Moving Mountains?

We can usually be confident that when we set out to visit a local county record location that it will be where we expect it to be! Most of the records don’t change very much over time – the oldest church is unlikely to lose its record status, and the largest lake won’t change much in size from year to year. There are of course some records that can change, though. The county’s tallest tree may fall or a taller one might be ‘discovered’, for example; the ‘highest’ pub might close down so that a different one takes on the title for the county; or a new business might grow to become the biggest employer in the county.

One record we might reasonably expect not to change is the location of the highest point in the county. After all, the hills and mountains that make up the ‘county tops’ have been there in most cases for many millions of years, and despite slow reductions in height due to natural erosion they seem to represent the ultimate in continuity and stability. So, how can we explain the fact that the highest points in some counties have changed in recent times?

One example is the county of Lancashire in north west England which has seen its ‘county top’ move by 41km to the south east and decline in height by 176m. Prior to 1974 the highest point in Lancashire was the famous ‘Old Man of Coniston’, which stands boldly on the west side of Coniston Water in the Lake District (Grid Reference SD27249783). With a height of 803m (2634’) it is one of the high peaks of the Cumbrian Fells, made famous by the writer and walker Alfred Wainwright. Today, though, the highest point in Lancashire is Gragareth (Grid Reference SD68797929). Gragareth stands on the western side of the Pennine Hills 9km east of the town of Kirkby Lonsdale, only 200m from the county boundary between Lancashire and North Yorkshire, and within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Reaching a height of 627m (2060’) it is popular with hill walkers and provides spectacular views westwards towards Morecambe Bay and the Lake District from its summit.

Now, clearly, the mountains haven’t moved – even the fastest movements of plate tectonics only move places by a few millimetres a year! So what has changed of course is the county boundary. In the case of Lancashire the reorganisation of counties in 1974 saw the transfer of significant parts of the north of the county into the ‘new’ county of Cumbria – and with it went the Old Man of Coniston, which changed from being the highest point in Lancashire to being only the 38th highest point in Cumbria. So, Lancashire needed to find a new county top – and that honour fell to Gragareth. Interestingly, prior to the boundary changes in 1974 Gragareth hadn’t even been in Lancashire, for it sat astride the county boundary between the West Riding of Yorkshire and the historic county of Westmorland. When it became part of Lancashire, even though it was a newcomer, it found itself as the highest point within the new county boundaries.

High points are quite at risk from county boundary changes. The reason is that boundaries are often drawn along the tops of hill ranges which represent a ‘natural’ border with the adjacent county. So, many high points sit on or close to the county boundaries and may change their home county with even a small change in the boundary line. As a result there are a number of counties in England, in addition to Lancashire, where the highest point has changed in recent years, and Cheshire, Durham and Oxfordshire are good examples.

Cheshire. The highest point in the historic county of Cheshire was Black Hill (582m/1909’) (Grid Reference SE07820469), 10km south west of Holmfirth in the southern Pennines, but the current county top is Shining Tor (559m/1830’), east of Macclesfield (Grid Reference SJ99407370), Black Hill now sits on the county boundary between Derbyshire and West Yorkshire, and has actually become the highest point in West Yorkshire.

Durham. The historic county of Durham reached its highest point at Burnhope Seat (746m/2447’) (Grid Reference NY78793754), high in the North Pennines west of St. John’s Chapel, but today its county top is Mickle Fell (788m/2585’) (Grid Reference NY80582453) in the Lune Forest, 15km west of Middleton-in-Teesdale. Mickle Fell had previously been the highest point in the North Riding of Yorkshire, but the redrawing of boundaries moved it into Co Durham and raised the county’s highest point by 42m!

Oxfordshire The highest point in Oxfordshire prior to 1974 was Bald Hill (257m/843’) (Grid Reference SU72889577), in the Chiltern Hills east of Watlington close to the boundary with Buckinghamshire. The redrawing of the county boundaries, though, meant that it lost its ‘top’ position to Whitehorse Hill (261m/855’) (Grid Reference SU 30008630), which is 42km west, overlooking the Vale of Whitehorse, near Swindon.

What this means, of course, is that for some counties, reaching the highest point might require two trips – one to the historic ‘county top’ (pre 1974) and one to the highest point in the modern ceremonial county!


And Finally….!

The Must Get Out More Question !

What is the longest road in Wales?


The Answer to the Last Question

Which three English counties have the longest coastlines?

The counties of England with the longest coastlines are

  • Cornwall              1086km
  • Essex                     905km
  • Devon                   819km



The Record Locations

You can use the Grid References provided to locate record locations on a map at

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