A ‘brilliant book’: The Huffington Post joins the call of the wild

We often receive requests to try to boil down the activities in our book into bite-sized bits of information. The difficulty is that this is somewhat at odds with the ethos of ‘Skimming Stones‘, which was written to get across the value of the slow learning of these skills in the great outdoors; the pleasure and rich rewards of slowing down, taking our time to do certain activities and allowing ourselves to really be in nature.

However, when the mighty news site The Huffington Post called, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse. They wanted to provide ten things that might get people out and into nature this Easter, especially young people that might otherwise be tucked up around a TV or games console. Now we have nothing against games consoles, indeed we have both owned and enjoyed a few in our time, but it is a question of balance. Recent research states that fewer then 10 per cent of children in the UK play in natural spaces and ninety per cent of Britons live in an urban environment with most never taking or finding the time to be in the outdoors. This despite evidence that spending time outside raises levels of Vitamin D, helping protect children from future bone problems, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues; nature improves distance vision and lowers the chance of nearsightedness; exposure to natural settings is widely effective in reducing ADHD symptoms; exposure to environment-based education significantly increases performance on tests of critical thinking skills; our stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces and nature enhances social interactions, vital for community and relationships.

So we decided we would put our best editing hats on and summarise ten of the activities in the book with the aid of our illustrations. Here’s hoping people are inspired to try them out and take their kids along to have a go too. You can read the feature by clicking the image below. Please share it, then get outside and enjoy the sun!


 – Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Listen for the real twitterati

Our latest column in The Independent is out and this month it’s all about the splendour of birdsong, plus a few suggestions for places where you can catch the dawn chorus line in full voice. Hop on over via the link below and see what we’re chirping on about.


Live for the outdoors: the beauty of birdsong

The fantastic website www.livefortheoutdoors.com has been a source of inspiration to us for many years. It is responsible for many of our wild camping exploits (although they are careful not to encourage it!) and is the encyclopaedic online presence for magazine titles ‘Trail’ and ‘Country Walking’. It was lovely to read this morning that they have posted a little review of Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild:

It somehow manages to say something about nature that the rest of us can’t. Yes, there is a practical side to it, but there’s also a philosophical message that comes through as well. A great book for anyone who loves nature and wants to get more in touch with the great outdoors.

March is a phoenomenal time to wander outside into any of the rural spaces that exist around us and I urge everyone to take advantage of the brighter mornings and longer evenings. You don’t need to plan trips to our stunning fells or sweeping coastline; in parks and gardens and any rough scrap of land with vegetation and trees, we find nature stretching its limbs after the long sleep of winter; the bursting forth of green leaves and fleshy, furry buds. Slow down. Stop, look and listen.

Birdsong becomes a powerful and peaceful morning wake-up call through our bedroom curtains even in towns and cities as winter migrants return from international tours and battle it our for territory. It’s nature’s X-Factor, only far more impressive and tuneful – the humble wren sings a song that contains 740 different notes per minute and which can be heard more than 500 metres away. All too often we take such things for granted, yet they are enchanting to stand and listen to. Learning to identify the differences between birds is rewarding work; birdsong has been proven to improve our mood and enhance cognitive abilities.

We should learn to value the fringes of our towns and cities where such wonders take place, the forgotten lanes and stands of trees, the scrappy rough ground behind the buildings, the places were urban and rural meet. These are hidden worlds filled with nature, playgrounds for young people and places to just be. But they are also the places at risk if the current planning legislation is passed. For my thoughts on the matter, you can read my guest blog for the National Trust. I believe we must protect and celebrate such spaces, improve our access to them and ensure that nature has a free hand to flourish. We should all live a little more for the outdoors.

  – Rob –

 Drawing of a robin


How to write a book and an album in one year

Christmas came early for me in 2010. I emerged from Kentish Town underground into falling snow and my leg buzzed into life with answer phone messages from a literary agent and a record label. I learnt in quick succession that in little over a year I would be having a book published and an album released. What’s more, they wouldn’t just be coming out in the same year and the same month, but in the same week.

I broke the news to Leo, as well as the rest of my band, before heading to the pub to celebrate. Looking back, I probably should have been more worried about the challenge that lay ahead. After all, although the book had been planned out and written up into a proposal, only the first chapter was actually finished. Although some songs were recorded, I wanted the album to be a coherent and progressive piece of work. An album of the old school vein, it had to span a whole raft of themes, not just be a collection of tunes.

As you would imagine from its title, writing Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild required a lot of time spent outdoors. The book is about the simple things that we can all try that help us draw closer to, and reconnect with, nature; the importance of being, in every sense of that word, in the wild. It was going to be an amazing journey; a year of carving elder whistles in far-flung corners of woodland, building igloos on snow-topped mountains, sleeping in leaf shelters and cooking up on campfires under a clear canopy of stars. What it could not be was rushed.

Leo and I circled the days we would be travelling and writing. The few windows left for creating and recording an album seemed too few; they would need to feature nose-to-the-grindstone songwriting and studio time. It was hardly the Rolling Stones-style ‘year-on-a-Caribbean-beach-polishing-off-chord-sequences-with-a-pina-colada’ I had imagined.

So, how do you write a book and album in a year? Well they say if you want a job doing, give it to a busy man. In my favour, I have always written words and music simultaneously. I see no real difference in the creative process of either. Some ideas turn out to be a nice paragraph, others fit perfectly with a chord sequence. I am drawn to writers whose lines seem musical too; Roger Deakin’s nature writing, Dylan Thomas’ prose, Kerouac’s jazz-like rambles. Similarly, I have always been a lyrics man and it is the more narrative musicians that affect me most. I was also lucky that I was working with Leo and the boys in the band – all stagger me with their talent and ability to realise a vision.

It was last February, that Leo and I bundled out of London to track animals in through the snow and mud of wintry West Wales. We were soon following a fox’s prints into a dark wood. Holed up and waiting for its return as night fell seemed unnatural and unnerving. We talked in hushed whispers about things neither of us had discussed with each other before, our childhoods, growing up. Over those first few weeks writing we came back to the point time and again, that as we look more closely into the land we invariably look more closely into ourselves. It was something that would become a defining element to the book. It became more reflective, more philosophical. As well as imparting the techniques for the simple things that draw us closer to nature, we were writing about its impact on us too, the benefits of birdsong on the human brain or how finding a fossil can bring a unique and important perspective on our own life and death.

This changed my songwriting too. It became rawer, as honest as I could stand to make it, exploring something of what it is to be alive in Britain today. One night I watched a video of that punk pioneer Malcolm McLaren railing against what he saw as the burgeoning ‘karaoke culture’ and calling for people to be true to themselves, to create. This struck a chord with me. I started thinking of songwriting as a process indistinct from chopping wood; it has to have our sinews, sweat and tears.

As I wrote, surprising crossovers between the book and album began emerging. Leo and I had found a unified voice easily and we were writing of the change that occurs when we take the time to leave the urban and walk out into the wild. These are experiences that can be heard on the album too; as we spent days doing things I had last done as a boy, I remembered things from my childhood I had thought forgotten. This gave rise to songs like ‘Sleeping in the Woods’ and ‘The Fire’: “Somehow I felt peaceful there, flames licking up the cool, night air. Wind whispering through the telegraph wire, singing to the fire.”

In finding the voice for the book, I had stumbled on my songwriting voice too, a voice I’d been chasing down and trying to perfect for nearly twenty years.

The rest of the band began to expect something new to learn every time we rehearsed. We had hit a rich seam and it soon became clear that we were really recording a double album: side one the full-band, epic-folk sound of a Saturday night, that feeling that no matter who you are, where you live or what job you do, the world is yours. Side two, the Sunday morning, was a dark dawn. The same things but viewed from the other side; faith, hope, love in the cold light of day. It was something we could all relate to. The characters were drawn from reality, people trying to make something for themselves, sometimes soaring, and sometimes falling.

It strikes me now that the book and the album are about the same thing: learning to live in the place we find ourselves, both physically and mentally. Creating them at the same time meant each had a profound influence on the other; this gave me a new way of writing. Perhaps, ultimately, it was the making of both.

  – Rob – Drawing of a robin

Paws for thought

Our monthly column in the Independent starts again today after a hiatus to allow us to finish writing the book, which came out on Thursday. Click the link below to read the feature and learn a bit about tracking wildlife around you. What animals frequent your street, garden or nearest wood and fields?

I understand it’s easy to track the Hollywood star, Will Smith. You just scan the area and look for Fresh Prince…


A busy week and a bit of press

If you picked up yesterday’s Yorkshire Post, you may have noticed the lead feature was entitled ‘Rediscover the wild world around you for some perspective on modern life‘, an insightful and fascinating article that really tapped into the main arguments of our book. The author? One Rob Cowen. Guilty.

For those of you not in the know, the Yorkshire Post is rightly regarded as Yorkshire’s ‘national newspaper’ and the feature, and accompanying images of Leo and I looking fresh-faced and fancy free on the stretch of Jurassic coast running between Robin Hood’s Bay and Staithes, will hopefully help to highlight the importance of reconnecting with nature to the lucky residents of the UK’s largest county.

This heralds the start of a busy week ahead of us. Over the next few days we will be undertaking all manner of promotional and press work as the book finally hits the shelves (wooden, metal and virtual) on Thursday. On the same day, I will be taking to the stage to present to the Yorkshire Post Literary Luncheon; a fine tradition of speeches given by incredible authors such as Pam Ayers and Michael Dobbs, it is also a platform for terrified first-timers like myself.

Then Saturday sees the rekindling of our monthly column in The Independent, starting with the ideal activity to help you slow down and reconnect with the fields and forests: animal tracking. We spent a fantastic day last February tracking a fox through a wood in Wales, waiting up as darkness fell to see his return. He was wolf-like in his wildness, a thick-maned manifestation of the dark wood itself; a very different experience to encountering the more  urbanised Reynard, as this image of one queueing for a cash machine (courtesy of @Alsboy) shows!

We are then appearing on BBC2’s The Culture Show, which airs on Saturday evening at 6pm. Viewers will get to see us skimming stones and building dens with presenter, Andrew Graham-Dixon as he attempts to get to the heart of the book and understand why slowing down and undertaking simple activities in nature is so beneficial to us.

Please watch/read/enjoy and let us know what you think!

 – Rob – Drawing of a robin

The Joy of Snow: a reconnecting experience

Marcel Proust once wrote that “a change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves”. He was right; nothing changes our group consciousness so entirely and immediately like the weather.

Yesterday, as snow started to fall across most of the UK, there was a tangible shift in people’s mood for the better. I watched as men abandoned the usual arm’s length distance we all tend to keep each other and helped to manoever wheel-spinning cars, or run to steady someone as they slipped in the drifting white stuff. Sledges came out, kids squealed in delight and adults abandoned their plans for the day, dressed up warm and went outside to play.

Snow reconnects us with nature in a profound way; it reignites our love for the outdoors. We want to be outside, to enjoy it. We carve snow into primitive sculptures, we build temporary shelters from it, we read the symbols wildlife leaves in it. We all become craftsmen, artists, trackers, warriors. But this is the mindset with which we should always approach nature. Regardless of season and weather, we belong in nature; it creates a physical and mental transformation in us. We go out in one frame of mind but always return richer.

The simple joy of catching snowflakes in your mouth!

Having started a walk as the first flakes fell, Rosie and I were lucky enough to have a front row seat as the landscape changed. A veil of grey descended and the soft fall floated down in silence. Bare oak boughs by the river seemed weighed down with the white; all became beautiful, painting-like. Snow has that levelling effect. It levels us too. We become closer to nature and closer to our real nature as a sociable animal, evolved to draw pleasure from our surroundings.

Perhaps we should all remember the joy of snow and aim to always view our landscapes as if a fresh covering of had just fallen.

 – Rob – Drawing of a robin

Prints in the pinewoods

This week involved a trip so brief, bizarre and beautiful it seemed almost dreamlike. I was asked to write a feature for Crufts Magazine that required I spent 24 hours in deepest, darkest Scotland in the company of a couple of dog sled racers and their thirty Siberian huskies.

The journey north was fairly arduous and involved an evening train ride to Edinburgh before I hired a car and navigated the hour and a half through driving snow to a remote area of Perthshire. The final miles were in complete darkness with just the snowfall and black sky. As the Scots pine closed in around the single track road, Highland cattle wandered across casually out of the trees, their caramel, shaggy coats with a fresh crust of white.

The accommodation was basic (a cabin) and cold, but the welcome from owners John and Mary warm and whisky fuelled. At dawn we were up to see a copper and duck-egg blue sunrise glowing over the white landscape and dark tree tops.

The husky racing was thrilling to behold and I have never seen animals happier; it is as if running with a sled somehow scratches an itch that would otherwise drive huskies mad. After an hour or two watching these furry athletes accelerating into the trees, my gaze was drawn to the snow beside the trails. Near the dogs’ unmistakable prints, I noticed other tracks. Rabbits had been lolling through the snow and, close by, another dog-like animal had taken a keen interest.

Fox prints in the snow. Note the clear space between front and side pads.

Joined by John and Mary’s toddlers, I followed the fox tracks up and into the thick Scots pine. A carpet of pine needles was disrupted in places by roe deer tracks and we started to see the mini motorways used by the animals that call the woods home. Footprints, chewed stems, pine cones nibbled by the red squirrels; the joy of animal tracking is piecing together the stories that unfold in such places. By taking the time to walk away from the usual trails, slow down and read the ground around us, we enter into a new way of looking and relating to the landscape.

Once they had learnt what each was, it was lovely to see the kids picking out the prints for ‘Mr. Fox’. In our chapter on animal tracking in the book, we discuss how tracking elicits a physiological as well as psychological change, one that brings us closer to every landscape. We connect on another level, down amongst the leaves. Perhaps at the heart of this ancient art is this sense of ‘becoming’ with the landscape and its inhabitants. Their natural inquisitiveness sparked off a wonderful creativity. They told me about their favourite ‘rooms’ in the woods and where they met ‘the leprechauns’ for dinner. I asked what other creatures they’d met in the woods and their answer stopped me in my tracks: ‘big cats’.

I studied the snow and mud even more intently as we drifted back to the husky trails. A noise from the hill behind and John came whizzing past with a dog team of six, the huskies bounding en masse in perfect synchronicity, ears pinned back, tongues wagging. Later, over tea, John and I talked about his children’s wonderful playground and I related the beauty of their imaginary worlds, mentioning the stories of big cats. “Ah.” said John. “That bit wasn’t a story.”

– Rob –
Drawing of a robin

Hockney and nature’s canvas

There was a beautiful and revealing interview with David Hockney on Radio 4 over Christmas, which I have only just had the chance to listen to. It was in honour of his forthcoming exhibition A Bigger Picture, the vivid reflections of the East Yorkshire landscape he grew up amongst and has spent the last two years absorbed in. He even relocated from California to Bridlington to complete the project.

As Andrew Marr and Hockney walked the muddy tracks through the trees they discussed the powerful influence of the land over the artist. Most interestingly, the way Hockney felt an intense connection to nature that developed during the project. He has been returning to paint, photograph and sketch the same spot with an obsessive regularity, out in all weathers to try to capture the essence of the place by being present in the myriad variants of weather and light that happen at different times of the day and the season.

Hockney’s ‘excuse’ for being out in nature is the paintbrush, but it could have been anything – carving an elder whistle, making a fishing float from a feather, tracking the prints of animals. The point is that his activity rooted him utterly into the place. This is also a defining principle of our book, Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild; it is physically and mentally rewarding to look deeply into nature. It’s not just how many peaks we cover, but how well we cover them. Time spent returning to the same a hill, fishing the same bank of a river or revisiting a wood to sleep in DIY debris den familiarises us so completely with that patch of earth that we can’t fail to feel linked to the greater rhythms of nature and feel a sense of belonging.

As Hockney notes in the interview, “In April for six weeks the landscape changes daily.” He became attuned to the variants and noted how even the same metre of earth can change radically from dawn to dusk. Hockney even started to relearn the names of plants like the wild carrot or ‘Queen Anne’s Lace’ so he knew what he was painting. This prompted in him a deeper way of looking, a sense of scale and understanding of how the miniature landscape constitutes the whole.

In the final chapter (on wild walking) in our book, we set up a tent on the summit of Haystacks after many hours of fell climbing. All day we had been taking in grand vistas and sweeping views of the Lakeland hills, but had also been using natural navigation techniques to determine our bearing: reading the rings on tree stumps, employing the tree-tick principle as a rudimentary compass. This had forced us to look more closely at every aspect of the fells and as we sat with our legs aching in this lofty perch we naturally took in the details all around us.

A few metres before us lay a small stretch of water that mirrored the same colours of the setting sun as Buttermere hundreds of feet below. The heather, twisted and green seemed like a Bonsai forest and the meadow pipits that picked about it, giant winged dinosaurs. We both watched the scene unfurling above the clouds in quiet absorption, the sky framing the stage with changing backdrops of golden, duck-egg blue and pink washes. It was a living landscape painting played out on nature’s ever-changing canvas.

– Rob –
Drawing of a robin

Truffle hunting: treasure in France

Having picked and eaten wild mushrooms and fungi of various kinds in the UK, there has always been one that has intrigued me by its rarity and reputation: the truffle. It’s a mysterious fungus and one I have never really eaten aside from the usual infusions in oil or salami that crop up in delis. The Italians describe its legendarily permeating odour as ‘gas’ and it certainly has a whiff of a faulty cooker, yet people seem to become obsessive devotees to its unique flavour. Certain areas of France go so crazy for the ‘black diamond’ they even hold a Mass in its honour, swapping the ‘corpus Christi’ wafer for a slice of the stuff.

One of the joys of writing travel features is the potential for adventures to fall into your lap and I jumped at the offer from The Independent to make a trip down to Provence to find the region’s number one winter wonder.

My lovely B&B, ‘Les Ursulines’, was hunkered down amongst the vines a few miles outside Valreas. Passing through the subdued lavender avenues and vineyards now stripped of their fruit, it looked a different region to the lush green and purple place made famous in Peter Mayle’s book, A Year in Provence. If an interior designer were to describe the Vaucluse department in December they would probably give it a name like ‘beautiful/industrial’, for every inch of earthy field is apportioned to profit. Winter is the land’s grand exhale after the harvesting storm. The ground looked exhausted and vines sat exposed, their spines twisted in neat rows, only occasionally fringed with the odd russet, brown and red leaf blowing in the surprisingly warm air.

There was still wildness. Mountains dominated the horizon and Mt Ventoux lay like a pile of black grapes ready for pressing under the blue sky. Closer by were the sporadic stands of trees. To the untrained eye these may seem unusual amongst the vines, a waste of space for a place where every square foot is cultivated for a purpose. These aren’t the cypresses planted to provide windbreaks against the famous ‘Mistral’, but rather two types of oak – green and white – larders for the farmers’ winter harvest.

Jean-Pierre, the owner of the B&B, was to be my truffle guide. Unfortunately he spoke no English. Nor did his wife. Despite the best efforts of author Joanne Harris in her previous life as a French teacher, my GCSE-level French is woefully inadequate when trying to pick up the intricacies of the fruiting process of Tuber melanosporum. This added an air of excitement and confusion, but also proved the point that much in conversation is body language.

Jean-Pierre gestured to his car. I got in. Within a minute we were tearing up dust on a little road through the vines and pulling up at an old farmhouse. Men huddled together through the arch smoking and eyeing us suspiciously. Handshakes were exchanged and one begrudgingly went inside. After a moment, he returned with bespectacled man in a beat-up army jacket and a dog on a length of rope. This was Jacques and Diane, neither of who spoke any English either.

I followed Jacques to his lines of oak. The earth was soft, perfect for prints, and as he guided his faithful hound through the trees, my eyes were drawn down for a spot of impromptu animal tracking. Diane’s prints were everywhere but in patches close to denser vegetation, other pig-like impressions littered the ground. I had my suspicions. ‘Sanglier,’ Jean-Pierre confirmed before making the sign for a rifle, ‘bang bang, very nice.’

Soon Diane was earning her keep, scrabbling a few layers of ground away before Jacques called her away. I bent down beside him and was hit by the pungent smell. The very soil was impregnated with it. I helped Jacques ‘clod’ the ground and then break it up by hand until I saw it; black, bobbly and about the size of an egg.

The reverence in which the black truffle is held was clear. We stood in silence, possibly due to our lack of a common language, but mostly because of the power of this delicacy. The hunt continued until we had filled a small sackcloth bag.

On the market a black truffle of the sizes we were uncovering may be worth up to £40 each. Sometimes more. There is no question of their value and part of their mystery is that there is no exact science to their cultivation. Impregnated oaks may take ten years to start ‘truffling’ and even then, there is no guarantee. I began to see why people are so insular about them in this area; they are a tax free high-value commodity found in the ground that can make a man rich over a season.

We returned under to the B&B under a purpling sky. In my pocket was a gift from Jacques, a perfect specimen that, even when wrapped in two layers of foil and inside a sealed jam jar in a fridge, still stank out the room. Best served simply, we cooked paper-thin slices of truffle with scrambled egg and served it with wilted chard. The taste was incomparable. Nothing else has the same flavour, a pleasant savoury ‘umami’ as the Japanese class it.

As I returned to England my eyes scanned the fields and forests around the train tracks wondering if any held white truffles, the British edible truffle. To hunt these, it is best to look for areas of disturbed earth, bumps in the forest floor or any line of ants disappearing into a mound. I knew I’d never scan a woodland floor without imagining these subterranean hidden treasures. My clothes still smelt of the fungus and I could close my eyes and imagine its taste; I had become acclimatized.

– Rob –
Drawing of a robin