The book (The Hill) is a psychogeography of a hill I have walked for fifty years, blending my own experience with the rich and layered human history of the place. For performances, I present the poems as part of a multi-media show which will include pictorial references as well as recordings giving voice to the local people who have worked and played on the hill. Thirty years before Kinder Scout, a quarry owner closed the hill to local people and this led to riots; the ringleaders were working men, clay-diggers and labourers, and the court case papers in the county archives have provided source material which have been recorded by a voice actor as part of the show.
Angela France is a powerful wordsmith. Her lyric tale of a fight for common land against the predatory wealthy summons up ‘an ancient limestone promontory’ as a symbol of the inalienable right to move freely through one’s native landscape. Voices of those whose lives were nourished by the hill live in France’s precise and vivid portrait. This magical book shows poetry can still perform its ancient task of recording history memorably. The Hill makes an essential contribution to the literature of landscape. – Claire Crowther
You know those ads that say "If you like X, you'll like Y"? Risky, I always think, but if you like the work of Steve Ely, you stand a very good chance of liking this. You'll find the same sensuous, intellectual delight in the sound of words and the shapes they make on the page, the same consciousness of the land's bones, the same resentment toward those who claim to "own" it. Exuberant, controlled, angry, elegiac, this is a poetry of landscape, politics, witness. – Sheenagh Pugh
In Angela France’s multiply-layered word-geology of sited memory and belonging, the things of a hill long to still be, to persist. They speak waller and badger. Stone is agent there, its time-strata shimmy and the mine cable cracks, echoing like broken lineage and denial of rights. The path is cut, but re-opened by the rise of feet. In the here and then of ‘The Hill’, in its fissures, are accidents and conflicts over what “land” means: about where a foot can be placed or a line drawn. Then it all swings around a poem rising up on hawk wing. This may be a soft telling where harsh workings are overgrown, where a shadow “might be a huddle of women or a bramble”, but, with a sharp turn of phrase, it can slice your nose, whip a Squire, burn you with the steepness of the morning after or put its long stem-like feet right in the centre of your chest; these are words that make you ache for the place. - Phil Smith, author of ‘Mythogeography’
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Leckhampton Hill lies to the South of Cheltenham and forms part of the Cotswold way. The hill has a long human history. There is an Iron Age Fort on the crest and traces of a Roman encampment as well as a colony of Roman snails on the lower slopes. The hill was quarried for its limestone for nearly 400 years and for most of that time local people used the hill for recreation and travel under the quarry’s original owner and succeeding generations.
Piano merchant Henry Dale bought the quarries, as speculation, in 1894 and his first act was to post notices closing the paths and rights of way over the hill He built a cottage for his foreman, Cratchley, which blocked a right of way and filled in a ‘pit’ where working people held a fair every Easter.
Trouble rumbled on for a few years with people breaking fences and trying to persuade the RDC to act against Dale. While the protests were led by working people, they had support in the town. Miss Beale, founder and principal of Cheltenham Ladies College sent girls to walk on the hill for exercise and banned Dale’s pianos from the school. Frustration came to a head in 1902 when at least 2,000 people marched on the hill and tore down the cottage, watched by the police who stated it was done ‘with no unnecessary circumstances of disorder’
The instigators were the ‘Leckhampton Stalwarts’ led by Walter Ballinger, a clay-digger, who was styled in the press as ‘The King of the Common’
Tramway cottage was rebuilt and the stalwarts set out to tear it down again in 1904 but the Riot Act was read and the ‘Stalwarts’ arrested and sentenced to hard labour. Only Walter Ballinger was kept in gaol as a test case while lengthy court proceedings about the rights of way and the riots took place. Ballinger was eventually released and the courts ruled rights of way on three paths, which Dale fenced off from the rest of the hill. Ballinger later wrote from the WWI trenches that the wire reminded him of the fences on the hill.
Dale’s quarry company went bankrupt and the council bought the whole hill in 1927. It was designated as common land and is still open to all.