The handsome cover on my new book is by Brian Cook Batsford, the illustrator and publisher behind the Batsford guides of the 1930s. These books which captured the essence of British life, particularly in rural areas, inspired the recent Channel 4 series ‘Hidden Villages’ presented by Penelope Keith. The TV programmes in turn informed this book which explores villages large and small, quaint and modern, eccentric and idyllic, throughout Britain.
As I wrote each chapter, I found myself (figuratively) in many unfamiliar places, from a blue lagoon in Wales, to a brewery in the Cotswolds, and a ferry to the Hebrides. I dug up curious customs as I went (cheese rolling, horn dances, bog snorkelling) and rubbed shoulders with farmers, eccentrics and craftsmen. A most enjoyable way to spend time, in other words.
The book looks great: packed with photographs and plenty of Brian Cook Batsford’s illustrations, and is a pleasingly substantial size and weight. Here’s a glimpse of what it looks like inside:
It’s published on 28 September 2017, and you can buy a copy here.
This is a busy time of year for the Gower, that especially lovely peninsula in South Wales. Its glorious beaches attract many visitors, drawn by their expansive sandiness and surf-able waves. Dylan Thomas, a frequent visitor, described it as ‘one of the loveliest sea-coast stretches in the whole of Britain’, and many folk, including me would agree with him.
Despite its summer-time popularity, it is still easy to find quiet and relatively unvisited stretches of coast and wildflower meadows to lose yourself in. When I was researching the guidebook for the National Trust, which owns a considerable portion of the Gower’s coastline, I had the award-winning, three-mile sweep of Rhossili Bay to myself. Which wasn’t that surprising as it was November and pelting with rain. The weather doesn’t have to be bleak to find a peaceful patch on the Gower, however. The north coast of the peninsula – Llanrhidian Marsh and estuary, and nearby Cwm Ivy – are relatively unvisited and have a different, more understated beauty. Since a medieval sea wall was breached, this patch of former grazing land is returning to what it was originally: a species-rich saltmarsh. A quiet, liminal place rich with interest and populated by migrating birds.
The guidebook tells the story behind the National Trust’s management of Cwm Ivy and the rest of the Gower Peninsula, among many other things. It describes its smuggling and agricultural past, investigates its mysteries, and marvels at its wildlife. It also has not-too-demanding but ever-so-interesting walks to take you to some more offbeat places. And much of it is translated into Welsh.
All in all, it is a lovely thing and was thoroughly enjoyable to write. It is, of course, also available to buy on Amazon. An essential read, really, if you are heading that way this summer.
The end of 2016 saw me heading to Cornwall’s Tin Coast – that far-flung and ragged part of West Cornwall that is peppered with the workings of defunct tin mines and glorious sandy coves. Any time spent in this part of the world is uplifting, but it is even more pleasing when it has a purpose, and this time it was to research a guidebook for the National Trust.
This is the third guidebook I have written for the NT (previously, Brownsea Island and The Gower Peninsula, which will be published later this year) and every one is a real pleasure to put together. They are a chance to wander along coastal paths and really dig into the history of the landscape and the people.
Despite recent fame brought to the area by the TV series Poldark, The Tin Coast still feels relatively undiscovered. You only have to walk a little further than the car park at Cape Cornwall to feel entirely alone. The coastal path dips into bays and rocky coves then sweeps up on to headlands with invigorating views, and all the way along are the ruins of the mine workings and chimney stacks.
One of my favourite places to visit for a pasty or an ice-cream is the town of St Just. Its terraces once housed tin miners and fishermen and it still feels like a working town. Its many Methodist chapels are a reminder of how important the Wesleyan faith was to its inhabitants, and its granite buildings a reflection of the geology that formed the landscape and forged the tin mining industry.
Nowadays it is also the setting for artist Kurt Jackson’s new spacious gallery which shows his expansive and wonderful work. He is continually inspired by his surroundings – stormy seas, surfers, sunburned bathers and starlings, among other subjects – so I was especially pleased to spot him emerging from Cot Valley with a canvas tucked under his arm.
I have just finished writing the guidebook to the Gower Peninsula for the National Trust. As part of my research, I spent a few days stomping along beaches and rocking around in the Land-Rover of Richard, the NT’s communication manager on the Gower, marvelling at the enormous beaches and the unspoilt loveliness of it all. All of which is reassuringly under the assiduous management of the National Trust.
My trip took place last November so the experience was thoroughly cold and wet. Winter beaches have their own special charm, of course: they are deserted for one. The picture, above is of Rhossili Bay, in summer teeming with surfers and pleasure seekers but in the winter totally empty. And this is Oxwich Bay…
…which I also had to myself, apart from a few oystercatchers pecking along the strandline. The subtle colours of the coast in the colder months are very different to the in-your-face summer ones. It’s all greys and soft browns and duck-egg blues. A landscape to make you wander along meditatively, considering things.
Or to stop and doodle with some pebbles:
The Gower is the sort of coastline you want to visit every season to see how it changes, not just the colours and the weather but to see which birds have flown in and which wild flowers are in bloom. Now that spring has rolled around, I am planning to head back, maybe to stay in one of the National Trust’s holiday cottages (this one is amazing). It’s a hard place to stay away from.
March saw the publication of this handsome, weighty book. (Excuse the wonky picture taken on my kitchen table.) Which is very exciting for me as I wrote it, and, I hope, potentially interesting for anyone with an interest in the British coastline.
The book is a trip around the beaches, coves, estuaries and islands of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, focusing especially on shoreline owned and managed by the National Trust. It was commissioned as part of the celebrations of 50 years of the NT’s Neptune Coastline Campaign which has done such a lot to manage and conserve huge swathes of the coast.
Here is my cat Travis taking a vague interest in it.
Alongside beautifully written (cough, cough) text about different stretches of coast, there are suggestions for days out, coastal walks (with maps!), chats with NT rangers, and wildlife to spot. Plus, six essays by notable authors on different aspects of the coast: Mark Cocker writes on seabirds; Christopher Somerville on the coastal path; Ronald Turnbull on geology; Jean Sprackland on beachcombing; Daniel Start on wild swimming and Matthew Oates on butterflies.
I hope I’ve sold it to you. If I really have, you can buy it on Amazon or in bookshops (and NT shops) nationwide!