Rock Climbing In England and Wales - Reviewed

Rock Climbing In England and Wales

by David Simmonite, edited by Neil Champion and with a foreword by Ron Fawcett
(£24.99, New Holland, ISBN 1-85974-408-7)

The bullet points:
- this book will inspire you to go to new crags
- you will love the pictures
- you might wonder why some of your favourites got left out
- someone must be persuaded to buy it for you for Xmas

What a sod Ken Wilson was to publish the "***** Rock" series (Classic Rock, Hard Rock, Extreme Rock). That's what you realise when you read David Simmonite's books. Ken really knew what he was about - and worse, he may have just had the perfect formula for a climbing book. Which of course makes his a rather hard act to follow.

My shelves have many climbing collections, including "Great Climbs" (a collection of essays, mainly about mountaineering) and David Jones's "Rock Climbing in Britain", a photographic tour which both goes around the country and takes you from V Diff to E7 (which at the time the book was compiled, in 1984, was the utter cutting edge of the sport - he captured John Redhead climbing The Bells, The Bells at Gogarth).

The question is, where does Dave Simmonite's book fit into this?

What you have to admit straight away is that it's Ken's books which are really the stuff of long rainy evenings stuck in the hut. There's the essays describing famous routes (oh go on, quote the John Allen line about Beau Geste..."it seemed to me its ascent was a moment of pure thingummy.. etc etc") and the others about routes in places you'll never go to. And Ken knew who he was talking to: people who didn't need any telling about crags, or routes. Climbers, in fact.

By contrast David Jones's book made an attempt to explain to non-climbers what climbing involved, with an intriguing history and gear section. But the 100 photos and their explanations (tucked away in the back of the book) are terse. Jones's book was more like a quiz - "Where do you think that is? What grade?" - than the relaxed approach of the * Rock series.

Dave Simmonite's book fits in somewhere between those two. With those two options for describing the activity closed off, he's chosen instead to hop about from crag to crag: thus you get a brief essay about a crag such as the Roaches, with photos varying from the dead easy to the dead hard within inches of one another. Somehow, doing that doesn't seem fair either to the hard or the easy routes.

But the photos are almost without exception terrific (though a couple seemed to have been blown up beyond the point where they looked smooth and turned into pixellated weirdness). And even if you've been buying all the climbing mags you won't have seen most of them. That's quite remarkable, as Simmonite has been busy, busy, busy taking pictures for the mags up and down the country.

Yet I found myself wondering. Why is it only "England and Wales"? Was the weather permanently crap in Scotland? Is he planning another book about Scotland? Only two pages of slate? Why so few pictures of Stanage - OK, it may be the crag that everyone pictures, but isn't it important to have points of reference? The crags so familiar to most people who have climbed on Peak grit are bundled together into a "crag" called "Eastern edges". I thought this was a chance missed for Simmonite to show his prowess as a photographer. He should demonstrate that he can take a picture of Downhill Racer or Flying Butress Direct which makes you think "Is that really..?" The art isn't capturing the normal image, it's in getting us to see what we normally see in a different way.

Or maybe I'm just expecting too much from someone who has, after all, to earn a living. But with the backing of a big publishing house which is suddenly putting a lot of money into climbing books (watch out for a revised and much improved version of The Handbook Of Climbing), one might have hoped for just that little bit extra.

Still, that's a minor quibble. What's important, and makes it worth the purchase price, is that this book will do that thing that climbing photography books and calendars must do to succeed: it'll make you say "I want to go and climb that!" and add whatever route it is to your tick list, even if it's miles below or above your present grade. It's called inspiration. Make sure it's in your Christmas stocking.

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