Review of Atchison's Complete Hills of Britain

It is not often that a hillwalking guidebook is published which covers the area where I live (the flatter part of region 39), nor one the puff of which claims ambitiously that if you are looking for a Munro, Corbett, Graham, Marilyn etc, you will find it included.

The series is projected to cover Britain in 10 volumes; this seems to be a tall order, especially as the Lake District is to be combined with the Southern Uplands, and the Highlands and Islands are to be covered in just 4 volumes. We shall see. Volume 1, Southern England, is the only one so far published, in May 2008, and this reviews it. Southern England consists of Marilyn regions 39, 42, and parts of 38A and 38B.

This review is based on reading the book and comparing it with other maps, and in a few cases my memories of walks. I have also used the guidebook for one walk as a test.

Structure

The book consists of descriptions of 50 walks, each visiting one or more hills. Each walk is provided with a brief introduction, about 4 pages of detailed description, and a map on a double-page spread.

There is a short introduction explaining how to use the book, a key map, and legend.

One thing missing is any sort of introduction to the areas, describing in general terms what the South Downs, Chilterns, Cotswolds and so on are like for the walker. In a book which is intended as a comprehensive guide I should have expected this.

An index lists the hills; this is useful since some walks visit more than one, and the walks are not otherwise in any strict order (they are roughly grouped geographically).

Coverage of hills

There are no Munros, Corbetts, or Grahams, not even furth ones, in this area. But there are several Marilyns. Of those listed in the yellow Tacit tables and in the area of the book, 18 are included, 12 are not, 5 are close to the walk described and on the map in the book but not on the route, and 3 more are on the edge of the area (they may perhaps be described in vols 4 or 5). So it does not appear to live up to the puff. Nothing tells you whether a hill is a Marilyn, Hump, or whatever -- the prominence is not quoted.

I do not know what criteria the author had for selection; I suspect that the quality of the views was high.

Maps

The maps are all double-page spreads, taken from old (out of copyright, so I assume at least 50 years old) O.S. maps, with layer colouring, major roads, and other symbols added. The scale varies, to fit each walk on the spread; typically it is between 1:40000 and 1:60000. The national grid is shown, but without any numbers (the only way of finding these is by using the grid reference, given in the text, of the start point). The author clearly prefers the imperial system: heights are in feet, distances in miles and yards. Many summit heights differ from the Tacit tables (by a few feet). Contours are at 50-ft interval, but the height of each line is not marked -- you can only work them out from the layer colouring and spot heights. The general effect is similar to the Harvey's 1:55000 (not 1:25000) of the Forest of Bowland.

The author has gone to a lot of trouble to add marker symbols along the route to make it easier to refer from map to text and vice-versa. Generally this uses the time measured walking from the start of the walk. This seems a good idea although of course one must adjust for one's own speed. They allow for a short and medium walk as well as for a 5--6 h longer walk. Pubs are named more prominently than villages.

The introduction claims that the maps in the book should be adequate in good weather. This is probably true, provided you stay on the route specified and so have the directions to help. The text tells you the O.S. 1:25000 Explorer sheet number.

A small box on each is provided for you to tick off the hills. Perhaps the author hopes to create Atchison-baggers, though in general the book does not seem to be aimed at baggers.

Overall the maps are just about adequate, especially since these are mostly lowland walks. My verdict may differ for the other volumes, most of which have wilder country.

Photographs

These are good, all in colour, but many are rather small; I should have preferred fewer larger ones. They are pictures of views or interesting buildings rather than pictures for wayfinding, though they do have the elapsed time in their captions indicating roughly when they can be seen.

Text

The text is mostly detailed route description of the form `turn L (NE) up to Popes Hill... Go L into field using f/p that runs parallel to the road...'. Some compass bearings are given. A special symbol indicates steepness (1--6, 1 being gentle and 6 would be a rock climb). The numerous abbreviations save space though of course have to be decoded.

Each walk has a brief introduction giving some idea of the country and feel of the walk -- open, wooded, hill country, lowland. Despite it being a book of hill walks, some are mostly lowland (unsurprisingly in this area). Even the Titterstone Clee walk is mostly lowland (he doesn't couple it with the Brown Clee).

Typography and layout

The bulk of the text is most eccentrically in an oblique (one can hardly call it italic) sans-serif font. I found this wearing, as if the author were emphasizing everything. Serifs only occur in captions and pub names!

There are some errors that I spotted on only a casual glance. On the key map Newport (Gwent) was labelled `Neath'. Bromyard was spelled `Broomyard'. There are many punctuation errors, and grocers' apostrophes and misplaced commas can easily be found. There are some spelling mistakes, including ones that a spell-checker would have found.

The book is designed so that it can fit into a map-case with the map for a walk opened flat; this works, though you have to crease the spine, and the book weighs more than a typical map. The paper is glossy, and so should cope with slight dampness. One walk has about 4 pages (2 spreads) of text.

A trial walk

As a test of the book I tried the walk nearest me, the Chilterns just north of Luton.

Timings are important in this guidebook, so I kept an eye on the time. The walk took me 6 hours of which about 20 min was lunch, giving 5 h 40 min, compared to the 5 hours 12 min in the book. In general, I -- a moderately fit middle-aged man -- walked at roughly the same pace. However, I lost time because of navigation pauses and false starts (such as going a few metres along the wrong side of a hedge, before deciding I should be on the other side). There were also several muddy fields, which slowed me down because they were slippery and weighed down my feet.

Some of the directions were a little unclear: in at least two places which side of a hedge/fence to follow, in another how to get round a farmyard.

Partly because the directions and map were only just adequate, I used my compass with the bearings given. I do not normally use a compass for lowland walking, and find it a nuisance (dangling round my neck).

What did it add? On two of the hills, (Barton Hills and Deacon Hill), the guidebook adds the information that it was possible to get onto the best part of the hill. The route was not at all obvious on the 1:50000, and even the 1:25000 which marked some access land did not include all the paths and de-facto access land.

Overall, the map and directions together were adequate. I made no major deviations from the route, and completed it without referring to the 1:50000 which I had in reserve. There were a few places where I was doubtful of the route where a 1:25000 or even 1:50000 would have made the way clear. I should have been more comfortable if I had read the guidebook beforehand and used a 1:25000 or even the 1:50000 while walking.

What it adds

My own view is that a guidebook is worth whatever it adds to the map. I would almost never walk in a strange (to me) area without an O.S. or Harvey map, and I do not need information which merely verbalizes the map. A good guidebook tells me the type of vegetation (grass, heather, open/dense woodland), what the terrain is like (rough, easy going), access problems -- whether the rights of way are blocked, details too fine for a map (`go between the farmhouse and the barn...'). So what does this guidebook add?

Conclusion

Overall, the book is good, if you want detailed directions for walks; the walks seem to be well chosen, and the directions and maps together are adequate.

However, much of the text is too hand-holding for my liking. I guess the book is not aimed at me; on the other hand, you surely have to be a keen hillwalker to consider a series entitled the Complete Hills of Britain. In the next volumes the author's work will be more directly comparable with the Nuttalls' books, or Hermon's guides to the Welsh hills; unless he changes his style, I suspect I shall find the forthcoming volumes disappointing by comparison.


David Stone
Last modified: Wed Jan 28 18:58:56 GMT 2009