I’ve always had a thing for hills. Perhaps that’s because I grew up in Bristol, a city with more than its fair share of them. Now, I live in another hilly area, on the slopes below Crystal Palace in South London. Around here, steep roads climb up and away from the flat plains of the Thames. At the top of some of these, you can look north and admire the vista of sprawling old city and its stretching high-rise buildings. Head in the other direction, and you can gaze across towards the green, wooded Surrey Hills, beyond Croh-Denu – once, to the Anglo-Saxons of the region, ‘the valley of the crocus’, to us, Croydon.
Earlier this year I went up a famous hill that I’d heard long before I ever saw it: Solsbury Hill, Somerset.
Thanks to Peter Gabriel’s eponymous and much loved song, I had a vision of the place, full of booming hearts and unlikely Eagles, years before visiting in person. (Turns out it’s actually called Little Solsbury Hill, but I guess that didn’t scan so well).
Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that when earlier this year, I found myself staying in a flat above a bookshop in Larkhall, on the eastern edge of Bath, from where you could see Solsbury Hill, I felt unable to resist its call.
This was our last stop on a post-lockdown late family summer holiday, come, Somerset centred Odyssey. Hills had been climbed already, including, Glastonbury Tor, Tor Hill (Wells), Brean Down, Tickenham Hill, Wain’s Hill (Clevedon) and various urban hills in my home-town, Bristol.
For a lover of hills, this small region of the country offers quite the range: steep hills, lone hills, round hills, hills with views of the sea, hills buzzed by kestrels, or patrolled by buzzards, internationally renowned hills with ruined churches on top, hills crowned by stands of trees, hills once topped by hill-forts, hills with winds that land a flurry of blows near the summit and hills disguised as city streets, with houses and shops groaning up and down their slopes.
Finally, as part of my unintentional, low-altitude, West Country version of Munro bagging, Solsbury Hill, was next. Glastonbury Tor might top it for mystical stature and sheer popping-out of the surrounding flat ground wonder, but Solsbury Hill had its own song. And a good one at that.
On a wet Tuesday afternoon, I was granted permission to go for a walk alone, without snack-demanding, short-legged sons. I set out hopefully, without a map because I didn’t think I’d need one. Not for an imposing landmark I could see down the road. The top, I figured, appeared to be less than a couple of miles away, as the crow flies.
As the road out of Bath narrowed and slowly climbed upwards, it began to sink in how slippery that old adage ‘As the crow flies’ actually is. Superficially, I suppose, the saying simply refers to taking the most direct route possible. Beneath that though, the phrase is loaded with unspoken implication; namely, that if you’re not actually winged like a corvid, some kind of meandering diversion will be required in order to reach your destination.
I plodded on, houses began to hang back, trees and hedges edging fields became thicker and more tangled, while pavements narrowed and vanished. The small country road met a larger route, roaring around the outskirts of Bath.
This bigger road was a stretch of the A46 bypass, which back in the early 1990s had been the subject of the first of the big anti-roads protests. Protesters had lost that particular, intensely contested battle, but drew attention to and perhaps changed for a time at least, the then Thatcher and Major government’s seeming road-building mania. Though, looking at our current version, sanctioning the tearing up of ancient woods, villages, homes, at a cost of billions, this time for a railway line, simply to cut a few minutes off a train ride from Birmingham to London via HS2, it would seem that lessons have not been learned.
Faced with pedestrian unfriendly highways, I began to wonder if I’d make it past them and onto the hill proper, or if I’d I be trapped on the lower slopes, stymied by a bypass and forced to turn back. My cheat’s fall-back option, looking at a map on my phone, turned out not to be very helpful at all. What can work well on the streets of town and city is not so handy when it simply shows you green squares, with big grey lines skirting the point you want to reach.
Wondering whether to give in already, I sensed a presence up a tree to my left. I turned to catch a glimpse of some kind of raptor, waiting. It ghosted away over the fields below before I could even guess what it had been. Drizzle had begun to fall and my phone battery was running low.
I decided the best course of action was to press on, walking faster, which in the absence of certainty, would at least lend a definitive feel to proceedings. As cars appeared around tight corners, I pressed myself against verges, cursing, hoping for a sign. As fences and houses and gardens blocked, what I believed, should be the way, I trudged on, allowing self-pity to bubble around me. Getting to a local landmark, shouldn’t be this hard. Surely there must be a proper path, a safer path, a nicer path through trees, with a view…?
Thinking back to the glee with which I’d left my potentially moaning children behind with my wife, I gave myself a talking to.
You are a white male of a certain age, who has chosen to do this. No one’s going to stare at you wondering what you’re up to here, because of the colour of your skin. No man is going to decide that it’s fine to follow you, perhaps try to chat you up. Or harm you. Also, you have two working legs. All you want to do is get a bit higher up a hill you’re already on, so you can say you were there, you complacent git…
Interior, reading me had a point. Grudging, whiny outdoor wannabe, blokey me had to concede. Rustling behind a tangle of hawthorn, book-conjured shades of Lauret Savoy, Maggie O’ Farrell and Rebecca Solnit shook their heads and tutted.
I pressed on, eventually passing a church clad in corrugated iron. It looked as though it had dropped in from the dust of an abandoned Gold Rush town in the American West. This it turned out, when I looked it up afterwards, was in fact, Bailbrook Mission Church, built in 1892 for workers in the nearby Robertson Jam orchards. It has been a long time since there were any jam factories nearby.
Past the metal and wood church, the road wound on around the hill, eventually taking me to Batheaston and a longed for signpost. Slowly, at the nervy speed of not-quite knowing where you’re going, I made my way towards the top, glad I had at least brought some water – then finally, beyond a group of grazing dark brown cows, who I tentatively edged past, a National Trust notice on a post, gave me the tick and gold sticker I’d been craving.
Given that my vision of the site had been built almost entirely around a Peter Gabriel song from the 1970s, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A marvellous view I supposed. The wind, however, wasn’t having me simply amble around the edge of the ridge to drink in an eyeful of sky in my triumph. My first impression was a rough patch of heathland, somewhere King Lear could howl around (dis)contentedly in broken despair.
Clutching on to my hat, buffeted all the way by an almost comically fierce squall, I made my way to the trig point. Half stooping, I then staggered towards a spot where I could get a view back towards Bath. Yes, I could see how in other circumstances this could be quite something. I imagined sitting calmly as the sun went down, watching the lights of the World Heritage City beyond twinkle fetchingly. Not today.
I decided to try a different way back, walking towards the view of the honeyed stones of the city below. Instinct proved more effective in this instance than Google maps. (For synchronicity fans, there’s a line in Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill, that perfectly pre-figures this moment. I can’t quote it here for copyright reasons, but it’s in the first verse, just before the first heart-boom). Below the crown of the hill, the wind dropped, suddenly as if snapped off by an invisible controller. Shrubs and trees, crooked and twisted by the wind higher up, began to stand straighter and taller.
Locating a winding path, which became a lengthy holloway type trail, I followed a tree-lined corridor along the edge of the hill down to a roadside path and then a subway beneath the A46.
Passing through this, I found something weirdly satisfying in the abrupt contrast between short concrete tunnel, tagged and covered with graffiti, and the hedgerows and fields immediately beyond. So much so that I felt compelled to step back and forth from shadowed greys to sunlight greens several times before moving on. Soon paths through fields became lanes round the backs of houses, then pavements on suburban roads. Getting off the hill, it seemed, was considerably easier for me than getting up it.
Although many of the minor personal inconveniences I faced on that walk, were self-inflicted, I still came away with a sense that heading up a local hill, really ought to be easier, not only for me, but for everyone.
I recently read The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes. In this, the author – who is also a brilliant illustrator – shows the shocking extent to which most people in Britain are barred from great swathes of land in their own country. I thought I knew a little about this, but the sheer scale of exclusion and exploitation of what had often been for centuries common land, by a few Lords, corporations and private individuals, covered by Hayes is scandalous.
Reading each chapter, the author’s slow-burning sense of anger at the historic and on-going legal and political chicanery over UK land status, becomes infectious. It’s well worth reading and once you have, particularly if you live in the UK, it’ll change the way you see the world around you, whether you’re walking around the corner, or trying to make your way up a hill somewhere else.
Links & References
Peter Gabriel, Solsbury Hill
Little Solsbury Hill
Books I was thinking of during my ‘inner-dialogue, white-man in a bubble moment‘:
Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Granta 2014
A field guide to getting lost, Canongate, 2005
The Faraway Nearby, Granta, 2013
Also worth reading on the theme of outdoors exclusivity/inclusivity/priviledge:
The Book of Trespass
The bookshop we stayed above – The Beaufort Bookshop