The Relative Hills of Britain


Alan Dawson

Cicerone Press
Milnthorpe, Cumbria

© Alan Dawson 1992

ISBN 1-85284-068-4

Chapter 1: Mountains, Munros and Marilyns

There's not much doubt that Britain is not a particularly mountainous country. Although the Hackenthorpe Book of Lies maintains that the highest point in the world is only eight feet, most sources of information agree that Mount Everest is over 29000 feet high, with Ben Nevis only 4400 feet. By global standards Britain's mountains are quite insignificant. Many other countries not only have higher mountains, they also have roads, railways, hotels, restaurants, towns and even capital cities that are far higher than any mountain in Britain.

Height isn't everything though. British hills and mountains have many other qualities, which is one reason why there is a long tradition of writing about them and making lists of the highest ones. These lists have been based on the assumption that hills must be a certain height above sea level - usually at least 2000 feet.

This book takes a different approach. It concentrates on hills that are relatively high, compared to the surrounding area, rather than compared to sea level. The main feature of the book is a comprehensive list of every hill in Britain that is at least 500 feet (roughly 150 metres) higher than the land around it. In practice this means at least 500 feet above sea level, as none of these hills start below sea level. Five hundred feet is a completely arbitrary figure of course, just as arbitrary as 2000 or 3000 feet, but I will make some attempt to justify it. To do this requires a brief summary of the existing literature.

In the beginning there was Sir Hugh Munro. He saw that there were lots of mountains in Scotland over 3000 feet high, he saw that they were good, and he set about compiling a list of them. No-one seems to know why he chose 3000 feet, but no-one questions his choice. Most hill walkers are well aware of the result - a book of Munro's Tables that has evolved through several editions. This has led to the increasingly popular sport of Munro-bagging, which involves attempting to climb all the 277 separate mountains over 3000 feet that are listed in Munro's Tables, and are commonly known as 'Munros'. This can be a highly addictive pursuit.

Many of us who enjoy hill walking for its own sake find that the enjoyment of walking is enhanced by having a list to help guide where we go and a long-term target to achieve. There are however a number of reasons why Munro's tables are not satisfactory as a list of British hills:

Next on the scene was J. Rooke Corbett (the fourth person to complete the ascent of all the Munros), who took some of these points into account by compiling a list of all the Scottish mountains between 2500 and 3000 feet high that have a drop of at least 500 feet on all sides. This list is a lot less fun than Munro's, as it leaves no scope for arguments about which summits should be promoted to separate mountain status or relegated to being only 'tops'. Corbett's list was passed on to the editors of Munro's Tables after his death, and there is no record of why he chose 500 feet as the amount required to separate one hill from another. Like Munro, Corbett was concerned only with Scotland.

There are very few summits over 3000 feet high in England and Wales (none at all in Southern Scotland), and relatively few over 2500 feet, and so the subsequent list compilers had to include hills as low as 2000 feet in order to produce worthwhile lists. There have been various efforts published in recent years:

Why then do we need yet another list of British hills? Perhaps the honest answer is that no-one actually needs a new list, but a lot of walkers would probably like one. It is sometimes claimed that an attraction to lists is a sign of arrested personal development. If this is the case then I will try to cover up my own psychological deficiencies by suggesting a list(!) of reasons why publishing this new list of hills is eminently desirable:

These are all good reasons for publishing a new list, yet there is another consideration that is possibly more important than any of them. It arises from the uncomfortable feeling that a lot of the minor summits which have appeared in previous lists are really a bit on the boring side. The more distinct hills usually provide enjoyable walks and good viewpoints, and it is very satisfying to plan and follow a long continuous route taking in as many tops as possible. But after walking an extra two or three miles just to stand on top of a flattish rounded hump that happens to be a few metres higher than the surrounding bog, then even the most obsessive of summit baggers begin to ask questions.

I think it was in the Lake District that I first became aware of these nagging doubts, as a natural traverse over Skiddaw from Ullock Pike to Lonscale Fell was interrupted by a lengthy trudge to take in Sale How, which is a prime example of the sort of featureless summit that occurs in lists of the 2000-foot hills of England and Wales. In fact, most of the summits in the Lake District are well worth a visit - it is the Pennines and parts of Wales that contain most of the really tedious tops. I have spent a full day in both the Berwyn Hills and the Northern Pennines driving round to different spots and doing three or four different 'walks' to bag relatively accessible but thoroughly unmemorable summits, usually via thigh-deep heather or shin-deep sludge.

Even the Munros, and particularly some of the Munro Tops, are not exempt from this problem. Carn Sgulain, for example, in the Monadh Liath Hills, is a Munro almost entirely lacking in distinctive features. It rises only 60 metres from the col separating it from Carn Dearg, and although it is a few miles away, the distance and re-ascent fail to give it any character or appearance of being a separate mountain. Some other summits have even less to offer. Irvine Butterfield, in his book The High Mountains of Britain and Ireland, describes the Munro Top called Tom Dubh, which is near Braeriach in the Cairngorms, as being:

one for the real enthusiast, the most meaningless 3000 foot 'top' in all Britain, for here lies the ultimate in desolate wilderness, a landscape so featureless that it almost defies man's ability to use map and compass. Devoid of landmarks, in mist only the oozy drains of the plateau's few streams offer guides of any consequence.

The ascent of Tom Dubh involves a considerable detour from any reasonable route, and its remote austerity has made it into a prized collector's piece.

It seems that only Corbett's list offers a guarantee of satisfaction. All of the Corbetts are summits of some significance, and of course this is because they all have a relative height of at least 500 feet. In his book Climbing the Corbetts, Hamish Brown agrees that 'by definition Corbetts are much more solitary and individualistic' than the Munros, and claims that 'there are fewer "dull" Corbetts than there are "dull" Munros'.

In the Andes or Himalaya most summits with a drop of only 500 feet would hardly warrant a second glance. In Britain 500 feet is significant, and seems a good measure of what makes a separate hill or mountain - it feels right. Well, almost right. Now that Ordnance Survey maps have metric contours, it is impossible to work in feet. Five hundred feet is equal to 152.4 metres, so to make matters easier the metric measure of 150 metres (492 feet actually) has been used to compile the new list.

Having settled on the type of hills to be included in the new list, it is of course vitally necessary to find a name for them. A flippant item in a recent Scottish Mountaineering Club Journal suggested using the term 'Mungo' for all the millions of hills over 300 feet high. I have decided to use the more distinguished and appropriate term 'Marilyn', and I therefore officially define a Marilyn as any hill that has a drop of at least 150 metres on all sides, regardless of distance, absolute height or topographical merit. At the last count there were 1542 of them, and they are all listed in Chapters 3 and 4.

In essence Marilyns are similar to Corbetts, but whereas Corbetts are only between 2500 and 3000 feet high and are only found in Scotland, Marilyns may be from 500 to 4500 feet high and are found throughout Scotland, England and Wales. It must be admitted that not every single one of the Marilyns is terrifically interesting, but a high proportion of them are significant summits or local landmarks, whereas the list excludes many of the more tedious summits that have been included in other lists.

A good example of the measure of 150 metres is found between the highest two peaks in England. The drop in height from the top of Scafell Pike to the col which separates it from Scafell is just about 150 metres, though it looks much greater from some vantage points. The re-ascent to the summit of Scafell is slightly less, but Scafell has been included in the list of Marilyns because most walkers traversing the two summits will descend well over 150 metres in order to avoid the direct route over Broad Stand. This route is more of a rock climb than a walk and is usually treated as such. Scafell is the only summit to receive this preferential treatment - elsewhere the 150-metre rule has been rigorously applied. Examples of prominent small hills which just exceed a relative height of 150 metres are Whitbarrow and Hutton Roof Crags, which may not be well-known names but are familiar sights as they rise up on either side of the M6 motorway near Milnthorpe in Southern Cumbria. Many other distinctive small hills, such as Glastonbury Tor and Arnside Knott, just fail to make the grade. This is hardly likely to lessen their popularity as viewpoints and tourist attractions. Fortunately, major sea stacks such as the Old Man of Hoy and the Great Stack of Handa are also under 150 metres high. Unfortunately there are two sea stacks in the St Kilda group of islands that do make the grade, and these are likely to test the commitment of even the most dedicated summit bagger.

The existence of a number of Marilyns in an area may be seen as a measure of the peakedness or undulating nature of the land, as opposed to its altitude. Statisticians have a word for this notion of peakedness - they call it kurtosis. So we can say that although the Cape Wrath peninsula reaches no great height, it clearly has positive kurtosis as it contains eight Marilyns. By contrast, large areas of land that are well above sea level can be fairly flat; some of the major uplands of England such as Dartmoor and the Peak District have very few Marilyns.

The concept of relative height seems to make more sense the more you think about it, yet some walkers may feel that it would be preferable to use the 500-foot limit in order to identify the most important hills over a certain height, such as 2000 feet. For those who feel this way the solution is simple - ignore the lower hills. The existence of the list does not compel anyone to use it. But I am sure that if I had drawn the line at 2000 feet, then sooner or later someone else would have extended this down to 1500 feet, then 1000 feet, so we may as well get it all over with now. The lower hills will always be there for anyone who wishes to finish the 2000-footers first!