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.

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