Monday, 27 January 2014

Guest Contributor - Alan Dawson


I have approached a number of people to write articles, but if readers would like to contribute an article please contact me. The only two stipulations I make are that the article has to be hill related and that I don't end up in court through its publication! Otherwise the choice of subject matter is down to the Guest Contributor.

Guest Contributor – Alan Dawson

Alan has compiled some of the most important of British hill listings, including the Marilyns, Murdos, Grahams, Corbett Tops, Graham Tops, Hewitts and Sims.  Many people justifiably consider him as Britain's pre-eminent published hill list author.  With the Sims list he unified the 600m hills of Britain, he's now considering doing this for another category of hill.

Surveying is a Doddle 

I was very pleased to hear that Myrddyn has splashed out and bought himself a new surveying gadget, a top-of-the-range Trimble. I see this as good news all round. Good for Myrddyn firstly, as I’m sure it will give him endless enjoyment and satisfaction and an even greater incentive to get out in the hills, not that he needed it. Good for me, because I’m hoping that Myrddyn will survey several hills that are on my own surveying to-do list, particularly marginal Sims (600m summits) in Wales. And good for the hill-bagging community in general, as he will be collecting a trove of accurate hill data and making it publicly available for anyone interested. He will be reclassifying some hills in his own lists, which I’m sure he will find particularly satisfying. It wouldn't surprise me if he set out to survey every Pedwar (Welsh 400-499m hill).

While I focus mainly on hills over 600m, with a few lower ones thrown in, and Myrddyn on 400-499m hills, with lots of lower ones too, this leaves a gap in between, the 500m hills. It has been suggested, by a few of the usual suspects that the British 500m hills could benefit from unification, along similar lines to the Sims. Currently the 500m hills (with a minimum 30m drop all round) fall into four categories: Welsh Deweys, English Deweys, Donald Deweys (in Southern Scotland) and Highland Fives. All these groups cover hills from 500-609.6m not 500-599.9m, so they are not metric lists but are based on one metric threshold (500m) and one imperial threshold (2000 feet). When considering Britain as a whole, this mixture of lists and units adds up to a dog’s dinner with breakfast, lunch, pudding and after-dinner mince thrown in. At least, it does for those tidy-minded and pedantic metric enthusiasts who like unified hill lists. Not a large percentage of the population admittedly, but enough to propose a single list of 500-599m hills for the whole of Britain. Dewey baggers south of the border would no doubt carry on as before, where the list of Deweys gives hill-starved baggers a challenging target, but in Scotland, where few people climb 500m hills that are not Marilyns or Humps, the unified list would effectively supersede the Highland Fives.

This raises the tricky but important issue of what to call such a unified set of hills. Several possibilities have been floated across the email waves, such as Clems, Dodds, Fives, Hifives, Quintos and Woodalls. While both Clem Clements and Rob Woodall played important parts in researching the hills now called Highland Fives, the consensus view is that it would not be appropriate for the unified list to have any single person’s name. Many others have also contributed, including Mark Jackson, Tony Payne, Michael Dewey of course, David Purchase (who compiled the Donald Deweys) and John Kirk, who produced an immense work listing all the hills over 500m with roughly 20m or more drop. The GJ Surveys team (John Barnard, Graham Jackson and Myrddyn Phillips) have also contributed by surveying several marginal Deweys and demoting quite a few. Various members of the team who look after the Database of British and Irish Hills (DOBIH), particularly Jim Bloomer and Chris Crocker, have also helped research and refine the list.

My personal view is that ‘Fours’ is an uninspired choice for the list of 400m hills in England, while ‘Pedwars’ or ‘Pedwarau’ is a better name for the Welsh 400m hills because it sounds more imaginative and distinctive for those of us who don’t speak Welsh. Similarly, I am not enthused by the term ‘Highland Fives’ or its potential successors ‘Fives’ or ‘Hifives’. The remaining two options, ‘Dodds’ and ‘Quintos’, need a little explanation. Dodds is derived from ‘Donald Deweys and Deweys and Scotland’, thereby acknowledging the major contributions of Michael Dewey and David Purchase. It is also a hilly-sounding name, although not many of the 500m hills are actually called something Dodd. One argument against is that it’s another D-word to add to the Donalds and New Donalds and Deweys and Donald Deweys. Quintos is based on the Latin prefix for five, as in quintet, a five-piece band, and quintessence, the classical but elusive fifth element, along with air, fire, earth and water. In a notorious case of bad planning, the London-based Asian-influenced rock band Quintessence had six members when they started in 1969, so they were a sextet not a quintet. I don’t suppose this nominative discrepancy bothered them much, as they were Hindus rather than pedantic hill baggers, though the two faiths are theoretically not incompatible.

Anyway, Dodds is currently the favoured choice, though further consultation is currently taking place amongst interested parties. So much for the name, what about the hills? According to version 13.3 of DOBIH, there are 1336 of them, comprising 941 in Scotland, 227 in Wales and 168 in England. There are also five in the Isle of Man and 186 in Ireland but, in line with the Sims, these would not be part of the unified list of British hills (the Irish 500-599m hills would presumably be called the Doddis).

Dodd, a 502m Dodd, with Skiddaw behind
Quite a bagging challenge then, but not an impossible one. There are 215 Marilyns and a further 189 Humps included, leaving only 932 to mop up for anyone who has done all the 500m-599m Humps. Only eight of these are 599m and only ten are 598m, so not many are likely to be promoted to Sims. Two of these have already been confirmed: last year I surveyed 599m Flasvein on Skye and found that it is 598.9m, and now Myrddyn has taken his Trimble up Whimble and found it to be 598.8m. Those OS surveyors were pretty accurate in most cases when they bothered to go walking in the hills, but now that they stick to planes or offices they’re not quite so good.
Apart from the name, another issue is that of overall responsibility for the unified list. Michael Dewey is still looking after his list, but the Scottish hills present a much bigger maintenance and editing task. To date the DOBIH team have taken responsibility for the Highland Fives, and may continue in that role for the Dodds, but there are some advantages in having a specific person as hill list editor, as there are inevitably cases, in any list, where subjective judgements are required about hill names and sometimes hill status. Precise surveys can remove almost all uncertainty about height and drop, but there will always be highly marginal cases where editorial judgement is required, and the vast majority of these hills will remain unsurveyed for the foreseeable future. Map-based research will continue to play a key role, and the inconsistencies and vagaries of OS mapping mean that subjective judgements will continue to play a small but important part in hill listings.
Myrddyn’s new Trimble will be a huge asset to him and to hill baggers in general, but it would take multiple Myrddyns (a vaguely uncomfortable image) with multiple Trimbles in multiple lifetimes before the full and final truth of British hills could be revealed. So there is really a need for another Trimble-wielder to focus on the British 500-599m hills, whatever they end up being called. A pedantic Hindu surveyor with lots of reincarnations could be particularly useful. In the meantime, there are a multitude of small truths out there waiting to be revealed, and I have no doubt that Myrddyn will have the time of his life uncovering new hill data, for the benefit of all who are suitably receptive.

The first Quintessence album, featuring unspecified peaks, possibly in the Hindu Kush

To access the RHB Marilyn News Centre website and Alan’s survey results using a Leica RX1250 GPS click {here}

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