Title: Cols and Passes of the British Isles
Author: Graham Robb
Publisher: Particular Books
Order: Penguin RandomHouse
What it is: The cols and passes of the British Isles, listed by country and county
Strengths: It's more than a mere compendium of geographical data, Robb's warmth and passion for the subject offers a refreshing take on reading the landscape of the British Isles - and a different way of thinking about cols in general
Weaknesses: The data part of it is crying out for the bells and whistles an electronic version could offer
"I've gone up unbelievable passes but gotten no credit for it because a champion hadn't marked it. Back from vacation, if I say to a friend: 'I climbed the Finestre pass,' he might reply: 'Well I took it easy in the Caribbean.' On the other hand, if I tell him: 'Hey, I went up the Izoard,' his face lights up. It's the same if I mention the Puy de Dôme, Alpe d'Huez, Tourmalet, Vars or Pra-Loup."
~ Paul Fournel, Need for the Bike
Picture in your mind the Col du Tourmalet. Not what it really looks like, but your mental image of it. Possibly you will be thinking of it as a peak, something like the way Pellos portrayed the mountains of the Tour de France: big, savage, pointy.
Instead of being a peak, though, the Col du Tourmalet is in reality a trough. It is the low point (2,115m) between the Pic du Midi de Bigorre (2,877m) to the north and the Pic d'Espade (2,467m) to the south.
You probably don't know much about the Pic du Midi. Or, for that matter, the observatory built atop it in 1908, two years before Henri Desgrange invented the Pyrénées. The mountain may rise nearly 800 metres above the Tourmalet and it may even be the distant mountain that gives the col its name (no one knows). But, for you, for most cycling fans, for most Tour de France fans, the col is the summit, the high point. All cols are summits. The only point that matters. The peak presence.
Our misunderstanding of cols, Graham Robb (The Discovery of France) tells us in the delightful Cols and Passes of the British Isles, comes about as a result of the way, say, that 'the Col du Tourmalet' has become shorthand for 'the climb to the Col du Tourmalet'. (Or you could look at the way the climb to the ski station at Hautacam is quickly becoming 'the Hautacam.') This is just one of the fascinating things you will discover reading Cols and Passes, a beautiful little book that manges to take something as seemingly dull as lists of cols and passes in the British Isles and, by telling the story behind those lists, and by telling stories about some of those cols, gently rewires your brain and changes the way you look at the countryside you inhabit.
What is a col? The word itself is French and simply means neck. It came to be applied to the natural world, came to describe a gap between two hills, in the seventeenth century, Robb tells us. Two hundred years later the English were using it as a geological term, where it came to mean the low point on a ridge between two summits. The raw material of a col, Robb tells us, is a rocky ridge. Add a bit of glaciation, seismic activity or tectonic movement and round the process off with some erosion - or, if you're in a hurry, mechanical diggers - and, presto!, you've got yourself a col. A gap in the landscape. An absence, not a presence.
That's how easy it easy to change your mental image of a col, from A to V.
* * * * *
Yolland: Where are we?
Yolland: I'm lost.
Owen: Here. And the name of that ridge is Druim Dubh. Put English on that, Lieutenant.
Yolland: Say it again.
Owen: Druim Dubh.
Yolland: Dubh means black.
Yolland: And Druim means ... what? a fort?
Owen: We met it yesterday in Druim Luachra.
Yolland: A ridge! The Black Ridge!
~ Brian Friel, Translations
Cols get complicated when you start naming them. Across the multiple languages that have left their mark on the landscape of the British Isles all sorts of words have been used to name them: Robb lists 138 (which, to confuse the issue, also get applied to things that aren't cols). These words matter, for names tell you things, they can describe the landscape or tell you stories from its past. Understanding names is an important part of being able to read the landscape you travel through, a skill all who play outdoors should possess.
In Ireland we use the word béal - the Irish for mouth - to describe "a broad col with a steep drop." Céim (step) is used to describe a "mountain col with fairly gentle drops." Cúm is applied to "either a low col in rolling hills or a high saddle." Conair names a "col on a high, narrow ridge." Cúil is used for "a broad col." Eag records "a col marked by a rocky cleft or a steep descent." Malaidh describes "a broad col," mám is "a high col" and scailp is "a col in a deep glen."
The last of those, scailp, names the road that takes you from Dublin into Wicklow and is the place to be of a Saturday or Sunday morning if you're in the capital and want to see the Irish MAMIL is all its sweaty glory (as well as the county border it's also the border between the end of the warm up and the start of the real riding at the commencement of a day or, at the day's end, the point where the effort ceases and you can start spinning the pain out of your legs the rest of the way home). Here's a description of it from a nineteenth century travelogue:
"By the Enniskerry road - we shall proceed by that - the county is entered at 'the Scalp,' a chasm in the mountain which separates it from the county of Dublin. The mountain appears to have been divided by some sudden shock of nature. The sides are not 'precipitous,' although the ascent is difficult, in consequence of the huge masses of granite that prevent the semblance of a path, and not unfrequently so jut out, as to suggest the idea of exceeding danger seeming as if they may be driven into the vale by a sudden gust of wind. Through these over-hanging cliffs the road runs; enormous granite blocks, of many tons in weight, having been 'rolled back' out of the path of the traveller. The sides are perfectly naked; and so similar are both in structure and appearance, as to lead the spectator to imagine that the disruption had but recently occurred, and that another earthquake might reunite them, without leaving a fissure between."
I'll hazard a guess that few cyclists riding through the Scalp - Irish or international - realise that this gently rising rocky defile is in fact a col, a distant relation of the more illustrious Col du Tourmalet. The same can be said for most of the 2,002 cols that Robb lists for the entirety of the British Isles (France, by comparison, claims 10,892 cols). Before Robb, the Club de Cents Cols in France had tried to make a proper listing of cols in the British Isles and only came up with 533 of them. How - and why - Robb came to compile his listing is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Cols and Passes, the story of how he went from knowing a handful of cols from personal experience, past the French tally and on to how his own reckoning of two thousand and more came about:
"It was while plotting walking and cycling routes through northern Cumbria and the Borders that I began to come across some certifiable cols on the largest-scale Ordnance Survey maps, on old charts and surveys of the turnpike system, in ballads, ales and travellers' guides. Sometimes, the only clue to a col's existence lay in the record of a cattle raid or a smugglers' route. These Border cols had exotic names such as ‘hass', ‘hause' and ‘swire'. A few days to the west and the north, in the patchwork of Gaelic, Norse and Anglo-Saxon, there were ‘nicks' and ‘snecks', ‘slaps' and ‘slochs', ‘bealachs' and ‘lairigs'. Nearly all these cols were missing from the list of the Club des Cent Cols, and most of them seemed to be unknown to walkers and cyclists, yet these out-of-the-way places were nerve centres of British history: the eleven cols of the Whin Sill crags which were incorporated into Hadrian's Wall; Windy Swire, through which the young Mary, Queen of Scots, rode into Liddesdale in 1566; Whitrope Hass on the cloudy watershed above the disused tunnel of the old North British Railway.
"To see these cols for the first time is to feel the thrill of a Victorian explorer: the place itself may be known, but the discoverer of cols arrives simultaneously in the present and the past. At Carter Bar, the highest crossing of the English-Scottish border, a piper in a kilt and the radio of a burger van offered up their music like a Tibetan prayer to the winds that sweep over the magnificent desolation. ‘You Are Here', says the information panel, an arrow pointing at ‘Carter Bar'. But Carter Bar refers to the eighteenth-century toll-gate. Long before there was a road, this was Redeswire, the ‘swire', or col, of the river Rede, where Scots and English fought their last major skirmish in 1575."
There is a part of me wishes that Cols and Passes could be a fully interactive experience, that every col and every pass Robb lists could be placed on a detailed map and the story of its naming told. But the other part of me knows that that would be to spoil everything that is good about this book. Cols, Robb tells us, are portals rather than obstacles, gateways from one valley to the next. But they are not just doorways in the landscape: "While a col is a very precise physical reality that you can define to a metre, it is also a nodal point of history leading you to places historically that you wouldn't have gone to otherwise." It is fitting, then, that his wonderful little book - pocket sized and as beautifully illustrated as it is written - should itself be just that, a portal, a gateway. The only way to truly appreciate cols is to pass through them and the only way to truly appreciate the stories they tell is to seek those stories out yourself. And if Cols and Passes of the British Isles doesn't make you want to do that then take my advice: sell your bike, it's wasted on you.