britanniaobscura

Britannia Obscura: Mapping Hidden Britain by Joanne Parker (Vintage, Penguin Random House)

What is the shape of Britain? The country’s outline, looking a little like a wingless dragon, is instantly recognisable on any map or globe. But jostling within that familiar profile are countless vying maps of the country. Some of these are founded on rock – or on the natural features of the land. But far more are built on dreams – on human activity, effort, and aspiration. Britannia Obscura is an exploration of just a few of these surprising hidden Britains.

Through a series of meetings with figures such as the retired army colonel and ley-hunter John Christian, the horse-boater Sue Day, and the cave-explorer Dave Nixon, each of the book’s five chapters focuses on how a different group or community imagines the land and our relationship with it. On the megalith-hunter’s map of Britain, the teeming metropolis of the country lies not in the South East, but rather amid the moors of its South West corner. The canal map of Britain reveals a land that takes four or five days to cross, and in which major transport routes lie forgotten beneath willowherb and litter. And on the ever-shifting and growing caver’s map of Britain there are unknown regions still waiting to be discovered.

Together, the book’s chapters reveal that Britain is a country with countless competing centres and ceaselessly shifting borders – a land where one person’s sleepy, remote and unexceptional province will always be the busy heart of another’s map. The book also demonstrates that when viewed through the right lenses, Britain is a surprisingly large small island, which a lifetime of exploration could never exhaust. Ultimately, Britannia Obscura is a book that aims to make its readers more familiar with Britain but also excited about the endless possibilities for surprise that lie just around familiar corners.

****

claxtonClaxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker (Vintage, Penguin Random House)

In a single twelve-month cycle of daily writings Mark Cocker explores his relationship to the East Anglian landscape, to nature and to all the living things around him. The separate entries are characterised by close observation, depth of experience, and a profound awareness of seasonal change, both within in each distinct year and, more alarmingly, over the longer period, as a result of the changing climate. The writing is concise, magical, inspiring.

Cocker describes all the wildlife in the village – not just birds, but plants, trees, mammals, hoverflies, moths, butterflies, bush crickets, grasshoppers, ants and bumblebees. The book explores how these other species are as essential to our sense of genuine well-being and to our feelings of rootedness as any other kind of fellowship.

A celebration of the wonder that lies in our everyday experience, Cocker’s book emphasises how Claxton is as much a state of mind as it is a place. Above all else, it is a manifesto for the central importance of the local in all human activity.

****

countingsheepCounting Sheep by Philip Walling (Profile)

Long before we were a nation of shopkeepers, Britain was a nation of sheep. Full of stories, history, trivia and humour, Counting Sheep explores Britain through its most influential animal.

Sheep are the golden thread that runs through the history of the British countryside. Our fortunes were once founded on sheep, and this book tells a story of wool and money and history, of merchants and farmers and shepherds, and above all, of the soil. Sheep have helped define our culture and topography, impacting on everything from accent and idiom, architecture, roads and waterways, to social progression and wealth. More than any other piece of land in the world, Britain is quintessential sheep country. From the mountains of Scotland, Wales and the Lake District, to the Pennine fells, the rich lowlands of the Midlands, the marshes of Kent and the moors of the West Country, over many centuries, breeds of sheep have been developed which have become marvellously adapted to the land they live on.

With his eye for the idiosyncratic, Philip meets some of the sixty native breeds that thrive in this country; he tells stories about each, meets their shepherds and owners, learns about their pasts and confronts the present realities of sheep farming. Along the way, he meets the people of the countryside as he re-discovers the fields of Britain, and finds a life running parallel to modern existence, struggling to remain unchanged. And at its heart, there are always sheep.

****

hforhawkH is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Vintage, Penguin Random House)

As a child Helen Macdonald was determined to become a falconer. She learned the arcane terminology and read all the classic books, including T. H. White’s tortured masterpiece, The Goshawk, which describes White’s struggle to train a hawk as a spiritual contest.

When her father dies and she is knocked sideways by grief, she becomes obsessed with the idea of training her own goshawk. She buys Mabel for £800 on a Scottish quayside and takes her home to Cambridge. Then she fills the freezer with hawk food and unplugs the phone, ready to embark on the long, strange business of trying to train this wildest of animals.

‘To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so gain the ability to predict what it will do next. Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own. As the days passed and I put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, my humanity was burning away.’

Destined to be a classic of nature writing, H is for Hawk is a record of a spiritual journey – an unflinchingly honest account of Macdonald’s struggle with grief during the difficult process of the hawk’s taming and her own untaming. At the same time, it’s a kaleidoscopic biography of the brilliant and troubled novelist T. H. White, best known for The Once and Future King. It’s a book about memory, nature and nation, and how it might be possible to try to reconcile death with life and love.

****

meadowlandMeadowland by John Lewis-Stempel (Transworld Publishers)

Meadowland gives a unique and intimate account of an English meadow’s life from January to December. In exquisite prose, John Lewis-Stempel records the passage of the seasons from cowslips in spring to the hay-cutting of summer and grazing in autumn, and includes the biographies of the animals that inhabit the grass and the soil beneath: the badger clan, the fox family, the rabbit warren, the skylark brood and the curlew pair, among others. Their births, lives, and deaths are stories that thread through the book from first page to last.

 

****

onsilburyhillOn Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe (Little Toller Books)

Silbury Hill in Wiltshire has inspired and perplexed people for generations. Poets and artists have fathomed their deepest thoughts searching for the hill’s hidden meanings, archaeologists have tunnelled through earth for fragments that prove its purpose. But for all this human endeavour, Silbury Hill remains a mystery.

We do know it is the largest prehistoric mound in Europe. But was it once an island, moated by water? Was it a place of worship and celebration, perhaps a vast measure of the passing seasons? Along with Stonehenge and Avebury, was it part of a healing landscape or a physical memory of the long-ago dead?

Silbury Hill is the sum of all that we project. A blank screen where human dreams and nightmares flicker. The hill has been part of Adam Thorpe’s own life since his schooldays at Marlborough, which he would often escape in the surrounding downlands. He has carried Silbury ever since, through his teenage years in Cameroon, into his adulthood in England and France: its presence fused to each landscape which became his home.

On Silbury Hill is Adam Thorpe’s own projection onto Silbury’s grassy slopes. It is a chalkland memoir told in fragments and family snapshots, skilfully built, layer on layer, from Britain’s ancient and modern past.

****

risinggroundRising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place by Philip Marsden (Granta Publications)

Rising Ground is an evocative journey around some of the country’s most ancient sites and ritual places, and a profound exploration of the relationship between man and the landscape.

From the Neolithic ritual landscape of Bodmin Moor to the Arthurian traditions at Tintagel, Marsden assembles a chronology of Britain’s attitude to place. Drawing also on his travels from further afield, Marsden reveals that the shape of the land lies not just at the heart of our own history but of man’s perennial struggle to belong on this earth.

****

runningfreeRunning Free: A Runner’s Journey Back to Nature by Richard Askwith (Vintage/Yellow Jersey, Penguin Random House)

Richard Askwith wanted more. Not convinced running had to be all about pounding pavements, buying fancy kit and racking up extreme challenges, he looked for ways to liberate himself. His solution: running through muddy fields and up rocky fells, running with his dog at dawn, running because he’s being (voluntarily) chased by a pack of bloodhounds, running to get hopelessly, enjoyably lost, running fast for the sheer thrill of it. Running as nature intended.

Part diary of a year running through the Northamptonshire countryside, part exploration of why we love to run without limits, Running Free is an eloquent and inspiring account of running in a forgotten, rural way, observing wildlife and celebrating the joys of nature.

An opponent of the commercialisation of running, Askwith offers a welcome alternative, with practical tips (learned the hard way) on how to both start and keep running naturally – from thawing frozen toes to avoiding a stampede when crossing a field of cows. Running Free is about getting back to the basics of why we love to run.

****

ash300The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham (Little Toller Books)

Ash is one of the commonest trees in the British Isles – there are nearly as many ash trees as there are people. Perhaps this is why we take them for granted. Poets write of oak, yew, elm, willow, rarely ash. No books have been written about ash trees before.

Yet ash is one of the most productive hardwoods in Europe. Its strength and elasticity are qualities our Neolithic ancestors recognised building their tracks across the Somerset wetlands. Ash has been used ever since, to build and warm homes, to feed livestock, to cure. Before steel ash was used to make ploughs and rakes, wheel rims, boat frames, tent pegs and weapons. Wildlife also finds sustenance and shelter in ash: woodpeckers bore nest holes into them, bats breed in veteran trees, insects, lichens and mosses thrive on ash bark, as do hares and rabbits in winter.

Ash Disease brought this under-appreciated tree to our attention. In response, Oliver Rackham has written the first history and ecology of the ash tree, exploring its place in human culture, explaining Ash Disease, and arguing that globalisation is the single greatest threat to the world’s trees and forests.

The Ash Tree is Oliver Rackham’s call for a radical shift in our attitude to trees – how we plant them, how we care for them. There is no more urgent message for our times. We cannot go on treating trees like cars or tins of paint to be traded around the world.

****

themoorThe Moor by William Atkins (Faber & Faber)

The Moor: Lives Landscape Literature by William Atkins gives us the story of the moors – from Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor and Exmoor in the southwest up to the Scottish border, via Yorkshire and Northumberland – and how they have shaped our people, culture and industry.

In this deeply personal journey across our nation’s most forbidding and most mysterious terrain, William Atkins takes the reader from south to north, in search of the heart of this elusive landscape. His account is both travelogue and natural history, and an exploration of moorland’s uniquely captivating position in our literature, history and psyche.

Atkins may be a solitary wanderer across these vast expanses, but his journey is full of encounters, busy with the voices of the moors, past and present: murderers and monks, smugglers and priests, gamekeepers and ramblers, miners and poets, developers and environmentalists. As he travels, he shows us that the fierce landscapes we associate with Wuthering Heights and The Hound of the Baskervilles are far from being untouched wildernesses. Daunting and defiant, the moors echo with tales of a country and the people who live in it – a mighty, age-old landscape standing steadfast against the passage of time.

****

jacketThe Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs by Tristan Gooley (Hodder & Stoughton)

Written by the author of THE NATURAL NAVIGATOR and THE NATURAL EXPLORER,
THE WALKER’S GUIDE TO OUTDOOR CLUES AND SIGNS turns every walk into a rewarding game of detection.

How can I use tree leaves as a compass?
What clues are there in the colours of a rainbow?
How can I tell the time using the stars?
Which butterflies will tell me how far it is to the pub?
Why are there cafés on only one side of the street?

The ultimate guide to what the land, sun, moon, stars, trees, plants, animals, sky and clouds can reveal
–when you know what to look for.
Includes over 850 outdoor clues and signs.
This book is the result of two decades of pioneering outdoors experience and six years of instructing, researching and writing. It includes lots of outdoor clues and signs that will not be found in any other book in the world.
As well as the most comprehensive guide to natural navigation for walkers ever compiled, it also contains clues for weather forecasting, tracking, city walks, coast walks, night walks and dozens of other areas.

****

walkinghomeWalking Home by Clare Balding (Penguin Books)

In Clare Balding’s family, walking just took too long – she galloped through the countryside and she galloped through life. Then, in 1999, Clare took a call from a BBC producer looking for a presenter for a new radio series. ‘Do you walk?’ she asked. ‘Well, I walk the dog . . .’ That series, Ramblings, is still going strong – and Clare’s caught the walking bug. Now she wants her family to share some of that pleasure. Her and her brother Andrew are determined to conquer the Wayfarer’s Walk, a 71 mile route. What could possibly go wrong?