The View from Little Solsbury

The ramparts on Little Solsbury date from the Iron Age, and the land within them was occupied as a camp or hillfort from around 300BC to 100BC. Alone among the hills surrounding Bath, it commands views in every direction, a distinction it shares with Kelston Round Hill, three and a half miles to the west. The views from here, though, over the valleys converging on Bath and its hot springs, are perhaps even more spectacular. The origins of its name are unclear, although it is thought that it may have derived from Sulis, the deity worshipped at those springs.

It takes a leap of the imagination, though, to comprehend what the view from Little Solsbury was like before the modern age, with its roads and urban sprawl, when the only sounds would have been those of the wind, of sheep cropping the turf and of skylarks high above. Or of what it would have been like, when the camp was occupied, looking out over the valley robed in moonlight. Or on moonless nights, when the darkness would have been broken only by the pinprick, flickering gleams of fires in hilltop camps ringing the horizon, and the only sounds would have been those of the birds and animals of the night, the hunters and the hunted.

Beyond that, history shelves off into myth. Little Solsbury is one of the candidates for the site of the Battle of Mons Badonicus or Mount Badon, at which Romano-British forces – possibly led by King Arthur – repelled an Anglo-Saxon advance in the late 5th or early 6th century. Writing in 1791, the Rev John Collinson also recorded the legend that Bladud built a temple dedicated to Apollo on the hill. More prosaically, he also revealed that, in his day, the land within its ramparts was an ‘arable field’ yielding ‘fine crops of barley’.

Little Solsbury’s current fame was assured when Peter Gabriel released ‘Solsbury Hill’ in 1977, describing a mystical moment when ‘time stood still’ as he climbed the hill. Ironically, this is one of Jeremy Clarkson’s Desert Island Discs – ironically because it was the Conservative government’s road-building programme that propelled Little Solsbury to national attention. The question of whether King Arthur fought the Saxons here may be a matter of conjecture; there was nothing illusory about the battle fought on Little Solsbury in 1994.

This was the first of the great anti-road building protests of the 1990s. Spurred into action by the imminent destruction of a sacred landscape little changed for millennia, the group of activists who took to the trees in the path of the diggers in March 1994 soon had a groundswell of local and national feeling behind them. In mid-May a weekend of action saw 1,200 people march on Little Solsbury.

The response of the authorities was draconian, with police and security forces using brute force to clear the campaigners out of their way, a tactic which backfired spectacularly. Many of the confrontations were captured by photographer Adrian Arbib. When the photographs were published, showing the campaigners responding with dignity to intimidation and violence, it was plain for all to see that the campaigners, far from being the feckless rabble the authorities portrayed them as, were idealists fighting for a cause – and a cause, moreover, with which a growing number of people were in sympathy. These were individuals undergoing hardship, abuse and provocation not for personal gain, but to try to save the environment and preserve a nationally important heritage site for future generations. The photographs also revealed the lengths to which those intimidating them were prepared to go. (The photographs can be viewed at www.solsburyhill.org.uk, which includes much more about the campaign.)

Ultimately, the battle was lost and the road was built, but the campaigners, by raising awareness of the implications of the government’s road building programme, successfully derailed around 300 other schemes. One lasting reminder of the campaign is the mizmaze cut in the turf below the ramparts of Little Solsbury by the campaigners. It commands a view up the Swanswick valley, with the caterpillar of trees at Freezing Hill on the horizon, a view now blighted by the dual carriageway slicing through it. Having been maintained and recut over the years, most recently in 2016, the mizmaze is still in remarkably good shape.

Today, surveying the scene from the ramparts of Little Solsbury, the legacy of the government’s intransigence is only too apparent, with the incessant roar of traffic mounting to a crescendo as you head down the slopes. Almost a quarter of a century on, a similar intransigence has raised its head, as councillors press ahead with plans to build a Park & Ride car park on the meadows through which the dual carriageway runs. Opponents of the scheme, along with many independent experts, believe it will have little or no impact on Bath’s traffic problems, but will be a hugely expensive and environmentally devastating white elephant. There have already been demonstrations larger than any Bath has seen for years; should the work begin these will undoubtedly escalate. The inheritors of the spirit of 1994 – and no doubt some of the original campaigners – will not let the wanton destruction of heritage and environment go unchallenged.

The Park & Ride is only part of a wider threat to the countryside east of Bath, however. The Batheaston by-pass was originally planned as a link in a superhighway linking Southampton to the M4. With plans to extend it shelved, Bath was left, in George Monbiot’s words, with ‘a high-spec dual carriageway to nowhere’ (Guardian, 11 February 2009) In that article, Monbiot went on to say that ‘building our way out of congestion and pollution is now a discredited idea, and for this the campaigners of Solsbury Hill can claim some responsibility’.

Despite this, proposals to link the bypass up with the A36 by building a road east of Bathampton have rumbled on for years, and Bath’s Conservative MP, Ben Howlett, has lobbied tirelessly for it to be built. Although only short, it would have a massive impact, and not only on the immediate area. Linking the A46 and the A36 would effectively make two narrow, winding and inherently unstable roads on the sides of steep valleys part of a major trunk route. Although the A46 and A36 are currently used as a through route by HGVs and other vehicles, many drivers are deterred from using this route because they either have to drive through Bath or, if their vehicle is small enough, use the single-carriageway and frequently congested tollbridge at Batheaston. Promoting increased usage of roads little changed for two centuries or more, and falling far short of the standards a new road would have to meet, seems a supreme act of folly. The A36, in particular, is so prone to slippage and subsidence that it has had to be closed for lengthy periods in recent years to shore it up, work that, by the nature of the terrain it runs through, can never provide a long-term solution.

But this link road is what Howlett and his ilk propose as the panacea for Bath’s traffic woes. Never mind about looking for sustainable solutions, never mind about investing in a viable public transport infrastructure. Rip up what is left of the countryside, encourage more people to get into their cars, to drive along roads manifestly unfit for the purpose, to park in Park & Rides … pave over paradise in the name of unsustainable economic growth.

Eight years on, George Monbiot’s belief that building our way out of congestion and pollution was a discredited idea seems to have been over-optimistic. With climate-change deniers taking charge and notions of progress ditched in favour of a headlong dash into the least creditable aspects of our past, it seems increasingly the case that, the worse an option is, the more chance there is of it being adopted. And, when George Monbiot returned to the subject of the bypass protest in May 2017 to address the current state of the nation, he made no bones about the enormity of the challenges ahead:

‘I remember being struck by the thought – when lying with a group of dreadlocked anarchists at the foot of an iron age hill fort in 1994, in the path of an earth mover commissioned by John Major’s government – that we were the conservatives and they were the destructives. We were seeking to defend the fabric of the nation while they, with their road schemes joining the dots between scheduled ancient monuments, chalk downlands, water meadows and woodlands, were trying to pulp it. They claimed to be patriots, but we loved this country more than they did … I find it hard to see how anyone can love people without also loving the living world that gave rise to us, or can love our civilisation without loving what remains of those that came before.’ (Guardian, 3 May 2017; the full article is at: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/03/true-conservatives-fake-ones-destroying-britian-theresa-may-real-patriots.)

The battle lines are drawn; only history will tell whether the fight to save this precious part of our inheritance will be more bitter than any Little Solsbury has yet witnessed. For the sake of future generations, though, we can only hope that it succeeds.

(An edited extract from Andrew Swift’s forthcoming book, Country Walks from Bath)

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