COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

Yeavering Bell, Northumberland, and its hill fort (S)
Yeavering Bell, Northumberland, and its hill fort (S)
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David explores the heritage of our hills.

Good summer weather has meant more people getting out into the countryside this year – and many of them will have been heading for the hills and mountains.

Hills have always had an attraction. From the earliest times they were seen as the abode of the gods (we have only to think of Mount Olympus) and places that touched the heavens.

That’s why many cultures around the world – Egypt, Central America, China . . . – built artificial mountains, which we today think of as pyramids, in which to bury their great leaders when they died.

In the scriptures, too, high places are important. Moses was given a glimpse of the Promised Land from Mount Pisgah (Pisgah itself means ‘peak’ or ‘mountain top’).

Zion is often ‘Mount Zion’ (as were many later non-conformist chapels around England and Wales). And in both St Matthew’s and St Luke’s Gospels the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain to show him ‘all the kingdoms of the world’ as one of his temptations.

Then, of course, there are the defensive elements of hilltops. Throughout Britain, and across the world, hilltop forts have played their part in the battles and skirmishes between neighbours and in the defence of the country from invaders.

Not too far from Ripon we had hill forts on Ingleborough and on the top of Sutton Bank – and there are probably many more on other hilltops that are not so well known.

Travelling further afield, there are remarkable hill fort survivals at places like Yeavering Bell in Northumberland, The Wrekin in Shropshire and Maiden Castle in Dorset.

All of them give wide views of the surrounding countryside, to offer warning of any approach by the enemy, and they are more easily defended that a lowland location.

And, of course, that elevation means that the views they offer is a great attraction for today’s walkers. There is little to beat the exhilaration of having managed to climb one of these hills and being able to savour a glorious 360-degree panorama.

In the not-too-distant past, though, hills were considered anything but attractive. Hilly country was somewhere to be got though as quickly as possible, and was viewed with terror.

As Celia Feinnes wrote at the end of the 17th century as she travelled through the Peak District, ‘The Country here about is so full of moore or quagmires and such precipices that one that is a stranger Cannot travell without a guide’, while her contemporary Daniel Defoe, venturing into North Wales, described ‘mountains, pil’d upon mountains, and hills upon hills; whereas sometimes we see these mountains rising up at once, from the lowest valleys, to the highest summits which makes the height look horrid and frightful’.

Only from the 18th century does an appreciation of this sort of wild landscape come to be appreciated; in 1712 Joseph Addison was still saying that ‘when Nature is in her Desolation, and presents us with nothing but bleak and barren Prospects’ it’s good to have the contrast of a carefully-made garden.

Yet within a generation all this had changed, helped by writers like Horace Walpole, gardeners like William Kent and architects like Ripon-educated Sir William Chambers.

Chambers’ ‘Dissertation on Oriental Gardening’ praised the Chinese for their taste in using nature as part of their gardens: ‘Their scenes of terror are composed of gloomy woods, deep valleys inaccessible to the sun, impending barren rocks, dark caverns and impetuous cataracts . . . their surprising, or supernatural scenes, are of the romantic kind, and abound in the marvellous.’

This idea was taken further by Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price as they formulated their idea of the Sublime - that quality of greatness or grandeur that inspires awe and wonder, particularly in relation to the natural landscape.

This is the sort of landscape that inspired William Aislabie at Hackfall and William Danby at Swinton Castle to mould the rugged natural landscape as the basis for their new gardens.

This feeling of awe at the terrors of nature also had a mystical element. A E Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’ of A Shropshire Lad capture something of it, but there are more definite indications that hilltops have been seen as important spiritual places for many centuries.

On September 29, 495, St Michael, it is said, appeared to Cornish fishermen. He was seen standing on a rocky ledge on what soon became known as St Michael’s Mount’s. Since that time hilltop shrines throughout Europe – including many in Britain - have been dedicated to the Archangel.

In Cornwall the apparition on the Mount became intertwined with legends of Jack the Giant Killer and of King Arthur.

More historically reliable are records of the foundation of the Priory on its summit in 1135 by the Abbot of its cross-channel companion, Mont St Michel.

The Cornish have always been proud that St Aubert, founder of the French abbey, only received his vision of Michael in 708 AD.

Much closer to home was St Michael de Monte, a small oratory built about 1200 by the monks of Fountains 
Abbey on what we now know as How Hill, near Fountains Abbey.

The chapel always had a light burning in the tower to guide pilgrims through the dense forest that once stretched for miles around.

The present church-like building is really a folly put up by John Aislabie of Studley Royal. In the eighteenth century the tower was sometimes used for wild gambling parties. It is now in the more sedate care of the National Trust.

So next time you climb a hill to see the view, remember that you are in a long line of worshippers, mystics, warriors, gardeners and travellers, all of whom had their own vision of those impressive heights.