Ash Dieback: you never miss it ’til it’s gone

At a time when most people in Britain couldn’t even identify the ash tree, the grim sick blight of ash dieback has seized the public consciousness to a surprisingly powerful extent. The reason is clear to anyone familiar with woodland: our connection to trees is innate and profound; they are more than mere decoration fringing our lives, our woodlands are repositories of our imaginations and histories.

Researching and writing Skimming Stones required Leo and I to spend inordinate amounts of time in trees. I say required; I’m not even sure if we conceived the book as a permission, an excuse to be allowed to spend longer in our forests. Sleeping under a soft canopy in April cutting green bark back, slicing and sculpting in summer, burning back dead fall in winter, our closeness to the trees became something greater than mastery of practical skills; we became aware of the layers of memory we were tapping into. Once days have passed in the silent company of these vast entities a change occurs in the human animal; time becomes irrelevant and a perspective is imparted as powerfully transformative as walking on the moon. We return as strangers to the towns and cities, bodies reset to a greater rhythm.

Much has been written on ash dieback and we will have to wait to see the full extent of devastation rendered on our tender landscape and wildlife. One thing is sure: along with the scientific assessments of areas to be affected, we need great dedications to, and appreciation of, the wider impact our woods have on us, on our minds. Only then might we start to value woodland as powerfully as our ancestors did, not merely for what they give us in a physical material sense but psychologically too.

Check out the brilliant ‘Woods’ series on BBC Radio 4 that started last Saturday.

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


Cocks, Bulls and Hedgerow Pesto

Perhaps the greatest thing about being asked to give talks and workshops is we get to see the practical application of Skimming Stones; we have the pleasure of spending time among people who may be like-minded but perhaps haven’t fully embraced the idea of getting out there and trying the activities in our book. Yesterday, at Cock and Bull Festival was one such experience.

After a long drive from Yorkshire to the countryside around Bath, I followed signs to the farm that played host to this lovely festival. For anyone that doesn’t know it. Cock and Bull is put on to raise money for charity ‘Jamie’s Farm‘, which takes kids from the inner city  and gives them a taste of rural life on a farm for a few weeks. it is worthy and profoundly affecting for all involved, as this video shows.

Travelling through the demarked windy lanes (stenciled bulls and cockerels tacked to boards among banks of meadowsweet) I eventually arrived during the Graveyard Shift of any self-respecting festival: Sunday late morning. Bleary-eyed revellers staggered from tents and trance still boomed from barns for those refusing to give up their Saturday evening. A bearded man in a dress, an obligatory sight at many festivals, still clung to his vast jar of cider like it was a baby.

Mercifully, after most people started to shake away sleep with strong coffees, the talk commenced in the cool shade of a stone barn. The bales of hay/seats soon filled with people until it was standing room only. The talk seemed to go down very well with plenty of crowd participation and half an hour of questions and answers before a book signing. Then it was time to put my money where my mouth had been rabbiting for the last hour.

I was volunteered to lead a forage around the farms hedgerows with anyone that might be interested. Twenty five or so people were. A multi-cultural lot, I counted Bulgarians, Italians and even Scots among our numbers. Thankfully, our summer hedgerows rarely disappoint for wild food and I was soon pointing out and chomping on some old favourites (nettles, burdock, meadowsweet, dandelions) as well as some lesser known greens (chickweed, vetch, cow parsley). In a field off the track, chamomile grew in waves, interspersed by pineapple weed, dock and rat’s tail plantain. In the boundary hedges, sloes had formed early, as well as hawthorn and green blackberries. Finally we came upon some Jack-by-the-hedge – currently enjoying its second wind of the year and a subtle, garlic flavoured leaf and member of the mustard family.

The group followed with cameras, notepads and cries of ‘that’s REALLY bitter’ (dandelion – it needs storing in water for a few days or forcing by covering when young) and ‘absolutely lovely’ (Jack-by-the-hedge, vetch and chickweed). All said they couldn’t believe the variety and range of youtube 2 mp3 online converter things to eat or brew up only a few metres from the gate. As we write in the book, foraging focuses us; it stops us from just pacing over a field or past a hedge and gives us a new way of looking and interacting with the landscape.

After a good walk in the sunshine, I wanted to offer refreshments and had fortunately made a jar of Cowen’s Famous Hedgerow Pesto the previous night for the drive down. I had eaten the bagels I was going to dip into it before even leaving Yorkshire, leaving a jar of cracking stuff for my new students.

Cowen’s Famous Hedgerow Pesto recipe

This recipe is so easy and provides a delicious, citrusy, garlicky alternative to the Italian stuff. Gather two good handfuls of Jack-by-the-hedge leaves, a bunch of sorrel (wood or field), some nettle leaves and blend with toasted walnuts or hazel cobs. Add olive oil or Yorkshire rapeseed and salt and pepper to get that pesto consistency and you are done. You can add parmesan too (or Wensleydale if you are in Yorkshire) and then blend again. Serve over fresh pasta with vetch flowers on top, as a dip for bread, or as a side for roast chicken.

To feed the hungry foragers, I opened the jar and sliced a lovely white bloomer donated by the friendly bakers at the festival.  Before I could even get my camera out, the jar and the plate had been wolfed down. Still, it was great that everyone enjoyed it so much!

Natural harmony? Listen to your elders

Our latest column in the Independent went in on Saturday. It is all about making elder whistles. To some this may seem an unusual way to spend a day – especially when you can buy a whistle fairly cheaply in a shop – but, as with all the activities in Skimming Stones, the secret is what this simple restorative ritual engenders. It is striking the right note to start a relationship.

Elder is only tree for the job because of the soft pith that runs through the core of its branches, which can be hollowed out very easily to leave a wooden tube that may be used for anything from pipes to primitive paintball guns. Identifying it requires us to look more closely at our surroundings; we have to differentiate between that tree and all the others. Immediately we are drawing closer to the land and to the wood.

Just as we learn to recognise one tree, to handle it and work with it, so too can we begin to familiarise ourselves with others. Soon the whole forest becomes transformed from an amorphous green mass on the edge of our vision to something far more interesting and rewarding. It is somewhere to walk through, to dwell in.

Revisiting at different times of the year we see the different tree types in metamorphosis. Not only do we learn to pick out species, we pick out individual trees. Woods become places to see old friends and watch as they transform through the seasons.

Read our column Natural harmony? Listen to your elders in the Independent here and start your journey back to the woods. 

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Make a ladybird house: guest blog on Miss Thrifty

This week I was asked by the wonderful Miss Thrifty, that one-woman money saving expert, to write up my adventures in making a ladybird house. With lots of elder gathered and dried for whistle making in my log store, it seemed a simple enough procedure to turn some of it into a cosy, new residence for our new garden guests.

Read all about it at

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin


Allergies and open skies: nature at every level

It comes as no shock to us that a range of recent reports has found time spent in nature as beneficial to the human animal, but it is welcome research nonetheless. Once again the transformative powers of slowing down and being in the outdoors has been shown to have a positive impact at every level, from the microbe to the mass consciousness.

A Finnish report entitled Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ has found more diverse microbiota on the skin of teenagers living in farms or near forests than their counterparts in urbanised areas. One class of such bacteria is linked to the development of anti-inflammatory molecules, stimulating an immunological response in people that is known to suppress the swelling caused by allergy to pollen or animals.

With rates of asthma and allergies on the rise, this has led the doctor who conducted the report to call for city planning that includes green spaces, green belts and green infrastructure, an issue I blogged about for the National Trust recently.

A study published in the journal ‘Landscape and Urban Planning’ reveals that such a measure would reduce stress levels too. By monitoring levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, found in residents’ saliva, the team could directly correlate a link between stress and the lack of green spaces in urban areas.

In Skimming Stones we draw a similar conclusions about simple activities in the outdoors and the positive, transformative effect on the body, from the tangible (the ‘fiero’ pride in completing an igloo) to the imperceptible (the shift from cones to rods in our eyes as our senses adopt night vision in a darkening wood).

One thing is for sure: the human animal adapted over millions of years to live in the natural environment. We are hard wired to respond to it and, as such, we need it in our lives as surely as five fruit and veg a day. It explains perhaps why I felt the need to abandon my car last week and run back to photograph the coming storm as it rolled over the fields of impossibly yellow rapeseed. As J A Baker once wrote, “The solitude of horizons lures me towards them.” I couldn’t tell you why, but I needed to stop and take in that sky as surely as scratch an itch.

– Rob –

Drawing of a robin

Give your kids a present to remember this Easter: nature

Asked to picture our favourite childhood memory, many of us will remember something outdoors, but we may well be the last generation to do so. Ask the same of today’s children and they are likely to answer their bedroom, in front of a TV or games console.

A new National Trust report ‘Natural Childhood’ is a welcome and much-needed spotlight on the issue and reveals the extent that our children are suffering from ‘nature-deficit disorder’. Leo and I are honoured to have been asked by the National Trust to be involved in the campaign and ongoing consultation. We will be writing guest blog posts, but also hopefully getting our hands dirty in helping show kids and parents alike the simple things that we can all do to reconnect with nature and the great outdoors. But you can start today. Whatever the weather this week, forget the chocolate eggs and endless film re-runs, get outside and try one of our simple activities; it is a present that your kids will never forget.

For inspiration, we thought we’d show you a few of our own homemade videos so you can pick up some tips:

We recognise that even those of us that want to reconnect and feel the urge to be in the countryside have lost the skills and sense of play that older generations enjoyed with the landscapes around us. That’s why we wrote Skimming Stones and Other Ways of Being in the Wild in the first placeto give people from 8 to 80 the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ to connecting with nature. So, if you want all the techniques to building your own kites, foraging for food, building an igloo, finding fossils, making a woodland den, wild camping, carving a whistle from elder, navigating from nature, damming a stream, tracking animals, making rod and tackle to catch a fish…and, of course, the simple skill of skimming a stone well…please buy the book! It will provide you with the all you need to the start your own adventures in the wild, whatever your age.

  – Rob –

Drawing of a robin

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.