The Angry Corrie 37: Jun-Jul 98

TAC 37 Index

Rainy day cartography (No.12)

Alan Blanco

LIFE, SOME SAY, is an endless stream of opportunities, which pass by while we look the other way. Can't say I've ever noticed, but twenty years I've waited, twenty years for an opportunity to find some use for my philosophy course, and I reckon this is it. Admittedly I packed it in after a year, but I blame that on the lecturer with the speech impediment (and on Hobbes' Leviathan) rather than any philosophical inadequacy on my part. He'd injured his face in a climbing accident and was quite unintelligible, but no-one liked to ask him to stop lecturing. His brain was supposedly okay. Anyway, the point is, I do distinctly remember being told that as philosophy students we should seek out and explore rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty. Which is exactly what we have in the case of cols and cuttings, as expounded by David Purchase in TAC35:

"... it does not seem satisfactory to exclude from consideration things such as masts, buildings, and bridges, while allowing cuttings ... to influence the level of the col. It would be more consistent, in my view, to exclude all artificial constructions for this purpose. Now of course many hills have tumuli, ancient hill forts, and so on at the top, and in such cases it may be impossible to locate, or determine the exact height of, the 'natural' summit. However, I think it would be more logical to say that 'artificial' means 'AD' (or ... after 1000 or 1500 AD), rather than try to distinguish between some nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments and others."

A tip for the top?

Now although I made the disastrous decision to skip the logic option and study political philosophy instead, I quibble with the assertion that this is logical. It's a valid point of view, and a reasonable attempt to address the issue of artificial alterations to hills, but I don't find it a compelling logical argument. I prefer this one:

"If it looks like a hill, and it feels like a hill, then it's a hill."

This may sound flippant, but it's a serious proposition. Masts and buildings, walls and bridges, do not look like hills. Therefore they don't count. But what of "tumuli, ancient hill forts, and so on at the top"? I propose that if a feature looks like an integral part of a hill, or could be mistaken for one, then it should be considered as such. If in doubt, let it count. So trig points and summit cairns are out, but grassy mounds are in. Hensbarrow Beacon spoil tip is out, but if in fifty years' time the tip is disused, landscaped, and grassed over, then it would become the new summit. Same goes for pit bings, if they're high enough. Silbury Hill looks the part, but it's only 40m high. The K2 Plant Hire Ltd Great Northern Pyramid of the People should be big enough, but the bricks will be a bit of a giveaway. Give it a thousand years though, a lot of grass and a few trees, and maybe it will look like a hill. Stac Lee and Stac an Armin are unnatural looking rock towers, probably erected for some ancient art competition, but it's hard to be sure, so they get the benefit of the doubt.

In effect I'm suggesting that the difference between natural and artificial is not all that important - it's "hillness" we're interested in, whatever that is. Are we not natural? A product of the Earth, just like the wind and the rain and lightning and earthquakes and glaciers and the bird shit on top of St Kilda sea stacks? It's only ten thousand years since the last ice age ended. Hills come and go, rise and fall, but our snapshot lifespan gives them the illusion of permanence. When volcanoes gain or lose height, we accept the change. So if an artificial hill looks like a hill then it's a bloody hill, that's my philosophy (part 1).

Cutting Arguments and High Diggers

But what about cols and cuttings? Paul Prescott in TAC36 pointed out that the lowest point between Ben Macdui and Ben Nevis is on the surface of Loch Ericht, with the natural col submerged. "What is the TACit Tables policy on this?" he asks. I dunno, I'll have to see what italic insertions Ed comes up with. (I dunno either - Ed.) But, as far as I'm concerned, the same argument applies as to hills. In this case the natural col has gone, flooded out. It now looks like a loch, it's big and wet and deep, so it's a loch. (The mean water level is 359m, so the absolute drop from Macdui is 950m.) And yes, this means "the status of various hills ... would be potentially threatened by rogue dam builders", or even non-rogue ones.

Now for the cutting argument. A cutting doesn't have to look like a hill, it has to look like a col. Yet cols come in all shapes and sizes; they're not all like the Lairig Ghru. Some cols don't look like cols at all (and some hills - Crowborough for example - don't look much like hills). Yet just as a hill with a mast on top is still a hill, so a cutting with a road or railway can still be a col. Most cuttings follow a natural low point as far as possible, so it can be hard to tell where a col becomes a cutting. Overgrown cuttings can look very natural, but I'm less concerned with natural appearance than with the inescapable reality that some cuttings create new cols. The analogy is not with buildings or masts, for the equivalent at a col would be a mineshaft or pit. A cutting is the inverse of the top of a hill being sliced off. Suppose the Harris superquarry got built and demolished most of Roineabhal. Its height would change, like it or not. It would be farcical to insist that you had to leap a few hundred feet in the air in order to claim you'd reached the point where the summit had been. It's the same with cuttings. The land has been moved, it's not there any more. Hence a cutting can be a col, however unnatural it may look. Cuttings have "colness" in the same way that masts don't have "hillness". Cuttings count, that's my philosophy (part 2).

Status Quotes

So that's the conceptual argument dealt with, now for the practical argument. What about Abberley Hill and Milk Hill? - and Cairnie Hill too, which is also dependent on a cutting for its status. Well, dutiful as ever, at the end of April I was able to inspect the crucial cols personally, as well as meeting my tormentor David Purchase for a boggy Beacon Batch bag. Hate to say it, but the Abberley Hill col is well gone. Only last year it had a brick viaduct over a deep cutting col, but now it's just a road on a big grassy mound, with trees growing on its slopes. So I reluctantly have to invoke the Ericht precedent and accept that the road level is now the col. Like Barnsley and Partick Thistle, Abberley won a lot of friends, but it's still getting relegated at the end of the season, which in this case means the end of 1998.

Milk Hill is different. The critical cutting is very much still there, and the ground looks fairly natural in places either side of the bridge, though the original col has clearly been excavated. But the key issue is whether it's as low as 145 metres (Milk Hill summit is 295m). The road level appears to be 154m, with the continuous 150-metre contours running along the cutting below the bridge (it's very rare for contours to be shown on unnatural features). The cutting floor is 85 three-inch bricks lower than the road, which works out at 6.5 metres. Add another metre for inter-brick mortar, and we have a col height of 146-147 metres and a drop from Milk Hill of 148-149 metres, so again relegation seems to be on the cards come the day of reckoning. Also, it's in Region 39, not 42.

So, I think David Purchase is right for practical reasons but not for conceptual ones. Abberley Hill really was a Marilyn, but recent land reform means it no longer qualifies. It's still a good hill. Milk Hill was perhaps wrongly promoted, with the OS cutting contours causing confusion. As its summit is in a field of crops, maybe that's no bad thing. As for Cairnie Hill, we'll have to wait and see what the inspection team discovers. And just to keep Hall of Fame members on their toes, a Southampton correspondent suggests that Nine Barrow Down, aka Godlinstone Hill, is equipped with a cutting that may increase its drop from 146 to 150 metres. As yet it's just a rumour, but further input from the depths of Dorset would be welcome. The 199m summit is at SZ008811, with the relevant col at SY983800.

TAC 37 Index