Roderick A Smith


I'm wearing my father's boots.

Fell & Rock Club Journal, Vol XXV (2), No. 73, 1992.

 

I'm wearing my father's boots. He died earlier this week. There have been many things to do. So many people have called, written and telephoned. What can they say that's different? I need space and time to think; I don't want to talk to anyone, but I want to say something. That's why you are reading this.

 

His boots were thick with dust when I took them from a forgotten shelf; and hard from too long exposure to the central heating. They are a heavy well made pair in a quality of leather that was common forty years ago. When I first saw them as a child they were resplendent with tricouni and clinker nails. Many years ago they were converted to commando soles but, in common with many such attempts, the adhesion was never too good. They were boots for a Colossus, but, when I was knee high, that's what my Dad was to me. He kitted me out with an ex‑army anorak, from Brighams, then in a Manchester back street and well before the "Great Outdoors", skiing and fashion boom were thought of. Our house was, and still is, although I haven't lived there for twenty five years, in the Pennines, right under Alphin Pike and the entrance to Chew Valley. Our first walks together were up this hill, which to me was then the summit of ambition. It seems appropriate to take the boots for our last walk together up the hill.

 

The afternoon is hot and bright. A summer's day of yesteryear. I walk up to the edge of the moorland path. The smell of heather and peat, the gobs of cuckoo spit, the bright green young wimberry bushes; all prompt sharp pangs of stored Pennine memory. The rising ridge divides the view. Familiar valley floor to the left; mysterious moorland to the right. This used to be the boundary at infinity of my knowledge. How comforting then the familiar sights of the village safe in the valley. How exciting was the unknown world of the moor.

 

I can see the tiny church which was packed during the funeral service. My parents married there 51 years ago, just before my father departed for the duration in the RAF. My Grandad's brother appears on the memorial plaque to the fallen of the First World War. He was 23 when he was killed at Ypres; his youngest sister, now 90, was at Dad's funeral. Such is the continuity of village life. It was a great consolation when, quite unexpectedly, a representative from a small town in Germanv arrived for the service. Dad had acted as an interpreter on visits to Germany made by the local male voice choir. Frederic made a little speech about Dad's role as an ambassador between the two peoples. My Japanese wife and her mother stood with the family during the service; I wonder if they became part of the circle because of inherited values of international brotherhood? He certainly never encouraged me to admire militarism, although I was as keen as the next young boy on thrilling tales of war. He only once shook my doubts about his part as an RAF officer. We made a Spitfire; a skeleton of balsa wood ribs and stringers. We is not quite true; I was deemed too small to use the sharp knife. But I watched the long process avidly over many evenings. The great moment came when the two halves of the fuselage were to be joined. We had two left hand halves ....

 

The path is much better defined than I remember it. A distinct track winds through the heather which is itself stronger and much cleaner than forty years ago. Indeed, the valley looks much greener. Trees now flourish where previously they struggled in industrial smoke. The many arched viaduct where we waited for the six twenty double-headed express has disappeared. What little remains of the line of the track is a linear park; populated by house riders and dog walkers. Over on the far side is the truncated Frenches Mill. My father was one of the first to raise the alarm, when years ago he was returning from the station with my sister and spotted flames shooting from the top storey. I was brought from my bed to watch the subsequent conflagration. Although we watched from over a mile away, we could hear and feel the shock made as the once solid walls collapsed and tumbled down onto the street. Many new houses can be seen, and even from this distance, the newly sand blasted walls of some cottages stand out like Cotswold dwellings amidst the smoke blackened Pennine grit buildings. Gentrification is at hand. "Chelsea in the Pennines" was Dad's slightly disapproving description. It must have been a hard return from the Mess to teaching in Oldham and bring up two children in these then rather grim surroundings. He was staunchly and actively Socialist in those days; and still vocal, but not so active, to the end. I think we diverged slightly, but not seriously; “The Guardian” versus “The Independent”. Thank you, Mrs Thatcher, for giving us a common enemy.

 

Getting higher now. At this stage long age I would be excited at the prospect of the approaching summit. I lad been taken to see "The Ascent of Everest". Family tradition recalls me climbing the stairs on fixed clothes line, wearing a gas mask. Maybe our outings stated soon after that. After many such local walks, we went to the Lakes. What a revelation! The details of our three day trip remain sharp. Patterdale to Grasmere over Grisdale Pass on the first day, Great Gable, as bold in reality as in name, on the second (I left the bobble cap knitted by my mother on top), and an easy day to soothe huge blisters at Tarn Howes to round it off. Many regular Easter trips followed, but a livelong affair with Cumbria was consummated on that first occasion. Of course, fell walking leads naturally to rock climbing. spurred on by an article in "The Eagle", I festooned a local quarry with washing line. Although my father didn't climb, he mentioned my predilections to a sympathetic Master at school, who introduced me to the friction of Gritstone. I saved up to buy the Laddow area guidebook. Grey covers and six shillings by post. I memorised it. "Dad, what does Nil Desperandum mean? What was Charybdis? And where was Scylla?". The predicament for my parents was how to encourage this possibly dangerous obsession. I was despatched on a Mountaineering Association course to Skye and missed their Silver Wedding.

 

The top is now only a few strides away. The view is brilliantly clear. Way in the distance, light flashes on the windscreen of a car beginning the descent from the top on the Isle of Skye road. Just at the point where, on my return visits here, my pulse quickens at the sight of the downward swoop of Alderman. These Pennine curves are gentle, almost softly female and anatomical. Far removed from the geometric savagery of the Alps, Norway, Greenland and the Himalaya; all places where my apprenticeship with my father has lead me to; but unfortunately only shared with him on slides on my return. An expanse of reservoir nestles in the bottom of the fold of the hills. The sun sparkles on the white sails of the boats. These waters have long since flooded the pool where we used to bath on summer days such as this.

 

When my small legs grew longer, we continued beyond this top, way along the moor edge to Indian's Head and Wimberry Rocks. Down there in the narrowing valley, we had our first

family picnics. One ended in crashing thunder and flashes of lightening. Maybe this was a good introduction to fear. Further still, beyond the appropriately named Wilderness, the valley narrows further and the floor rises to meet the moor edge. Here lies the lonely Chew reservoir, once the highest in England. As a child a walk as far as this was a major undertaking. Under snow it assumed, in my mind at least, a expedition of Alpine proportions. Sometimes we

joined the reservoir keeper for a mug of sweet tea. He house is now gone. A few foundation stones outline its past function. Thus fortified, we would begin our low level and, to me weary return.  But, today I have come far enough. We are at the right place.

 

A few paces down from the top, overlooking the valley where we shared what is important, I take off Dad's boots. A few stokes with a garden trowel and the boots are laid in a hole in the peat. A stamped covering, a couple of stones, a thousand memories and a whispered, "Thanks, Dad. Thanks for everything" finish my task.

 

R A Smith 18 July 1991

 

 

 

 
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