In Praise of Small Hills and Wide Horizons

A view from Arnside Knott – an Insignificant Hill with Disproportionately Magnificent Views.

The most truly beautiful views of British scenery are obtained from minor elevations, of from 500 to 1,500 feet above the valleys from which they rise.

Mountford John Byrde Baddeley

This quote comes form the Thorough Guides series, written at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. I read it quoted in Nicholas Crane’s ‘Great British Journeys’. He was following in the footsteps of H.V. Morton who was in turn following Baddeley in climbing Drum Hain above Sligachan on Skye.

Until Morton led me to this spot, I wouldn’t have believed such a view existed in Britain. I have been there twice now, and will go back. Drum Hain stands about 1,000 feet above sea level, about three miles from the ridge, and forms a rocky viewing gallery at a mid-point in the arc of the Black Cuillins. Facing you is a single ridge almost six miles long. Only here, on Drum Hain, is it possible to absorb the ridge in its entirety. It is a spectacle of unrelenting ferocity.

Are you reaching for a map? Are you wondering when you might make it to Skye and check out that view for yourself? I am.

I’ve often discussed with friends the idea of compiling our own hill list – of Insignificant Hills with Disproportionately Magnificent Views. (Clearly, a snappier title would be needed). Many of the hills are pimples close to the west coast of Scotland, climbed when inclement weather, indolence or exhaustion have kept us of their bigger brethren. In fact I wish that I had kept a list because I doubt if I could find many of them on a map now. A small hill above a bend in the river by Perth, which I climbed with TBH when A was a small baby does spring to mind. Muncaster Fell at the eastern end of Eskdale is another worthy contender – not high enough to qualify as even a Birkett, but more deserving of a visit than some which are. Our own limestone lumps are also clearly good candidates, even if they don’t all pass Baddeley’s watermark of 500 feet. (Who said ’round numbers are always false?” ….ah! Samuel Johnson – the power of the internet.)

Nicholas Cranes’s book is a fascinating read, particularly if, like me, you missed most of the television series (it’s great that the BBC keep commissioning his quirky programs, but a shame that they are content to let them slip by unheralded.) I love the way he seems to be compelled to immerse himself in the landscape, sometimes literally when he chooses to ford a river or cycle an old pass in torrential rain. Each account in the book of a famous literary traveller of the past offers a window on Britain at the time when they travelled. It struck me the other day that many of the books I enjoy reading are hard to find in bookshops at least partly because they are so hard to categorise – in many ways this book is a series of biographies, with lots of history inevitably thrown in, but I notice that on the back cover it is listed as ‘non-fiction/travel’.

Not so long ago I read John Hillaby’s ‘Journey to the Gods’. I seem to be slowly picking up all of his accounts of long walks from second-hand book shops. This one covers a walk through Greece with his wife Kate. I first bought a Hillaby book purely because it was about a long distance walk. But experience has taught me that books about walks can be execrable – of the “Ate my breakfast. Climbed a hill. It rained. Climbed another hill. Pitched the tent. It rained.” repeat ad infinitum school. Hillaby’s is such a good companion because he is both a polymath and polyglot. Whomever he meets and wherever he is, he seems to be able to make himself understood and to understand in turn. And he’s so well informed – on history, botany, ornithology etc. A real renaissance man. As John Steinbeck wrote of his friend the marine biologist Edward Ricketts: “His mind had no horizons. He was interested in everything.”

Another Arnside Knott view.

In Praise of Small Hills and Wide Horizons