Beacon Hill is a prominent point on the Wessex chalk ridge in Hampshire that broods over the A34. It was the outline seen from a car window that I learned to love, years before I ever visited. The long, unfenced open ridge, a great expanse of close-cropped green rising up to Iron Age earthworks at the summit, called to mind the hill and moor country of the north and west. An outcrop of remoteness and wildness, or so it seemed to a child of the south Hampshire suburbs. The climb from the car park is a short, popular walk but steep enough to knock the breath from you. The summit is not exactly high altitude, at 267 m, but it is lofty for the region and as a result views are fine in all directions, especially looking north with Highclere Castle in the foreground (much more famous than the hill itself, thanks to the in my view largely inexplicable Downton Abbey phenomenon) and the Newbury area beyond.
All in all, it feels like a ‘proper’ hill, though a close look reveals that the brooding, remote impression I had from quick drive-bys is something of an illusion. On Easter Saturday I found the hillside bustling with families on excursions, walking dogs, flying kites, and spotting orchids. I am usually a bit of a grouch about places being busy when I’m there to find wildlife, but on this occasion I was heartened to see such a varied group of people enjoying the outdoors, most of them not usually the ‘outdoor type’ if I may be permitted just briefly to judge by appearance and attire. It is good to see open countryside democratised, a place for everybody, even if our demands of it might differ quite widely. The landscape laid out below Beacon Hill is full of its own contradictions. Wildlife-rich grassland is adjacent to intensive pasture, pony paddocks and neatly mown verges. Skylarks and meadow pipits sang into the blue sky but may not thank those free-running dogs for disturbing their nests. Stray rubbish was caught up in bushes near the car park; further up the hillside, a sad lost helium balloon in the shape of the letter S twisted gently in the breeze like a charmed snake.
I did find a quiet spot near the northwest flank of the hill and stopped in the shade of a small hawthorn to pour some coffee from my flask. This is a good place to see ring ouzels during migration, with birds bound for the ‘real’ uplands of the north stopping off at similar-looking scrubby grassland slopes on the way. I saw none on this visit but was delighted to hear a firecrest singing from a pine overlooking Highclere Castle. This diminutive, fiercely beautiful bird is beginning to be at home in even the smallest patch of suitable habitat in this part of the country, many probably overlooked. This firecrest in particular may well have a finer view from its territory than any other in the country! My favourite find of the day was a lesser bloody-nosed beetle. Like its larger relative, it is a charming animal that appears as a child might draw a beetle: a rounded, black, trundling creature that is all shine and smooth edges. The only other place I’ve seen this species is on St Catherine’s Hill outside Winchester, another steep popular walk up a chalk hill with views to a famous building beyond. Both hills have been special places to people for thousands of years, both will likely remain so for as long as we’re around.