When Alan Dawson finally laid down his pen and placed OS Landranger 204 back in its proper place on the appropriate shelf, he would have little guessed that the result of his heroic effort would in the fullness of time appear in a colour supplement of The Guardian. His compilation of the relative hills of Britain, first published in 1992, started a trend that seems to have found no bounds. Up to that date climbers had measured a mountain’s vital statistics in terms of absolute height and, if they had to be tabulated, any order of precedence would be decided by such a yardstick. Munro with his Tables of Scottish Hills over 3000 feet was the first, which opened the door to tables of lesser heights by his fellow countrymen, Corbett and Donald, with a cut-off at 2500ft and 2000ft respectively. The contagion quickly spread across the Border and George Bridge also decided, having looked at the lie of the land, that the number 2000 had an appropriate ring.
And so for half a century matters came to a halt. As it was generally assumed that the lowest a mountain could stoop (at least in the UK) was 2000 ft, it seemed no further variation was possible. It was obviously time for some lateral thinking and cometh the hour, cometh the man. Dawson realised that some of the summits only made the cut aim because they had exceeded what had become a magic number and in reality they were little more than a bump to somewhere else. His response was to produce a list of summits that were worthy of the name by deciding for a hill to qualify for his list it had to have a drop of 500 ft (later 150m) on all sides. At the first count the list consisted of 1542 separate tops ranging from Ben Nevis (4408ft) to Muldoanich (503ft) in the Outer Hebrides and, as a good few of these were on private land and/or surrounded by impenetrable gorse, not to mention being stuck in the middle of the Atlantic, it appeared, at first sight, that Marilyn Bagging might be a minority sport.
But this was far from the case. Several people have completed the lot and entrants to the Marilyn Hall of Fame (set at a total of 600 summits bagged) are now ten a penny. Finally, in February 2020, , there appeared an article in The Guardian that seemed to set the seal of approval. It not only explained the general principles of Marilynism but also provided what might be described as a taster list. This ranged from Cnoc Mor in the north of Scotland to Kit Hill in the southwest of England and so appears at first sight to be fairly representative of the UK as a whole. Closer examination shows otherwise, at least in the sense of representing the geographical spread of the hills that appear in Dawson’s list. The article written by Dixi Wills lists nine separate hills. Two are in Scotland, two in Wales with the rest in England. Dawson’s list, on the other hand, has around 1200 in Scotland, 160 in Wales with the remainder in England. Closer examination of the five English hills shows a similar disparity. The vast majority of the English hills lie north of a line drawn from the Wye to the Wash and the bulk of those form part of the Lake District or the Pennines. Neither of these areas has a single representative. Whereas the southern counties that only contribute 3% of the separatehills in the UK are rewarded with two.
No Snowdon, no Scafell Pike, not even a Munro appears in Wills’ collection. In fact the choice seems to have been dictated for the most part by ease of access. Ditchling Beacon, the article’s flagship hill has a bus stop at the summit and in the South west where Dixi has the whole of Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and Exmoor on offer, the choice is Kit Hill a top that lies within a stone’s throw of a car park. The remainder of England hardly sets the pulse racing either. Admittedly the Long Mynd might make a fairly decent afternoon’s walk, but Cringle Moor is a highly missable protuberance on the Cleveland Way and Arnside Knott didn’t even make Dawson’s original list. The Celtic nations, at least, have three hills between them that would fall into the category of mountains but each is very much an outlier, an envious spectator of Higher Things. The was a time when The (Manchester) Guardian took mountaineering seriously. O tempora, O mores!