How to describe a place I can hardly remember?
So many years ago now, and never revisited. And yet it had such an effect on me, it had such an atmosphere!
I am a child, quite young. I am on a school trip, in a coach. It was some sort of pilgrimage to a religious site on the East Coast of England. Walsingham, I think. Vague memories of a chapel and a café, and teachers complaining about children being charged for tapwater.
Either on the way there or on the way back, we stopped in a strange place. Out in the countryside, maybe near a small village. A large expanse of ground which was all lumpy and bumpy, like sand dunes only covered by grass. Maybe ancient burial mounds, maybe something to do with a mine and extraction process, some sort of old slagheaps, overgrown.
I don’t know why our group was there, whether by design or accident. But we walked, a group of children, so young I think that we were hand in hand in pairs, through this strange landscape.
I don’t even remember whether it was really, officially, called the Hills and the Hollows, or if that was just a name I, or us children, gave it.
The weather was dull and wild and windy.
The place felt isolated, remote, empty.
Was it supposed to hold some educational value? If so, that passed me by.
We must have been left alone to explore, though that would have been negligent on the part of the teachers. Maybe my companion and I were just naughty, and escaped from the group.
But somehow we were alone, me and a childhood friend – a girl with an unusual French name.
And something happened. Somehow I was caught up in the wild atmosphere. Somehow it spoke to me. Somehow it was very moving, very significant to me.
I think I must have stood on one of the hills, looking out over the undulating vista, and made some profound announcement. Or maybe just stood still for too long, feeling something, experiencing something. Because what I remember is that my friend said something to me afterwards along the lines of, ‘As long as you don’t go all funny again’.
Somehow, I ‘went all funny’.
We got lost.
Somehow, from it being a momentary excursion, we were entirely separated from the other children in the group and completely disorientated amongst the Hills and the Hollows. They looked the same in every direction. If you stood at the top of one, you couldn’t see out. Not only did we not know where our school party had got to, we couldn’t even get out to a road.
Only eventually that’s what happened, we found ourselves on a country lane and realised we were nowhere near the coach. We were in a panic. I suppose in the end we walked along the road and found the coach, because I remember everyone on it waiting for us, and I do believe we were seriously told off.
Maybe it’s the sort of experience that time has made more significant. Maybe we were only lost briefly, maybe other people were lost as well. Maybe it wasn’t such a big or a wild place. Maybe it was just that as a child, it was something new to me – the strange terrain and countryside atmosphere were unfamiliar.
But it still lingers in my mind when I think of it, that strangeness, almost a spookiness, of a quiet windswept place – windswept on the top of the mounds, quiet in the sheltered hollows. Walking through the grassy dunes and valleys, loving it so much, and feeling it was special. Feeling that something called to me, affected me so much that someone thought my behaviour strange.
Why could I never find it again? Maybe it’s been levelled, built over.
I must have another go at locating the Hills and the Hollows, seeing if it affects me the same way, maybe seeing if the strange spirit I encountered there once long ago, recognises and welcomes me.
Author’s Note: Thanks to the internet I think I’ve found this place now – it’s an old quarry.
“Hills and Holes, Barnack, Peterborough. Locally referred to as Hills and Hollows. The limestone, known as Barnack rag, was used to build local abbeys such as Peterborough and Crowland. It is now one of Britain’s most important wildlife sites.”