Reflections on the Guidebook Debate of 2001

The launch of Peak Grit East in December 2001

I was thinking back to 2001 the other day after hearing news of Mike Robertson’s Deep Water Rockfax winning of the Mountain Exposition Award at the Banff Book Festival.

2001 was the year that Chris Craggs and I teamed up to publish Peak Gritstone East – just another guidebook for most people now, but for Rockfax and many other UK guidebook producers, PGE has become a significant watershed. For those who may not know, or remember, Peak Gritstone East was published amid a furore of debate and discussion and even threats of legal action (summarised below). Now so many guidebooks are in full-colour, using many of the layout and publishing ideas we had in PGE, it seems so strange to think that there were people at the time who tried very hard to prevent it from being published. The resulting stress gave me more sleepless nights than I care to remember; that combined with the birth of our third child Lydia (a happy event but not one that tends to lighten the stress load) plus 9/11 four days after her birth, make me think of late 2001 with mixed emotions.

The photo shows the guidebook launch in Rock+ Run Sheffield, in December 2001.

I have subsequently discovered that all the debate that had gone on across various BMC committees in the latter few months of 2001 had been very close to agreeing to the BMC taking legal action against Rockfax and only the sensible behaviour of some at the BMC prevented it.

So what if they had taken legal action? Well, the point of law in question was so big and untested that it was never a case that tiny entities like the BMC and Rockfax were going to achieve anything with. The result of the legal action would have just been to cost the BMC a lot of money and me more money than I had. Hence, PGE would probably not have been published and Rockfax would probably not exist any more. There would have been no useful precedent established apart from scaring off competition from all new private guidebook producers for many years, probably on a nationwide basis – every time a new guidebook was proposed that was unwanted by the BMC and Club establishment, they would have been able to trot out this saga to prevent publication. At that time the BMC had already taken on Niall Grimes as full-time guidebook co-ordinator, so this positive development had nothing to do with the debate.

The more I have thought about it the more I think what a pointless and expensive waste of time this whole episode was, something which is even more apparent now that both the BMC and Rockfax are winning World awards for their guidebooks. This is in contrast to the guidebook debate Rockfax caused in 1995, where Ken Wilson led the discussion against the Pembroke Rockfax. Whilst this 1995 debate also left unresolved issues, it was a good debate to have, and one that had a positive effect on both parties in the long run, and tended to steer clear of legal issues. I certainly was given food for thought and modified my behavior because of it. The same is not true of the 2001 saga which still leaves a very bitter taste.

As it is, common sense prevailed, PGE was published and Rockfax guidebooks have gone from strength to strength. The BMC guidebooks are now superb publications which, although influenced by the style of PGE, are very much in their own mould. Other producers like Ground-Up are publishing great books, the traditional club producers like the FRCC in particular have updated their formats to make best use of the production techniques possible with modern dtp technology. The influence of British guidebooks is becoming apparent in almost every publication that appears around the World and we are even winning awards!

As a footnote I would like to add that the BMC of 2007 is a very different organisation to the BMC of 2001 and none of the issues from the 2001 guidebook saga are applicable today. discussion thread

From Stanage to Peak Gritstone East – the Saga

The saga actually started in 2000 when Chris Craggs tried to publish a Stanage guide with his (then) publisher Cicerone. As someone who had spent years writing guidebooks for the BMC Guidebook Committee, this was something of a radical step. Chris says it was caused by his immense frustration at the lack of progress of the BMC Stanage guide he was producing. He basically left the BMC with a finished text, then went and re-wrote the text, photographed Stanage and approached Cicerone. They were going to publish the book but were eventually frightened off by warnings of legal action from the BMC ….. so Chris approached me on April 1st 2001 (and I nearly thought he was joking!)

We started work on a completely new book. Using my new (3 megapixel) digital camera, Chris started photographing more of the Eastern Grit edges. We kept expanding our coverage as we realised what was possible to fit in the book. As the book progressed we started getting in the same discussions with the BMC and Roger Payne in particular. Roger put a rather curious legal argument up which relied heavily on a piece of completely untested law. I won’t go into it here but it was a very different argument to the one that he had approached Cicerone with. Anyway, there was a lot of too-ing and fro-ing and Chris and I just plugged away at the book. The thing is, we knew the book was good, really good, better than anything before it visually, so we knew that we had to get it published, which we did in December of 2001 but, as it transpired later, this was a close-run thing and it could have been very different had certain people got their way.



Leave a Reply