On the Black Hill

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

Introduced by Nicholas Lowton

On the Tuesday before half term in the summer term of 1984, it was raining. I remember it because it meant that I did not have to go and feign enthusiasm at a cricket pitch at Cheltenham College where I was teaching. It meant I could nip over to Tewkesbury where I had bought from a now sadly defunct shop a bow tie – I have always had questionable dress sense – which had come apart the first time I tied it (no ready tied bow ties at Cheltenham College, at least in those days.) The people at the shop were, as always, delightful and said they would repair it then and there if I could give them 10 minutes. I wandered up the road and found myself walking into an estate agent’s office. I was 30 at the time and, as a housemaster, was living in College accommodation, and thought it was about time I did the grown-up thing and bought a house. I asked them if they had anything in Tewkesbury at a ludicrously low sum. The man gave me a funny look and said he supposed I didn’t want anything modern, in which case he didn’t have anything. I then asked if he had anything in the country. At that precise moment, someone came into the shop with details of a cottage in Herefordshire. I said I would look at it the following day. I didn’t know Herefordshire, and had never heard of Craswall, but that was where the cottage was. It was not – shall we say? – in prime condition. In fact, especially to someone working at a snooty school in Cheltenham, it seemed to be a wreck. But the people there showed me round. It was not much better inside. The couple only lived in the two rooms downstairs – I think they had issues with the stone spiral staircase – but in one of the two rooms, there was a huge poster. It was for On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin – a book I had read and loved. I asked them why it was there, and they took me out of the house, pointed at the mountain behind and said that it was the Black Hill. There are occasions when you feel that everything is conspiring to push you in a certain direction. This was one of them. I made an offer the following day which was accepted. It has been my home ever since. For the last five years, I have lived in it permanently as Vicar of Craswall and the five neighbouring parishes which make up the Black Mountains Group. I have given the book as a present to many people and have re-read it many times. It still holds its magic, even if that magic feels just that bit dated, and even though I know that the book caused some issues when it first came out. For Chatwin, who combined charm and ruthlessness to a dangerous degree, used to sit around the pubs in the area when researching the book and pick up stories about local people which he used in the book. And of course local people knew exactly who these stories referred to, and in area where privacy is highly valued, this caused some hurt. But it is a book which, quite literally, changed my life. A Londoner by birth and a townie all my life, it gave the opportunity to discover life in an unbelievably special part of the world. And for that, I must always be eternally grateful.

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