Paul Richardson (1947-2003)

by Jon Metcalf

Paul Richardson
Paul Richardson at John o'Groats after walking 1308 miles

There's an army of ordinary folk for each of the special handful like Paul capable of really touching your life. Attempting an appropriate tribute is futile. The RHB and UKRW communities were just incredibly lucky when Paul's interests in Alan's list, computers and wild country coincided with ours.

Paul started walking around the outskirts of Birmingham as a young man, and used a motorbike to branch out to more distant challenges. He kept a detailed walks journal from 1977 onward. His first Marilyn was Worcestershire Beacon on 2 April 1978, well before Marilyns had been invented. The hills drew Paul to Scotland, where he met up with Alison through their work in nursing. Alison also became a hill addict, after what she describes as 'a few Muriel Gray outings, starting with Lochnagar'.

I first really talked with Paul while dropping back down to the boat from Cruach Scarba on an RHB trip in July 2000 organised by Jonathan Woods. Paul was provocative, funny and informative in his self-chosen online persona of Straydog, but he turned out to be even better company in the real world. Oftentimes another person will try to top any story with something more extreme, remoter or more rare. Not so Paul, whose mature and happy self-confidence, founded on a rock-solid relationship with Alison and his own lifetime of professional and outdoor achievements, rendered all such bravado redundant. His self-deprecating self-description on UKRW is typical, including: 'Walker for >20 years; visited most parts of Britain. Non-specialist indulging in most forms of walking which can be done hands-in-pockets: backpacking, hillwalking, long distance paths, rambling... A ticker of many lists... Real ale diviner.'

We quickly established that, on top of the basics, we shared a deep irrational fear of rocky exposure, as he calmly pointed out an adder I'd missed a yard from my feet. I suggested a guide who'd given me a degree of Skye success, and as luck would have it the same chap hit it off well with Paul over a couple of routes.

Our next meeting was June 2001 when we convened at the Overscaig Inn, Wester Ross. Being with the Straydogs on my own was never awkward, and I never felt gooseberry. At Overscaig the landlord put on a show for us by throwing handfuls nuts around, attracting a host of birds. Alison and Paul identified species after species, while I sat and tried to take it all in.

I managed to keep the agenda sensible the first day, with a nice puddingy Corbett for us to amble up. Next day however, we landed on Arkle; much more of a test. We gradually made our way up to the 758m top before the summit ridge. Although I was holding up the others, neither seemed to get impatient on a warm sunny day. The summit was a mere 30m higher and a kilometre away, with just a small matter of a horrendous sharp gappy ridge to be negotiated. Alison was immediately faced with two very unhappy bunnies. She didn't exactly unicycle along the ridge backwards, eyes closed and reciting Proust to show how easy it was, but she clearly wasn't remotely fazed by the situation. Paul stopped to think, and I slunk off for an exploratory cower over the first 50 metres or so. Objectively it really wasn't the last Great Scottish Technical Climbing Problem, so I went back to try to coax my friend along. He started out but hated it. He looked at bypass options, but they looked horrific to me, so I stuck to the crest while he and Alison skirted out of view. Further along the ridge there were a couple of inclines and gaps to scuttle over that made my head swim, but now alone I had to go for it. Too much effort had gone in not to try. The summit came fairly quickly, and without half the demons that I had conjured up materialising. Alison, who had been well out of sight, caught me in a few minutes, and said that Paul had thought better of the enterprise. I could see him heading back looking dejected.

The return trip convinced me that the route really ought to go for Paul. I knew of several tougher Skye terrors that he had already overcome. Clearly not believing at first, but prepared to try (given a report by someone just as scared), and supported by Alison, he had a go. If you aren't made up the same way as us, you'll never taste Paul's triumph that day, nor properly understand the magnitude of his achievement. I do. I will always remember my heroic friend, skipping down the hill that evening happily discussing the merits of Alan's 'Relatively Enjoyable Hills of Britain'.

Paul never bragged about all the long-distance routes he'd completed, including the Ultimate Challenge, the South West Way, Offa's Dyke, the Pennine Way, the Wolds Way, the North Downs Way, the Coast to Coast, and St Cuthbert's Way, but he would always share a happy memory or point out some highlights if you were interested. His planning and completion of a Land's End to John o'Groats route in his first summer of retirement in 2002 was a tremendous achievement, despite his unconventional fully-clothed approach.

Our occasional weekends continued, always relaxed, always informative, always fun. Then, towards the end of March 2003, responding to my out-of-hibernation suggestion for a summer weekend, he told me of his sudden illness and recent operation, and gave me a characteristic no-bullshit outlook. I told him that I thought these were ridiculous lengths to go to in order to avoid a rematch with Stac Pollaidh, and immediately his sense of fun was back in the emails. Our correspondence continued, more frequently than before, and with even more joy and wicked black humour, with his 600th Marilyn plans a frequent topic.

Paul didn't make the Ludlow gathering, at which he would undoubtedly have gone through that barrier under any other circumstances. Instead, this was the first time that many in the group even became aware of his illness, when we toasted absent friends.

Paul's final hill, and 585th Marilyn, was Lamington Hill on 9 August 2003, just a few weeks before he died. He was still emailing defiantly very close to the end, without a trace of self-pity or any reference to the injustice of it all. Several of his RHB friends saw him off with a real ale and a short walk along the beach at Montrose after his well-attended memorial service in September. Paul joined the HoF as the 100th member, and first honorary member, on 15 November 2003 (Alison's birthday) on Creag Bheag above Kingussie, welcomed by a group of the usual suspects and his friend Gordon, who had completed the Ultimate Challenge with Paul some 22 years earlier. This new type of membership is a fitting tribute to such a great contributor to the RHB scene.

Paul remains sorely missed by the hill community, his former nursing colleagues, and of course other family members, in particular his mum and his children. He now rests peacefully in the hills that he loved so much. We will never forget him.

Articles by Paul Richardson