Lead Photo by geograph.org.uk
At the outset here I have to be clear that I’m talking Hills not Mountains.
One of the things about Hills in the UK is that they seldom have zig zags. Maybe there is insufficient space or just that historically the roads developed up old paths but there is a tendency for our roads to go straight up the gradient. The riders of the Yorkshire stages of the Tour de France where pleasantly (or should that be unpleasantly) surprised at the cumulative effect such climbs have on a day’s ride.
The result is that many of these hills have developed something of a mythical subculture in UK cycling.
Some deserve their place from the UK history of Time Trialing having equivalent Hill Climb competitions. I’m thinking here of hills such as Mam Nick in the Peak District where Tom Simpson held the record from 1958 till it was finally broken in 2016. I’ve been over that on two Eroica Britannia events and can appreciate Gentleman Tom’s achievement on a vintage bike. It is something of a beast even on a modern bike – I was mighty glad to have geared down The Butler as I passed numerous folk having to walk with gearing along the lines of 42×24.
Others seem to gain their status in current folklore from being accessible to the masses and frankly not too difficult. I’m thinking here of Box Hill in Surrey which seems to have a status far beyond it’s challenge factor – the views to the South from the top are pretty good (for the South of England) and there is a cafe which probably helps. Also it is one of the few hills in the UK with true zig zags where you can see riders above or below. Somewhat different to Mam Nick in the Peak District which is beautiful in good weather but bleak in inclement weather (see lead photo) but I suspect much about Box Hill is due to it’s proximity to London. However, I can think of at least 5 climbs in the local area that are considerably more challenging – strange (not) that you don’t meet many cyclists on those when Box Hill can be packed at a weekend. Having said that, it was not that pleasant on the drenching London Cogal a few years back!
The strange thing in some respects is that many of these climbs become defended by their own local community – “Yeah but have you tried xyz Hill, It’s a beast and steeper than your abc Hill”.
This can have a interesting effect when you visit a new area for an event. I was reminded of this last summer on Day 1 of the Hot Chillie London Paris through Kent. We were due to route via Kidd’s Hill “The Wall”. In itself it we suspected it would probably be a max of 10-15 mins suffering but it was due to be in the middle of a 170 Km day, and it was due to be hot (for the UK). So my buddy and I were in a bit of trepidation for surviving the 80 Km or so after the climb as The Wall had been bigged up in the route guide and by another friend who rides a lot in Kent. In the end when we got there it was nowhere near as bad as a number of local routes I know around my vicinity over the South Downs and we wondered a little what the fuss was about.
Many of these hills are documented in various versions of 100 Best Climbs in the UK and I’m sure there is the cycling equivalent of Munro Baggers who travel the country ticking off climbs. Personally, while I may plan a route to take in a particular hill or other, for me it’s part of the whole ride and not the sole objective of a route.
The strange thing about these type of publications is while they do provide an interesting list, they inevitably are open to the challenge of My Hill is harder than Your Hill. I know of people who are massively protective of their hills when the reality is places like the Lake District do have some real beasts.
Just another of those areas where the bottom line is the degree of suffering becomes the reference point for ranking.