I have been inspired by writers, painters, musicians, poets; by naturalists, birdwatchers and wildflower experts; by conservationists and their vitally important work. And I have been galvanised by the wildly changing weather of these islands, the beautiful and absorbing manifestations of our four distinct seasons, the splendour and variety of our landscapes, and the company of countless workers, idlers and walkers I have met along the way and what they’ve had to say about a thousand things.
Christopher Somerville’s 100 Best Walks is designed to grab you by the ear and tug you outdoors. Meanwhile, here is a personal Six of the Best …
Aldbury and Ashridge, Chiltern Hills, Herts/Bucks (July 1998)
Up in the beechwoods on the Ashridge slopes above Aldbury, a softly fluting thrush was chief herald of a dawn that had hardly broken yet. I had yawned my way out of bed at two o'clock this morning to enjoy the moment so often read about, so seldom experienced, when the first birds crack the silence of night before traffic roar intrudes to spoil things. To have the whole of the Chiltern ridge entirely to myself, to be able to walk the chalk tracks through the trees without seeing another soul, was a pleasure so intoxicating that I found myself striding along through the half light more like a race walker than a man with time to dawdle and linger.
I turned off the path and sat down on a fallen tree to luxuriate in this unaccustomed sense of time in hand. Light was beginning to touch the beech trunks and leaves, and there was a pearly pink look to the sky in the east. Drifts of mist curled between the trees, and the air in the woods was cold enough to nip my fingers white.
In the treetops the dawn chorus was in full swing. Blackbirds, thrushes, chaffinches; a chiff-chaff repeating its name over and over again; a blackcap bubble-and-squeaking; wrens reeling out chattering streams of notes. From overhead came the chak-chak of rooks passing, and under everything lay a soft foundation of wood pigeons’ throaty cooing. A glorious row, that had me spellbound for half an hour as the daylight slowly broadened.
Barnsley and Bibury, Gloucestershire (January 2001)
The old ridge track, probably a prehistoric route in its origins, lay puddled and rutted. I followed it for a mile or so, head down, buffeted sideways by gusts that leaped with a shriek out of a dramatically darkening sky. Time to get off the ridge, down to more sheltered ground. I made it into St Mary's Church at Bibury just as the storm broke in earnest.
St Mary's is a good place to sit out a rainstorm. There is Saxon, Norman and Early English work to admire, and a fine display of beautifully carved stone foliage. I idled dreamily in a pew until the rain ceased crashing on the windows.
Bibury gleamed as I walked its higgledy-piggledy courts and streets. The Cotswold stone houses shone in a glaze of sunlit rainwater. The River Coln sluiced viciously under the arches of the little stone footbridge that led to the crooked 17th-century weavers' cottages of Arlington Row. The green acres of Rack Isle, where the weavers once hung their wool to dry, lay drowned under four feet of water. 'No-one in the village has ever seen it like this,' said the man laying sandbags on his doorstep. 'Just have to hope for a change in the weather, won't we?'
As I climbed the trickling track of Hay Lane, the western sky was all a purple bruise. One chink of lemon yellow sun broke through, running an electric wire of gold along the upper rim of the cloud bank – a sight I would have braved a dozen rainstorms to witness.
Worm’s Head, Gower, South Wales (June 2000)
Taking the two-mile scramble to the tip of dragon-shaped Worm’s Head is not as easy as it looks. You have to read your tides right. Currents are fierce here in the widening throat of the Bristol Channel, and many a careless venturer down the centuries has been swept away to death as the rising tides come swirling together.
The rocks of the causeway lay coated with millions of mussel shells that were themselves encrusted with a camel-brown layer of barnacles. In the rock pools blennies flicked from sunlight into the shelter of weed and anemone fringes, and hermit crabs went tip-toeing hastily from one dark crevice to the next as my shadow barred the water round them.
As the falling tide seethed back from the northern and southern edges of the causeway, the pattern of the rocks of Worm’s Head became clear. Hundreds of close-packed parallel lines of strata lay upended in the floor of the sea, ground down flat on the margins of the shore, rising to show through the meagre turf of the Inner Head’s nape like cranium skin peeking between the lines of a comb dragged through thinning hair.
I crunched on over carpets of broken mussel shells, passing a big rusted ship’s anchor lying tines up, and clambered up from the causeway on to the slope of the Inner Head. A strange name, since this 150ft lozenge of grass-grown rock is so obviously the body of the twin-humped promontory that Norse sea-rovers named Wurm or ‘dragon’. I checked my watch as I came ashore. Better be back here in a couple of hour’s time …
Hathersage and Stanage Edge, Peak District, Derbyshire (February 2008)
Stanage Edge, the rocky rim of what was once a gigantic dome of millstone grit, is climbers’ and boulderers’ heaven. The grey adhesive rock, fractured into steps, cracks and layers, offers challenges to test the virgin tyro as well as the complete and utter expert. Famous names from that introverted, macho and phenomenally athletic world, the hardest of the ‘hard man’ school – Don Whillans, Nat Allen, Joe Brown and their ilk – cut their climbing teeth along these modest-looking crags. They and their successors dubbed every climbable crack and interstice with names superbly curt and clipped: Goliath’s Groove, Agony Crack, The Unconquerables, The Vice, Blockhead Direct, Queersville, The Eliminator.
I strode the flat, tricky gritstone pavement along the Edge, face to the cold wind, in a kind of high-level ecstasy. Climbers crouched and sprawled in impossibly heroic poses on every crag, and beyond them a most enormous view opened to the south and west across the frosted fields and shadowy moors and edges of the Dark Peak. To the left ran cream and purple moors, the wind streaming their pale grasses so that the whole wide upland appeared to be in motion, racing north into Yorkshire.
Higger Tor and Carl Wark lay ahead, flat-topped tors like castles. I stormed their walls in an outpouring of supercharged energy. Then, breathless and buffeted, I dropped down through tumbled meadows around Mitchell Field Farm and the mock-baronial miniature fortress of Scraperlow House; down towards Hathersage, the warmth and light of the Scotsman’s Pack inn, and the grey church spire that marks where Little John lies sleeping until Robin’s horn wakes him for one last chase through the glades of the eternal Forest.
Poetry Path, Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria (September 2005)
It was a filthy, gale-torn day, with the rain-swollen River Eden crashing majestically through the woods and milky curtains of wind-rippled rain parting and closing on the Cumbrian fells. But Meg Peacocke was happy to brave the elements with me. It was Meg who created the twelve poems that were carved by sculptor Pip Hall into stones along the Poetry Path.
‘I found it very interesting and challenging,’ Meg told me as we walked the muddy river bank on a carpet of leaves whipped from the trees by the gale. ‘I wanted the poems to communicate themselves to anyone, non-poets really, and in particular these local farmers and farming people whom they celebrate.’
The poems are subtly located – January in an angle of bank by the Swingy Bridge, February on a pile of blocks opposite a lovely old stone barn, March in a pool below a natural spillway of tiny waterfalls. The carved cameos include April lambs butting milk from their mother’s udder, July haymakers hefting a bale, brawny farmers inspecting sheep at an October sale.
In Kirkby Stephen this afternoon the local farmers would still be hanging over the pen gates at the mart, or driving the Swaledales they’d chosen in the auction ring back up to the fellside farms. Down here in the valley I ran my hand over Pip Hall’s sculpture of sheep in a pen, and savoured Meg Peacocke’s words:
‘Penned in a huddle, the great tups
are clints of panting stone. The shepherd lifts
a sideways glance from the labour
of dagging tails. His hands are seamed with muck
and the sweat runs into his eyes.
Above us, a silent plane has needled
the clear blue. Paling behind it
a crimped double strand of wool unravels.’
Glen Esk, Angus, Scotland (May 2005)
The world of science lost a great botanist when music sank its fatal talons into Dave Richardson. I would have seen nothing on the ascent from Glen Esk if it hadn’t been for my sharp-eyed friend. ‘Broad buckler fern under the rock here,’ mused Dave, his restless curiosity all fired up, ‘and, let me see … yes, green spleenwort. Yellow mountain saxifrage, not really open yet of course – and purple saxifrage … hmm, cloudberry, Rubus chamaemorus, yes …’ The bare rocks seemed to flower as he pointed out their spring glories.
Up in the broad glen of upper Glen Unich we picnicked, dangling our legs from the footbridge upstream of the Falls of Damff. Tracks, rocks and open patches of moorland glittered with mica in the weak sunshine of early spring. Away to the north the three thousand foot crest of Mount Keen rose above all its sister peaks. Scuds of cloud swept up and across the steady blue field of the sky. This was spring in Angus as I had imagined it while coming north through grey weather from a stale southern city – cold, clean and entirely captivating.
We licked the last of the Arbroath smokie pâté from our fingers, swigged the remnants of the tea, and made off along the Water of Unich among stubbly peat hags and the black channels of hill burns. Mountain hares in snow-white coats went bouncing away over the dark heather as we descended to Inchgrundle farmhouse. A scimitar-winged shape skimmed close over the waters of Loch Lee – the first swallow of spring. I made up my mind that tonight I would get out the melodeon and persuade Dave to help me nail for good and all that tricky turn in ‘Out On The Ocean’.