Friday 25 January 2013

Finding wildness: places to be left alone with yourself

A common leitmotif of writings and commentary on landscapes - both urban and rural - is that wildness, and nature itself, is on the retreat; clinging on in only a few hard to find redoubts. Received wisdom has it that in crowded overdeveloped Britain, and particularly in England, wild, little visited places are 'increasingly' hard to find: there is no escape from the all-pervasive noise, speed and stress of the man-made technologies that we have created. We are now enslaved by the forces that have also impoverished our environment. Rachel Carson's prophecy of a Silent Spring has come to pass, with absent natural sound replaced by the pandaemonium of the machine age.
"Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation, science lent her aid, and the wildness of these islands, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time. There is no cave in which to curl up, and no deserted valley." E.M. Forster
"...that cavernous, deadened heart of south England which now runs more or less uninterrupted from Norwich all the way to Bristol." Mark Cocker
"This is one of the few places left in England where you can actually open your ears and listen. Everyday we are bombarded by sound and noise, but so rarely have the opportunity of really listening." Chris Watson
Even Robert Macfarlane, in his generally uplifting paean to The Wild Places, gives the impression that only a skilled landscape horse-whisperer such as he is able to locate special places of wildness:
"The losses to the wild places of Britain and Ireland were unignorable, and the threats that they faced - pollution, climate change - appeared greater in number and vigour than ever before. But I knew that the wildness had not entirely vanished."
The credo of exclusivity and a diminishing stock of remote places is taken up by Christopher Walton:
"Even in England there are still places where it is possible to feel as if you are the first to stand there. These places are few and far between, lost deep in the hills where nobody ever goes, or hemmed in by humming railway lines; but if you look will find them."

What puzzles me about much fine writing on landscape, as illustrated above, is that it seems to ignore or be in denial of a simple truth: remote places are all around and do not require arcane or esoteric knowledge in order to be enjoyed; just a map and a bit of curiosity. Maybe celebrating the remarkable, diverse and accessible geography within our midst is too far from the overriding narrative of shrinking biodiversity, ruptured ecosystems, climate change and urbanisation; fiddling while Rome burns.

My contention would be that if people feel that wildness has gone, been corralled into carefully stage managed nature ghetto's or is simply out of bounds, then how can we ever expect them to feel a sense of value for the areas of natural tranquility and beauty that surround them? And, by extension, feel a personal - rather than abstract - stake in pulling back from the pillage of the planet's natural resources? 

So here is a gently dissenting voice; a hosanna to exploring and revisiting special places:
"On springy heath, along the hill-top edge/ Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance/ To that still roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep/ And only speckled by the midday sun." This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

And such places really are not hard to find with a little bit of imagination and willingness to see beyond the guidebook, heritage trail and landscape-lite country park or open farm.
"There is a stream, I name not its name, lest inquisitive tourist/ Hunt it, and make it a lion, and get it at last into guide-books." The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich, Arthur Hugh Clough

In my experience, a place or landscape of solitude, surprise and wildness can always be found within half an hour of even the most unpromising soul-sucking shit-hole. Last year I found myself marooned in Luton - 'crap town' incarnate - on a three day course for which my genius loci was a business park, Travel Lodge hotel, railway station and the flightpath of the nearby Luton International Airport; and yet, a short detour under the bypass led through gothic gate posts into the sweeping drive to an unseen country house, and a magnificent vista of eighteenth century parkland - the crowning glory of designed landscape - shimmering in the early morning frost-time. Perhaps not a wild scene, but I had it to myself, as if I had stepped through a portal into a different dimension. This almost transcendental theme is taken up by Merlin Coverley, commenting on Henry David Thoreau: 
"Thoreau was to transplant exactly this sense of mystical otherworldness to his own surroundings, transforming his daily walks through the local countryside - an area which, far from being virgin wilderness, has been settled for two hundred years - into a journey into the unknown."

Whats more, the long millennia of human occupation, a legacy of lives lived, myth and legend, often gives an added heuristic richness to out of the way places. A maybe unpalatable truth is that 'pristine' landscapes are often characterised by monotony and a deadening lack of variety and interest. A ruined building, packhorse bridge, World War II gun emplacement or disused canal adds depth, stories untold and pleasing melancholy to a place; exactly the characteristics of wildness that appeal to me. In fact, with a depopulated working countryside, its often easier to find this feeling than it would have been in the past. Picking amongst the fallen masonry and rusting remnants of machinery around a ruinous farmstead or mill, we are amongst the surface archaeology of waves of agricultural and industrial activity; the ghosts of human toil, as noble an artifact as any Inca temple.

My local wild place is the river Frome, fluting through a gorge, transporting its wet load from the Cotswold uplands to the mother river, the Avon. The steep sides of the valley mean that the suburbs of north-eastern Bristol can never encroach too far: this is the preserve of rocky outcrops of Pennant sandstone, ash, oak, beech and alder; of relict remains of quarrying, water mills and holloways, retaken by aboriginal flora. A place enjoying, in John Clare's words, "...a wild and beautiful neglect...where nature her own feelings to effect". Whilst the main valley path is a dog-walkers thoroughfare, multiple side paths and scrambles follow more circuitous and lonely routes; space for contemplation, adventure and wonder: the quintessence of wildness.

Perhaps being alone is another essential element of the experience. A 'solitary landscape' is required. There is great pleasure in walking with friends and family, but I favour lone perambulations, usually routes planned on the map or on the hoof rather than taken from a guidebook. A days walking off the main drag in any National Park and, during most of the year, hardly a soul will be met. Upland gullies, combes and valleys are particularly gratifying arenas for exploration: mini climates, mini ecosystems, mini landscapes; with a mask of impenetrability concealing their secrets.

"The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark/ Its mouth is stopped with bramble, thorn and briar/ And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk/ By beech and yew and perishing juniper/ Down the half precipices of its sides, with roots/ And rabbits holes for steps." (The Combe, Edward Thomas).
I regularly spend time in the Black Mountains, which form the eastern portion of the Brecon Beacons National Park; miles of upland ridges to wander lonely as a cloud (and often in one). But there is also spatial drama to be had away from the tops. Discovering hidden cascades and waterfalls to refresh body and spirit, like a balm of stone and water; or entering what local literary mystic Arthur Machen describes as "the secret darkness of the valley" whilst negotiating an old sunken path through heather and bracken and then stands of thorn, hazel and ash, to descend into the empty Eden of upper Olchon, Ewyas or Grwyne Fechan. 

And further memories come tumbling back: looking for adventure (born to be wild?) in the wood, field and stream surrounding Kenilworth Castle during my childhood; long treks across the North York Moors and South Pennines to - literally and metaphorically - clear the head as a student; following the overgrown lines of the historic landscape around Bristol, a detective in muddy boots; a moonlit wander through the becalmed eerieness of Highgate Woods, in search of the inner Grimm of North London's wild side.   

Hill country, open countryside and rural ruins are certainly not the only way to find the wild. A vigorous strand of new nature and psychogeographic writing delves into stirrings in the undergrowth of our towns and cities; territory scouted out in my review of the recently published Urban Wildscapes. Unexpected patches of greenery, often planned or unplanned reclaimed industrial land, can slake the thirst for mystery and secret space. The challenge is to ensure such places are not tidied up and developed out of existence.
There are many special places in which I have sought and found ecstatic aloneness at different stages in my life, space where you can be "left alone with yourself"; some wilder than others, some well visited but no less easy to find the path less trod. Here are the locations and names of just a few of many, and such a miscellany of landscape memory is a rich resource open to all.
Kenilworth, Warwickshire: The Castle and Castle Meadows; Chase Lane; Hollis Lane and Crackley Woods; The Common.
Worth Valley, West Yorkshire: Oldfield - hamlet, Dixon Hill farm, fields and Blue Stone Delph; Wolf Stones and Icornshaw Moor; Ponden Kirk; Top Withens and Haworth Moor; Watersheddles and Wycoller; Crimsworth Dean; Walshaw Dean.
Black Mountains, Monmouthshire: Llanthony Priory and Siarpal; Cwmyoy; Grwyne Fawr; The Castle and Hatterrall Ridge; Nant Bwch and waterfalls; Oldcastle and Trewyn; Olchon Valley; The Sugarloaf and St Mary's Vale; Rhiw Cwnstab; The Skirrid.
Around Bristol and Bath: Frome Valley, Oldbury Court and Frenchay Common; Purr Down; Leigh Woods and the Gorge; Bury Hill; Hinton Hill Fort; Golden Valley, Wick; Dyrham Park; Cold Ashton and St Catherine's Valley; Dodington Park; North Stoke and Kelston Round Hill.

Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean: Caswell Woods and Brockwier; Cuckoo Wood; Blakeney Hill Wood; Garanew.
Gloucestershire Cotswolds: Hawkesbury Upton; Slad Valley; Haresfield Beacon; Sapperton and Daneway; Ozleworth Bottom; Brackenbury Ditches.
Herefordshire: Garway Hill; Kilpeck; Hergest Ridge; Sellack; Hentland; Titley.
Somerset: Goblin Combe; Priddy and Ebor Gorge; Mendip Forest; Brean Down; Bagborough Hill; Barle Valley; Timberscombe.
Yorkshire Dales: Bolton Abbey; The Strid and River Wharfe; Broadshaw and Valley of Desolation; Littondale; Malham Moor.
 North York Moors: Wheeldale Moor and Beck; Great and Little Fryup Dale; Westerdale Moor; Danby High Moor; Upper Rosedale; Northdale Scar.
Carmarthenshire: Carreg-yr-ogof; Cennan Cerrig. 
London: Highgate Woods; Hampstead Heath; Totteridge; Hadley Common; Trent Park and Enfield Chase; Richmond Park.

I'm not pointing out anything new here. Clare, Thoreau, Mabey, Mcfarlane and many others have extolled the simple truth that its better to seek your own personal wildness than exotic wilderness. But there is, perhaps more than ever, a need to shout-out and advocate a detour from the general flow of doom, into the wild and less frequented that is accessible to most of us, if only we would wander into Arthur Machen's "solitude and woods and deep lanes and wonder". Encouraging 'topophilia', Yi-Fu Tuan's concept of a "bond between people and place", is surely one of the best ways to battle the forces of environmental degradation. Final words to Richard Mabey:
"I began to wonder - I hope not just rationalising my own naivety - if wilderness was really what I wanted, or should want...what I missed was some common ground between the wilderness and the thoroughly domesticated, some accessible country - real and metaphysical...I realised that what touched me most was not wilderness as a special, defined place, but the quality of wildness...the untidy, energising edge of all living systems."


Baker, Kenneth (Ed.), 2000. The Faber Book of Landscape Poetry. London: Faber and Faber.

Clare, John, 1990. Selected Poems. London: Penguin.

Cocker, Mark, 2008. Crow Country. London: Vintage.

Coverley, Merlin, 2012. The Art of Wandering: The writer as walker. Harpenden: Oldcastle.

Creswell, Tim, 2004. Place: A short introduction. Oxford: Blackwell

Jorgensen, Anna and Keenan, Richard (Eds.), 2012. Urban Wildscapes. Oxford: Routledge.

Mabey, Richard, 2008. Nature Cure. London: Vintage.

Macfarlane, Robert, 2007. The Wild Places. London: Granta.

Machen, Arthur, 2010. The Great God Pen. Cardigan: Parthian

Storey, Edward, 1990. The Solitary Landscape. London: Robert Hale.

Thomas, Edward, 2004. Collected Poems. London: Faber and Faber.

Walton, Christopher, 2012. The Secret Place in Earthlines issue 3

Watson, Chris, 2012. The River Coquet in Barrett, Jeff, Turner, Robin and Walsh, Andrew (Eds.) Caught by the River: A collection of words on water. London: Caught by the River. 


  1. Lovely! You are quite right, that mysterious quality of wild or otherness can be found in the niches of everyday life. That Mabey quote is a marvellous nod to reconciling both the person and the place.

  2. And like most things of real value, its something that's there staring us right in the face but easy to neglect or underestimate.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Great post Eddie and in complete agreement with the sentiments. Often think that sometimes it's almost a 'state of mind' to be open to the potential experience which any place can throw up. Often this occurs in what may at first appear to be the most unlikely of spaces.

    1. Yes, curiosity and an open state of mind; pity there's not more of it about.

  4. A fine post. Thank you. After years of living by the beach and scratching around the wild edges of the land I have moved to the edges of France and Germany beside the southern Rhine. Here too it is only minutes into wildness. From Autobahn or busy river into a secret world where blackthorn and brambles are softening gun emplacements and bunkers.

    1. Thanks for your comments. And enjoy your secret world.

  5. The "left alone with yourself" quote is another from Arthur Hugh Clough's poem The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich in which he describes a special place; a mountain stream waterfall and pool,
    "Cliff over cliff for its sides, with rowan and pendant birch boughs,
    Here it lies, unthought of above at the bridge and pathway,
    Still more enclosed from below by wood and rocky projection,
    You are shut in, left alone with yourself and perfection of water,
    Hid on all sides, left alone with yourself and the goddess of bathing."

  6. Excellent post - thanks for your thoughts and the references to pursue.

    1. Your list of favourites does however risk breaking the injunction you quoted:
    "There is a stream, I name not its name, lest inquisitive tourist/ Hunt it, and make it a lion, and get it at last into guide-books."

    2. Still - good to know of shared appreciation. And next time you're around the Black Mountains, stray a little further to west of Abegavenny and walk the Blorenge hill that divides the Valleys from the margins of the Marches.

    3. The recent 'Edgelands' by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts adds eloquently to the literature on 'the joy of grotspots'.

    4. Alan Garner's latest novel 'Boneland' concludes a trilogy set around Alderley Edge in Cheshire. Whilst maybe not to everyone's taste, he continues to chart his lifelong fascination with a modest local patch, acknowledge a landscape of modernity with the Jodrell Bank radio telescope and imagine the mind of a paleolithic cave artist. Garner has succeeded in claiming his personal wilderness at what is now the commuter belt.

    1. Thanks for your interesting points. You are quite right about the list, though happy to share these places with discerning folk such as yourself.

      Have yet to explore the mighty Blorenge, but will and look forward to reading Boneland.

  7. Lovely post, Eddie. The Mabey quote has much resonance for me personally. I just wonder what place Chris Watson (the sound recordist, right?) is describing here.

  8. Blogger didnt record this comment from 09/02/13 for some reason:

    Lovely post, Eddie. The Mabey quote has much resonance for me personally. I just wonder what place Chris Watson (the sound recordist, right?) is describing here.

    1. Thank you. Yes it is Chris Watson, the sound recordist, and he is talking about the upper reaches of the river Coquet in the Northumberland Cheviots.

  9. Comment on the Uncivilisation: Dark Mountain Project blog link:

    Eddie, it's happening everywhere. You know that idea, it's sad when there's a war and both sides lose? Well, that's what it feels like. The development in my town is beyond belief. I can't go anywhere without being shocked and appalled. It's like we're at the center of the ruins. So, just wanted to share my dismay.
    For the Earth, Sky

    1. Thanks Sky
      I am certainly no apologist for the forces of unsustainable development and so called growth, but my piece was sounding, dare I say it, an essentially optimistic note. Despite all the accelerated shit that we have done to the environment in the last 200 years wildness (not wilderness) is still close to hand, and getting people in touch with, and emotionally attached to, their local wild places is the only way we can ever hope to find a different path for the future.

  10. Wild places are all around us, it only takes a little imagination and Google Maps...

  11. Yep, I'm old school and like my paper maps, but Google maps also does the trick.

  12. Eddie, lovely piece and quite inspiring. I think we all need to re-adjust our sense of what an exotic wilderness is by first accepting that there are few people who have explored their own backyard in enough detail to warrant flying, for example, to South-East Asia to "discover themselves". It's a particularly British spin on the been-there-done-that-bought-the-t-shirt tourist culture and, apart from the ecological damage of the air miles themselves, it only reinforces the mainstream cultural conclusion that exploration starts a long way from home.

    In The Natural Explorer, Tristan Gooley spends an entire book on a day's walk in the South Downs near his home, with asides and historical diversions along the way which seek to discriminate between the often-confused roles of the explorer and the adventurer. He describes every pace of the walk in obsessive detail - at the end of one 500 word passage he has moved little more than a yard, but has taken the reader every inch of the way.

    1. Thanks Ian.

      Too true. Those jetting off seeking 'experience and adventure' often seem to go to the same places as everyone else; ecologically unsound and also lacking in imagination. Not sure I agree its a particularly British phenomena though.

      I've recently bought The Natural Explorer, so looking forward to that read.

  13. Thoroughly enjoyed... indeed, the notion of 'wildness' is really not something which needs a 'horse-whisperer' to find (without wishing to not knock Mr Macfarlane's art). I go on countless walks in which hardly anyone else is around; we even walked up Snowdon on the ranger route during May, and half-term at that, relatively undisturbed until joining the top path. It can seem that the motivating factor in 'wildness' is a faintly unpleasant exclusivity, no more than the old 'holiday' versus 'travelling' malarkey.

    1. Thank you. Wildness is a state of mind, a band-wagon trend, a ghost of the past or maybe just a magical ordinariness; depends where you are coming from. I suspect that those who walk and observe, without seeking a lifestyle or with an agenda, are the ones who actually find it; and will always find it, whatever the era, culture or socio-economic context. Anyway, time for the soapbox to be put away.

    2. For me it reduces down to the following. I've been working quite hard to find the same kind of imaginative process you describe whereby "wildness" can indeed be found, felt and enjoyed in tame places - alongside the motorway, in the woods at the end of the road, in a corner of your local park. But - and it really is important - it is not the same as Scafell Pike, Cnicht, or Torridon and perhaps wild camping in such places.

      I work hard at localised Mabey-esque, Macfarlane-esque feelings because I enjoy it and find it valid. But I do so, really, only because I don't get to Scotland, Snowdonia, the Lake District etc as often as I'd like.

    3. Thanks James

      I suppose my main point is that there is a middle ground between the tame terrain you describe - which I agree can only feed the need for wildness in a limited way - and the epic (though thickly visited) national parks and set-piece grand scenery; and that is the every-day but fascinating fields, woods, hills, old buildings, tracks and streams of the countryside that is all around us, but often unvisited. So to me, a day out in a valley on my doorstep can be just as rewarding and interesting as a trip to the Lakes or the Brecon Beacons. This doesn't downgrade the pleasure of these more obviously wild places but, I think, allows a healthier equilibrium of wildness rather than having to save it all up for rare chances to get away.

  14. I like that - "a healthier equilibrium of wildness" - and I wish I too had even a doorstep valley. I do however have the Mancunian River Mersey and nature areas alongside it, where I've been working on a photographic project. I think we agree and have only discussed different parts of the picture. Here's my project:

    1. Thanks for the Chorlton Meadow link James and I agree that we broadly agree!

      All the best



Please add your comments here.