Ben Macdhui in the Cairngorm Mountains stands at 4,295 feet: the second-highest peak in the British Isles. As its summit marks the border between Aberdeenshire and Banffshire, it is also the county top of both of those counties. BenMacdhui is one of just nine mountains in the British Isles exceeding 4,000 feet.
While there are plenty of guides to climbing the highest mountain, Ben Nevis, standing prominently above Fort William, and the paths to its summit are ground deep with countless boots, there are fewer visitors to the second highest, though it is just 114 feet short of its rival and it was once believed (until more accurate measurements were available) that Ben Macdhui was the higher.
Cairn Gorm (or Cairngorm) to the north climbs to 4,081 feet (its summit marking the border of Banffshire with Inverness-shire) and is better known as it gives its name to the whole Cairngorm range and is far more accessible: there is long established skiing centre here and a ski-lift running up the mountain to well short of its top and facilities at the foot of the mountain. It also stands between Ben Macdhui and civilisation and so most climbs of Ben Macdhui pass over Cairngorm first.
The starting base for a climb of Cairn Gorm is Aviemore, but the village is a long way from the foot of the mountain. The best starting and finishing point is the car park of the Ski Centre at the foot of Cairngorm: from Aviemore there is a long, sinuous road eastwards through the forest (which is of great interest in itself) and which climbs to the Ski Centre and no further. Other, more challenging starting points are available from stops along the road, but with limited parking (and without the helpful mountain guides).
In later posts I will describe the climb.
In a post last month, I looked at the county top of Hampshire (and Berkshire). What is a county top though?
Basically, a county top is the highest point of a county. It should only be a traditional county: there are no prizes for the highest bureaucratic interference.
Therefore as there are 92 counties in the United Kingdom, and 26 in the Republic of Ireland, there should be 118 county tops in the British Isles, except that some of them are shared between two counties; the summit of the hill marking the county border. Of these, Ben Macdhui is the top of Aberdeenshire and of Banffshire; Cuilcagh of Fermanagh and of County Cavan; Sawel of County Londonderry and of Tyrone; Arderin of Laois and of Offaly; Mount Leinster of both Carlow and Wexford. Some hills have two county tops on them in different places, like Meikle Says Law in East Lothian and Berwickshire, and Walbury Hill in Hampshire and Berkshire, where the very summit belongs to one county alone. Therefore there are by this reckoning 89 county tops in the United Kingdom, or 114 county tops in the whole of the British Isles. You could add the Isle of Man too, though it is not a county, making 115.
Serious toppers have made another sensible rule too: it should be the natural ground level, so no artificial structure counts: neither banks nor buildings. Otherwise you might take the lift to the top of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf and claim to have topped Middlesex.
With all this in mind, serious research was carried out for the Historic Counties Trust, resulting in a list published on Wikishire:
County topping is a long process if you want to bag them all but rewarding.
Books and top toppers
- Johnny Muir has written a book “The UK’s County Tops – Reaching the Top of 91 Historic Counties” (though his effort predated the work of the Historic Counties Trust and he missed Sgùrr Mòr in Cromartyshire; a forgivable omission).
- Andy Strangeway has set out to sleep overnight on every county top: by September 2012 he had become the first person to sleep on the summit of all 52 counties of England and Wales. (I joined him for the penultimate top on that list, which was Bush Ground in Huntingdonshire.)
Lancashire has given us many things: hotpot, Eccles cake, Stan Laurel – oh, and the Industrial Revolution and the birth of the Modern Age. It is a county of wonder and practicality, with some of the kingdom’s greatest cities and greatest wild places, so every celebration of the county is deeply meant.
A Lancashire Border Walk is being devised, to provide a walking route all around the bounds of the county. The idea was the first inspiration for the county boundary walks being hosted on WildþingUK, and likewise the Lancashire project page is being hosted here. It is more challenging than any other yet devised, as Lancashire is one of the biggest counties in Britain, stretching from the River Mersey and the vast conurbations of South Lancashire, to the Furness Fells of the Lake District. The route will have to take a long coastline, and the Pennine fell country, where the county borders its rival, Yorkshire.
The Friends of Real Lancashire are looking for help to complete the drawing of the route by 27 November – Lancashire Day. Then the next challenge is for a hardy soul to walk the new route for the first time.
When anyone is going to walk the route – please drop us a line. Blog on it here if you can. It won’t be me though!
Pilot Hill is not what it seems. In published lists of county tops, the hill frequently listed as the county top of Hampshire is Pilot Hill, at 938 feet on the ridge of the North Hampshire Downs. However, the cartography has been checked by the Association of British Counties and it is not: the compilers of these lists have been misled by modern administrative boundaries. Since county tops are reckoned by traditional counties, not by shifting administrative conveniences, that will not do.
To the south of the ridge lies Combe, in Hampshire, whose administrative bounds have been redrawn by bureaucrats to encompass parts of Berkshire (no doubt they had their reasons for doing it) and while that does not affect the historic counties, it does cause confusion on maps.
The county boundary runs along the path that follows the chalk ridge of the downs here (a beautiful place for walking), and through the middle of a vast Iron Age hill fort, and this is where counties toppers should be visiting: the county top of Hampshire is the summit of Walbury Hill, at 974 feet, the hill encompassed by the Iron Age fortifications. The summit point is marked by a trig point in the middle of a farmer’s field.
The erroneous lists frequently give Walbury Hill as the county top of Berkshire, and they are right there, though the summit is exclusive to Hampshire: the highest point of Berkshire is on the county border, on the ridge path by the gate leading up to the summit (at 965 feet).
The route along the ridge here is known as the ‘Wayfarer’s Walk’, and a pleasant walk it is on a sunny day; past the impressive earthworks on Walbury Hill walking eastward the path dips and climbs through open land with broad vistas over the Berkshire countryside, and then climbs suddenly through a wood to the top of Pilot Hill, which is worth a visit, even if it has been knocked off its perch.
Pilot Hill holds its own however as the highest hill wholly in Hampshire.