What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
- Inversnaid' by Gerard Manley Hopkins
For as long as I can remember, I have found myself drawn to Britain's most remote places. Wild and sparsely populated pockets where the sky is vast and the landscape unfolds to reach the long, unbroken line of the horizon. I grew up in Derbyshire where the Peak District was my local wilderness the great gritstone edges of Stanage and Curbar and the three-mile meandering Dovedale Valley, with its ancient ash woods. I've always loved the stillness, the peace, the almost primitive feel of these environments. Over the years, my dad's obsession with islands what the writer Lawrence Durrell rather charmingly described as islomania rubbed off on me, and I set out further afield to the Orkneys and the Scottish Isles of Gigha, Isla, Lewis and Harris. I felt a thrill in being surrounded by the sea on a little mass of land that, against all the elemental odds, remained standing.
Six years ago, I visited St Kilda, a craggy, isolated archipelago 100-miles off the west coast of Scotland. Apart from summer scientists and those working at the island's military base, it has been uninhabited since 1930, when its 36 ageing islanders voted to leave for a more sustainable life on the mainland. Today, it is home to Britain's largest colonies of gannets and puffins, as well as hundreds of wild Soay sheep a breed so adapted to a lack of human intervention that they naturally shed their wool in the spring, leaving great clumps of it dotted around the island.
After two days sailing across the unforgiving Atlantic, we arrived at about four in the morning when the light just allowed us to make out its jagged outline, rising out of the blue-black ocean into the vast night sky. A few hours later, we made the most of a gap in the weather and landed on the main island, Hirta. Conachair, the island's peak and the site of Britain's highest sea cliffs, looms over a semicircle of abandoned old stone houses. While humans have had to leave, the resilient mass has remained defiantly intact on this bracing island with expansive skies and an equally vast ocean lapping its edges.
Although Britain has an average of over 700 people per square mile, a road network that's 246,000 miles long and countless other human developments that threaten the future of our wild places, these areas of outstanding natural beauty remain fiercely protected. Their importance to our country is unquestionable, but they also play a precious role in keeping us sane. It's a point that the American novelist Wallace Stegner made in 1960, when he wrote an impassioned letter to the US Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, pushing for the preservation of wild places. We simply need wild country available to us even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, as part of the geography of hope, he argued. Of course, the scale of wilderness in America is monumental compared to Britain, but the sentiment still stands.
Walking, or even driving, through Glen Coe, or climbing up Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons leaves me feeling wonderfully small. These places are humbling: a sort of gentle reminder that as humans we are tiny cogs that fit into a much bigger picture. The physical openness of these environments leads to an openness of mind: a chance to breathe, to momentarily ignore the messiness of human life.
Over the past few months when travel has been limited, I have craved to go to the wildest places I know Beinn Alligin in the Highlands, Dartmoor, the Penwith coast in Cornwall. Just knowing they are still there is a comfort, but I dream of inhaling the fresh air of the open country and experiencing the mental clarity that goes with it. Between lockdowns, we managed to get up to the Isle of Arran and Argyll and Bute, where we spent a couple of weeks walking without a particular agenda. We made a trip to the southwestern tip of the Kintyre peninsula to the lighthouse a man-made structure, but an environment so remote it was very easy to forget that. The route undulates along a winding single track road, with great swathes of bracken hemming it in. At the lighthouse, we looked out to sea, across to County Antrim and Rathlin Island. I was struck by the sheer silence.
Elements of wilderness also exist within the tamed and cultivated, even where we live in North London. It's something that writer Robert Macfarlane eloquently makes a case for in The Wild Places (2007), which chronicles his journey through Britain's remaining wilderness and champions what he terms edgelands. Wilderness, he writes, is weaved with the human world, rather than existing in only cleaved-off areas, in National Parks and on distant peninsulas and peaks. Although an obvious example, Hampstead Heath is our wildest local spot, spreading over 790 acres, with staggering oaks, great stretches of grass and over 30 spring-fed ponds. At weekends it can feel as if London's nine million inhabitants have all decamped there, but it still retains a wonderful open, unfettered feel.
When I run in the mornings, I find myself gravitating off the paths to the muddiest route as if it will take me, just momentarily, to a wilder place. The other morning I got caught in a downpour and for a few moments I felt fantastically intrepid, even with the lights of London just over the brow. I returned soaked to the skin and splattered in mud, but smiling all the more for it. Sometimes I bring back twigs and flowers, collected from the ground as reminders especially when I'm sitting at my desk that the wild is still out there. Wilderness, even when it's hemmed in, is simply balm for the soul.
Words and images by Elizabeth Metcalfe.
Elizabeth Metcalfe is the Deputy Features Editor at House & Garden Magazine.