York’s often thought of as a flat city, but it has several hills. The highest of these, between Acomb and Holgate, is Severus Hill, perhaps best known for its huge, looming water tower.

The hill is up for sale and local campaigners are raising £150k to make it a community asset; they’ve already raised two-thirds.

The four-acre site is a hidden paradise for nature and has gained status as a 'Site of Interest for Nature Conservation'.

But it’s also rich in history; a place of emperors, engineers, artists, and possibly even unexploded bombs!

Let’s start with its unusual name. It harks back to the city’s association with one of the great Roman emperors, Septimius Severus, who ruled from AD 193 to 211.

Severus came to Britain in 209 with a huge army of 57,000 men. He used York as his headquarters to wage military campaigns against ‘barbarians’ in Scotland and died in the city in 211. For these few years, with his Imperial Court installed here, it made Eboracum York the effective beating heart of power in the Roman Empire.

Severus was one of the most dynamic of Roman emperors, victorious in battle, shrewd and decisive in politics. He’s also now recognized as Rome’s first mixed race emperor, given his father’s North African lineage. As such, he’s Britain’s first and only mixed-race ruler.

Severus’s connection with the hill comes from Roman funeral customs and is bolstered by evidence of a Roman Road at the hill.

The emperor’s body would’ve been cremated at the highest point outside the Roman fortress and his ashes then taken to Rome. The city’s antiquarian historians, including Francis Drake, understood this to mean Severus Hill was the cremation site.

Drake also believed that the hill was man-made by legionnaires in honour of Severus. The truth is the hills were, in the words of nineteenth-century archaeologist, Charles Wellbeloved, ‘formed by a far mightier power than the Roman legions’. It’s a 35m high glacial moraine, left by the last Ice Age, c.13,000 years ago.

The hill was also known in the early 1800s as Beacon Hill, when there were justified fears of Napoleonic forces invading Britain.

Fire and smoke beacons were erected at high points around the country to warn of approaching invaders. After first considering the top of York Minster, Severus Hill was chosen in 1803 to be the city’s beacon.

There are other military associations with the hill. It was used by the Parliamentarian forces during the Civil War siege of the city in 1644. It was one of a small number of locations used by General Alexander to fire cannonballs at Royalist forces within the city, with much damage caused to the city walls.

During York’s worst aerial bombing of WW2, in April 1942, several bombs fell on Severus Hill. The bombs were an overshot, with the Luftwaffe targeting the railway lines nearby.

Rumours persist of unexploded bombs remaining on the hill. Archive bomb location maps, oral history testimonies and bomb craters seen in postwar aerial photos suggest all bombs exploded on impact or a day later. All the same, best not to go digging or metal-detecting up there!

More peaceful times give the hill the distinction of having had the largest water tower (300,000 gallons) of its day when completed in 1914.

A reservoir that was built to provide water for the whole city was built on the hill in 1848, predating the water tower. It was designed by James Simpson, a famous civil engineer, who a few years later became President of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

It is perhaps the hill’s tranquility and amazing views of York that have been its strongest attraction since the early 1800s. Romanticist artists were drawn here to paint and draw the city’s panorama below.

By the 1840s and the arrival of the railways, they were joined by day trippers from the northeast and West Yorkshire, who travelled to York as our first wave of heritage tourists. Along with taking in landmarks within the city, they journeyed out to Severus Hill to take in the spectacle of the historic city.

Despite being surrounded today by housing, Severus Hill still offers amazing views of the city. So, here’s to the local campaign’s success, and ensuring those views and the history of the site for many more years to come.

Dr Duncan Marks is York Civic Trust's civic society manager