Thursday, May 29, 2014

May Hill

Wherever you go in north Gloucestershire or anywhere else round and about, there it is. Even if you don't know what it's called, you can probably see it. The silhouette of May Hill on the skyline is unmistakable, with its little clump of trees on the summit, standing out among all the other hills.

The trees are mostly Corsican pines, planted in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, and supplemented with another cluster (Scots pines this time) planted in 1977 for Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, and a few other clumps marking other occasions. Unfortunately some are now infected with red band needle blight, a defoliating disease to which Corsican pines are especially susceptible, and which will eventually kill off many of the trees. In any event, the tree-clump crown on May Hill goes back way further than 1887. There are references to it going back to 1643 when Prince Rupert and his men are said to have taken refuge up there, and a painting of the hill done in 1780 shows it with much the same arboreal tuft that it sports today.

Amid the clump (above) is a much older Scots pine which, although somewhat worse for wear these days with only one remaining limb, is a survivor from the previous generation of trees which occupied the hilltop before the grand 1887 planting. At the time the hill was enclosed in 1873 there was a reference to some 100-year-old Scots pines on the summit, which are also marked on Isaac Taylor's Gloucestershire map of 1777. This antique chap could be one of those.

It's breezy round that therr trig point.

At around 970 feet, May Hill stands as quite a landmark with fantastic views towards other landmarks. The top bit is in the care of the National Trust but the circular enclosure at the summit is owned by the nearby village of Longhope and is their 'village green'. It has a breathtaking vista over Gloucestershire and Herefordshire and into Wales, with a particularly good view along the length of the meandering River Severn. In the days when the Severn was full of sailing ships, May Hill's distinctive tree clump (evergreen and visible all year round) was an important navigational aid. One legend has it that the trees were originally planted for that very purpose by one Admiral May, hence the name. It's not very likely though, as the only admiral of that name was born a long time after the hill was named. And while the trees could've been planted as a landmark for mariners, it's more likely that they were planted by drovers who grazed their animals on the hill while passing through the area. Drovers had a tradition of planting distinctive clumps of pine trees to mark good grazing land.

South-west view towards Wales and the Forest of Dean.

Admiral May notwithstanding, May Hill was formerly called Yartleton Hill, and that's how it appears on early maps. The May Hill name first appears in 1703, and could well have been a local name which stuck (a bit like Churchdown Hill a few miles away, which is resolutely known to locals as Chosen Hill, despite not being called that on the map). The May Hill name most likely derives from the Beltane knees-up which has taken place up there since time immemorial, and still does. Morris dancers still faithfully troop up there every May Day at dawn to welcome the sunrise, and in the past there was also a tradition of staging a symbolic fight between summer and winter.

May Hill also has a faery legend, which I covered in my post about Hartpury. A faery man is said to have plucked a fruit from a pear tree on May Hill, which turned out to be so bitter he spat the pips out over three surrounding counties, where they germinated and grew into new trees. This supposedly accounts for the unique quality of perry pears to be found in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire (the astringent, semi-wild pears used to make perry, or pear cider).

A faery connection is also apparent in legends of an underground cavern, making May Hill a mythical "hollow hill". Lots of hills have such legends of hollow cores or subterranean chambers, but the May Hill one has some historical basis. There are several early references to a chamber called Crockett's Hole on the east side of the hill, though finding any trace of it today is a bit of a challenge. It was very possibly used as a hidey-hole for those escaping the persecutions of Queen Mary, which may also be the source of a legend (popular in the 17th century) that there was treasure stashed in it. Needless to say all those who have gone looking for it over the last few centuries have come away empty handed. I'm more inclined to believe in faeries than in buried treasure, but there you go.

The antiquarian delights of May Hill don't ever appear to have been investigated, as far as I can see. The top of the hill sports a circular ditch around 100 metres in diameter which could be an Iron Age enclosure, but nobody really knows. It has numerous curious pits and bumps inside it which have never been excavated. Also within this enclosure is a lumpy hump which could be a round barrow, or maybe not. Yes it's all a bit vague, and there's no evidence one way or the other, so we're left to follow our inner senses. And mine tell me that this enclosure has been a special place for a very long time. It has an extraordinary atmosphere which is quite unlike any of the other Gloucestershire hilltops I've stood on. I can only describe it as a feeling of pure euphoria.

Three pictures of the central ring ditch.

In fact the atmosphere on May Hill is euphoric all over, not just in the central ring. Walking up there on a breezy day earlier this year, I was seized by an urge to spread my arms out and run along shouting "wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" The north-west side of the hilltop, which is very open and serves as a kind of processional route to the summit, is also a place of inexplicable joy. It's as if the land emanates a sense of delight, laughter, euphoria and benevolence. It's just a "wheeeeeeee!" kind of place.

Whether that has anything to do with the long held May Day traditions of celebration and fun, or whether it's something deeply inherent in the energies of the land, I can't say. But May Hill is an absolutely joyous place to be.

The nearest confirmed antiquities are to be found on the neighbouring Castle Hill, which has an ancient earthwork on the top, but even this doesn't have a confirmed date of origin. Intriguing place-names abound, such as the village of Glasshouse between May Hill and Castle Hill. All readers of Celtic mythology will get a tingle from the association of glass houses and hilltop castles – echoes of Caer Wydyr, the glass castle – though the Glasshouse name has a more mundane origin in the 16th century glass-making industry in the area. The north-west side of the hill also features a house called Glastonbury!

 May Hill pony (with blue eyes).

Geologically, May Hill is a spin-off from the Malverns rather than the Cotswolds, but its geology is made complex by a number of faultlines. It has its own "May Hill sandstone" which is much older than the limestone of the Cotswolds. In my experience the underlying rock can have a significant effect on the atmosphere of a place, and May Hill certainly has a different feel from any of its neighbours.

Faery presences? Definitely. And also an assortment of resident animals. You may see a herd of Belted Galloway cattle grazing on the hill (dark-coloured cows with a white band round the middle), and also a group of free-roaming ponies. Not quite wild, but living a fairly feral lifestyle. When I met them they were having a great time scratching themselves against the trunks of silver birch trees. Five or six ponies all blissfully scratching in unison, while another had a good roll about in the mud with all its legs in the air. But then the hill has that kind of effect on me too.

Much of the info for this post came from the excellent Longhope Village and Notable Trees websites.