On a glorious, summer-hot September day, I headed up the M5 to just north of Bath to climb up on one of rock’s most famous hills. Little Solsbury Hill is an Iron Age hillfort owned by the National Trust and a registered common with rights to graze sheep, cattle and horse, and surrounded by a second common on its upper slopes, Solsbury Common, managed by Batheaston Commons and with no less than 15 part owners. It’s also the subject of Peter Gabriel’s famous, euphoric 1977 hit, often heard on TV and in films with its characteristic 7/4 time signature and guitar that always seems to want to become the Postman Pat theme tune. Curiously, I stopped listening to Peter Gabriel around the time I started listening to New Order, around 1987, and only returned to his music this summer. Wondering if Solsbury Hill was a real place, I was thrilled to find it to be a registered common and determined to visit. And quickly found that when the song talks of ‘climbing up on Solsbury Hill’, that’s no exaggeration. It’s quite a gradient.
Gabriel’s lyrics are perhaps as much a reason for the popularity of Solsbury Hill as the music, as noted by Billboard, who in 2017 called it one of the greatest songs ever written. He describes an account of a spiritual experience, and the lyrics talk, deep in metaphor, of wrestling with the limitations and illusions of duty and the past until eventually a determation arises to take a less secure but less restrictive path. It’s more than likely he’s specifically thinking of his recent split with his previous band, Genesis, but the sentiment is well enough expressed to apply to anyone who’s found themselves at this kind of personal turning point. The antiquity of the site certainly makes a spiritual experience, whether with an eagle or not, seem much more lightly, and besides, the view down the Avon valley towards Bath would encourage reflection and re-evaluation of a life being lived down there, as would any hill overlooking a town.
I very much doubt Gabriel knew the place where his heart was ‘going boom-boom-boom’ was a registered common, but it’s certainly fitting. With a song so rich in symbol, it’s perfect that it’s written about and from a kind of place that is itself a symbol of personal and social freedom and suggests a mythical connection with the very distant past.
As a place to visit in its own right, it’s stunning. Even on a day as hazy as the one I chose, the views are impressive, with the expansive hilltop – flattened by ancient hands – at the southernmost end of the Cotswolds, giving incredible views towards Bath and on to Bristol and surrounding downland. The slopes include outcrops of limestone, some of which have eroded into magical shapes and faces.
But, boy, it was HOT that day. And humid. And so, wanting to explore but not get burned, I headed to the thin woodland at the bottom of the flanks. This, it turns out, is the kingdom of the cows. The hill is blessed with numerous springs, which have been channelled to fill up troughs and spill over creating boggy, muddy patches. It seems no-one explores this secret world of thorny, nettley tracks, dens with hoof-hardened soil floors, and nice, smooth rubbing trees.
I’ve become rather phobic about cows over the past few years, in part because I was chased, albeit slowly, by a herd of silly bullocks a while back, but also because I believe all my anxiety about the covid pandemic has been channeled into this one irrational fear. Anyway, exploring the kingdom of the cow was an important step towards overcoming this. Not only that, but because cows are so very large, it’s possible for a relatively large mammal such as myself to go where they go.
The non-human element of commons is something I’ve neglected thus far, other than as it relates directly to human activity, and this anthropocentric vision is something which, in light of the climate crisis, I need to challenge. Commons might be cultural human creations, often only readable as such after a bit of Googling, but it’s the non-human world which spends the most time there, which calls it home. Something very important to bear in mind for the future.