Book review: Runner’s Guide to London

‘There is something truly special about running in London,’ Hayden Shearman insists in the introduction to his new book Runner’s Guide to London.

I am not so sure. The longer you stay in a place and the more miles you trudge, the more cynical you become. The wonders you once marvelled at scarcely merit a glance.

Convince me, Hayden. Convince a Londoner who has been here too long and is emigrating – well, to Edinburgh – that there really is something ‘truly special’ about the London running scene. Continue reading

The ‘agony and ‘ecstasy’ of the Scottish islands

Below is the text of a very recent review for Isles at the Edge of the Sea, written by Lee Allen, the man behind lovescottishislands.com – a neatly-presented website packed with enthusiastic information on the islands of Scotland.

Having been to many of the islands that Jonny has visited, I approached this book with a certain amount of interest. The book involves a mammoth 3 month journey travelling around 18 Scottish Islands from Arran in the south to St Kilda in the far north of the Hebrides.

Visiting islands is a very personal experience. Some islands you will instantly fall in love with, some islands may take a little longer to show their charms. Jonny tries his best to embellish each islands uniqueness, but his prose underlies a favouritism for certain islands.

For example, the chapters on Berneray and St Kilda are full of love for the subject. Conversely, he does not seem to have much time for Barra, although this seems entirley weather-related! Some chapters are long and descriptive, such as the chapters on Berneray/St Kilda, whereas the chapter on Canna is relatively small and light. This seems to echo the amount of time that Jonny spends on each island.

The book is written in a reverential way, with the islands of the Hebrides as the star of the show. Jonny’s scatter-gun approach to visiting islands extolls travel as travel was intended to be. Namely, without planning every step in finite detail. Interspersed with musings on each island are details, often painfully described, of Jonny’s efforts when competing in several races such as the Isle of Jura Fell Race.

By completing these arduous feats of physical endurance, Jonny seemed to discover himself and his environment by trying to make life as difficult for himself as possible. Not for him the cosiness of a power shower or the comfiness of a memory foam mattress. Jonny’s luxuries consisted of a tent, a sleeping bag and whatever is closest to hand to fight the midges off with.

Indeed, one of the highlights of the book is Jonny’s ‘fight to the death’ with the midges on Rum, or as Jonny remarks, “Goliath versus countless Davids”. Jonny makes the cardinal sin of not removing all the midges from his hair as he enters his tent and his tale of the way he defeats the midges makes for bloodthirsty reading.

All in all this is an excellent book and comes highly recommended from myself. The book gives a snapshot of the agony, but more often the ecstasy that is involved in visiting the Scottish Islands. It is one man’s physical and emotional journey, laced with humour, that will have you booking your Island Rover ticket and looking for the most waterproof tent you can find.

Isles at the Edge of the Sea is available here.

Reviews for The UK’s County Tops

Reviews continue to come in for The UK’s County Tops. Good ones, I hasten to add. The most noteable is from Grough‘s Bob Smith, who calls the guide a ‘fascinating little book’. Meanwhile, there is a write-up on a walking blog, My Pennines. And there’s also an extract of one of the featured walks (Cornwall’s Brown Willy) on the website of St Christopher’s Inn, a global travel company. The book is available now on Amazon.

A 5-hammer review!

Another positive review for The UK’s County Tops, this time from GearWeAre.com, a relatively new site established ‘to tell people what’s good – and what’s rubbish – in the world of the outdoors’. Fortunately, the people there have deemed the book ‘good’ in this review. This lot don’t have a zero-to-five star system for books; they use hammers instead, and the County Tops has got five.

Here it is.

There’s something quite intriguing about people’s lust to climb up to highest points. Whether it be Mallory uttering the famous answer to the question “Why do you want to climb Everest?” with “Because it’s there”, or the thousands who climb Snowdon each year, people seem to want to reach the peak to say they’ve done it.

So Jonny Muir’s new book about how to get to the highest point in 91 of the UK’s counties seems to have struck a chord. It starts with the following words: It would make a perplexing quiz question. What do the tundra plateau of the Cairngorms, a back garden on the southeast fringe of London and a military firing zone in the Pennines have in common? Answer: they are the locations of three of the UK’s historic ‘county tops’. No hill list is quite like this one. No other is as diverse or, frankly, as wonderfully ridiculous. And so I was hooked.

Each county features at least a double-page spread of information on the highest point, and in most cases a map and walking guide of how to get there. As usual with Cicerone, the maps are OS (and thus excellent), and the information is laid out in a simple to read block format.

I live within walking distance of Leith Hill, Surrey’s highest point, but had never been there. (I don’t count myself amongst the ‘Because it’s there’ brigade) I set off with the book one day and, starting from the area which the map covers, trotted up the hill to see how accurate the book was. Well, it was spot on. So, what more can I say?

If bagging Munros or just great views are your thing then this book would make a great bedside read. And at £11.96 it won’t break the bank.

SUMMARY: Cicerone’s excellent County Tops is a good read, and very informative if you actually want to visit each site. I have no plans to visit many of the sites, but still found it very interesting. The maps and descriptions are great, and the layout very easy to read.

‘Needs more pubs’

Another review, this time from The Travel Editor. The reviewer loved the book (apart from a lack of pubs, it seems); I loved the review.

The UK’s County Tops

Pros: delightfully daft idea

Cons: needs more pubs

Verdict: superb travelwriting project

Ranging from the 80m Boring Field in Huntingdonshire to the 1344m Ben Nevis in Inverness-shire, the 91 highest points in the old counties of Great Britain are a wonderfully weird collection of places to visit. Jonny Muir has done them all, carefully noted “how enjoyable” each one was and taken a photograph while he was there. Then the has compiled them all into this book.

This is proper travel writing and I am humbled. Nothing to do with selling adverts, mentioning clients or repaying some PR’s hospitality here. The bloke has had a daft idea and gone out, travelling the entire UK to do it. The walks must have taken him days and days. Then you read inside that he actually did it in one continuous trip… wait for it, on a bicycle.

In true Cicerone style The County Tops is nicely produced but a bit straight-laced. This is a great fun project and I’d like more of the oddities and fun along the way. Jonny evidently did an earlier book telling the story of his trek round the UK but that’s no excuse for not spicing these average collection of walks with some real travel colour.

Nevertheless, it’s the idea that is captivating. You can’t help browsing through all the counties and seeing the daft unloved hillocks that are the highest points in most of them. 

Jonny has put them into a walking book format, so each ‘top’ is part of a walk route. There’s a small snatch of OS mapping to help plan your way but you probably wouldn’t take the book on the walk, it’s just a rough outline. You’d be totally daft, for example, marching up Ben Nevis clutching a copy of this. But then, Jonny is undoubtedly as daft as a brush and almost as daft as me. I loved his book.

Outdoors Magic reviews The UK’s County Tops

Outdoors Magic has given an early welcome for The UK’s County Tops (the ‘ideal step’ for anyone weary of the usual hill lists), published last week. I’ve copied the text below – or click here to see the real thing.

Just arrived is a new book from Cicerone, The UK’s County Tops by Jonny Muir, a guide to summiting the highest point in each of 91 ‘historic counties’ – we’re convinced the historic bit is there purely to allow the inclusion of the amusingly-named ‘Boring Field’, the highest point in Huntingdonshire…

It’s the ideal next step for anyone who’s already knocked off the Munros, Corbetts, Marilyns, Wainwrights, Donalds, Grahams and whatever other peaky tick-lists you can think of and the author should know what he’s on about as he was the first person to summit all 91 tops in a single 5,000-mile walking and cycling expedition back in 2006.

It’s a 205-page, medium-format paperback clearly laid-out and nicely produced in the recent Cicerone style. The book’s divided into country sections and works through each in a logical progression so, for example, the England bit begins with Brown Willy, the highest point in Corwall and finishes on the Cheviot in Northumberland.

Each top gets, usually, a double-page spread with a quick description of the hill, image(s) and some background details, a location map plus a brief route description illustrated with a proper OS map extract.

Yes, Of Course It’s Daft…

The whole concept is, of course, ridiculous, but then that’s part of its charm and Muir never pretends otherwise. And there’s a certain amusing daftness to any book that can go from Boring Field at one extreme – a whopping 80m in height, comment: ‘the clue is in the name’ – right up to the brooding 1344m lump of displaced alpine rockiness that is Ben Nevis at the other.

It’s nicely written too and beautifully self-effacing, so while we can’t really endorse the idea that the process of climbing all 91 county tops makes any sense, it’s as reasonable as any other tick list and a lot more amusing than most, even if you doubt you’ll ever bother ticking off Great Wood, Boring Field, or Cold Overton Park.
Interestingly, Welsh hill names disguise their relative smallness behind exotic celtic nomenclature and even the smallest, Holyhead Mountain at 220m puffs itself up with that macho name.
The UK’s County Tops is out now from Cicerone at £11.96 on their web site. More info at www.ciceronepress.co.uk.

Undiscovered Scotland discovers Isles

Here is the review, and a link to the actual thing on Undiscovered Scotland’s website:

Isles at the Edge of the Sea by Jonny Muir is a wonderful, inspiring book about a journey undertaken by the author to a series of Hebridean islands. His journey is as much about self discovery as it is about the actual exploration of the islands themselves, and the author’s “one man and his tent” approach to travel strips the experience back to the barest of essentials, bringing the reader face to face with the author’s hopes and fears. No-one who has ever travelled alone, or camped wild, or in wild weather, will fail to empathise with many of the author’s experiences.

Jonny Muir spent time as a journalist in Inverness before deciding to retrain to become a teacher in London. In the summer of 2010 he left home, hearth and loved ones behind and set out on his three month island-hopping journey. The aim was to undertake a single long trip finding out what the places he wrote about as a journalist were really like; living as simply as possible; undertaking a series of challenging mountain runs; and if possible reaching the remote archipelago of St Kilda.

We first encounter him at the start line of the Goatfell Hill Race on Arran. A few chapters, and islands, later, and he is taking part in the remarkably challenging Isle of Jura Fell Race. Later on he encounters the ferocious midges of Rum, an event that will have readers itching in sympathy. This is no “rose coloured spectacles” travelogue: the author does not shy away from telling us about the negatives of his trip as well as the positives. So we meet the smelly residents of a hostel in the Western Isles and the appalling weather that almost blows him off Barra (and, later, nearly washes him away at Sligachan on Skye.) We also enjoy the celebrations of the anniversary of the community ownership of Eigg, the spontaneous party in a hostel on Berneray, and a series of sublime beaches, mountains and islands.

But much of the book is a prelude to the authors effort’s to reach St Kilda despite cancelled sailings caused by adverse weather. He makes it in the end, and after discussing the misuse of the word “incredible”, concludes that “St Kilda was incredible – incredible without the quotation marks.”

Interview: the inspiration behind Isles at the Edge of the Sea

Below is the transcript of an interview with Books from Scotland, which named Isles at the Edge of the Sea its book of the month for July.

In Isles at the Edge of the Sea, Jonny Muir is trying to get to St Kilda, the island at the edge of the world, passing through the many islands of the western seaboard. His travelogue features killer midges, Atlantic storms, and some of the most breathtaking scenery in Scotland. BooksfromScotland.com caught up with the former journalist, now school teacher, to ask him about the motivation behind his book and the remarkable efforts he put into his island travels.

Q: You start the book explaining that as a journalist for the Aberdeen Press & Journal, you were writing about islands and places you had never seen. But not content to just visit these islands – you had to run up them, cycle round them and climb their mountains. Did you have Isles at the Edge of the Sea in mind when you planned your journey?

A: I had in mind a fantastic journey. Whether that would make a fantastic book was a different matter. Six months before setting out, I recall being at home in Inverness drawing pencil lines on maps of the Hebrides, indicating where I might go, and compiling lists of islands. To turn that dream into a reality was hugely satisfying – to not just talk about something, but to do it. I’ve always kept diaries (and taken photos) and my diary-writing process was no different on the islands. Fortunately, the journey was such that it became Isles at the Edge of the Sea.

Q: The description of the 50 mile Highland Cross race on Skye is almost painful to read, and you did it just days before climbing the Inaccessible Pinnacle of Sgurr Dearg. Did you ever consider an easier approach to island hopping – perhaps bird watching?

A: I wrote at the start of Isles at the Edge of the Sea that ‘travel is not travel when it is contrived’. In the same sense, I believe travel is not travel if it is not adventurous and challenging. I could have stayed in a hotel every night, even on the most remote islands, but where would be the challenge in that? So I camped, ran, trailed across mountains, exposed myself to the elements. It made life more interesting and ultimately more rewarding. I certainly didn’t consider an easier approach. I found that when I pushed myself physically, I discovered more about myself emotionally, as well as the world around me. I also enjoy writing about the physical challenges. That’s why I was so explicit about the suffering in the Highland Cross (‘a wave of cramp engulfed my limbs, like bullets being fired into my calves, syringes being inserted into my quadriceps’). I want people who read the book to understand what these things are like.

Q: The book is full of anecdotes from history, with quotes from Boswell and Johnson, or more recent news of crime waves in Colonsay. How much research did you do into the islands before you set off?

A: The idea to retrace the route of Boswell and Johnson on Coll was a very late one. I was killing time in Oban before a ferry to Coll when I picked up their diaries in a bookshop. I bought the book, read the chapter about Coll on the ferry and thought – I’ll do what they did and see how the island’s changed. Working as a journalist in the north of Scotland also meant that I knew what was topical – Sabbath sailings between Lewis and Ullapool, the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of St Kilda, pressures on land on Tiree, and so on. I’d also heard about the farcical confusion over the beach on Berneray that was used in a Thai tourism campaign. Oh, and I made sure I read Whisky Galore. There are numerous books about the history of the islands – territory I didn’t want to encroach on, so I envisaged a book that balanced travel, adventure and current affairs. As I touched on in my answer to the previous question, excessive planning would have killed the spontaneity of travelling. Reaching St Kilda, as well as competing in the Highland Cross and the Isle of Jura fell race, were always on my radar, but the discovery that Eigg was celebrating its independence during my stay or the staging of Feis Ile while I was on Islay were purely by chance. On islands such as Bute, Colonsay and Tiree, I got off the boat knowing very little about these places and asking myself: where do I go, what do I do and where do I sleep? It is a daunting yet exciting way to travel.

Q: Towards the end of the journey, on the half-marathon on Harris, you promised yourself that you would never run again. Have you kept that promise?

A: No. It was a short-term promise without foundation. I couldn’t not run. I probably ran the next day. I love running. I have done ever since my early teens at school when someone told me I could run cross-country rather than play hockey. As I get older, I tend to run more, training for cross-country and road races in the winter, then returning to the hills and mountains in the spring and summer. I’m running the Beachy Head Marathon in October, which will be my third marathon this year after London and Coniston. I’ve pencilled in an attempt of the Bob Graham round – a 66-mile run over 42 Lakeland peaks (climbing the equivalent of Everest) in under 24 hours – next year.

Q: Were the midgies on Rum really as bad as you described?

A: Oh, yes, the very worst: fiercely aggressive and in tremendous numbers. Rum, however, was extraordinarily beautiful. I spent an afternoon running across the island, from Kinloch to Harris, before exploring the area around the old township of Harris. The world in those hours was astonishing. I described it as a ‘moment of sublime flawlessness’. Nothing could ruin Rum. Or so I thought. That night the midgies came, trapping me inside my tent. Then they came again the following night, only worse. In my panic to get inside my tent on this night, I forgot to brush the midgies off my head, arms and legs, meaning the inside of my tent was swarming. It was hideous. Was this the same Rum that I had fallen in love with 24 hours earlier?

Q: If you were to live on one of the Scottish islands you visited, which would it be?

A: That’s a tough question. My fondest memories are of Berneray, Coll and Colonsay. I was drawn to the smaller isles of the Hebrides; it is easier to lose that wonderful sensation of being surrounded by water on the larger islands of Mull, Lewis and Harris. But could I live on an island? I’m not sure. I’m realistic and very aware of the potential isolation of being an islander, particularly during the long, hard winter, as well as the physical separation from mainland life. The romantic, idealistic side of me would love it, of course. Living on Skye would perhaps strike the right balance – close to the mainland but also to the sea, the Cuillin and all the island has to offer

Isles at the Edge of the Sea reviewed by grough

Here is the text of a review of Isles at the Edge of the Sea by grough magazine, published this week:

In 1773, Samuel Johnson joined his Scots friend James Boswell in a tour of the Hebrides that would produce not one but two accounts of the journey through the Highlands to the islands.

Almost 240 years after the pair set out on their journey of discovery of the wild lands of Scotland, journalist-turned-teacher Jonny Muir made his own island-hopping trip of the magical archipelago and the result is Isles at the Edge of the Sea.

The book is peppered with mentions of the two foregoers but, whereas the two literary Georgian gents confined their island adventures to the nearer Hebrides, Muir’s three month itinerary takes him to 18 islands with the ultimate, one might even say obsessive, aim of reaching St Kilda, the isolated volcanic scraps of land that lie more than 100 miles from the Scottish mainland and which were abandoned by the last 36 residents in 1930.

The curious title of the book – surely all islands are next to the sea? – comes from Norse origin for the Hebrides: Havbredey, meaning the isles at the edge of the sea.

Muir’s tour of the Hebrides is no slovenly amble. He tackles the Goat Fell race on Arran and the race over the Paps of Jura which overlook the isolated house where George Orwell, wracked by tuberculosis, wrote 1984.

For good measure, the Birmingham-born author finishes his Hebridean jaunt by taking part in the Skye half-marathon.

There’s plenty of hillwalking – the high ground draws Muir just as it did in his previous work Heights of Madness in which he visited Britain’s county tops, and he even tops out on the Inaccessible Pinnacle, the most difficult of munros. The ascent, made via the Very Difficult western route, guided by his friend Magnus Houston, is memorable for the non-climber not least for the fact that Houston’s chronic heart problems make him prone to frequent collapse.

And for the seasoned hillbagger, Muir discovers a new set of targets: the MacPhies – Colonsay’s 21 answers to the munros.

Most of the journey through the isles is made solo and, as Muir says: “The joy of travel is in the people one encounters: the crotchety bus drivers; the round the world cyclists; the roomful of snoring strangers; the walker who stood next to me on Conachair; the ceilidh crowd on Eigg; the marshals on the windy summits of the Paps of Jura; the ‘whisky brothers; the Barra tourist who brought me a cup of tea; the English sailors who filled my glass. It is the littlest gestures that live longest in the memory.”

He notes the need to share the wonderment of the places encountered with others, something he misses with his partner hundreds of miles away in London. But the reader fulfils the role vicariously in this work and Isles at the Edge of the Sea conveys in easy style the variety of the magical lands off Scotland’s west coast.

It’s not all plain sailing. Drizzle, mist, whisky hangovers, thunderstorms, gales, a flooded tent and naturally, the enemy of all summer Scotland tourists, the midge, make Muir’s tour eventful, but there’s a sense from the book that the Hebrides reward leisurely exploration.

The author’s easy, journalistic style has a good balance of anecdotes, information, history and, importantly, humour that makes the reading of his tome a pleasure and left me hankering after a trip round the isles myself.