On the Black Hill

Title: On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

Publication Date: 1982

Genre: Novel

Author: Bruce Chatwin

Page Length: 344 pages


On the Black Hill is an award-winning novel written by Bruce Chatwin in 1982. Set in the hilly border region between England and Wales, the book explores the lives of twin brothers, Benjamin and Lewis Jones, born in the early 20th century to a farming family. Through their intertwined lives, Chatwin vividly showcases the changing social and cultural landscape of rural Britain while delving into themes of family, identity, and the profound impact of the passage of time.

Part One: The Joneses of Pantyffynnon Farm

The novel opens with the detailed description of the Jones’ family ancestral home, the Pantyffynnon Farm, nestled amidst the Black Mountains. The narrative then backtracks to Benjamin and Lewis’ childhood in the early 1900s. The twins’ parents, Amos and Mary, live a physically demanding life managing the farm, a place that becomes the backdrop of their entire existence. Chatwin illustrates their austere upbringing, highlighting the family’s reliance on hard work and sacrifice for survival.

Part Two: The Young Men from Nowhere

In this section, set during World War I, Benjamin and Lewis are now young men. Sent to fight in Flanders, Benjamin loses three fingers due to an injury. The brothers are profoundly affected by the harsh realities of war, leading to a newfound appreciation for the homeland they had once yearned to escape. After the war, they return to the farm, their bond strengthened by shared hardship.

Part Three: The Call of the World

The third part of the novel spans the interwar years. Benjamin falls in love with Gwen, a maid at a neighboring farm, and their secret relationship incites Mr. Tomkin, their staunchly religious landlord, to evict her. Lewis, on the other hand, develops a passion for the natural world and begins to explore the local flora and fauna. Despite their growing individuality, the brothers’ strong connection and devotion to each other remain intact.

Part Four: The Triumph of the Domestic

Following their parents’ deaths, Benjamin and Lewis inherit Pantyffynnon Farm. In a bid to maintain the family livelihood, they adapt to new farming practices, embracing the advancements of the 20th century. This transitional period brings about significant change, exemplified by the electrification of the farm and the arrival of a tractor. Despite their attempts to modernize, the twins continue to live in isolation, immersing themselves in the traditions of their ancestors.

Part Five: The Forecoming Night

Approaching old age, Benjamin and Lewis are forced to confront mortality and the accumulated weight of their shared past. The narrative explores their regrets, unfulfilled desires, and, ultimately, their acceptance of life’s transience. A tragic incident occurs when Lewis falls from a ladder, leading to his death. Benjamin, devastated by the loss of his twin, reconciles with the inevitable passing of time and carries on the legacy of the farm alone.


On the Black Hill masterfully explores various themes that resonate throughout the novel. The brothers’ attachment to their land and adherence to tradition reflect the importance of heritage and the struggle to preserve a sense of identity in the face of change. The novel examines the cyclical nature of life, capturing the ongoing cycles of birth, death, and regeneration, both within nature and within the Jones family.

Identity and the interplay between individuality and familial bonds are also central to the narrative. The twins, despite their contrasting hobbies and personalities, are inextricably linked and find solace in each other’s presence. Through their journey, Chatwin underscores the complexity and interconnectedness between self-identity and familial ties.


On the Black Hill’s significance lies in the extraordinary manner in which Chatwin depicts the profound impact of place and the passage of time on the lives of its characters. Through his vivid descriptions and authentic portrayal of the rural landscape, the author provides a deep understanding of the challenges faced by rural communities throughout the 20th century. By examining the evolution of rural Britain, Chatwin offers readers a captivating glimpse into the complexities of human existence and the struggle to adapt and endure.

Overall, On the Black Hill is a poignant and evocative tale that captures the essence of the Jones brothers’ lives and their connection to the changing world around them. It serves as a powerful reminder of the endurance of familial bonds, the beauty of tradition, and the inevitability of change.