Harry Griffin

Evocative Lakeland writer and pioneering climber

Arthur Harry Griffin, journalist, writer and climber: born Liverpool 15 January 1911; MBE 1996; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Kendal, Cumbria 9 July 2004.

When it comes to the oral history of climbing, the form most commonly experienced by modern outdoor enthusiasts consists of listening to a bearded veteran in a pub in Snowdonia or Lakeland reminiscing about peg hammers and corduroy breeches.

On the odd rare occasion, you might be fortunate enough to encounter a greying old-timer willing to tell you about a dimly perceived climbing prehistory involving flat caps, "PAs" and ex-War Department karabiners. Anything before this, however, you reasonably feel, must surely remain in the realm of dead languages; as distant and unimaginable as meeting a climbing Ancient Greek. Harry Griffin was that Ancient Greek.

Despite having started his cragside career as one of the small band of 1930s Lakeland rock-climbers who helped revive the sport after the First World War, Griffin could still be encountered on the hills around his home of Kendal or at climbers' gatherings well into his eighties. It was difficult to regard him as one of the last living links with the pre-mass participation era of outdoor recreation, so fresh and lucid were his recollections. But he was famous far beyond the constituency of the climbing community thanks to his long-running "Country Diary" contributions for The Guardian and more than a dozen best-selling books about the Lake District.

Griffin was born in 1911 in Merseyside but his family moved to Barrow-in-Furness on the southern edge of the Lakeland Fells while he was still a child. The whale-like hill of Black Combe to the west of the town dominated his childhood landscape, while the rugged volcanic Coniston Fells were clearly discernible not far from his home. Initially with his brother Lesley, Harry was drawn to explore these hills, first as a fellwalker, then as a climber.

In 1929 he was taken under the wing of the jolly, effusive mayor of Barrow, George Basterfield, who happened to be one of the most prominent rock climbers in Britain. The mayor, of whom his peers quipped, "The hardest pitch will yield, when attacked by Basterfield", was the avuncular leading light of the so-called "Yewdale Vagabonds", a loose association of mainly Barrow-based elite climbers who pushed standards on Lakeland rock in the years immediately following the First World War. Their name came from their habit of meeting at Yewdale near Coniston, not far from their main proving ground of Dow Crag.

The social hub of the group, Basterfield was famous for writing and performing his own comic songs at the piano while playing, badly, with one finger, and spinning yarns rich in local dialect. Griffin was mesmerised by the charismatic mayor. "After that day it was all I ever thought about," he wrote later. "All I dreamt and lived for then was climbing." Inspired by his example, the young Griffin and a like-minded group set up their own informal climbing club, "The Coniston Tigers" with a "hut" (an old wooden garage) on the flanks of Coniston Water.

In the 1930s they happily climbed almost exclusively on their favourite local cliff of Dow Crag, putting up pitches like the Tiger Traverse, still graded "Very Severe" in climbers' parlance. These were serious undertakings, especially given the relatively primitive nature of the equipment available. There were no waist harnesses or helmets and little protection in the event of a fall; the best safeguard was boldness and skill.

Although he was occasionally at the forefront of climbing development, Griffin would become more famous as a chronicler of inter- and post-war climbing and the changing Lakeland landscape. He had begun a career as a journalist, first as a cub reporter with a local Barrow paper before moving to Preston to work on the Lancashire Evening Post. By 1937 he had progressed to the Manchester Guardian, before the Second World War intervened.

Griffin joined the Intelligence Corps, serving in the Far East. After the war he returned to journalism at the Lancashire Evening Post, becoming the paper's Kendal-based Northern Editor. He also began penning his "Country Diary" vignettes for the Manchester Guardian. The series, one of the longest running in journalism, which continued for 53 years right up to his death, would make his name.

"A. Harry Griffin", as he signed himself for the newspaper, proved to be a lucid and evocative interpreter of the landscape of his home fells and his diaries became a popular feature. They would lead to the first of his books, Inside the Real Lakeland (by "A.H. Griffin", 1961). A dozen more followed over 38 years.

In many ways Griffin's vibrant pen portraits of days among the fells complemented the utilitarian illustrated Lakeland walking guides of Alfred Wainwright that were acquiring a cult-like status around the same time. Both men were moved by the beauty and delights the Lakeland fresh air to describe their experiences in their own ways; Wainwright with his superb draughtsmanship and Griffin by means of his deft journalistic skills. At a time when the profession of "outdoor writing" was still in its infancy, the works of both men would become to be regarded by many as the very embodiment of the Lakeland outdoor scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Ironically, Griffin disapproved of Wainwright's popular walking guides, considering he had caused "more damage to the fells than anyone else". This did not deter the two men from remaining friends.

Harry Griffin was distraught when his wife Mollie, whom he had married before the war, died from cancer in 1987, and this was followed in 1991 by the death of his second wife, Violet, from a heart attack. His son, Robin, also died from a heart attack, in 1998. When his later companion, Josie Clegg, died in 2003, Harry found it increasingly difficult to hide the fact that he felt very lonely. There were joyful moments too of course: he was appointed MBE in 1996 and the publication of his autobiographical reminiscences The Coniston Tigers in 1999 was very warmly received. It won the Lakeland Book of the Year prize in 2000 and became an instant classic of climbing literature.

Despite failing health, Griffin was reluctant to give up his active and independent life. He had only just given up driving his car at the age of 93, and was taking on new challenges - such as coming to grips with a laptop computer, on which he was busy writing his second set of memoirs.

In his first autobiography he had painted a picture of a carefree climbing world now long gone, a landscape of empty hills and crags yet to develop erosion scars, of rutted, grass-grown roads and a universal esprit de corps amongst climbers. "I'm very glad I lived when I did," he told me last spring, in the middle of a mutual moan about coping with the sometimes infuriating Microsoft Word. "The fells were empty and we used to have proper winters - it's all rubbish now."

It was a rather harsh verdict on the effects of the enduring popularity of the Lakeland Fells - a popularity which his writing had of course played no small part in helping to increase. But perhaps Griffin could be forgiven his nostalgic sense of loss for another era; a magical time when the climbing community was so close-knit it was possible to tell who one was going to meet on the crag by the distinctive individual nail patterns of fellow climbers' bootmarks left in the mud of the approach path.

Colin Wells

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