Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Profile of a Contemporary: Thomas McFarland (1984)

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Profile of a Contemporary: Thomas McFarland (1984)

Article excerpt

Stories tend to cluster around Tom McFarland. Some of them may even be true. One I will vouch for--at least in some measure--is his famous first ascent of Scafell in the Lake District. Not that I was on the mountain with him. Having taken my measure on such less arduous climbs as Helm Crag and Helvellyn, I was comfortably back in Grasmere. As the day wore on toward the dinner hour, the weary climbers returned in bands of two and three. Tom, not yet then the seasoned climber he is today, was still to come. We all knew how much the climb meant to Tom, and we knew that he would finish, no matter what the cost in weariness and discomfort. When he finally appeared down the street in Grasmere, walking-staff in hand, footsore and weary, the welcoming band of us gathered in front of the Moss Grove Hotel broke into cheers of triumphant welcome. Why had he done it? Not, in the spirit of the famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary, because the mountain "was there," but because Coleridge had been there!

Many of us who have, over the years, spent time with Tom in the Lakes during the precious weeks of the Wordsworth Conference have come to associate him with the mountains. Richard Wordsworth expressed his admiration for Tom's first ascent of Helvellyn: "It was a fine summer afternoon and there were perhaps twenty to thirty climbers gathered at the summit. Something of Tom's celebrity had been whispered among them. A few moments later his rugged form appeared over the final brow of the hill, alpine stock in hand and eye focused firmly on the summit. There was a spontaneous burst of applause and hearty cheering as Tom joined the elect." Richard adds, however, that "the picture of Tom sitting astride the cairn signing autographs was perhaps apocryphal." The autographs are out of character, too, one might add; but the story itself is the sort that tends to cling to Tom's name.

There are other mountain reminiscences, too. Barbara Hardy remembers with pleasure her climbs with Tom, "breathlessly combining conversation with dangerous leaps and exhausted crawls." Richard Gravil recalls how Tom's "huge enjoyment of his various conquests, especially of Bowfell, somehow made the event significant for everyone else taking part." And the indefatigable Mary Wedd speaks of Tom's special kindness on his first ascent of Scafell Pike. "Some years ago," she writes, "the great man was ambitious to climb Scafell Pike. I was already over sixty and a slow if dogged walker, but Tom had not then, either, acquired that turn of speed which he developed later. So I was allowed to go and, because we were so deep in conversation and also the two slow-coaches of the party, we fell behind the others and found a way of our own which, though charming, was not the right path! It was a steep, rough hillside with outcrops of stone, only just not a scree-slope. When gesticulating figures in the distance ahead signalled us to leave it, Tom said regretfully, 'Oh Mary, I like our meadow. It's much better than their route.' This had me in helpless laughter, for in England a 'meadow' is a lush piece of low-lying ground, full of tall grasses and wild-flowers, the very epitome of fertility and ease, whereas the rocky ascent of the mountain was quite an endurance test."

Without Tom, Mary claims, she would never have made it to the top. "He had me chuckling all the way and, whenever we came to a mountain stream, would offer me a plastic cup of water, saying, 'It's so good!" And it was--only rivalled by the pint of Somebody's Peculiar with which he greeted me when we at last got down to the pub at Langdale. That day shines out in my memory among the red-letter days of my life, and I shall never forget Tom's uncondescending kindness and comradship." When they meet now, Mary says, "we still reminisce about 'our meadow.' In my mind's eye I always see him shod with walking-boots and, like Pilgrim, with a staff in his hand."

One of my favorite Tom McFarland mountain stories, though, is recorded by Peter Larkin. …

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