Walking up May Hill, Gloucestershire’s historic summit
This historic hill on the Gloucestershire Way, crowned by Corsican pine trees, has featured in poems, songs and the mystical May Day games. Gemma Thompson walked to the top
ast autumn, I escaped for a few days from a deflated North London to a gloriously gusty Gloucestershire with my partner Rob and our five-year-old daughter, Rosa. Our destination: May Hill, which straddles the border between Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, forming a short section of The Rambler’s Association 100 mile route of The Gloucestershire Way. It proved to be the perfect tonic for all of us, and in more ways than we had expected.
This one-mile loop trail is achievable for even the most modest of fitness levels (mine) and begins at the small car park on rural Yartleton Lane. As you pass through the gate, start by taking the path on the left-hand side.
There are a few 18th century legends that suggest how the hill, formerly called Yartleton Hill, got its present-day name. Perhaps May Hill was named after Admiral May, who planted the crop of pine trees at the top of the hill, as a beacon for sailors manoeuvring the River Severn? A pleasant thought, but my favourite theory is about the May Day games, where the people of the neighbouring parishes would meet on the hill each year on May Day, or “Beltane” (the official Celtic marker for the start of the summer), and have a mock battle. One side would fight for winter to remain, and the other would contest for the start of the summer. Summer always won by 5-0.
May Hill has since been revered by many. Cherished by Dymock Poets such as Robert Frost and Edward Thomas, this historic hill, crowned by pine trees, also featured in Poet Laureate John Masefield’s Edwardian no-holds-barred sensation The Everlasting Mercy. Composer Gerald Finzi’s ashes were scattered here, and even The Verve used May Hill as the backdrop for 2008’s ‘Rather Be’ video.
But we were here for the fresh air and child-friendly adventure. Earlier on, I had made sure to pack water, raisins, cereal bars and cookies (overkill for an hour’s walking, but essential bribes for little legs). It was the chance of spotting semi-wild ponies that finally coaxed my city kid out of the car. Although May Hill is maintained by The National Trust, these gentle creatures are free to graze the common land towards the summit (therefore dogs must be kept on a lead), and this heath of rare acid grassland is protected by its status of Site of Specific Scientific Interest. It’s not only the ponies who enjoy free reign of this particularly lush landscape; if you listen carefully you may hear the comforting chirp of a chubby meadow pipit, or catch the copper flash of a redstart.
The trail to the top was wide and spacious, with plenty of room to roam around safely. The going was slow as Rosa discovered a bounty of small fallen apples, and handfuls of silky ferns which were promptly stashed away in her bulging pockets. But it really didn’t matter, as our only “deadline” was sunset at the summit and for once we had allowed plenty of time for meandering.
Once past the Rowan Trees and through the kissing gate, the landscape opened up with views of The Malvern Hills, and, our goal, the cluster of Corsican Pines at the summit. I finally felt my body unclench as Rosa announced ‘Let’s race to the trees!’, and she was off. The space to run and blustery conditions felt like the perfect lockdown antidote. As we reached the top, almost on cue, the sun broke through the clouds, illuminating the hazy Severn Valley below, and shimmering through the Pines.
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Local legend tells of sailors using these trees as a beacon, to navigate along the estuary, as they are such a reassuring landmark. On a crisp sunny day like ours, you can see up to 12 counties from the top. A trig pillar helps you get your bearings, pointing the way to The Cotswolds, The Forest of Dean and The Welsh Mountains.
Amongst the pines, a Narnia-esque iron post commemorates the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, but the royal connections go further back. Today’s tall trees were planted in 1887, to replenish the declining numbers in the 19th century, and to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. However there are records of a cluster of trees on this site for at least 400 years, with tales of Prince Rupert of The Rhine and his Cavaliers taking cover amongst the pines during the Siege of Gloucestershire in 1643.
Although it was blowy at the top, the trees provided a shelter for us too, and a playground for Rosa. Taking the deepest breaths we could, of the cleanest air we had breathed for months, the May Hill magic started to work.
It’s not only hikers who enjoy this mystical bluff. Morris Dancers have gathered atop May Hill for centuries, dancing in the dawn every year on May Day. The sun rises with a clash of wooden sticks, and a rhythmic jingle of bells. You’re welcome to join them too, if you don’t mind the 5am wake up call.
Lead singer Richard Ashcroft sums it up the best in The Verve’s ‘Rather Be’:
I'd rather be here than be anywhere
Is there anywhere better than here?