Play and Punishment
From my bedroom window the rounded hilltop of Castle Hill dominates the skyline. Its commanding position overlooks the Channel Tunnel, M20 motorway, and a modest retail and industrial park.
But Ceaser’s Camp, as it’s known locally and I’ve always called it, is unlikely to be on the checklist of any trekker or mountaineer. It only rises about 150m (approx. 500ft) above sea level.
There’s just no contest with the altitudes I’ve reach in the Canadian Rockies, the Annapurna hills of Nepal, Mount Toubkal in Morocco, Kinabalu on Sabah (Borneo) and giants like Kilimanjaro (even if I didn’t quite summit the latter).
Compared to these ranges, Ceaser’s Camp – and the North Downs it forms part of – is a mere pimple on the face of the earth.
Today it is a place I get to by car – to take in the panoramic views of Folkestone and the coastal landscape beyond. It even has its own Trip Advisor entry (4.5 stars from two reviews: note to self, write own review).
Back as a schoolkid, Ceaser’s Camp appeared very different. To my boyish blue eyes, it looked like a hill all right. A BIG hill. A steep hill. A hill which stirred mixed emotions.
It was both a place of play. And a place of punishment.
For the Spinks brothers, Ceaser’s Camp was an adventure playground. We would cross the field, walk up the ever-steepening slopes of the hill, cross the carved chalk line etched into the side of the thing and reach the top.
There the ground was rough and undulating, with mounds and dips that made great hiding places. Perfect for war games. Perfect for playing cowboys.
Each year brought an upgrade in weaponry. First it was water pistols. Then plastic rifles (which broke easily if you landed on them when diving around – as we quickly and tearfully discovered). Then metal pistols which fired caps (you bought tubes which contained the coiled reels of caps) and made a satisfying ‘Bang!’).
It Was Harmless Fun
If friends came down to visit, they would be invited to play ‘guns’ too. To us, it was harmless fun.
You ran. You hid. You ambushed. You fired. You missed. You fired. You hit. And when you got ‘hit’ yourself, you had to lay down ‘dead’ and count to 10 before you could get back into action. (By and large, we stuck to the rules but every now and then we would ‘cheat’ by claiming an accurate shot had missed ‘by a mile’). Boys will be boys.
That was Ceaser’s Camp at play. Many happy memories of messing about up there with little care about time or the view.
But it was also the scene of punishment.
At least that’s what most of us boys at the Harvey Grammar School thought. You see, we loved playing football. A group of us played all the time – before school, at break, at dinner time (lunch)… any moment we could.
And one afternoon a week the timetable delivered sports. And for a decent chunk of the school year, that meant football. I loved it. I still do (even though my playing days are pretty much over apart from a kickabout in the park).
Most weeks it was fine. Football. Football. Football.
Curse the Bad Weather
But sometimes the weather turned bad and we dreaded the rain. Heavy rain. It didn’t take our physics teacher to spell out for us that a heavy mass of water falling on ground with poor irrigation equals waterlogged pitches.
Waterlogged pitches meant the C word. Football CANCELLED.
The substitute for football was enough to produce more cursing in the changing rooms. Bloody cross country!
This meant walking from the school in your football kit and studded boots 20 minutes to the starting point (a field with 3 to 7 sheep, depending on the day). The teacher would say ‘Go!’ and we were off. Running along a muddy field to the base of Caesar’s Camp and then, yep, turning up the slope towards the top. There was no path up. Just rough ground. If you’ve ever tried running up a grassy hill, you’ll know it’s not easy. A run quickly becomes a jog. A jog slows to a walk. A walk becomes a clamber.
I remember the backs of my legs began to burn as I pumped my knees to try and keep some momentum. Inevitably I’d end up just putting one slow foot in front of the other, hauling myself up by grabbing onto sturdy tufts of grass with my hands, and praying for the top to arrive.
It was hell. Everybody hated it (except perhaps the runner beans in our year, who – for some strange reason – ‘enjoyed’ running). It felt not like sport but like a punishment.
It was such a relief to reach the summit. From here, the run was (almost) all downhill.
The tough bit was over
After a few cross country runs I realised it wasn’t so bad, once you reached the top. That was the killer bit. After that, it was just a matter of running distance.
I usually took a couple of breaths at the top before running on. Some boys rested for much longer. I just wanted to get it over with. From the top there was a lovely, gentle sweeping slope down to a path where it levelled out. You could pick up some satisfying speed on that descent. It was my favourite bit of the run.
“Bloody stitch!”… I always seemed to get a stitch. This meant for most of the ‘race’ I ran with one arm pumping like a piston and the other pinned to my midriff, attempting to squeeze away the nagging pain.
Once you were over Caesar’s ‘sister’, a hill called Sugarloaf, it was all downhill. Less steep. Then it was back to even muddier fields. The mud used to clag all over your boots (a nightmare to clean) and make it feel like running with lead weights around your ankles.
Once on the path by the busy road you knew you were on the home run. Weary legs picked themselves up, knowing a hot shower and clean clothes were waiting.
In summary: hated the running. Endured the stitches. But it did feel good after you’d done it.
I was never a winner of the cross country runs but it did reaffirm that competitive side of me that’s always been there. I sometimes made the top 10 and I think my best was 4th. It wasn’t until my older years that I realised teachers kept tabs on the results.
It’s why I found myself being picked to represent my Hythe house on the track in the longer distance races. Not the 100m, 200m or even 400m. No, I got landed with the 800m and 1,500m.
In the latter one time, I kept up with the school’s best runner bean (David’s surname was actually Bean) from the start until the final lap. Then I ran out of steam, got overtaken by all the others and finished last. But the crowd gave me a big ovation, which lifted the spirits. I guess I had tried.
And one year I got picked to be part of the school’s U16 cross country team – we won! There’s a certificate in the loft to prove it.
It reminds me that every place has a story. Every place creates memories. Every place evokes emotions.
Hundreds (if not thousands) pass below or around Ceaser’s Camp every day. Most visitors just turn up for the views.
Enter the Romans
Historians know it as the ancient site of Folkestone Castle, a Norman fortification which may have little to do with the Romans. It has its origins in the 11th or 12th centuries and is an example of the motte and bailey style. Archaeologists know it as a site of significant interest, with finds back to the Bronze age.
For me, it has memories of unbounded fun playing ‘guns’. And memories of pain, the burning legs and stitch-filled stomachs of cross country runs.
How much did those adventures on the hill shape my love of summits and views? My competitive nature? My playful imagination? My resilience?
And what’s your relationship with hills or high places? Do you have your own summits (physical or metaphorical) still to climb?
It’s been three years since I last visited Ceaser’s Camp. It’s in my diary to visit on a warmer day. No guns. No running. Just my camera to take in the views.