The Great Puffin Saga
by Ed Bellthorpe Feb/2009
This article has been read 3,126 times
More Articles Like This
In his latest article on UKC, Stevie Haston tells tales of Gogarth, that wonderful arena of terror on Anglesey, North... [ full article ]
The sea cliffs of Gogarth, situated on the western tip of Anglesey are the stuff of legend. These beautiful and atmospheric crags... [ full article ]
Jack Geldard takes us on a tour of Gogarth - up the classic E3 Rat Race. His companions are two boys, aged 12 and 14. In true... [ full article ]
Popular Articles Right Now
Is it possible to improve your climbing without even trying?
Jack Geldard thinks that a few small changes in your climbing... [ full article ]
UKClimbing.com interview Nathan Lee and Oli Grounsell about their recent quick ascents of Rare Lichen, E9 6c, in North Wales... [ full article ]
An antique axe believed to have belonged to George Mallory sold today at auction for a six figure sum. Alex Roddie explains why... [ full article ]
Related UKC Forum discussions
Note to readers:
Small Puffin© John Redhead, Feb 2009
To their eternal credit the individuals in this piece have all given permission for its publication, and what a friendly and encouraging bunch they proved to be. The emails are all genuine!
Llanberis could probably provide me with further inspiration as I get to know the place!
The Great Puffin Saga by Ed Bellthorpe
This is the story of my mystifying journey through the North Wales climbing scene, in search of some puffins.
The puffins are not real (much like the ones I've so often looked for in MouseTrap Zawn). Rather they are works of fiction taken from the vivid memory of that giant of North Wales climbing folklore, John Redhead.
Immobilised upon the canvass they stare out helplessly despite my efforts to reach them. They are the same puffins that welcomed climbers to the August the 1st Gogarth Festival in 2008, their humble selves being photographed, made into posters and whisked about the web as digital messengers - calling in the clan. Climbers replace puffins on that first day of the season, enjoying the special places their feathered friends have vacated.
Now the reason for my quest is bound up with my love of that rough set of Anglesey cliffs. I was moved to write an essay about my first fear-soaked climb there, and not knowing what to do with it, I sent it to a creative writing competition run by the people producing the new Gogarth Guide. It won.
They put it in the Guidebook - as though it could provide some sort of direction - perhaps for those who did not understand conventional descriptions.
And first prize:-some sort of puffin picture!..
(Historical note: In the 80's a letter was sent to the mountaineering press complaining of the inappropriately tight clothing worn by climbers. It was written by my mother Edna, and this was the starting point of my interest in and convoluted journey through the strange world of cragging.)
Email to John Redhead
Firstly I would like to convey kind regards from my mother Edna who still talks of you with great fondness. (I gather you met in rather strained circumstances initially, something arising regarding tight climbing clothes. But she says the matter was resolved very satisfactorily, and that she developed a strong empathy for yourself and your peers)
Now, the reason I am writing to you, is that I find myself in the privileged position of having won the Gogarth essay competition set by the V12/Ground-Up team (my piece being included in the new guide).
I understand that the prize is a painting of some sea birds. I am very exited at the prospect of receiving a piece of your art, but also as a keen ornithologist, one which will be such a wonderful reminder of the natural beauty of Gogarth.
Could you tell me where I might obtain the prize?
Email from John Redhead
"Ed, Fantastic! As regards the natural beauty of Gogarth ...I trust that your interest in our feathered friends is more of a 'twitcher' - that is, an interest in the rarer, more strangely adorned types. The painting in question is of a puffin that befriended me on the stance of 'The Clown' at North Stack - seeking solace in male company I suppose. I think he was attracted to the said 'tight climbing pants' popular at the time and, I guess, wondered where he could obtain a pair to fit. He was a puffin out of time and out of sinque with the times of puffinhood...
...as regards your mother, Edna - are you my son? Ah, the eighties! I accept no responsibility for the savagery of that era. I wish you luck with 'the hanging' and love to all.
...as regards the 'prize', I suggest V12 will know its whereabouts - I passed it to Adam Wainwright, so I will check with him...
I had a chance encounter with Simon Panton, the man behind the whole essay competition thing, but it was difficult to talk to him as he was hanging from a bolt.
Poor weather had sent me to that last refuge of a scoundrel, The Great Ormes Head. And there he was - dangling from the lip of a roof, silent belayer hunched below. He looked a bit like a seventies rock star with long straight hair.
I did not know whether to approach him at first in case he was about to do something, but chuckling, he assured me that he was not. He explained that he was resting.
I said that I was too.
I attempted to hide my bafflement and began to broach the subject of the "birds". At this point his belayer revealed the reason for his lack of involvement, beginning to gently snore. Startled, I moved to wake him, but Simon assured me that it was okay because he was using a Grigri. I relaxed a little, pretending that I understood.
Simon proceeded to tell me in some detail of the whereabouts of my precious art treasure. He thought it might be at the office - or maybe at home. I began to have visions of it losing itself under some load of old climbing stuff - my poor unloved birds screaming into silence, their feathers cruelly fused forever.
Nothing would stop me from getting to the truth now......except that some girl wandered up, and asked if I would spot her on a boulder problem. She was nice but a bit over-focussed . She got angry about not being able to leave the ground on some chalky affair with massive holds. Actual anger! I couldn't do it either.
When I looked again "The Panton" had disappeared. Nothing there but limestone and nettles.
After some email communications I finally caught an actual glimpse of our central character, lent against his white van by the Cromlech Boulders, leather jacket clad, trimmed beard and earrings. Taking the evening air or so it seemed, but looking all about himself, quizzically as though awaiting the return of some hawk.
I thought the best thing to do was to walk briskly up to him.
"Hi -I'm Ed" I said, but he was gone round the van. I followed him. After a circuit or so I tried talking.
"Ed Bellthorpe...I've emailed you about.."
"...The Puffins" he suddenly breathed in mock horror. Then, stopping to give me a careful once-over, he lent toward the van mirror and looked at himself. And then at me once more.
"No youth - I think we are all right"
We relaxed a little, a bit like people do in films when they have re-holstered their guns.
"Why did you paint the..."
"They just flew in youth,their spirits just turned up in my studio. Its a long way to the Pyrenees for a puffin-spirit I can tell you. I reckon Adam Wainwright keeps them. Their his. Homing puffins youth -that's what they are. There was nothing I could do once they had got a grip of me, they had to come out onto the canvass. It was like a birth, the noise, the mess.....And you should SEE them youth" he said in a strange way, gesturing downwards momentarily.
His eyes were two dark points of mischief, and from his broad smile came the teeth of a carnivore.
He changed his tone as though making an announcement;
"Yes its Adam Wainwright you want-the High Priest of Wen Zawn"
He jumped into the van, and removing the hand brake, set off, rolling quietly down the road without turning on the engine.
"Funny sort of place this" I thought.
I wondered if the village of Llanberis would give me further insight into this land of fantasy and thus found myself stood about its main street marvelling at shop front colour schemes. Leaves bustled down the pavement. This is where it had "all happened" - and I'd missed it. Idling, I paused at a shop doorway and read the little pinned-up adverts.
"OUTDOOR -something-something-SOLUTIONS", god help us.
"STORYTELLING"- (it didn't specify who told the story to whom)..."Come with loose clothing and an open mind.." Or maybe vice versa I thought!
"THE OCCASIONAL CINEMA" I had visions of an ornate building - that is there some days, but not others.
"YOGA" - that would make you calmer than the people that wound you up. And so it went on. I felt a force pulling me in.
The contents of the shop was cool. Shelves and rows of things in the old style, millions of jars, boxes of amazing veg that looked like it had lived a proper life. Behind the counter stood a broad shouldered fellow with a thick jumper and an apron.
"What do you recommend?" I murmured, surveying his long hair and determined jaw-line.
The eyes burned straight through me. (I sometimes felt like I didn't exist when people hesitated like this before answering). He screwed up his face in thought.
"Love, Truth and Beauty" He finally announced, "but you don't necessarily attain them in that order."
"But the food, err is it organic?"
"Yes the food is organic” he smiled,"Did you want some in-organic food? You can get that down the road, but I suggest you have some of this, from which you have a chance of nourishment"
The door opened. A mother and small child wondered in and then behind them, a young man whom I immediately recognised from climbing pictures, a slender, modern version of Oscar Wild, smooth complexioned - deliberately not wearing a velvet waistcoat or long locks just to put you off the scent.)
I believe it was none other than Pete Robins. I elected to follow his movements around the shop in an effort to see what he ate, indeed I decided that I would purchase and consume whatever he did. Nothing more-nothing less.
After much deliberation he reached out for a couple of bars of soap and wandered to the till. The frustration of failing to unlock the secret codes to climbing diet made me blurt out a question as he shuffled past me to the door.
"What do you ...eat?" I heard myself ask. The embarrassment!
"Mostly just fried stuff" He answered, grinning.
The shopkeeper was talking to the mother, and stooping, he addressed the child "It's all right, I'm not going to eat you - I'm a vegetarian".
As I watched him in his duties, shifting produce in movements of swift precision, it dawned upon me that I recognised this fellow too. His hands were those of a climber.
"Is it within the bounds of possibility?.."
"I'm John" he beamed reaching out to shake my hand.
"Ed" I said rather weakly.
JOHNNY DAWES! Blimey. He would know about puffins spirits!
It transpired that he did, and he explained the subject as though it were common knowledge. He'd seen them, or felt them in the restaurant across the road, or even in Pete's Eats Cafe - a nesting pair he said "cruelly imprisoned" in a frame.
I purchased a small bottle of juice - made from fruit of which I'd never heard and thanking him, continued upon my quest.
I felt more focus for my cause now, just as the falcon must grow hungrier for its prey. A little of that special zest had perhaps rubbed off from "The Dawes". Perhaps it was the downfall of young fellows like myself - that heightening of the senses in the synthesis of a quest. The birds would be MINE!
Email to Jim Perrin:
I wonder if you could advise me.......
...............the prize offered by the editors was a picture of some puffins,apparently painted by the fair hand of John Redhead himself. I have not seen the work,but I get the impression there is something untoward about it. Also-it appears not to exist, or is simply lost.
I thought I should appeal to you as a person with a developed knowledge of the climbing community to see if I could get some idea of its whereabouts.
Yours in anticipation,
Email from Jim Perrin:
"....and as to your puffins painting, John did start out as an exquisitely-detailed painter of wildlife, so maybe the puffins pic exists, but my sense is that for the last twenty years he's concentrated on exquisitely detailed paintings of fannies - a sort of latter-day male Georgia O'Keefe.
He's an odd one, our John, but endearing...
Hope this helps - anything else I can do, let me know.
Pete's Eats Cafe was nearly empty. The lad serving had a tee shirt that said "If you love something - let it go - and if it doesn't come back - hunt it down and kill it". I got a mug of tea and wandered about. There was a whole wall of pinned-up notices here, like giant multi-coloured monster scales.
Medium Puffin© John Redhead, Feb 2009
Two men were sat in jovial conversation, their laughter reaching around the room. Familiar. One had the hair and perfect stubble of the legend that was Ray Wood, the climbing photographer. The other man was older. He looked at me quizzically with a wry grin.
"Jim Perrin?" I blurted, standing stranded amongst the empty tables and chairs. Behind him was a large window, so that ordinary life rushed by as a strange back-drop.
"Technically-fleeced young man, do come and join us. You look a little lost." he muttered in a calm and friendly voice.
I sat, and began rather clumsily-whispering "I'm on a mission.... I'm desperate to find some birds!"
The two men simply dissolved in a fit of giggles, muttering words to the effect of "Oh aren't we all"
I was not to be deterred.
Introducing myself, introducing my mission, probing for clues, I told them everything. Of the article, of the painting, of the strange and inconclusive encounters. And of the puffins that were rightfully mine.
(I think to be honest, somewhere at this point I do recollect banging a fist on the table.)
I sensed that all I'd done was to amuse. The great elder of the clan looked at me with his head to one side as though admiring some curious exhibit.
(The thought did occur, that in so desperately seeking a piece of art, I was, as it were, making an exhibition of myself!)
"I do believe young Ed that you have become intoxicated, almost delirious with the exuberance of your own verbosity. These birds have taken a disproportionate hold of you. Reconsider your position. The real prize is all about you. The natural world. The bare rocks offerings, the harsh call of the ravens, the beat of your own heart....."
Slowly, head buzzing, I got up shaking hands with the gentlemen. Lost in thought. Was my quest that ill conceived?
As I made for the door I heard his measured and kindly tones again "Ed -if you do get the birds,rid yourself of the angst. Release them"
On leaving, my heart was not quite the same hunter.
Email to Adam Wainwright:
Full Puffin (Censored)© John Redhead, Feb 2009
I don't think we have met, but I did once see you climbing in Wen Zawn with one of your pals.
Anyway I am contacting you on the advice of John Redhead,who tells me that you have some knowledge of the whereabouts of the coveted "Puffins" painting. I am informed that the painting depicts some unusual birds that he encountered whilst ascending The Clown on North Stack Wall.
I am in the exiting position of having won this piece of art ............
............If you could tell me where it might be collected I would be most grateful.
From Adam Wainwright:
"knobs youth, only knobs!"
Email to Adam Wainwright:
Your message was a little unclear, I wonder if you could be persuaded to elaborate.
From Adam Wainwright:
Firstly I would like to apologise unreservedly for my last mail which I can only imagine came as something of a shock to you. Reading your latest mail and after discovering you have been in contact with some friends of mine regarding the new guide and The Puffins painting I can
only assume you to be a reasonable person, who does not appreciate obscenities mailed in reply to a serious matter.....
.................. would like to congratulate you for your writing which has appeared in the new tome, and of course trust that you are pleased with your painting of The Puffins which I understand you have now received.
What a coincidence!
It cannot have been a day later that a figure hurriedly exited a car outside my house and dumped the packaged masterpiece in my porch, running from view in the same instant. It could, I believe, have been the form of Adam Wainwright, though I do not know him well. Or perhaps one of his companions similarly attired, whom I would not have known as it were - from Adam (Later I was informed that it could not have been "The Wainwright" as no-one has ever seen him move quickly).
The picture was a shock. Though eyeing each other up at close quarters the birds inscrutable faces did not give away their overpowering nesting agenda. The male was heavily endowed, burdened such that his whole existence must be centred around the urge to compete and replicate himself. The female likewise, the great egg emerging with porcelain purity.
Full Puffin© John Redhead, Feb 2009
I would release them.
Journeying across the flatlands of Anglesey I planned the ceremony that would bring me closure. The artworks rightful home was North Stack - yes right off the top of The Clown, no matter how hard the walk in this untameable westerly.
A slight navigational confusion in the streets of Holyhead diverted me towards South Stack instead and taking this to be providence I carried on.
Red Walls - that would be just as good.
I shoved the door open against the whims of the wind and held the picture tightly. Dashing straight to the cliffs edge I felt the boom of the wild sea. Wave crests released great blobs of foam skyward without a care. Giant wave sets rolled out from a charcoal sky.
Inadvertently I had reached a bit of the cliff top south of the big red dripping walls close to Elan's Tower (a twitchers observation point).
I crouched, deciding I'd remove the glass coffin of a picture frame - a struggle in the conditions.
Lost within these practicalities I was surprised to hear a voice.
"Can I ask what on earth you are doing?"
Though shouting through the icy rain there was nothing but genuine curiosity in her tone. The woman from the bird place had several layers on, and called from inside a cavernous hood. Her jacket had a "Royal Society for the Protection of Birds" motif. (Any irony was lost on me at the time).
For a second I thought I might explain myself - and perhaps even forge stronger links between the twitching and climbing communities in a whole variety of ways - but she had seen the unusual picture now. She stared at the birds in frozen horror. I looked at the ground. The puffins looked at each other.
I legged it!
All the way up the narrow path to the top of the big wall and releasing the canvas from its casing-thrust the ornithological frisbee out over nothingness with all my reserves. Instead of being dashed upon the rocks, the puffins reeled and hovered in the up-draft just as real ones might have done.
Then in one glorious gust they lifted high up into the darkening sky and disappeared overhead.
Spirited up and away.
I was free again.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Ed Bellthorpe: