This is by no means a definitive guide, rather a varied selection across all genres. Books to dip into when you’re missing the smell of damp loam and the sound of trickling streams. I’ve selected four favourites which draw me back, their images and anecdotes equally compelling but in very different ways. There are other greats that I haven’t mentioned, like Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, and John Lister-Kaye’s Song of the Rolling Earth, but I’ve focussed on books that you can dip in and out of – flashes of inspiration to illuminate your day, however you choose to spend it.
Wild Swimming – Daniel Start (£13.59, available here)
This book is pure inspiration. How many of you swam in rivers or ponds when you were younger? Wriggled away from water-weed and slippery amphibians, squealing with pleasure, doggy-paddled around lilypads or back-stroked across plunge pools? Now, when was the last time you ventured in? If it wasn’t recently, then this book will entice you back to Britain’s wild waters. As the introduction points out, “being by and in water is more than just a pleasure, it is at the core of our human condition”.
Wild Swimming details nearly 400 magical locations where you can swim in the wild, from rivers to lakes with hidden waterfalls along the way. There are tarns at the top of mountains, and natural pools in woodland clearings. Accompanied by tantalising photos and anecdotes, they’re organised by geography, and there are maps and grid references to help you on your way. There’s also an amusingly high-percentage of photos featuring scantily-clad young women enjoying the waters… but I wouldn’t level that as a criticism!
Tarns – or Llyns as they’re known in Wales – are those magical lakes that appear as you’re sweating your way to the top of the mountain. Swimming in them provides total immersion in the landscape and the ultimate sense of the wild.
My favourite is Llyn Eiddew Bach, part of a series of wild mountain lakes that is very dear to me. It’s in the heart of the northern Rhinogs, Snowdonia’s least-visited region, close to a 3,000-year-old roadway that once linked Ireland with Stonehenge. I spent some time living in the farm close by and I would always leave a bottom of bubbly stashed and chilling on the lake bottom, tied to a secret piece of string, in preparation for weekend picnics.
Death of a Naturalist – Seamus Heaney (£7.49, available here)
There are many poets who write about the natural world, but very few really understand it as Seamus Heaney does. When I first encountered Heaney I didn’t know he had garnered international fame, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature amongst many other awards and accolades, I just recognised the world as I also saw it in his poems. He lifted me out of my GCSE English classroom and back into the countryside, which was exactly where I wanted to be.
There is a power and precision to Heaney’s poetry, and a clarity of vision that is not marred by agenda. Although many of his poems have an autobiographical element, evoking memories of his rural childhood in Ireland, somehow it is often not Heaney we see as we turn the pages but ourselves. I make all my students study his work, whatever age they are. For them it is an alien-world he evokes, as few seem to venture outside of London unless they do so at 36,000 feet, but with a little guidance Heaney helps me to show them what they’re missing out on.
Death of a Naturalist
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
River Cottage Handbook: Hedgerow – John Wright (£11.99, available here)
The River Cottage brand began back in 1998, though Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall first appeared on our screens in 1995 with A Cook on the Wild Side. Since then he and his team have become synonymous with the promotion of ethical, sustainable food production, and especially with food you’ve found yourself in the wild.
A walk in the autumn countryside so often turns into an all-consuming foraging expedition, with buckets overflowing with blackberries, pockets bulging with chestnuts, and even a trug full of wild mushrooms if you’re lucky. When Hugh’s pal John Wright began writing the River Cottage Handbooks, however, he opened up all the seasons.
I have a number of these little guides, and flicking through them – especially the recipes section – always make me glance longingly at my gumboots. The tantalising pictures are quite enough, but John also includes witty explanations of how best to eat your plunder, whether berries, nuts, seeds, roots, leaves or even tree sap.
A fully burdened Crab Apple tree is a wonderful sight in autumn, but chiefly from a distance. The apples themselves are, as one Edward Long put it in the eighteenth century, “never admired for loveliness of aspect”. Small, misshapen, spotty and scabby, and full of pips, they do not inspire the cook. Nor are they remotely edible raw – they must be cooked. Yet when prepared properly they are a treasure.
Of course, the recipe for which this tart apple is best known is Crab Apple jelly. The very high pectin content means that it will always set well, and other fruits can be added to make a variety of jellies. Cooked, strained and with sugar added, Crab Apples also make a sharp apple sauce – just use extra sugar if it takes the roof of your mouth off.
P. S. I cannot resist passing on this medicinal recipe from the early 1800s; it is for a concoction called Black Drop:
Take half a pound of opium sliced, three parts of good verjuice (from crabapples), one and a half ounces of nutmeg, and half an ounce of saffron. Boil them to a proper thickness; then add a quarter of a pound of sugar, and two spoonfuls of yeast. Set the whole in a warm place near the fire for six or eight weeks, then place it in the open air, until it become a syrup; lastly, decant, filter, bottle it up, adding a little sugar to each bottle.
I am not sure what it was supposed to cure. Everything perhaps.
Country – Jasper Conran (£20, available here)
Jasper Conran is best known as a fashion designer, but in 2010 he published a photographic essay about the English countryside. It is whimsical and rose-tinted, portraying an idealised vision of the country where people make bread and butter very slowly by hand, but it’s a fairytale you will want to be a part of. Every image is absolutely beautiful, and woven into a narrative of the seasons that proves our halcyon past is very much still alive.
Conran spent a year exploring the UK, getting to know its villages and capturing our rural pastimes as well as occupations. There are flower festivals, morris dancers, surfers, fell runners, bell ringers, artists and artisans, foxhunters and even an old-fashioned travelling circus. The seasons take centre stage as often as the people he meets though, and each building is treated with equal curiosity and reverence whether farmhouse or manor house.
Every time I dip into this book I find something new that makes me smile or takes my breath away. For lovers of the countryside, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
‘Country’ is an idea – a texture, a flavour, a state of mind. Close your eyes, and imagine the English countryside. What do you see or hear, smell, feel or taste? It might be a sweep of beautiful landscape or the warmth of a roaring pub fire; perhaps a porch filled with dripping coats and muddy wellingtons, the scent of ripe apples and freshly baked bread, or the hum of bees in a sleepy kitchen garden.
I wanted to celebrate that idea; to attempt to capture in words and photographs some of the many threads that, woven together, make up some of the fabric of the English countryside. To record the people and events I found during a year of exploration. The fact that I am a designer who has worked all his life with fabric, form and colour does not make me an expert on rural affairs but, when it comes to appreciating part of the texture of the English countryside, I think it may have helped.
Our world is being transformed, not only by globalisation but also by urbanisation. For the first time in history, more people live in towns and cities than in the countryside. Across the globe we are forgetting our rural roots, but country life, its values and people have never had more to offer. This is not about some imagined past, but life as it is lived today, in all its wonderful complexity. I worry these treasures can be all too easily lost. In some countries, grey urban landscapes merge from one city to the next. I hope something similar does not happen here.
Let me know your own favourites – what books get you excited about the countryside?
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