An interview with Striding Edge expert David Powell-Thompson

PUBLISHED: 13:16 10 September 2012 | UPDATED: 21:51 20 February 2013

David at Blea Tarn

David at Blea Tarn

He guided Julia Bradbury across Striding Edge and created memorable programmes with Eric Robson. David Powell-Thompson talks to writer and photographer Mark Gilligan

David Powell-Thompson is a proud Lancastrian but he loves the life he leads in the Lake District, his natural home and playground. This is where he belongs.

As he approaches his 66th year he looks back on his enduring passion for this glorious piece of England, in particular the Western Lakes.
Each year my father would bring us on a weeks holiday from our home in Lancaster and we loved it, he recalls. We travelled on public transport and filled the days whatever the weather.

His first big walk was on Helvellyn. As we got down, I remember my dad saying Now lets wash our socks and feet. Thats what we do! There was no technical clothing like today, adds David.

I even saw people wearing cycling capes. Whatever passed as walking gear was the order of the day and I fondly remember my father repairing our shoes with tri-corn nails so theyd look like real walking boots! I used to love the noise they made and the sparks they produced as we trundled along the high street in Hawkshead.

For many, Davids flowing locks will mark him out as the guide and researcher for the Wainwright Walks television programmes. He also worked for many years on Eric Robsons TV series Out of Town. Probably his most memorable moment was when he guided presenter Julia Bradbury over Striding Edge in bad weather. To her obvious relief, she hugged him at the finish and declared on camera: Everyone should have a David.

His working life began very differently as an apprentice electrician and it was there, while training, that he met Dave Holmes who introduced him to rock climbing. Its another way to enjoy whats around you and I would combine that with walking and bird watching.

The path of Davids career changed radically. He became a teacher and eventually took over as the head at St Begas Primary in Eskdale, where he had settled with his wife, Maggie.

We had a lovely little place on the Esk near Doctor Bridge. The location was ideal and wed walk to church on a Sunday morning by the river. It was idyllic.

Then an unexpected opportunity presented itself thanks to one of the school governors, broadcaster Eric Robson. After one of the meetings at school Eric approached me and asked if Id like to help with a TV series about the area. It seemed like a great idea so I accepted. His first foray, for one of the Great Walks series, was largely confined to carrying the tripod and chipping in every now and then.

But his role developed and his depth of knowledge of the walks helped secure a series of inserts for a BBC 2 programme and thats when he really began to research and undertake the treks that would be featured.

The first was from Wasdale Head over Illgill, Whin Rigg and down to Santon Bridge. Id do the walk, research the piece and organise local people who could bring it to life in interviews, he says. I also knew the fells well and Eric used to do timed sweeps as the camera would pan a full 360 degrees talking about each major fell on the horizon. Id give him the information and hed record the piece. It was an exacting process for the cameraman and Eric to work together.

This was before the internet transformed the way we research. Id use books, maps and talk to people. Id go the pub and ask. If you dont find who you want, someone will know them and youd take it from there.
In one year alone they managed 32 half hour programmes and on top of that they also produced the Wainwright Walks series.

Financial woes in the TV industry intervened. He went from a full diary to blank pages so David took his Mountain Leadership Course, which allows him to take people on guided walks.

He also reignited his passion for rock climbing and mountaineering. Maggie and I had been going to Greece for a number of years and Mount Olympus was just a day away. I could do that - so I did! Then with my friend, Pete Ferris, we undertook the GR20 walk on Corsica and then we later circumnavigated Mont Blanc. Last September we actually climbed to its summit.

David is also a fell runner and that began when he had to research the route for one of the programmes about Joss Naylors epic 60 highest peaks challenge to celebrate his 60th birthday.

I began running at that time to get to the locations. Timing was absolutely critical as we had to meet Joss at the exact spots as he passed so that Eric could interview him without jeopardising the objective of his run.

Joss invited me out with them for a run and to get the feel for it and it just became something I loved. Id go out with him and his runners and initially Id watch them in the distance but eventually I got better and, after some time, I could keep up.

I walk regularly with David and his knowledge of the fells is exceptional. He still has an enthusiasm for locations even though he has been many times. But there is a downside - his celebrity status. In the time I have known him we have never failed to be stopped by walkers wanting to shake his hand and chat. He always obliges David is not only instantly recognisable but likeable, too.

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