Magnetic Hills

This Saturday Worm begins his new weekly slot tunneling into the weirder recesses of Wikipedia and the world wide web…

Hello everyone! May I say what a great honour it is to step into the Saturday slot here at The Dabbler. I have decided to use the space rented to me to pitch a ragtag of wares and my loose theme to this column will be to get back to the very essence of dabbling, the ur-dabble, by sharing very unusual things I’ve found on Wikipedia that I’ve never heard of or don’t know the answer to (which is quite a lot of things). If you do stumble across something really bizarre on Wikipedia in your travels that you think I should feature please do mention it in the comments.

I have strong childhood memories of reading a Famous Five book that contained a plot centering around a hill formed from some dastardly rock. A rock so dastardly that it exerted a strange power on confused drivers and pulled their cars backwards uphill and the like. No doubt there were some swarthy gypsy children and some luncheon meat sandwiches involved too, but the magnetic hill obviously exerted its own strange power on me, as it stuck in my mind to this day. Now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, a search of only a few seconds duration informs me that the story I remember was Five Get Into a Fix. (I’m still trying to decide whether this internet-enabled instant gratification is a good or a bad thing when it involves fondly remembered childhood events…)

It turns out that a so-called ‘magnetic’ or ‘gravity’ hill is a place where the layout of the surrounding land produces an optical illusion that makes a very slight downhill slope appear to be an uphill slope.

Stories of magnetic hills seem quite widespread and occur in every continent. In the UK some of the best known are Hangman’s Hill in Epping Forest and the wonderfully named Electric Brae in Ayrshire.

The most important factor contributing to the illusion is a completely or mostly obstructed horizon; without a horizon, judging the slope of a surface is difficult as a reliable reference is missing. Objects one would normally assume to be more-or-less perpendicular to the ground (such as trees) may actually be leaning, offsetting the visual reference. When these conditions all combine, a car left out of gear on a seemingly flat or downhill slope will appear to roll uphill.

The main things to deduce from all this then, is that there are no hills made of dastardly magnetic rocks that can pull people uphill, and that Enid Blyton was a dirty liar.


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About Author Profile: Worm

In between dealing with all things technological in the Dabbler engine room, Worm writes the weekly Wikiworm column every Saturday and our monthly Book Club newsletters.

14 thoughts on “Magnetic Hills

    January 12, 2013 at 11:03

    That is very interesting (and a bit disappointing). Isn’t there an episode of Father Ted with a similar ‘magic hill’?

    And isn’t ‘Five Get Into a Fix’ a brilliant Blyton title? Beyond parody…

  2. Worm
    January 12, 2013 at 11:11

    Despite wikipedia saying that these hills only work when you can’t see the horizon, I note that from half way in the video they show a can rolling ‘uphill’ with a visible horizon in the background…

    And Brit – here’s that bit from Father Ted:

    TED: Places of interest: St. Kevin’s Stump. Hm. Sounds good. The Magic Road. Two places of interest.

    DOUGAL: What’s The Magic Road, Ted?

    TED: It’s one of those bizarre natural wonders where everything’s gone haywire and nothing works the way it’s supposed to. It’s a bit like you, Dougal. Except it’s a road.

    DOUGAL: I still don’t understand. It’s kind of a mad road?

    TED: Yes. It’s what’s called a strange phenomenon. If you stopped a car on it and took off the hand break, it would roll up hill. And water would flow up it.

    DOUGAL: That’s almost as mad as that thing you told me about the loaves and the fishes.

    TED: No, Dougal, that’s not mad. That’s when our Lord got just one or two bits of food and turned it into a whole pile of food and everyone had it for dinner.

    DOUGAL: God, He was fantastic, wasn’t he?

    TED: Ah he was brilliant.

    January 12, 2013 at 12:48

    The electric brae is odd, not quite disorientating but certainly peculiar, say a grade 5 peculiar, as a benchmark, grade 1 would be somewhere between Gwyneth Paltrow and Sandi Toksvig.

    Little known facts of the Gaussian variety, Sunderland, elberry’s nemesis, had within the hallowed portals of it’s university, nee polytechnic, one of the leading British departments wot thought about magnetism and wrote stuff.

    Little known Gaussian fact, Eisenstien was one of Gauss’s star pupils. As we know Eisy was your reciprocity wallah, morphing into the ‘one good turn deserves another’ state of affairs.

    We nineteen fifties sprogs were not the beneficiaries of modern parenting techniques, post big stooshie depression-austerity not being conducive to giving us little bleeders the fullest of attention. The sort of literature that was considered suitable for our ever-expanding minds included EB’s output. I hated, loathed and detested this stuff, a bunch of poncy, petite bourgeoisie southerners we thought. It took some years for sweet revenge to raise it’s head, I bought by mother every book that Maeve Binchy wrote, silence, thin smile, reciprocity, a most handy tool.

    The internet gets better by the hour under the auspices of the Dabblers, Worms wobbly roads and awful author post bursting forth, scattering iron filings over the bed occupied by the five, ‘Five Fix it in bed’, one of Enid’s last books.

    Looking forward to next Saturday, Worm.

    January 12, 2013 at 13:42

    Wow malty your comment far exceeds my post!

    I’m must confess that as a southern softy I absolutely devoured practically all of enid’s books, I read every single famous five, before moving onto the slightly more down-market Secret Seven, and then I also did all the hardback ones with ‘adventure’ in the title.

    Followed by all the Willard Price books…

    I was a Blyton addict!

      January 12, 2013 at 14:24

      Biggle’s man meself, bit of white supremacist racist adventure in the air worked wonders for we post-colonial depressionistas, nobody sorted out the fuzzy-wuzzies better than Capt W.E.Johns.

    • Gaw
      January 13, 2013 at 21:22

      Willard Price! I’ve been trying to remember his name for years. When I was a boy I devoured all the Adventures I could lay my hands on. I want to try to get my young ‘uns interested. Worm, thank you very much indeed for that and also for starting something that I know I’m going to enjoy a lot.

    January 12, 2013 at 16:35

    Wikiworm – what a brilliant name!

    Worm, is there some way I can utilise this optical illusion to offset the effects of gravity on my ageing body?

    I have fond memories of The Naughtiest Girl in the School books (under the bedcover with a torch).

    January 12, 2013 at 17:11

    Tsk Susan, you have no need of optical illusions! I did find this Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style magnetic mask though, surely to be most efficacious in its magic powers?

      January 14, 2013 at 16:43

      Cheers Worm 🙂

    John Halliwell
    January 12, 2013 at 19:24

    A super start, Worm.

    I didn’t know the pleasure of books in my childhood; we were too poor. Dad had been invalided out of the army in 1917 and was unable to work for the rest of his life. To add to the family’s problems, I came along, unplanned, but with golden curls, which must have been some consolation, just as German bombers were flying over our house on the way to smash the heart out of Manchester. By that time, Dad was close to 50, in constant pain, which he bore without complaint. We were surviving on a pittance of a war pension. In the bitterest of winters: 1947, beds were heated by shelves from the oven which formed part of the cast-iron fireplace, the fire fed from branches my mother cut down in the local wood at 10.00 at night – oh the shame if discovered – and by lumps of coal purposely jettisoned by Eric the local fireman working the 5.o’clock express which passed at the end of our street, and the occasional bag of nutty slack from the local merchant who announced his arrival on the estate with the shout: “Coal for hole! Coal for hole!” No doubt an offer carried over from the war years when husbands were absent. In those early days I often lay in the dark listening to the condensation forming in pools and running down the walls; I knew that when that sound stopped the water had frozen. Gas provided light; electricity didn’t arrive until 1959. I remember my Dad saying “We’ve got Humphry Davy when we need Michael Faraday”. I also remember the roaring sound of escaping gas when the mantle developed a hole; at first a polite hiss, becoming, as the hole grew, a dragon’s roar. Visibility was a problem: what with Dad’s thick twist and the soot, which regularly descended the chimney, it was difficult during dark winter days to make out the identity of the person sat five feet away. I often wondered if I had a brother or sister no-one had mentioned. But it wasn’t always as good as this: the day my pet cat arrived home dragging a fearsome steel trap that some local bastard had set was a low point. Her mangled leg quickly developed gangrene and she was destroyed.

    So, in summary, taken overall, by and large, all things considered, at the end of the day, when every cliche has been uttered, making allowance for the absence of books, they were good times. I’m surprised Enid didn’t write ‘Five holiday with the Halliwells at Number 13’

    January 12, 2013 at 19:30

    John that must be one of the best comments ever to appear on the Dabbler!

    January 13, 2013 at 06:34


    • Worm
      January 16, 2013 at 13:11

      thanks anthony – and that link is perfect for the wikiworm!! It’s now on my list!

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