I am surrounded by hills. North-east is Denmark Hill, south is Tulse Hill, west is Brixton Hill and beneath my feet is Herne Hill. From the highest point of Brockwell Park, I can see the wooded tip of Sydenham Hill and the Autobot mast of Crystal Palace, which sits on top of a stomach-looping hill at Cystal Palace. And there’s more – Knights Hill, Beulah Hill, Forest Hill, Streatham Hill – all within a few miles, usually to the south on land that slowly undulates into deep suburbia.
One of the things I like about Herne Hill is that the hill it is named after takes the form of an easily ignored road that snakes up towards Camberwell while the town itself sits in a hollow at the bottom, where it often floods. You don’t usually get a flooded hill, but that’s Herne Hill for you. Maybe that’s in keeping with the contradictory nature of London hills. Elsewhere, a hill lifts you above the fray but London hills tend to accentuate the clutter, confirming the claustrophobia of London life.
Tom Chivers is from Herne Hill, and perhaps that prompted him to commission and edit, along with Martin Kratz, Mount London, a book of essays about London hills and other raised areas. A team of 23 urban topographers study 25 spots: famous viewpoints like Parliament Hill, suburban sprawls like Stamford Hill, lost City of London hillocks like Ludgate Hill, plus the odd, witty, wild card – Battersea Power Station’s chimneys or the emergency stairs at Hampstead Underground Station.
Early on, Sarah Butler captures the curious charm of London’s hills - ‘I’d stand and look,’ she writes in her chapter on Dartmouth Park Hill, ‘and I would always be struck by the fact that London stretched right out to the horizon and as far left and right as I could see. Do the equivalent in Manchester, and you can see where the city ends, the edges fading out into fields.’ London has no edges.
Contributions are a mix of autobiography, psychogeography and history. One of my favourites was Tim Cresswell’s elegant take on Northala Fields, an artificial hill constructed from the rubble of Wembley Stadium and including the remains of London’s failed attempt at building an Eiffel Tower. Londonist’s Matt Brown demonstrates his usual nose for an oddity with his piece on Windmill Hill, a municipal dump on Moorfields constructed from dung and bones. Submarine author Joe Dunthorne takes on the Shard, astutely noting that ‘since the arrival of the Walkie-Talkie, it may not even be the most evil skyscraper in London.’
Chivers tackles Snow Hill – a place I always associate with terrible London-set computer game Driver - and in doing so manages to capture that strange, uplifting sight: the Fleet Valley from Holborn Viaduct. ‘To stand on the Viaduct and look over Farringdon Road is to experience London’s vertical axis; the city not as streetplan write large but a three dimensional environment with depth as well as spread. And even to the untrained eye, the view from the Viaduct is unmistakably that of a river from a bridge.’ This is a perspective almost impossible to capture in a photograph. I have always thought it had to be experienced in person, but Chivers has it nailed.
Chivers and Kratz are poets, and there is a bias towards a certain tricksy type of inward-looking London writing – the school of Sinclair – with particularly abstract or experimental musings coming from Kratz on Richmond Hill and Tamar Yoseloff on Farringdon shitheap Mount Pleasant. That’s fine, but I would have welcomed a little more variety in styles. Mary Paterson brings the only touch of fiction to her piece on Denmark Hill and while I enjoyed Katy Evans-Bush’s supernatural glimpse of Stamford Hill, even this was intensely personal. Amber Massie-Blomfield’s piece on Gypsy Hill is typical, interweaving 18th-century south London gypsies with musings about her grandfather, who once lived in a caravan in Lossiemouth,
But maybe such naval-gazing is in keeping with the very nature of London hills, and also the introspective activity of solo walking. London is not a city that looks particularly good from the air – notable exceptions being Parliament Hill and Greenwich Hill, neither of which feature here. Instead, elevated views merely reinforce the sense that we are stuck in the middle of an endless mega city. The only respite lies within.
‘Some friends once lived in a double-fronted Georgian on Brixton Water Lane,’ writes Karen McCarthy Woolf of Brixton Hill. ‘Their garden was large and L-shaped and a good proportion of it used to be the car park of the pub now called The Hootenanny. Their garden also had a well in it that sank into the subterranean Effra.’
I know that Georgian, I know that garden, I know that well. In London, no matter how high we climb, we will never escape from each other, and from other hills.
Mount London: Ascents In The Vertical City edited by Tom Chivers and Martin Kratz (Penned In The Margins, £12.99).