Saturday, 30 December 2017

'The Best Books' - Robert McFarlane: The Wild Places


Reading is a luxury I don't get in large quantities these days - work, family, church, part time work (glorified hobbies), photography - they all take their chunk of time. As a kid I used to read loads and when we first got married, before I started University, we both used to read loads together - probably because we couldn't afford to do much else! These days what would have been my typical reading time - the period between going to bed and falling asleep - is often so short that reading the blurb in one go would be a struggle.

Anyway - that slightly off topic waffle goes to explain why it took me nearly two years to finish reading this book, but it was certainly worth persevering!


I'd been aware of Robert Macfarlane as an author for a while but not had an opportunity to read any of his books until a few years ago when I requested a few for a Christmas present (or Birthday... I can't actually remember!). Thereafter I started reading it in fits and spurts as time allowed, which often meant while I was away from home on trips - working in the woods, holidays visiting family and so on - when the normal routines which fill up your day were disrupted enough to free up a bit of time in the day. These are also the times when I am most likely to be able to spare some time for adventure, exploration and time spent out of doors in the peace that the natural world provides, either as a family or occasionally solo. 

And this is the core of the 'The Wild Places' narrative. It is certainly something that resonates with me - an exploration of the last places in the UK which can still be considered as wild, what an adventure! I'm lucky enough to be familiar with a few of the places he visited in the writing of the book. I even read the chapter about coastal wildness - which recounts a visit to Orfordness on the Suffolk coast - the night after a micro-adventure of my own in that area. My in-laws live just a few miles from Shingle Street, the little hamlet where the spit fades away and joins the North Sea. My brother in law had recently acquired a set of inflatable canoes and had been looking for a chance to try them out. Being mid-summer we made the most of the long evening and stole away for a few hours to try the new toys. The sunset canoe expedition which followed is a fond memory which I have written about before and took us up river toward Orford flanked by Orfordness to the East and the salt marsh on our landward side. We stopped briefly on the shingle to enjoy the views before heading back to our start point... a journey made far more difficult by the tide which had turned and was now racing in. We ended up walking back to the car, beaten by the speed of the inbound tide which rendered our inexperienced paddling completely useless as we struggled to not be drawn back inland, let alone making significant forward progress!

Suffolk was among the tamer landscapes and habitats described. Trips to islands, far flung, dune clad coastlines, limestone pavements and the hidden world within there shaded grykes, windswept moorland, barren mountains tops and snow covered bogs with the shadow of ancient woodland are all described in a detail which simultaneously transports you there in person while instilling a burning desire to make a similar pilgrimage to such places yourself . Ever since reading about a night Macfarlane spent on top of Ben Hope near the north coast of Scotland I have been trying to find a reason to justify the 1000 mile round trip to see it for myself. I haven't found a reason yet... but it isn't going anywhere, I'll figure it out someday. 

Of course his trip to the Hope Valley in Derbyshire to look for mountain hares is something I can recreate far more simply - given that my office is in the valley next door! That's not to belittle the experience, I still love to see the white hares bounding away, particularly when there is snow on the ground. So far this year I have been tied up with office work and haven't been up on the hills yet to see them in their winter coats. Luckily there is certainly good opportunity for me to do so in the new year and I'll be sure the make the most of it! It is easy to forgot - working there everyday - that to so many people in the UK coming to the Peak District is a way to escape the daily grind of work, whereas for me, it is work. 

The picture at the top of the page was taken while on a short trip of my own - I was on route to watch a rugby game in Cardiff with my family. Having spent many of my formative childhood years in Wales I made the most of the opportunity by travelling down through Wales revisiting old haunts. In the evening I travelled to the end of the Gower Peninsula on the south coast of Wales to watch the sun go down over Worms Head. It wasn't long after I had acquired my new camera and I attempted to capture the scene with a time lapse... it wasn't the greatest success (you can watch it here if you really want!), but it gave me an hour on a wild coastline to sit in beautiful surroundings and read about Macfarlane making a trip to a comparable coastline a few hundred miles north, only he was approaching from the sea.

I won't go on - discussions of this nature get my mind racing through the long list of places I'd like to visit. And while patience is certainly a virtue it's not one I'm blessed with in abundance. There is a real risk I will lay awake at night dreaming of the Cairngorms, or the Outer Hebrides, or the wild rivers of mid-wales where I swam as a child, or the rugged coastline of Devon where I camped as a teenager... you see what I mean!? Much like 'The Wild Places', my list of dream destinations are largely in the UK. We are blessed with such a diverse island, or series of islands, that international travel isn't necessary if you goal is to visit wild places. If you're struggling for ideas then reading 'The Wild Places' will certainly give you food for thought, in fact it will be a feast! 

Follow Robert Macfarlane on:
Twitter:       @RobGMacfarlane
Instagram:   @robgmacfarlane

Alternatively have a look at all of his books here at his Amazon author profile.



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