The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came down a Mountain

This letter by Ed Sullivan of Visalia, California appeared in Professional Surveyor, Nov./ Dec. 1998, discussing the whimsical movie (and book) The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came down a Mountain:

The story, which concerned Welsh villagers building up the local mountain to the required 1000 feet so that English surveyors who had previously measured it and called it a hill would record it as a mountain, purportedly was based upon a true incident. I was going to Wales in July 1998 and decided it would be interesting to locate the village, find the mountain and climb it.

Ffynnon Garw was a fictional name. The real village is Taff’s Well (Ffynnon Taf in Welsh), and the mountain is Garth Mountain. Writer/Director Christopher Monger was born in Taff’s Well and had heard the story from his grandfather and other villagers. (The filming of the movie was not made at Taff’s Well. That area, near Cardiff, was too built up to portray village life in 1917. The actual filming was done in northern Wales at Llanrhaeadr-yn-Mochnant, located 10 miles west of Owestry.)

Garth Mountain and Taff’s Well are located six miles northwest of Cardiff. I visited the library in Taff’s Well. The librarian was both interested and helpful. She gave me a copy of the book and a copy of the only large-scale map available, which was a 1921 edition of the Ordnance survey of the area. Following the librarian’s directions, I climbed the mountain. It was an easy climb because a road went part way up. At the top there clearly was a mound of dirt, and on top of the mound was a concrete marker that appeared to be a surveyor’s triangulation station.

In some ways, the book was more interesting and satisfactory than the movie because the book could include more details than is possible in a movie. The movie never shows any actual measurements being taken of the mountain. However, the book describes three successive measurements of the mountain, which will be of interest to surveyors. In the first measurement, the surveyors used a clinometer and stepped-off distances, from which the elevation was calculated. They acknowledged this method was lacking in accuracy. In the second measurement they used barometers. This was less than successful because a low-pressure front flowed through the area, causing the base barometer to change while the observing barometer was carried to the top. The third measurement was made by triangulation with two nearby peaks for which the elevation was known. I wonder how accurate that was.

The villagers were suspicious of the English surveyors. One villager asks, "I don’t see that it’s possible. How will they measure it?" The other responds, "And what would they be doing with it once they’ve got it?" The first one responds, "By God, that’s the worry of it." That remark leads to the conclusion, "The English come only when they want something."

The Reverend Jones speculated in his mind on the philosophy and practice of map-making. "The most innocent maps were concerned with helping one from place to place. The English already had those - They’d found a way here hadn’t they? No, they didn’t need new maps for that. The more the Reverend pondered the subject the more he concluded that maps, by and large, were made for less than altruistic purposes: maps were made to define the borders of property, more for reasons of exclusion than inclusion. Maps were to measure properties for taxation. Maps were made to define borders and thus became more and more important in times of war. Moreover, he had heard that these men, these Englishmen, were from His Majesty’s Ordnance Survey. Apart from ‘His Majesty’ there was another term in that title the Reverend didn’t like: ordnance. Wasn’t that a synonym for bombs and ammunition? The more the reverend thought about it the more suspicious he became."

In the end the villagers prevailed; they delayed the departure of the surveyors and raised the mountain. It was a good book and a good movie.

Monger, in the epilogue to the book, says that about five years after the event there was a new edition of the map, which showed "Ffynnon Garw Mountain - 1002 feet." Soon all the villagers had a copy in their homes. It is a good thing they did not see the 1921 edition (which is in the library). It says "Garth Hill - elevation 1000 feet." Although that is the 1921 edition, the small print says the leveling was revised in 1899 and partly revised in 1915.

My review of this matter is not really complete. I did not have time to locate the most recent large scale map of the area. I wonder what elevation it shows . . .