Rating 5 stars
Ring the Hill is a walking book, a history book, a nature book, a folklore book and a book about contemporary Britain viewed through a lens that seems to have almost disappeared from most other media. Tom Cox celebrates the little observed quirks of human nature that thread through the story of the British Isles, and in particular the South West corner of England. The story of Britain is a sprawling one, influenced by the landscape as much as by the doings of its inhabitants. Cox weaves together the folklore of our physical landscape with the ways in which we humans across history have tried to best that landscape.
Humans are so insignificant in the scheme of things and we try so hard not to be. Cox has a wry view of the world that we all could benefit from adopting in this time of echo chambers and polarised viewpoints. Reading his words took me back to my childhood, when my parents would take us all over Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Yorkshire on day trips, and into Mid Wales for our annual holiday. We would visit the out of the way places that encouraged exploration rather than handed you a tourist experience on a plate. A flooded quarry on a Welsh mountainside known poetically as The Blue Lake. A field of felled trees at the end of the Snake Pass above Sheffield named by us Dinosaur Land for the shapes the trunks made. A walk around Bill-O-Jack’s on rugged Saddleworth Moor where the history of death is all pervading. The deep, dank caves at the foot of Beeston Castle, now no longer accessible to humans and consequently home to pipistrelle, Natterer’s and lesser horseshoe bats.
In Ring the Hill, and 21st Century Yokel before it, Cox goes on similar mini adventures, setting out for a place with an unusual name and making unexpected discoveries. It’s the sort of book that makes me want to visit places that I’ve never been (Somerset, Dorset) but that also reveals things I didn’t know about the places that I have been to (Derbyshire, Devon).
One of the things that I like most about Tom Cox’s writing is the way he can take my breath away one minute with a description of the landscape and in the next minute have me giggling at an improbable flight of fancy.
For instance, right at the start of Ring the Hill, Cox describes the view from Glastonbury Tor as something that “pushed you back on your heels, opening the world’s mouth and allowing you to see humblingly down its throat”, with the Somerset Levels stretching away “with their cross-hatching rhines: ribbons of water used to drain the marshy sea”. He then goes on to spot what he thinks is his rented house on fire and, realising that he can’t get back to it quickly, instead indulges in a whimsical yarn about Michael Eavis not being able to help out because he’s busy dropping into his local pub to sing My Way. On the one hand, you find yourself thinking ‘What are you on about, Tom?’, while on the other hand it makes perfect sense that Mr Eavis is much busier these days and needs some karaoke down time.
Another thing that I enjoy about his writing is his grasp of the beauty that exists within the mundane. When he describes a tour guide’s ability “to pinpoint the deeply fascinating in the ostensibly banal”, he’s describing a fair number of the encounters he records in the book.
Cox has a knack for finding just the right person to talk to about the history of a place. His respect for their knowledge is evident. In a world where everyone and everything is expected to have some kind of brand, the people who share their knowledge with Cox are the people who wouldn’t have a brand if someone ran up to them with a red hot branding iron and attempted to mark them for everyone else’s convenience. These are the people who everyone else, everyone conforming to some spurious notion of individuality that’s actually homogeneity, labels odd or weird. Cox’s knack for finding them is down to his openness to experiences, whether that’s giving his own physicality new context through swimming in open water or chatting with a stranger during a pause on a walk. I’d imagine that, as a writer, being open to the unanticipated is a useful tool. For all his openness, though, Cox comes across as something of a loner, another useful tool in collating experience into the richness of observation that exists in his books.
Cox is a modern nomad. Not for him the convention of getting onto the housing ladder and fixing himself to a Forever Home. His descriptions of his multiple house moves, from short term let to house sitting opportunities, made me think of him as a sort of Bedouin, moving his possessions and livestock, in the form of the cats who allow him to take care of their needs, as and when necessity dictates. He’s also a nomad in the sense of making a plan and then dropping it when something else catches his attention or when a wrong turn momentarily disorientates him. His openness to experience leads to unanticipated pleasures, such as seeing a colony of glow worms in a hedge or being surrounded by a cloud of holly blue butterflies in a stumbled upon clearing.
Cox presents a world that is my preferred version of Britain. It’s a world that embraces the magical, absorbing it into the everyday. In it, we’re not red faced Little Englanders, apoplectic about the insignificant, but we’re people who are curious about the past and how it has shaped us collectively as a nation, able to laugh at ourselves and accept the myriad of different outlooks that exist between us, a perfect mix of sceptical and fascinated. It seems to me that we have become excessively earnest and always on the verge of rage in recent years. Cox’s book suggests that we still can be that perfect mix of scepticism and fascination, if we get out into the world and experience it directly, rather than through social media.
Oddly, though, I wouldn’t have encountered Cox’s writing were it not for social media. Scrolling aimlessly through Twitter isn’t always a bad thing, then.
Cox loops the threads of his narrative around different nails. In the first chapter, the nails are the hills he climbs around the Somerset Levels. From their vantage points, he surveys the surrounding land. He also traces their historical significance, marking events that happened on them and documenting the structures people have built on them.
Hills are present across the book, but the second chapter has swimming and the sea as its nails. Here, Cox meditates on the need to periodically lose yourself entirely in the hugeness of nature, to experience the power of something bigger and stronger than you through its gentle tolerance of your presence.
Tacking out the shape of the narrative in chapter three is sense of place and belonging, as derived from the locality that birthed you and as evidenced in your accent. For a nomad, knowing where you are from and where you belong is difficult. Throughout the book, Cox reveals himself to be a citizen of the now, living in the moment, wherever that might be geographically. During his immersive experiment to live in a bleak place while writing a collection of not-ghost stories, Cox reaches the conclusion that the air of a place and the moment it surrounds can change a person. Where we are from is a collection of those changes.
I found the fourth chapter, in which the narrative threads are looped around the Tors of Dartmoor, the most complex to read emotionally. I worked, and lived I suppose, in Plymouth for 16 months and 23 days in my first job as a qualified archivist. It remains the most miserable period of my life, when I lost almost all sense of who I was, so far away from belonging did I feel. I struggled to break through the suspicion Plymothians show towards those they label Foreigners, trying to make friends with people my own age who were reluctant to welcome a Northerner into their established circles. Partly as a requirement of my job but mostly in an attempt to break free from the gloom of my slug-ridden flat on a dank corner of Bedford Park, I learned to drive and bought my first car. Celia the Citröen AX took me out onto Dartmoor, sometimes with people I was trying to become friends with, usually on my own. When Cox writes about driving the narrow lanes of Dartmoor, willing to reverse at a moment’s notice or off-road slightly into a ditch or hedge to accommodate a fellow driver hurtling in the opposite direction, I know his experience. What I don’t know is his joy in exploring the mysterious moor. Even typing this brief paragraph about my own unwanted solitary excursions around and across the moor 24 years later awakens in me the knot of despair I felt then at being alone and almost 300 miles from the nearest people who cared about me. My job meant that I needed to know the history of the county and drive out to local libraries and community halls to offer a remote archive service to those who couldn’t easily make the journey into Plymouth. I should have enjoyed the place better, but my loneliness stained it in a way I can’t shake off. My experience, so different from Cox’s, is now a part of where I’m from, I guess.
The title of the book is an old name for the hare, and hares appear, often briefly and subtly, in the narrative. They feature more strongly, largely by means of their elusiveness, in the fifth chapter. Hares are significant in folklore around the world, but particularly in British folklore. They are connected to shape shifting, seen as supernatural messengers, and were used by Boudicca to plot the route of her victories in battle against the Romans. I’ve only seen one hare, in the area of France known as entre Cher et Loire. We were visiting friends and taking their rescue dog Jim, a noble looking French gun dog the colour of a red squirrel whose hunting instinct was mildly inept, on a stroll through their local vineyard. Suddenly, Jim set off on a mission, occasionally hopping up above the tops of the vines like Zebedee. We were nonplussed until a pair of long, black tipped ears appeared among the vines, followed by the most beautiful hare zigzagging across the line of vines we were walking down, a couple of rows down from Jim. It was magnificent, a muscular marvel built for both stealth and speed. Jim didn’t stand a chance. Cox lists a number of folk names for hares, and the one that seems most accurate to me, based on my sole encounter, is Stag of the Stubble.
The final chapter is an ode to Dartington and a house that seemed to imbue Cox’s life with magic. It’s also an account of the last days of two of his cats. As the ownee of a cat who is now 19 years old, I appreciated reading about Cox’s oldest cat, The Bear, and his lengthy slumbers “2,000 leagues below consciousness”. My first encounter with Cox was via the 21st Century Yokel columns in the Guardian which led me to seek him out on Twitter, under the same name as his columns and then the title of his first crowdfunded book. Here I also found the My Sad Cat Twitter account, in which The Bear suffered the slings and arrows of being a wise old soul surrounded by oiks like Cox and two of his other cats, Shipley and Ralph. Reading about The Bear’s passing in Ring the Hill didn’t upset me, because it felt natural. Shipley’s passing made me cry, though, I think because the choice Cox had to make is the one I will eventually, and probably soon in the greater scheme of things*, have to make for my fluffpot, who has hyperthyroidism and early stage kidney disease, both currently under control but on the cusp of not being. It felt silly to cry, but then again not silly at all. Some pets make more of an emotional impact than others, and it felt as though Shipley was just such a pet for Cox. The Bear’s and Shipley’s evenings of life are surrounded by a bucolic happiness for Cox found in the Dartington community and the nature of the area. It’s a beautiful conclusion to a wonderful book.