A Journey Through Lockdown by Andy Thatcher

The Land Lines blog is delighted to share this essay, with brilliant accompanying photos, from Andy Thatcher – a film maker, photographer, writer and researcher. You can visit Andy’s website and Instagram page for more. This essay reflects on the virtues of local walking in a time of lockdown. For more on this topic, check out Ian Tattum’s blog post on walking and COVID-19 here!

Photo by Andy Thatcher

From the Periphery to the Centre and Back Again: A Journey through Lockdown

In the time before Covid-19, striking up a good conversation in Exeter frequently ended up with comparing notes on moorland, bluebells, coves or cows. Exeter’s easy access to two coastlines, two national parks and everything between them meant that sharing favourite places was often on a par with sharing stories about one’s children or pets. Exeter can seem more like a base for exploring than a destination, and while it does have some splendid green spaces, it’s difficult to shed the feeling of urbanity on foot; everywhere feels distinctly managed, tampered with, and not simply left to get on with things. You have to do a bit of investigating to find any corners of vegetal anarchy, and I’ve been doing just this over the past few years.

The M5 (Photo by Andy Thatcher)

It’s a splendid thing to begin a long walk from one’s doorstep. I grew up in Tunbridge Wells, which is blessed with pockets of scruffy woodland, and from my home in East London, I explored the Lea Valley wetlands and the southernmost heaths and skinny woodlands of the Epping Forest. In Exeter, I’ve got to know the top of the River Exe estuary as it flows beneath the M5, the riding stables, farms and woodland at Stoke Hill, the pylon-dotted Clyst floodplain, and the town green and remote c.14th church at Pinhoe. Such places show heavy traces of human activity; the holloway leading down to Digby & Sowton station is tarmacked and the graveyard gate at Pinhoe leads into fencing protecting a vast new – and paused – housing development in an old clay quarry. There’s a kind of picturesque here, but it’s off, like a jigsaw of a thatched cottage with some pieces badly scuffed and others missing. Such places are popular with dog walkers, teenagers and young parents, but Dartmoor or the Jurassic Coast are seductive to those of us looking for a decent walk.

There’s environmental virtue in not driving an hour to go walking, and there’s an affirming satisfaction to staying local, but these aren’t my only motives: I get a certain pleasure gleaning what others overlook. Finding a stream clogged with retired lampposts fires my imagination no less than a mist-wrapped tor, and discovering a bee orchid outside a homeless hostel is if anything more of a thrill than finding myself within feet of a cuckoo up on the heaths. There’s also a pleasurable melancholy to overlooked places, and the bramble-choked paths behind a housing estate afford a very different kind of solitude to that of unending and empty moorland.

Sowton (Photo by Andy Thatcher)

I realise I’ve made a lot of comparisons here, and that’s likely part of the pleasure: the choice of this place over that helps make it unique, precious, special. And so on March 23rd, when Exeter’s tracks became the only ones available, they changed utterly, and in ways that were fascinating.

For my wife, daughter and I, there is something celebratory about going for a decent walk. We take something sweet to enjoy, we chat about things beyond the mundane, we are happy being silent together, carry the stupidest ideas to their wildest conclusions, we find new things to talk about. We are not alone in this, and the hearty greetings with strangers and conferring over stiles, cows and ominous clouds is a major part of what makes walking such a pleasure.

Riverside Valley (Photo by Andy Thatcher)

When I showed my family my solitary, melancholy circuits around Exeter, they were no longer either solitary or melancholy, but had become well-populated with others. And the sense of celebration, already helped by the glorious spring weather, was helped further yet by those others like us, exercising their right to be out of their homes, to be with one another, and to be enjoying the erupting foliage and blossom in the face of mounting anxiety, confusion, anger and grief.

It was beautiful sharing my odd little walks with my family. It was beautiful sharing them with fellow walkers, and knowing that for some, they were exploring these tangled tracks and scruffy corners for the first time. I shared my knowledge of the holloways, and how paths interconnected, and it was beautiful recasting an activity I’d felt slightly perverse, slightly self-indulgent, as a contribution to a common good.

Ruin (Photo by Andy Thatcher)

This experience, however, stopped well short of being rhapsodic. A reason I’ve always journeyed beyond built-up areas is not just to engage with a more raw and vital natural environment, but also to forget all that we are doing to it. While it’s thrilling to linger in the mist beneath a motorway bridge and experience the sublime dichotomy of awe and horror to be found there, doing so is catalytic rather than invigorating: it makes me confront the unfolding ecological catastrophe and challenges my role in it. After too much of this kind of engagement, a sickness creeps in and all I want is to dissolve into spaciousness, beauty and obscure green corners. I am fortunate that I can do so relatively easily: my nearest spot for that is a ridge of heathland, the Pebblebed Heaths, which became a National Nature Reserve in December and are a fifteen-minute drive away. You can see the ridge widely across the area, from the hills around Exeter and, before the trees come into leaf, from our upstairs windows. Lockdown turned the ridge into an island, put out of reach by an inundating channel, fierce and unknowable. While I savoured suburban blackthorn blossom, marvelled at morning shadows on the traffic-free M5, joked with strangers as we danced out our social distancing, I did not stop needing to escape it all.

Black Horse Lane (Photo by Andy Thatcher)

Everything changes and the pandemic will end – somehow, some day. Many people, probably most people, will return to old habits. But many of us will have a knowledge of and relationship with our local area far deeper than before. It will always be available to open out and never be entirely forgotten. Many will remember lockdown and how good it was to be out walking, and how good it was not to have to jump into a car or decide on where to park. And my hope is that a deeper connection with the local will stimulate a wish to protect local green spaces, something proven time and again to be the most significant way of engaging people in actively pro-environmental behaviours.

My odd little walks around Exeter’s periphery will not be the same, either. They will return to being solitary, but the melancholy will be altered: the pockets of woodland and vestigial farmland will be infused both with the defiance of those lockdown walks and the bafflement and deep unease of that moment in time. And, perhaps most important of all to me, that memory will be a collective one.

Hillside (Photo by Andy Thatcher)

by Andy Thatcher

‘Balance’ by Suzanne Davies

The Land Lines blog is pleased to share this poem by Suzanne Davies, accompanied by an illustration. Suzanne was inspired to write this by our Spring Nature Diary with the National Trust earlier this year!

Illustration by Lucy Davies

Balance

In the warmth of spring
a sparrow comes to the garden

he perches at the edge
of the old stone bath
it’s cold

he’s watchful
takes his sip, silent
slow

and I see
just for a second
smooth
poised in the balance of his beak

a bubble of water
a circle of light so pure
that I hold my breath

and then it’s gone

and he flies off
into the canopy of leaves
I almost cut
weighted with twisted vines
winter thorns descending

and I watch, trembling
in the balance of his being
as I listen to his song for the world

as perfect as a drop
of pure water

paused between
sunlight and shadows

Sunday May 10th

Sparrow illustration by Lucy Davies, Photo by Suzanne Davies

About the Author

Suzanne is a Classics teacher and loves teaching both language and literature. She has two rescue dogs, and spends hours walking on the local beaches in South Wales photographing the wild flowers, butterflies and the sea in all weathers. She also loves sitting in the garden watching the sparrows.


Extract from Wanderland (2020) by Jini Reddy

The Land Lines Blog is pleased to be able to share with you this specially selected extract from Wanderland, a brand new book by Jini Reddy!

Jini Reddy is an award-winning author and journalist. She was born in London to Indian parents who grew up in apartheid-era South Africa, and was raised in Montreal, Canada. Jini has a degree in Geography, and MA in English Literature, and a passion for writing on travel, nature and spirituality.

As a travel writer, I had had experiences that opened my eyes and I was infinitely grateful for the world that revealed itself to me. Gul, my young blue-eyed hostess from the Kalash tribe deep in the remote valleys in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, had shared with me the ways of her people, their reverence for the gods of the river and the sun, and for their spirit ancestors. In Cape York in Queensland, I’d met two sisters who’d led me to a waterfall and told me a dreamtime creation story involving supernatural beings: they’d brought the earth’s physical features into being, the sisters said. These encounters, and others, showed me as plain as day that for many indigenous people around the world all of nature was alive, imbued with spirit and a powerful ally if treated with respect. To some people I knew closer to home this idea made perfect sense. No big deal at all, but an obvious thing. But to many this was absurd. I never got why the words of people who live close to the land and treat her like kin – people who nurture an inner relationship with the earth – were rarely listened to or heeded beyond alternative circles. It’s not like we couldn’t use the input.

The White Strands of the Monks Beach (Photo by Jini Reddy)
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How Margiad Evans Wrote the Earth – by Steven Lovatt

Margiad Evans’ writing is largely unknown outside her adopted Wales, testifying to the anglocentrism of ‘British’ culture but also to the unclassifiable nature of her body of work. In this specially commissioned essay, Steven Lovatt introduces Evans as a nature writer of precision and feeling. He argues that the example of her personal and artistic integrity is not only something from which all writers can learn, but also constitutes no less than a model for renovating the divided self and overcoming the schism between human beings and the natural environment.

In 1941 the writer Margiad Evans (Peggy Eileen Whistler, 1909–1958) began work on an autobiography. A conventional account of her life might have been thought presumptuous for a woman of thirty-two whose books, though they had been generally well received critically and commercially, had hardly made her a household name. But Evans didn’t have her life-story in mind: instead she wished the book to be ‘a record of my gravest (that is happiest) inner existence’ over a period of just a few years of her late twenties. If that sounds like a blueprint for solipsism then the book that was published two years later – called simply Autobiography – showed on the contrary a writer compelled to open herself to the world and to communicate the joy she found in doing so.

Just as the conventional span of an autobiography is shrunk by Evans to a period of three or four years, so the ‘world’ of her experience is limited to the landscape near Ross-on-Wye where she had settled some months earlier, but which she had recognised as her spiritual home on her first visit to the Wye valley as a girl of nine. But these are restrictions of time and place only in a literal and unimportant sense, for these few years in a small area of the Welsh Marches nourished Evans, fleetingly, to be sure, but on the whole with rare and remarkable constancy, with such a powerful awareness of belonging in the universe as to abolish clock-time and regain something of the ecstatic immanence of her childhood in this same landscape. So this caustic critic of religious pretence became an unabashed mystic, at the same time as she was writing one of the finest nature journals published in English for a hundred years.

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Walking with COVID-19

We are delighted to welcome back guest writer Ian Tattum to the Land Lines blog, with his thoughts on walking in a time of COVID-19. Ian is a priest in the Church of England and currently works in South West London. He has written feature articles for the Church Times on Gilbert White and Mary Anning, and the role churches can play in conservation. He has also written for the Land Lines blog on previous occasions: see the bottom of this article for links to his other articles.

Walking with COVID-19

Traffic sounds are faint, but the reassuring rumbling whoosh of the District Line which used to charm me to sleep in my last house – the line was at the bottom of our garden and gave the illusion that we had our own gigantic train set – crosses Wimbledon Park and Wimbledon Golf course in a single bound. It is the one element of the dawn chorus, apart from the honking of the Canada Geese arriving on Capability Brown’s lake, which I can immediately identify. My attention searches out the great tits sharpening their flints in the distance and a blackbird bidding farewell to the night, and a robin’s mellifluous war cry is launched from the hawthorn shadow just above my head.

“a robin’s mellifluous war cry is launched from the hawthorn shadow just above my head.” – Ian Tattum

The road to Wimbledon Tennis Championship is quiet, until the 6am bus passes. I have taken this walk many times before, but always in the daytime. It was one of the first long walks that I discovered on moving to London 13 years ago. In Hertfordshire I had relished long walks from home, often into the nearby Chiltern Hills, and I was delighted to discover that South West London offered similar possibilities, thanks to the green artery which linked nearby Wimbledon Park to Wimbledon Common, and then via a footbridge into Richmond Park. There was added appeal in the presence of the River Thames.

FLowers Wimbledon Common
Blossom on Wimbledon Common (Ian Tattum)

But my walk today was different. I had not set out early because I wanted to hear the waking birds, but because I wanted to avoid the emerging humans. I always relish unpeopled walks, but this was the first time I was seeking to protect myself from contagion. With a wife suffering from ME at home who is always vulnerable to any pathogens I bring back with me, and a professional role, which controversially for some is seen as meriting key worker status, I was conscious of danger. Even the act of sniffing the air to try to detect seasonal scents had been changed into a diagnostic process as I had been told that a loss of a sense of smell was one of the key indicators for COVID-19!

Already I had been greeted by a smartly dressed friend off to work at the hospital, who I didn’t recognise at first because I had never seen her before in twilight, and passed a slow-walking elderly Muslim man who I was to discover took the very same route every morning – whether because he had the same fears as me, or due to a pre-existing routine, I have yet to discover.

Last summer at The Borders and Crossings Travel Writing Conference I presented a paper on walking from home, subtitled ‘No Snow Leopards Required’ – a reference to Peter Matthiessen’s acclaimed, zen-soaked book about a Himalayan journey taken in the 1970s. Taking The Snow Leopard as a conversation companion, my argument was that what could be described, very broadly speaking, as ‘spiritual’ journeying did not need exotic travel in order to be fulfilled, and that in an age of environmental degradation local exploration could become a rewarding, and far less damaging, substitute. I also drew on the perspective of my age and working class background, and personal experience, to suggest that travelling far has been a very recent obsession, which might turn out to be a temporary habit, rather than what many people have come to believe to be an essential component of a life worth living. The speaker who came after me laughed at the idea that a little bit of environmental anxiety would hinder people’s search for cultural enrichment by travel. Neither he nor I imagined that a virus might have something to say about that!

Ian Tattum Wimbledon Common
Gorse on Wimbledon Common (Ian Tattum)

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The crowd-sourced nature diary and the Covid-19 spring

RolleiRetro80S273

As we announced in our last blog post, March 20th saw the launch of the second crowd-sourced spring nature diary, led this year by the National Trust. It also saw the country beginning to feel the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which were continuing to unfold through the week in which diary was open for entries and resulted in increased social distancing measures. Today marks the publication of the 2020 Spring Nature Diary e-book, which you can access here.

Guyana-based journalist Carinya Sharples approached the Land Lines team for some comments on the spring diary. Carinya is researching an article for the online journal Mongabay about connecting with nature during self-isolation as a way of benefiting mental health. Here is the full text of her interview with Pippa Marland.

The beautiful images were all taken by photographer Samuel Payne, shot using an Olympus OM-2, with a 50mm f1.8 Zuiko lens, on Rollei Retro 80S 35mm film and self-developed.

How many entries did you get for the Nature Diary? Was this amount expected?

For the spring diary, members of the public were invited to submit up to 150 words of poetry or prose about what spring means to them, and were also given the opportunity to upload their own photo or illustration to accompany their writing. This year we had a total of 180 entries, down from 420 entries last year (the first year of the event). In these extraordinary circumstances – the fact that the Spring Equinox fell in the midst of a global pandemic – we were pleased with the number of entries. It was more difficult to promote the diary this year because a lot of the media outlets who gave us coverage last year were understandably wholly pre-occupied with COVID-19, and there was also increasing uncertainty during the period the diary was open for entries about how much people could or should be encouraged to go out and access nature. The National Trust – the main promoter of the diary this year – had to begin closing its properties and parks to the public even as the diary was in progress. We kept the submission platform open for a week to allow people time to contribute while having to navigate the chaos of the situation. Even in that short time span, the situation was changing radically, day on day, and social distancing instructions from the government became increasingly urgent.

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Crowd-sourced Spring Nature Diary 2020

The deadline for contributing to the 2020 Spring Nature Diary has now passed– read the current list of entries, curated by Pippa Marland, here!

by Pippa Marland, Land Lines Team

As I stepped out along an urban street in the early evening yesterday, the clouds were clearing after a bout of heavy rain, and the dusk was full of birds: goldfinches and great tits flitting and dipping from tree to tree; gulls passing overhead; and all along the road, blackbirds and robins, in high branches silhouetted against the sky, pouring out their music, so that the air was thick with song. In spite of the sombre mood of the day, I felt my heart lifting, and the advent of spring working its old magic on me. As George Orwell memorably argued in his 1946 essay, ‘Some Thoughts on the Common Toad’, ‘Life is frequently more worth living because of a Blackbird’s song’. This is all the more the case when that song is accompanied by longer days and the promise of new life all around us.

Nuthatch at springtime
Nuthatch in the Spring (Credit: National Trust Images)

These are anxious times, not only in light of concerns about climate change and species extinction, which the recent Australian bush fires brought home to us so urgently, but also, of course, in relation to the current COVID-19 crisis, which is changing our lives by the minute. It is in such exceptionally difficult circumstances that the return of the light and the resurgence of our flora and fauna, as the winter reaches its end, become all the more important to us – as symbols of hope and regeneration and as a source of much-needed comfort.

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Second Follow on Project Launches: ‘Tipping Points’

‘Tipping Points’: Cultural Responses to Wilding and Land-sharing in the North

Land Lines is pleased to announce the launch of its second AHRC-funded follow on project, titled ‘Tipping Points’: Cultural Responses to Wilding and Land-sharing in the North. Tipping Points comes under the UKRI ‘Landscape Decisions’ programme, which seeks to “address the challenge of delivering better, evidence-based decisions within UK landscapes through research collaboration with policy, business and land management partners to deliver an interdisciplinary decision-making framework to inform how land is used”. Like its sister project ‘Tracks, Traces and Trails’: Nature Writing Beyond the Page, Tipping Points will continue to develop some of the most successful and significant aspects of the Land Lines agenda: specifically, notions of the wild and rewilding, tensions between nature writing and farming, and land-use decisions in Northern England. Over the course of the project, Tipping Points will maintain a close focus on the communities impacted most directly by these decisions, through a series of public engagement workshops, collaborations, and knowledge-sharing between different stakeholders in land ownership, management and agriculture.

Developed alongside the first follow-on project, ‘Tracks, Traces and Trails’, which seeks to render the less visible aspects of our wildlife and environments more apparent, Tipping Points hopes to revisit facets of the natural world that are now ‘lost’: in the UK today, up to a third of mammals and a half of birds are threatened with extinction, largely because their habitats have been eroded to a point where they are no longer able to sustain themselves. These ‘tipping points’ in our natural and cultural landscapes have potentially devastating consequences, but there is also scope for optimism. The British landscape today is in many ways at a positive tipping point: more habitats are being restored for wildlife than taken away. The practices of ‘rewilding’ or ‘wilding’ in both urban and rural areas are becoming more widespread, and major land-sharing projects with farmers are being devised, in order to encourage the resurgence of wildlife. Such restoration processes are as much cultural as they are natural, and if nature is to bounce back in ways that are urgently needed to sustain our own, as well as other non-human animals’, existences, the arts have a crucial to play in stimulating both creative responses to the current crisis and alternative ways of imagining and experiencing the natural world. It may be that we have in fact reached a third tipping point, in which new stories of our natural landscapes emerge and more positive future visions can be articulated for our drastically ‘de-natured’ nation. We hope that Tipping Points will help to capture and explore these visions and narratives over the course of 2020!

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“Nature Writing Beyond the Page: Tracks, Traces and Trails” Land Lines First Follow-on Project Launches

The team behind the ‘Land Lines: British Nature Writing’ AHRC-funded project, along with some new additions, are excited to announce the successful AHRC funding and launch of its first follow-on project, called Nature Writing Beyond the Page: Tracks, Traces and Trails.

Copy of DSC_1086
Goldfinch

Tracks, Traces and Trails is a creative engagement initiative, one that seeks to connect local communities to their local nature reserves, in order to gain a new understanding of environmental issues and the natural world through different forms of art and creative work. The project will be running until October 2020, and will be continuing on from some of the brilliant public engagement activities undertaken by the Land Lines project, taking the idea of nature writing itself in a new direction. Tracks, Traces and Trails seeks to continue the vision of the original Land Lines project – to see the natural world in a new light – whilst breaking new ground through thinking about how we can encounter less visible wildlife and environments, beyond nature writing alone.

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‘A Year in Kingcombe’ by Anita Roy

Today’s guest blog comes from one of the finest new voices on the British nature writing scene, Anita Roy, with extracts from her wonderful account of a calendar year at Kingcombe in Dorset. First published month by month in Little Toller’s online nature journal The Clearing , the diary quickly gained a devoted following. It is now going to be published in book form through a Kickstarter campaign which we hope you will support if you enjoy the extracts below. Stephen Moss writes in his introduction to the book:

“By choosing to write about Kingcombe, and reveal its life – both wild and human – Anita also holds up a mirror to the rest of rural Britain. This rich mosaic of habitats, squeezed into such a small space, could hardly be more different from the degraded, wildlife-free, food factories that pass for ‘countryside’ in the majority of what Chris Packham describes as our ‘green and unpleasant land’.

Visiting Kingcombe really does feel like going back in time: a corner of the English lowland countryside that would have been instantly recognisable to our grandparents and great-grandparents. Yet, as Anita points out, this kind of place is now, sadly, the exception rather than the rule: On my drive home, I am not sure whether to be grateful that such havens as Kingcombe exist, or filled with despair that they need to.”

January elf cup
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