From April, for about three months, the British countryside dresses very smartly but around the end of July it unbuckles and gradually eases its belt back through the loops of its trousers. Then come August and early September, at which point it abandons any pretence of formality and stops tucking in all together. Vegetation takes on an unhinged look and the crepuscular and nocturnal noises near where I live get messier, as if attempting to mimic the foliage: the owls on the periphery of my garden have become louder; a small fox has been at large, slaughtering prey of not dissimilar bodyweight to its own, then dragging it effortfully down the path to my gate; a new hungover-sounding sheep has moved into the field nextdoor and is far from stoical about its tribulations. A dead hare appeared in the centre of my lawn a few weeks ago: perfectly intact but stringy, blackened by rain, primal-looking. Dropping off to sleep, I have heard sardonic growls and low grumbles beneath my bedroom window marginally suggestive of badgers, but I haven’t seen a badger here since last September, when the cull first came to this region and efficiently did its barbaric, scientifically unsubstantiated business.
As I climbed the westernmost of The Blackdown Hills last weekend to the Wellington Monument, fifty miles north east of my house, in rain heavy enough to drown out any similarly feral end-of-summer sounds, tired green overlapped tired green on the edge of the footpath as if in the last exhausted round of a fight that had gone on too long. But when I stepped into the humid woodland directly beneath the monument, something a little miraculous happened: autumn began. The first rust of fallen leaves speckled the path and steam filled the air: steam so steamy it looked like joke steam, steam you could take a bite out of. It even showed up on the photo I took. “I don’t buy it,” said my neighbour, Nomi, upon seeing it. “You have a portable smoke machine, right?”
It was a woodland atmosphere different to any I’d ever experienced before, made in no way less banal by the presence of the tower, the tallest three-sided obelisk on our planet, looming a hundred yards ahead. It wasn’t until later, after a bit of research, that I found an explanation. Below the woodland is Popham’s Pit, named after the corrupt Speaker Of The House Of Commons and Attorney General who allegedly perished in it in 1696, having been flung violently from his horse. The pit purportedly leads directly to the hell, where Popham’s spirit was held on probation until, after some hard praying from his widow, he was permitted, at the meagre rate of one cockstride per year, to return to Wellington Church, four miles away, not far from the Co-op where earlier today I had purchased a disappointingly dry pain au chocolat to fortify me for the innumerable cockstrides of my own walk. Above the pit is a tree two foresters tried to cut down in the 1860s but had to stop, after hearing “pitiful cries” emerging from a disembodied voice in the trunk.
“Oh, that’s okay then,” I thought, glad to have cleared the matter up. “It was just Popham’s Satanic Ghost Steam that I saw. Nothing to worry about.”
I had been drawn to these woods on the occasions I had travelled through the valley below and had suspected they’d be interesting, but perhaps not this interesting. There’s always more to hills than meets the eye when you’re at the bottom of a valley, looking up. By “valley”, in this case, I mean the M5, which I often use to visit friends in “The North” (e.g. Bristol). On these journeys, I mostly fill my time by fantasising about scaling the various abrupt knolls and mumps at the motorway’s margins. In the last ten months I have ticked them off one by one: first last December, with a sting of snow in the air, Crook Peak, the most pouty of the Mendips, from whose triangulation pillar you can gaze down at the six lane carriageway snaking between the Quantocks and the Blackdowns in the south and briefly appreciate the beauty of motorways, until you realise it’s not the beauty of motorways you’re appreciating but the beauty of what a 274 metre slab of Carboniferous limestone and the setting sun of a bright winter’s day has briefly bestowed on a motorway, with needless generosity. Motorways are still motorways: scars in the land, built with no great attention to aesthetics, which I am not quite allowed to hate since they allow me to more easily get to walking routes in the places they haven’t yet destroyed. What’s odd is that when you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the M5, with all those cars, you still don’t get a sense of how many people there are in the world. But from on top of a tall, distinguished hill, watching the flow of traffic, you really do. It’s quite a useful exercise, if somebody’s pissed you off and you’re hemmed in by the brief delusion that the pissing off is significant: walk up a big hill near a multi-lane road, look down at all those people, in just this one small panel of Britain’s quilt, on their way somewhere, busy not giving a crud about your problem and the problem of some dickhead or liar or user or phoney plonker you have encountered. Get some perspective.
Sometimes I think the top of a hill or mountain is – with the obvious exception of the sea – the only place offering real perspective on life. If this is true, it means that, as someone who lived in Norfolk for thirteen years, I spent a sizeable chunk of my existence in possession of no perspective, with the exception of the days when I went to the coast. I don’t hold this against Norfolk, a county I passionately adore, but it perhaps goes some way to explaining why I climb so many hills now. Not all of the way to explaining it, though. I am selectively very afraid of heights but I am just as interested in them as I am afraid. Did you know that it took 33 years for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpiece, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, to be completed, and that Brunel died five years before its 1864 completion, although he had only narrowly escaped death much earlier in the bridge’s construction, in 1843, when he had to have a tracheotomy to remove a coin he’d swallowed while performing a magic trick for a child? Or that the first member of public to cross the bridge was 21 year-old Mary Griffiths, an impressive harelike runner who – after paying the one penny toll, and lifting up her skirts – raced and beat a young man to the other side, by several yards? I do, because I have visited the Clifton Suspension Bridge Museum three times in eighteen months. The reason I have visited so often, besides my slight obsession with the Avon Gorge, is that I don’t fully believe the bridge exists and feel the matter needs investigating. How did they make it meet in the middle? It all seems very fishy to me.
I’m that bumpkin who watches planes coming into Heathrow with his mouth open in uncomprehending wonder, to the bemusement of more sophisticated folk, yet who – since being on a plane that was struck by lightning, almost twenty years ago – has done everything in his power to avoid getting in one. I wanted to get on my hands and knees when I got barely above halfway up the Eiffel Tower but I will dangle my feet off the edge of The Golden Cap, the highest point on the country’s south coast, as casually as a child on a swing. My attitude to heights could be viewed as the ultimate manifestation of my trust in nature and mistrust of man: the same impulse that means I am far more at ease with the idea of being eaten by a tiger than being put to death by lethal injection. But it’s about more than that. Heights, even those that would be viewed as non-spectacular by any daredevil mountain climber or skydiver, are a drug for me, and like all drugs, a dependency on them can cut in and have a detrimental effect on the rest of your life. You put it ahead of responsibilities: to work, to the people you care about. The other day, I cancelled something I’d promised to do and should have done, then cancelled the work I’d decided to do instead of the thing I’d promised to do and should have done, and climbed a hill. No doubt I will do similar in future, until I have climbed every enchanting mound of earth visible from the M5. I suppose this is my completist side coming out. I’ve never been a puritanical completist. I don’t need to own the poor albums a great musician made, just because I like the great musician’s great albums. But hills are always good. Hills don’t make poor albums.
Back in July, a stretch of high ground, more distant, dominant and mysterious, further up the M5, began to demand my attention. I decided, if I was being slightly sensible about the matter, I could investigate it on the way to do something else for which I would earn some money. In the end, I didn’t get around to doing the something else for which I would earn some money, and I just investigated the hills, booking myself into a B&B in Hay On Wye at the last minute and feeling the underrated freedom that comes with cancelling some stuff to make a lone journey to do some other stuff for no obviously practical or financially justifiable purpose. Before I actually investigated the hills, however, I faced a problem: Hay, which straddles the Herefordshire-Wales border, is full of books. I could say that the problem had been unforeseen, but I’d be lying, to you, and myself. If you saw the inside of my house you might argue that the last thing I need is more books but, as well as being delusional in my plans about how many of them I will read, I have an ardent belief that lining my walls with books wards off evil in some deeply important way. In the end I was very restrained in Hay, only purchasing seven, which delayed my investigations and meant that my first walk in the area had to only be a short one. In my defence, one of the books, an inexpensive, aesthetically appealing first edition of the memoir Coming Down The Wye by the naturalist engraver Robert Gibbings, was of practical purpose for my trip. The pages had some foxing, but I didn’t mind. That’s another thing I love about buying old books: even the negative jargon sounds lovely. Who wouldn’t want a book with a nice bit of foxing?
In the early 1940s, living on Plynlimon, the mountain where the Wye’s source is found, Gibbings travelled down the river, past Hay, all the way to its mouth, near Chepstow, picking up local folklore tales (for example, about the Money Brook, near Builth Wells, into which plague victims from towns once dropped coins to prevent infection in the countryfolk they were purchasing food from), creating a vivid picture of farming communities and trout-tickling fishermen in wartime, making a before-its-time plea for ethical meat consumption, and recording conversations with locals in pubs, sometimes in a fashion pleasingly divergent from the main narrative. At one point he goes totally rogue, telling us, apropos of apparently nothing, about an attractive young lady who – he claims – gives him the eye on a train. This might come across as a telling insight into Gibbings’ mindstate at the time of writing, when you learn that he subsequently got off with his wife’s sister, who was his typist for the manuscript. There are two eerie stories about hares in the book. The first concerns Gibbings’ neighbour Bill who, with his friend Evan, tries in vain at night to catch one, which keeps darting through the arms and legs of the men, until Evan decides that the hare is in fact an apparition. The second is of a hare in the valley that cannot be shot, until a wise man recommends that a hunter uses a sixpenny bit instead of a cartridge. The hare, wounded on its flank, retreats in the direction of the cottage, where, upon entering, the hunter finds an old woman on the floor, with a broken leg. I’ve found versions of this story in numerous books of folklore: a hare that is “not right” being shot with silver or herbs and transmutating back into a witch. Another version is told in The Hare And The Harbourer, an old Herefordshire story collected by the folklorist Katharine Briggs in 1962 from a Welsh WI member: here, the hare – giant, with glowing eyes – is attacked by the throat by a dog and screams out in pain in the voice of a human female.
Herefordshire is England’s “forgotten county”, according to John Lewis-Stempel, the farmer-naturalist author of the excellent Meadowland and The Running Hare. That big dark intriguing space you see from the M5, travelling north, when Wales suddenly isn’t next to you anymore? That’s Herefordshire. Until 1969, it wasn’t even on the National Grid. This seems personally apt, as my most abiding memory of it is a childhood holiday there where my parents and their friends and I stayed in an isolated riverside cottage without electricity, where water came from an outdoor pump. It was the spring of 1985, but it felt, to a nine year-old used to hot baths and nightly viewing of Blue Peter, like the winter of 1885. As soon as we blew the candles out each night, we heard mice scampering around us on the flagstones. My dad took the guest book, which stretched back to the 1920s and was largely filled with the observations of eloquent fishermen, to bed and read it as a person might read a work of literary fiction. Mayflies abounded above the small adjacent river: trout paradise. My mum chose to clean the toilet, as apparently nobody else had bothered since the end of the Jazz Age, then nearly threw up in the process. In the local pub, I was offered hare for the first time in my life, and declined, with significant umbrage.
In The Running Hare, Lewis-Stempel recounts his decision to farm a Herefordshire field in a traditional manner, rejecting any hint of chemical farming and sowing wildflowers and wheat, encouraging the return of birds, insects and – most magically of all – hares. This takes place in the lower lying part of Herefordshire but the bulk of Lewis-Stempel’s farming life has taken place in the more mountainous region close to the Welsh border, which comprises those dark, distant shapes I stared at so longingly from the M5. This is the same region where Bruce Chatwin’s 1982 novel On The Black Hill is set: a book which has firmly stayed with me as much because of its descriptions of the harsh landscape as its story of eight decades in the life of twin brother farmers. On The Black Hill is the most frequently stocked book in the many bookshops of Hay On Wye. I counted 47 copies of it before losing track, and I only visited around two thirds of the bookshops there. In fact, I imagine going into a bookshop in Hay On Wye and asking if they have a copy of On The Black Hill would be a bit like the time my mate James Penniston pulled up outside Ruddington Fish Bar, near Nottingham, and asked a person coming out of Ruddington Fish Bar, “Can you give me directions to Ruddington Fish Bar, please?” In Haystacks, a secondhand record shop in Hay, the owner, Haydn, told me a little about Chatwin’s friend and fellow travel writer Penelope Betjeman, at whose house in the Black Mountains Chatwin stayed while researching the novel. “She used to ride into town on her horse and tie it to a drain pipe,” Haydn said. “But one day it missed her too much while she was shopping and pulled the drainpipe off the wall.”
In On The Black Hill, Chatwin describes the Wye, the first river I ever swam in, as “a silver ribbon snaking through water meadows” but I think of it as a different colour: glowing, dragon green. It has a lot of similarities to Devon’s Dart and on one of my Herefordshire walks there’s a stretch of it beneath Coppet Hill which corresponds so closely to one of my favourite, ultra-curvy stretches of the Dart – wide water meadows – that only the steep rocks and the very unDevon testosterone shouts of the local canoeists give it away. At the top of Coppet Hill you realise it’s a much more indecisive stretch of river: it doesn’t just start to circle; it loops, tricksterlike. What it reminded me of most clearly is the way a hare runs, characterised by sudden, violent, almost reverse changes of direction.
On my way east of here to the Black Hill by car, I saw the signposts for the excellently named villages of Cockyard, Vowchurch and Turnastone. Local lore says the latter two were named after two sisters who built competing churches – one of whom vowed she would complete hers before her sibling had chance to turn a stone of hers. After that, the Black Mountains loomed up and the road ended, in a way that suggested it could signal the end of everything, not just the road, or England. From the car park I paused midway through lacing up my walking boots, mesmerised by the shadow of the clouds tracing across the mountain on the opposite side of the valley. A giant ghost curtain being drawn, again and again, for all of eternity.
The Black Hill is of course not as steep as the mountains opposite but the climb to its summit still saps the breath. You end up on a spine of ground known as The Cat’s Back, which looks appealingly like the ready-made runway for some flight over the Brecon Beacons on griffinback. Before I turned for the nearest triangulation pillar and the Offa’s Dyke path, I passed several sheep carcasses: not as many sheep carcasses as there were copies of Bruce Chatwin’s second novel in Hay On Wye, but a lot of rotting sheep carcasses. Even more than on one of my regular walks on the higher part of Dartmoor, where I am accustomed to seeing an amount of rotting sheep carcasses that could be described as more than sporadic. The trig pillar is as minimalistic-futuristic-Pagan compelling as all trig pillars. One day after the information apocalypse, in a far-off century, people might study trig points and speculate that they could be the monuments of some ancient religion, and in a way they will be correct. Trig pillars, Wellington’s accidentally brutalist obelisk (the original blueprint was for a statue of the Duke, but funds ran out, and lightning strikes created more damage), the odd piles of stones strewn around here, and on Offa’s Dyke: so much architecture at the top of hills reeks of religion, but only occasionally the conventionally recognised sort. At the highest point of the walk, it was January. Was that… hail? It was. At the bottom, July was still happening, like in most other places. Yellowrattle. Sun twinkling on a brook. Secret treehouses. That’s mountains for you: party at the bottom, business on top. After a mix up on a recently closed footpath which led to what was a fairly unique piece of social awkwardness for a sparsely populated mountainside – a fellow hiker followed me down the path, and we both negotiated a turn together, in a space heavily confined by some ferns that were really starting to kick back and let it hang loose – I climbed back to the car. The ghost cloud curtain closed on the mountainside opposite me, then closed again, then again. I turned on the engine and selected a playlist of mountain and hill songs I’d made for the journey home.
Here’s a little-known tip if you want to give your music an edge: sing about a witch, or add some flute to your songs. All songs that feature flute or lyrics about witches are a little bit better than songs that don’t. If you don’t have a flute to hand and you’re not into witches (why? Is there something wrong with you?), try singing about a mountain or hill instead. The mere idea of mountains and hills seems to elevate a song to a more enlightened and otherworldly artistic place. ‘Our Mother The Mountain’ is Townes Van Zandt’s most haunting, transcendental song and it is possible nobody has ever sounded more possessed with an acoustic guitar in their hands. Every track on the 1970 Trees album ‘On The Shore’ is wonderful but the best is ‘Murdoch’, with its evocation of a high altitude “barren land of beauty” overflown by “black-beaked crows”. Also on the playlist was Traffic’s version of ‘John Barleycorn’ which, though not specifically about a mountain or hill, is perfect for a haunting landscape with a hint of hard life and soggy death. Jim Capaldi of Traffic once lived in a farmhouse on The Black Mountains, until he left and, according to Haydn from Haystacks, the place was turned into a wreck by squatters. On the cover of Capaldi’s brilliant but poorly-titled 1974 solo album ‘Whale Meat Again’ Capaldi posed with a local farming family and, the harder you look at expressions on their faces, the more vividly imaginable the conversation that led to the photo shoot becomes.
Farming family: “Us? Why?”
Jim: “Come on. It will be cool. You can pretend to be me band.”
Farming family: “Okay, if you say so. But how long will it take? There’s a ewe gone lame in the back field.”
My playlist ended with ‘The Hills Of Greenmore’, arguably the most unforgettable of the songs by the superior, mark one version of Steeleye Span: the ultimate hare song, in that it, like its subject, is magic, elusive, mysterious, ambiguous. I probably shouldn’t listen to ‘The Hills Of Greenmore’ any more. Firstly, you could argue that I’m being superfluous in doing so, as it’s been lodged deep inside me since the first time I heard it. Secondly, it is guaranteed to reduce me to rubble every time: the particular combination of cruelty, beautiful imagery, soaring yet elegiac melody, the narrator’s contradictory affection for the hare – or as he calls it, the “sweet puss” – the hare’s final speech as it dies, announcing what freedom Old McMahon and his cronies, and their “pack of strange dogs”, have taken away from it. Is it wrong that I felt more broken after hearing it than I was after finding the dead hare on my lawn, a fortnight later? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s a reflection of me being divorced from my immediate surroundings and living too deeply through song. I think it’s a reflection of the magic of Steeleye Span at this bold, experimental point in their career, some hard-felt centuries-old verse, and the fact that this hare, here in Devon, had clearly died of natural causes, and not been persecuted by heartless, bloodthirsty sportsmen. But where had my hare come from? When I lived in the flatlands of the east, I regularly saw hares. In spring, I peeked over hedges and saw pairs boxing one another. Later in the year, on walks where I’d misplanned and stretched the daylight, I disturbed them in their furrows, watching them scatter and zigzag ahead of me. But in Devon I’d seen only two: one living and one that had been dragged into the garden a couple of years ago, dead, by my cat Shipley – though, as an animal capable of running at forty miles an hour, clearly not caught by him in a healthy state. This was not a harey area. I’d have been far more likely to see one on my walks in Herefordshire or Somerset, where there are bigger spaces between the hills: puss-friendly plains. But hares are not exclusively lowland creatures. One of the folklore nicknames for them is, after all, Ring The Hill. I like this name, but hares have an unusually large amount of inventive folklore nicknames, and I don’t think it’s quite my favourite. At the moment I’m split between Old Fat Bum, Dewflirt, Stag Of The Stubble and The One Who Does Not Go Straight Home. The latter is supposedly a reference to that mazing, indirect run hares are prone to but it’s perhaps deliberately suggestive of something else: a secret after-dark activity. Their extra business.
A couple of days after I found the hare I took a couple of friends up to Dartmoor to show them The Bowerman’s Nose, a provocatively shaped, almost thirty foot high stack of rocks close to the top of Hayne Down, which the 19th Century poet Noel Thomas Carrington called “a Granite God”. The truth is that Bowerman’s shape – a bit Snoopy, a bit cap-wearing 1930s American train driver – is an accident of geology. The more compelling folklore explanation is that he was once an ancient hunter who, while chasing a hare across the moor with his dogs, interrupted the ceremony of a coven and witches, overturning their cauldron in the process. In retaliation, one of the witches later turned herself into a different hare, led him into a mire, then, instead of going straight home, ringed the hill and turned him and his dogs to stone. The dogs can now be seen across the valley in the form of Hound Tor. My mum recently pointed out that the piled rocks of The Bowerman’s Nose resemble giant sheep droppings, which is now an image I cannot unsee. Either accidentally, or not, one of the piles of rocks I had passed on The Black Hill looked like a miniature Bowerman replica.
There are few wild mammals it’s harder to get to know than a hare, and that is perhaps why, despite wanting to for a long time, I have never properly written about them. The 18th Century poet William Cowper kept three as pets, one of which would jump on his lap and fall asleep, but finding a deceased one in our garden is probably as close as most of us are likely to get to that. Eerily, on the morning when I found the one on my lawn I had been lost in thought, wondering whether to follow through on an idea I’d had for a hare-based story. I looked at its muscular form and was reminded how very unrabbitlike hares are, up close: its muscularity, almost reminiscent of a small deer, and the distinctly unrabbity wisdom of its face. It remained there a couple of days, which is a long time for any dead animal to remain in a garden regularly frequented by foxes, owls, jackdaws, crows and gulls. But a fortnight later, on the day of my walk to the Wellington monument, crossing the lane near my house at dawn, I found another, almost identical, dead hare. Again, it appeared almost perfectly intact, a small splash of blood near its rear the only sign of injury. I couldn’t bear to leave it to be squashed into the tarmac by the traffic of later that morning, so I moved it into the long, scruffy vegetation under my hedge. As I did so, the huge black bull in the field across from my house – the newly installed leader of what has become, over the summer months, a vast, diverse army of cattle in my neighbourhood – watched me with apparent suspicion.
The oral history of the British countryside is full of stories of hares suckling from the udders of cows, often viewed to be additional evidence of their ability to shape shift and plot. My parents see hares in the fields directly adjacent to their house in Nottinghamshire fairly often, although the fact that there are cows in the biggest of these fields is surely not a significant factor, in these sightings. The bull that leads these Nearly Northern cows – who, like my bull, roams freely on a public footpath – is called Dave. My dad has a friend at swimming who is also called Dave and delights in telling him about his bovine namesake’s recent antics. Recently he told Dave that Dave’s new habit was to sniff the bottoms of his cows, in response to which they would wee on him.
“I tried that,” replied Dave the human. “Never doing it again. I was swigging mouthwash all day afterwards.”
My parents’ garden is in the gentlest of valleys: flat, but not bleakly, troublingly flat, in the way the fields get once you get a few miles over the nearby border, into Lincolnshire. It’s all easy slopes, nothing abrupt. After a day or two there, I’m always craving something steep to walk up, and as I drive home on the M5, I ogle the hills. There’s a tower on one, as you look across towards Stroud, that I have my eye on right now. I was so close to climbing the final notable hill on the Bristol to Devon stretch of the motorway, Brent Knoll, but I was tired from a long journey in heavy traffic and I wasn’t confident I could park, find the path, and get to the top before nightfall. So last weekend, at a similar time of day, with a freshly purchased OS map in my hand, on the way back from a day out in Frome, I went back. My timing was just right: as I reached the Iron Age hill fort at the summit, the sun began to fall through a crack in the clouds. On my way up: I’d seen a flash of brown in a stubble field below, a little zigzag to its path, perhaps. Someone less short-sighted than me, or whose glasses weren’t languishing on a table back at home, might have identified it solidly as a hare, but I couldn’t, but it might have been. At the Knoll’s flat top, an onion with its stem sliced off, where three grumpy giants were said to live in the time of Arthur, the view was even better than the one I’d got from Crook Peak – which stares back from the opposite side of the motorway, more arrogant – at the end of last year. I could see everything from here: more than I needed. Glastonbury Tor – the ultimate hill in western hill religion – to the east. The motorway, containing that insane amount of humans, streaking to the south, bendier than you thought when you were one of the insane amount of humans. To the left of that, the Blackdowns, with their Satanic ghost steam. To the right, across the water, Exmoor’s intimidating back wall. Curving around further from there: the old abandoned pier at Weston Super-Mare; Flat Holm and Steep Holm islands; the shingle across the Bristol Channel in Barry where my friends had played an impromptu acoustic gig a couple of months ago; then, further around, the more northerly part of the M5, where there were more undiscovered hills to climb. I was glad I had not gone straight home.
My new book 21st Century Yokel is published in a few weeks. You can order a deluxe hardback from Unbound here for October. The trade hardback will be available in all the usual offline and online shops on November 16th. I would prefer if you ordered it from an independent bookshop to support authors and small businesses but I understand that isn’t always convenient or easily possible.
I don’t work for any national media publications any more so all my writing now appears on this site or in my book. The site is free, but if you enjoy the writing on here you can take out a small voluntary monthly subscription.
I don’t work for any national media publications any more so all my writing now appears on this site or in my book. The site is free, but if you enjoy the writing on here you can take out a small voluntary monthly subscription.
Hare collagraph by my mum. Lots of her artwork is available to buy on the Graffeg Books website.