What is it about hills? For no obvious reason, they continue to exert a powerful influence over us, just as they did over our ancestors. A testament to what religious historian Mircea Eliade called ‘an almost universal belief in a celestial divine being’, they’ve drawn people up to hold religious ceremonies, live as hermits or just get some perspective on mundane concerns.
Whether conceived as the monotheist god of the Abrahamic faiths or a multitude of sky gods, high places have always been important to humanity. Think Machu Picchu, Mount Sinai.
In Britain, while the hills are more modest, literally more down-to-earth, we still revere our high places in our own peculiar way. Recently, the National Trust acquired Hambledon Hill in Dorset earlier this year, the seventh hill fort it’s bought in Dorset. Volunteer warden Jerry Broadway told the Today programme of his solitary forays up Hambledon at night: ‘You’re forever aware of the presence of the hill; it’s difficult to describe.’
Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, as writer Adam Thorpe points out, is now revered in a modern secular way as a Site of Scientific Interest. The largest man-made mound in Europe, the hill is thought to have been built at the end of the Neolithic age, taking hundreds of men at least a decade to construct.
But despite plenty of digging into its chalk sides, Silbury’s purpose remains a mystery. It’s been considered an ancient burial ground, a platform for religious ritual or, more lately, an ongoing process of construction acting as a meaning-making focus for generations.
This summer, I visited for the first time what is perhaps Britain’s most revered hill, the Tor at Glastonbury. A conical cone arising unexpectedly out of the Somerset Levels topped by the tower of St Michael, the hill draws the eye from miles around. Like many natural places deemed to have a spiritual significance, the Tor has spawned a host of legends and myths.
It is, variously, home to Gwynn ap Nudd, King of the Welsh fairies (no, not that kind), a hollow burial chamber, the site of a labyrinth symbolising death and rebirth, Aquarius in a natural zodiac, and the left breast of a reclining goddess. Such stories give narrative form to the relationship between people and place. I like to think that their plurality preserves the otherness of the hill – while humans chatter and speculate, the Tor sits quietly on.
A lot of people have been powerfully affected by the Tor. One woman I met became obsessed with the hill after first seeing it, drawing and sculpting it compulsively. Three months later, she moved to Glastonbury, joining the crowd of spiritually-inspired incomers known as the Avalonians.
When I finally made it to the top of the Tor one windy evening, I didn’t experience any great epiphany. It was cold, and there were a lot of people around, laughing and eating Pringles. Perhaps, since I already have a hill of hills in my consciousness, there was no place for another.
My hill of hills, May Hill in Gloucestershire, is also a pleasingly-shaped dome, capped by a caterpillar fringe of trees. You can see it from tens of miles, a surprise on the horizon if you’re approaching from the north or west, and appearing as a kind of arboreal flourish to the wooded slopes of the Forest of Dean. Like the Tor, it looks different from different angles, and is experienced in very different ways according to the weather and season.
It took me over four decades to even begin to sense the importance of hills in my life. Born in the hills of north London, I’ve always felt “too low” when living on a plain, in the Vale of Gloucester and near the Thames in London. Now settled in the uplands of south London, I feel much geographically better. I wouldn’t say I exactly worship The Transmitter which tops the highest point of Crystal Palace, but I am always pleased to see it.
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