Friday, 31 January 2014

The History of Welsh Hill Lists

The History of Welsh Hill Lists – Part 1

The Early Years

1911 - John Rooke Corbett

No history of the hill lists of Wales would be complete without due reverence to Sir Hugh Munro, who in 1891 published his first Tables of the 3000 foot mountains of Scotland.  These consisted of 283 separate mountains with a further 255 subsidiary tops.  Except for the minimum height criterion the list was arbitrary in nature and blazed a trail for all hill lists that followed.  Sir Hugh never quite completed his 538 tops; he was working on a revision of his Tables when he died in 1919 with only three tops remaining to visit.

Subsequent years saw the Rev. Archibald Eneas Robertson become the first person to complete Sir Hugh’s 283 ‘Munros’, when on the 28th September 1901 he reached the top of Meall Dearg on the Aonach Eagach.  The Rev. A.R.A. Burn in 1923 not only repeated the Munros but also completed the subsidiary tops.  In 1929 J.A.Parker became the third person to complete the Munros.  Our Welsh story now properly starts with John Rooke Corbett, Munroist number four.

John Rooke Corbett was a district valuer based in Bristol.  He completed the Munros and tops in 1930, only the second person to do so.  As well as this, Corbett compiled a list of 219 Scottish mountains, between the heights of 2500 feet and 2999 feet, and subsequently climbed them all.  His listing of ‘Corbetts’ had no specific written criterion for defining a mountain, the Scottish Mountaineering Club (SMC) who the list was bequeathed to, analysed it and decided that each mountain had to have a minimum re-ascent of 500 feet on all sides.  However, subsequent detailed analysis of maps of the time by Robin N Campbell implies that Corbett was using ten separate ring contours to denote one hill from another.  The metric equivalent of the 500 feet criterion would form the basis of a much later and important list publication.  With Corbett’s listing and later publication the minimum height criterion used in a Scottish hill list had been reduced from one of 3000 feet to one of 2500 feet.  But Corbett had already used this minimum height criterion in a published list in the 1911 Rucksack Club Journal and thus the first published systematic listing of Welsh hills starts.

The Rucksack club was formed in October 1902 and its journal started in 1907.  Published on an annual basis, its 1911 edition had a five page article entitled ‘Twenty-Fives’.  These Twenty-Fives were the 131 mountains above 2500 feet that Corbett had noted in England and Wales.

After an introductory page the listing starts with a brief description of each group, followed by the mountain’s name, and in most, but not all cases, its height.  The last two pages relate to Wales with the Berwyn as the first group listed comprising Cader Fronwen and Moel Sych.  The next grouping, to the North of Ogwen Lake, consists of fourteen peaks.  Eleven mountains make up the third grouping, between the Ogwen and Llanberis passes.  Snowdon follows with four listed summits, whilst further West is the solitary peak of Moel Hebog.  The Moelwyn make up the next group with Moel Siabod and Moelwyn listed.  The following group ranges over an area that includes Arenig Fawr, Aran Mawddwy and Cader Idris; Cowarch is noted in this group as the only one that cannot be reached in an easy day from either Llanuwchllyn or Dolgelly.  Corbett’s last group is to the great ridge of old red sandstone that separates Brecknockshire from Glamorgan and comprises nine summits.  In all, 51 Welsh mountains are listed.  Corbett ends with a remark concerning Plynlimmon, which he states: “Has been described by writers who should know better as the third highest mountain in Wales, [this] only reaches 2,468 feet above sea level”.

With this article Corbett had set the precedent that many a subsequent list compiler would follow by incorporating the hills of England and Wales in one publication.  It also seems that the accepted spelling of hill names has altered in the years between this list’s publication and the writing of this article.  Corbett’s reasoning for producing the list was based upon the peak-bagging exploits of the then president of the Rucksack Club, Philip S. Minor.  Corbett goes on to explain that: “Minor was the first to take up the idea of ascending every mountaintop in England and Wales over 2500 feet”.  Because of this, members of the Rucksack Club scrutinised reputable maps of the time, such as Bartholomew’s or the one-inch Ordnance map, and if any point was above the 2500 foot contour line and was marked, it went on the list.  This of course was only done as Minor was approaching the completion of his task, so he could at least do it properly.  Although the exact date is unknown, Philip S. Minor became the first person to complete the Twenty-Fives when he finished Corbett’s list in 1911 or 1912.

An excerpt from the introduction to John Rooke Corbett's 'Twenty-Fives'

Although Corbett’s Twenty-Fives is accepted as the first systematic listing of Welsh hills to be published, it certainly wasn’t the first published listing.  During the Victorian age, hills with their respective heights were sometimes divided into groups and occasionally appeared in published format.  Harry Longuville Jones’s ‘Illustrations of the natural scenery of the Snowdonian mountains, accompanied by a description, topographical and historical of the county of Caernarvon’ is but one example.  Charles Tilt of London and Thomas Stevenson of Cambridge published this in 1829.  It included hills, with their heights, arranged in six divisions of mountains.  But detailed listings with a set criterion for defining a mountain only arrived in Wales with John Rooke Corbett’s 1911 publication.  It was only a year later when after thorough and exhaustive examination of the map of England and Wales, that an update to the ‘Twenty Fives’ appeared.

Next installment due on the 30th March 2014

For the Preface please click {here}

For Part 2 please click {here}

For Part 3 please click {here}

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