Camp Bestival 2013

We’re very excited to announce that we will be appearing at Camp Bestival in Dorset, August 1st to 4th. Popping in to the Guardian Literary Institute tent, we will be delivering an hour-long talk entitled ‘How to be wild with Rob & Leo’.

In other exciting news, the paperback of Skimming Stones is now out and replete with lovely reviews. You can grab it now at Amazon:

For more info on Camp Bestival and to come and get your copy signed, head over to www.campbestival.net

See you there!

R & L.

At the edge of the city

I gave a very enjoyable talk on Saturday in the pretty northern town of Beverley. This was my first solo gig, as Rob’s first born is due any second now. When the rushing efficiency of the King’s Cross to Doncaster line gave way to the locomotive amble of the branch line I began to feel some nerves building. Discussing our work publicly with another writer was new to me, and opened up a world of undefined variables.

My fears were unfounded however, not least because the other speaker was the extraordinary Nick Papadimitriou. Nick describes himself as a ‘deep topographer’, a practitioner of ‘radical walking’. These terms encompass an approach to exploring on foot that serves as a kind of research into the nature of reality, and a mode of expressing it that is difficult to describe.

Picture of the dust jacket for ScarpTo say he walks the road less travelled is somewhat of an understatement. His latest book Scarp traces a path over the fourteen-mile ridge of land on the fringes of Northern London, through time, in and out of consciousness and between fantasy and truths that are stranger than fiction.

I’ve mentioned the Michael Drayton poem Poly-Olbion a few times in this blog and in Skimming Stones.  It attempts to express something inherent in the landscape both by describing it in detail and by anthropomorphising its features: having them speak about the layers of history and legend that they have witnessed. Though it is utterly different in form, I found Scarp strikingly similar. It creates a compound impression of physical landscape superimposed with the stories that give it meaning.

In a number of ways though, I think Scarp is more successful. This may simply be because it is more accessible to modern sensibilities in its choice of which stories to tell, or that prose is better suited to the task than iambic hexameter. I think, however, it is something deeper. Drayton raises up well-known legends, and the rivers and hills anyone would see if they visited each area. But by trying to be universal, he weakens the personal connection to the land; in trying to review all of Britain he is obliged to move at a fairly high velocity, there’s no time to stop and talk to the locals. It may be a sign of the age that Nick’s book does the reverse, slowing down to take in minute detail, and indeed associating speed and an inability to pay attention with death at a number of points.

Nick, despite describing himself as “quite an angry man”, was more than pleasant, and it was very gratifying to discuss Skimming Stones with someone who had read it closely and had so much to say about it that went to the heart of what Rob and I were trying to convey, and indeed roamed beyond its borders into ideas I had not considered.

A good example of both can be seen in the documentary about Nick The London Perambulator (which I’ve included below – well worth watching). There is a moving moment in the documentary when Nick talks about finding in the landscape around him something larger than the forces which he felt had rejected him in the world. This touches something at the heart of what Rob and I are talking about: that sense of stability is of such huge benefit to our individual peace of mind in a world that is increasingly rootless. Nick’s experience goes beyond Skimming Stones as well, by searching for this encompassing geography within the structure of the city, where it is not easy to perceive, hidden under the paving stones, alongside A roads or behind shopping centres.

The London Perambulator

 

Nature is a birthright

Yesterday I attended the National Trust’s ‘Natural Childhood’ Summit, designed to bring together stakeholders and influencers to work together on curing the disease of disconnection from nature in children. I use those words knowing that they are both problematic and provocative – you might argue that everything around us (cars, buildings, TV) is in fact ‘nature’ as it is created by us – yet we are talking about something specific here: people’s continuing and worrying absence from time spent in the natural world, the grass, trees, hills, rivers, seasides and fields of our landscape.

In contrast to the (usual) landscape in autumn, it is a depressing picture out there. Extensive studies and research now clearly links an absence of free time spent slowing down and being in nature as having a tangible detrimental effect on the human animal and yet funding for conservation projects or schemes that get people outside are being routinely cut. Schools cannot afford to run the kind of residential programmes that took kids into nature anymore and misunderstood health and safety fears have put pay to us letting our children play out. The problem is serious, getting worse and children are suffering for it, as Stephen Moss’ brilliant report for the National Trust details.

Conversely, we all know nature is good for us, physically and psychologically. As Leo and I ask in our book Skimming Stones and our talks and workshops…why would anyone pay more for a room with a view otherwise? And we’re not talking about grand nature here either; research shows that as little as half an hour spent in a green space (think of a back garden, the waste ground just over the garden fence, the city park) can have affect a profound transformation in our levels of stress, anxiety, depression, etc. I wrote a blog post for the National Trust which went live yesterday during the event which covers something of how I feel about the situation. You can read it here.

I believe nature is a birthright; our access to it and time spent in it should be protected like any other basic human right. Yet the mechanisms for change in a government and many national organisations can be frustratingly slow. Mankind’s gift of objective thought, self-awareness and ability to predict the what will happen in the future is blunted into uselessness by our incessant selfishness and innate inability to come together as a species and work to fix future issues.

That’s why the summit yesterday was an optimistic experience. There was a glimpse, albeit a small one, of the many disparate groups that are totally committed to addressing these issues coming together, thinking creatively and looking at how we can affect a change and gain some ground. The ideas of the brilliant David Bond of Green Lions are a great example: making a film on his attempts to start a ‘nature’ brand to compete with all the other products that vie for our children’s attention, starting up ‘Project Wild Thing‘ to get people to pledge the same amount of time outside as they do in front of a screen and suing brands that appropriate a natural symbol (Apple, The Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, BP, etc) but without any benefit to or connection with nature. These ideas may be doomed to fail, but they are intentional failures to make a point; the team is creating statements that resound in any viewer. Similarly inspirational are organisations like Good For Nothing, where super-smart folk with creative power share skills, work on providing solutions and making things happen for conservation and outdoors charities. With people like this on the team, the weight of the larger conservation and ‘nature’ charities have a real chance of creating change.

The standout speaker yesterday was naturalist and TV presenter, Chris Packham. Ruthlessly self-critical and self-aware of the paradox of being a TV presenter and yet calling for more people to engage with the outdoors, he is that rare thing: insanely knowledgable, committed and passionate about conservation and nature. His talk touched on many of the points we explore in Skimming Stones and few in the room were left in any doubt about the depth of his conviction and obsession. Childhood stories about tracking animals, collecting fox skulls, keeping an obsessive nature diary (aged 11) and going into mourning over the death of a kestrel were poignant and particularly relevant to me, given my current writing project.

His final point about the real dying breed in Britain being the naturalist was something I have talked about before and had covered in the National Trust blog. Getting children outside at an early age to appreciate the splendour and unworldly wonder of watching a butterfly emerge or a trout rise, seeing roe deer in the morning mist a mile from a busy urban road – these are the experiences that draw children and adults outside and get them to fall in love with their environment and the natural world. There is no such thing as a retired naturalist for a very good reason.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Over the top display at Larmer Tree Festival. Also: peacocks.

A peacock fanning its tail

This dashing fellow had nothing on Rob and I as we delivered an eye-catching and vibrant display to festival-goers at Larmer a week-and-a-bit ago.

Perhaps not.

Hopefully we were ear-catching at least, though not for the same reasons as a peacock, drawing an engaged crowd for our discussion of Skimming Stones and why we should all be reconnecting with nature.

There were some good questions from the audience afterwards, and in particular one gentleman made the point that being aware of our surroundings and environment doesn’t just yield benefits in the outdoors. Really taking the time to look, hear and feel is related to the concept of ‘mindfulness’; used in cognitive behaviour therapy but originating in Eastern philosophy, mindfulness is a state of observation without judgement. Letting the world come to you, without distracting yourself with thoughts of conversations yesterday, deadlines tomorrow, or what’s for dinner, is a much more relaxing way to experience reality than constant analysis. This is a beneficial way to operate at any time, and while a natural setting offers a setting much more conducive to this, it’s something you can apply in your day-to-day life.

More to follow on our festival tour when Rob visits the Cock and Bull Festival next weekend…

Leo smiling, standing in quite a lot of mud.

The previous day’s bad weather had not put a dampener on proceedings.

- Leo -

Win tickets to Wilderness Festival!!


We have two FREE tickets (worth £260) to giveaway to the whole of Wilderness Festival, the UK’s greatest ‘outdoors’ festival located at the beautiful Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire between 10th and 12th August. As a setting for celebration it remains peerless, combing the pastoral grandeur of huge rolling lawns with wide lakes, deep woods and winding rivers.

With music from the likes of Wilco, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, Crystal Castles, Spiritualized, Stornoway mingling with food tents featuring the world’s greatest chefs and restaurants (Yotam Ottolenghi, Moro, Fergus Henderson & St. John, Valentine Warner), all senses are sure to be sated.

But the real stars here are the arts and nature experiences intertwined within this unique landscape. The range of things happening is unbelievable: banquets under canopies, wild swims, tented talks, wild food forages, campfires, lectures from ‘School of Life’, midnight masked balls, barefoot dancing, pop-up cinemas, parkland processions and ritualistic revelry. Oh and probably the greatest thing – ‘Skimming Stones’ a talk delivered by your very own Rob and Leo!

Yes, we will be there with bells on, both speaking and doing some workshops in the woods. If there are enough skimmers, we may even hold a stone skimming competition. Wilderness will always be defined by its passions: award-winning curators, pioneering arts and breathtaking landscapes. For three days and three nights come and find yourself in the Wilderness.

The lovely people at Wilderness have given us two tickets to give away so you can be there too. The tickets are for two people from Friday 10th (access from 9:00am) until Sunday 12th and include camping. Campsites have stewarded fire pits, hot showers, loos and lots of space.

TO WIN THE TICKETS: All you need to do is ‘Like’ Rob and Leo’s Facebook page AND write ‘I love wilderness’ on our wall to enter a prize draw. You must do both however in order to be in with a chance of winning. One name will be picked from a hat at random at 1800hrs, Friday 13th July and will win the tickets. Good luck and see you there!

Festival frenzy and new friends

So with the obligatory interchanging warm/wet weather, the festival season enters full swing. Leo and I are never ones to miss a good party (or a wine-fuelled discussion around a campfire for that matter) and with Skimming Stones providing much food for thought among its growing readership, we have been asked to appear at various festivals over the coming months. This has even necessitated a new tab on our right hand menu to keep people up to date. Yes, we’re techno wizards. Anyway, please check out our forthcoming dates!

Rob and Helen Lederer decompress after speaking at Hay

The first festival has actually passed already; it was at the wonderful if very wet Hay-On-Wye in June. Those Hay aficionados among you will be familiar with the fact that the festival site is a fair schlep from the nearest station. I wouldn’t have made it there at all if the brilliant Helen Lederer, comedienne and BBC Radio 4 mainstay, hadn’t instructed me forcibly to join her in a taxi. The next forty minutes was spent editing and drafting her speech and trading chat with the driver, who was both deaf and chatty – a winning combination. Thankfully Helen made me laugh to the point of injury, which had the bonus of completely dissolving my nerves.

I joined a panel discussion at what has to be the coolest philosophy and arts fringe event in the world ‘How The Light Gets In’. The topic was literary ecologies and it featured some great speakers that I nervously joined on a three-piece suite on the stage – Joanna Kavenna, who wrote the brilliant The Ice Museum, novelist and poet Lavinia Greenlaw and the renowned Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate. The discussion ebbed and flowed between the histories of nature writing and the current new wave of environmental literature, revealing lots of interesting insights, ideas and opinions. The festival website will be uploading a video of the full talk to their website in due course, but I hope being able to bring something of the practical application of much of what we were discussing was useful. It certainly provoked great interest from the audience afterwards and a people asking me to sign the book over beers in the bar. Most also asked for a couple of tips on how to build a waterproof den and light the perfect fire first time. It must have been the weather.

Meeting other authors and sharing debate over lots of wine invariably raises the question about what your book is about. It was lovely to have prestigious writers ear wigging for the techniques to the simple skills. Nostalgia and grand plans for nature breaks abounded. Writing can be a sedentary and interior-focused existence and a gentle reminder about the importance of standing in the midst of sheer life, of slowing down and drawing closer to the otherworldliness of nature certainly stimulated imaginations.

We will deliver reports as to our festival antics as they happen. Next up Larmer Tree near Salisbury on the 13th July. Come and see us if you are about.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

How The Light Gets In

I have been asked to appear at Hay-on-Wye’s fringe festival ‘How The Light Gets In 2012′ on June 7th to talk nature and how we define it and, in turn, it defines us. Appearing at the event ‘Red in Tooth and Claw‘, in reference to Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam, I will join a prestigious panel of leading writers and lecturers to discuss literary ecologies, including Jonathan Bate, Joanna Kavenna and Lavinia Greenlaw.

It would be great to see you down there, but don’t worry if you’re not around; Leo and I are now being booked for lots of festivals over the summer and we will probably be coming to a town near you soon! Watch out for our dates as we add them over the next few weeks.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Win a Great British Day Out worth £2K

We love to reward our lovely, loyal readers sometimes and the opportunity to help one of you access £2,000-worth of fun courtesy of the National Trust seemed an opportunity too good to miss! All you need to do is ask yourself what your dream day out would be if the trust opened up its vast array of venues for your enjoyment? Perhaps it might be sipping elderflower wine in the soft glow of a woodland glade, a great dinner with friends around the table of one of the trust’s sprawling stately homes or a warming seafood stew on the beach after a day of wild swimming with your mates.

Whatever it may be, now’s your chance to bring it to life. All you need to do is head over to the National Trust’s Facebook page, click ‘Like’ and enter your great idea for a great day out. There are nine types of venue to choose, from lighthouses to Beatles’ childhood homes, and then you can really let your imagination go to town on the shape your ideal day would take. Finally, you just need to get your Facebook friends to vote for your idea.

To provide some inspiration, here are the venue types to choose from: castle, abbey, gardens & parks, historic house, pub, woodland, Beatles’ home, beach, lighthouse.

You’ve got until 31st May to enter so get your skates on. Maybe take me and Leo along too if you win!

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Urban Wilderness Retreat with Gavin Pretor-Pinney (author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide)

Rob and I are going to be running a class with The School of Life in April, working with the awesome Gavin Pretor-Pinney to help city folk like us learn to tune in and reconnect with nature.

From the School of Life’s website:

Gavin Pretor-PinneySATURDAY 28 APRIL  2012, 10.00-17:30

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see within them will save on psychoanalysis bills.

 From the Manifesto of The Cloud Appreciation Society

Urban life can crowd us out. The pressure of work, the hectic streets, the cramped commute. We dream of getting away. But do we really need to leave the city to escape it?

Rob CowenJoin three of the UK’s most exciting nature writers for an adventure in the heart of the city. Gavin Pretor-Pinney will show us how to appreciate the great urban wilderness of the sky and capture it on paper. Rob Cowen and Leo Critchley will teach us how to track animals and forage wild fruit.

Within earshot of sirens and sight of tower blocks, we’ll throw off our city blinkers and become absorbed in the worlds of other creatures. We’ll learn about the science and philosophy of tuning into bird song and sensing the onset of rain. In the process, we’ll discover how we can escape the clamouring city any time we like.

Gavin Pretor-Pinney is a well-loved TV documentary broadcaster and author of the bestselling books, The Cloudspotter’s GuideThe Cloud Collector’s Handbook and The Wavewatcher’s Companion. He is founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society and has just compiled Clouds That Look Like Things, a selection of photographs by the Society’s 28,000 members.

Leo CritchleyRob Cowen and Leo Critchley have just published their first book, Skimming Stones and other ways of being in the wild, a thoughtful adventure in learning simple skills that help us connect deeply with nature. They are both young Londoners who describe their project as being ‘born out of a wish to share the contemplative, reflective pleasures and joys that were well-known to our grandparents, but which are in danger of being lost and forgotten.’

 

- Leo -