“Great Langdale” is the fifth and most recent of Terry Abraham’s spectacular video offerings on the Lake District, following his earlier explorations of Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, Blencathra (see this last one in Blu-ray, if possible) and, most recently, Upper Eskdale. With subject matter treated in Alfred Wainwright’s guidebook to the Southern Fells, “Great Langdale” is a touch less visually dazzling than Abraham’s earlier programs like “Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike,” with its startling shots of an orange sun sinking into a cloud against a mountain backdrop or of billowy clouds racing across a starry sky. But Abraham is sufficiently skilled not to need such high pictorial drama: his painterly compositions and expert use of light and shadow create fresh visions of familiar landscapes. The orchestral scores of the earlier videos have been replaced with a pleasantly relaxed piano score by Jamie Sims—except for a brief organ sequence likely intended to lend an near-religious significance to the steep fellsides.
Like “Upper Eskdale,” “Great Langdale” is hosted entirely by David Powell-Thompson, mountain guide and longtime Striding Edge researcher, who has worked with Eric Robson, Cameron McNeish (in “Wild Walks”) and Julia Bradbury (in her “Wainwright Walks” and “Coast-to Coast” videos). For the most part DPT has remained behind the scenes, though there is a glimpse of him as a considerably younger man carrying his tripod under the end credits of Robson’s 1998 video release “The Wainwright Memorial Walk.” Powell-Thompson memorably emerged into camera view to assist Bradbury along a heavily overcast and perilous Striding Edge on the way to the summit of Helvellyn; and he hosted one segment on “Scafell Pike: Life of a Mountain.” Looking every bit the grizzled mountain man—he won the prize for “best beard” two years running at the annual Wasdale Show—the 70-year old Powell-Thompson is nothing short of astonishing as he clambers up a near vertical cliff-face on Jack’s Rake with the agility of a man half his age. (This reviewer shares at least one quality with Powell-Thompson: we’re both natives of Lancashire.)
Like “Upper Eskdale” and “Helvellyn” (hosted by Mark Richards), “Great Langdale” is structured as a series of walks: Lingmoor Fell via Side Pike, Pavey Ark via Jack’s Rake, Pike of Stickle and Rossett Pike, and Crinkle Crags via Gladstone Knott.” Highlights include Powell-Thompson shucking off his rucksack so that he can just-barely pass through a narrow crevice, “The Squeeze” (“the alternative is scary,” he observes); Blue Tarn, “said to be the most photographed tarn in all of Lakeland”; and Gladstone’s Finger, a peculiar tall and narrow rock formation named after the four-time prime minister and represented by Wainwright’s drawing at the opening of Book 4 of his “Pictorial Guides.” Another unusual sight is the remote “Teabag Tarn,” unofficially named by one of DPT’s friends who once saw a teabag floating on the surface. A fascinating spinner of true tall tales, Powell-Thompson recounts the sad story of an 19th century packwoman who got caught in a snowstorm and perished; her burial site is indicated by a cross made of stones laid on the otherwise unmarked ground. We also hear of another 18th century climber, a man who had lost one eye in battle, and whose friend had to cover up the other eye (to forestall panic), so that he could lead him to safety.
DPT pauses to admire a section of stone wall, whose topmost camstones are expertly placed to deter sheep from jumping over the top. (Powell-Thompson reminds us that the Lake District is a working environment, whose major industry--apart from tourism--is farming and earlier had been a major region for quarrying and mining.) The surrounding sections of the wall, less expertly constructed, are visually marred by wire at the top intended for similar deterrent purposes. Aesthetics aside, the whole structure reminds him of the Great Wall of China. At Stickle Pike DPT (ever the researcher) explains that 6,000 years ago, Great Langdale was a “stone axe factory” that supplied one-quarter of all the stone axes in Britain.
Walking and climbing in the Lake District are among its greatest recreational advantages, but Powell-Thompson reminds us that the region can be treacherous. He begins the final segment on Crinkle Crags in a pouring rain and near-zero visibility. And then he turns around and goes back home. So why film the segment at all? To drive home a point: “Make good decisions!”
Returning in better weather to his starting point, DPT climbs to the top of Crinkle #2 and surveys the other peaks he can see from his vantage point: Coniston Old Man, Harter Fell, Lingmoor Fell, Bowfell, and Scafell Pike. His pleasure at the view confirms the dry words of Alfred Wainwright he has quoted at the beginning of the program: “This climb can be commended, not so much for the merits of the ascent, as for the revealing and detailed views of the surrounding giants.”
Many other remarkable videos of the Lake District are available, not least Wainwright’s own re-visits, decades ago, accompanied by Eric Robson (“Wainwrights Lakeland and England’s North Country”), as well as Robson’s own excursions. But just as new conductors can reveal previously undiscovered dimensions of well-known musical compositions, Terry Abraham’s most recent interpretations of these familiar landscapes lead us to new understanding and appreciation of their historical/cultural significance, as well as their unique beauty and splendor.
Larry Behrens | Ventura, California | November 2018