Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761
The action in Down from the Hill centers on Paul Morton’s two journeys through the beautiful West Midlands, first on a bicycle in the summer of 1945 at the age of seventeen, and then by car in the summer of 1983. As a young factory worker in the Cadets, about to become an air traffic control assistant, Paul starts on his bicycle trip with one thought in mind: to see Alice Sands, the girl he met in Stafford on a trip the year before and with whom he has maintained a correspondence. The novel begins with Paul’s sexual awakening, but any real intimacy between Alice and him is prevented by Alice’s friend Gwen, and Paul continues on his way with youthful optimism and a sense of freedom. The rest of his six-day cycling trip centers on the simple joys of touring the English countryside, meeting other cyclists, and finding lodgings and food.
Before leaving Stafford on the second day, Paul rides with Alice and Gwen to the ruins of Wishdale Abbey, where he climbs about the beams and feels “like a monkey over the abyss.” Though not given to romantic fantasizing, and as yet unaware of his artistic calling, Paul imagines himself a hero: “I pictured myself defending the Castle, then leading the attack from below, but didn’t know finally where I belonged.” When they all say goodbye, Alice promises to write Paul immediately. Paul, who thinks he loves Alice and is anxious to receive her letter, has to resist the urge to cut short his trip: “It had to go on, until it came back to where I was, in myself.” The sense of “something unfinished” compels him to “cover more ground, get further away, see other places.” It is apparent throughout these experiences that Paul is no ordinary youth; he is highly imaginative and sensitive to his surroundings and other people.
During the third, fourth, and part of the fifth day, Paul rides with a group of three young cyclists from Sheffield: Noah and Pete, who ride a tandem, and a boy he refers to as Sheffield, after their native town. Paul spends the fourth day helping them search for a friend, Jack Randall, whom they describe in exalted terms but who apparently does not exist. The joke is on Paul, but he concludes that what matters is not whether “the bloke lived or not” but the talk itself, “how you told the lie, or joke, or even the truth itself.”
On the sixth day, Paul is joined by Tom Clifford, an older man who imposes his company and raves about the Labour Party’s recent victory. “And now things are going to alter,” he says. “Especially for the working man.” Paul, skeptical and somewhat embarrassed by Tom for being so personal, finally makes his escape and returns home to Nottingham, taking the road down from Broughton Hill. When he arrives home, he finds no letter from Alice but gets a job as an air traffic controller; he will train with the Royal Air Force in Buckinghamshire, and for the first time, he will live away from his parents.
In part 2 of the novel, Paul Morton—now age fifty-five, recently left by his third wife for being unfaithful, and recovering from an injury to his side from absently falling out of a tree that he was pruning—remembers the summer of his cycle ride as a time without troubles and decides to make another tour of the Midlands, this time in his “large Volvo.” He regards his nostalgia as a result of his going through a change of life; while melancholy and cynical, however, he is not embittered or defeated but sustained by a vivid imagination and a sense of humor. On this shorter trip, he tries to retrace his route of thirty-eight years before. While driving, he imagines talking with Uncle Fred about Italian opera, and he has the idea that Fred was his real father. In Stafford, Paul searches for Alice Sands, but he hears from an old inhabitant that she married a Canadian lawyer and now lives in Canada.
On his way home, Paul picks up a hitchhiker who says he is going to London. When the hitchhiker gets out, however, he turns around and takes a ride going in the opposite direction. Similarly, Paul, who finds himself back on the summit of Broughton Hill, instead of completing the circle again by coming down from the hill, makes a three-point turn in the road and drives “towards London as fast as he can go.”
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