This evening (3 April) was to be the showing of Banff Mountain Film Festival at our neighbour, Brighton Dome. Postponed due to current events, we thought it would be a good opportunity to highlight and celebrate one of the 20th century’s most inspiring and trailblazing mountaineers, Gwen Moffat.
‘Home was to become the place where I pitched my tent’. In her own words below, Brighton-born Gwen Moffat (b. 1924) shares her life, inspirations and philosophies as the first female mountain guide, followed by a career as a successful author.
‘Was I proud to be a pioneer? Apart from my being the first woman guide I wasn’t that different from my peers. Women mountaineers went way back and then there was the generation immediately before me: role models who formed an all-women club three years before I was born. I was less a pioneer than another link in a chain, different only in that I lived wild and rough, survived, and wrote a book about it. There was a niche and I fitted. There is pleasure in the hordes of young people discovering what they are capable of: on climbing walls, on rock, in mountains. I am aware of the bond, of being part of a community.
I was born in Brighton. We had the basement and ground floor flat in my grandfather’s house in St Nicholas Road. Grandfather Goddard had a wood-turning business in the Lanes. When I was 9, we moved to Hove (to Rowan Avenue). At 16, with the outbreak of World War 2 I was evacuated to Yorkshire. Exploring the uplands there I found my itchy feet and for decades ‘home’ was to become the place where I pitched my tent.
The best things about climbing? Unlimited space. I know where I am in mountains. The stillness: not silence because there is always some sound even if it’s no more than a breeze over rock, but there is no noise. Solitude is fine but, even better, just one companion: the other person on the rope with whom there is a bond that transcends any other relationship: trust, faith, an intimacy that is asexual but essential because in the last resort you are each responsible for the other’s life.
But the basic pleasure in the hills is the natural environment which can be as fulfilling in later life as rock climbing was in one’s heyday. Equally dangerous when old (and particularly solo) and thus most satisfying to the spirit because the delight in challenges and the pleasure in calculating risks never dies.
What difficulties did I have in achieving my goal? None as regards the climbing except intrinsic hazards like being cold and wet, hungry on occasions but that went with the territory. I wanted to climb so I went for it and accepted I had to pay for it. Discomfort is horrid and anticipation of danger is daunting but danger itself, once one is in the centre of an electric storm or a blizzard, the sensation can be exhilarating.
Did anyone try to dissuade me from climbing because I was a woman? Only one and only once. A boyfriend told me that if we were to get serious I must give up mountains. I walked away – literally. As for family: my father ignored the whole situation; he deplored my never having a proper job. My mother was under the impression that I was only a high altitude hiker until the Press uncovered the risk factor. Then I said it was media hype. Probably she blocked out climbing and focused on me as a writer.
Writing, becoming a successful writer, was a different matter but not unique in the trade. We don’t choose a course in life; our genes dictate the route. I wasn’t born to be a climber and a writer, rather I was inclined to both genetically and the influences arrived: a supportive parent, a perceptive English teacher, favourite authors. I spent six years at Hove County Girls’ School: brand new in 1935 and blessed with a youthful progressive staff led by the formidable Miss Richards. Gwen Williams taught me English. I kept in touch with her until she died: my fiercest critic and staunchest ally.
My memories of childhood…..I associate museums and the Royal Pavilion with childhood: school trips to see a company perform A Midsummer-Night’s Dream; sitting at the feet of Virginia Woolf as she addressed the school: a large lady in clouds of mauve chiffon. I wasn’t thrilled by the museums of 80, 90 years ago, my delight was field trips: to the Downs with the school; later, solo cycle rides with a sketch book exploring the Weald; to Edburton and Henfield (where my mother’s people originated); to Burwash to sketch Kipling’s house. Summer holidays in wartime I spent on farms: hay-making, harvesting, milking cows. (People still milked by hand. I was good with cows and got to milk the kickers.)
I learned to cast for fish from Newhaven breakwater and, scrubbed clean, sang in the choir at Hangleton Church. There were wartime highlights before we were evacuated: watching dog fights in the sky from a railway bridge in Portslade, seeing London burn at night from the Devil’s Dyke.
It was in peacetime when I returned on family visits that I discovered a different aspect of Brighton. For a few months in 1950-51 I worked as Property Mistress at the Dolphin and, with the Assistant Stage Manager, we doubled as call boys at the Theatre Royal’s matinées. Later, when the Dolphin had folded and become the Paris cinema I was so fascinated by the first foreign films that, associated with my brief session backstage, I started to think in terms of directing. What appealed to me was the particular skills needed to meld a company of individuals into a logical whole, to construct a drama that builds to a climax and a resolution. And twenty years later I was doing just that but as a crime writer, not a stage director. Different job, same discipline. And it was the Downs: Kipling’s ‘blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs’, and hidden corners of the Weald that were the first step in a life that would take me to deserts and strange mountains: all the lonely wildernesses where I was to set my stories.
I left the South when I was 16 but I was formed in Brighton, Sussex. The rest is polish.’ Gwen Moffat
Gwen Moffat’s autobiography Space below my Feet is in paperback and e-book
With thanks to Gwen Moffat and Kelda Roe at the Mountain Heritage Trust.