The View from the Top

(published in the Geographical Magazine in 1981)

In April 1971 I worked for the Snowdon Mountain Railway Company clearing snow from the railway line, so that the trains could get through to the summit. Throughout the winter, the Summit Hotel is boarded up with heavy iron shutters that are bolted on the inside, but there is a secret way in, known to the Station Master, which is used when the building is opened up in the spring.

For the next four months I lived in the hotel and worked on the soft drinks counter. When it was wet there was little to do, but in fine weather I was kept busy handing out cans, taking money and shouting prices as fast as I could to keep up with the incessant stream of thirsty walkers.

Since the previous September I had been working on a guide to the view, and this was the easiest way I could obtain the necessary slides and sketches. The guide consisted of four drawings, each representing a quarter of the view, with the thickness of the lines varied so that the nearer hills appeared bolder, and farther ones fainter, as they do in actual sight. About 500 mountains were identified, and a combination of Letraset and stencils was used for lettering. Blank spaces were filled in with paragraphs of incidental information about places that could be seen.

This was followed by a Guide to the View from Scafell Pike, and in the summer of 1974 I spent six weeks camping on the mountain in a light-weight tent. The ground was stony, but any stones I was unable to dig out I was able to cover with moss. In the autumn I spent a further three months in Joss Naylor’s farmhouse at Wasdale Head.

In 1976 I published a smaller version of the Snowdon panorama in colour. Woodland was coloured green, lakes and rivers blue, and paths and roads red. In 1977 I published a panorama from Ben Nevis based on James E. Shearer’s drawing of 1895.

Throughout most of 1976 and 1977 I lived in a motor caravan, which I also used as a mobile drawing office, so that I could work on the drawings for one panorama while I was waiting for clear weather to take photographs for another. I found that the long periods spent in total isolation, far from the nearest bulding or main road, gave me a tremendous feeling of peace.   In 1979, having covered the highest points in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man, I was free to select from hundreds of viewpoints the few that I found most interesting.

In order to increase output I had to make sacrifices in quality, but I found that I obtained the same satisfaction from my latest drawings, with their freehand lettering, that I got from my earlier work, when the thickness of every line was calculated to within a thousandth of an inch.

The result was that five new titles appeared in 1980 – Glastonbury Tor, Arthur’s Seat, the Great Orme, Glyder Fawr and the Marquess of Anglesey’s Column – the same number as in the previous nine years.   I also produced a new edition of the Guide to the View from the Summit of Snowdon, with lists of visible countries, counties, lakes and islands included for the first time;  and a new edition of the Ben Nevis Panorama, with the Cuillin Hills and other distant parts of the view redrawn from my own slides.   Some years earlier I had been fortunate enough to see everything that is visible from Ben Nevis, including Knocklayd in Ireland, 198 kilometres away.

I have given ten years of my life to the production of these panoramas, and now I have decided not to do any more.   Unfinished drawings for the Wrekin, Dunkery Beacon and other places have been filed away in my own archives, along with the many interesting letters I have received.   I have filled a gap in the literature of the countryside, but at the same time I am aware of how many other views there are waiting to be drawn.   Visitors to the Marquess of Anglesey’s Column can now buy their panoramas at the Column Keeper’s cottage when they buy their tickets, but visitors to Lord Hill’s Column in Shrewsbury with its view over the Shropshire Hills, or the Observation Tower in Liverpool with its views of North Wales, have nothing to tell them what they are looking at.

My work on Arthur’s Seat has introduced me to the possibility of urban panoramas.   I once went up St Paul’s Cathedral and decided that there were so many buildings in view it would be impossible to draw them all, but I have since learned that if I drew in only a few of the more prominent and better-known buildings, and left the rest blank, I actually made it easier for these to be located in the view.

The production of panoramas is something that should appeal to people with an interest in geography, and if a reader of the Geographical Magazine should ever decide to produce one of these publications for his favourite viewpoint I hope that I shall have the opportunity of seeing it.