Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
“I know of no place where there is such symmetry, balance of scale and beauty in one turn of the head as in the English Lake District.” Malcolm Craig is passionate about the Lake District and above everything else, he is drawn to the vast pyramid of Great Gable. He first climbed Gable almost by accident, using a half inch map and, having left his bicycle at Seatoller, just aiming to get as high as possible. From the ridge he looked on a “cataract of beauties, ‘each thing being beautiful in itself, and the very passage of one lake, mountain or valley to another is itself a beautiful thing again’”. The words belong to Coleridge, but the response is as much Malcolm’s. That sunny spring morning as a teenager, standing alone on Gable determined the rest of his life.
Fifty years later, it has prompted him to write a biography of the mountain itself.
Like all good biographies, it begins with the birth. Gable was formed “from a series of volcanic events between 460 and 450 million years ago in the Caradoc Age”. These events took place in what is now the southern Atlantic. Through the millennia the land masses have drifted and constant erosion has occurred with the result that Gable stands where it is today.
He imagines the view when the land was covered with an ice sheet many millions of years ago when “Gable and other nunataks were the only visible parts of the land above a sea of glistening white to blue ice.”
There are markings on Gillercomb that indicate that there was life on Gable 438 million years ago. These prints were left by a millipede like creature that must have fed on algae. More recently, just six thousand years ago, we might imagine, in the Great Langdale axe factory, “workers sitting cross-legged chipping away at chosen pieces of stone, looking westward across the valley at Gable”. It is even possible that the first ascent of the mountain was made by one of these axe workers in the summer months as he searched for suitable material or made the journey across to the Ehenside Tarn workshop.
Later workers on the mountain and the surrounding fells were the shepherds. Graphite or wad was found on the way leading up from Borrowdale. A graphite mould made to forge coins in the reign of Henry VII was found in Wasdale. After that, the graphite became an important resource.
Later activities may have included whisky distilling and smuggling. Will Ritson of Wasdale Head tells of Moses Rigg distilling whisky at the Gable hut. The tourists and the artists and the writers came in the nineteenth century, but it was the rock climbers, excited by the challenge of Napes Needle who became identified with Gable and turned it into the special place it has become.
Gable is just one of many mountains. Its story is the story of the Lake District, but it has, like a person, its own individuality, its own distinct history.
For Malcolm Craig, Gable is the mountain. In telling its story he tells the story of the Lake District from its formation many aeons ago right through to modern times, with anecdotes and speculation, but always with a deep affection for the mountain itself.
“For people who love Gable the greatest satisfaction comes from memory: images of summer days when the rock is warm, or winter and Gable white with snow come flooding through.”