Ingram sometimes veers towards the rhapsodic – he writes of a ‘state of primal essentiality’ and ‘full-on sensory epiphany’ – but he only gets carried away because he is so enthusiastic.
He is especially drawn to Britain’s mountains. We may not have the ‘elegant meringue-and-meadow peaks’ of the Alps or the towering monsters of the Himalaya, but the UK has its share of treasures. Ingram has chosen sixteen favourites that encapsulate a series of pleasingly random themes. He climbed said mountains over the course of a year and enjoyed, or sometimes endured, lots of memorable adventures.
He visited Cross Fell, for example, because the weather was likely to be terrible, and we can’t hope to understand mountains without appreciating the peril of howling gales. Cadair Idris in Snowdonia was selected because it has long been a wellspring of Welsh mythology and legend. Ingram wanted to discuss endless skies and special mountain light, so he headed far to the north and the landscape of Ben Loyal. Mountains have often inspired artistic endeavour, so a trip to the Lake District, a long-standing magnet for poets and painters, was in order.
You get the idea and, on balance, it isn’t a bad one: pick a topic and identify a suitable mountain. Other themes, with appropriate peaks attached, include danger, plunder (quarries, etc.) and terror. For the last category, where better than the Cairngorms and the ‘sight-stealing mists’ of Ben Macdui?
A number of chapters stand out. The piece on science is tremendous and it is pleasing to be reminded of eighteenth- century boffins clambering up Schiehallion in the southern Scottish Highlands to conduct experiments aimed at calculating the mass of the planet: something to do with the effect of the Earth’s gravitation on dangled plumb-line pendulums, apparently.
The journeys to the wildest places are particularly compelling. The trek to An Teallach, halfway along the A832, is a notable example: we encounter, through Ingram’s eyes, ‘a thing of menace not beauty, an expletive of a mountain, all spikes and hard angles.’
“Weighty explanations of humanity’s fascination with mountains are usually ‘notoriously impenetrable’ so Ingram leaves them well alone”
Ingram, while clearly a competent amateur, is not some mountaineering superstar. Years ago, he realised ‘I just wasn’t someone to whom mountain-climbing came as an easy, natural fit.' On the trips for this book, he had some lousy nights, high up beneath the stars, and isn’t afraid to admit that the going sometimes got tough.
For the most part, however, he had a lot of fun and this has always been Ingram’s chief motivation. This is not a book of philosophising. Justifications for, or weighty explanations of, humanity’s fascination with mountains are usually ‘notoriously impenetrable’ so Ingram leaves them well alone. He simply quotes Norman MacCaig: ‘There are more reasons for hills/Than being steep.’
Early on, Ingram divides humanity into those who prefer to look at mountains from afar and those who venture up the slopes. He doesn’t scold the former group. Indeed, he suggests that it is behaving very sensibly: we are ‘programmed as a species to avoid [mountains].’ I’m not sure that’s true – there have been successful civilisations at high altitudes, after all – but I’m certainly one of those who avoids risking life and limb or even getting unusually out of puff in search of a summit. This only means I’m lazy rather than genetically predisposed to remaining at sea level, but it also makes me rather envious of Ingram. He just can’t help himself. Despite a fear of heights and, so he tells us, a talent for getting lost, his pulse races whenever he sees a mountain. Winningly, it doesn’t have to be a famous, pretty, or even particularly lofty peak in order to command his attention.
Books about mountains usually dwell on epic expeditions, complex scientific analysis, or earnest cultural theorising. Ingram takes a different tack: a passionate, idiosyncratic and thoroughly enjoyable account of what mountains mean to him.
BETWEEN THE SUNSET AND THE SEA: A view of 16 British Mountains by Simon Ingram, William Collins, £18.99 (hardback)
This book review was published in the June 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine