I have always found lone hills irresistible. There is something powerfully attractive to me about distinct peaks standing separate from other upland areas, or even entirely isolated. As soon as I see one, I have an overwhelming urge to stop and climb.
Part of the lure must be the sure knowledge of the reward at the top- uninterrupted views all round. This sensation of being king of all I survey, of being free and unrestricted on all sides is a strong draw. Perhaps, too, that certainty of conquest- of getting to the top; how many times have you climbed some ridge or group of hills only to find another rise beyond the crest you have just reached? The summit rolls way tauntingly before you, but on a solitary peak you know when you’re at the top and that there is nowhere else to go but down. The sense of achievement, I suppose, is more easily obtained. Perhaps this is a bit lazy- a bit too dependent on the quick result?
I write all of this because, returning by train from Cornwall to London recently, we passed Brent Knoll on the Somerset Levels. This hill has sat in my imagination since my teens, travelling home by car from family caravanning holidays in the south-west. The Knoll rises up from the fenland, with no other high ground for miles around, dominating vistas from all sides and drawing the eyes when you are atop the Quantocks or the Mendips. Inevitably, it is surmounted by a hill-fort. It’s the obvious defensive site in such low marshy ground. On the western side medieval fields run in long narrow strips from the summit down to level of the surrounding farmland. It is a splendid indicator of rural commonality: every cultivator gets an equal share of the sloping soil from the thin upper ground to the rich accumulations at the base.
A few other classic heights for me include:
- The Malverns– I know they’re a ridge, but that sharp whale’s back soaring up so steeply from the Severn Vale and offering views west to the Welsh mountains and east to the Cotswolds are immensely rewarding to walk;
- Hambledon Hill– it has several attractions for me: another hill fort on the summit, the defences of which accentuate and exacerbate the already fearsome slopes. It’s crowned by a burial mound which predates the fortifications by thousands of years, stretching our use back millennia and proving that our ancestors knew a good hill when they saw one. From the heights you can see other hill forts as well as the rolling beauties of Dorset. The glories and the mysteries combined inclined me to make this the place where the Fairy Queen, Maeve, held court in my novel, Albion awake!
- Breen Down– near Weston super mare and actually more a headland, it’s in the background of view of the Brent Knoll defences, but a stunning place nonetheless.
- The Breidden Hills, between Shrewsbury and Welshpool. They rear in a sharp mass from the vale of the Severn, steep and splendid in their isolation. The drive up is challenging, the views down precipitous, the effort of the ascent totally justified!
- Chapel Carn Brea– on that same Cornish trip we visited the first and last hill in Britain, just inland from Land’s End. The views, sweeping round from St Just past Cape Cornwall and past Mount’s Bay and on towards the Lizard were astonishing. A sunset up there must be stunning… another time!
- Kit Hill, at the other end of the same county, is also a lure, as is Caradon Hill nearby. From the foot of the old mine chimney at Kit Hill you can gaze east to the bulk of Dartmoor stretching north to south. On a clear day, standing out clear and distinct before the upland mass, you will see the sharp summit of Brent Tor, capped by St Michael’s Church, which clings precariously to the rocky outcrop. A short drive up from Tavistock, this is yet another favourite spot!
- Hergest Ridge, just outside Kington. This upward swelling on the Marches is one of my favourite spots of all in one of my favourite areas of all. It’s an easy enough walk up from Kington Court but you get very high: one time when I visited our ever present friends the RAF practiced bombing runs- beneath us in the valley. Beyond to the west the hills and ridges roll away seemingly endlessly into the blue depths of Wales. Oh, and it’s a rather good album by Mike Oldfield, but I won’t mention that because it’ll make me sound like a sad old hippie. However, the first album I ever bought (not counting the soundtrack to The Jungle Book) was Tubular Bells. In a perverse, English pastoralist way, I actually prefer the follow up album, Hergest Ridge, for its meditative and traditional sounds. Here’s a version: you can be calmed by the music and contemplate the photos.