Saturday, 27 February 2016

The shape of a hill

For some people, the attraction of a mountain lies in its height.

(Interestingly enough, manufacturers of fountain pens subscribe to this school. So Montblanc nibs are inscribed 4810, Platinum has a 3776 series celebrating the height of Mount Fuji, and a Taiwanese company has 3952 for Yushan.)

But for me, the shape of a mountain is more important. I don't just mean its shape as you look at it, but as you walk it, too. In fact, some mere hills are for me more delightful than any mountain because of the shape of the terrain.

Take the Malvern Hills, for instance. Walk along the Malverns and you're walking along a dragon's back, up and down and along, on a ridge with flat land both sides - one side looking over the Severn Valley all the way to the distant Cotswolds, and the other looking over to Wales and the Brecon Beacons, and the assertive blunt nose of Hay Bluff.

Pen-y-Ghent is one of my favourites, with a snub nose and a long tail. If you're walking the Pennine Way you can climb up the steep face almost like a staircase and then yomp joyfully down the other side. Ingleborough, with its tiered, stepped profile, is almost like a Mayan pyramid or a slumping ziggurat. Seen from another angle, it's a sleeping lion with its head on its paws.

Out of the three Yorkshire peaks, it's Whernside I find disappointing - though it's the highest; it just seems to be a long sprawl of rock.

Even Munro-bagging, not all peaks are equal. (Let's aside discussion about which peaks are actually Munros and which are subsidiary peaks, which quite often appears to be a discussion about aesthetics rather than height.) Schiehallion's big bulging cone of rock gave me more pleasure than many much higher mountains. Loch Tay's horseshoe - Beinn Ghlas, Ben Lawers -  arches away from you as you walk it; not only are the views over the loch particularly fine, but the view seems to keep organising itself so that you always enjoy the vision of that outswept ridge with the peaks strung out along it.

Higher mountains often come in several stages. You're only aware of the part you're on; a glacier, a scree slope, a subsidiary peak. Hills, on the other hand, are often simpler; you can appreciate them as a whole. A tiddler like Glastonbury Tor has a more sharply defined and readily identified character than many full scale mountains.

And so, of all the mountains I can think of, Fuji is the one I really want to climb. Fuji with its simple conical shape, the icon that appears in the prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, the mountain so recognisable that Hokusai sometimes seems to hide it away in a kind of ukiyo-e 'Where's Wally?', seen through a trough of waves or a haze of cherry blossom.

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