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Why we travel: Robert Macfarlane on his love of the UK’s wild places

The prize-winning author remembers holidays in the UK, from Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands to the outskirts of Cambridge, and reflects on the wild landscapes that have shaped both his work and his life.

By Robert Macfarlane
Published 24 Jul 2020, 08:00 BST
Loch Affric, surrounded by pine  forests and the mountains of Kintail, in the Northwest Highlands, ...

Loch Affric, surrounded by pine  forests and the mountains of Kintail, in the Northwest Highlands, Scotland. 

Photograph by AWL Images

What first drew you to the UK’s wild regions?
Mr Kipling Cherry Bakewells. Perhaps not the answer you’d expected; I should explain. My childhood holidays were invariably spent in mountainous regions — Connemara, the Lakes, Snowdonia and above all the Scottish Highlands. My parents had to lure my brother and me into the hills, and they did so with cakes and sweets, ruthlessly. My summer birthday cake would often be a cherry bakewell with a single candle in it, on a windy mountaintop. Strange are the things that set us going.

Has writing about landscapes helped you understand them more?
Literature and landscape are the intertwining braids of my life, certainly. I read my way up mountains before I walked up them, and I walked up them before I wrote about them. Now I find that place deepens page, and vice versa. Nan Shepherd, author of The Living Mountain, taught me to see the Cairngorms completely differently, and indeed  to approach mountains differently. Nan preferred passes to peaks, an ethos of pilgrimage to one of conquest, and she spoke of walking ‘into’ the mountains, rather than only up them. J A Baker’s incandescent masterpiece The Peregrine sprang the much-maligned landscape of coastal Essex into astonishment for me, and ignited a fascination with peregrines that’s tracked me back to my own city of Cambridge, where a pair now breeds on the gothic stonework above the main street.

“Literature and landscape are the intertwining braids of my life.”

by Robert Macfarlane

Where have you felt most humbled by nature?
Certainly in Arctic Norway, alone on the windward and seaward side of the Lofoten archipelago in winter, when I crossed the central ridge of that island range to reach a vast sea cave in which, thousands of years previously, iron oxide had been used to paint dancing red figures on the cave wall. A northerly blizzard blew in, trapping me in the bay without mobile signal for some days. I was both frightened and awed by what I discovered there, and what happened to my experience of time on that wild frontier.

Robert Macfarlane is the prize-winning author of Landmarks, The Lost Words, The Old Ways, and Underland, all published by Penguin Books.

Photograph by Alex Turner

What type of terrain most inspires you?
I live in Cambridge, a landscape so flat you can fax it, as the old joke goes. The landscapes that inspire me most are still mountainous ones, though. When I’m in the mountains, I find myself whooping and cheering involuntarily, whistling, singing, hugging my friends spontaneously. “There are places where the natural movement of the heart is upwards,” wrote the mountaineer-mystic W H Murray. We all know a version of that feeling, those places, and for me it’s in the high mountains, especially in winter.

Have your recent explorations of the subterranean world shifted your focus, or are you still a summit-seeker at heart?
The darkness of the world’s interior holds greater mysteries than the sunlight of the world’s summits. We know so little of what lies beneath us; it’s the space into which we’ve long placed that which we love most (the bodies of our revered dead, precious goods) and that which we fear most (nuclear waste, secrets, the murdered). So, I’m both more fascinated and more appalled by the underworld than by the peaks, if that makes sense.

In our uncertain times, what places are you deriving comfort from?
A small beechwood on the outskirts of Cambridge, reachable along a field path perhaps 50 years old, which leads past hedgerows foaming with blackthorn and hawthorn blossom. It’s a modest place, planted by the community, and giving shelter and succour to hundreds of thousands of people over the decades. Right now, the green-gold light falling through the young beech leaves, the wrens whirring between bushes; these remind me of patterns of being and circuits of life that exceed our own suddenly crumbling systems and structures.

Robert Macfarlane is the prize-winning author of Landmarks, The Lost Words, The Old Ways, and Underland, all published by Penguin Books.

Read more tales from our Why We Travel cover story

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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