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Interview with Mark Richards

Mark Richards has more than 30 years experience as a walker, illustrator and writer.

His most recent guide Great Mountain Days in the Lake District details 50 inspirational routes on the high fells of Lakeland.

We caught up with Mark recently to find out a bit more about him, and what he's up to at the moment.

Q. Which is your favourite walking route, and why?

Tough one this, as so many of the routes have wonderful abiding, and very personal, memories. In truth, the quality of a walk varies according to the conditions prevailing on any given day. However, some walks are difficult to knock, whatever the weather. Such an outing is the High Stile range from Buttermere, walk 22 in my latest book, ‘Great Mountain Days in the Lake District’. 

As a personal treat, and (I hope) a treat for anyone available to share the day, I am leading this walk (anti-clockwise) during the Keswick Mountain Festival. The steep stair from the foot of Sourmilk Gill climbing by Bleaberry Tarn onto Red Pike puts the walk high in the sky at a comparatively early stage. An easy continuing ridge walk over High Stile and High Crag leads to a much-improved descent path to Seat and Scarth Gap. The return along the shore of Buttermere perfectly rounds off the trip, though I suspect a visit to one of the two pubs or tearooms in the village would be an even better finale.

Q. Which is your most memorable summit, and why?

I have a soft spot for many of Lakeland’s fell tops. Carrock Fell, for instance, has a lovely outlook surveying the great expanse of the lower Eden, Caldew and Solway Plains into Scotland, but my interest in the peak hangs on the broken ring of stone ramparting surviving from a time when an Iron Age community sought period refuge on the summit.

Dow Crag is another beauty, the stunning fulfilment of an awe-inspiring crag. But my favourite remains Helm Crag. Not that I have visited the top on each and every occasion I’ve wandered over this cheeky little hill. But whenever I make the effort, the extra thrill the scramble provides really does lift the occasion. Again, the exulted view is upon an historic scene, the ancient Pass of Dunmail – a pass as old as the hills, and a route that must be judged the oldest thoroughfare through these high, wild Cumbrian mountains.

Q. What item do you always carry in your rucksack?

These days it’s my mobile phone. For all the variability in network reception in the high fells, it’s one of my little indulgences to ring home to chat with my wife. She’s no fellwalker, but she does appreciate me keeping in touch. We’re both aware that the fells can be places of peril, hence I like to reassure her from time to time.

Q. Who is your ideal walking partner?

My shadow. I have always preferred to walk alone. The shadow suggests a sunny day, and while I’ll take whatever weather nature throws at me, I prefer a dappled sky to enhance my photography. The one exception to this rule is my old chum Rodney Busby, with whom I have walked since I first took to the hills. In truth we’ve been friends since we both started primary school... some fifty-five years ago.

Q. How did you get into guidebook writing?

Now that’s a long story. But to keep it short, I fell under the spell of Alfred Wainwright, and with his personal encouragement embarked on a lifetime’s pleasure in creative writing. For me a walk has always been a means to an end, the end being to create attractive practical guides that inspire. For many years it was the graphic skills of pen and ink that ruled my guides, now the camera and computer play greater roles.

Q. What was the first guidebook you wrote?

In 1971 I made the first of perhaps a dozen visits to Kendal Green to share weekends walking with Alfred Wainwright. Quickly his influence and encouragement drew me to consider preparing a first guide of my own. The Cotswold Way had just been launched as a recreational route running from Chipping Campden to Bath, and AW prodded me towards creating a pictorial guide of my own. A humble little tome was duly published in 1973 by Cheltenham-based Thornhill Press, and the die was cast. In fact, I was immediately lured into preparing a series of pictorial guides to the individual county sections of the South West Peninsula Coast Path, with the then secretary of the South-west Way Association, Philip Carter. The first volume, ‘North Cornwall’, was published, but unfortunately, without a marketing network, this title lasted little more than three years, though it contained a wonderful collection of line drawings.

Q. What book are you currently working on?

Well, perhaps that should be ‘books’ in the plural. I am presently revising the artwork and text of the four original Collins Lakeland Fellranger series to create a dynamic new Fellranger series with Cicerone. When these four are tucked up I’m heading south to Derbyshire to reacquaint myself with the rolling hills and dales of the White Peak. Twenty-five years ago Cicerone published the two titles of ‘White Peak Walks’, and my next task is to produce a new generation of this popular pair of walking guides. This will see me well on towards the autumn, when I can consider wandering into the Western Fells to begin the second phase of the great Fellranger extravaganza.

Q. Which part of guidebook writing do you enjoy the least?

The writing. I have always adored fashioning the graphic side of my guides, particularly the line drawings. Whether they be representative scenes, imaginary aerial landscapes or even panorama graphics, these are the meat and matter of my work; though the demands of the medium require me to grapple with it all. All the early guides were hand-scribed, and latterly I designed them entirely with my Mac computer. Now Cicerone’s designer Caroline Draper is in control, though I must say she respects my artistic eye and we share a desire to produce attractive, practical, enduring books.

Q. What is your favourite hill food or snack?

Some days I’ll walk and walk without a second thought of a snack, but when I do eat I relish a mountain-combination sandwich. Prime ingredients are: strong cheese, lettuce, onion and tomato, with a smattering of peanut butter, mayonnaise, a few nuts and raisins. Veritably mountainous in its contents, such a feast keeps me in peak walking condition!

Q. Which is your favourite season for walking, and why?

The first forty years of my life revolved around the farming year, so instinctively I respond to Spring. For all I value each season for its own special qualities, I will always find zest in the first signs of Spring.

Q. You have a radio show on BBC Radio Cumbria – how did that come about?

I visited the Radio Cumbria studio for an interview with Martin Plenderleith following the publication of the last of my Collins Lakeland Fellranger titles back in 2004. It struck me that the station that covers Lakeland should have a dedicated fellwalking feature each month. I had a meeting with the station editor, Nigel Dyson, together with programme planner, Belinda Artinstoll, and then waited for the call. Two years elapsed, and when the call eventually came it was from the morning-show producer, Andrew Carter.

A better man simply could not be imagined to carry the idea forward. Andrew’s enthusiasm for walking and his appreciation of the diversity of landscapes and their care perfectly matched my own outlook on the fell world. I branded the feature ‘Park & Stride’ - I have always loved playing with words - and as the 25th monthly instalment approaches, the series is a permanent component of the morning show, currently presented by Ian Timms. If you visit the Radio Cumbria website you’ll find the first batch of these walks as PDFs accompanied by picture galleries. All the walks are also available in downloadable PDF format on my own website to print and follow –

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