wasn’t ladylike to write for money.  Her first book, Sense and Sensibility, came out with nothing but “By a Lady” to indicate the author, and after that, the title pages said only “By the Author of” and listed her previous successes.

Jane Austen’s writing table

I’d always thought of Jane Austen at her inadequate little table, a martyr to interruptions, hiding her pages, as I imagine Woolf meant readers to think of her: an example of female genius unreasonably constrained by society’s rules.  But it’s easy to do the math and find that with six bedrooms (not counting the servants’ quarters on the top floor), four people to accommodate (the sisters, their mother, and Martha Lloyd, a family friend), two of whom (Jane and Cassandra) shared a bedroom, even if they saved two rooms for guests, an extra room remained free.  Surely she could have had a private study if she’d wanted one.

In any case, she managed to write out by hand on little sheets of writing-paper (I’ve recently learned that it is thought common here to call it notepaper, though I have no idea why), more lasting works of literature than any one person has a right to, and do it without losing her reputation as a gentlewoman, so she must not have felt too constricted.

Costume drama, anyone?

Most of the house is open to view, with mannequins showing off period dresses, wall displays showing her letters and giving details of her life and her family, cases and shelves of memorabilia and documents.  My favorite of these comes from correspondence between Austen and the Prince Regent’s librarian, who wanted her to write a romance involving royalty.  She replied:

I am fully sensible that an historical romance founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.

Just the kind of thing you’d expect from the woman who dreamed up Elizabeth Bennett.

The dining room displays some of the wedding china that belonged to Edward Knight and his wife; I don’t know about you, but while I have known at least one family who could boast a Wedgwood dinner service, none of them went directly to Wedgwood to arrange a custom design including their crest.  Food came into the dining room from the separate kitchen, but tea was kept under lock and key—servants, it was thought, were inclined to pilfer it—so the family brewed it themselves on the stove at the end of the room, where a copper kettle of the sort they used now stands.

Another view of the house, from yet another part of the garden

But none of this paraphernalia made the kind of impression on me I expected, not even seeing Jane Austen’s bedroom, furnished with a replica—historically accurate in every particular—of the bed in which she slept, not even seeing almost unbelievably fine lace she made by hand and a quilt that she helped to sew.

The well in the courtyard

Had I not read enough of the Austen canon?  Was this just not a period of English history that came high on my list?  Was it the damping effect of the  signs for tourist set up almost as soon as you cross into Hampshire, telling tourists they’re “Welcome to Jane Austen Country”?  Was it that the museum-like fixtures made the place seem less of a house where real people lived?

I don’t mean to run it down.  It’s definitely worth a visit and I’m sure I’ll go back, but I didn’t get the little internal shivery feeling I usually get when I feel I’ve found some connection in the modern world with the life of someone from the past whom I really admire.

Sheep in a field skirted by the path to Chawton House.

It did hit me, eventually.  We went back through the car park and followed the path a little ways toward Chawton House, and that is when it hit.  We crossed a stream where a man watching his grandson pulling up water plants and getting thoroughly soaked remarked on what a fine day it was, then went through a stile into the sort of timeless picturesque landscape American Anglophiles dream of, that tamed rural paradise of fields and copses that seems to go on forever.  Four or five heavy horses with feathered feet cropped grass alongside a flock of storybook-quality woolly sheep.  The path led into a little wood complete with hollow trees and moss and ferns and even bluebells.

Another rural scene on the path to Chawton House

Not only was it quintessentially English and completely idyllic on a perfect day, but—and yes, I know I’m a philistine and my reactions stem not from Austen’s novels alone but from all those movie scenes with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth walking in the woods between the Bennett ménage and Mr Bingley’s great house—this was the path that Jane Austen walked. I could look down at my trousers and running shoes (UK: trainers) and almost see the long skirt of an Empire dress and the toes of delicate slippers, at least for a fraction of a second, because the idea that anyone would have walked through fields and woods in satiny slippers is completely ridiculous.  Still, I was walking the path Jane Austen walked, and the shivers came along on cue.

Bluebells in the wood–along with some stinging nettles.

I see it mooted on some other blogs that “Brontë is the new Austen”—though they don’t mention which Brontë and apparently mean all of them put together.  Jane’s out and the Haworth three are in?  Not for me.  I’m no Janeite—if anything, I’m a Woolfian—but I prefer Austen’s novels to those of any Brontë I’ve read so far; Austen beats all three with one hand tied behind her back.  In a lady-like literary sense, you understand.  Besides, it’s a lot farther up to Brontë country; by the time I get organized to make the pilgrimage up there, the pendulum will surely have swung back.


Filed under Arts, Culture, History, Many Books Little Time