Wild about Britain: 8 special experiences

06/10/2017 13:22

Written by Brian Jackman

In his new collection of nature and travel writing, award-winning journalist Brian Jackman pens a love letter to Britain's unspoiled coast and countryside. Wild about Britain focuses not only on the island's wildlife and wild places but on the people who have sculpted its rural landscape. Here, he has chosen 8 of his favourite experiences connecting with nature around Britain. 

A passion for peregrines – North Cornwall

Peregrine falcon by Sue Robinson, ShutterstockChildhood holidays in Cornwall were a big influence on Brian's love of nature © Sue Robinson, Shutterstock

From a mile high the falcon tips forward, folds her wings and stoops, faster than a falling stone. Her dive carries her below the skyline, where she is harder to see against the dun colours of the moor; but now for the first time I pick up her quarry….. She misses – levels out over Hendra, skimming over the bare fields with white gulls boiling in her wake…. I can see her round head swivelling and briefly feel her gaze upon me as she scans the ground beneath, and as she swings out over the cliffs the sun outlines her body in a wash of burning gold.

Between the woods and the water – New Forest, Hampshire

Deer by Mark Bridger ShutterstockHampshire’s New Forest is the last great wild space in England’s soft underbelly © Mark Bridger, Shutterstock

In autumn, caught up in the throes of the rut, the fallow bucks compete with each other for the right to mate. At this time of year their necks are swollen with lust as they lay down their challenge, an eerie, rhythmic rattling grunt, like a motorbike being kick-started into life. To listen to them in the falling dusk is to hear a sound as old as England itself, an echo from the Saxon wildwood that stood here long before the Conqueror made the New Forest his own.

Stargazing in stag country – Exmoor National Park

Stargazing Blagdon Cross Exmoor by Exmoor National ParkExmoor National Park is one of the few corners of England where low levels of light pollution allow visitors to enjoy night skies that have long since disappeared elsewhere © Exmoor National Park

On Winsford Hill the darkness is absolute. There is no moon, no light of any kind except for the distant galaxy of the Welsh coast glittering with frosty brilliance on the eastern horizon, and a few remote farmsteads blinking like red dwarfs in the unseen combes below. Otherwise, Exmoor is one vast black hole of silence – the perfect venue for a spot of stargazing.

Listening for the hounds of heaven – Islay, Hebrides

Barnacle geese Islay Scotland Nige Brown Wikimedia CommonsOf all the winter movements of wildlife that sweep across Britain, there is nothing to match the huge migrations of Arctic wildfowl © Nige Brown, Wikimedia Commons

Out of the cold Hebridean twilight falls a wild music. At first so faint I can hardly hear it; a distant chorus of high horns in the wind. Then louder, more insistent, drawing closer until this time there is no mistaking that exultant yelping clamour. It is the hounds of heaven in full cry: a thousand barnacle geese flying in to roost on the salt marsh of an Islay sea loch.

All I ask is a tall ship – Fowey, Cornwall

Land's End Cornwall by stocker1970, ShutterstockA voyage aboard the Marques for ordinary people was a chance to experience life aboard a romantic square-rigger from the age of sail © stocker1970, Shutterstock

Away to starboard lay Land’s End, the thin end of the wedge that is Cornwall, driven home between the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. A terrifying seascape of haggard headlands, of cliffs torn asunder and wave-smashed rocks with grim-sounding names: Folly Cove, the Armed Knight, Zawn Kellys. Land’s End itself may be tawdry and turf-worn to those who visit the celebrated toe-end of Britain. But seen from the heaving deck of a square-rigged sailing vessel it seems like the most savage place on earth: the English Cape Horn.

Sand as soft as talc – Isles of Scilly

Shipwreck figurehead in Tresco by Andrewabbott Wikimedia CommonsForget the Maldives, the Isles of Scilly are only thirty miles from Land’s End, but they lie out in the Gulf Stream where frosts are rare and sunfish bask in summer © Andrewabbott, Wikimedia Commons

Tresco’s extraordinary Valhalla of shipwreck figureheads: Gilded and ghostly white, they fly out of the shadows as if they were still cleaving the wild Atlantic. There are golden lions, blue dolphins, a Highland chieftain and a Puritan maid. But the loveliest and most enigmatic by far is a brown-eyed wench with a comb in her hair – the Spanish Lady – salvaged from a mystery vessel dashed upon the Scilly rocks.

Where eagles fly – Ardnamurchan, Lochaber

Golden Eagle by Juan Lacruz Wikimedia CommonsMike Tomkies has studied the golden eagle, Britain's most powerful bird of prey, for over 9 years © Juan Iacruz Wikimedia Commons

Here on the summit, coolness breathes and I can hear golden plovers not far off. Their haunting cries hang in the wind, as sad as a piper’s lament. Beyond the peat hags, the nodding tufts of cotton grass, the hills plunge into a glen of aching loneliness. At its bottom a burn winds silver. We zigzag down to scoop its sweet water in cupped hands where it spills through the rocks, then climb another 1,000 ft to where a sentinel rowan stands guard beside a massive crag. Across the glen the summits swing away into the high trailing mist, their sullen faces as grey as sleet. And suddenly there she is: the veteran female whom Mike Tomkies calls Atalanta, after the Greek goddess of the Calydonian Hunt. A huge, dark shape, claws bunched beneath her, sailing on her seven-foot wingspan towards the opposite hillside.

A forest fit for Merlin – Powerstock, Dorset

Ancient tree New Forest by Ollie Taylor, ShutterstockThe woods of New Forest are a remnant, a relic of the primeval oak wood that once covered most of Britain © Ollie Taylor, Shutterstock

Back home the gathered branches were snapped into burnable lengths and packed into the log basket. Outside in the dark the frost was fierce. Was that why the vixen up on the hill screamed with such anguish? The curtains were drawn against the night. The room had become a cave of warmth, flickering in the firelight’s glow. Wet from the wood, the logs hissed in the flames. The teapot stood by the fire. The hearth gods were happy and so was I. Lopez the tabby came in from the kitchen to curl up on the rug, and together we warmed ourselves in the released energy of ancient sunlight stored up in summers long ago when the oaks were young.

Read more in Wild about Britain, out now:

Wild about Britain by Brian Jackman  

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