Britain’s foremost nature writer says every walker needs to find a place that is special to them – and preferably lose themselves in it…
Simon Barnes once wrote a book called How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, so it should come as no surprise that he’s a bad walker too. “I get out of breath going up a slope, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying it,” he says.
“I like little walks and I like stopping: sitting down, seeing what’s about me. My favourite walk in the world is a little stroll along the Cornish coast that I do a couple of times of year with my son. We stop on the same rock every time and see how long we can just sit there, among the ravens and the gannets. It’s wonderful.”
Simon has been hailed as Britain’s foremost nature writer, particularly on birdlife. But his most recent book is something very personal, and it’s likely to resonate with walkers good and bad. Titled The Sacred Combe, it’s about how each of us needs to find a special place where we truly connect to the landscape.
“A sacred combe is a place where you feel closer to the wild world, where you feel you’ve come home, even if you’ve never been there before,” he says.
“It feels slightly dreamlike. It’s Narnia or Shangri-La. A place that haunts your imagination. And I think having at least one sacred combe is an essential human experience.”
Simon has two; one is the Norfolk marshland where he and his wife have set up home and now manage the precious habitat for the local Wildlife Trust. The other is the Lwangwa Valley in Zambia, a naturalist’s paradise that teems with savannah life right up to lions and elephants.
In fact it was an encounter with elephants that made him realise he had indeed found his sacred combe. “It was on the first night of my first visit, when I awoke to find a small herd of elephants eating the thatched roof of my hut,” he says.
“It was surreal: I stared at them, they ignored me, but there we were. I felt I had come home.”
The book breaks down into bite-size chapters of no more than two pages, each musing on his theme in a different way. In one he talks about the actual combes of Devon: shortened glacial valleys in which you can feel enveloped and safe. Other chapters look at our obsession with ‘bucket lists’ and our attraction to landscape myths like Robin Hood and the alleged ‘big cats’ of Dartmoor. (“Deep down, some part of us wants them to real,” he insists.)
Best of all is the story of Simon attempting to sneak across a railway bridge over the Mawddach estuary in Snowdonia in search of an elusive merlin. It involves a train, obviously.
It turns out that “walks gone wrong” figure strongly in Simon’s life.
“I really love being confused by the landscape,” he explains.
“I recently went walking in the dune system at Kenfig, near Porthcawl, and got lost trying to find the sea. The landscape is utterly disorientating – you can’t trust the dunes or the vegetation to take you in any kind of straight line. Suddenly you look up and think, ‘Who put the sun over there?’ And that’s brilliant, for humans who are so used to knowing, boringly, where they are all the time.
“I think it’s important that we all get ourselves lost once in a while.”
The Sacred Combe is out now.