Wednesday 29 February 2012

In landscape: some thoughts on the best ways to get out there

There are many better ways to experience the landscape than sitting in front of a computer, and here, in no particular order, are some of my personal favourites; no doubt others will have some even better suggestions.

 In the company of children
A walk or adventure in the countryside with young ones helps to bring out the inner child in all of us - camping, poo sticks, building dens, searching for the Gruffulo. My first experience of landscape was through family walks as a kid and roaming around the local area; memories that are still vivid. I hope my children have the same.

Sleeping rough
In recent years I've been on an annual bothy trip with a group of friends, which is a great way to stay out in a remote landscape for a whole weekend, albeit with, at best, a basic level of comfort. Wild camping gives you even more license to find your own spot: in Scotland and Dartmoor you can camp on any uncultivated land and in the rest of the country, as long as you are away from habitations and livestock, just stay overnight and leave nothing behind you will generally be ok. There is plenty of good advice out there on bothies and wild camping.

A bit of danger is good for the soul
Some of the most memorable times I have experienced in the landscape have involved periods of uncertainty and a degree of anxiety: abandoning a mountain bike in a snowstorm and continuing my route on foot, lost and ploughing through thick snow in a whiteout in the Black Mountains; scrambling alone on rocks high up a mountain-side in Tierra Del Fuego to reach a glacier; and clambering along a slippery Striding Edge on Helvellyn unable to stand up due to high winds. Uncomfortable when you are in the middle of it but strangely satisfying when its over and definitely memorable. 

Getting to know your local landscape is certainly the easiest, and often one of the most satisfying, ways to engage with the environment. The majority of us live in urban areas, which are brim full of green space, woodland, historic buildings, rivers and lakes. No need to dream of that rural idyll, just step out of your front door. In my case, this is the Frome Valley and Oldbury Court in North East Bristol.

Time to study
If you can find a small area of landscape to study intimately - whether focusing on natural history, medieval field systems and settlement patterns or an abandoned industrial site - you can not only contribute in some small way to the body of knowledge and evidence of how the natural and human world work, find surprising things in the most unlikely places but also educate yourself on the world around you.

Conservation volunteering
I've worked as a conservation volunteer a number of times (as well as volunteering on archaeological digs) and I am always conscious that I should do more. Such work enables you to spend a sustained amount of time in the landscape and contribute to something tangible, personally rewarding and of benefit to wider society. BTCV, Wildlife Trusts and the Natural Trust, amongst others, all welcome volunteers.

The sunlit uplands
Any landscape has intrinsic interest but nothing stirs the soul more than getting into the hills and mountains and experiencing the ever changing weather and atmosphere that characterises upland areas; there is something elemental about this - the blood pumps harder, the senses are keener, the rain seems wetter! And there is no finer feeling than sinking a pint in a pub at the end of a long day of fell-walking, whilst your socks slowly dry out.

Using your hands
Without wishing to sound too much like a tree-hugger, a walking stick cut directly from a coppiced hazel tree is one of my favourite possessions. I'm no master-craftsman, as my rustically created bench, wood store, garden path and other efforts testify, but making something by hand using wood, stone or other natural materials links us both to our more highly-skilled and resourceful forebears and our environment in a way that many aspects of modern life shy away from or discourage. 

Festival in the sun
This is a bit of a boom time for music festivals 'out in the country' of all shapes and sizes. Whilst there is often a focus on mud and the temperamental British summer weather, drinking with friends round the camp fire and sitting in the sun listening to great music are the more common experiences - what could be better? My own personal favourites are the Green Man Festival and the End of the Road Festival, and everyone should try good old Glastonbury at least once. Or why not organise your own mini festival.

Taking it to the extreme
An adrenalin-junkie approach to the great outdoors can be tiresome and even indicate a lack of empathy with the natural rhythms of the landscape. However, reinvigorating yourself with a spot of coasteering, gorge-walking, white water rafting or mountain-biking from time to time is good for the soul. Ideally, keeping it simple without the need for expensive gear, gadgets or over-the-top lists of safety rules.

Night walking
For reasons I wont bore you with I once set off on a 15 mile circular walk around the North London/ Hertfordshire fringes late at night. It was cold and a bit eerie in parts but I was fortified by beer, had a few sleeps on the way and enjoyed the different perspective on familiar places. If its good enough for Charles Dickens, its good enough for me.

Step into the garden  
Gardens can easily be overlooked in favour of flashier landscapes. Building a pond, planting trees and generally encouraging wildlife in my modest city garden has given me as much pleasure as any of the other activities listed here. What can beat seeing frog-spawn magically appear in a pond in early Spring, a blossoming cherry tree or hearing chicks in a bird box?

Or why not just sit under a tree reading or dozing, relax, let all your senses take in the landscape around you and forget about the time...

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