Ring The Hill by Tom Cox (Unbound)
Here we are again taking wonderful walks along the lanes and fields, the beaches and – this is what it’s all about – up and down hills of England in the company of Tom Cox. The whole book is threaded through with hares, as almost mythical, unfindable creatures who do eventually, brilliantly, show up. The title – Ring The Hill – is just one of the names of the hare, and it has many (as I found out when I did my research before the book had arrived, because that’s the kind of person I am). You can find them in 13th Century English poem, the most well known version being a translation by Seamus Heaney: https://www.silentearth.org/the-names-of-the-hare/ (link also has more hare folklore, which is always a good thing).
Let’s get going after that short skidaddler digression.Like ‘21st Century Yokel‘ this is a collection of the author’s experiences living in the English countryside (there is a little hop over to Wales in here too). Tom moves around a lot, which sounds to me simultaneously exhausting yet fascinating – I think we all remain a little bit nomad – and it means this book ranges from the South West to the ‘nearly North’ and back again; he’s managed to live in Somerset, Devon, Wiltshire and Derbyshire – zig-zagging about the country like the hares referenced throughout this book – over a very short space of time. Each place is captured brilliantly by Cox, via wide ranging reflections on lots of other subjects.We begin in Somerset, Island Hopping. There are long walks in the Levels, and up Glastonbury Tor (that’s a good hill) where we meet Steve and Johanna, and hear the story of their long journey to being together. It’s a great story, told to a new acquaintance at the top of a magical hill; but walking will do that to you if you let it, I’ve had great chats with people I’ve never met before (or possibly will ever again) out on walks. Cox has a way of engaging with people and animals which is absolutely delightful, clearly people want to talk to him; and he’s captured Glastonbury brilliantly here. It is a strangely mesmerising town, land of politicised yoga, reluctant taxi drivers, crystal shops and goddess conventions, an island in the Somerset Levels, not really like anywhere else.In ‘Nearly Northern’ we enjoy a discussion on accents and ‘northern-ness’ . Tom feels ‘nearly Northern’ but it’s all relative. This philosophical musing leads us into a terrible winter in Derbyshire (sort of middle, but more northern than his native Nottinghamshire) where Tom takes up residence in what was surely a haunted house, not far from the plague village of Eyam [incidentally, as I was gearing up to write this review, back in December, Eyam appeared to me three times in one week, in podcasts and on the radio, which was very spooky].If you have read ‘Help The Witch’ (and Tom’s website) then some of the Derbyshire chapter will be familiar to you. The background to the title story of that book is all here. The terrible house, at the top of The Hill That Never Ends; a house with a ghost cat and too-high ceilings, where the wind gets in and the heating is very expensive, is really quite something. I’ve been rattled by houses before now but never come to the conclusion that:
…all the historical sorrow of this area, all its terrible suffering had oozed up the gradient and settled within the walls of my house.
Eventually all the neighbours pack up and leave, an enormous heating bill arrives and Tom returns expensively to Devon. I can’t say I blame him. He’s clearly hugely attached to Devon and the South West, despite being an ‘incomer’.The chapter on The Magic House in Totnes on the Dartington estate is a psychedelic dream compared to the winter nightmare of Derbyshire. This read like a period almost out of time, the kind of bucolic super saturated summer we all long for. It’s beautiful but also melancholy; some of the events recounted in the Dartington chapter brought me to weeping, and not many books manage that. The time in Dartington is actually before the time in Derbyshire, calender-wise, but It felt very right to read these in the order presented – the book skips about chronologically – as a hare bounds unpredictably across a field.I’m a huge fan of Tom’s writing, and yet again he’s given us a brilliant book in Ring The Hill, I love it as much as any of the others. It’s introspective thoughtful, funny and irreverent, but also there is sadness and loss. Cox’s writing carries this balancing act off deftly; rather like being in a wide ranging conversation with a good friend the tone constantly changes, but never feels wrong. Through Tom’s writing I’m encouraged us to engage with my surroundings, to be part of the environment, to stand and stare, to get out on a hill or to a beach, or just walk down the street and notice things. Reading these words slows me down and I am grateful for that.Ring The Hill is yet another beautiful Unbound edition (currently in hardback, paperback out in April) with beautiful illustrations throughout by Jo Cox, and cover art by Claire Melinksy. There are many wonderful hares in this book. Tom is known to draw ‘crap hares’ along with his signature, but because I back his books immediately I still don’t have one of those; I like to believe the crap hare is there is spirit, if not in ink.