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Enjoy & Learn

The Mountains of Great Britain

There is something distinctive and recognizable in the culture, civilization and landscape of Great Britain that makes the British consider their land very differently from the Continent and attracts the attention of strangers from mainland Europe.

There is nothing surprising, therefore, that we, continental Europeans, do not notice those characteristic– maybe not as much as the Monarchy or left-hand drive– but still very characteristic fragments of the British scene which we know from our own country. Indeed, the mountains of the British Isles are not the first thing to come to our mind when we see the Union Jack.

If we were to choose between Britain’s major tourist attractions, we would probably decide to see some of the most popular landmarks of London: Buckingham Palace or St Paul’s Cathedral. But having visited all of London’s most famous sites, we can see the less popular tourist attractions of the Isles: the mountains.

The British Isles have much to offer in this respect: from rolling hills in south-eastern England to high mountains with steep slopes and an arduous climb to the top, which requires one to be quite fit. Despite the fact that the highest mountain in the Isles, Ben Nevis, is, when compared to our summits, only 1,344 metres high, the topographic prominence of British peaks is often very impressive.

The most mountainous part of the United Kingdom is Scotland. The north-western part of Scotland, The Scottish Highlands, is bisected by a large geological fault, the Great Glen, into the Northwest Highlands to the northwest and the Grampians to the southeast. The eastern part of the Grampians is called the Cairngorms. Cairngorms National Park was established in 2003; the second of two national parks in Scotland and the largest in the British Isles. The administrative centre for the Highlands and a popular tourist destination is Inverness. The city is located at the north end of the Great Glen and is often regarded as the Capital of the Highlands. The southern and eastern parts of Scotland are usually called the Scottish Lowlands and also have some significant ranges of hills.

The landscape of England comprises many different kinds of terrain. The highest and most mountainous areas are located in the north and west of the country. The highest peak of England, Scafell Pike, 978 m, is located in the Lake District, which includes the country’s highest mountain ranges. The area is a popular tourist destination not only due to its beautiful views. It is also important in the history of English literature. In the early 19th century the Lake District was the place where William Wordsworth and other Lake Poets lived and worked. The peculiarity of the area is that mountains are traditionally referred to as fells.

The Pennines, often called the “backbone of England”, stretch meridionally to the east and south of the highest mountains of England and form an unbroken, 400 kilometre long range. The mountains are not particularly high – the highest of the fells (hills), Cross Fell in eastern Cumbria, is 893 m high and other prominent peaks reach an altitude of 600 to 800 metres. Nevertheless, as one of the most scenic areas in the British Isles, the mountains are one of the major tourist attractions and the Pennine Way, a 429 kilometre long trail running along the range, is used by 250,000 hikers and backpackers per year.

The highest peak of Wales is Snowdon in Snowdonia National Park. The mountain, with its summit at an altitude of 1,085 m, offers extensive views. On a clear day one can see all parts of Great Britain. One of the area’s greatest tourist attractions is the Snowdon Mountain Railway, a narrow gauge railway to the summit of the mountain, built in 1896.

The National Three Peaks Challenge links the three highest peaks of Great Britain. The challenge has no official rules or regulations but the general idea is to climb the highest mountain of every of the three island’s countries: Ben Nevis (Scotland), Scafell Pike (England) and Snowdon (Wales). Some participants consider it an endurance challenge and try to complete it within 24 hours, travelling by car between the stretches of the trail. Other want to start and end it at sea level. Completion of the challenge requires 42 kilometres of hiking and about 765 kilometres of travelling by car, which can be done within 15 hours. The challenge is taken mostly by teams. Some members do not participate in climbing and perform a support function. Despite its great popularity, the challenge is often criticised: participants, trying to save time, can disturb local residents, especially at night. The challenge is sometimes taken by inexperienced and unprepared hikers, who often end up being guided off the slope or evacuated by a mountain rescue team.

The National Three Peak Challenge is an example of peak bagging, i.e., attempting to reach the summit of a collection of peaks, from one of various lists of mountains. The lists have a long history, especially in Scotland, and the sets of criteria that a mountain has to fulfill in order to be listed there are often very complex. Some of the most popular lists are: the Munros (all hills in Scotland over 3,000 ft/ 914 m), the Corbetts (hills in Scotland between 2,500 ft/762 m and 3,000 ft/914 m, with a relative height of at least 500 ft/152 m), the Donalds (hills in the Scottish Lowlands over 2,000 ft/609 m). Of course, many peaks qualify for inclusion on several lists.

Not only does hiking in the British hills and mountains allow us to see the beauty of the landscape, it also gives us, foreigners, a great opportunity to become familiar with some characteristic aspects of British culture and tradition. When we hike in Great Britain, not only in the mountains but generally in the countryside, we use rights of way, which are paths which the public are allowed to use. Paths and ways are traditionally classified according to the rules of their use (shown on the British maps). A bridleway, for instance, is a path on which you may travel on foot, on horseback, or on bicycle, but as a cyclist you must always give way to pedestrians and persons on horseback.

In such a distinctive and recognizable culture, mountains and hiking have their own special place. And it is worth knowing, because it will help our understanding of Britain and the British.

Wojciech Włoskowicz


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