Part 1. There and Back Again: A Hiker’s Tale by John Hawkridge

John Hawkridge: Hiker and Filmmaker

By Lowen Frampton and Marcia Sanderson

John Hawkridge (1948-2020) was a disabled mountaineer well-known for his ambitious walks and climbs while living with Cerebral Palsy. He was born in West Yorkshire on the 19th of August 1948 and lived in the area most of his life. Although he is sadly no longer with us, he has left his mark on the world through the telling of his tale, featuring in documentaries and interviews, in addition to writing two books about his experiences (Sticks and Stones: An Autobiography, 1987, and Uphill All The Way, 1991). He chose his journeys based on what would give the best views and the most scenic route, so it is no surprise that he also liked documenting these journeys on film to be remembered. He has done many hikes, ranging from recommended local footpaths to challenging expeditions at international mountains. 

John describes his love for walking in his autobiography, Sticks and Stones: 

“[T]he long distance walk is something very special to me. It offers the chance of excitement, occasionally verging on the daring, and the opportunity to test one’s dedication, application, and endurance to the absolute limits. It is also both a satisfying and extremely rewarding adventure, the mind being enriched by the natural beauty of the countryside and the soul enhanced by the suffering, pressure, and stress, while being in the close proximity of another person. Two people bonded by a single aim – the walk. It is a shared experience which stays in the memory forever, an experience shared with all who know or are interested in the walk.” (Hawkridge, Sticks and Stones, 167)

Three of John’s hiking expeditions captured on film were generously donated to the Yorkshire Film Archive in 2017. The collection includes John climbing Scafell Pike, walking The Dales Way, and undertaking the challenge of the Three Peaks of Yorkshire. These three films show John’s determination and also great joy while hiking. Each of these ventures was a stepping stone in the great list of hikes and expeditions John undertook during his hiking career over more than 20 years, culminating in 1988 a trek up the highest mountain in the world: Mount Everest. In John’s humble words: “This is a story of aspirations, adventure, and, I suppose, achievement, although quite modest by most standards.” (Hawkridge, Sticks and Stones, 14)

The Choices We Don’t Get

According to his autobiographies, John detested hiking to begin with. He enjoyed various sports as a child, including football, cricket, tennis, cycling, and running, but disliked walking due to his lack of stamina. Since he was a child, John had struggled with walking, having had to re-learn how to walk more than once due to experimental leg surgery. John’s experiences, as described in his autobiography Sticks and Stones, draw to light the lack of agency afforded to disabled children regarding their care:  

“On the 18 April 1959, the day I had my first two operations, everything changed. I had been singled out for experimental surgery and my parents were deceived into believing that they had little to lose and I a lot to be gained. I left hospital in a [p.11] wheelchair and had begun to learn to walk again, now with the aid of elbow crutches. My world was completely and irreversibly changed. The operations had been carried out very much against my will and I was not happy with the results. A short time later I returned to hospital, once again against my will, for further surgery in an attempt to improve something which had gone wrong in one of the original operations. Although my left ankle now looked much better it was also very fragile and permanently weakened. … This was a very serious game being played without due consideration to the consequences, a one-sided game being played with my well-being, life and future.” (Hawkridge, Sticks and Stones, 10-11) 

Despite the complications from these surgeries, John remained positive. His disability neither prevented him from undertaking the epic journeys depicted in these films or described in his autobiographies nor did it decrease his enjoyment along the way. In his writing, John is realistic about the struggles and triumphs of his life: “I have neither tried to exaggerate the problems related to my disability nor pretend that none exist. I would hope that in places you will become absorbed and, maybe, even forget that my disability was ever present.” (Hawkridge, Sticks and Stones, 13) 

Riverside to Mountaintop

It was John’s love of fishing that helped to build up the strength to undertake longer walks: 

“I had disliked walking when I had to do it. On fishing trips I had kept any distance to be covered on foot to a minimum, but I was now much stronger and more resolute in physical adversity. While fishing I had spent long periods alone and this had made me reasonably self-sufficient, both physically and emotionally. I had learned to manage without too much concern, assailing or finding a way round whatever obstacles had confronted me. Climbing up and down awkward river banks and carrying my box and rods had helped build up my strength and staying power. I had confidence in my ability yet believed I knew my limitations and was well aware of the dangers to be met in open country, particularly those of the weather.” (Hawkridge, Sticks and Stones, 43) 

Although John’s fishing trips lessened after he learned to drive, this newfound skill gave him the freedom to travel greater distances independently. He decided in 1968 to go on a solo holiday to the Lake District, a location inspired by a childhood holiday, when “as a 13 year old I had been fascinated by the prospect of so many lakes and the possible fishing.” Hawkridge, Sticks and Stones, 43) While on holiday, John was enamoured by the splendid views of the mountains around him and decided, almost on a whim as he describes it in Uphill all the Way, to attempt to climb one himself as he had seen so many others doing: 

“I had seen people going off to the hills to walk, and had thought it a waste of time, energy and effort. … The idea of climbing a mountain seemed impossible, but on the Saturday evening, as I returned from Whitehaven, I gave it some serious thought. Weather permitting I would see what I could do.” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 94)

On the 15th of September 1968, John decided to make an ascent of Skiddaw, a peak in the Lake District standing at a not-so-modest height of 3,053 ft. He chose the shortest yet steepest route, preferring a challenging incline to a long distance, and set out in the fine weather after informing his landlady at the local bed and breakfast of his intentions, as is customary with lone hikers. Her response was less than enthusiastic, as John notes in Uphill All The Way

“The landlady tried her best to convince me that it was not normal to ascend mountains, in fact she had lived below them all her life and they had never attracted her.” (Hawkridge, Uphill All The Way, 94)

The landlady was nevertheless pleased to see him when he returned later that day, in a state which John describes as unsuccessful but not disheartened: 

“Defeat was not quite appropriate for I had enjoyed and photographed breathtaking views of the Solway and Scotland and, in the other direction, Derwentwater and the Scafells. A whole new world had been opened up to me. I would return. This new territory would not be so easily surrendered.” (Hawkridge, Uphill all the Way, 95)

True to his determined spirit, John returned to the Lake District with new hiking boots the following Easter and on Good Friday attempted to climb another mountain called Great Gable, which he had admired from afar on his last trip. Though John did not make it to the summit, he returned in July of the same year with some friends to try again, this time successfully attempting another mountain: Helvellyn, which at 3,118 ft high is the third highest mountain in England. Helvellyn became the first of many successful mountain summits; in September 1969, John summitted Skiddaw at last and began to look towards Scafell Pike, the tallest mountain in England.