TAC 45 Index
JAMMED in the glass doors of a cabinet in my parents' living room in Coniston, there was for many years a favourite photo of my father, dating from over 30 years ago. Only recently did I discover that he had been snapped while laughing at Harry Griffin holding forth in the bar of the Sun Hotel by one of the press photographers there to cover Donald Campbell's attempt on the water speed record. So although I know little of rock climbing and had never heard of the Coniston Tigers before this book was in the offing, I feel my connections with its author go back a long way.
Reading The Coniston Tigers takes me back to the wet November evening in 1998 when the Ed and I met Harry and his partner, Josie, at his Kendal flat, where the walls are crammed with photographs of past climbs and walks and hill companions. As he sat by the fire with a well-replenished tumbler of whisky at his side, we were plied with drink and food and listened to tales of thirty, fifty, seventy years ago. The smartly-trimmed moustache and slightly irascible military air reminded me of the Major from Fawlty Towers, but there is nothing of the Major's bumbling vagueness about AHG. His Guardian Country Diaries, produced for nearly 50 years, still appear every second Monday. Beautifully written and full of sharp observation, a selection interleaves these chapters, sketching pictures as fine as any of the book's lovingly detailed drawings by Alfred Wainwright.
The Coniston Tigers were young men who set up a climbing hut - only the second in the Lake District - in a garage by Coniston Old Hall on the lakeshore around 1931, to be near their beloved Dow Crag. These were men with a passion for the crags and fells. None came from the village itself, but mostly from the southern fringe of the Lake District - Barrow-in-Furness, Ulverston, Dalton - which is maybe why their story has been neglected until now. The local shops are full of books about the slate quarries, the copper mines, the Furness railway, Donald Campbell, John Ruskin and Arthur Ransome, but this adds another piece to the village's complex history. Details such as the club's early annual dinners in Broughton Mills - steak and kidney pies of Desperate Dan proportions baked in a child's tin bath - are particularly vivid. There are well-known names here - Ivan Waller, Jim Birkett, Wainwright - but others have a more personal resonance for me. Billy Fury, whose sister lived next door but one for many years; and Jim Cameron, the "boss of the Mountain Rescue team" as I wrote, aged six, in my "Guide to Coniston".
Although Harry is of course the central character, this is the story of his climbing companions over the years - both the Tigers and other friends and family, people who literally held each others' lives in their hands and whose friendships consequently endured a lifetime. The book is subtitled "Seventy Years of Mountain Adventure", but in effect it takes us back much further with memories of climbers who made their names in the 1890s and with whom Harry considered himself honoured to take his early steps on Dow Crag and in Wasdale. Nor is it just about the Ponds, as TAC dismissively refers to the Lake District: a love of Scotland and the joys of skiing in the Alps and elsewhere also feature strongly, along with an expedition to Kashmir from a wartime posting in Burma. The latter gave rise to one of the book's many classic photos - the author partaking of strawberries and cream at 10,000ft, seated outside a tent at a linen-covered dining table. This is one of many favourites in a lovely collection of pictures; others include Harry and his younger brother Leslie in trenchcoats in front of a shiny black Morris 8 with the snowy peaks of Skye behind, and a postwar reunion of the Tigers, standing to attention with axes in place of rifles.
In these early pictures, AHG has the dapper and slightly raffish air of David Niven in one of those old black-and-white Sunday afternoon films. A more recent picture shows him scrambling up the Brim Fell slabs above Low Water aged 80, shirt off, towel around his neck, wings of white hair, pipe firmly clamped in his teeth and - as he describes himself in an earlier photograph - "a deceptively nonchalant air."
His accounts of "Early Adventuring" in the 1920s show how much the Lake District has changed since its days as "almost a secluded paradise" when Keswick and Amble-side were "fairly quiet places" with only a couple of cafes apiece. In the days before the Tigers' hut, Harry and Leslie frequently cycled 20-odd miles before and after their day's climbing, but at other times would take the train up to Torver - surely one of the loveliest routes in England before it was closed at the end of the 1950s in an ominous precursor of Beeching, back in the near-sighted days before people realised how cars would come to clog the narrow Lakeland roads.
We come full circle at the end, back to Dow Crag. In the final chapter, Harry writes of the shattering effect of the sudden death of his son Robin, described as "everything I could have wished a son to be." Robin's ashes were scattered in a secret place near where father and son had both begun their climbing careers, and a fitting memorial in the form of a new mountain rescue box awaits a fine day, and a window in the RAF's calendar, to be helicoptered to the foot of the crag.
This book will keep the memory of the Coniston Tigers burning bright and will delight even those readers who are more likely to emulate the family tabby snoozing by the fire.
TAC 45 Index