The Wild Places

20 minute blog post - day 2

view from Tiree

View from Tiree

I’m feeling out of sorts this holiday. For the first time in five years, I have not made a summer visit to Tiree and lived the removed tranquility of a remote island: the joy of waking to – at least when the weather is favourable – views over to Ben More on Mull or to the Paps of Jura. Nor have I been to the ends of the island and admired the peaks on distant Skye nor, on the finest of days, climbed Ben Hynish and stood breathless at the panorama which sweeps to the north and west from Barra Head and the Uists, to Harris and beyond and in the south and east encompasses Iona and the Mull of Kintyre.

Fortunately, I’m already booked for later in the year.

And fortunate, too, that so many writers have sought – and often succeeded far more than I could ever manage – to capture something of the experience of mountains. And even more fortunate that we live in a golden age of writing about our environment, which whets the appetite for mountains. If you can’t be there, you can at least dream…

For armchair hikers, Robert Macfarlane’s books on mountains and walking and wild places have fed the imagination no end. Macfarlane evokes not just our wildest of places but takes us to their people, their language and their past and above all to the writers of these places.

I encountered Macfarlane in his second book, The Wild Places. Its title immediately struck me, and his quest for wilderness within the British Isles was one which resonated with this south eastern resident who has too often loathed the intrusion of humans on our natural world: the shameful mountains of plastic on our beaches, the blight of fluorescent lights on our night skies, the detritus abandoned in our hedgerows, the incessant rumble of traffic.

Macfarlane felt the same. He trekked across the most dangerous of moors in the depths of winter. Swam in the seas. Bivouacked.

But then he made a rather beautiful discovery.

The wildness for which he yearned was on his doorstep. In amongst the suburban sprawl on the edge of Cambridge, there were to be found the wild places.

It’s a thought which has been on mind this summer. If truth be told, I’m desperate to feel the clean air of empty places. Keats refers to ‘freshness’ in nature repeatedly. I think I know what he meant. I’d like nothing better than to take an evening sail through the Sound of Mull, skirting the wilds of the Ardnamurchan peninsula.

But I have found this summer wildness even in suburban Aylesbury: right now the canal is a haven for birdlife, a gargantuan¬†garden pond, with yellow lilies bursting into bloom. And beside the River Thame, never much more than a stream in these parts, I’ve found new walks, new places where herons wait and red kites swoop.

And what has it taken? Resisting the urge to get in the car (even for such laudable aims of walking in the countryside…), taking the long route back, an Ordnance Survey map.

Yes, the really wild places are still where I’d rather be. but as Gerard Manley Hopkins, appalled at our ‘bleared’ and ‘smeared’ world, observed in ‘God’s Grandeur’:

And for all this, nature is never spent:
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.


Photo stolen from my dad’s much more popular blog Life on Tiree.