Wild Britain: A Traveller's Guide

Review

 

Y Grib Goch ar doriad gwawr, Snowdonia, North Wales. Site of the Earth First! Summer Gathering in 2000, and, according to Douglas Botting, "guerrilla country if it ever came to it."

Wild Britain: A Traveller's Guide
by Douglas Botting
Sheldrake Press, London, 1999
Paperback / 224pp / £12.50 / ISBN 1-873329-31-8

Wild Britain does exactly what it says on the tin: it's an exhaustively researched and beautifully illustrated guide to the best bits of this country, crammed with practical advice on how to escape the brutal tyranny of the teashop theme park. The hills are alive with the sound of Gore-Tex - but Douglas Botting is smarter than the average 'peak freak', making this more than just a guide book. It's garnished with playful anecdotes from his years of roaming the British outback, a wealth of direct experience which leads him to reflect on what 'wildness' means in our apparently inimical setting.

 

This quality of wildness is almost as hard to pin down as Earth First!'s political philosophy, and defining it is a bit like trying to analyse humour, flattening that which you seek to understand. Its very elusiveness could be seen as an essential part of what makes a particular place or time 'wild'. Thankfully, its intoxicating tang can be tasted in even the tamest and most unlikely of settings, not just on highest mountaintop or in deepest forest. You just have to try hard enough, know how to look, or get lucky. My hometown was undoubtedly 'wild' the morning after the Great Storm of 1987. Nature had paid a terrifying and humbling visit, leaving its calling card: whole rows of cars smashed to smithereens by fallen trees, stretching on up the quiet streets where I delivered papers. School was definitely out for the day - we'd been slipped an emphatic sick note by Mother Nature.

Writing in the context of our pretty subdued countryside, Botting has a stab at a broad definition. A wild place is "a part of the planet where living things can find a natural refuge from the influence of modern industrial society... a wild place is for wild life as well as... the wild traveller: the hill walker, backpacker, bird-watcher, nature lover, explorer, nomad, loner, mystic, masochist, aficionado of the great outdoors, or permutations of all these things." A place to be-wildered, perhaps... Sampling Wild Britain, you marvel at the variety and number of such natural refuges, at the fact that so much still endures despite "40,000 years of hunting, clearing, draining and ploughing." Apparently these islands are one of the most geologically diverse regions on earth, thereby brimming over with a correspondingly rich range of characteristic landscapes. I would also venture to suggest that, for all the countless ways in which we have trashed and degraded this land, thousands of years of human habitation may have served to deepen this local distinctiveness. (Although you could well argue that these 'man-aged' landscapes are no more than choices from the desert menu.)

As a Southern soft lad who recently chickened out of both Cadair Idris and Snowdon, I may not be best qualified to offer insights into Wild Britain - although it's reassuring to see that even hardened hill-walker Douglas Botting admits to getting horribly lost in the New Forest. But I like to think that there is a small teasing trace of what these daunting peaks can offer, even in the milder country that is my usual stamping ground. In a tangled river valley on Dartmoor, apparently unvisited for decades - though just off the track - where I fully expected to see a pterodactyl soar by any minute. In Roeburndale, site of the 1995 Earth First! Gathering, teetering on boulders in midstream as I followed the heron, in my element and 'dancing' with the river, and an owl wooshed noiseless inches past me. In secret, secluded downland coombes, inexplicably transported though still in the frantic heart of the South East of England. In a host of unique and precious places.

Like all the best books, Wild Britain leaves you raring to go, and is a pleasure to dip into even for the armchair explorer. Its travel tips and natural history information are useful, but it is the enjoyable and highly personal accounts that really bring the places they describe to life. I've found some errors even on a cursory skim-through, and I'm not sure how much it has actually been updated from the 1992 edition - but these are trivial complaints. Maybe I'm a coward, or a parochial stick-in-the-mud, but on the strength of this I don't feel any need to go 'over the water' just yet. There's so much yet to be discovered. "Farther up and farther in!" as they say in Narnia. The thrill of the hill, the coup of a view, beckons. See you on St. Kilda!

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