Category Archives: books & music

Book review: High and Low by Keith Foskett

I was going to buy this book anyway, but Keith contacted me to see whether I’d like a complimentary copy. One of his previous books “The Last Englishman” about his epic PCT walk is one of my favourite books, so I was looking forward to reading High and Low. It certainly doesn’t disappont and is a great read. So much so, that I read it in two days. I had to pace myself a bit as I could easily have read it in a day.

High and Low is a bit different from Keith’s previous books in that it’s not just an account of a long walk but there’s a subplot of his growing realisation that his mood swings and low feelings are down to depression. This is not a book of endless introspection and self analysis, but there are occasional asides and clues as to the causes of his drift into a depressive state. Most of the book is an entertaining account of his walk from Cape Wrath to Bellingham, taking in the Cape Wrath Trail and the West Highland Way along the way.

The genesis of the walk was his aborted CDT attempt where he caught pneumonia and had to bail, fearing he was suffering a heart attack. After recuperating for a couple of weeks, Keith had the idea of walking from the north of Scotland to the English border and maybe tacking on the Pennine Way and bit more at the end.

The Cape Wrath Trail is notoriously hard and, for Keith, the weather (and midges) made it even more of a challenge. In contrast to the long US trails, route finding is more difficult and the paths often sketchy or non-existent. Not only that, most of time, unlike the PCT or AT, you’re walking on your own with little prospect of company.

Walking solo is great, but if your mind is in the wrong place, it can be a curse as it gives you time to dwell on negative things. In a more minor way, that was my experience in the first few days of last year’s TGO Challenge. Chuck in some bad weather, problems with food resupply and losing his trekking poles (vital for his tent setup) and it was not surprising to see the start of a negative spiral developing.

Having finally overcome the obstacles of the CWT and made it to Fort William, it should have been plain sailing. Indeed, at the start of the WHW, he met a lady, Elina, with whom he strikes up a friendship and they walk together for the first two days. Elina had suffered from depression and in a series of conversations, which become pivotal to his understanding of what’s happening to him, she explains her journey and recovery from depression. Unexpectedly, she has to cut her walk short. Their parting is quite emotional and she writes him a lovely note.

After completing the WHW, the rest of the trip has some rays of sunshine but both the weather and Keith’s mood become increasingly troubled, culminating with a decision to end the walk and go home. Dealing with the aftermath of the walk, a lack of purpose in life and a family tragedy pile on further pressures, not helped by a dependency on nicotine and alcohol. Finally, Keith admits he has a problem and seeks help, finding a way out of the mire of depression.

The struggle with depression gives a greater emotional depth than his previous books. This must have been a difficult book to write but Keith avoids the temptation to try to garner sympathy or dwell too long on his problems. However, his honesty and openess are admirable. Although I’ve not suffered from depression, I can empathise and have had similar, less intense feelings, over the past couple of years, especially after the death of my mother.

Not that Keith’s previous books are badly written, but this book is definitely a step up in his craft as a writer with excellent pacing, variety and interest. It would be nice if it garnered a wider audience than just the hiking crowd as it not just another trail book, but one that explores what it is to live with the challenge of depression. Highly recommended.

Travelled Far by Keith Foskett

Travelled Far is Keith’s latest book. Unlike his previous books which covered complete long distance treks, this is a collection of reflections on various shorter walks, with the exception of a revisit to the Camino and his aborted PCT walk. One of Keith’s previous books, The Last Englishman, about his PCT hike, is one of my favourite books. Balancing on Blue, on his AT trek, is also a good read, so I approached this book with relish.

Because it’s not about one trek, you can dip in and out of it, rather than his other books which draw you into the world of the through hiker and constantly nag you to turn the next page. Many of chapters are about his walks in Sussex, which is familiar territory to me as it was where I was raised as a kid and was the starting point for my hiking and backpacking adventures.

Keith doesn’t come from a journalistic background, so it’s been interesting to see his writing develop over the years. His writing has the immediacy and urgency of someone who puts in big miles every day. If I had one criticism, sometimes I wish he would slow down a bit to reflect on his journey. That said, you could never accuse him of sitting still and navel gazing!

The most interesting chapters for me were on the Camino and his aborted CDT trek. I knew a bit of the background to the CDT, but it was good to read the full story. I hope he can go back and do the full trek some time. The Camino is a completely different trek. It’s a shame he didn’t write a bit more on this, although I ought to get his first book, The Journey in Between, about his initial trek on the Camino.

Overall this book is an enjoyable read and hopefully there will be more books in the pipeline. I’d love Keith to do LEJOG and write about it! The book is available both in paperback and on Kindle (both available through Amazon). Keith kindly sent me a paperback copy for review and it’s good quality. One other thing to mention is that all the profits from the book will go Mountain Rescue UK.

My review of The Last Englishman

My review of Balancing on Blue

Disclaimer: Keith gave me a free copy of Travelled Far with no obligations or conditions. 

Balancing on Blue by Keith Foskett

Balancing on Blue is an account of Keith Foskett’s 2012 Appalachian Trail thru hike. If you’ve read Keith’s account of his PCT hike (“The Last Englishman“), you’ll enjoy this book. The AT is less spectacular and shorter than the PCT, but arguably a tougher hike with the trail following a roller coaster.

Although written as a continuous account, it’s very much in the style of a trail diary. Keith has a conversational and engaging narrative style of writing, full of observations and humour. You get a good idea of what it is like to do a thru hike with both the good and the bad.

Thru hiking is a tough business and the body takes a pounding over the 2,180 miles of the trail. Sometimes this is described in eye watering detail! Interspersed with the day to day walking are some observations on aspects of thru hiking and life in general.

Although life on the trail mainly revolves around the essentials of achieving daily mileage, eating and finding shelter, there are times for reflection. In particular, one incident struck me. The lowest section of the AT passes through a zoo! Keith’s encounter with a fox in a cage, contrasting his freedom with the fox’s incarceration is quite poignant.

Part of the fun of a long hike is the characters met along the way. Keith certainly met some characters! They are given some space at the beginning and end of the book to explain some of their feelings and motivations, which helps bring them to life for the reader.

The book contains no photos, which is a shame, but understandable given the extra cost it would entail for printing. Although there is a map at the start of the book, it would have been helpful to have one at the start of each chapter to give some context.

I really enjoyed Balancing on Blue. If you like reading about thru hikes, then it’s well worth tracking down. It’s available through Amazon as both a paperback (which is the version I read) and on Kindle. Click here for Keith’s page for Balancing on Blue.

Disclosure: Balancing on Blue was purchased with my own money.

Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles, a review


Chris Townsend’s latest book is an account of his 2,650 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail in 1982. It made a rattlin’ good read for a dismal Boxing Day. It’s no mean feat to write a book of a trip that was over thirty years ago.

While not as detailed with anecdotes and observations as his other books (a function of time, I guess), it’s still a gripping read. I had to force myself to take breaks between chapters in order to savour the experience.

Although the immediacy of the trip has dulled with time, the passing of the years has enabled Chris to give an interesting perspective on both what has changed and what has stayed the same. In the intervening years, Chris has revisited some of the areas that the PCT passes through, giving an additional viewpoint.

From today’s perspective it is easy to underestimate what an achievement completing the PCT was. In 1982, 120 thru-hiker permits were issued for the PCT. Out of those that started, only eleven, including Chris, finished. Nowadays, 1000+ start each year and the PCT Association reckon about 50% complete the trail. Incredibly, more people have climbed Everest than have completed the PCT.

Today, there’s a wealth of information on the Internet, books and trail diaries, as well as apps and GPS way points available for anyone intending to do the PCT. Back in 1982, there was very little info. Fortunately for Chris, Warren Rogers, one of the PCT pioneers took Chris under his wing and helped him with planning and logistics.

Nevertheless, this was a huge step into the unknown for Chris. He had no experience of the terrain, especially desert walking. He had to learn quickly about how to cope with conditions, especially water and foot care.

In 1982, there was a lot of snow cover in the High Sierras, which made conditions even more arduous than normal. This is where the PCT turns into a very serious adventure. Any accidents here could have been fatal, and there were a few close calls. Nonetheless, the reward was a true pioneering experience and a deep appreciation of the wonders of nature.

These days, with so many hikers, the PCT can be quite a social walk. Keith Foskett’s book, The Last Englishman about his PCT hike is full of slightly eccentric characters. Back in 1982, the PCT could be a more solitary experience. Chris was fortunate, though, in having some good companions in the High Sierras, without whom it would have been even tougher and more dangerous. I found the traverse of the High Sierras a gripping read.

Once into Oregon and Washington, the walk becomes more solitary as the companions separate and go at different speeds. Inevitably, some sections in Oregon are not particularly scenic, but once into Washington, the majesty of the mountains return. Unlike Keith, Chris had reasonable weather to finish the PCT, even though a few days were rainy.

In these days of ultralight gear with cuben fibre and silnylon, it’s easy to forget how heavy the gear could be back then. Chris’ base weight was over 20kg. With food on the long stretches, he was carrying more than double that, often in heavy boots and with no trekking poles.

Another big difference is photography. Using film, meant rationing shots and not knowing whether the picture was any good until it was developed. The pictures are all taken from the slide pictures that Chris took on the trip. While they don’t have the sharpness of modern day digital pictures, they actually enhance the book. It’s like looking through a slightly misty window into the past.

The quality of printing and photographic reproduction is excellent. Unlike many modern books, it has been well edited too. I only spotted one very minor typo.

In summary, if you like Chris’ previous work, then you’ll like this. If you’ve not read anything by Chris, then this is a good place to start. His later trail books on the Yukon, Arizona and the Pacific North West are treasures waiting to be found. Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles is like the hors d’oeuvre, the entrée into Chris’ long distance hiking memoirs.

Disclosure: this was a Christmas present

The Last Englishman by Keith Foskett

last englishman

A good book is one that you find difficult to put down. I had to force myself to take a break from this one every so often. Even so it only took me just over one day to complete the 335 pages. The Last Englishman recounts Keith Foskett’s 2,650 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border to just inside Canada.

It was compelling reading from beginning to end. Keith even had to battle to get to the USA, with the Icelandic volcanic eruption throwing his travel plans into disarray. Getting to the start was an adventure in itself. Very quickly we are introduced to the trail and its tribulations. Blisters, body odour and dirt are constant companions. The fear of snakes and scorpions are a nagging reminder of being in the wilderness and away from civilisation.

The Last Englishman is an honest and personal account of what it takes to do a long distance thru-hike. You won’t find much in the way of descriptions of the majestic landscape. What you will find is a cast of vivid characters (or nutters) who chose to hike the PCT and an impression of the intense camaraderie (and occasionally friction) that the trail engenders.

Every day is a constant battle to do the miles, find water, eat enough to keep going and find shelter at the end of the day. Managing the toll that the trail takes on body and mind is a ever present challenge. Despite this, there is an overwhelming feeling of joy and freedom, with life stripped back to its basics.

There are continual questions as to whether characters will reappear in the story or disappear forever. There is the growing worry as to whether Keith will be able to finish before the winter snows arrive. I kept thinking “don’t take that zero” (a zero is a rest day).

There are a couple of very scary encounters with bears, as well an unpleasant incident with another PCT hiker. In the main, the interactions with both hikers and those that live along the trail are friendly. Sometimes the generosity is almost overwhelming.

The close camaraderie when facing seemingly insuperable odds, particularly near the end, shines through. Hikers pull each other through the inevitable troughs, both mental and physical of the hike. Without “Pockets” and “Trooper” (trail names), I wonder whether Keith would have made it.

I don’t want to tell you much more, as it might spoil the story (and the twist at the end). It’s a shame there weren’t more maps so that Keith’s progress could be followed more easily. Photos would have been nice, but the book would have cost more, and photos are available on his website. The gear freak in me would also like to have known his kit list (although this is also available on his website).

If you like backpacking books,then I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one. I found the writing style very readable and remarkably I found no spelling mistakes. Perhaps I was reading too quickly! I’m looking forward to Keith’s next book on the Appalachian Trail. He is planning to do the Continental Divide Trail in 2014, to complete the triple crown.

The Last Englishman is available in paperback and Kindle versions (this is not an Amazon Associate link and doesn’t earn me any commission, but buying from Amazon ensures Keith receives a fair deal).

Disclaimer: this book was purchased with my own funds and I have no relationship with the author or publisher

Scotland End to End – Walking the Gore-Tex Scottish National Trail by Cameron McNeish

end to end

I have to congratulate Cameron McNeish on putting together what looks like an excellent long distance trail and writing an entertaining travelogue come guide. Balancing a reasonably detailed guide with an account of his walk from beginning to end is no mean feat.

The narrative is both informative and engaging, although it flags a little bit towards the end. I guess there is more interesting history and stories to tell in the first three sections of the walk than in the last. The last section is, however, where the grandeur of the Scottish landscape really manifests itself. It’s a shame there aren’t a few more photos of the Northwest Highlands.

The surprise to me was how interesting the first two sections from Kirk Yetholm to Edinburgh and then to Milngavie look. The border country is surprisingly wild. You could be pedantic and say that a true end to end walk should start from the southernmost point in Scotland, near Gretna. However, starting at Kirk Yetholm, the end of the Pennine Way seems somehow more satisfying, using a combination of the St Cuthbert’s Way, Southern Uplands Way and Water of Leith Walkway to pick a sparsely inhabited route to Edinburgh.

Indeed, the skilful use of existing trails to link into a longer walk means that the End to End Walk doesn’t have to wait for bureaucratic and planning wheels to grind into action before it can be used. It can be walked now, without a problem. Nowhere is this more apparent than the second section through the central belt, which follows the Union Canal and then the Forth & Clyde Canal. This section could have been a navigational and right of way nightmare, but instead becomes a largely undiscovered gem of a walk.

While the first two sections look fine walks in their own right, the last two from Milngavie to Kingussie and then to Cape Wrath are the real jewels. North of Milngavie and particularly Callender, you enter the Highlands proper. Again, Cameron makes judicious use of existing trails, particularly the Rob Roy Way. The Birks of Aberfeldy, look particularly beautiful.

Of course, the last section from Kingussie to Cape Wrath is what the Highlands is all about and uses a similar route to the existing unofficial Cape Wrath Trail. The grandeur of the Northwest Highlands demands a more detailed treatment than it gets and some sections are skipped over rather lightly. For all that, it does look an excellent route. The photos are of a consistently high standard throughout, but I would have liked more and larger pictures of the far north, as the scale of the landscape demands a whole page.

Textually, Cameron writes well and the book appears to have been well edited. I couldn’t spot any spelling mistakes, which is rare for a book these days. The print and photo reproduction quality is high.

My only minor criticism is the occasional political comment, particularly the needless paean to Alex Salmond, which I expect will date the book rather quickly. Quite frankly, I don’t want to read irrelevant party political views in a walking guide book. Aside from that, it’s a very good read and well worth buying.

More details from MountainMedia

Disclosure: this book was purchased with my own money.

Book review: Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout

Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout: the Making of a Sensible Environmentalist by Patrick Moore

Patrick Moore (not the astronomer!) is a controversial figure in environmentalist circles. He was one of the founders of Greenpeace and instrumental in their early campaigns against nuclear weapons testing and whaling. He was brought up in a rural backwater in British Columbia and achieved a PhD in ecology, both of which inform his views of the environment and biosphere.

 However, in the mid 1980s, he found himself at odds with the increasingly political, militant and anti-science views of Greenpeace. The catalyst for his departure was its decision to campaign against the use of chlorine. Chlorine is probably the most important chemical for both public health (in water treatment) and in medicine. Moore believed that a rigorous scientific case for banning was lacking and that a zero tolerance policy risked millions of deaths, so he resigned. Interestingly, by that time, he was the only senior officer within Greenpeace with a scientific background and qualification.

 After leaving Greenpeace, he started a fish farm. He was also drawn to engage with governments and corporations in a more constructive way, rejecting the increasingly confrontational policies of Greenpeace. His interest in sustainable development drew him into shaping forestry policy in British Columbia and into conflict with his erstwhile colleagues. From then on, he was a marked man, subject to character assassination and stunts like dumping horse manure in his front garden.

 This book is part autobiography and part explanation of why he believes what he believes. His transition from confrontational activist to a more considered and conciliatory approach is an interesting study in itself. He is still passionately interested in protecting the environment, but he is a realist and not opposed to economic development, particularly for the underdeveloped world. It is refreshing to read an environmentalist who believes that man’s contribution to the environment can be positive rather than viewing mankind as some kind of evil virus that needs to be extirpated.

 The second part of the book examines in short, but forensic detail many of the shibboleths of Greenpeace and the wider environmentalist movement. Successively he demolishes Greenpeace’s opposition to the forestry industry, aquaculture, hydroelectricity, nuclear energy and genetically modified crops. His scientific background in ecology makes him particularly persuasive on global warming, its consequences and the renewable energy movement.

 I’m sure that Greenpeace supporters won’t buy this book on principle as it reveals in an unflattering light how it has been increasingly railroaded into confrontational and absurd positions by political extremists. Nor will they be persuaded by the rebuttal of many of its policy stances (all supported with copious references, incidentally).

However, for those with more open minds and who are interested in examining the arguments raging in the debate on environmental issues, I highly recommend this book. The autobiographical section is a great story. The second section is well written with enough information to understand the issues, but not so much to be overwhelmed. It is also a book that holds out hope that mankind can overcome the problems we face, as long as we apply a rational scientific approach rather than sloganeering and posturing.

Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams

I’ve just finished Chris Townsend’s latest book, Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams, which recounts his trek on the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT). I enjoyed Chris’ two previous books on his walks in the Yukon and Arizona. This one is in the same vein, perhaps a bit more like “Crossing Arizona” as it follows an established trail, albeit a sketchy one.

The PNT is the inspiration of Ron Strickland. The trail association was started way back in 1977. Even so, the trail is somewhat ill-defined in a number of places and Chris diverted from it in some places.

Starting in Glacier National Park at Chief Mountain on the Canadian border, it traverses the mountains westwards close to the US/Canadian border, passing through three National Parks and three wilderness areas and ends at Cape Alava on the Pacific coast.

It’s a lot less developed than the big three national trails, posing significant navigational and logistical challenges. The quality of the paths varied greatly as did the quality of the trail itself.

Because the trail cuts across the “grain” of the mountains, days of wilderness experience are interspersed with less agreeable walks across valleys, often along roads. Extensive logging also impinged on the wilderness experience and the associated roads made navigation more difficult.

Nonetheless, the overall impression is one of magnificent scenery and forests, with the occasional highlight of wildlife, most notably bears. The weather, particularly in the second half of the trek also posed a challenge, being abnormally wet, although living in Scotland, Chris should be used to that!

What is really fabulous about this book is its format. Being “landscape” rather than “portrait” means that photos are integrated with the text. There’s plenty of superb photos, giving a real feel for the landscape (and weather!).

I found this format more engaging than the more traditional one of chapters of text with a few sections of collected photos. The publishers and Chris are to be commended for this structure. I’d love to see the Yukon and Arizona books re-formatted like this.

It was really helpful to have decent maps at the start of each chapter and an overview map at the beginning, although I hankered after a bit more detail at times. The overall style is easy to read with descriptive writing interspersed with a few thoughts.

At times sections are skipped through quickly and I would have liked a bit more detail. I guess the number of pictures limits the text to keep the book down to a reasonable length (186 pages). By way of comparison, “Crossing Arizona” is 250 pages and, for me, remains Chris’s best work.

Good travel writers have a knack of transporting you into their journey, making you feel like you are participating in their adventure. Chris does this well with pithy descriptions of landscape, flora, fauna and his own feelings and emotions. While he doesn’t skip some of the less enjoyable aspects of the trail, like Highway 20(!), he doesn’t dwell on them and the overall impression is one of enjoyment and appreciation.

For the gearheads (like me), there’s a good section at the back on what Chris took, what worked and what didn’t. It’s good to have some background info on navigation and the trail itself, to give it context. Overall, it’s a very enjoyable read and gives a few hours escapism into a part of the world that few of us are likely to see and even fewer likely to hike.

One last thought is that, although our small island lacks the drama and true wildness of places like the Northwest USA, we are lucky in the freedom that we have to roam where we like and, generally, to camp where we like in our hills, especially in Scotland. Hiking in the US in many places is quite constrained, following trails, requiring permits and camping in designated spots.

While this is understandable to protect fragile ecosystems, it does impinge on the feeling of freedom. The ability to go where you like and camp where you like in places like Scotland gives a real feeling of freedom that is not to be underestimated. Perhaps the best of both worlds might be found in somewhere like Norway, where the scenery is more spectacular and there is the freedom to roam and camp.

Disclosure: this was bought with my own money 🙂

Hill Fit by Chris Highcock

Many of you will be aware of Hill Fit by Chris Highcock through reviews on Alan Sloman’s blog and Martin Rye’s blog. Chris very kindly sent me a copy to review as well. I think many like me struggle to maintain a good level of hill fitness. I’m lucky in one sense as I think I have a reasonable amount of core fitness that I’ve retained from my youth. Must have been all that football and cricket I played! I’m also lucky in that I’ve stayed reasonably thin, presumably because I have a high metabolism. Nevertheless, there are times when I do struggle a bit out in the hills. It’s not just a question of fitness or stamina, but strength. This is especially true when climbing hills.

This is where Hill Fit comes in. It’s not really a fitness book per se, it’s about a simple method for building core body strength. It is this approach that makes it different from other fitness books I’ve read and failed to put into practise. If you have a decent level of base fitness, which is true for many walkers, then walking 17-18 miles in a day is not usually a problem if it doesn’t involve much uphill. For instance the first day on our Peddars Way walk last year was over 17 miles and I felt pretty good. However, there are days in the Lake District where I’ve felt more tired after 7-8 miles, when I’ve had a lot of uphill.

Chris’s book gives enough background on fitness and strength to help you understand what is going on, without overwhelming you. There’s plenty of references at the back if you want to delve deeper into the whys and wherefores. I found the explanation just enough to answer my questions. Chris makes the point that his strength routine does not take the place of walking, but compliments it. Walking is still the best training for walking!

The strength routine consists of four basic exercises which should be done once or twice a week. Each exercise has a series of progressions to improve strength but shouldn’t take more than about ten minutes in all. Two of the exercises I’ve come across before. One is an exercise that I used to do before going skiing to strengthen my thighs and hips. The other is one that I’ve used to help my back. No gym equipment is required. One exercise requires a towel, but all the rest can be done without aids.

Does it work? I can’t give you an answer at the moment, but they are now part of my training for the TGO Challenge along with some walking. I’m hoping that it will stand me in good stead and that my strength for hill climbing will be improved. Having tried an exercise bike and gym membership, I feel this simple regime is likely to be more physiologically and cost-effective for backpacking.

If you are interested, go to Chris’s website and you can see the contents along with some comments from people more qualified than me! The book is downloadable as an eBook and costs £9.95. Well worth considering if you are looking for a simple way to get fit for the hills.

Disclaimer: Hill Fit was supplied to me free of charge to review.

Christmas books

With each succeeding Christmas, the number of presents diminishes, but the quality improves. This year I received two books. The first is “Vanished Kingdoms” by Norman Davies. There’s a good review in the Telegraph. This is the kind of book that wouldn’t translate very well to a kindle as it has quite a number of colour photos and it is a book that benefits from a skim before reading. It looks fascinating. At over 800 pages, it’s going to need a bit of time and I’m still only half way through “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene.

The second book I received was Chris Townsend’s “Scotland”. Again, I’ve only skimmed it so far, but it looks excellent. Andy Howell has written a comprehensive review on his blog. So far I’ve only dipped into it, but I’m impressed. There’s some lovely photos. I’ve identified all the tents except for the one on page 65 🙂  . Seriously, it’s a very useful guide and pen picture to the Highlands. The layout is very clear. I’m looking forward to many hours of pleasurable browsing. I’m also looking forward the Chris’s next book “Grizzly Bears and Razor Clams” in 2012. If it’s the same standard as his books on his treks in Arizona and the Yukon, we’re in for a treat!