Happy 50th birthday to Cicerone guidebooks

One of the things about writing an outdoor blog is that people sometimes contact me asking if they can send me free stuff. Some people would call this a perk, but I don’t see it that way.

Free stuff usually comes with an obligation. First it was brands and retailers offering to send me clothes and gear to review. But I’m not really interested in writing a few hundred words of text about a fleece or a pair of gloves. There are a limited number of jokes you can make and most of them have been made before.

Then came the books. I enjoy reading travel books, and there’s a lot more you can say about them. I used to accept these offers gratefully until I realised that to write a decent book review you have to take notes as your read, and that takes some of the enjoyment out of reading. Also, although I was sent some enjoyable books that I wouldn’t otherwise have read, I already have a very long list of books that I’d like to read and not enough time to read them all. Now I’ve stopped accepting the offer of books too.

Which in some ways is a shame. One of the publishers who used to contact me from time to time was the guidebook publisher Cicerone. I have a lot of Cicerone guidebooks and mention one or two of them frequently in this blog.

One of my most decrepit books is Walking in Abruzzo by Stuart Haines. In the book world, decrepit is a good thing, because it means the book is well used. This particular volume earned most of its damage when Edita got caught in a thunderstorm high on a lonely mountain ridge in Maiella.

The Cicerone guidebook Walking in Abruzzo: at least it had a soft landing this time on a bed of leaves
The Cicerone guidebook Walking in Abruzzo: at least it had a soft landing this time on a bed of leaves

One of my first Cicerone guidebooks was a hillwalking guide with the eccentric title Brecon Beacons: A walkers’ interpretation guide. Why it had that title I have no idea. Was it partly a Welsh phrase book? I read quite a few pages but the only word I memorised was Fan y Big and – story of my life – I still don’t know what it means.

In those days (the mid 90s) Cicerone seemed to specialise in obscure guidebooks with erratic designs. Some of the other guidebooks listed inside the back cover included (and I’m not kidding) Birdwatching in Merseyside, Coniston Copper: a History, and The Packhorse Bridges of England.

Since then I have used Cicerone guidebooks in such far flung places as Ireland, Italy, Nepal, Bhutan, Morocco and most mountain areas of Britain. Up there with my Abruzzo guidebook, the Backpackers’ Britain series by Graham Uney must rank as the most well-used book of any type I’ve ever owned (although when I was a child I did wear my first copy of the Crack-a-Joke Book down into a fine powder).

Given this background, it might come as a surprise that I stopped responding to Cicerone’s emails asking if they could send me some books. The trouble is, the books they wanted to send me were not about the places where I wanted to go. And where I did want to go, I just bought the guidebook anyway. After all, it doesn’t cost very much compared with the price of a trip.

Anyway, the other day, out of the blue and completely unsolicited, this arrived in the post from Cicerone.

Fifty Years of Adventure (and sundry other items): a Cicerone gift pack newly arrived
Fifty Years of Adventure (and sundry other items): a Cicerone gift pack newly arrived

They even sent me a little branded Cicerone notebook and pen (I don’t use notebooks any more – I type everything into my phone and store it in the cloud).

My family will tell you that I’m not a very gracious receiver of presents. I have a tiny one-bedroom flat in London and I’m frequently having to chuck stuff away or take it to the charity shop. On top of this, there’s already enough tat in the world without sending people things they don’t need. My friends and family don’t give me presents any more because they know I’ll just be grumpy and ungrateful.

I don’t want to encourage anyone to send me free stuff by promoting what they sent, but in this case, because it’s Cicerone, I’m going to make an exception. This glossy coffee table book called Fifty Years of Adventure has been produced to celebrate Cicerone’s 50th birthday this year, and it’s well deserved.

There are 50 short chapters, each describing a mountainous part of the world that’s the subject of a Cicerone guidebook. At the back there are mini bios of 50 of Cicerone’s most prolific authors and photos of their staff on various adventures.

Meanwhile, I spent an enjoyable time reading the opening chapter: a history of Cicerone over 50 years. I read Walt Unsworth’s book Everest many years ago. It’s still the most comprehensive climbing history of Everest ever written. Until he died last year, I didn’t know that along with his wife Dorothy, his friend the illustrator Brian Evans and Brian’s wife Aileen, he founded Cicerone in 1969.

A chapter from the book Fifty Years of Adventure
A chapter from the book Fifty Years of Adventure

Both Walt and Brian were rock climbers and central figures in the UK climbing scene. Walt edited the magazine Climber & Rambler and had many contacts available to help produce his guidebooks.

By contrast, in the second half of its history Cicerone has been owned by Jonathan and Lesley Williams. The Williamses were merely outdoor enthusiasts who wanted to make a career out of their hobby. They had a few Cicerone guidebooks of their own and had a chance meeting with the family of the owners at a time when they were looking to sell the company and retire.

I say ‘merely’, but there’s nothing ‘mere’ about what they’ve turned Cicerone into. So here’s to a very happy 50th birthday.

Here in the UK, the year 2019 is beginning with much uncertainty about how it will pan out. I don’t even know whether Edita and I will be allowed to live and work together in the same country by the end of it.

But while dramas such as these are played out up and down the country, there’s one thing that definitely will happen: I will be making use of Cicerone guidebooks, either here in the UK, further afield, or both.

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