Twenty Reasons Why British Hillwalking is a Bit Weird

Americans hike and New Zealanders tramp, but we know that British hillwalking is the finest thing you can do on two legs. But to the uninitiated, our ways must seem quirky. A curious blend of archaic tradition and dogged self punishment, Britain's hill scene is far removed from the carefree image of the global outdoor leisure industry. It's not about anything as superficial as mere enjoyment; our version of walking is a serious business. Not for us the social media fantasy of smiling vitality, colourful trousers and pin-sharp vistas. Our views have to be earned the hard way, while proper clothing for the British outdoors comes camouflaged to blend in with a peat bog. Mud, rain and suffering - that's what makes a real walker. It's not the joy of the moment we treasure, but the relief when it's all over... Here are a few things that make us special/strange (delete as appropriate):

We're only in it for the views, 109 kb
We're only in it for the views
© Dan Bailey

1. Real ale

All good hill days start in the pub the night before. By the third pint of Rambler's Armpit you've warmed up enough to sound enthusiastic, and a map is spread on the table. Come ale number four, a hoppy Old Bootfitter if anyone's interested by now, tomorrow's plan has grown a couple of extra peaks. Pint five, and Garry's recalling that hilarious time Brenda forgot her survival bag. If you get to the bottom of beer number six without someone attempting a rendition of the club song then the landlord might let you stay for a cheeky seventh. Avoid Wainwright's Breeches if you want to live. Between Garry's rumbling snores and the unbearable urge to pee, you're awake all night. Under the weather come morning, you stumble out of the minibus and vomit in a bush. But as the day wears on the nausea subsides and the fresh air clears your head. By the time you've reached the last of your ambitious bonus peaks it's long after dark, but as that cosy inn draws closer you can feel the group's spirits rising. You've earned a pint.

Sleeping off that new years hangover, 138 kb
Sleeping off that new years hangover
© ben_lea, Jan 2009

2. Not being able to pronounce your hill name adds to the mystique

Moel Ysgyfarnogod, Sgurr nan Ceathreamhnan, Mullach Coire Mhic Fhearchair, Cnicht... Said right, these names roll off the tongue like poetry, lyrical testament our rich cultural legacy. Sadly, all most of us can manage is an anglophone garble. Whether it's Try-fan and Crib Gock, or the seemingly unresolvable debate between Scar-fell and Scuffle, our capacity to mangle and mispronounce is matched only by a complete disinterest in the meaning of these names. The veil of wilful ignorance only adds to the feeling that the hills are somehow mysterious, ineffable, spiritual even. Braeriach sounds noble, but drab upland wouldn't be half as romantic.

Twmpa, 213 kb
© AllanMac, Apr 2016

3. Gaiters are considered a legitimate fashion accessory

Whether it's a summer ramble through the meadows or a dry day on a stony path, can you be considered properly kitted out for Britain's hostile wilds unless your lower legs are encased in sweaty nylon? Apparently not.

Hillwalking - it's all about sartorial elegance, 133 kb
Hillwalking - it's all about sartorial elegance
© Dan Bailey

4. We see a barren hill and call it wilderness

Empty acres of moorland, austere windswept mountainscapes, wide open horizons and stirring desolation; Britain's uplands might look wild, and they're certainly beautiful - but they are anything but natural. Who stole all the trees? By international standards our ecological deserts really aren't anything to write home about. Where once bears and lynx roamed rich natural woodlands alive with life, we now have thousands upon thousands of acres of sterile heather moor devoted to rearing grouse and deer for the guns of a wealthy few. It's a poor substitute. Still, there are no messy woods to get in the way of the views.

Falcon Clints and the bleak Pennine moors, 177 kb
Falcon Clints and the bleak Pennine moors
© allenp, Sep 2017

5. Wet feet

We have some of the highest rainfall in Europe, lucky us, and sadly the best places to walk - the hills on our western seaboard - tend to get the lion's share. The result is terrain that can feel like it's more water than solid ground. Between them Britain and Ireland boast over 20% of the world's blanket bog - though you may not feel that's much of a boast when you find most of it in your socks. If your footwear doesn't ooze like a waterlogged sponge by the end of the day then you've obviously not been trying hard enough (see gaiters).

on boggy ground, 235 kb
on boggy ground
© johnhenderson, Mar 2009

6. No signposts

Alpine nations adorn every col with yellow signposts large enough to be seen from space, while each little trail junction is marked by lurid splashes of paint. Where's their sense of adventure? We know how to do things properly - and that means allowing our walkers the opportunity to get properly lost for themselves.

7. No refuges

Not for us the warm, welcoming alpine hut at the end of a long wet day. No beer on tap, no friendly guardian serving hot meals with a smile. That's far too comfy and convenient to be genuine hillwalking. No true British hill night is complete without character-building privation. Freeze your whatsits off in a tent, or slum it with the mice in a squalid bothy, and you're unquestionably one of us; but if it's mollycoddling you want then book a flight pal...

Are you sitting comfortably?, 138 kb
Are you sitting comfortably?
© deepstar, Apr 2009

8. DofE kids with the kitchen sink on their backs

They only come out when it rains, trudging the hills in bedraggled gaggles and never quite sure where they're supposed to be. The kit list insisted on the bulkiest tent in the shop; five week's supply of gas just in case; three tins of beans and a spare pair of trainers. To this they've added an illicit hairdryer and a selection of alcopops. Listing precariously, their ill-packed rucksack is decked in a bunting of swinging map cases and dangling sleeping bags. Guided by the sound of tin mugs clinking like cowbells, their leaders will never lose them for long. Going fast and light might be the best way for an adult to enjoy the experience, but we prefer to punish our youngsters with a heavy and slow apprenticeship. As an initiation ceremony designed to weed out the less committed, it works a treat. Most of them will never want to see a hill again.

9. The full English/Scottish

You can keep your yoghurt and home made granola. We know better. Filling your face with a kilo of lard and grease is the only way to set yourself up for a day of strenuous puffing and panting. You'll probably need the extra energy to offset the additional weight in your gut. Britain has some of the highest obesity rates in Europe. Would you like extra fried bread with that?

10. Pretending to revere Wainwright

Wainwright on the Far Southeastern Minor Fells volume II; Wainwright's Favourite Lakeland Tea Rooms... The man has been dead for nearly 30 years and yet we continue to bang on about him on the TV. Do people still actually read his books? Did anyone ever? What's with all the fiddly line drawings? What's wrong with a camera?

Pleasant July stroll in the  Black Mountains, 122 kb
Pleasant July stroll in the Black Mountains
© Rob Exile Ward, Jul 2015

11. Going out in all weathers

Mizzle, drizzle, ming, smirr... we have more words for miserable conditions than the apocryphal Inuit for snow. There's so much weather on your average hill day that we only feel it's worth commenting on the rare glimpse of sunshine. To stretch credulity for a minute, let's imagine a self-respecting Italian walker somehow being induced to try the Yorkshire Dales in November. Show them a typical weekend forecast and they'd raise a sceptical eyebrow and flatly insist on staying indoors. But we don't have that luxury. It's either take what the weather dishes out, or give up walking altogether.

12. The summit bore

When the French meet one another on some sunkissed Alp they converse on politics and philosophy; Americans are all about the awesomeness of their new ultralight fanny packs. But we do hilltop conversation our own way. Stagger out of the mist to claim your British peak and there's always one in-situ, sitting on the cairn wearing baggy shorts and a knowing smile - the summit bore. A bearded gentleman of senior age, he hails you with a jaunty greeting. "Which way did you come up?" He'll innocently enquire. By the unwritten rules of the game, a polite response on your part is an invitation to a half-hour ear-bending. "I took the Ffuglennol Path via the Bwlch Dychmygol" he chirps. "I think I was last up that way in '78, or it might have been '87. Of course they didn't have the flagstones in those days, a nice bit of path work that. The view's not half as fine since they built the Ffycin iawn Yn Hyll windfarm, but if you look over there, that way, approximately 42 degrees, you can just make out the Blackpool Tower. Or it might be a tree. They say you can see the Isle of Man from here in the appropriate atmospheric conditions but I've researched the angles and I'm convinced it's a misidentification of the Mountains of Mourne. Lovely weather today. Well, it was. You probably shouldn't hang about if you're going as far as Cwm Corsiog via Mynydd Gwlyb. I hope you've left a route card with someone back at home, I think you're going to be out late at this rate. In the old days, of course, we didn't dawdle."

A hair-raising encounter in the highlands, 189 kb
A hair-raising encounter in the highlands
© Dan Bailey

13. No savage wildlife

When you're out at night and getting spooked by every little rustle in the bushes, it's worth remembering that nothing here actually wants to eat you. Other nations might be a bit slack in the extinction stakes, but we finished off our wildlife centuries ago. The most dangerous animal you're likely to encounter on your country walk is an irate sheep or a curious cow. But watch out! An average of four to five people are killed by cattle each year, and there have been over 70 fatal attacks since 2000. A quarter of these deaths were ordinary walking members of the public. Eat your heart out Alaska.

14. Midges

For sheer bloody-minded persistence, Arctic mozzies and Kiwi sand flies have got nothing on the Highland midge. The more maddening your biting insect, the tougher and more badass you look. We're outwardly very proud of our midges, but secretly wish that the worst we had to worry about was bears.

Midges on Dartmoor!, 54 kb
Midges on Dartmoor!
© Tris.w, Sep 2011

15. We're convinced our maps are the best in the world

It is clearly beyond the wit of Johnny Foreigner to devise maps of a quality and detail to match the good old OS. Much like our sense of irony and that famously level-headed decision making in a crisis, our cartography is the envy of the world. What's that you say? The Swiss ain't half bad? The Norwegians know a thing or two? Highly detailed French maps have been available for free online for years? Google has surveyed the planet to within an inch of its life? Now you're just trying to talk us down.

16. Bothies

Always full of Germans and drunk people with banjos, or so the cliche goes. But still we love our wretched hovels with an unlikely passion.

17. The dress sense

The British hillwalker's uniform is puritan black and sludge green, and anything remotely colourful is considered a flashy continental affectation. We probably do it to blend in, both with the countryside and the crowd. As a result, pictures snapped in the slate-grey light of your average Welsh day are even duller and more miserable than they might have been. Who needs nice photos anyway? This isn't a catalogue shoot, it's serious walking.

18. Hill bagging

Ticking Munros and Corbetts in old fashioned feet. Getting enthused by Humps and Tumps, Marilyns and Donalds, Welsh hills with a Y in the name and the trig points of Lincolnshire... The list of British hill lists is so long that no other nation could hope to compete. We are the undisputed bagging champions of the world. Should that make us proud, or a bit worried? Are we walkers, or train spotters? Why not just collect stamps?

19. Cable cars take the fun(icular) out of it

No self respecting hill-goer would ever ride to the top of a Welsh mountain by train, or seek to get a leg up on the day's ascent via a Scottish ski lift. If you're not out of breath then it's cheating.

The Saddle via Forcan Ridge and Sgurr na Sgine, 210 kb
The Saddle via Forcan Ridge and Sgurr na Sgine
© Alex Frood, Aug 2014

20. Still debating the merits of walking poles decades after everyone else adopted them

They take strain off the joints, aid balance when carrying a heavy pack, and give a noticeable boost to forward propulsion. You don't have to use them every day, but the benefits of poles are hard to deny. Still, some of us remain stubbornly unconvinced. Poles are for nordic walkers and the Swiss, they huff, or just another way for gear companies to prize money from our pockets. If you must have a prop, what's wrong with a shepherd's crook, or a decent shooting stick, they mutter? We are a parochial bunch. But if you thought it was bad now, I have just one word for you: Brexit. When it comes to British people obstinately holding themselves back while the rest of the world power walks off into the distance, you ain't seen nothing yet...

Forums 1 comments

This has been read 10,481 times
Return to Latest Articles or list other Features articles

Related posts

Staff Picks

Oct 2017

thumbFor most, a round of the 282 Munros would be a lifetime achievement. Not so prolific bagger Hazel Strachan, who recently...

What's Hot Right Now

5 Nov 2018

thumbKev Reynolds claims to be the man with the world's best job. The author of over 50 guidebooks talks walking with Fiona Russell

Top Spot: New Destination

May 2014

thumbIn the hillwalking world biggest may not always be best, but size does still have an irresistible attraction. We asked a few well...