I Bought a Mountain by Thomas Firbank tells the story of a Canadian who falls in love with the mountains of North Wales, and decides to buy a hill farm there. It was published in 1940 and tells the story of Firbank’s life on the farm during the 1930s.
Farms in the Welsh mountains are usually called hill farms, but Firbank’s was in Snowdonia, the most mountainous part of north Wales, so the label is slightly inaccurate. His land, at Dyffryn was bordered by the heights of Glider Fach, which is on the same ridge as Tryfan, one of the most famous of the Welsh mountains over 3000 feet, and so precipitous that it is generally considered to be the only one impossible to climb without some use of the hands.
It’s fashionable these days to see the mountains as a challenge and to seek out danger and isolated spaces, but I imagine this was much less the case in the 1930s. Certainly the whole of North Wales must have been very different then, before the day trippers arrived in their cars from Liverpool and Manchester, before they decided to stay and built north Wales into the large suburban sprawl that much of it is now. Nevertheless, there is evidence in the book that holiday makers were a part of the landscape in the 1930s as one of the chapters describes Firbank’s development of a roadside cafe to supply trippers with tea, cakes and ice cream. Even so it must have been so much more difficult to access the mountains then, and life must have been much more isolated, more remote. The author must have been an unusually adventurous character to choose this way of life.
Firbank tells us about his life in the Welsh mountains in a series of chapters each dealing with a separate aspect, beginning with The Purchase and The Valuation of the farm, and going on to describe The Lambing, The Washing, The Shearing and so on in separate sections. These sections go into significant detail about life on the farm and would surely be of great interest to a historian of agriculture, or to a modern day hill farmer. There were lots of details and aspects that I too found interesting, but the book did become a bit formulaic at this point, and the details were rather too extensive to maintain my interest.
There was some more adventure in chapters that described a year of heavy snow fall which disrupted life on the farm, and in the section about the snack bar, which introduced a wider cast of characters. I also enjoyed the chapter in which Firbank describes the purchase of a caravan which he planned to let out. This took us as far afield as Burnley and Birmingham, introducing us to a range of shady characters, and to the poverty and neglect of life in what was becoming, even then, a post industrialised Britain. A final chapter about life on the farm concerned the development of hydro-electric power using water from mountain streams. This entailed the digging of a large reservoir and dam on Firbank’s own land, enabling him to cook meals, and light the farm using the power released. There were some technical details here that I found interesting, and the whole project has contemporary resonance considering the need to develop green energy sources.
Throughout the book we meet various denizens of the Welsh countryside, usually engaged in some form of trade as Firbank buys and sells various animals, and these characters are interesting and well described. Firbank does really seem to lack a sense of humour though, so these rustic characters are not as interesting as those in the James Herriot vet books. I know it’s wrong to compare books with different purposes, but even so Herriot’s portrayal of life in rural Yorkshire is made more interesting for the reader by the author’s humorous approach to the idiosyncrasies of the farming community he works in.
Perhaps the most interesting chapters of I Bought a Mountain for me were the ones in which Firbank describes the long distance walk in which he covered the fourteen 3000 foot peaks in North Wales in record breaking time. I have walked over most of these mountains, and it was interesting to be reminded of them and of the excitement and dangers that walking them entails. There is also a chapter in which he describes climbing in the Idwal slabs, a place I have also climbed, albeit only once. He makes some interesting points here about the muted and unemotional tone of much writing about rock climbing.
The book ends on a philosophical note, which indicates to me how Britain is bound by its own history and geography. Firbank mourns the passing of the industrial age in Britain, complaining that our industry cannot compete with the East where labour is cheaper, and bemoaning both our reliance on service industries to cover the discrepancy in trade, and our increasing debt, which he sees as unsustainable. His solution is to turn back to the land: he wants the workers from the factories to become farm workers, make the countryside productive and supply the nation with food. So much of what is happening now in Britain shows that we have not escaped from the dilemmas he recognised, and which are created by our geography and our industrial history. I have to say that his views are rather romantic and unachievable: the unwillingness of British town dwellers to go back to the land is already of concern to the farming community as we plan to leave Europe and need to replace the immigrant work force; our income from service industries is also likely to be affected by leaving Europe, and it is not clear how it will be replaced.
Firbank is not really a professional writer: he is clearly a talented man and a jack of all trades. At times his writing can be flowery and overdone – And in winter the snow lay in the streets, her virginity prostituted under careless feet – was one early example that I found a little off putting. There are several others in the first chapter. However there is much less of this flowery language as the book progresses and Firbank gets down to the business of everyday life in North Wales.
I would recommend this book, as I said before, to anyone interested in the history of agriculture, and to anyone interested in a history of Welsh life: it was lent to me by a friend who is Welsh and had enjoyed the book I suppose partly for that reason. For the more general reader it is perhaps less interesting, though there are chapters of specific interest to hill walkers and mountaineers.