300 years ago one man showed us there is a whole world to see right outside your door – advice that in the age of staying local never been more precious.
Recent events have dramatically contracted our horizons. But as walkers we believe there’s magic and succour to be found outside everybody’s door. Local walks don’t need to be boring, repetitive, or a poor second to the grand scenes we may dream about. You can spend a lifetime exploring one small patch of this amazing planet, pushing down your own roots and each day finding more wonder. Let the patron saint of staying local, Gilbert White, be your guide…
Before JK Rowling, Agatha Christie and Dr Seuss, there was another best-selling author and his name was Gilbert White. His book is the fourth most-published of all time, behind only The Bible, the works of Shakespeare and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. His work hasn’t been out of print since it was first published in 1789, and it’s run to 1000 editions worldwide. But The Natural History of Selborne is no tale of wizarding, murder mystery, or cats in hats. It’s a close study of the countryside around the Hampshire village where White lived. Its subjects are earthworms, barn owls, field crickets, swallows, beech trees, sparrowhawks, hedgehogs, bats and a pet tortoise called Timothy.
This summer marks 300 years since the parson-naturalist was born, on 18th July 1720. Selborne itself, and its nearby views of ‘hill, dale, wood-lands, heath, and water’ are little-changed since White walked here. His interest in the natural world started literally at his back door with a Garden Kalendar where he noted what he planted, how it grew, and the weather. His range gradually expanded to the Hampshire countryside beyond and he started keeping a Naturalist’s Journal. In particular he loved the common at the top of Selborne Hanger, a steep wooded escarpment to the south-west of the village, into which he and his brother chiselled a zig-zag path with 28 hairpins to ease the climb.
This common was a study for him, where he would wander with his notebook in hand. Like many naturalists of the time, he often killed and dissected wildlife as part of his research. He shot at a ‘little bird that raised his curiosity’, preserved mice in brandy, and even ate a ring-ouzel, declaring it ‘juicy and well flavoured’. But, unusually, he also valued methods we can happily use now: watching and listening. His mission was ‘the investigation of the life and conversation of animals’.
He later started writing about what he’d noticed to zoologist Thomas Pennant, then naturalist Daines Barrington and it is these letters which form the basis of The Natural History of Selborne. From the earliest reviews the book was much admired for its ‘attentive observations to nature… told not only with the precision of a philosopher, but with that happy selection of circumstances, which mark the poet.’ It later delighted Charles Darwin, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Virginia Woolf said ‘No novelist could have opened better’. As Yale tutor Fred Strebeigh wrote, ‘It pioneered a way for students of nature who wished, as White did, not to roam the high Arctic or far Pacific but to fathom their own terrain. It offered a wide world to anyone willing to dig deep.’
White’s dedication to understanding his local patch is an inspiration no matter where you call home, and getting to know one place intimately is a uniquely rewarding walking experience. When you hike somewhere new, it’s hard to take in all but the grandest outlines. When you walk somewhere again and again, you notice more each time, and what was a blurred glimpse of a place crisps into the highest definition.
I’ve been exploring the same fields and woods near my home in Northamptonshire for almost 14 years. When I first walked here I remember liking the shady leafiness, and the gently rolling views, but it was probably no more specific than that. Now I know the exact bend in the track where the wind sings most sweetly through the pines, and which two oak trees the red kites like to perch in to wolf-whistle to each other. I could show you where the bluebells grow thickest, the scrubby tree where you’re most likely to hear a nightingale, and where the biggest parasol mushrooms will spring up in autumn.
And it never gets boring; there is always more to see. When so much is familiar, your brain has space to notice the tiniest flashes of beauty. It could be the glint of sun on a tiny patch of lichen, sparking it to gold in the dark winter woods. It could be the way a dragonfly’s wings twinkle like scissor-blades on a summer afternoon, or how blackthorn buds look like little kernels of popcorn, waiting for a hit of warmth to pop into flower.
These local walks constantly pique my curiosity and I’m forever stopping to peer more closely, or google something, or jot things down to look up in a book when I get home. What bird’s call sounds like someone cackling in a tree? Why do poplar leaves rustle when everything else is quiet? What is that quiet snapping sound in the pine woods on a baking hot day? It is always exciting to learn something new. It’s a reminder of what an astonishing world we live in, and this spring it has an extra poignancy. I find comfort in watching nature continue about its fascinating business, when so many other anchors of life seems to be pulling adrift: the cherry trees still bloom, a bumblebee still buzzes fatly through the woods seeking nectar, the robin still chirrups boldly for a mate.
For White, nothing was too small to spark his interest. He contemplated the precise musical note of an owl’s hoot, declared vegetation ‘highly worthy of attention’, and earth-worms too: ‘The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the Economy nature, than the incurious are aware of.’
Of course, White couldn’t just look everything up as we can; he had to work things out. He was writing at a time when people thought swallows hibernated rather than migrated in winter, that frogs dropped from the clouds in rain, and that an application of live toads could cure cancer.
It’s fun when you do get the chance to puzzle things out yourself. Just lately I’ve been walking past a patch of lesser celandines, and one morning I noticed the bright yellow flowers were all closed up. My theory was they didn’t like rain; I checked and although it was a tiny observation, I was excited to be right. In fact, it’s said you can use them to forecast weather as they close up before the downpour.
There’s one more thing that makes local walks so special: they build a feeling of home. No view near my village can match the grandeur of Britain’s mountains, or the windswept wildness of its coast, but a walk up to the woods can make me feel glad like nowhere else on Earth. That’s a nice feeling at any time, but especially just lately when so much of what we thought was normal has changed. And even when our horizons expand again - and they will - the world at your door will always be an incredible place to explore, always a singular combination of the familiar and the surprising.
Find the path
Grab your Ordnance Survey Explorer map and study it for all the little dots and dashes of green near your home that mean rights of way. Even when you know somewhere well, you’ll likely find ones you’ve missed. Take on the challenge of walking all the paths within 3km of your home.
Walk it back
Do you have a regular loop? Do you always walk it in the same direction? Try it the opposite way round. If you don’t believe such a small change makes a difference then just give it a go - you might be surprised how differently the views shape up.
Roll a dice
Break the habit of your usual route by instead rolling a dice at every path junction, assigning numbers to the options. 1 to 3 means you take a left; 4 to 6 means a right.
Play with time
The same walk at sunrise looks very different to a walk in the blazing midday sun or the honeyed light of sunset, so vary the time you go out.
Walk all year
Watching the changes in one landscape through the changing seasons is one of the best things about a local walk; seeing the blossom bud in spring, the deep greens of summer, the changing leaves of autumn, the austere beauty of winter. It’s how a photo of a place becomes a story.
Deliberately tap into just one sense. Our brains are bombarded with so much information that we’re necessarily wired to tune out a vast percentage. Purposefully narrow your own focus to hearing, or smell, or touch and you’ll likely discover new things.
Pick a theme
Again, the brain likes specifics so choose to look for white one day, or pink, or blue, or just flowers, catkins, or berries. Reader Sue White always looks for one particular bird: “I do the same walk every day, leaving home very early always with my camera in the hope of getting a robin. I have a thing about them.”
Explore off path
There’s a wealth to see off the beaten track in open access areas, especially if you like wildlife. Nicola Fast says: ‘I follow paths that deer have made through the forest and I’ve seen lots of odd things. My hubby who was with me today even saw a fox!”
If you live in town you can play the name game, as outlined by Michelle Chapman. “I plan to walk to every street with a nature or countryside name. If I can match the real thing to the street name - like primroses to Primrose Way - then even better!”
Play the garden game
Do you love looking at gardens you walk past? Make a game of it like Christine Woods: “I’ll be looking to see how many different flowers I can see in a day, or maybe how many gardens need their grass mowing 😃”
Draw with your feet
Jenny Leckenby says “I’m trying to ‘draw’ shapes with the tracker app I’m using”. Who knows what you might discover as you walk the shape of a heart, or a foot, or a boot, or spell out a word.
Walk the alphabet
“I’m going to do an alphabet walk and look for things beginning with as many letters of the alphabet as possible,” says Cwtchy Gran on Facebook. “I’m also going to try a right/left walk from my front gate”
Keep a journal
Note down what you see in a diary, or draw it like Jo Kear: “I find sketching and journalling a great way to record the small things, and the big things. I just doodle when I feel like it or have something to record, by no means everyday. Usually I take photos and then sketch and paint later at home. When it’s warmer I’ll sketch outside.”
Take a camera
Looking for things to photograph can help you spot a lot more as Chris Barker says: “I really enjoy taking my camera out with me and focussing on the little things I would normally just walk by.”
Find a new perspective
“Go for a walk with a three-year old,” says Jessica Corbin. “You’ll be amazed how interesting a three-mile walk becomes when you look through their eyes. We find so many varieties of flowers, and we collect feathers, watch lambs, and play hide and seek. Every walk is different, new and exciting to littles!”
Take a moment
Have a pilgrim spot - one particular tree, or view, that you always stop at if only for a moment. Or take a photo every day to see how it changes through a year.
Alison Stewart says: “I have OS maps and I am looking at visiting all the trig points and milestones in my area, within a five mile radius from home.” Or you could bag churches, pubs, nature reserves, or even old fashioned phone boxes.
You might not want to drag those big binoculars on a long mountain walk, but a local jaunt is the perfect place to use them, and it really is like gaining a superpower.
Make like a detectorist and look for interesting things at your feet (and you don’t actually need a metal detector). Watch for stone tools in ploughed fields, fossils by the sea, feathers, egg shells, strange shaped pebbles…
Download the Wikipedia app onto your phone, click on Places and it’ll show you pins of everything with a wiki entry near you to inspire some exploring.
A stack of our favourite books by those who loved their backyards, to read and to inspire...
The Amateur Naturalist – Gerald Durrell
The ITV adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy delighted millions of viewers, and the books they’re based on - including My Family and Other Animals - are an absolute hoot. But Durrell’s many works also include this practical guide which shows how we too can become nature detectives: learning to identify tracks, map what lives in a tree, do fieldwork. Durrell starts on home ground with attics, and cellars, then moves to gardens, hedgerows, shrublands, woodlands, streams, expanding out through different habitats to include mountains, coast and even tundra. He mixes spotter’s guides, skills, and experiments that are fun for kids and adults alike, to help us all ‘greet the natural world with curiosity and delight’. Out of print, but readily available second hand.
The Path – Chet Raymo
Subtitled A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe it focuses on a stretch of path in Massachusetts that Raymo has walked for almost 40 years, between his house and the campus where he teaches physics and astronomy. In line with the idea that you can see a world in a grain of sand, he notices details in these ordinary woods, meadows and stream, which spiral back through time and out through the universe: ‘Every pebble and wildflower has a story to tell. The flake of granite in the path was once at the core of towering mountains pushed up across New England when continents collided… The light from the star Arcturus I see reflected in the brook beneath the bridge at night has been traveling across space for forty years before entering my eye.’
The Forest Unseen – David George Haskell
Author David George Haskell focuses on one single square metre of land, which he walks to repeatedly over the course of a year. His ‘mandala’ is in an old growth forest in Tennessee but the principle of forensically close study through the seasons applies everywhere, including a patch of your back garden or local park. As a biologist he knows his science and is fascinated by how this ecosystem works, while also having an eye for its beauty and a gorgeous way of putting things: ‘A wood thrush caps the dawn chorus with his astounding song. The song seems to pierce through from another world, carrying with it clarity and ease, purifying me for a few moments with its grace. Then the song is gone, the veil closes, and I am left with embers of memory.’
The Wild Remedy – Emma Mitchell
For 25 years, naturalist and illustrator Emma Mitchell, has suffered from the ‘grey slug’ of depression. This book charts her life for a year, and the healing she finds in the landscape around her home on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens: ‘For me, taking a daily walk among plants and trees is as medicinal as any talking cure or pharmaceutical.’ Mitchell explores the latest scientific research into the positive effects of nature, and explains her love for the detail: ‘I become engrossed in every leafy, creeping or flying inhabitant of the wood, and with each detail that draws my attention, with each metre I walk, the incessant clamour of daily concerns seems to become more muffled and the foggy pall of depression begins to disperse.’ Gorgeously illustrated with photographs and drawings, she also explains: ‘None of the sightings I describe are terribly unusual: there are no close encounters with golden eagles and I don’t make friends with a Scottish wildcat...many can be seen in urban parks.’
Home Studies in Nature – Mary Treat
Charles Darwin had many correspondents and one of them was the eminent American naturalist Mary Treat, based in New Jersey. They wrote to each other on subjects botanical and entomological - most notably on experiments with sundews (drosera) and whether the plants would eat beef (yes) or dry bits of chalk (no). Those carnivorous flowers also feature in this book about her local area, which looks at everything from spiders to mocking-birds. As she says: ‘To the lover, especially of birds, insects, and plants, the smallest area around a well-chosen home will furnish sufficient material to satisfy all thirst of knowledge through the longest life.’ Find the book online for free at archive.org
And there’s more…
Roger Deakin writes of life in rural Suffolk in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm; The Living Mountain is Nan Shepherd’s poetic ode to her local mountains, the Cairngorms; Annie Dillard won a Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, about her explorations of a wild Virginian valley, which was actually surprisingly close to suburbia; naturalist Mark Cocker has written two books about the Norfolk village of Claxton; in Common Ground, Rob Cowen delves into the ‘pylon-slung tangle of wood, hedge, field, meadow and river’ on the edge of a Yorkshire town; ecologist Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac about Sauk County in Wisconsin is a favourite of Chris Packham’s; Alastair Humphreys Microadventures is packed with ideas for local expeditions; and then there’s Henry David Thoreau’s classic Walden, about a year living simply in a hut in the Massachusetts woods.