Clee Hills be Holy in Shropshire
Ali and I are driving up the hill in a dented Honda Civic that belonged first to Dad, then to my brother, Tim. When he emigrated to a mysterious tech job in the States, he gave it to me, complete with a boot full of half-empty booze bottles, a yucca, a coffee machine, half an ice cream maker, and a twig in a pot.
“Look after the pomegranate,” he texted me later, “it’s special to us.”
I promised I would, but in truth the twig had never left the Oxfordshire car park from which I had picked up the car, a week after he had arrived in California; I thought it was dead, so I had ditched it.
At that point, the car itself was only five years old and far more space-age than the much-loved sit-on mower of a car that I owned before, which I called the Beast, precisely because it wasn’t one. Our step-grandfather Roy had owned a Honda Civic too, and Tim and I remember him taking us on increasingly perilous trips around the south coast in the summer weeks we’d spend with him and our Nan, near misses and racist slurs demurred by Werther’s Original and blocky travel sweets. Roy, nonetheless a gentle man, eventually drove his Honda through their garage wall one day, and that was the end of both his car and his driving career.
On this particular outing, Ali and I are paying a visit to Titterstone Clee on our way back to Bristol from Manchester, where we have just attended her grandad’s funeral. It is the beginning of February, 2016. It is cold; snow is on the ground, and the rain is atomising into a hundred thousand tiny blobs.
The hill is a tump, a mountain, decorated with quarry scoops and cliffs. Over there, the story goes, they filmed a TV advert telling people not to die of ignorance; over there was a drowned village; over there a barrow; over there two radars; over there a burned out car scar; out there, beyond the thick wall of cloud, a view so pastoral that Tolkien was alleged to have written about it and called it the Shire.
I wobble the car into the car park. The surface is full of mirrors where rainwater has gathered, the sky on the land, placidly hiding potholes as deep as wells. I stop the car, and we step out gingerly into the puddles and schist. The old quarry face looms.
In 1962, the Civil Aviation Authority built a radar station in the drystone embankments of an Iron Age hill fort on the top of the hill. My Dad worked for the CAA, and took a job as an engineer there in 1987. He spent many happy days working on this sometimes baking, sometimes frozen, windswept peak, fixing radars, drinking tea, and watching birds from the station window. He left in 1994.
The radars, dotted around the hilltop, map the aerospace across the region, feeding data about the whereabouts of planes in the sky to air traffic controllers across the country. This was the latest in a wave of technological innovations on that hill going back over two and a half thousand years, from hill forts, to coal mining, lime production and stone quarrying, to farming, aviation, and meteorology.
“Cle Hills be holy in Shropshire” wrote John Leland, in his Henry VIII sponsored survey of England, Itinerary Of John Leland In Or About The Years 1535–1543. I share this feeling, and it is why I’ve brought Ali here, to visit the hill and tell her all about my family and our past.
We leave the car park and are suddenly exposed to the north wind and more rain, as the gorse and acid soil and lumps of rock and lumps of sheep wink in and out of focus. We head for the summit.
Dad loved it here. In his day he was one of a team of a dozen or so who ran the site twenty-four hours a day. I never really understood specifically what they did, but he and his colleagues kept the radars working — colleagues like Alan, who would drive to work along the narrow road up to the summit with one hand on the steering wheel, eating his breakfast with the other, and who arrived at the radar station one day, only a little late, but with cornflakes all over the car ceiling, a dented roof, and a slightly confused look on his face.
Then there was the other Alan, whose handshake is still very firm, and whose aunt was a potato farmer and primary school teacher who taught us about potato varieties. Once, mistaking me for a troublemaker in the canteen queue, she slapped me across my bare little leg.
‘You’d better not be crying, Simon,’ she called to me afterwards, in front of the whole school at pickled beetroot and sultana curry lunch. I was.
There are actually three Clee Hills; Titterstone Clee where my Dad worked, Brown Clee some miles to the north, and a third, somewhat harder to define Clee Hill, an undulation in the same mass of high ground as Titterstone.
Leland describes them all as follows; “the Highest Parte of Cle Hills is cawlyd Tyderstone. In it is a fayre playne Grene, and a Fountayne in it. There is anothar Hill a 3 miles distaunt from it caulyd The Browne Cle. There is a Chace for Deare. Ther is anothar cawllyd Caderton’s Cle, and ther be many Hethe Cokks, and a broket, caulyd Mille Brokcet, springethe in it, and aftar goithe into a Broket cauled Rhe, and Rhe into Tende by neth Tende Bridge.”
Caderton’s Cle, by the description, is likely to be what is now Clee Hill, an area of higher land above Cleehill village, to the west of Catherton Common, and due south-southeast of Titterstone’s peak. Tende refers to the River Teme; also, Brown Clee (1,770ft) is technically a higher peak than Titterstone Clee (1,749ft).
On this trip, however, Brown Clee, with its repeater mast and trees and plane-fuselage-hiding-lake, and even the other Clee, are invisible to us. Instead, we blindly slip and slide up towards the footpath, whose entrance is adjacent to the big gates of the radar station, and which runs along the perimeter fence, at the top of the hill fort embankment.
The weather worsens. I try to speak but the air is blown from my mouth and the words don’t even form. I am powerless; I can hardly breathe. After a few more unsteady feet, Ali calls out, shouting although she’s next to me, to say we should probably turn around. She’s right; we admit defeat and head back to the car.
Back at the place we’re staying — a small cabin built in a Welsh village by a couple for their daughter and her young child — we light a fire in the log burner to get the rain out of our bones, but the humidity and wooden walls and insulation conspire against us; we are forced to open all the windows and doors to let the accidental sauna cool. The rain steams outside, and the fire goes out.
Out in the porch, tucked in little pots, we’ve got some wallflower seedlings — Erysimum ‘Spice Island’ and Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’. Ali’s grandad, a keen gardener, had them growing and ready to go for the spring, so we have taken them from Knutsford to plant in our own garden.
Almost one year later will come the phone call, and within a week, I will be sitting at Dad’s bedside on his first trip to hospital in Exeter, and in Bristol those wallflowers will be getting ready to bloom, orange, purple.