From building dens to skimming stones, Rob Cowen, who grew up near Ilkley Moor, is on a mission to get people to reconnect with nature.
When asked the question, “Where are you from?”, there is a tendency amongst Yorkshire folk to respond with the name of our county before our country. Even on foreign shores, “The North of England” is only begrudgingly added if further clarification is required.
It is an understandable pride; Yorkshire ingrains itself so completely in the soul it can seem country-sized, greater even than its vast sweeping scenery and ample borders. My earliest memories are of forging a physical connection with its wild spaces, climbing over dry-stone walls and out onto the vast expanse of Ilkley Moor.
It was an epic playground and at seven-years-old I knew the landscape near our house as well as I have known anything; the rough sandstone of the rocks, the taste of hidden fresh water springs, the slithering of grass snakes in the bracken fields and the unmistakable smell of the purple-black bilberries of late summer melting in the hot heather.
For many of us however, growing up and trying to carve a place in the world means submitting to the demands of modern life, letting the daily grind dictate our every move. In a largely urban existence, we forget the riches that lie around us, drawing the curtains against the call of the owl and cry of the fox, spending our rare breaks in carbon-copy resorts.
At home our experience of nature is filtered through laptop screens and HD TVs, our meals are shrink-wrapped and from around the globe, our daily movements via the climate- controlled cages of cars, buses and trains. If we do spend time in the outdoors, we march through it from A to B; we “do” a walk or “climb” a mountain, projecting goals onto the landscape rather than taking the time to really be in it. It is this unhealthy state of dislocation that Leo Critchley and I set out to redress in our new book, Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild.
As cell mates imprisoned by concrete and glass in a central London office, we found we shared a yearning for the open spaces of our childhoods and struck on an idea for a book of simple activities that would help all of us draw closer to, and connect with, the landscapes we evolved to exist in.
From tracking animals through a forest to making kites from bin bags and bamboo on a windswept beach, we wanted to share the techniques to activities that help us to really be in the wilds that lie outside our day-to-day lives. At the same time we explored the philosophical reasons why time spent doing these things in the outdoors so enriches our bodies and minds. So it was that we wound up hunting for fossils on a freezing morning in early February. Standing on a stretch of North Yorkshire’s Jurassic coast between Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby felt like stepping back in time; this sweep of sedimentary rock had been a favourite day trip when I was young and after travelling around Britain for the book, it was a joy to stand on the rugged coast of home again.
Winter is the perfect time for fossiling; the rougher seas, freezing temperatures and high winds crack the sedimentary rock and birth more finds, plus you often get the bonus of a beach to yourselves.
We moved alone through an amphitheatre of epic proportions, our eyes scanning the ground like prospectors in the California Gold Rush. Seagulls screamed around the vast, bulging bellies of shale cliffs towered above us. Beyond, a grey-brown sea disappeared into a misty cloud of the same colour. It seemed we had not only reached the end of the land, but the end of the earth itself. Soon enough we found it; a shard poked out slightly from the pebbles, dark blue-grey, about nine or ten centimetres in length and rounded like a stick of rock. With some gentle persuasion we liberated the “guard” part of a belemnite from the shale.
The internal skeleton of an ancient squid-like creature, it tapered to a point at one end, finishing flat at the other. Sitting amongst the wet rocks, our numb fingers traced the shape of a something that had lived and died at least 65 million years before our own evolution. Here we were, the first to lay eyes on it, to touch it.
Few things provide such an immediate antidote to the detachment felt by a sophisticated urbanite. To us it was as magical as if we’d liberated the Sword in the Stone. The next few hours seemed to pass in an instant as, rooting through the foreshore, we drew closer to a lost world. On our knees scrabbling through the pebbles with the sound of the waves thundering in the coves, we looked through different eyes.
In modern society we are conditioned to always be working towards the next goal, to demand instant gratification, but something as simple as uncovering prehistoric life on a beach forces us to confront the awesomeness of time.
Holding the remains of a living thing is an immediate and powerful reminder of the precariousness of our own existence. This is paradoxical; an excitement akin to discovering proof of life on a different planet coupled with a sobering reminder of the transitory nature of life on earth. There is a past so distant it is tempting to write it off as irrelevant, but investigating what it has left provides a sense of perspective on the present. Mundane materials become elevated to products of magnificent artifice and hold the capacity to transform our consciousness.
On one of our expeditions to the Scottish Highlands we set out on foot to negotiate the Knoydart Peninsula and spent a day fighting through patches of scratchy heather and sharp gorse. By mid-afternoon we knew we wouldn’t make it to the hamlet of Inverie, the only not to civilisation on the peninsula. Even worse, it was too late to turn back. The was only one option: to camp where we stood, on the only bit of flat ground around, next to a sandy bay. A mix of excitement and nervousness rose in our stomachs at the thought of sleeping somewhere so isolated.
We began idly throwing the odd pebble, but this quickly turned into something neither of us had done for a long time: skimming stones. Suddenly it didn’t seem such an unfamiliar world. With the tang of salt heavy on our tongues, and dirt under our nails, we started to see the terrain through different eyes. The following morning broke brightly with birdsong. A beach that we had initially been “trapped” on now displayed a very different aspect. By passing time in this place, we had shared in some of its nature.
How rarely we take the time to put our lives in perspective, against the vastness that went before us and the mortality to which we are all subject. Yet, far from meaning we should never strive to achieve anything, it can remind us that our time on this planet is short. Perhaps we should worry less about many of the concerns that fill our waking hours and try to prioritise things that really matter.
Such is the power of nature. When we immerse ourselves in it, slow down and take the time to look deeply into our landscapes, we invariably come away richer. We can find even more reasons to feel proud of living in this breathtaking county.
Skimming Stones and other ways of being in the wild, is published by Coronet, priced £14.99. To order through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. The book is out on February 16 and on the same day Rob Cowen will be a guest at the Yorkshire Post Literary Lunch. For more details call 07731 690163.
The fine art of skimming stones
All you need is a relatively calm stretch of shore and a smooth, flattish roundish stone measuring 5cm to 10cm in diameter and half a centimetre thick.
Hold it between the thumb and forefinger of your stronger hand.
Imagine you are going to post the stone through a letterbox, three metres off shore, angling your hand so the front of the stone is pointing slightly upwards.
Keep the throwing elbow close to the body and swing the stone from hip height, whipping the hand around and driving the skimmer in as straight a line as possible.
You may need a few attempts to perfect the art, but as they say, practice definitely makes perfect.