Rob the Rubbish: Junk Male

He's single-handedly cleared up Ben Nevis, but he's not going to stop there. Now Rob the Rubbish is taking on Mount Snowdon. Ed Caesar joins the ex-social worker on his mission to keep Britain tidy
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The Independent Online

"Eccentric? I don't know. Is this eccentric? Look at all this beautiful scenery. I don't think it's eccentric to be up here. But maybe it is. Eccentrics are different, aren't they? And I'm different."

Meet Robin Kevan, an eccentric. Kevan, better known as Rob the Rubbish, is 1,000ft up Mount Snowdon. It's minus 3C. He carries one of those robotic pick-up sticks that idle people buy from the Innovations catalogue. His outerwear includes a Manchester City beanie, a fluorescent gilet emblazoned with "Rob the Rubbish - Snowdon 2005" and two pairs of gloves.

"You can't be too careful," says Rob the Rubbish, strapping on his gloves. "This is other people's litter we're talking about."

The Rubbish, a 60-year-old retired social worker, shot to fame two weeks ago when he decided to clean up Ben Nevis on his own. He had heard a news report on Radio Five Live about the state of litter on the mountain, and drove from his home in Llanwrtyd Wells to Fort William to do something about it. Over two days, he climbed half the mountain and filled six refuse sacks.

Now Britain's most famous binman is giving Mount Snowdon the Rob the Rubbish treatment. Having cleaned up the car park, we start on the most popular ascent. It's a difficult scramble over icy stones and untrustworthy scree, but the Rubbish belies his age and hops up the path as if it were his post-lunch constitutional.

"Strong legs," he says, as his media escort lags behind. To be fair, I am carrying his backpack. We meet only a handful of people, it being 8am and colder than an Arctic Christmas, but we do find rubbish. Coca-Cola cans, crisp packets and chewing-gum wrappers are the main offenders. In general, though, the mountain looks reasonably litter-free.

"They've done a good job," he says of the wardens who normally clean up Snowdon. The Rubbish inspects the gaps between rocks for plastic bags. "Very nice, indeed."

After a lightning ascent, we reach one of the lower peaks - at about 2,000ft. The view, over the old miner's path and the lake, is stunning. The Rubbish brings out the sandwiches and pies his wife, Tina, has packed. Over an excellent chicken roll, I ask him why he's started cleaning mountains. "They're just so beautiful," he says, casting his hand over the shadowy mid-morning landscape. "I've been cleaning up Llanwrtyd Wells every morning for about a year now. Rubbish was impacting on my life - I'd see it everywhere and it really bothered me. I realised that the council, because of budgets and so on, could only come a couple of times a week, so I went out and did something. And then I heard the radio report on Ben Nevis, and well... you know the rest."

Wouldn't it have been easier to lobby councils to spend more on litter management? Or to persuade people to stop dropping litter in the first place? "Oh, I don't go into that. That's for other people to work out. It takes 20 years to educate a whole new generation. I don't have 20 years. I'm retired now, and when you retire you have to reassess your life. I've got time and energy, so why not just do something about it?"

After this rebuff, the Rubbish pauses and looks at the mountain top. "People think I'm crackers."

Ah, yes, the eccentricity question. The Rubbish tells me how, as a travelling Manchester City fan, he used to take a helium balloon in the shape of a pink horse to away games and would let it float over the heads of the players.

"One time, I think we were losing 1-0 at Bury, and I let it fly over the pitch. It landed in the Bury goal," he says with some pride. "Anyway, we scored with a header late on and there was a picture in The Sun the next day with the Bury goalie looking at my horse. The headline was 'What a load of old pony'. Lovely."

One should expect nothing less from a resident of Llanwrtyd Wells, a tiny town of 600 souls deep in the Welsh valleys. Llanwrtyd, you see, is the eccentricity capital of the UK. Famously home of the World Bog-Snorkelling Championships, it has a statue of celebrity fool Screaming Lord Sutch, and also hosts the annual "Man versus Horse" race.

The Rubbish was not born a Llanwrtydian - he became one. Originally from Sedbergh, in the Yorkshire Dales, he spent his working life helping low-income families across Cumbria and Greater Manchester, before he finally settled down in Wales' nuttiest small town. "All my life I've been looking for somewhere as beautiful as the Yorkshire Dales," he says. "But it's difficult to go back and live where you grew up. In Llanwrtyd, I've found somewhere close. And if you put a love of natural scenery together with 35 years of service in the shape of social work, and you've probably got the reason why I'm doing this."

What has shocked the Rubbish, though, has been the media attention that has accompanied his one-man mission to cleanse. "It's amazing," he says. "Radio, television, newspapers. All because I want to pick up some rubbish. I went to London for the Jeremy Vine Show. I was really nervous."

The Rubbish, though, is not complaining. "I like the fact that my story is highlighting the problem of litter. An individual with enough energy can decide to do something about it, and I've decided to do this."

The benefits of this new-found, if small scale, celebrity have not passed him by either. He recently received two letters from elderly female fans addressed to Rob the Rubbish, Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales. They both told him that his story had uplifted them.

On our descent, we meet two new recruits to the Rob the Rubbish fan club. "Are you that famous guy who cleaned Ben Nevis?" asks one, vigorously shaking the Rubbish's hand. "I heard you on the Johnnie Walker show. Bloody marvellous."

And if people haven't heard of the Rubbish, he's more than happy to fill them in. In fact, he looks a little peeved if a fellow mountain-walker passes him by without asking who he is. It seems the Rubbish has taken to the celebrity game a little easier than his self-effacing demeanour would have us believe. Not that there's anything wrong with him enjoying his 15 minutes. His miniature fame has allowed him to impress his Zen philosophy on anybody who will care to listen.

When one hiker finds out who he is, he asks, "So what do you do if you see someone dropping litter - do you give them a little push?"

"No. I mean, there's no point, is there?" he replies. "There's always going to be rubbish. It falls out of people's pockets or bags - it just follows where people have been."

"Not if people had discipline," replies the disgruntled hiker.

"Oh, I don't want to be a grumpy old man about it," says the Rubbish, amiably. "I just want to clear it up."

And so he tootles down Snowdon's Pyg Path, sack on back like Santa, happy with his lot. Over two days at Snowdon, the Rubbish fills five bin bags. The most exotic items picked up are two empty champagne bottles he finds at the summit (on Ben Nevis he found a discarded tent full of sweaters and old boots). He reckons his two-day trawl will be an adequate clean-up for the next six months, when he will return.

Before we part ways, the Rubbish talks about the future. "I'd love to do Scafell Pike - that would be great," he muses. "And who knows where next? One thing, though, I'll never neglect my home. That's where I started cleaning up, and it's where I live, so that's the most important. We get a lot of attention for a small town. The other week we had 750 mountain-bikers in Llanwrtyd Wells. I put bins out for them all. They were all full, so it was obviously worth it."

He mentions more ambitious projects, too. A campaign to raise enough money for Ben Nevis to be cleaned twice annually by helicopter is high on the list, as is a literary (littery?) career. "'The Adventures of Rob the Rubbish'," he says with a grin. "Sounds all right, doesn't it?"

A first book deal, though, is a distant mountain. The Rob the Rubbish philosophy is all about doing, not talking, and he's enjoying the inner calm of keeping beautiful things beautiful too much to ruin it now.

"I think I'm happier than I've ever been," says Britain's most amiable eccentric.