On the Black Hill

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On the Black Hill
First edition
AuthorBruce Chatwin
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherJonathan Cape
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
823/.914 19
LC ClassPR6053.H395 O5 1982b

On the Black Hill is a novel by Bruce Chatwin published in 1982 and winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for that year. In 1987 it was made into a film, directed by Andrew Grieve.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel's setting is the border of Herefordshire, in England, and Radnorshire, in Wales. In the early pages we are told the border runs through the very farmhouse:

The border of Radnor and Hereford was said to run right through the middle of the staircase.

Culturally the central characters are Welshmen, with the surname Jones.

The story is told through the technique of flashback, and portrays the lives of twin brothers, Lewis and Benjamin Jones, on their isolated upland farm called The Vision. The twins develop a bond that is shown throughout the novel as very special. Lewis is portrayed as the stronger or dominant twin, whereas Benjamin is the more intuitive one, both in appearance and in the tasks which he does around the house. He seems to be constantly drawn to his mother's side while she is alive.

Lewis is the one who wants to break free but Benjamin is forced into the army at the time of the Great War. His efforts are frustrated by his family ties and the indefinable, unbreakable tie to the land. Chatwin also tells the reader of the brutality involved in farming at the time in this area. Amos, the father of the two twins, shows how his day-to-day job has brutalised his once caring and loving attitude, and we see this later in the novel when he hits his wife Mary on the temple with the book she is reading – Wuthering Heights. A jealous man, Amos attacks his wife with the very material that shows her intelligence; he feels threatened by this, feeling that the man is supposed to be the head of the family in all things, and he feels anger because of his limited education.

On the Black Hill is a novel which portrays themes such as unrequited love, sexual repression and confusion, social, religious and cultural repression, hate and the historic social values of that era, as is shown when Amos finds out that his daughter Rebecca has become pregnant by an Irishman. His religious fanaticism, social pressure, economic forces and an inability to express love results in him throwing her out of the household, and she is not mentioned in the novel again until the latter part. The novel can also be seen as Chatwin's autobiografictional utopia, in which each of the twins represents one of the author's bisexual subject positions.[1]


The southern part of the Grwyne Fechan valley in the Black Mountains
The summit of the Black Mountain crossed by the Offa's Dyke Path

The location is lightly fictionalised; The Vision is a real farm north of Llanthony. Many real place names are used, the great majority indicating a site on the border of Herefordshire and Breconshire south of Hay on Wye. The Herefordshire Black Hill and Cefn Hill are outliers of the Black Mountains; Brecknockshire was west of the easternmost ridge of the Black Mountains to the west. Hay-on-Wye (with its castle and pre-war railway station) would be the principal town in the area but its name is notable by its absence; instead, it seems the name of the Radnorshire hamlet of Rhulen has been used. The name of the Shropshire location of Lurkenhope has been used for the principal village. Talgarth, although not mentioned in the film, is another small nearby town, which would have been of greater importance to the area at the time.

On the Ordnance Survey map, 'Abergavenny and the Black Mountains, Wales sheet 161' (1:50,000 series) and even better depicted on the more detailed 1:25,000 series at grid reference SO275348 the Black Hill itself is shown, towards Craswall. The name refers to a well known ridge descending very steeply from the very long Hatterall Ridge (which forms the England / Wales border) and carries Offas Dyke footpath on it, down into the fields of Herefordshire, and on the English side. The Black Hill is known locally as 'The Cat's Back' as viewed from Herefordshire it looks like a crouching cat about to pounce. On the same map at grid reference SO264310, just a little to the south, is the real farm called The Vision, situated in the Llanthony valley, also known as the Vale of Ewyas, on the Welsh side of the border, just below Capel-y-ffin.

Alternatively, the location that inspired the novel could be the Black Hill grid reference SO330790 between Knighton and Clun and a few miles from Lurkenhope. Chatwin stayed nearby in Cwm Hall, Purslow with friends during the 1970s and was confidently cited as such in a BBC programme by his biographer.[2]

Chatwin amalgamated reality with his research amongst the local indigenous populace in the time he researched the book, interweaving fact and fiction, gossip, locations, stories and social history.


The book was awarded the 1982 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award (which raises a question over the status of the earlier book The Viceroy of Ouidah).[clarification needed]


On The Black Hill was adapted for the stage in 1986 and into a film in 1987.


  1. ^ See Richard Utz, “Das Zwillingspaar aus Chatwinshire: Bruce Chatwins antibinäre Utopie.” In: Paare und Paarungen. Festschrift für Werner Wunderlich. Ed. Ulrich Müller (Stuttgart: Heinz, 2004), 343-53.
  2. ^ Presenter:Clare Balding. "The Welsh Borders". Britain by Bike. Retrieved 1 February 2011.