The Heights of Abraham: General Wolfe Remembered

Posted on December 8, 2013 by

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No need to go to the Swiss Alps to ride a Cable Car, there’s one at
the very strangely named Heights of Abraham in Derbyshire. Great place. The
countryside is lovely too, lifts the spirits.

Once upon a time the only people who saw this well worth a visit
tourist attraction were those fit enough or daft enough to scale the steep
slopes of Masson Hill (preferably with crampons) but in 1984 Britain’s first
alpine style cable car was installed giving lazy tykes like us stunning
views of the Derwent Valley and The Peak District (the video of how it was
done is interesting).

Opened in 1780 on the site of an old lead mine, The Heights of
Abraham was advertised as a ‘Savage Garden’. Paths still follow the original
routes around the sixty acres. As for the very strange name, the Abraham in
question is not the one in the Bible. When the ‘Savage Garden’ opened it was
the fashion to name places after famous battles (only those won by the
English of course). The Battle of the Plains of Abraham which took place in
1759 was between the British and the French on a plateau once owned by a man
called Abraham Martin.

It’s a pity the guides don’t tell tourists about the origin of the name
because it commemorates one of the most famous battles in The Seven Years
War. The culmination of a three-month siege by the British, the battle, now
known as The Battle of Quebec, was commanded by General Wolfe (Major General
to be precise). Born in 1727, when he died age 32 on the battlefield he was
hailed as a national hero.

Wolfe’s relatively humble birth marked him out from other army
officers who came mainly from the aristocracy. He joined his father’s
regiment as a volunteer when he was thirteen. He could speak French as a
result of several trips to Paris and despite struggling with the disease of
tuberculosis which killed his brother he also taught himself Latin,
mathematics and swordsmanship.

Wolfe led two hundred ships, nine thousand soldiers and eighteen
thousand sailors on a risky amphibious landing at the base of the cliffs
west of Quebec along the St. Lawrence River. In preparation for the fleet’s
approach, it was the equally famous Captain Cook’s ship which sounded the
channel guiding the fleet as it moved up. At day break a small party with
two small cannons scaled the 200-metre cliff from the river below (is this
where the ‘heights’ of Abraham came from?) and overpowered the garrison that
protected the road. When the boats were challenged, a British officer
answered in excellent French, allaying suspicion. The French, who assumed
the cliff was unclimbable, were, naturally, taken by surprise. The bulk of
Wolfe’s army, now able to gain access by road, deployed for battle. Within
moments of the command to fire, Wolfe was struck in the leg, shoulder and a
mortal wound in the chest.

Monuments to him were built on the Plains of Abraham where he fell.
The cloak he was wearing is in the Royal Collection. A cultured man, the
night before battle Wolfe recited Gray’s Elegy: Written in a Country
Churchyard to his officers saying: Gentlemen, I would rather have written
that poem than take Quebec tomorrow.

The capture of Quebec allowed the British to take control of Canada
making the thirty-two year old Wolfe a national hero. The inscription on the
obelisk built to commemorate the battle once said: Here Died Wolfe
Victorious. In order to avoid offending French-Canadians it was changed to:
Here Died Wolfe. Because French Canadians also object to the first lines of
The Maple Leaf Forever, In days of yore, from Britain’s shore, Wolfe, the
dauntless hero, came, And planted firm Britannia’s flag. On Canada’s fair
domain it was not adopted as the national anthem.

Here’s a funny thing about the tourist attraction. For once, the BUY
ME, BUY ME shop was not an irritant. For once we did not mutter something
Socrates said when he was going round a market: ‘How many things I do not
need’. For once we parted with hard cash and bought some very attractive
fridge magnets. Mind you they’re a bit different from those in Poundland.
What I call ‘those funny stones which stick together’, Himself calls magnetic hematite.
The Rock Shop also sells Blue John, a semi-precious blue and yellow mineral.
Unique to Derbyshire, it’s mined in Castleton, a nearby village. It’s
thought that the name comes from France where it was, probably still is,
known as bleu-jaune (blue yellow).

There are no echoes of Wolfe or Canada at The Heights of Abraham but
with its cable cars, Blue John and awesome fridge magnets it does not need
them.

Posted in: Article, Review, Travel