The UK's County Tops

The UK's County Tops

The UK’s County Tops
Jonny Muir

The book is journalist-turned-teacher Jonny Muir’s logical follow-up to his 2009 travelogue Heights of Madness, which charted his 5,000-mile trip three years earlier in which he cycled the length of Britain summiting the highest point in 91 historic counties.

This Cicerone guide details each of the tops, with a suggested route, a couple of facts about the county’s famous sons and daughters and other ‘interesting facts’.

There is an Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 map extract, photos, route description, and incidental information about the county top and what the explorer might expect on his or her quest to stand on the highest point in the county – in short, everything you need to complete this unusual tick-list.

So who would want to visit places as diverse as Helvellyn, Kinder Scout and Boring Field? Well, the only Briton to summit the world’s 14 highest mountains, for one. In 2010, 8,000m mountaineer Alan Hinkes embarked on his own charity round of England’s 39 county tops, completing them in eight days.

Muir’s book covers a wider brief, detailing the UK’s tops, and it is notable that only one English peak, Scafell Pike, makes it into the top ten heights of UK county tops, the league table’s upper echelons being dominated by Scottish and Welsh hills, with County Down’s Slieve Donard muscling in not far behind at number 16.

There is, of course the thorny issue of what constitutes a county top. Muir uses the pre-1974 boundaries, but helpfully includes in his appendices the present-day authorities for those who really want to visit the ignominious 11m ‘height’ of East Mount in Kingston upon Hull.

Muir’s guidebook has some surprising gems of information. For instance, Carn Eighe in Ross and Cromarty may be the subject of ‘a test of endurance and one of the toughest county tops’, being 12km from the nearest road, but the most inaccessible is Kent’s Betsom’s Hill – which is in someone’s garden.

The least inspiring is probably a closely fought battle between Bushey Heath, Middlesex, a triangle of land next to traffic lights, the ascent of which means passing a car park and disused toilet block, and Boring Field, the honestly named 80m Huntingdonshire ‘peak’, with a 30-minute walk ending in ‘a gently sloping farmer’s field’. As Jonny Muir says: ‘The clue is in the name’.

One of the most isolated hills is Lincolnshire’s Normanby Top, more than 60km from its nearest marilyn neighbour.

Jonny Muir on one of the more inspiring tops, Brown Willy

Jonny Muir on one of the more inspiring tops, Brown Willy

Lancashire once boasted the Old Man of Coniston as its crowning height, but now has to settle for a grassy lump on the ridge between Gragareth and Great Coum, though it is possible the Old Man was an imposter and that actually nearby Swirl How was higher all along. Call for the hill sleuths, cries Muir.

There is a huge variety in the UK’s county tops and Muir doesn’t always choose the obvious route. His suggestion for Scafell Pike, for example, is not the slog up the shortest route from Wasdale Head, but a longer expedition from Great Langdale, taking in the summit of Bowfell en route.

He chooses to leave the crowds behind on his way up Ben Nevis and take to the Carn Mòr Dearg Arête, joining the throngs for the zigzags descent.

The UK’s County Tops is a fascinating little book, and anyone wanting to baffle workmates with a tick-list project could well take up the challenge of visiting them all. Unless the walker takes to his or her bike, expect a rather large fuel bill on the trip from Brown Willy to Ronas Hill on Shetland. Then there’s the ferry costs for Arran, the Northern Isles and, more substantially, Northern Ireland for the assault on its six summits.

The UK's County Tops 'a fascinating little book'

The UK's County Tops 'a fascinating little book'

Or, of course, you could just cherry pick the ones closest to you. As Muir says, everyone has a county top on their doorstep, though the step in places like Sutherland and Ross and Cromarty is a big one.

There is little fault to find in the guidebook, though I would argue against the sporting bias in some of the famous native and interesting facts boxes. Is the victory of rugby union club Northampton Saints over Munster that interesting? Not to me.

But there is plenty to interest and surprise in The UK’s County Tops and, for those who fancy a quirky challenge over the next few years, material for many a day out.

The UK’s County Tops by Jonny Muir is published by Cicerone at £14.95 and is available from outdoors retailers and booksellers and via Cicerone’s website.