Wild and wonderful times outdoors that make a memorable childhood

Want to know how to spot a thrush or the best way to thread a conker? Sarah Freeman meets Mick Manning, a man on a mission to bring us closer to nature.

Every Sunday without fail, Mick Manning carries on a family tradition.

Growing up in Keighley in the 1960s, every weekend he and his father would set out on an adventure. Sometimes it took them north to Bolton Abbey or to Calderdale and Hardcastle Crags and on the days they didn’t fancy driving far, they would head instead to the top of Rivock Edge where they looked out across the moors.

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Mick, who went onto study natural history illustration at the Royal College of Art, is now in his 50s, but the hours he spent spotting woodpeckers or attempting to attract foxes with scraps kindly donated by the butcher on Haworth’s Main Street left a lasting impression and one he was determined to pass onto his own children.

“Every Sunday, whatever the weather, we would go for a walk and a picnic,” he says. “The ritual usually involved a car journey in my dad’s old VX 490, which was a kind of nature adventure in itself as from the back seat I soon learnt to identify the victims of roadkill from the fur, feathers and prickles left on the Tarmac.

“They were such happy times and I will always remember the day at Leashaw Reservoir when I saw my first redshank or the heron I spotted for the very first time at Wycoller Dean. My partner Brita had a similar experience growing up on a farm in Sweden, where she learnt to canoe and fish for perch to cook on a campfire.

“We both treasured those memories and when we had kids of our own we both wanted to our natural adventures to continue.

“After our first son, Max, was born it wasn’t long before we were pushing the pram along the beach and lifting it and its little occupant over barbed wire fences and stiles.”

Within a few years Max, who is now 14, had been joined by three other brothers, and Sunday afternoons continued to be set aside for the family’s boy’s own adventures.

“Our aim was to demystify the natural world,” says Mick, who together with Brita now writes and illustrates children’s books. The latest, Nature Adventure, is an attempt to curb what he calls the rise of nature starvation among the young. “We all march along; eyes and ears open to whatever comes our way, scrambling to explore rock pools or climbing trees.

“One day we discovered a 300- million year old fossil of a three metre predatory fish, which is now in the Great North Museum and there was another time when we returned from picking cloud berries in Lapland to find brown bear tracks superimposed on our own. It’s not every day you are stalked by a bear.”

While all this sounds impossibly idyllic, Mick insists that his brood are not quite the ginger beer- swilling Famous Five type. The Manning boys are often found glued to the X-Box and need gentle persuasion to get their homework done on time, it’s just that they can also tell a sycamore from a horse chestnut tree leaf and can identify a lapwing by its call.

“Of course our boys play computer games and watch television and they’re not obsessed with natural history, but they relate to it and they can identify common plants at a glance,” says Mick, whose collaboration with Brita has seen the publication of more than 60 books.

“Max now goes to drama classes and sometimes a rehearsal clashes with one of our weekend adventures. If it does, he misses it and I mean really misses it. I don’t know a child who doesn’t enjoy beachcombing or scrambling through woods, but so many don’t get an opportunity to experience the real outdoors.

“Our boys have had mucky hands, they’ve grazed their knees and torn their jumpers and the natural world has become part of their life. For me, Yorkshire was a brilliant place to grow up, but everyone’s home patch has its own charms, it’s just a matter of getting out there to explore what it is.”

Mick now lives in Northumberland, slightly further north than his home town, but writing Nature Adventure, which is part a guide to spotting wildlife and part activity book, brought back memories not just of his early travels with his father, but also his school days.

“I went to primary school in Keighley which had these very modern classrooms, so it was a bit of a culture shock when I moved up to a middle school in Haworth,” says Mick. “It was this great imposing Victorian building and the teachers looked like they had stepped out of a Charles Dickens novel, but it was also the most fantastic time of my life.

“Each classroom had a nature table and depending on the time of year it was either covered with autumn leaves or spring buds; whatever the month there were always owl pellets.

“Two of the teachers, Mrs Smith and Mr Sadler, would take us on nature walks and it was an education without any of us realising it. They would help us identify bird song by quoting a line from Browning, ‘That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over’ or when discussing weather lore might let fly with, ‘oak before the ash, we’re in for a splash’.

“Poets like Wordsworth, Walter de la Mare and Alfred Noyes were all recited by the teachers in a practical, everyday sort of way and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one for whom the words stuck.”

Mick reuses much of the poetry he learned from his teachers in Nature Adventure, which has been backed by The Wildlife Trusts, but he says he owes them an even greater debt.

“That school revealed the natural world as a fascinating and romantically wild place,” he says. “From the age of six I drew and wrote furiously; trying to portray the creatures I had seen. By nine I was exploring the surrounding moors, observing the living things that flapped, drummed and hooted. Sometimes I’d just lie on my back in the heather listening to the wild sounds.

“Children need to run around, they need to be outdoors, but a lot of families have either lost their connection to the natural world or never had one in the first place. We are incredibly lucky living where we do, but wildlife is everywhere. It’s possible to spot kingfishers in even the busiest city centres and wherever there is a green space, no matter how small, there is always something to see. It really is just a matter of getting out there and having a look.”

When it comes to the benefits of the great outdoors, Mick knows he verges on the evangelical, but he is genuinely saddened by the idea that there are children growing up today who will never learn how to thread a conker.

“It should be a rite of passage,” he says. “I’d spend hours choosing the best specimen and carefully boring a hole through the middle, but a lot of those simple childhood activities seem to be in danger of disappearing and I guess the book is an attempt in my own small way to keep them alive because what you experience in your childhood is something that will stay with you forever.

“Brita and I both like to think that if our boys have kids of their own, wherever they end up living they will carry on the tradition of nature adventures, interpreted I’m sure in their own sweet way.”

Until then Mick is going to make the most of those Sunday afternoons.

Nature Adventures, Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom, published by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, priced £12.99 is out today. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk