About Christopher Somerville
An Interview with Christopher Somerville
More About Christopher Somerville
Christopher Somerville has spent twenty-five years walking the country lanes, back hills and wildernesses of Britain and Ireland, and believes he has learnt most things of importance while outdoors. He is the author of Coast and Coast: The Journey Continues, (which accompanied the BBC2 series) and Britain and Ireland's Best Wild Places. He writes regularly on country walks, for publications including the Daily Telegraph and Saga.
There are 500 places in Britain's Best Wild Places. How did you
decide what to include?
The question I had to face right at the outset was: What is Wild?
Obviously a wind-swept Scottish mountain-top, a wave-lashed cliff
in the West of Ireland or a lonely island off the Welsh coast are
classic wild places. But what's wild in Leicestershire, say, or Surrey
– places where the hand and plough of man lie heavy?
I came to see that the Wild could also encompass a weird carving
in a church, a pond in a meadow full of frogs and newts, a ruined
house in a thicket, or just a place that made the hair rise on the back
of my neck.
I have been travelling round the UK for the best part of 30 years,
mostly on foot, writing about odd corners and unexpected places
– the more obscure the better. So I already had a huge number of
Wild Places in my archive to choose from. I had to revisit the ones I
selected, and also pick at least 300 new ones. I got recommendations
from friends, I read a lot, I went back to novels and nature books I
loved. Gradually I built up a body of 500 Wild Places.
And there are 50 of your absolutely best places. What sort of
criteria did you use to choose them?
I feel very strongly about each of the 500 Wild Places in the book
– but this Top 50 includes places which, I felt, had the quality
of wildness at super-strength. Sometimes it seemed an obvious
choice – the remote and stormy cliffs of Cape Wrath in North-
West Scotland, for example; others were more subtle, such as the
remarkable sandstone carvings outside the Church of St Mary at
Kilpeck in Herefordshire, expressions of the wildness in a medieval
Did you have fun exploring all the places? Did you have any
particularly wonderful – or awful – experiences when you were
researching the book?
I had fun, exhilaration, fear, exhaustion and moments of something
approaching ecstasy. Rain-soaked days in the Welsh mountains where I
got chilled to the bone and couldn't take any photos weren't too clever;
neither was the savage hound that had me penned in a corner of a
Kentish farmyard. I'd frequently arrive at my night stop after 10 p.m.,
too tired even too eat. But everything was made up for by the wonderful
moments: butting out across Roaringwater Bay in a rolling swell to Cape
Clear Island in outermost County Cork, striding Stanage Edge in a cold
wind and feeling as if I could easily fly, or climbing Ben Lawers among
the most gloriously beautiful arctic-alpine flowers.
Are there authors who have been particularly inspiring to you as a
Modern writers about the wild who have inspired me are Robert
Macfarlane with his magical book The Wild Places (grrr, Robert – I
wanted that title!) and Roger Deakin with Wildwood, a mystical
exploration into trees. Patrick Leigh Fermor is an inspiration to
everyone, and I got a huge injection of romantic fervour for the British
countryside from reading Henry Williamson when I was a boy.
What do you take with you on a long walk? Do you have any tips for
things to keep going or for travelling light?
On a long day walk I travel light. No lunch, no water. Just a rainproof
coat and trousers, a notebook and pencil, a compass and map, a point-
and-press digital camera. That's it. I know I should take nourishing grub,
water and a GPS, but it doesn't suit me. I appreciate the pie and the pint
that evening all the more!
I walked 300 miles across the Cretan mountains a few years ago, and
jettisoned half of what was in my pack before I started. Travel light,
that's the goal. It's such hell toting 40 or 50 lb on your back up and down
steep, rubbly slopes. Clothes pegs, plastic bags and string are essential.
And don't take white underpants if you plan to wash and hang them to
dry on your rent-room balcony. A few weeks with a choice of two
sets, and embarrassment will be your lot.
If you could go on a long walk with anybody from history – or
literature – who would you choose as your companion, and why?
I'd choose John Buchan's hero, Richard Hannay, without a
doubt. He'd be tough enough to confront any rogues we met, and
resourceful enough to pull me out of any crevasses; he'd have a
million tremendous stories of derring-do to while away the hours;
he'd jolly me along and tell me to brace up and show some pluck if
I was being feeble. He'd smoke strong tobacco so I wouldn't have
to, and be content with the sort of food and drink I like – a bottle
of the Cliquot '06 and a good hearty beefsteak. And he'd be able to
keep his hat on through any tumble or tempest, an essential talent for
any companion of mine. We might meet a lady – and one must have
something to raise in such circumstances.
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