This blog is not just about mountains but small hills too, and today I’m going to talk about a very small hill indeed.
I was listening to the Easy 70s playlist on Spotify when I picked Edita up from the airport a couple of weeks ago.
As we drove back to the Cotswolds that Friday, Peter Gabriel’s 1977 hit Solsbury Hill popped up on the car stereo, which prompted Edita to remark:
“Peter Gabriel is British, isn’t he. Is Solsbury Hill a real place? If it is then we should climb it.”
“Good idea. Actually, I think it’s in the Cotswolds, somewhere near Bath,” I replied.
I was right. In fact, Little Solsbury Hill, to give it its full name, rises directly above Bath, and the city is referred to in the second line of the song. Peter Gabriel left out the adjective “Little” not just because “Solsbury Hill” has more of a ring to it, but because the word is unnecessary anyway – there is no other Solsbury Hill nearby, so the locals don’t use it.
Peter Gabriel wrote Solsbury Hill shortly after leaving the legendary 70s progressive rock group Genesis, and it’s about his decision to quit the band. More generally it is a song about letting go of what you have and taking a brave decision that will make a big change in your life.
The song’s narrator, whose life is in a rut, climbs Solsbury Hill, sees an eagle and imagines it urging him to pack his things and return to a life where he is in more control. He takes the eagle’s advice, quits and walks right out of the machinery of his current life, his heart going boom boom boom.
This last metaphor signals apprehension about what the future might bring, but it could also be literal. Little Solsbury Hill is a mere 191m in height, making it (I’m pretty sure) the smallest hill I’ve written about on the Footsteps on the Mountain blog. It is, however, quite steep: a good workout that will certainly raise the heart rate.
Three thousand years ago, the hill must have been a little bigger. It has a flat top in the shape of a triangle with roughly 300m sides. Its top was flattened to build an iron age hill fort that was occupied between 300BC and 100BC. All that remains of the fort, aside from its stunted hill, is a steep bank and a shallow ditch that once formed the ramparts.
Anyway, I had made a promise to Edita. Back home that evening, I dug out one of my Cicerone guidebooks, Walking in the Cotswolds by Damian Hall, a man better known for being a record-breaking ultramarathon runner who will happily run for days across peat bogs, barely pausing to sleep. He’s the sort of person who would run up Solsbury Hill and keep going until he reached the end of the Pennine Way in Kirk Yetholm.
Happily, the walks in Damian’s guidebooks are not so hardcore. Walk 26 in the book is a gentle 11½-miler that starts beneath Solsbury Hill, crosses over its summit and continues on to the marginally higher Cotswold Edge, a 50-mile escarpment that marks the western boundary of the Cotswolds and looks across the Severn Estuary to the distant hills of South Wales.
And so, just two days after Edita suggested it, we found ourselves parking beside the A46 and striding up Peter Gabriel’s legendary hill. It was a beautiful, crisp winter’s day. We walked purposefully. As we ascended a steep field we were overtaken by a couple of runners who had slowed down to a brisk walk (which I believe is known in runners’ parlance as “cheating”). They sped past us.
Just a few minutes after starting out, we were standing on the rim of the hill. We did a quick circuit of the old fort’s ramparts and stopped at the concrete trig pillar overlooking Bath. It was indeed an inspiring view. Solsbury Hill is unusual in that it is surrounded by higher hills, yet stands alone, divided from them by wide valleys. From the trig point, the city of Bath spread across the valley beneath us. Our hearts were going boom boom boom, and we had pleasant walk ahead of us that took in a nice pub, a racecourse, an escarpment edge, a civil war battlefield and pleasant Cotswold trails. A good day out, thanks to Peter, Damian and Edita’s good idea on the way back from the airport.
While Damian Hall may enjoy gentle walks in the Cotswolds, it appears that he’s not such a fan of Peter Gabriel. In Walking in the Cotswolds, he describes this classic song as a “ditty”. He also casts doubt on the veracity of the line eagle flew out of the night, describing it as “ornithological confusion”. It’s true that back in 1977, our sole eagle species was the golden eagle, which can only be seen flying over Scotland. Down here in the Cotswolds, you’d be no more likely to see one of those than to look up and see an ostrich.
But Peter Gabriel was (he still is) a genius, and it’s just possible that he was being prophetic. In the last few years, white-tailed eagles have been introduced to the Isle of Wight and can often be seen flying over southern England. Perhaps one day soon, someone else will see an eagle fly over Solsbury Hill, and it will persuade them to let go of what they have and take off into a better life.
If you live near the Cotswolds, why not climb the hill yourself? Perhaps you could be that person.