Many hill walkers know him as the editor of Trail magazine, but this year Simon Ingram became an author too, with an expansive book about the culture, history and atmosphere of the British mountains. We quizzed him on haunted hills, machismo-free mountaineering and the surprising first ascenders of Ben Nevis.
To write his first book, Simon Ingram had his work cut out. He was working full-time as the editor of Trail magazine, the birth of his first child was approaching, and he had 160,000 words to write, with all the accompanying research and travel that entailed. In nine months.
The result of the countless 5am starts which followed was 'Between the Sunset and the Sea', which recounts his experiences on 16 British mountains and delves in expansive detail into the history and culture surrounding them. Described as "an intrepid, original book" by the Times, it's a great start for anyone who wants to know more about the combination of atmosphere, spectacle and cultural richness that defines our humble British hills.
We caught up with him to ask some questions about his aims in writing the book and what he learned along the way.
When you were writing it, what reaction did you hope people would have to this book?
I wanted to present our mountains as being deep and varied and full of interesting stories, and to be inspired to get out into them. There just seemed to be all this interesting stuff to say that hadn't ever been put together in one place.
I don’t know if I managed it. But I’m proud of the shape it took in the end. It feels like quite a complete thing.
Today we tend to take it for granted that mountains are beautiful, enjoyable places, but this wasn’t always the case, was it?
People didn't understand or know what to usefully do with them. To ancient people mountains were the home of gods or demons, so they mythologized them. They were useless to farmers. Early travellers stayed away, as back then civility was sought, not shunned. And early painters got themselves in a right state because mountains were these unruly, undisciplined subjects. Then the Romantics made this a virtue – an 'agreeable horror,’ one said – and this big change in perception took place that continues today. I love that: scientists experimented with them, miners plundered them but people had to learn to embrace mountains for frivolous reasons to really fall for them.
There was obviously a lot of research involved. What are some of your favourite things you learned in the process of writing it?
I loved the little details, like that the first ascenders of Ben Nevis may have been peasants sent up with bales of straw to stop the snow melting, due to a superstitious landowner. Or that Scots often buried their dead on islands or in concrete coffins to stop wolves from digging them up. I loved hearing artist Julian Cooper's take on mountains. And all the stuff about the mapping of Scotland, Wainwright’s reactions to the Cuillin Ridge, and getting to the roots of the Cadair Idris legend were really interesting to explore.
I really enjoyed digging into the Grey Man of Ben MacDui as a serious subject rather than a spook tale. There's a whole psychology about eerie feelings in rural places that gives that story a whole new dimension. Did you know the word 'panic' came from the Greek rural god Pan, and his tendency to agitate rural travellers? My friend and I ended up accidentally testing this by climbing MacDui in the dark, in winter, then sleeping beneath the Shelter Stone. Fantastic!
One review praises it for being “a mountaineering book free of machismo.” How consciously were you aiming for this?
It wasn't conscious, it’s just what happens when the person writing the book isn’t its focus, and I certainly didn't want to write another tale about some awful struggle, or the mountains being these hairy places where you're dangling from an ice axe and worrying for most of the time. I had a few ‘adventures,’ but I wanted people to be able to identify with this book.
You wrote the book in a single year, while still working full time editing Trail. How did you manage it?
I found a routine and stuck to it. I got up at 5am every day, drank a load of coffee, wrote for two hours, then went to work. By the time I got to the office I was bouncing off the walls. It helps that I adore my job, and I've never struggled to get up and go to work. Getting up the mountains themselves was hard too – particularly in Knoydart and on Rum, as they’re not easy to get to in the first place. I ended up climbing several mountains at night as it was the only free time I had!
The hardest bit was that my wife was pregnant while I was doing all this, and I was determined not to miss any part of that. She was a saint for putting up with me having mountains on the brain even more than usual. And having a deadline like the birth of your first child really focuses you. Our daughter was born three days after I finished the draft. One adventure ended, another began!
Which of Britain’s mountain landscapes has made the biggest impression on you?
Scotland’s far north. Assynt is extraordinary, the way mountains like Suilven and Quinag peer at you from that weird, flat landscape really gets me, it’s like they’re alive. But Britain's mountain places are a real tapestry of impressions and feelings. Knoydart is magic. And the Lakes in the cooler months is exquisite. It’s no wonder that place has inspired people for hundreds of years.
Where does the title of the book come from?
A poem by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young – who founded the BMC – called A Hill. The first lines go:
Only a hill: earth set a little higher
Above the face of the earth: a larger view
Of little fields and roads: a little nigher
To clouds, and silence: what is that to you?
Only a hill: but all of life to me,
Up there, between the sunset and the sea.
That first stanza really sums up that mysterious fascination the mountains have. Winthrop-Young was good at that; it’s probably why he was such a gravitation point for early mountaineers. To get permission I spoke to Geoffrey Winthrop Young’s grandson, a lovely man. He told me about when he used to watch TV with him in the 1950s in this great old house full of keepsakes.
If you could push your book into the hands of one person, who would it be?
The person who has ever looked up at a mountain and held its gaze, whether you’re a climber, walker or someone who is just curious or excited by wild places.
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