You still have an
hour of light left," said Fred Travis, snapping out a hairy, muscular wrist
and consulting the complex of dials held there by a steel-link strap.
"Just time to
get to the top of Irton Pike. You'll see the kind of country you'll be working
in tomorrow! Pretty rough stuff, I think you'll agree, ha, ha, ha!" He got
up from the easy chair, a big, heavy man with a crew cut, wearing tweeds and
brogues. He herded me out of the warm, firelit parlor into the damp north of
After driving 300
miles over some of the worst roads in Western Europe outside Spain, I felt that
a scramble up Irton Pike was not on my immediate program. But Travis was
standing on his doorstep looking like a combination of Kaiser war general and
my old headmaster, so I fumbled in my car for a map and brought it over to him.
A broad forefinger blotted out a good square mile of the Cumberland
countryside, and at its tip I could see steeply sloping forested land
indicated. Irton Pike, nearly 1,000 feet high, sat in the middle. Also, as I
now observed with a sharp pang of relief, it was straddled by a small road.
"See you in
the morning, then," said Travis. I managed to stop myself from saluting him
and drove smartly off for the hills. Beautiful hills certainly, heavily ferned
and wooded, intersected by vivid little trout streams and broken by limestone
outcrops; but I could see the hills only as obstacles to be crossed, and
daunting obstacles, at that. The road ran over stone bridges, doubled around
hairpin bends, then shot upward. In low gear I crawled to the top of the pike.
There was a small clearing among the pines at the summit, and a grayish-red
stone stood there, with an inscription difficult to read for lichen. I could
make it out, though. It read:
IN MEMORY OF
LOCAL WESLEYAN PREACHER
DIED HERE SUDDENLY
SUNDAY FEBRUARY 21ST 1886
BE YE ALSO
couldn't have been less ready than I was, in any sense of the word. A few weeks
ago, gaily enough, I had said I would try it. Orienteering, that is.
"A new and
fascinating sport," enthused the handbook. "Makes the most satisfying
demands on your energy and initiative.... Guided by a map and directed by a
compass, the competitor in an orienteering race is cocooned in an aura of utter
concentration as he makes his way across country.... For some two hours the
mind rationalizes the body's progress resulting in a complete and rewarding
It sounded more
like an LSD trip than an athletic event. But it clearly had its attractions.
Even old ladies could compete, according to one authority, though my research
seemed to show that the British events at least tended to be won by people like
Roger Bannister (first four-minute miler), Christopher Brasher (gold medal
steeplechaser at Melbourne, 1956) and Gordon Pirie (ex-world record holder,
3,000 and 5,000 meters and the six-mile run). The whole thing started in
Sweden, away back in the 1920s, when a Major Ernst Killander decided that
nobody was really using the northern forests for competitive sport. So he set
running courses right through the woods, courses that necessitated the use of
compass and large-scale map if you wanted to reach the finish line. To begin
with, running ability was more important than pure navigation, but the balance
gradually shifted. By 1938, when the Swedish Orienteering Association was
formed to standardize the sport, map-reading ability had become the most
important skill involved. In 1942 orienteering became a compulsory subject in
Swedish schools. At the present moment it is easily Sweden's most popular
outdoor sport, apart from the one that the Swedes make all their films about.
In the 1948 Olympics, you may recall, Scandinavian runners dominated the
middle-distance track events. But only a year later G�sta Holma, the Swedish
national coach, was heard to complain that the whole future of middle-distance
running in Sweden was threatened by the emergence of orienteering. Young men,
it seemed, preferred to run through forests rather than along tracks.