My Countryside: Simon Barnes

The author and naturalist discusses treasured places, the angelic company of gannets and Britain’s unhealthy obsession with tidiness.


Published: March 16th, 2016 at 10:30 am


I live in Norfolk and manage a handful of marshy acres for wildlife. I keep and ride horses.

I write about the countryside and campaign for a better, wiser and richer use of our land and sea.

My latest book, The Sacred Combe, is about secret, special places. My secret special place in Britain is right outside the window where I’m writing this. On these few acres, we have six species of breeding warbler, including Cetti’s. Marsh harriers are a daily sight, and lately I’ve been seeing barn owls most days. Come with me at dawn on a May morning and sit very still for an hour, and like as not you’ll see an otter. These few acres of marsh are my most treasured possession, but I don’t exactly posses it. It belongs to itself. 

2015 was difficult for a number of rather dull reasons. And then came a moment when I found myself scrambling about on a rock in the middle of the English Channel, entirely surrounded by gannets. This was Ortac, off Alderney, and it was like climbing into heaven to visit the angels. The sense of joy and freedom put all passing difficulties into the shade.

Last year I visited Harlestone Heath in Northamptonshire, a site that was cherished for its wildlife 100 years ago. It’s now a housing estate, a golf course and a conifer plantation. We have replaced the special with the ordinary and it’s been done so subtly and insidiously so that we are scarcely aware of what we’ve lost.

It’s not the devastation so much as the nibbling away that is destroying us. We are rearing the most nature-deprived generation in history. We live at a time when the Oxford Junior Dictionary throws out “minnow” and puts in “MP3 player”. We are losing touching with the wild world, to our great impoverishment and greater sadness. It’s not so much rural versus urban: it’s wild versus tame.

If I had a magic wand, what I would change about Britain’s countryside is the mania for tidiness. Life dwells in the scruffy, the shaggy, the uncut.

When it comes to rural heroes, David Attenborough has made it clear for three or even four generations that non-human life matters. It matters in towns, in the British countryside and across the planet. He has consistently nailed the continuum between the English oakwood and the tropical rainforest, between the cities and what lies beyond.

The most beautiful sight in Britain is a flight of cranes at their bugling ease in the enormous Norfolk sky.

The relationship between landowners and conservationists is better than we fear, not as good as we hope. The local estate has more breeding waders than the nearby RSPB reserve. Other neighbours specialise in lifeless open-air food factories. People still think that nature needs to be conquered – even though our victory over the wild world has become a rout. 

If I were to be a British wild animal, I’d be a swift. Flight entrances us, and a swift is more about flight than any other creature of earth. They spend the first two or even three years of their lives entirely on the wing, feeding, sleeping and even mating. Who could resist? My favourite journey is the one that swifts undertake twice a year.

My favourite outdoor occupations are riding my horse; taking my binoculars for a walk; drinking; breathing wild air and taking wild steps.

Today’s children need to get outside more. We need more dirty knees and torn trousers and dammed streams and jam-jars and conkers. We need a new generation of tree-climbers.

As for whether it’s cream or jam first on a scone – I’m all for freedom of choice. And I’d like a ginger biscuit, please.


Simon Barnes’ latest book 'The Sacred Combe: A Search for Humanity’s Heartland' is out now (Bloomsbury, £14.99)



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