The dictionary definition of ‘wild’ refers to somewhere in its original state: uncivilised, uncultivated, undomesticated, unpopulated. Are there such places in Britain and Ireland? The rugged, thrusting peaks of the Highlands, perhaps? The sweeping, desolate moors of Northumberland? The sprawling, shifting shingle bars of Suffolk?
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Wild places do exist here, but they are rare. Our islands are simply too crowded to escape the whoosh of a car or the chatter of voices. We are no Alaska, after all. Christopher Somerville in Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places: 500 Essential Journeys wrestles with this very question: What is wild? ‘Would I have to travel to the rugged, unpopulated landscapes of the outermost north of Scotland, or the Atlantic outposts of the west of Ireland, to find truly wild places?’ Somerville ponders in his introduction to the book. He decides that wild is a state of mind, as much as a physical place. He concludes: ‘The wild waits for us everywhere – in the crack of a paving stone, in the crash of seas against cliffs, on a lonely moor, between the bricks of a sheepfold wall.’ Such a conclusion makes Somerville’s book not only a unique reference source, but also a personal, year-long voyage encompassing his wild places – all 500 of them.
Dividing them into 13 geographic areas, Somerville methodically lists his 500 (as well as providing the vital details of how to get there); his language is captivating and passionate. He writes beautifully about the wild because he cares about the wild - that is abundantly clear. Many of his accounts are scribed in the second person, putting the reader into the frame of his subject.
Between his northerly and southerly points (Unst and the Isles of Scilly respectively) are unexpected gems such as Rainham Marshes in East London: ‘Water rail skulk along the water channels, and barn owls are seen floating like ghosts across the marshes at night’; Priory Church in Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire: ‘A naked Eve, her hair trailing down her back, reaches for a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge while Adam looks on’; Pistyll Rhaedr waterfall in Powys: ‘From the footbridge at the base of the falls, you gaze up at the numbing spectacle of 240 feet of furiously tumbling water’; Achill Island in County Mayo: ‘Each twist in the narrow, winding Atlantic Drive opens up a rocky bay, an empty cream-coloured strand or a vista of cliffs and mountains’.
Such is my personal interest, I immediately turned to the chapter dedicated to the Highlands and islands. ‘If there’s one part of Britain more than any other that seems to sum up the spirit of the wild, it’s the north and west of Scotland,’ writes Somerville. Many of the Hebridean islands are deemed worthy of the top 500, among them Skye (the Cuillin Hills, inevitably), Jura (Glen Batrick) and Harris (Rhenigidale). Notable exclusions? The Atlantic outliers: the likes of the Flannan Isles, the Monach Islands, Rona and Scarp, and most glaringly of all, the St Kilda archipelago – the UK’s only dual World Heritage Site.
Somerville can be forgiven, however. The charm of his wild places is the surprise they spark and the debate they prompt. Surprise because there is a place on your doorstep that you have unwittingly overlooked. Debate because the notion of wild is so objective. What Somerville undoubtedly succeeds in achieving in Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places is redefining the concept of wildness, and in the process proving that there really is no place like home.
Britain and Ireland’s Best Wild Places: 500 Essential Journeys by Christopher Somerville (£19.99, Penguin) is available from Amazon
Jonny Muir is an adventurer, runner, writer and proponent of UK inspired travel. His second book, Isles at the Edge of the Sea – a personal account of a land and sea journey between Arran and St Kilda – was published by Sandstone Press on May 31. He writes about his adventures and books on his blog at heightsofmadness.wordpress.com
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