Joe Cornish admits he initially turned down the project which eventually turned into his latest book. The original brief piqued one of his pet hates. It was, said the publisher, going to be a photographic top 100 of Britain’s best landscapes. “I can’t stand lists. These days everything seems to be reduced to a list. Most of the time they are completely meaningless and trivial. We seem to have developed an obsession with lists. When I was first approached about this book, I said no. I didn’t want to be involved in something which I saw as dumbing down an art form I love.”
Cornish apologies for the rant, but he’s clearly a man who knows his own mind. With the publisher left with little doubt about his thoughts on the project they went back to the drawing board. Numerous conversations with Roly Smith, the author of more than 60 books on walking and the countryside, followed and eventually the brief was changed and Cornish was on board.
“Instead of coming up with 100 places, which I thought was far too many and would simply turn the book into a catalogue, we agreed to collaborate on a more succinct list of places. Some of them are our own personal favourites, some we felt we just had to include and together I hope they show different aspects of the British Isles.”
The final selection took Cornish on a journey from the Scottish islands down through the Pennines and onwards towards Wales and the south of England.
“Most of the places I had been to before, but there is always something new to explore,” says Cornish of the finished book, which uses a mixture of new and a few archive images to tell the story of Britain’s geology. “There was a fabulous ridge walk in Wales and it’s always a pleasure to spend time in the north-west of Scotland, but this project also took me to some areas that I knew less well.
“The idea of the book was to explore different kinds of landscape and the section on woodlands was particularly interesting. The Back Forest in Staffordshire is an incredible place and offers the reader, I hope, something quite different.”
While Cornish was born in Exeter, he has lived in Yorkshire for more than 20 years and runs his own eponymous gallery in Northallerton. It was following a trip to Alaska in the early 1990s that he first became inspired by the world’s more remote and wild places. Since then he has produced a large number of travel books and has worked closely with the National Trust on several projects, but he admits that he doesn’t have to go far from his own doorstep to have his own imagination sparked. For This Land he managed to persuade Roly to include a number of Yorkshire locations, including the impressive limestone pavement at Malham. However, his next project has taken him further afield.
“I’ve been exploring the polar region, which is a fascinating place,” he says. “People imagine it’s incredibly difficult to get to, but actually it’s no more difficult than getting up to Scotland. The only way you can get there is on one of the tourist ships, so it’s all pretty simple. The only tricky thing is when you find yourself out in an inflatable trying to balance yourself and your equipment, but it really is an incredible landscape.
“That’s what’s really important. People often ask me if I have a favourite time of year to photograph, but I really don’t. And it probably should come as a surprise that if anyone asks me the top five places I’ve ever photographed, they get a pretty short answer.”
Roly Smith on a selection of This Land’s incredible landscapes
1. Suilven, early summer morning: According to Joe, if any of Scotland’s mountains can be classed as sacred it’s Suilven, that apparently inaccessible shark’s fin of a peak when seen from Lochinver or Elphin. The Gaelic name Sula Bhenin, comes from the Old Norse and means The Pillar, which is exactly what it would have looked like to the raiding Vikings as they cruised their longships along the western seaboard. It rises in splendid isolation from the lochan-spattered gneiss of the Inverpolly Nature reserve, “the most magical and still mysteriously beautiful of all Scotland’s lands,” he says. Its modest height, just under 2,400ft means that it doesn’t even qualify as a Munro, but in terms of its imposing presence, it’s a true giant.
2. Wastwater in summer: It used to be said that Wasdale was home to England’s highest mountain, deepest lake, smallest church and biggest liar. Certainly Scafell Pike, at 3,208ft, has no rival to its claim to be the highest point in England. And Wastwater is certainly the country’s deepest and many would say most beautiful lake... And the Church of St Olaf at Nether Wasdale is said to be the smallest in England. As for the liar… Will Ritson was the landlord of the Wastwater Hotel in the 19th century and was renowned for telling tall stories.
3. Castell y Gwynt, Glyder Fach, with Snowdon beyond: If there is anywhere in Britain where the forces of frost and ice left over from the last Ice Age are more apparent I have yet to find it. The whole of the summit is covered by a chaos of frost and splintered rock, culminating in the precariously balanced 70-ton slab of the Cantilever Stone and the bristling hedgehog spiked tour of Castell y Gwynt (the castle of the winds), truly a perfect fortress for the Snow Queen.
4 .View towards Swine’s Back from the Wookpacks, Kinder: The sculptor Henry Moore said the millstone grit tors that ring the moors were the model and inspiration for many of his works. “Not to look at and use nature in one’s work is unnatural to me. It’s been inspiration enough for two million years – how can it ever be exhausted?” The collection of smoothly rounded gritstone tors known as the Woolpacks on the southern edge of Kinder have been moulded by aeons of wind, rain, frost and ice. Equally strange rock formations punctuate Kinder’s other edges with names like Boxing Glove Stones, Druid’s Stones and the jumble of flat top ricks on Crookstone Out Moor, called, for reasons unknown, Madwoman’s Stone.
5 . The Green Knight, Lud: Deep in the woodland of Staffordshire’s Back Forest is a deep and mysterious mossy chasm, which used to be marked on an OS Map as Lud’s Church (cave). Mentioned in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, actually it’s not a cave, but a huge natural landslip in the gritstone. I remember my first visit in the 1970s. Perhaps because our heads were filled with Arthurian legend, as we were climbing out of the chasm we saw the unmistakable sight of the lantern-jawed, Desperate Dan profile of the helmeted Green Knight naturally outlined in the rocks – a sight many others, including Joe, have observed since.
6. Limestone and pavement lynchets, Malham Cove: It was while visiting Malham Tarn House in 1858 that Charles Kingsley was inspired to write the Victorian children’s novel The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby. Malham Cove is believed to be his inspiration for Lewthwaite Crag, which Tom, the fugitive chimney sweep descends “by stock and stone, sedge and ledge, bush and rush”. He dirties everything terribly, leaving a great black smudge all down the crag. Kingsley may have got the idea for this from the dark patches of lichen which decorate the pearly-grey limestone of the cave to which rock climbers now cling like human flies.
• This Land with photographs by Joe Cornish and words by Roly Smith is published by Frances Lincoln priced £30.