Britain Archive

Somerville walks ‘the Bones of Britain’

For his latest book, Christopher Somerville, walking correspondent of The Times, travels a thousand miles and across three billion years. In Walking the Bones of Britain, Doubleday, £25), he starts in the Outer Hebrides, among the most ancient of rocks, and finishes at the Thames Estuary, where “nature and man are collaborating to build new land”. 

  “Geology,” he says, “can be very hard work. I have written Walking the Bones of Britain to demystify the subject, and to unearth from its dry, stony vocabulary and dense layers of facts the really vivid and extraordinary events that give these islands the world’s richest and most remarkable geological story.” You can read a brief extract on his own website.

Another Winn for Raynor

In The Guardian at the weekend, Amy-Jane Beer welcomed Landlines, Raynor Winn’s latest walking odyssey with her husband, Moth. It is, she says, “a wonderful book”:

Winn seems to have a bird’s-eye view of Britain – a map at her feet, a keen eye for detail, particularly for social injustice. Hers is a voice of empathy and integrity, and her points are never made polemically, but by the simple observation of others’ experiences.

‘I Belong Here’ out today

I see from Twitter that today is publication day for I Belong Here by Anita Sethi (Bloomsbury). It’s a book in which, after being racially abused on a train, the author journeys through the landscapes of the North of England, aiming to transform “what began as ugly experience of hate and exclusion into one of hope and beauty”.

An extract appeared earlier this month in The Observer, and the book was reviewed last weekend in The Guardian by Fiona Sturges, who described it as “a heartfelt examination of identity, place and belonging” and a memoir “of rare power”.

A blast of fresh air with Horatio Clare

Happy New Year. If you’ve started 2021 having to self-isolate (and even if you haven’t), I’d recommend escaping for an hour with Horatio Clare on his Sunrise Sound Walk, crossing “the land that the sea owns” to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which was first broadcast on Radio 3 on Christmas Day. Listen to it with headphones and you’ll get the full force of a “proper rushing wind”. Clare has also welcomed dawn in Lincolnshire along the Wash, but I’ve not yet had a chance yet to listen to that one.

Scotland’s ‘wild histories’

In The Unremembered Places, which was short-listed last month for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, Patrick Baker explores far-flung ruins and relics — from a cemetery for dam-builders to the remains of illicit stills — that serve as archives for Scotland’s “wild histories”. It’s a haunted and haunting little book (just over 200 pages), and you can get a taste of it in a piece he wrote last week for The Guardian.

Walking with Wordsworth

William Wordsworth was born 250 years ago, on April 7, 1770. To mark the anniversary, I decided to get in early, and walk around Grasmere with the poet’s own guidebook to the Lake District. I went in October, as he recommended, and filed a piece to Telegraph Travel in February for publication in April. Thanks to Covid-19 and lockdown, publication was postponed, but the piece finally appeared in print at the weekend, when Dove Cottage, one of the poet’s former homes, reopened. You can now read it online.

  The picture is of the view from the summit of Loughrigg Fell, from where Wordsworth probably had his earliest glimpse of what would become his first real “abiding place”: Grasmere.

Win a copy of James Attlee’s ‘Isolarion’

When I key in the title of the latest book from James Attlee, the spell-checker built into my software corrects it. The spell-checker wants to make it Isolation. The proper title is Isolarion. It’s the term for a 15th-century map that isolates an area to present it in detail — and in that detail finds a greater truth.

Both the spell-checker and the book — which has just been reissued in a new edition by the innovative publisher And Other Stories — seem in tune with our strange times. At the moment, none us can roam as readily or as far as we used to. Some of us can’t leave home at all. Many of us are attending more closely to what’s immediately around us, and seeing it afresh — just as Attlee, like an urban Gilbert White, does in Isolarion.

White, a country boy who went to Oxford, became the founding father of nature writing partly by adjusting to his environment. He had become a priest and was tied to a Hampshire parish; he was missing his peers, but because coach travel made him sick he couldn’t stray far. Those constraints and tensions contributed to The Natural History of Selborne (1789). As Richard Mabey, that modern-day green man, has observed*, “While Joseph Banks was exploring on the other side of the globe, [White] was out with a lantern, counting earthworms on his back lawn. White’s achievements were partly the result of using these constraints as creative opportunities. Emotionally and intellectually, he hunkered down in Selborne, and joined the world outside through writing.”

Attlee does the same with Isolarion. When he wrote it he was itching to travel, but couldn’t find the time. There were “mouths to feed, bills to pay, deadlines to meet”. Then it dawned on him that the voyage he needed to make began a few minutes’ walk from his own front door in Oxford. Out there was the Cowley Road, lined with businesses that seemed to represent every nation on earth: from a Jamaican restaurant, via a Ghanaian fishmonger, to a Russian supermarket. As he puts it in his introduction, which you can read now on Deskbound Traveller, “Why make a journey to the other side of the world when the world has come to you?”

Attlee’s journey is allegorical as well as physical. His progress on the ground was interrupted by the demands of daily life, and his pages are full of the best kind of digressions — as Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, noted: “Anyone who can drag Lucretius, Susanna, Bathsheba and St Jerome into a Cowley Road porn shop deserves our attention and admiration.”

The new edition has an afterword by Geoff Dyer, who was equally impressed. He writes: “The fact that it’s a book about Oxford is off-putting (I mean, who gives a toss about Oxford?) and alluring in equal measure. If he could write about this city and make it compelling, wouldn’t that be a greater tribute to his authorial prowess than if he’d written about Mogadishu? The subtitle promises ‘a different Oxford journey’, one confining itself to the Cowley Road… The attraction, for Attlee, is that the Cowley Road ‘is both unique and nothing special’; the resulting book is unique and very special.”

Thanks to Attlee and his publisher, I have four copies of Isolarion to give away. To be in with a chance of winning one, just retweet my mention of the competition on Twitter from either @kerraway or @deskboundtravel, or like and share my post about it on

Terms and conditions
Entrants must retweet a mention of the competition on Twitter from @deskboundtravel or @kerraway, or like and share the post about it on the Deskbound Traveller Facebook page, by midnight on May 18. Each winner, who must be resident in the United Kingdom or Ireland, will receive one copy of the book. Winners will be selected at random and notified by May 22. Unsuccessful entrants will not be contacted. For more books from And Other Stories, see the company’s website.

*Mabey’s essay on White is included in a collection of his pieces reflecting on a life in writing: Turning the Boat for Home (Chatto & Windus).

Wordsworth, 250 years on


The summit of Loughrigg Fell, from which Wordsworth had an early glimpse of what would become his first real ‘abiding place’: Grasmere

In A Guide Through the District of the Lakes, William Wordsworth (born 250 years ago today) was firm on the best time to visit — and it wasn’t in summer. The colouring of mountains and woods then was “too unvaried a green”. The rain, “setting in sometimes at this period with a vigour, and continuing with a perseverance… may remind the disappointed and dejected traveller of those deluges… which fall among the Abyssinian mountains, for the annual supply of the Nile.”

  Autumn was much better: “The months of September and October (particularly October) are generally attended with much finer weather; and the scenery is then, beyond comparison, more diversified, more splendid, and beautiful…”

Wordsworth’s study at Rydal Mount

  I took his advice. Researching a piece for Telegraph Travel to mark the anniversary  of his birth, I wandered around Grasmere last October, guided by the prose writer rather than the poet. That piece has been shelved for now, lest it encourage others to go wandering at a time when we should all be staying indoors. I hope it will appear later. Meanwhile, I’d like to say thanks to all the people at Cumbria Tourism, Wordsworth Grasmere, Rydal Mount and Allan Bank who helped to arrange my trip and show me around, and to the Wordsworth Hotel & Spa, where I stayed.

  And thanks, of course, to Wordsworth. He died in 1850, but he’s a writer whose work is essential in 2020, when we earthlings — as scientists remind us almost daily — are making the weather on Planet Earth. After all, he was telling us, in the 1800s, that human intervention in the landscape must be “incorporated with and subservient to the powers and processes of Nature”.

Wainwright Prize submissions open

Writers and publishers were invited this morning to submit entries for the Wainwright Prize, for books on nature, the outdoors and UK travel. 

  The prize has been extended this year to include a second category to cover writing about global conservation and climate change. “The books in this category will reflect efforts in or studies relating to conservation or climate change as it affects nature and the outdoors. They should be narrative-driven and could be global in scope.”

To Cornwall, via Radio 4

Had to cancel a trip to Cornwall? Travel to Newlyn with Dark, Salt, Clear by Lamorna Ash (Bloomsbury), which is Book of the Week on Radio 4 from 9.45 this morning.