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?