Getting outside, fresh air, going for a walk — long or short — is an important part of my life. I need it every day. During the UK’s COVID-related lockdowns it’s taken on a real importance, and gives at least a little freedom, although inevitably for a lot of that time it’s meant walking close to home. In a sense that’s fine, though, I’m lucky to have some good routes nearby, around the town, to parks, into the countryside across farmland, out into the Cotswold hills which rise up just to the east.
At least some of the time I like to go out by myself especially in the mornings. It’s a good way to clear my head, think things through, find solutions to work or writing that I’m finding hard. It’s also just being quiet and unhurried which is a good salve at any time but especially in times as strange as they are now. This morning, in the early quiet of a Sunday, I ended up at a slightly odd little place. Hidden in the suburbs of town, barely visible behind the houses from any of the surrounding streets is a small hill, a limestone outlier from the nearby Cotswolds. Calling it a hill feels like an exaggeration in many ways but it’s higher than the surrounding land and it’s one of the few points in town from which you could describe the view as a vista. To the east the steep Cotswold escarpment rises up, framing the town, this morning with layers of mist sitting on the fields and the trees at the top silhouetted by the low sun sitting only a little above their branches. Out to the west, on a good day are the Malverns, a group of old, mountain-like hills, a remnant of hard volcanic rocks eroded to the surface. No sign of them this morning though.
On top of my little hill, right at its summit, is another oddity. There’s a small standing stone, about a metre high, erected in 2012 to commemorate the diamond jubilee of the Queen’s coronation. It’s a strange thing, and in a strange place, this little dome of high ground frequented by a few locals, often walking their dogs around the edge of the field. I always head straight for the stone, though, wanting to get to the top of the hill and to this little monument.
We’ve a long history in this country of putting things on the tops of hill, ridges, cliffs and so on. Thousands of years ago in the Neolithic and Bronze Age it was burial mounds (barrows) — stand in massive stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire and look towards the hills in the east where the ancient Ridgeway passes through and it’s lined with curving humps, all round barrows along the ridge — then there are the banks and ditches of Iron Age hill forts, some seemingly never really occupied by anyone as a place to live, early-medieval execution places across southern England on ridges visible from miles around. Medieval churches are sometimes on hilltops, as at Glastonbury Tor, an iconic high, steeply-sided hill with the remains of a church tower standing at the highest point. There are plenty of eighteenth and nineteenth-century follies or memorials around Britain too. When I lived in Durham in the late 1990s, the nineteenth-century Penshaw Monument above Sunderland always drew my eye and its visibility across the whole region made it a well-known landmark, a Greek Temple put up in memory of a local earl.
As the little stone on top of the little hill near me shows we still do it now and we’re, of course, still attracted to high places. I love walking on high hills with big views, where all you can hear is the wind, and they have a special feel to them. It’s no wonder we want to put our mark on them. And as curious as it may be, the standing stone on a hill in a Gloucestershire suburb makes it all the more special, it turns a dog-walking field into a place. I’m glad I went a little out of my way this morning to visit it. It was good to look up the hills, watch the world go by and stand by a modern monument which keeps an age-old tradition alive.