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The View from the Hill

Four Seasons in a Walker’s Britain

Collected notes from avid walker Christopher Somerville’s treks through the British countryside.

In Christopher Somerville’s workroom is a case of shelves that holds four hundred and fifty notebooks. Their pages are creased and stained with mud, blood, flattened insects, beer glass rings, smears of plant juice, and gallons of sweat. Everything Somerville has written about walking the British countryside has had its origin in these little black and red books.
 
During the lockdowns and enforced isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, Somerville began to revisit this treasury of notes, spanning forty years of exploring on foot. The View from the Hill pulls together the best of his written collections, following the cycle of the seasons from a freezing January on the Severn Estuary to the sight of sunrise on Christmas morning from inside a prehistoric burial mound. In between are hundreds of walks to discover toads in a Cumbrian spring, trout in a Hampshire chalk stream, a lordly red stag at the autumn rut on the Isle of Mull, and three thousand geese at full gabble in the wintry Norfolk sky. Somerville’s writing enables readers to enjoy these magnificent walks without stirring from the comfort of home.
 

320 pages | 140 halftones | 6 x 9.25

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Reviews

"Somerville’s meticulous prose could never be described as rambling, and his latest offering, culled from the 450 notebooks he’d kept during a lifetime of walking, might better be described as a miscellany of magical memories. Faced with the enforced hibernation of lockdown, Somerville turned to the dog-eared, battered notebooks he’d made during 40 years of wandering the British countryside, to revive and re-live the best and most memorable moments.The result, in nearly 150 pithy, engaging and erudite essays, is a literary tour de force, an enchanting voyage of discovery and wonder through some of the most beautiful and fascinating landscapes of Britain. And all this in the jovial company of one of Britain’s most popular countryside writers."

Outdoor Focus

"An absolute delight."

Dorset Magazine

"An absolute delight."

Great British Life

"The View From The Hill is an anthology of tales from the outdoors written over a period of many years. Culled from groaning shelves of notebooks in his study, and compiled during lockdown when all normal life ground to a halt, it's a joyous wander right across the British Isles, reveling in the rich landscape of our isles, and marveling at the wildlife that lives in it. . . . I enjoyed every line of this book. . ."

Hiking Historian

“Somerville is a walker’s writer. The countryside has never been more inviting and this is the book to make you reach for your rambling shoes. It’s a profusion of delights!”

Nicholas Crane, author of Why Geography Matters: A Brief Guide to the World

"From the enforced hibernation of the lockdown year, Somerville turns his vision to forty years of wandering. With precision, clarity, depth and curiosity, these recollections lead us down the pathways of a lifetime."

Nick Hunt, author of Outlandish: Walking Europe's Unlikely Landscapes

Table of Contents

Newly opened eyes 1

New Year into Spring 5
1 The putcher-maker 7
2 Nuttall bagging 9
3 P arson Hawker’s Morwenstow 12
4 A is for Anger 15
5 Covidiots? 17
6 Walking in snow 19
7 Snowholing 22
8 Natural remedy 25
9 Dry stone wall 27
10 B is for Binoculars 29
11 S alt marsh 31
12 S hips’ graveyard 33
13 Animal tracking 36
14 Blue prince of the mountains 39
15 C is for Curmudgeon Man 42
16 Forest floor 44
17 Digby in glory 46
18 New Forest in mist 48
19 The randy natterjack 50
20 Whatever happened to Lover’s Lane? 53
21 D is for Drovers 55
22 Keep it simple, stupid 57
23 Death of the map 59
24 Gellius Philippus: who he? 62
25 Neatsfoot oil 65
26 Penwith granite 67
27 E is for Elephant 70
28 Summons soup with the Laird of Gight 72
29 Turncoats of the Peak 75
30 St Swithun’s Way 78
31 F is for Flora and Fauna 81
32 Bempton Cliffs 83
33 Salmon on the Spey 85
34 G is for Green Man 88
35 Up the down and down the beach 90
36 Slutch 93
37 H is for Heroes 96
38 Google Translate 98
39 Greenham Common resurgent 100
40 Covid Spring: two walks 104
41 I is for Islands 107
42 Freemining in the Forest of Dean 109
43 Dawn chorus 111
44 L adder of life 114
45 J is for Jollity 115
46 Dunes of delight 117
47 Apple confetti 120

Summer 123
48 The Garden of Sleep 125
49 Covid Summer: off-grid in Dragondown Wood 129
50 With Rupert Brooke through Grantchester
Meadows 131
51 Gannets of the Bass Rock 134
52 Covid Summer: the crayfish of Ironmaster’s Vale 137
53 The figurehead of our wild lands 139
54 The Ringing Stone of Tiree 142
55 K is for Kyrgyzstan 145
56 A proper Lakeland how-d’ye-do 147
57 Nightjars and moths of Arne Heath 149
58 Splatchers 152
59 Worldwide seed of a single English field 154
60 L is for Landlady 157
61 Brocton Camp 159
62 I got 99 problems and a tent ain’t one 162
63 Orford Ness: a funny old place 164
64 South Wales Valleys: iron and coal 167
65 A message to mucky mankind 170
66 Howlin’ Dog Jackson 174
67 Covid Summer: Russet Mere and Monk’s Kitchen 176
68 Secret riches 178
69 M is for Music 181
70 Fanfare for the soldier 183
71 Three Peaks of Yorkshire: a long, sharp shock 185
72 Bye, Arnold! 189
73 The badgers of Little Stoke Woods 192
74 Shingle 195
75 N is for Notebook 197
76 R ed squirrels of the Sefton Coast 199
77 Hampshire chalk stream 203
78 Soaked on Scafell Pike 206
79 L ammas meadows 208
80 O is for Ooooohhhh 212
81 Living on an island 214
82 Tidal landscape of Worm’s Head 217
83 Dream island 220
84 Welcome to GB! 223
85 H ard hats and humorous shags 226
86 Betjeman eyes 229
87 P is for Poetry 232
88 Through Sloch na Marra to Rathlin Island 233
89 The Walls of Derry 236
90 Larks over Hubberholme 239
91 S alt marsh and mudflat: Cobnor peninsula 241
92 Bat-watching in Petworth Park 244
93 A stroll on the Goodwin Sands 247
94 Q is for Quagmire 250
95 Englyn on Snowdon 252

Autumn 255
96 Jays in the ilex 257
97 Big Meadow 258
98 Gassy Webcap, Bedstraw Smut and the dreaded
Cramp Balls 261
99 The Great Ash Massacre 263
100 Covid Autumn: India in the Cotswolds 266
101 R is for Rights 268
102 Climbing irons 270
103 H eather moors 272
104 The lord of Inivae 275
105 PIT APAT278
106 S is for Stick 280
107 Bummelty-kites and yoe-brimmels 282
108 An end-of-the-earth kind of place 285
109 W ild magic of the Sperrins 288
110 S olitary mooch with a beautiful killer 290
111 Ancient oak 293
112 S taving off the sea 294
View from the Hill.indd 10 29/07/2021 17:39
113 Dunwich shore and Dingle Marshes 297
114 T is for Thermos 300
115 S tranger on the shore 302
116 Autumn on the Severn 305
117 R oasted crabs 307
118 Bolving, soiling and Jacobson’s organ: courtship
of the red stag 309

Winter 313
119 Innominate Tarn 315
120 Strid and strong beer 317
121 U is for Umbrella 320
122 Galoshes 322
123 M y bedside Essex 324
124 Moody, muddy Dengie 326
125 F lint and clay 329
126 V is for Vixen 332
127 Song of the mermaids 334
128 Starling roar 337
129 L and of the dragon 340
130 A pot of bile 343
131 W hat’s under the jacket 345
132 W is for Willy Knott 348
133 Covid Winter: Skirrid in the Sky 349
134 Fight for the footpaths 351
135 The rough embrace of winter 354
136 S now bridge 357
137 X is for Xmas 359
138 With George Borrow to Castell Dinas Bran 361
139 Angling and quanting: the Norfolk Broads
in winter 363
140 3,000 geese at full gabble 366
141 The unspeakable Stiperstones 369
142 Y is for Yer Tiz 372
143 Too much damn trouble 374
144 Covid Winter: sunrise at the long barrow 376
145 Boxing Day: go climb a hill 378
146 Z is for Zymurgy 381
147 What’s the point? 382

Notes 391

View

Excerpt

Newly opened eyes

There’s nothing like a lockdown for sharpening you up. it’s strange to think, as I sit writing this at Christmas 2020, that a year ago I’d never heard the term ‘lockdown’, let alone ‘coronavirus’. I’ve learned a lot since then. And the lesson that stands out above all is a simple one: taste life to the full while it’s there.
 
In the early phase of the global coronavirus pandemic, people sickened and died all over the country. The airwaves were stiff with stern-faced scientists, with politicians exhorting and fumbling. Newspapers and social media rang with hysteria, pessimism and misinformation. Shops and pubs closed, neighbours got twitchy about social distancing (a clunky new concept). Gates and stiles, doorknobs and Amazon packaging were suspected of being deadly viral fomites (another new and sinister word). handwashing became a Lady Macbeth-like national neurosis.
 
Daily walks in spring, just about the only thing we were allowed to do outside the house, took on a magical and transcendent quality. No vans roared up the steep lane to the hills or censed the verges with grey diesel fumes. No aeroplane trails seamed the blue sky. No helicopters clattered above the woods. Not a sound drifted from the main road skirting the village. instead: birdsong, loud and sweet, everywhere at once. I was astonished to realise the extent to which extraneous mechanical noise had been swamping it.
 
When we ventured as far as the top of the hill from where we look down across the city, we had another shock. Where was the familiar smear of dirty lemon-coloured photochemical pollutants close above the houses? Gone with the absent cars and lorries. Down in the bowl where the city lies, we found we could breathe easy for the first time since we came to live there thirty years ago.
 
Back in the woods and fields around our village, every leaf and plant looked freshly cut and newly polished. The contrast between this timeless manifestation of nature resurgent and the ominous news – minute by minute, if you wanted it and could stand it, in one’s ear and brain like a spiritual tinnitus – was breathtaking. All the senses felt sharpened as the days and weeks followed one another, unbelievably clear and warm, the finest run of beautiful spring weather anyone could remember. We went out walking every day for several hours at a stretch, more walking than we’d ever continuously done, looking for Solomon’s seal and herb Paris in corners of wood-land never before explored, finding an old green-skinned pond forgotten in the crease of a field boundary, hiding at sunset beside another to watch blackbirds and blackcaps ecstatically bathing the day’s dust away.
 
The dipper came back to the roadside river, where I hadn’t seen him for decades. Chiffchaffs shouted triumphantly from the sunny woods. early purple orchids flooded the margins of coppices, large sweet violets sprouted in the treads of wooden steps. These things were not unique to this oddest of years, of course. The chiffchaff and the orchids had always returned with the spring. so why did they seem to grace this dislocated season so particularly? I thought about it and realised that I had got out of the habit, out of the way, of taking proper time to look and listen. Too many deadlines, too many projects. I had been yomping through my walks, barging through the landscape like a runner on a mission, notebook and pen and GPS in hand, scribbling like a maniac, missing so much and so much. What a hell of a realisation for someone who for most of his life had been writing about the slow rhythms of the countryside and the creatures that move and live and have their being there.
 
In my workroom is a case of shelves that holds about 450 notebooks. Almost every walk I’ve ever written up is annotated there in hasty spidery handwriting that only I can decipher. The pages are creased and stained with mud, blood, flattened insect corpses, beer glass rings, smears of plant juice and gallons of sweat. So many notes, so much researching and burrowing for facts – church dates, notable residents, quotes from rural writers, the names of fields, fourteen species of bats, forgotten medieval skirmishes, turn left at the oak tree, look for the yellow arrow by the barn. Why hadn’t I trusted more to luck and the day, let myself just go with the flow, as I was doing now during this Covid spring? What on earth had I been scribbling so copiously about?
 
In the enforced idleness of the pandemic restrictions, unable to travel further than Shanks’s pony could carry me, I took a good long look back. let’s see... Notebook 350, how about that? Ah yes, springtime in the north of Scotland, standing by the old icehouse at the mouth of the river Spey in full spate and watching an Atlantic salmon leaping through the waves. magical moment! All right, Notebook 205, the Goodwin sands. That had been a freakish afternoon in a long hot summer, an evening hovercraft ride out to the treacherous Kentish sandbank in the company of cricketers, potholers, seal fanciers and Jesus freaks – adventurers who had a precarious hour to perform whatever eccentric rituals they pleased before the rising tide turned the sands to soft sinking jelly once more. Another one, um, Notebook 193, that’ll do. November in the north, by the looks of it, all pages sodden and blurred by rain. Teesdale and High Force, Blanchland up in the Durham Dales. . . ah, here we are. Something that catches absolutely the essence of winter walking in the Yorkshire Dales. Eleven miles in a day-long downpour along the river Wharfe, drenched to the skin, mist curling in the bare tops of alders and silver birches, and the rain-swollen river hurling itself in angry strength through the rocky narrows of the strid, rumbling and shaking the ground. Respite further up the dale in the New Inn at Appletreewick, drying off my soaking rain gear, steaming by the fire and eyeing their exotic beer menu. Belgian cherry beer, Trappist ale, smoked beer; Samichlaus, the strongest beer in the world. Good God, how did I make it out of there alive?
 
Those hundreds of notebooks, their scribbles and stains, the dried leaf fragments that fall out of their pages, the quick sketches of umbellifers (‘goatsbeard?’) and birds (‘??? yellow breast, a few dark stripes, bouncy flight, pt-cheeew chip-chip!???’) were the seedbed in which this book grew. An account of walking the landscape through the seasons of forty years in every corner of these islands, the wildlife, the people, the shapes and colours of weather and hills, and the changing nature of the British countryside over the working lifetime of one walker. I hope you enjoy this armchair walking as much as I did during those curious months when every day seemed freighted with portentous significance, and all we could do about it was walk and look around with newly opened eyes.

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