A sense of place: going downhill

Musing about life from the perspective of an old home on a hillside.

going-downhill-malvern-hills-totally4women-300x225In order to think about living on a hill, I wanted to sketch the affective landscape that lay under the physical one.

To do so I looked at two poems that have kept me company for twenty years; both begin with a hill. In the first volume of La Divina Comedia, the character of Dante arrives at the Dilettosa Monte, but deathly beasts stop him before he can reach the top. To avoid them, on Virgil’s advice, he has to seek another way. In Piers Plowman, the dreamer falls asleep on a flank of the Malvern Hills to a vision of the Field of Folk below him, and begins a searing moral and spiritual quest for enlightenment across a world entropic with corruption.

The hill in poetry, being high up, marks a place of spiritual joy and vantage, a perspective on a visionary landscape from which the moral vectors of the world seem both clear and interrelated. In both these great poems, however, this first, formed landscape dissolves, as Dante journeys into hell, and Langland into Mead’s seductions. So, the matter of the poem is the poet’s journey from settled and restful high point, down to the world below, with concurrent pain, mystery and yearning. The hill is what was lost and where, in a sense, they would be again.

The natural hill, the place of rest and delight, contrasts to the twentieth century urban high point. The skyscraper, politically, cinematically and in literature, can suggest an overreaching manmade power; scaled by King Kong, girl in hand, or Al Quaeda target. It is neither a cliff, like the suicide drop imagined by blinded Gloucester, nor the visionary cliff in the Catcher in the Rye. Skyscrapers and cliffs bring death. The movement of a hill is connected with the environment around it and with less phallic notions of power.

In that sense the hill is linked, more profoundly, with twenty first century emphases of thought. The hill is gentle; even if precipitous you can freewheel, body surf, slide, bike, roll, ski, paraglide down. The hill’s mammocked side is ultimately feminine, protective and life-affirming. Hills are part of a connective process. Even the Malvern Hills, rising steep and mountain like, are an outcrop of Wales in the Severn Valley.

Or so I told myself when I went back to raise my children in the Malvern Hills where, as a child, I had walked my dog, and also where one of the brightest poets of my imagination lay down to sleep.

We found an eyrie – a Regency spa house, all curves, and delicate carving, slender verandas, and lead roofs that looked like whale skin. Its courtyard was a hole where two storeys (and stories?) had been destroyed and, quite simply, rendered over. A place of healing or of sickness, it had been both assembly rooms and hospital. I loved its grace, its wounds and its solidity. Like the good house in the bible, it was built on rock, right in the armpit of an old granite quarry, with a Victorian woodland rising behind it and a tumbledown, ivy-riddled wall splitting onto the hills themselves.

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Ten minutes later and we were down town in The Works, the Theatre or the Splash. Twenty and we were up at the highest point in Worcestershire, looking over the soft blue green boscage and hop lines of Herefordshire, like a da Vinci backdrop. We were rus in urbe, country in the town. Our home seemed, if I ever thought about it, to fix us all at the top forever, like hovering hawks. It sometimes felt narcotically high; the light up there was so early and bright.

Over the eight years I lived on a hill, I learned a few things about the natural shape of happiness.

Hills are about seeing

The whole house was predicated on view. Long and thin, blind on the rock side, the front was window after window, sash, bay, oriel, glass door. Sometimes when we stood in the box windows built out into fog, we thought we were piloting a ship through a white, obscure sea. Best was to wake with the clouds below us, like some mystical Far Eastern sea, Bredon hill rising like an island.

Our own actions slowed before the spectacle of landscape, light and weather.
Piercing brightness at five in the morning was counterbalanced by a shadow over the garden at three that slowly stole over the town and finally the whole valley. What a paradox that what lifted us to a position of light and brightness should cast shadow on everyone below.

Hills mean complex weather

The hills drew clouds to them. You could see dark columns of rain moving over Worcester towards us. Their slow progress made me feel oddly powerless rather than omniscient, as you might have expected; we were still, rain was coming. It was cold too. Our high hillside house was above a kind of snow line, often white when the town was clear. Highland plants bloomed with us – azaleas, bracken and rhododendrons – but nourishing plants – sweet corn, beans, peppers – simply faded or evaporated. The inside of our house of gaze and glass moved from cool to a bone rotting chill.

On the blind hillside of the house, the black, seeping, leaf flooded alley, leached in wet. For all the salting, chemical injection and tanking, every closed cupboard lurked with spores and smelt of bad bread. Damp pulled the boulders of the wall back to their primal base, as the lime mortar shifted and the house itself crumbled sporadically.

Hills accept the wild

The sheer hill rock meant a thousand dark shelters for wrens and blue tits and voles. Every functional room was at the back of the house and you could sit on the loo upstairs and watch at eye level a mother wren jerking her tail to boss her young into flight; or a rabbit on a ledge eating ground elder. Slugs did not like it so high – my hostas fanned wide, though in the morning the jute rug in the study was written with silver snail trails (angel cunt our neighbour called it). Rabbits and rats gnawed everything left out, from crocs to children’s bottle tops, as they came down for food and shelter from higher up.

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We got wild men too. Thieves ran up to the hills from the town to escape. More than once our house was flooded with police helicopter search light; my son found a gun in a bush; I found a real Langland figure, a tramp in flames (or rather drugged up and very drunk), slumped against the house side by the woods. He had wandered down off the hills through the broken wall, and said he thought we were a pub. The secret services, barracked in Hereford, trained nearby, men in black with dense neat rucksacks, jogging up steep gradients, no gravity or chat.

Hills protect

There were stories, of course, of secret tunnels and of the hillside opening like a missile seed pod. Radar was discovered and tested in Malvern. The World War Two Cabinet made preparations to move from Westminster to Malvern College if the Blitz had continued.

When the floods came, the hills protected us. Upton was evacuated, a frightening ghost town afterwards; men died at the river and a friend of mine walked three miles in waist-deep water, with his laptop on his head. Supplies could not get through – the supply chain snapped so easily – and the low town was stripped of everything but cherry bakewell tarts and sterilized Yazoo. Our house, amongst steaming rifts of sediment, stood dry. The burst river far below simply looked wider and more silver. We were told about, but could not hear, the stranded cattle and sheep calling as they starved.

Hills broadcast

In fact, on our hill, we made the noise. High up, in our own natural amphitheatre, we broadcast to Malvern. One rev of a chainsaw, and the Tree Officer in the Council Offices would arrive to check protected sycamore. Three barks of the dog, or a hen crow and neighbours would knock politely. I expected a less reticent child protection officer any time the children rowed outside or I lost patience; our domestic life was amplified. Similarly upland civic life (the brass band, the samba band, the boys brigade band) bounced back at us.

I wonder about the effects on our children beginning their lives on a natural stage. My daughter loved Easter, getting up before dawn for a huddled hilltop Christian service to coincide with the rising sun. My son’s taste for hordes and digging for treasure was powered by the hill’s hidden bars, coins, coronets and urns of ashes. The hill lent the children a kind of enchanted royalty, as pilgrims, conservationists, archaeologists, hikers, scholars and Christians came to our gate and stared. They grew vigilant and dextrous as they learned to avoid weak palings around sheer rock drops, parapets, retaining walls and endless slippery steps. Tough too, as they slept and bathed and ran around a cold, mouldy house. I think it was a gift.

I didn’t want to come down. Visionary, weather filled, cold, wild, protected, amplified, I would have stayed, caught up in the drama of light, of secret service, and rodent teeth. However some very basic, earthly challenges – betrayal and rage – emerged even in our earthly paradise. I had no choice but to listen to Dante, Virgil and flesh and blood friends, and find another way.

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We go back to visit. I have an iPhone now; since moving, my high, frozen, hilltop I has developed a dot on top and a technical means of communication. As a reminder of what I used to wake to, this Spring I took a photo of the living view of the weather-lit plain. I thought perhaps it would float under these icons of Weather and Clock and Game, as a kind of luminous pocket reminder. In fact the small screen gave no sense of the view’s scope. The Priory looked unfocused and tree-bound, the outward stretch of fields dull. I wondered that my eight, extraordinary hilltop years should translate into something so unexceptional, so banal.

Then, on the jubilee weekend, we walked from our old house to the Beacon at dusk, to watch the fire being lit as part of a chain, and I had a sense of being painfully close to my own, old life. I’d often walked the hills in half light. One Christmas, my husband and I walked hills in the snow and moonlight. This time, though, there was nothing empty or lonely about our walk; it was thronging with hundreds of people going up, with phones and torches. I walked with new and old friends who I’d lived with when I was young, before I separated off or even dreamed of the hill’s existence. Our boys rolled down the hilltop together, grappling. The flow of lights, up and down in the dusk, was beautiful. I turned back and, with my iPhone, took a snap of the hill behind our house with the pink clouds spilling from it all over Herefordshire.

Now when I turn on my phone, I gasp. The accidental image of the hill itself is one of supernatural beauty and drama. The hill almost black with two clear sheep paths winding round it and the light bleeding out behind.

I’m not sure why this matters. I sense that when I lived on the hill, high up, with my tense, exalted view I made some kind of aesthetic error. Something to do with what matters, being not the specular, fixed image that the hill gives, but the undulating geography, the physical relief, of the hill itself, as part of the landscape.

Something to do with the connection of that time to the present, through movement, in a landscape of rise and fall. A growing confidence that leaving the hill may not mean death and that return in the dark, though it may be mistaken for blindness, has its own view. In fact, to go back to Dante, with the sight of those torches and lanterns and phone lights flowing down the hillside from the great fire, and in that accidental photo, I felt a faint murmur of what it might mean to imagine a different, aerial kind of high up, outside territory and in communion with the glimmers of brightness that Langland catches, and the stars amongst which Dante rises; a sense of quiet wonder.