I can cope with Somerset. The bit I’m standing in is flat, and I’m used to that. There are some hills, the Quantocks and the Mendips, but they’re safely somewhere over there. I’m in the Somerset Levels, and it’s reassuringly familiar. I was born in the Fens, my mother was born in the Fens and her mother was born in the Fens. My grandfather’s side of the family came from Norfolk, so there’s no help there. You see, we lack the downhill gene.
I think this is how it works: your average Fenlander steps out of their front door and looks to the sky. We all do it. Known as the ‘Land of the Big Sky’, it gives us spectacular sunrises and glorious sunsets. We gaze up at the sky a lot. Let’s face it, there’s not much else to look at. So there we are, wandering along, gazing at the sky, and all the while the ground is comfortingly flat beneath our feet. It’s solid, unmoving and just plain old there. We can cope with that.
Actually, we can handle uphill as well. We treat uphill like flat land with a bit of an attitude. It comes up to meet us a little earlier than anticipated, that’s all.
Peterborough, my home town, is so flat that hill-starts are omitted from the driving test.
Where it all goes wrong is going down. Downhill – we just don’t get it. We put out our feet and… the ground just isn’t there. We wave our feet about a bit, and still, the ground isn’t there. The semi-circular canals in our ears aren’t calibrated for this. Hyperventilating, we tear our eyes away from the sky and squint downwards. Stumbling, we reconnect our feet with the ground, but trust has been lost. We don’t feel safe anymore.
Peterborough, my home town, is so flat that hill-starts are omitted from the driving test. Really, they are.
I remember once at work, our office enjoyed glorious views of Peterborough Cathedral and the Fens beyond. I remember once just cracking open my packed lunch when Hayden, my boss, jumped to his feet.
‘I’m off to collect my new mountain bike!’
I paused, a tuna and sweetcorn sandwich halfway to my mouth. ‘There’s a general lack of mountains around these parts though, isn’t there?’
Hayden glared at me. ‘Yes,’ he said eventually, ‘but there are some very steep curbs!’
Deep in the Fens lies Ramsay Heights, a village which stands at a heady six-and-a-half feet above sea level. It boasts its own Mountain Rescue Club. Okay, full disclosure: Ramsay Heights Mountain Rescue is a drinking club. Aside from the ale-quaffing and raucous songs about the joys of flat land, it’s a source of great comfort to us Fenlanders to know that there’s someone qualified to help us down from precipitous ant hills, steep kerbs, and all other forms of unnecessary topography.
There is one exception to the lovely flatness of the Somerset Levels: Glastonbury-Bloody-Tor, a stubborn lump of rock rising to an altitude of 518 feet which resists all attempts at erosion. Cathy, Emma and I have come to visit today. Glastonbury village is a delight, if a little bit twee. We wander past any number of crystal shops, boutiques offering tarot-readings and cafes selling bubble tea. Outside the meditation centre, a guy sporting a white tracksuit split open to the waist hands me his business card. A gold pentacle medallion gleams at his breast. Resinous fingers of patchouli and frankincense beckon me into hippy clothes shops. Tiny bells tinkle. The girls do a great job steering me away. I have enough patchwork jackets and gypsy skirts.
Emma acts as our Glastonbury Tor Tour Guide. I explain to her on the way up about the Fenlander’s lack of downhill gene, about problematic steep kerbs and Ramsay Heights Mountain Rescue.
She thinks I’m being funny.
We make it to the top. Four-square, the iconic landmark, a derelict church, towers above us. Fields roll away beneath, patches of ochre and emerald overlaid by hedges and embellished with trees. The views are stunning. Far off, at a suitably safe distance, the land rises again to hills. Up here on the Tor it’s blowing a gale, but there’s enough sky to keep your average Fenlander very happy.
There’s only one problem. Now I have to get down.
Maria Leel lives in Shropshire and is the author of several short stories and a novel. A final year student on a master’s degree in Travel and Nature Writing, she writes across many genres.