Maps speak to different people in different ways. A mountaineer looking at an OS map of, say, the Cairngorms, might naturally seek out the highest or most challenging-looking peaks and begin plotting potential routes to the top; a skier, by contrast, will be more preoccupied with the places where contour lines are bunched tightly together over the greatest distances, promising long, steep descents. I remember once spending an engrossing half an hour in the kitchen of a heli-ski guide in Revelstoke, British Columbia, poring over a heavily annotated map of the Selkirk mountains; for him, the points of greatest significance were the high-altitude flat spots, because they represented potential take-off and landing pads.
Cyclists, meanwhile, interpret things differently again. In their case, the name of the game is finding the path of least resistance through a landscape, and for this reason there is one geographical feature – often neglected by pretty much everybody else – that is of particular interest to them: the col.
There are warehouses up and down the land stuffed full of books about hills and mountains, but if you walk into your local bookshop and ask for something about cols, chances are you’ll draw a blank. (True, there are some very famous cols in mountaineering, but they’re only really famous because of their proximity to even more famous mountains.) This is all set to change on 2 June, however, when Particular Books is due to publish Cols and Passes of the British Isles by Graham Robb – an acclaimed historian and biographer who, more pertinently in this case, is also a keen road cyclist.
The first useful thing Robb’s book does is to nail the difference between a col and a pass. A col, he explains, is the lowest point between two summits, whereas a pass is “a vague umbrella term... typically a road which runs through a steep-sided valley of menacing demeanour.” That the two are often confused is hardly surprising when you consider that many cols in the British Isles have the word pass in their name, and that cyclists, who should probably know better, sometimes use the word col to refer to any steep climb, thanks to the way professional bike racing has, over time, abbreviated “the climb to such-and-such a col” to simply “the col”.
The second useful thing the book does is to provide a complete list of all the named cols in England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – 2,002 in all – giving elevation, road surface (if any), nearest place, grid references and more. (Robb lists the 105 passes, too, but his mild disdain for them is infectious, so let’s not bother with them here.)
The effect of flicking through these tables is a strange, slightly unsettling one, in the sense that it makes you look at places you thought you knew intimately in a completely new light. In fact, as a groundbreaking act of reimagining the landscape, Cols and Passes is up there with Dave Hewitt’s 1987 book Walking the Watershed, which invited us to consider Scotland as a country divided in two by a central spine of land running roughly north to south, with all the rain falling to the west of the line flowing into the Atlantic, and all the rain falling to the east flowing into the North Sea.
In the car-centric modern world, the navigational importance of cols has all but evaporated, but to our ancestors these were significant features, and in a few cases Robb’s research allows him to reunite anonymous cols with their long-lost names, notably, and through a neat bit of detective work, Nick o’Thungs near Pendle Hill in Lancashire. He also notes that, while many col names have probably been lost forever as rural populations have declined, in some areas the process is being reversed, particularly in the Lake District, where more than a quarter of cols are still nameless, but where “the maps are becoming more crowded by the year.”
Once Robb’s book hits the shops, I predict a flurry of “col claiming” as regular mountain users seek to have long-serving names for their favourite cols officially noted in the catalogue. A revised edition, incorporating multitudinous supplementary cols, must surely only be in the offing.
It seems inevitable, too, that sometime in the future a professional adventurer looking for his or her next challenge will set out to become the first person to cross all the named cols in the British Isles. My advice: start now, and complete the round as quickly as you can, while there are still only 2,002 of them.
• Cols and Passes of the British Isles, Particular Books, 2 June, £20