Ancient History

Ancient history really means a quick bio of before I started kayaking as my main outdoor sport. Although kayaking was the original focus of the blog, there are now quite a few blog posts that go further back, mainly because I used to keep a very detailed log book for the first few years of caving, and diaries from various long trips like the Pennine Way. The oldest ‘activity’ post, from 1963, was newly written from memory, which is still remarkably vivid nearly half a century on. I’m afraid photos are few and far between for these early posts.

Conceived in Yorkshire, but born in Southport (then in the pre-1974 county of Lancashire), I lived in the Midlands from before school age until the first year of secondary school, then we moved back to Southport. West Lancashire proved to be a good area for exploring by bike, which took me far enough to reach a number of quarries when I first started rock climbing with various friends from school. Scouts provided a basic introduction to a number of outdoor activities, including canoeing (at Southport’s outdoor seawater swimming pool during an inter-troop sports day) and caving (a visit to Whernside Manor during a scout camp near Sedbergh next to the strid on the Lune) as well as map and compass work whilst walking. Though I had to travel further than easy cycling distance for outdoor activities like fellwalking, caving and multi-pitch rock-climbing, the bike still got me to the Yorkshire Dales on occasions (most notably for our first weekend away caving in 1975) and public transport did work, as long as I wasn’t in a hurry.

In the final year or so of school and in what would nowadays pass for a gap year (a few months spent working as a casual clerical assistant for the Inland Revenue in 1975), I was part of a small group regularly going fellwalking with the Southport Fellwalkers Club, climbing on local railway bridges and quarries, and starting caving in the Yorkshire Dales. I’ve never stopped the fellwalking, though I tend to regard it as a solo activity rather than an organised club thing. My ambitions were never set very high in climbing (in those days, leading above VS was considered hard-core and a few years on, friends were climbing Extremes before I got to the dizzy heights of MVS), and this took a back seat to caving which became my main sport.

The caving took off when I joined the Cambridge University Caving Club in 1975 and was soon one of its most active members, never missing a term-time meet and only missing one vacation meet during my three years of study. The first long vacation saw me on a small exploratory trip to Ireland, with quite a dose of tourist caving thrown in, but from 1977 for many summers I took part in the annual CUCC expedition to Austria (to which I returned in 2015 after a seventeen year gap). Some older CUCC members were also canoeists (Vic Brown was fifth in the Olympic K1 slalom in 1972, so we are talking about some quite accomplished paddlers:), and this resulted in my acquiring a few paddling skills both on the Cam, and in Austria, but I never had my own kit, and this was definitely a background pastime.

1981 saw my first venture caving abroad independent of CUCC when I spent two months in Mexico with Proyecto Espeleologia Purificación, before spending a few weeks walking in the Grand Canyon and Sierra Nevada prior to the 8th International Speleological Congress in Kentucky. This exposed me to both the ethics and techniques of high quality cave surveying, experience I brought back to CUCC in Austria where documenting the caves we had found became a progressively more important part of the expeditions, both to maintain our favoured status with the Austrian cavers and simply to avoid rediscovering the same bits of cave repeatedly. I eventually came to be the mainstay of expedition documentation, being largely responsible for all the documentation we had, being incorporated into a website. This function has now passed to younger and more recently active members.

Upon leaving University, I also joined a mainstream (‘elder’) caving club, with its own accommodation in Yorkshire, the Northern Pennine Club, and, with my passion for documentation, soon became its librarian and recorder, a position I continued to hold for fourteen years. Most of the club’s worthwhile paper publications (from c 1950 up to date) were brought back into availability through a website (and some were indeed reprinted).

I lived in the Lake District until I ditched a “real job” in 1985 to become self-employed, giving me more leisure time (and after a year or so, more money, though this took me away from the north of England). After a few years working in Cambridge, I finally moved back to the north in 1991, and got married in 1993, at which time my caving activities were tailing off. Lots of walking and some ski-touring and climbing still, with a very long self-supported walk in 1992, from Kings Canyon to Yosemite (about 200 miles over 17 days) and a week’s ski touring (just two of us) in 1994. The arrival of the second offspring (Sarah was born in 1994, Michael in 1997) also saw the beginning of the end for my expedition caving, but the children never really stopped us from doing other outdoor activities both closer to home, and far away (Sarah was taken on walking holidays to the Pyrenées in her first year, Utah at 14 months (see October 1995: Little Wild Horse Canyon, Kolob Canyon and the Subway), and the High Sierra in 1996, although these sorts of holidays did get harder when there were two of them).

Though the kids went caving a number of times, the trips were never hard and they never really got excited about it (although a number of little friends got dragged through Long Churn and the Ribblehead caves). It was easier to persuade them to go walking, and eventually the whole family did a number of multiday walks – Greenstone/Routeburn (New Zealand) in 2005, Giants Cup Trail (South Africa, 2006) were both five-day affairs, mostly hut-based. Mary and Sarah got into ponies, and this resulted in a couple of multiday pony treks (one across Iceland on Icelandic ponies, and one across Yellowstone National Park). New Zealand also saw us on a multiday paddling trip, in open boats, down the Whanganui River, as we had all started paddlesport by then.

There was a quiet period when the kids were really young but once they could share our passion for the outdoors, you’ll find the activities are pretty well covered by the blog so no longer count as ancient history.