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Stars, sands and seas: 8 special British experiences

Brian Jackman, author of Wild about Britain, chooses some of his favourite experiences in nature

In his 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

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…

Peregrine falcon by Sue Robinson, Shutterstock
© Sue Robinson, Shutterstock

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

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

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.

Stargazing Blagdon Cross Exmoor by Exmoor National Park
© Exmoor National Park

Listening for the hounds of heaven – Islay, Hebrides

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.

Barnacle geese Islay Scotland Nige Brown Wikimedia Commons
© Nige Brown, Wikimedia Commons

All I ask is a tall ship – Land’s End, Cornwall

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 © Annie Spratt

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

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.

Shipwreck figurehead in Tresco by Andrewabbott Wikimedia Commons
© Andrewabbott, Wikimedia Commons

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

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.

Golden Eagle by Juan Lacruz Wikimedia Commons
© Juan Iacruz, Wikimedia Commons

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

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?

Ancient tree New Forest by Ollie Taylor, Shutterstock
© Ollie Taylor, Shutterstock

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.

More information

Read more in Wild about Britain by Brian Jackman:

Wild about Britain by Brian Jackman