8 things we learned from this map of the highest point in every county in England

Scafell Pike, Cumbria: highest point in England. Image: Dougsim/Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes you come across a map on Wikipedia and, although you’re not sure why someone made it, you’re glad they did.

Here, for some reason, is a map of the counties of England coloured according to how high their highest point (also known as the “county top”) is.

The map I never knew I needed. Image: Mr Greg/Wikimedia Commons.

Dark greens are the lowest, dark purples are the highest, and pale shades are in between. There are quite a few interesting patterns here, so let’s dive right in.

1. There’s not just a north-south divide, but an east-west one

It’s probably not news to you that northern England is hillier than the south (and Scotland, although it’s not on the map, is more mountainous still), but that’s not the only way Britain’s mountains run. Start on the east coast of England and head west, and you will almost certainly be climbing.

If you draw a line from the River Tees in the North East to the River Exe in the South West, you’ll find that almost all Britain’s mountains are on its northern/western side. The Lake District, Snowdonia, Dartmoor – these mountainous areas are all on the west coast. The difference across that line is quite stark – apart from Gloucestershire, every large county west of that line has a highest point over 400 metres, while no county east of it has a highest point over 300 metres.

If you’re too lazy to draw a line on a map yourself, here’s one Wikipedia made earlier. Image: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

2. Yorkshire Tea tastes funny in the green counties – and that isn’t a coincidence.

West of that Tees-Exe line, you find a lot of hard jagged igneous rock: Ancient lava, in other words, which has been pushed up to form craggy moors and mountains.

On the southern and eastern side, the ground is made of sedimentary rocks like chalk – the calcium-filled remains of billions of tiny sea creatures from when the area was at the bottom of a prehistoric sea. This chalk is what makes the White Cliffs of Dover white.

When rain falls on the igneous rock, it just pools there. When it falls in chalky ground, however, it soaks through, and minerals dissolve into it. When you boil that water in your kettle, the calcium compounds solidify inside it, and you’ve got the dreaded limescale. Northern and Welsh teas are actually specially blended for the soft water, so if anyone asks ever asks you why Yorkshire Tea doesn’t taste right down south, just tell them: it’s because southern water is contaminated with the bodies of ancient sea snails.

3. Urban riverside counties stand out

There are three little blobs of green west of the Tees-Exe line: Tyne & Wear, Merseyside, and Bristol. All three of these are big urban areas built as ports on the mouths of rivers, so of course they’re going to be pretty low-lying – by definition, they’re mostly at sea level. Tyne & Wear manages to have a fairly high summit because it stretches to the edge of the Pennines, but regardless, they’re a bit weird.

4. So does Derbyshire

That dark blob right in the middle of England? That’s Derbyshire. The modern borders of Derbyshire align with the boundaries of the Peak District national park pretty closely, so it’s no surprise that it’s much higher than its neighbours. But it’s still pretty inconvenient that it’s so mountainous, for reasons you’re about to discover.

5. This map helps explain the North-South divide

There is a fairly well established economic relationship between how mountainous a country or region is and how strong its economy is. Although the relationship isn’t the strongest, a flat area gets a definite head start economically, because it’s easier to build on and to travel around.

If you wanted to build a new railway line from London to Brighton, you’d only have to climb up and down about 500 feet (150 metres). If it ran from London to Oxford through the Chiltern Hills, the difference between its highest and lowest points would be about 800 feet (240 metres). But a railway from Manchester to Sheffield through Derbyshire needs to climb over 1,500 feet (460 metres) – or run through very long and deep tunnels, like the former Woodhead Line did. The two cities only have a couple of narrow, winding roads between them, which tend to close at the first flake of snow, plus one surviving railway line. It’s frustrating, but at least this map explains why building a new line would be a challenge.

Of course, one thing this map doesn’t explain is why they think it’s a good idea to link the North’s biggest cities with Pacers.


6. Norfolk is really flat

OK, again this isn’t a surprise. Most of Norfolk is nearly at sea level, and without its drainage pumps the land around the Fens and Broads would probably be flooded. But even at its very highest point, Beacon Hill, it only reaches 103 metres. Despite what the film Reign of Fire tried to tell you, no dragon could ever hide in the mountains of Norfolk.

7. In a way, this is quite a misleading map

Cheshire is a reasonably dark shade of purple on this map. Its highest point, Shining Tor, is the tenth highest county top in England. But… it’s actually a notoriously flat county, and almost its entire area is covered by the Cheshire Plain (that very rich area full of footballers’ mansions and 4x4s). But its eastern edge just scrapes the Peak District, which means it can just about claim a few mountains.

The scale is a bit weird too. Cumbria and Northumberland are the same colour even though Cumbria is by far the most mountainous county in England – at 978 metres, its highest point, Scafell Pike (England’s highest mountain), is 163 metres higher than the highest point in Northumberland. The difference between Norfolk’s highest point and Oxfordshire’s is only 158 metres, but these are several categories apart. If anything, this map is overstating how hilly the South East is.

8. County top names are really weird

Milk Hill. High Willhays. Black Chew Head. Mickle Fell. Dunkery Beacon. Normanby le Wold Top. Brown Willy. Cheeks Point on Cheeks Hill. How are these real places?

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.