We live quite close to St Andrews on the east coast of Scotland and one of the finds of the century from my perspective was a book shop there called Topping & Co. It’s a traditional, independent bookshop that seems to be successfully sticking two fingers up to the rest of the publishing world and defying the trend for digital reading punishing book sellers. Whenever we pay a visit to St Andrews a visit to Topping & Co. is mandatory and always a treat and usually ends up with me walking out with at least one book. They have tables laid out brimming with books sitting between walls which are filled from floor to ceiling with the marvellous objects and ladders attached to the shelving which always suggests a proper bookshop to me. I’ve been guilty of trending towards a kindle for years. Let’s face it, they are handy devices enabling you to carry around an entire library without noticing. However, a book is something to cherish, to have in your hands and admire; some more than others.
On a recent visit, a book caught my eye sitting on one of the tables. I’m a sucker for anything to do with Mountains, Scotland, running or adventure and this book had 3 out of the four and arguably would enable the fourth, running, by association. The book is called “Between the Sunset and the Sea”, quite an evocative title I’d argue if you’ve ever spent any time on a mountain. It is written by Simon Ingram who is editor at Trail magazine in the UK and who knows a thing or two about mountains despite his bashful suggestions otherwise in the book. The short summary of the book is that it’s a personal account by Simon of his time exploring 16 of the UK’s mountains. Now if like me you’ve been puzzled for years about what constitutes a mountain, then this might be reason number one to read the book. As Simon describes, there isn’t an official classification and anyone who has spent time in mountainous areas outside the UK knows that our mountains are significantly lacking in the height category compared to some others. However, as Simon points out, height is just one qualification, there are lots of others and each of the ones he describes have some quality or other than I challenge you to declare them not to be worth of the title. In his words, if it looks a mountain and feels like a mountain, then it is one.
As I mention, the book describes 16 different mountains across the UK. There is a natural inequality in favour of Scottish hills given the geography of the UK, but there is a fair number from other vertically gifted areas which give a fabulous insight for those of us who haven’t had the opportunity to explore them. Simon describes each one in several different ways, with each chapter presenting a new mountain and an underlying theme. Schiehallion is a good example, a largely triangular shaped hill in Perthshire which is somewhat famous for being used in a scientific study in the 1700’s in an attempt to determine the weight of the planet. Our man explores the history of such subjects, gets under the skin of the main people involved and develops an often witty commentary of events and their outcomes. In parallel, Simon explores the hill in question with a specific, related, purpose in mind.
I love the style of Simon’s writing. It has an honesty that I think anyone who enjoys time in wild places will appreciate and I found it really easy to associate with the scenes he describes. I won’t describe all the 16 chapters, as that would stop you from buying the book and enjoying it for yourself, but I will call out a couple of favourite sections. The first is his description of a meeting with a mountain guide from Snowdonia who is describing to him, over a pint, the scramble up Crib Goch, a ridge towards the summit of Snowdon which sounds like some dragons back of gnarly pinnacles and terrifying drops to a near certain death. The guide sounds like the kind of weather beaten, stony eyed man we’ve probably all comes across at some stage in life. In the kind of calm, experienced way mountain people have, the guide talks about how mountain rescue call outs would likely fall by 80% if the ridge didn’t exist, setting the tone for an adventure with spine chilling excitement. Another section describes Simon’s first experience of a midge attack in the Scottish Highlands and introduces me to a pithy comment that will live with me forever “A midge attack has two phases: The first phase where you are afraid you might die and the second phase where you worry that you might not”. You will only really appreciate that statement if you’ve ever experienced a full scale assault by midges in one of their strongholds in the highlands.
As well as honest humour, the book also provides some interesting insights into geology, meteorology, history and social culture surrounding the mountains. If you are in any way interested in mountains, the great outdoors or anything remotely related to them. I strongly encourage you to buy and read this book. It’s the kind of book I want to give to people in the future as a gift who deserve it from having a similar affection for outdoor life as I do. I loved this book and didn’t want it to end and I sincerely hope Simon continues to write and produce more like this. If you enjoy running in these types of environments like I do, whilst the book as no reference to running, I challenge you to read the book and then not have an immediate and growing urge to get out and find a remote mountain to run up and enjoy. I’ve got my eye on An Teallach as my next adventure, it’s the star of chapter 10, the Wilderness chapter. Here’s a link to the book on Amazon in the UK, let me know if you read it and enjoyed it.