“So I am found on Ingpen Beacon, or on Wylls-Neck to the west,
Or else on homely Bulbarrow, or little Pilsdon Crest,
Where men have never cared to haunt, nor women have walked with me,
And ghosts then keep their distance; and I know some liberty”. Hardy (“Wessex Heights”)
“Little Pilsdon Crest” ironically, is traditionally known as the highest hill in Dorset. I have always identified with the sentiment of Hardy’s poem “Wessex Heights” and after climbing “homely Bulbarrow” last summer was privileged to climb today where “mind-chains do not clank when one’s next neighbour is the sky”.
T and I set off early and were able to make the short climb up from the layby at the bottom of the hill on the B3164, in the untarnished atmosphere of early morning. The views on reaching the summit of this Iron Age hill fort were absolutely stunning. Early morning mists were still cradling in the hollows down in the vales and those areas the sun had yet to reach held on to their frosty white coating. Just as a winter’s morning should be – a slight chill in the air but the warmth of the sun coming through giving promise for the day ahead.
We could follow the coast round in a westerly direction from Burton Bradstock, Bridport (the trees atop Colmer’s Hill standing proudly ahead), Golden Cap, Lyme and Devon beyond. As we continued turning clockwise our view extended into Somerset and Wiltshire beyond, then returning to the Blackmore Vale and then southwards to the area where we knew Dorchester would be. Our eyes were then pulled back down to the spectacular coastline.
Pilsdon’s summit is topped by an Iron Age hill fort and when the area was excavated in the 1960s the remains of 14 roundhouses were uncovered near the centre. We could make out slight risen areas in the soft springy turf which may have been burial mounds or alternatively medieval “pillow mounds” – man made areas for breeding rabbits.
There were steep ditches around the top of the summit and we ruminated on how difficult it must have been to attack. However, the N T information board told us that it had eventually been taken by the Romans.
Some say that the poem “Wessex Heights” was written by Hardy during a period of depression. The general theme of the poem certainly reads as if he only feels free and at liberty when high away from the town and amongst the hills. He talks of “phantoms” pursuing him and people saying “harsh heavy things”. Hardy received, of course, much criticism of his novel “Jude the Obscure”, which had been published the previous year.
For me, however, the attraction of the poem and the lure of walking and climbing hills, particularly those in Wessex, is to return to “my simple self that was” and to “know some liberty”. Rather than reading depression into this poem and harbouring on the difficulties I sometimes find being in towns, crowded places and amongst people – I like to give thanks for those wild and windy places that still exist for us to escape to.
To subscribe to my blog following my walking adventures along local footpaths and long-distance trails add your e mail details in the box at the foot of the page.
My forthcoming book “The Woman Who Walked through Fear” will be published shortly.