I live in a county that’s famously one of the flattest in England (not the flattest: that must be Cambridgeshire). I grew up in Hertfordshire, not known for its ruggedness. When I was about 16 we had a family holiday in the Lake District. I still remember my amazed joy at seeing waterfalls running down sheer cliffs. I was hooked.
I do a lot of hill-walking on holiday, including long-distance trails: every day you move on and every day you get up on the tops.
Coleridge said of Wordsworth that even if you read his poetry with no knowledge of where he lived or was raised, you could imagine bleak, open hill country from it. I don’t suppose my poetry is more of the hills than the valleys in nature, but images of hill country occur all the time. My poem “Watershed” describes the experience of struggling up a high pass on to the hilltops, crossing a watershed and discovering a valley on the other side. It’s partly a metaphor for other kinds of discovery, of course, but the specific description would ring bells for anyone who’d crossed a high watershed, as I have. When I don’t write about a type of scenery, but need a setting for the poem, I find it’s often moorland and mountainsides with small, fast-flowing rivers.
There is less distraction, less detail, in such scenery. It bears the marks of history clearly – a ruined watchtower, an ancient stone cross marking a track, signs of a cart-track leading to a farm that no longer exists. These things are built over or hidden faster in the lowlands. So up in the hills it’s easy to have a sense of history and of past inhabitants and visitors. I often write about that.
It’s also easier to see a long way and to perceive how the land is organised – hills, streams joining a river, the valley, the point at which a road or track can cross the river. I think my long poem “Six Strands” contains a number of examples of this kind of thinking.
The hills are harsh. They can kill by fall, by snow, by exposure. Often they’ve been disputed borderlands racked by raids. Life exists by impertinence.
Up in the hills, you’re more aware of the sky.