Take A Hike – by Phil Whitfield

Take a Hike

When I was fourteen an Athenaeum proprietor told me to take a hike. Quite literally. Cliff Cook was the leader of Quarry Bank’s scout troop, the 5th Allerton. We feared and respected him. We obeyed his commands unhesitatingly.

On a brisk Saturday morning in April our patrol (The Eagles) clambering on to a Crosville bus, a familiar sight in the Liverpool suburbs, where most of the Eagles nested.

George Crosland Taylor and his French business associate Georges de Ville had set up Crosville Motors to build cars in Chester. The company name was a portmanteau from the founders’ names.  

Crosville ran its first bus service, between Chester and Ellesmere Port in 1909. Twenty years on, Crosville buses covered the Wirral, Lancashire, Cheshire and parts of North Wales.

This was the glorious age of steam. In 1921 Parliament, lobbied by the big four railway companies, passed The Railways Act, which consolidated most rail and road transport. The LNER inherited companies such as Crosville and coordinated their timetables.

On 1st May 1928 the Flying Scotsman ran non-stop the 393 miles from London to Edinburgh. The crowning glory of the time was the world record speed of 126 miles an hour achieved by a streamlined LNER Class A4 4-6-2 train, the Mallard.

Merseysiders rejoiced, flocking to holiday spots, mostly in North Wales.

My grandfather Tom had left the family farm on land that became the Halewood Ford factory. He found work as a railway shunter on the gridiron in Wavertree. His bride Hannah had left her family in Buckley 40 miles away to work as a housemaid in one of the magnificent mansions overlooking Princes Parkway.

Tom and Hannah set up home at 88 Lawrence Road and raised four daughters and a son, my father Jack. Their two-up-two down terrace with a toilet in the yard had an oven in the backroom, heated by a coal fire. My Dad used to warm his boots in it.

My grandparents were stalwarts of St. Bridget’s Parish Church around the corner, hosting the youth club in their front room. When the last of my Welsh relatives passed away, a huge contingent of singers from the Buckley area raised the roof of St. Bridget’s at a Sunday evening memorial service singing Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah, sung to Cwm Rhondda, memorable for me as it was the first time I wore a Quarry Bank school uniform.

In their twenties, Jack and his fellow articled clerk Sid had an eye for independent adventure. They clubbed together, and found a second-hand Morris 10 (then £169 new) powered by a 1,292 cc four-cylinder side-valve engine. Dad drove. Sid navigated. His mother kept her eye out for a suitable bed and breakfast with a living room where the lads could do the Hartley’s Jam audit after dinner.

On our own expedition, the Eagles’ spirits rose approaching Capel Curig as we caught our first glimpse of Mount Tryfan, its pointed peak and rugged crags and scree slopes shrouded in a dense fog enveloping the Ogwen Valley.

Liverpool seemed a million miles away. It wasn’t even lunchtime. We unwrapped Wonderloaf bread wrappers, secreting ham and pickle sandwiches; bit into apples, smoked a fag or two and set off burdened by heavy, bulky rucksacks.

The weather was foul. Young legs made mincemeat of the gradient. Torrential rain soaked through our flimsy anoraks. We didn’t care a fig. Two-by-two we gathered at the cairn, a pile of stones marking Tryfan’s summit. Threatening, swirling clouds laden with the Irish Sea assaulted us. We tumbled and rolled down the scree down to earth.

A farmer’s wife took pity. She showed us to a hay barn. Never has sleep descended so welcomingly. At dawn, we found a safe spot to light a fire and fry smoked bacon rashers, eggs, tomatoes and potatoes. We smothered chunks of bread with butter the farmer’s wife brought and marmalade her daughter had made. Our spirits soared.

One final test: Find the Pen-Y-Gwryd Hotel.

Why? Six years earlier a group of mountaineers, training to conquer Mount Everest, had tested their equipment and trained there. On Coronation Day, the 2nd June 1953 the BBC stunned the thousands sleeping on the streets of London and the rest of the world.

The 1953 British Mount Everest expedition attempting the first ascent of Mount Everest had succeeded. Edmund Hillaryand Tenzing Norgay reached the summit on the 29th May.

A previous attempt, also launched from the Pen-Y-Gwryd Hotel, had failed. George Mallory from Mobberley, near Knutsford, on his fourth attempt to conquer Everest was last seen 800 feet from the world’s highest peak; he roped to Sandy Irvine inching forward in the teeth of a horrendous blizzard, both wearing hobnail boots, heavy woollen and tweed jackets lugging cumbersome, primitive oxygen tanks. Watching through binoculars, his fellow expeditionaries enunciated a fitting epitaph: Last seen going for the top.

In the Pen-Y-Gwryd snug he Eagles had landed. We nourished ourselves with ale, beef sandwiches and cakes before the Crosville bus stopped to take us home. Our parents were quite unperturbed, thinking we’d been tasked to criss-cross Calderstones Park.

The Pen-Y-Gwryd kindles my inspiration to this day, the signatures of the Everest conquerors etched on the ceiling. I go there when doubt threatens: before covering the Yom Kippur War, the Fall of Saigon, Internment in Northern Ireland, Arab insurgencies…

Athenaeum proprietor Cliff Cook knew how to motivate his young charges sixty-something years ago. In turn he reflected how motivational the Athenaeum had been to him.

Philip Whitfield was elected an Athenaeum proprietor in 2019.  He develops communications strategies for global business in and with the Middle East.