Nature experiences in the UK
Jini Reddy, author of a new book Wild Times, picks out a few of her favourite travel experiences in the UK that connect us with nature and provide a sense of place
The Ancient Coastal Paint Palette, North Yorkshire Coast In Britain, we’re evangelical about the joys of the seaside. But I reckon few of us can say we’ve experienced the coast in the spirit of our artistically inclined Neolithic ancestors. The earth, we seem to have forgotten, is an artist’s apothecary. But those who came before us understood this well: ochre was one of the first paints used by man. A 70,000-year-old ochre cave painting found in South Africa is thought to be the oldest work of art in the world.
The mineral and fossil-rich cliffs and foreshore on Staithes Beach, on the North Yorkshire Coast, are the place to head for a day spent harvesting the earth pigment and creating a natural paint palette. The beach fronts a fishing village, once teeming with seafaring heroes and boasting of an artistic tradition that dates back to the 1800s. Today many artists still live in the village, including Tricia Huchinson, who, together with her husband Sean Baxter, a local fisherman, co-hosts the days.
It starts with an exhilarating foreshore walk led by Sean to find and harvest the raw ochre pigment and ends with a session of prehistoric paint-making with Tricia round a headland on the beach at Port Mulgrave. Not only will she share her secrets, she (and Sean) will feed you to with a magnificent home-cooked seafood feast, featuring fresh lobster. The best bit? You absolutely don’t have to be Picasso to enjoy this: the day is all about the beach adventure and the slow enjoyment of the doing, not the end product.
Real Staithes offer the one-day Ancient Paint Palette Day including lunch, through the year, both on set group and bespoke dates. The closest train station to Staithes is Saltburn-by-the-sea about 20 minutes away, on the branch line from Darlington served by Northern Rail. Whilst in Staithes, stay at Roraima House (rooms from £85 per night), in the upper part of the village. With notice, the owner can pick you up from the station, or the no.4 bus passes nearby.
The Art of Horse Whispering, Dartmoor Wild herds or retired horses aside, rarely are horses allowed to roam freely and to live as a herd animal, as nature intended. By the same token, rarely do we get to spend time with horses without jumping into the saddle. Happily, hidden away on the edge of Dartmoor National Park, you can ‘join’ a herd and learn the compelling art of horse whispering. No riding skills needed, just a desire to connect with Harry, Arthur, William and Tristan, the handsome quartet who make the magic happen. Of course, they have a little help from their human companion, instructor Sue Blagburn, once a horse trainer and high-level competitor, trained in natural horsemanship. Connecting with horses in their natural environment is her passion and one she’s keen to share at her home at Middlestoke Farm, bordering Holne, a National Trust woodland.
So what happens exactly on a session or day-long ‘retreat’? Some gentle exercises and mindful time with the horses designed to help you tune into the equine mind in more instinctual ways as well as an opportunity to walk one of the herd round a ring without a rope, ‘in partnership’: perserverence and zen levels of calm can lead to some truly exhilarating moments. Sue also leads walks on Dartmoor with the horses. Adventures with Horses offer one-to-one sessions, small-group adventure days and weekends throughout the year.
Totnes is the nearest big town to Middle Stoke Farm, about 6km to the south east, served by Great Western Railway. From here you can take a taxi. Otherwise buses are available from Totnes station to Buckfastleigh (2.5km away) or Ashburton (3km away) with timetables and info on Traveline. From either town you can get a cab to Middle Stoke Farm. Try Ashburton Taxis (Tel: 01364 652423). Sue Blagburn can also arrange taxis to and from Totnes Station.
The Nature Quest A solo fast in the wild: I can’t think of a more raw, direct way to plunge headlong into nature. This is a traditional rite of passage within many indigenous cultures: you immerse yourself in the elements, without food – as fasting is said to sharpen the senses, though you drink water – and return filled with insight and a sense of wonder reignited. The promise of transformation under open skies has, for many, proven irresistible.
But how often do we get to venture forth in this way? Not very often, most of us would answer. Of course, this kind of experience needs proper guidance and preparation. In Britain, Way of Nature UK offer retreats that include supported solo time in nature. These escapes happen in locations that change from year to year so that founder-guides Adrian Kowal and Andres Roberts can keep things fresh.
I’d experienced longer nature quests in previous years in the Pyrenees and the Sinai desert (with other ventures) but the gentle three-day retreat I try on a wildlife-rich farm near Wiltshire’s Salisbury Plain with the pair, amidst a landscape of rolling hills valleys and megalithic stone circles strikes me as the perfect introduction: two nights group camping in a hawthorn copse, communal picnic feasts and reflective time spent exploring how we might deepen our relationship with the wild, followed by a 24-hour period of solo camping and fasting. Trust me: when you’re lying in a meadow with the sun beating down and you lose a sense of yourself as separate from the sky, the earth and the flowers around you, it’s all worthwhile.
Way of Nature UK host adventures around Britain and further afield, ranging from weekend to week-long excursions. The locations vary from year to year and aren’t always revisited.
A Full-Moon Meander, Suffolk A full moon, shining in a clear night sky. How often have you craned your neck for a glimpse when this celestial body is at its peak? The moon is undeniably compelling and magical. Yet rarely do even the most ardent of nature lovers among us set out on a walk at nightfall with the light of the moon to guide us. Which is a shame. For in the witching hours our perspective on the world changes: a familiar landscape becomes terra incognita, full of shadows, bumps, textures and unfamiliar sounds and smells. There is surely no better way to experience its poetry than on a full-moon hike.
To do this in good company, head to Suffolk. About 16km west of the beaches of Southwold and Walberswick, you’ll find the award-winning Ivy Grange Farm. Tranquil, eco-friendly and full of charm, this rural hideaway is the perfect retreat for low-impact glamping. Kim and Nick Hoare, the friendly couple who own and run the farm lead full-moon walks every month of the year. The route differs from month to month, although all hikes start within a 16km radius of the farm. Depending on the season, you could find yourself on a river, coastal, estuary, forest or heath walk – the one I went on was an 8km circular loop through Halesworth’s Millennium Green, a night of shape-shifting tree silhouettes, haunting tawny owl calls and silences as thick as molasses. Gentle meanders, rather than route marches, they last anything from two to three hours.
Kim and Nick Hoare lead the full moon walks all year round, in all weathers, free of charge. In season you can glamp in one of five comfortable yurts in the meadow (from £100 per night). Between November and March, two rooms, including an en-suite are available at the farmhouse to those joining the walk. £75 per night, including a light evening meal and breakfast, as well as lifts to and from Brampton train station. Brampton train station is on the Lowestoft line from Ipswich served by Abellio East Anglia.