Ian Sansom

A merry guide

Graham Robb has identified 2,002 cols — or swires, snecks, slaps and slochs — enough to satisfy the keenest hiker

If you have legs, or a bicycle, or indeed both, you are going to love this book. Chaps, no matter how old or how fat or otherwise incapacitated you are, if you haven’t already received it for Father’s Day the chances are it’s coming your way this Christmas. Ladies: if you are a fell-runner, a hill-walker or a budding Victoria Pendleton, pop this into your backpack or saddlebag with your energy bars and your old Ordnance Survey. Graham Robb — yes, that Graham Robb, the biographer and historian of all persons and all things French, and also the author of an excellent history of homosexuality, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century (2003) — has written a book about British and Irish cols and passes. But wait: British and Irish whats?, I hear you townies ask.

A col — sometimes known as a ‘hass’, a ‘hause’, a ‘swire’, a ‘nick’, a ‘sneck’, a ‘slap’, a ‘sloch’, who knew? — is defined by Robb as ‘a gap or depression in a ridge or a range of hills which serves as a gateway to the lands on either side’, and it is not, it is most certainly not, as Robb defiantly points out, despite ‘the hasty idiom of professional bike racing’, simply a term referring to the long steep climbs undertaken by panting riders in the Tour de France. A pass, inevitably perhaps, is rather more difficult to define, though poetically summed up by Robb as ‘a road which runs through a steep-sided valley of menacing demeanour’.

In France, notes Robb, cols are honoured with their own signs and map coordinates but

At some of the most impressive summits of the British road system, the traveller is greeted with nothing but instructions and advice: Keep Your Dog on a Leash, Lock Your Car, Take Your Litter Home.

Robb seems at least partly motivated in his work to outdo the French, since some years ago, apparently, the French Club des Cent Cols produced a list of the cols of the British Isles: they listed 533.

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