Category Archives: outdoors

Heading for a hillfort

For the last 15 years Solsbury Hill has been part of my life. Looming large in the distance it can be seen from my garden every time I leave the house. Sometimes it can be shrouded in mist and other times it glows in the warmth of the evening sunshine. It’s a view that I never tire of and it always feels so reassuring when I look across to this site of a former hillfort.

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Solsbury Hill in the distance on a sunny day

Standing on the summit of Solsbury you see why it made such a great place to set up home. Over hundreds of years it was a hillfort and you can follow its outline as you walk around, with views across to the Westbury Whitehorse and the rolling Wiltshire countryside to the east and the city of Bath to the west. I’ll often hear the sound of the skylark, a dot in the cloudless sky, or if I’m lucky catch its ascent from ground level.

And now this much loved hillfort is part of a new atlas that for the first time captures all 4,147 hillforts dotted across the landscape of the U.K and Ireland. Over the last 5 years researchers based at the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, on this Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, have been working to collate a wealth of data about these amazing places. Citizen scientists have also been helping to collect information for this treasure chest of an online resource.

Curiosity driven research projects like this can only enrich our understanding of history and having all of this exciting data in one portable place will help people to digitally connect with those story of hillforts where they live.

The beauty of this research project is that it showcases the whole range of hillforts that can be found in the countryside like pearls on a necklace. It takes you beyond the really well-known and much visited sites and demonstrates how fundamental these places have been to the story of these islands over hundreds of years. Scrolling across the map you get a sense of the density of hillforts in some places, that you’d expect, and how they have played such an important part in our national story.

Each hillfort catalogued in this atlas will have its very own story. Clambering over a hillfort you get a deep sense of connection with the people that lived there transporting you back in time. You start to take in the landscape that our ancestors would have seen, imagining a very different view with woodland dominating the horizon. Hillforts were built with a focus on defence and as you enter one you can see the careful thought that went into the access points.

Hambledon Hill in Dorset, which is now owned by the National Trust, was one of the last occupied hillforts in the UK – with a group called the Clubmen living there during the English civil war in the 17th century. The size and complexity of this place is mind boggling. Now it’s lightly grazed by cattle and home to countless wild flowers and fluttering butterflies.

Though this atlas is all about the celebration of hillforts there are also many challenges for them. Any hillfort situated on the coast is at risk of vanishing into the sea as our coastline begins to slowly erode. And some have also suffered at the hands of the plough over many centuries. For me this atlas is a clarion call for us all to visit these atmospheric places rich in history and wildlife; and we also need to champion them and care for them, so that future generations can immerse themselves in history.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sounds of our life…

As I type four young swifts have been spending days flying round in circles getting ready for their long trip south. I know this because of the distinctive screeching sound as they fly creating a re-assuring soundtrack to the summer. Its a sound that I love listening too every year and never tire of hearing.

Sounds play such an important part in our lives and yet as we dash from A to B or are plugged into digital devices there is a real risk of us losing that sonic connection with the world around us. Yes there is a lot of white noise out there but if you take the time to listen its amazing what you can hear.

The beach at Hunts Bay

Hunts Bay on Gower as the waves gently lap against the beach

Last year I was involved with a project called Sounds of our Shores. It was all about recording some of those familiar sounds from the seaside – the lapping waves, walking along a pebble beach or the richness of a Island of seabirds. The one thing that it taught me was to take the time to just stop and listen. Tuning into a day at the seaside means that you’ll see and hear a place anew; noticing things that you’ve never noticed before.

Because most of us live in towns and cities many people would rather tune out of their daily soundtrack – the potential endless noise of daily life. Sometimes it can seem that the only day of quiet is on Christmas Day, if you’re lucky. But if you peel back the layers you can start to listen out for more natural sounds: the wind gently blowing in the wind, rain falling on windows or the sweet melody of a blackbird.

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A tree full of starlings in full voice

When I walk the twenty odd minutes to the station I will always listen out for different sounds. Sometimes a birds song will stop me in my tracks as I try to locate it in a tree. It might be the shouts of joy as kids play football in a park or even the gently hum of a lawn mower.

So where-ever you live why not try and take some time out of your daily routine to listen out for familiar or new sounds. It will enrich your life and help you build up your own soundscape.

A rain-soaked memory bank

I’ve just finished reading ‘Rain’ by Melissa Harrison. It’s a book that searches out those rain-soaked memories that lurk deep in your memory bank as you hungrily read the pages.

Weather has been a long-held fascination for the people of these islands. As Harrison points out it’s shaped the way that we live and the way that we think about our identity. Our countryside, our system of farming over the last 10,000 years and the wildlife that calls the UK home are all dependent on the weather.

As an island on the western edge of mainland Europe at the mercy of the full forces of the Atlantic and sweeping weather fronts you’d kind of expect this to be the case. Talking about the weather can help fill the voids of the awkward conversational moments when we run out of things to talk about. We’re always in a slight state of anxiety about what the weather will do today. The only predictable thing about the UK weather is its unpredictability.

The great thing about this is that it’s never boring on the weather front. We might not have the sun-baked summers of southern Europe or the sheet-white winters of northern Europe but this diversity of weather means that it plays such an important role of shaping our daily experiences, whether the journey to work or a summer holiday.

Years ago I remember visiting the sea cliff masterpiece that is Bempton on the Yorkshire coast. As we arrived to catch a glimpse of the seabirds at this RSPB site, storm clouds gathered in the distance. Despite the impending downpour a family, in true British bulldog spirit, was getting ready for a picnic. They were going to have their neatly cut sandwiches and a cup of tea whatever the weather. This speaks, for me, to something at the core of our national identity; shaped as much by our weather as any grandiose national narrative. We are what the weather throws at us; sculpting and creating beautiful landscapes and a total pragmatism in character, which is very British.

In many parts of the world when the rain comes people take shelter. In the UK we carry on as normal. On a work visit to Snowdonia I remember standing in a blanket bog in the driving rain talking about this important habitat. I can remember it as though it was yesterday and it feels like your body will take weeks to dry out.  Only in the UK would this happen.

When I think back to my childhood or time with my kids now, it’s the wilder weather that springs to mind. Wrapped on a Cornish beach with crashing waves or splashing in puddles at Victoria Park in Bath on a deserted day. I just love the weather and we should all grow to love its inclement nature.

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As the length of daylight hours begin to shorten and the weather starts to turn, for some parents the struggle to get their kids outdoors becomes one battle too many. The lure of cosy days in, watching films or playing on the X-box becomes very strong for lots of children.

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Kids need their nature time, what ever time of year it is, and once they get a taste for it they are hooked

 

When it’s wet, increasingly cold and dark it might feel that the great outdoors isn’t that tempting. Getting soaked through on a walk in the countryside or the prospect of washing basket full of dirty laundry piling up at home can feel a bit too much.

And yet the outdoors is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Yes the nature of our landscapes can look very different but the winter months can throw up a real sense of adventure and excitement. Living on an island in the Atlantic means that we should be use the fickleness of the weather. Nature does grind to a half as the clocks change and we head towards winter.

It’s so important that if we are to live in a country where every child is wild, that they have an experience of nature all year round and not just on the sunny days. There is something exciting about wrapping up, putting  on you boots, filling the flask with hot chocolate and setting off for a day at the coast or countryside. The natural wildness of windswept days, crashing waves and tumbling leaves makes you feel alive.

Jumping in puddles is one of the memories that many of us will have as kids. Those carefree moments of running up, jumping and hitting the water and soaking your parents; followed by laughter and the desire to do it time and time again is what wild time is all about.

For kids to flourish and grow there is a real sense of avoiding a sanitised world where the cold, wet and windy is absent from their every day lives. Feeling the full force of elements will often lead to the days that children will remember more than any other as they grow up.

A very British revolution: the creation of the National Parks

Seventy years ago Clement Attlee became Prime Minister. In the aftermath of the six long years of the Second World War the UK needed a new settlement fit for the future that could rebuild the morale and infrastructure of the country. As we all know the welfare state was born and this is now seen as one of the great reforming Governments that transformed people’s lives.

One of the less well known, but equally important aspects of six years of a very British revolution, was the huge strides that were made in opening up access to the countryside and beginning to create a system of protecting the wildlife that calls the British Isles home.

In 1949 a truly radical piece of legislation became law – the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. It set a framework to establish the great National Parks of England and Wales, began the journey towards creating Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and addressed the needs of a network of public rights of way.

Two years later the Peak District became the first National Park and fifty-eight long years later the South Downs became the last of the original list of twelve to join the ranks of great national natural assets.

The journey towards this momentous passage of legislation was a long one. As the towns and cities of the industrial north and London expanded there was a recognition that we needed to protect our most treasured landscapes. Many of these special places were off limits because of private ownership. It was the mass trespass on to Kinder Scout (in Derbyshire) in 1932 that set in train a domino effect which led to the Attlee Government giving the full weight of the law to protecting our rights to enjoy these special places.

Seven decades on and it feels like the National Park movement is under huge strain. Its coffers are increasingly bare, i.e., it’s having to do the same or more with much less resource and staff, and the new Government has a taste for deregulation and a weakening of planning legislation.

The National Parks of England and Wales are our great natural lungs: places where you can go to play or just take a moment to get off the treadmill of life. Millions of us travel to them every year. I grew up spending many a happy day on Dartmoor – its bleak and unforgiving beauty engrained on my memory bank. I live in Bath surrounded by the Cotswold AONB and that wonderful escarpment.

When we think of the welfare state and that safety net for people in the UK we should include the consequences of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. This is about our well-being and ability to spend time enjoying and being part of a wild landscape. Yes these places have been shaped by human activity and continue to be so but they provide a place to connect with nature and we need them now more than ever.