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Book Review: Local by Alastair Humphreys

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Alastair Humphreys is an adventurer, speaker and writer with a passion for inspiring others to step outside of their front door and explore the world. Previous travels include busking through Spain in the footsteps of Laurie Lee, rowing the Atlantic, circling the globe by bike and crossing southern India on foot. After years of escaping the humdrum of everyday life by travelling far and wide, a commitment to flying less, along with more family responsibilities, meant this was no longer possible to the same extent, however. This prompted him to question whether he could find the same rewards by exploring his local patch in detail instead over one calendar year. Local is the fascinating answer to that question.

#ASingleMap

Humphreys has long championed the idea of local, achievable exploring. He coined the term ‘microadventure’ to refer to these short, local, cheap but still rewarding challenges. Despite this, though, he was not sure that the built-up corner of southeast England he lives in could provide a year of wildness, excitement and interest. Nevertheless, he concocted a plan. The first step was buying a personalised Ordnance Survey map of the area with his home at the centre. This limited his wanderings to an area 20 km across. Humphreys decided to visit one of the map’s 400 grid squares each week of his year-long project (more or less). He let a random number generator pick them to overcome any risk of confirmation bias or expectation. The question was, could this seemingly nondescript mixture of urban sprawl, farmland, marsh, estuary and motorway provide the same wonder, nature and sense of adventure as his earlier travels?

Ordnance Survey Map
A single map can provide endless adventures

The key was learning to really pay attention to everything he encountered in each grid square. Once Humphreys began absorbing the details of his surroundings, he found that even the most unpromising square on his map had much to offer. Whether this was learning about the plants growing along the hedgerows and pavements or the history of some forgotten industrial operation, there were countless rabbit holes to delve down when he got home. Using his weekly trips as a springboard to mine Google and the various apps he made use of opened up whole new lines of interest. Learning to pay more attention also helped him to savour the tiny changes each seasonal shift brought. He found it easier to stop and just sit for prolonged periods in the spaces he visited, as well. This is something his adventurous spirit rarely let him do on previous trips.

Garlic mustard
Garlic mustard, or Jack by the hedge, often grows in urban settings

England Off Limits

There were undoubtedly many positive elements to Humphrey’s year spent exploring locally. But his map also revealed just how hard it is for many of us to access green spaces and nature. We may have a wealth of public footpaths in England and Wales. But vast tracts of privately owned and inaccessible land often squeeze them to almost nothing. More than once Humphreys would look at his planned square with excitement at its promise of open space only to get there and find it barred to the public. He encountered numerous keep out signs. Most of the water bodies he hoped to swim in were similarly off limits. Even where there were public footpaths, he sometimes found the landowners would very much prefer he didn’t use them. His run in with one farmer also highlighted the fact that some groups have even less access. He was certain in this instance that had he not been white, male and middle class, their argument would not have deescalated any where near as quickly, if at all.

Keep out sign
Humphreys encountered a huge number of keep out signs

There is another issue with our footpaths that Humphreys draws attention to. We could lose many of England’s existing paths as rights of way completely without even realising it. The UK Government says that any so-called ‘lost paths’ that have not been registered or claimed as rights of way by 2031 will be struck off. The Ramblers Association estimates that there are 41,000 miles of these forgotten, historic rights of way in England. They are urging volunteers to help register them and prevent them from being lost forever. By providing greater access to the countryside, public rights of way are hugely beneficial. From a health point of view, they enable us to get more exercise and connect with nature. Access to nature is known to be important to both mental and physical wellbeing. Footpaths also help us to reduce car use, thus combatting air pollution and climate change.

Footpath sign
England’s extensive footpath network belies a lack of access to the countryside

The Great Disconnect

This lack of access leads Humphreys to draw another conclusion from his local year. He sees first hand just how disconnected many of us our from the natural world and the land around us. Landowners often argue against greater access rights by saying that when people do come onto their land, they don’t behave responsibly. They cite littering, trampling crops, scaring livestock and similar issues to argue that the general public can’t be trusted to treat the countryside properly when they visit. Yet is the root cause of this type of behaviour the fact that so many people have so little connection to the natural world? If they were allowed more access, could it be that their increased connection would lead to more understanding and then more respect?

Fly-tipping
Is our littering of the countryside down to our disconnect from nature?

This disconnect extends to farming. So many of us have so little understanding of the pressures farmers face and where our food comes from. If we understood this better, would there be more mutual respect between so-called ‘townies’ and the farming community? If so, perhaps both groups would then be more open to discussion about how we manage land for both nature and food production. Entrenched attitudes and an unwillingness to change views characterise so many conversations surrounding rewilding versus farming. Of course, as Humphreys finds, there are no easy answers. We need farmers, just as we also need more houses, but nature needs space, too. Finding the balance between competing land use demands is fraught with difficulties.

A Year of Wonders

Local is a wonderfully inspirational and uplifting book. This is despite its highlighting of our disconnection from nature, the threats from climate change and our limited access to the countryside. Yes, Humphreys records litter just about everywhere. He also sees large tracts of land being swallowed up by new housing estates. But he also sees how resilient nature can be in the face of urbanisation, showing its often-pioneer spirit. His map might seem at first glance to be a dull and far from wild landscape. But he certainly finds pockets of ‘natural’ beauty. These include a former golf course now allowed, with the help of low-level grazing, to become a wilder mix of woodland, hedgerow and scrub. (This is much to the despair of the couple he meets who lament the fact there is now ‘just nature’ there and no golf course.) And it isn’t just these traditionally green areas that inspire him. Humphreys also finds beauty in the edgelands where man and nature collide.

Rural lane
Humphrey’s map included rural delights as well as urban sprawl

Humphreys finishes his year knowing he has barely scratched the surface of his map. Not only are there more squares to discover, but each square he has visited will be different in every season, every time of day or every mood. Ultimately, the book is a fantastic chronicle of his year. He learns, connects and is inspired in ways he couldn’t imagine he would be at the start of the project. As such, it is also a clarion call for all of us to step out into our own single maps. He shows we can all follow his call to live adventurously.

Further Reading

Alastair Humphrey’s website is a great starting point to find out about all of his adventures, local, large or micro. He also gives plenty of tips on how to start your own adventures.

Document your own local adventures on social media with the hashtag #ASingleMap

Humphreys also supports the Ramblers Association’s bid to save England’s lost footpaths. Find out more about how you can help them register paths at risk here.

One of Humphrey’s touchstones during his year was Henry David Thoreau’s classic, Walden. In 1845, Thoreau went to live by himself for two years in a cabin outside of Concord, Massachusetts. His writing extols the wonders of your local environment and the endless inspiration it can provide.

Jack Cornish’s book is partly a history of the footpaths that crisscross England and Wales. He shows how they have linked people and communities for centuries, and we meet the people who used them. Like Humphreys, he also highlights the risk of losing them if they aren’t reclaimed in the next few years.

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