Mountains and mysteries, the trailblazing life of Gwen Moffat

colour photo showing Gwen Moffat climbing a granite rockface. She is barefoot and wearing a thick jumper and blue rolled up trousers. She is looking downwards and her rope dangles below her.
Gwen Moffat climbing barefoot on Cornish granite, by J.R Lees

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.

Gwen is finishing supper on a hot evening sitting outside her truck below tall sage plants. The sky is cloudless. She will sleep on the ground here without a tent
Gwen Moffat camping in the desert, July 1979
A colour photo of Gwen Moffat climbing a cliff face in Cornwall. It is summer, there is blue sky and she is wearing a bikini. You can see the blue sea beneath her. The photo is taken from a distance, side on to the rock face.
Gwen Moffat, summer at Land’s End, by J.R Lees, courtesy of Gwen Moffat
black and white photo of Gwen Moffat sitting in the snowy mountains on the snow ground. She is smiling at the camera. She is dressed in thick winter mountain jacket and trousers. Her left arm rest on an upturned ice pick. Her right holds a coil of thick robe which sits on her right knee.
Gwen Moffat, above Glen Coe, February 1957, Johnnie Lees Collection, Mountain Heritage Trust

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.

Colour photo showing Gwen Moffat climbing a snowy sheer cliff face. She is holding an ice axe. She is wearing a thick red jacket and is carrying a rucksack. The photo is taken from below her position so you are looking up at Gwen climbing She is looking at the ice..
Gwen Moffat ice climbing on Ben Nevis, by J.R Lees, courtesy of Gwen Moffat

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.

a colour photo of a wide landscape. There are grey mountain in the background with snow on them. Gwen Moffat can be seen in the foreground to the right of the photo, a solitary figure in a wide open landscape. the sky is blue and dotted with white cloud. The stone on the ground is grey as are the mountains.
Spring in the Highlands, credit Rosemary Fox, courtesy of Gwen Moffat

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.

5 Responses

  1. Alex

    That’s a lovely summary of an amazing life and I love the first picture which looks like it could be Bosigran.

  2. Sue Alexander

    Gwen Moffatt was my guru back in the 60’s and 70’s. I also think the first picture is probably Bosi.

  3. gwen moffat

    Thank you Alex and Sue. Bosigran yes, but which route? A guru? I had my own in the 60s…links in the chain. Gwen.

  4. Ruth Jones

    I read your book when I found my passion Mountains. I was 40 years. I began climbing and still climb and now second a few climb a few easy routes each summer and go mountain walking in Scotland and lakes . I am now 75 and have painful knees!!
    I have never forgot reading your book and being so inspired by your love of the freedom in mountains.
    My daughter who also loves the mountains has just read your book. She contacted me to tell me and that brought back my memories of myself reading it.
    Thank you and take care.
    Ruth x

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