Behind the story: Scafell Pike graffiti

Scafell Pike made the headlines recently after the words from a poem were painted onto the summit stone atop the Lake District mountain. Many have queued up to condemn the accused, but a few people believe the reaction in some quarters has been overblown.

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“Literary vandal defaces the summit”, screamed the Telegraph. The act “really upset” the National Trust. A filmmaker found it “absolutely disgusting”.

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Yes, I speak of course of the graffiti on top of Scafell Pike, which saw verses of a poem drawn onto a cairn in permanent marker.

The “obscure” poem in question was from the 4,000-year-old Emerald Tablets of Thoth, written alongside “R. Bennett”, which most believe is the rambler’s name.

There was no shortage of outraged reaction on the Twittersphere, and it’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority of those who commented on Bennett’s antics viewed them negatively.

And understandably, in many ways. It was widely considered as vandalism, after all, on one of England’s best-known and best-loved mountains.

But some wonder if the reaction was over the top. One blogger suggested the backlash was excessive.

First of all making it “crystal clear” that she is not launching a defence of breaching property rights – “If it’s not yours and you haven’t got permission, you can’t write all over it, especially with a permanent pen” – Helen Conway was “Bemused by the wording used in the press” and “far from sure that the term ‘defaced’ is justified.”

Conway points out that the cairn it was written on is “Not a part of the natural landscape at all. It was made by people who moved rocks from their natural position to create it.

“I think the real issue here is why poetry is thought by some to be incompatible with the joy of enjoying nature when in fact so much poetry has been inspired by nature. To me the words of the poem are not at all incompatible with the feeling of wonder, elation, spirituality and transcendence that some people feel when at the top of a peak like Scafell.”

Can drawing on mountain rocks at the heart of the British countryside ever be justified? It’s not only tolerated but celebrated when it’s been done a long time ago, Conway suggests.

She points to the widely-reported 2003 discovery of animals found drawn in the Cresswell Crag caves in Derbyshire, for example:

“Again, a selfish act of expression spoiling the pristine nature for all. Except that that discovery was hailed as of great importance, because the art was dated as being about 15,000 years old and the first ‘cave art’ found in the UK. I wonder why markings are wonderful if they remain unseen for years on end but not acceptable when they can be seen at once”.

Yet some think it is inappropriate to compare Bennett’s actions to those in an era when drawing on rocks is believed to have been more socially acceptable.

Asked about Bennett, Terry Abraham, the filmmaker behind the BBC’s Life of a Mountain: Scafell Pike, said: “It’s sadly a reflection of the times and a lack of respect and outdoors education that we have here in the country.

“It’s a horrible precedent and it needs to be removed.”

It seems that most do feel aggrieved at the “vandal”, and the vitriol Bennett has received on social media shows that graffiti of the sort is considered anything but socially acceptable today – some comments are even comparable with what gets aimed at those who commit crimes carrying far greater penalties.

That said, not everyone thinks his actions are as outrageous as some punters and headline-writers make out.

What are your thoughts? What should the punishment be? Or is talk of severe penalties wildly disproportionate? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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Photo: The National Trust