Peak viewing

Where are the highest villages in Britain? There are a few surprises in store as Frank Partridge discovers the best places to look down on your neighbours

In global terms, Great Britain belongs to the low countries. Even those who have scaled its loftiest peak, Ben Nevis, are still some way short of eligibility for the Mile High Club, and every other member of the G8 group of nations contains a mountain at least twice as tall.

In global terms, Great Britain belongs to the low countries. Even those who have scaled its loftiest peak, Ben Nevis, are still some way short of eligibility for the Mile High Club, and every other member of the G8 group of nations contains a mountain at least twice as tall.

But because of our northerly latitude, you don't have to ascend very far from the flat before surprising and often dramatic changes take place; to the landscape, the climate, and the few thousand souls in England, Scotland and Wales who - quite literally - spend much of their lives with their heads very much in the clouds.

None of this affects anyone living in the south of England, unless you include the office workers near the top of the tower at Canary Wharf in London, the country's tallest building, at exactly 800ft.

So where are the genuine high-altitude settlements of this land, where communities have evolved for work and worship, and found a way of surviving the isolation and inhospitable winters?

Surprisingly, the Welsh contender is not in Snowdonia, but about as close to the centre of the principality as it's possible to be. Llangurig is exactly halfway between Cardiff and Llandudno, 25 miles inland from Aberystwyth along the A44. At almost exactly 1,000ft above sea level, the village has a 15th-century church, two pubs, a shop and a craft centre.

It's there because of the need for a coaching stop on the road to England and the (now defunct) railway. Above the rugged moorland stands the looming Plynlimon mountain. Within a few miles are the sources of two great rivers, the Severn and the Wye. It's glorious, but both England and Scotland go higher.

At about the same height as Llangurig, Alston in Cumbria claims to be the highest market town in England, and indisputably contains the highest narrow-gauge railway, the South Tynedale, at 875ft. It lies at the northern extremity of the Pennines, halfway between Penrith and Hexham in an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It's also one of the handful of high places which are home to England's somewhat occasional skiing industry.

Despite global warming, snow does still fall in these parts, but is usually accompanied by weather of such ferocity that the inhabitants are strongly advised not to venture outside at all, let alone with a pair of skis. But in a triumph of hope over experience, Alston and other villages provide daily snow reports and ski hire between November and March.

In times past, this was lead-mining country, and two villages to the east, Nenthead and Allenheads, have preserved the memory with heritage centres. Visitors to Nenthead can don safety helmets and explore an extensive area of restored tunnelling.

Both villages claim - falsely - to be England's highest, at around 1,450ft, although Nenthead has rather sneakily attempted to raise the bar by claiming that houses situated further up the hill are part of the village.

The village that wins the high-lying title is nowhere near Cumbria, but in Staffordshire, in the Peak District National Park. High on a gritstone moor, directly above a once-productive coal seam, the village of Flash looks down on all the rest at a height of 1,518ft. This is bleak country, treeless and windswept, where winter comes early and leaves reluctantly. Centuries ago, the village exploited its remoteness by becoming a notorious centre for the manufacture of counterfeit money, religious dissidence and bare-knuckle fighting.

So much for England: but can Scotland go any higher than Flash? The obvious place to begin the search is in the Highlands, but the harsh climate, poor soil and the Crown's callous clearance of human communities in favour of sheep as revenge for the Jacobite Rebellion have left few high-lying settlements intact.

The A939 from Cockbridge to Tomintoul in the Grampians is Britain's most vulnerable road - closed by snowdrifts more often than any other. Tomintoul was purpose-built in 1775, 30 years after Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to France, in an effort to bring some cohesion to the disparate, lawless communities that survived the clearances. In later years, the siting of the huge Glenlivet Distillery a few miles away is said to have been an attempt to harness the expertise of the many locals who were engaged in unlicensed whisky-manufacture. The solid stone-built village has been further bolstered by skiing. Lecht 2090 (named after its height in feet above sea level) is 15 minutes' drive away, and can usually be relied upon for a sprinkling of the white stuff when the rest of the Highlands are green.

Lecht is comfortably Britain's highest settlement, but a ski resort does not a village make, so Tomintoul, at just 1,160ft, is widely accepted as the highest Highland village; widely, but not universally. Dalwhinnie, 40 miles to the south west, is 20ft higher than Tomintoul. But can an inn once visited by Queen Victoria, a world-famous distillery, and a smattering of houses be described as a village? The judges tend to favour "hamlet", so Dalwhinnie is merely the home of the highest distillery.

The highest pub, incidentally, is 300 miles south at Upper Swaledale in North Yorkshire - and a remarkable 1,732ft above sea level. The Tan Hill Inn is a one-off: a single building on a lonely road, so remote that it can only be phoned via a microwave link.

But you have to take the high road back to Scotland to track down the highest village of all.

Situated atop what's known locally as "God's Treasure House", Wanlockhead is a mere 13ft nearer heaven than Flash in Staffordshire. It's in the Uplands rather than the Highlands, tucked away in the Lowther Hills of Dumfries and Galloway, on a block of rock containing lead, zinc, copper, silver and some of the purest gold on earth.

Every year, the village (altitude 1,531ft) hosts the British Gold Panning Championships, but from the early 19th century until 1934 it made its living from lead. You get there along a winding B-road off the main highway between Dumfries and Kilmarnock, climbing past the spectacular Mennock Pass to a group of whitewashed cottages and a somewhat forlorn, boarded-up church.

"Make sure you take a shovel and blankets," advised a local on a clear, crisp day iearlier this year when I told him where I was going: "It's a different world up there."

Some 70 years after Wanlockhead lost its main source of income, the village survives as a memorial to what it once was. Like the high villages of Cumbria, it has embraced the leisure era with relish, building a visitor centre in the old smithy, and successfully preserving the things that make it special. These include the subscription library set up by the miners in 1756 "for our mutual improvement", and a water-powered beam engine that baled out the lead mines decades before steam did the job.

Although neighbouring Leadhills boasts an even older lending library (1741), as well as Britain's highest golf course (1,500ft), some tectonic activity that occurred millions of years ago has determined that Wanlockhead represents the very pinnacle of human endeavour in these islands.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Llangurig is at the junction of the A470 and the A44. Information is on www.llanidloes.com/out_about.html

Alston is on the A686, 16 miles from junction 41 of the M6 in Cumbria. For details visit www.visitcumbria.com. The South Tynedale Railway's talking timetable is on 01434 382828

Flash is four miles south-west of Buxton, just off the A53. Tourist information on www.peakdistrict-nationalpark.com

The Glenlivet Distillery offers guided tours to the public. Details on 01542 783220. Snow reports and ski lift information at Lecht 2090 is available on 01975 651440 or by visiting www.lecht.co.uk

Wanlockhead is seven miles up the B797, which leads off the A76 midway between Dumfries and Kilmarnock. The Museum of Lead Mining (01659 74387, www.leadminingmuseum.co.uk) is open seven days a week between late March and late October. This year's British Gold Panning Championships are on 29 May and 30 May.

Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders