Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.’ This quote from the 1980s movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off feels very fitting in the first half of 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced many of us to stop and look around, literally and metaphorically. Lockdown has seen flights grounded and trains cancelled. Open spaces, from local playgrounds to national parks, have been shut or declared out of bounds.
The original hope for this edition was to follow a Discovering Britain trail in Scotland. For obvious reasons this soon became impossible. Leaving my home south of London to go for a short walk in Argyle and Bute could hardly be considered essential travel. Beyond practical challenges, such as safety and accessibility, there were ethical ones. Was it still fair or even responsible to write about going outdoors?
We can still explore the outdoors from the safety of home. If travel broadens the mind, virtual travel can too. Reading about places elsewhere can bring hills to our halls, lakes to our living rooms, beaches to our bedside. The Discovering Britain website is an ideal library to delve into. The walks and trails can be followed on screen as much as in the field. Caroline Millar, Discovering Britain project manager, describes them as ‘routes for your head as well as your feet’. So taking Ferris Bueller’s advice, I stopped and looked.
My journey began on the north Welsh coast. Llandudno is the largest seaside resort in Wales and recently made headlines around the world. While people stayed indoors during lockdown, the town’s streets echoed with the clip-clop of hooves. A local herd of Kashmiri goats had gathered en masse. Footage of them walking on walls and munching garden hedges gave the media a field day, with reports of ‘ram raiders’ seeking ‘herd immunity’. These four-legged visitors also told another tale.
Llandudno is often referred to as ‘the Queen of Welsh Resorts’. Fittingly so, as the town’s goats came from Queen Victoria. The goats usually live on the neighbouring Great Orme, a 200-metre limestone headland whose steep cliffs provide them with an ideal home. The current 200-strong herd is thought to originate from a pair gifted to Queen Victoria by the Shah of Persia. The Queen later gave these two goats to Lord Mostyn, the wealthy landowner who developed Llandundo in the 1850s.
A Discovering Britain walk traces Llandudno’s origins in more detail by visiting town landmarks. Reading it felt rather poignant as our family had recently booked a summer holiday there. Other Discovering Britain routes have also gained new resonances. Ahead of the long Easter weekend authorities declared ‘the Lake District is closed’. For the first time ever, all the car parks, visitor centres and public rights of way were shut. Several Discovering Britain activities explore the Lake District’s open spaces and the ways in which they have inspired people.
In Borrowdale, a walk examines how the Lakes appeal to artists. Virtual visitors can still enjoy the route. Alongside the text, a range of landscape paintings reveal where the area has changed or stayed the same over time (and when painters used some artistic licence). The Lakes are also a favourite spot for writers. Poet William Wordsworth declared Rydal Water to be ‘the loveliest spot that man hath ever found’. From rocks to rivers, a trail explores the natural features he enjoyed.
We’ll have to wait before we can follow in the footsteps of these painters and poets again. But some roads were already less-travelled. A short trail at Pooley Bridge near Ullswater takes in what is probably Britain’s quietest high street. The ‘High Street’ on Divock Moor is a Roman road. Two thousand years ago it linked a pair of forts at Ambleside and Penrith. When the Romans left Britain, the forts and road were abandoned. The Pooley Bridge trail is a reminder that deserted high streets aren’t a recent phenomenon.
Other routes explore abandoned settlements. The Bedfordshire village of Bromham is listed in the Domesday Survey. With its cricket green and thatched cottages, it seems a typical Home Counties pastoral retreat. Bromham has been described as ‘an insignificant parish’ yet it has a surprising past. The parish church stands apart from the rest of the village, surrounded by open parkland. Its location reveals that the original medieval Bromham was destroyed and a completely new village rebuilt nearby.
The Bromham walk is one of many where uncovering clues reveals the story of a place. Millar often refers to the process of ‘being a landscape detective’. It’s tempting to see the website as a collection of detective stories, or pieces making up a jigsaw puzzle. The idea is especially appealing in these uncertain times. In a detective story, solving the mystery restores order from chaos, with all the questions answered.
A major concern throughout the pandemic has been access to food. Panic buying and empty shelves were an early indicator of frailties in our supply chains. Labour shortages threaten to leave farm crops unpicked while import disruptions have affected choice and prices. ‘Growing your own’ has become increasingly attractive. Besides food, gardens and allotments provide physical and mental exercise.
These topics emerge in a walk around St Anns Allotments. This 75-acre site in Nottingham was laid out in the 1830s. The individual plots were originally a series of leisure gardens where wealthy Victorians could enjoy ‘Peace, Pleasure, and Privacy’. By the Second World War, and the Government’s ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, the area had become more working-class. The allotments were a vital source of food and fresh air. St Anns Allotments are now Grade II* listed and maintained by a tenant-run charity. The charity works closely with community groups and helped prevent the site being developed into housing.
Another fascinating example of people and their produce is the ‘edible walk’ in Hackney, north London. The route weaves through a mix of inner-city spaces, from parks to housing estates, and explores how they are (or aren’t) being used for growing food. The walk was created by beekeeper Mikey Tomkins. Tomkins explains, ‘It’s time to change the way we think about food. As most of us live in cities we should think more about urban gardening.’ Surprises along the way include a forest garden and a city farm, complete with goats.
This small selection of walks and trails is only a taster from the Discovering Britain menu. Looking through the website, many of the activities stir happy memories of places I’ve visited before. Others offer fresh inspiration for places to visit next. We will need to wait a little longer before we can enjoy the great outdoors again. To put things in perspective though, Britain’s landscapes have formed over millions of years. When we get our next day in the sun, they will still be there. Then as Ferris Bueller also says, ‘The question isn’t “What are we going to do?” it’s “What aren’t we going to do?”’
Safe journeys everyone.