Imagine the world,’ declares Hay Festival’s motto, and from its green fields on the outskirts of Hay-on-Wye in the Brecon Beacons you can travel to all corners of the Earth, and even the far reaches of outer space – so broad are the books and subjects it covers.
Hay encourages visitors to cast their mental net wide in thinking about the world and imagining how it might be – inviting writers that employ literature, science, art, nature, philosophy and more to explore its myriad problems and suggest open-minded solutions.
Unfortunately, due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic many live events – including Hay Festival – have been cancelled once again in 2021. As a result, Hay Festival will take place online this year, but still promises a great round-up of talks and live events.
Acclaimed authors taking part in this year’s online Hay Festival select their most inspiring and beloved books about nature, walking and the great outdoors.
Chosen by the writers: Best books about nature, walking and the great outdoors
Wild Lone by ‘BB’ (Denys Watkins-Pitchford)
Chosen by author Horatio Clare
The story of a fox, by ‘BB’ – the pen name of Denys Watkins-Pitchford – sent me outside in an entirely new way. It still does. The book, first published in 1977, marvels at how much we miss by lying in bed at night, and takes you into the countryside in the company of a fox. This is a real fox, not a picture-book creature. BB was an acute observer and a most beautiful writer. You smell and feel and taste the world of night, the fields, woods and hills all transformed through a fox’s senses and perspective. It is a thrilling and truthful magic.
Heavy Light by Horatio Clare is out now (Chatto & Windus, £16.99)
Rewild your Garden by Frances Tophill
Chosen by zoologist Megan McCubbin
To me, an inspiring book creates wonder but has purpose – when I learn something new with each page and am left with the desire to grab my boots and get outside. Rewild Your Garden by Frances Tophill does all of this and more. As the name suggests, it’s a book that guides you on how to rewild your garden or any outdoor space for the benefit of wildlife. It is beautifully illustrated and leaves the reader with so many creative ideas. You see, it is no longer enough to ‘love’ wildlife. It needs our help, and this book provides simple, practical ideas that anyone can do to help protect and promote our wonderful natural world.
Back to Nature: How to Love Life – and Save It by Megan McCubbin and Chris Packham is out now (Two Roads, £20)
Being a Beast by Charles Foster
Chosen by travel writer Nick Hunt
In Being a Beast, Charles Foster attempts to take himself out of his human skin and live, as closely as possible, as a series of animals – a badger, an otter, a fox, a stag and a swift – building dens, foraging for food and trying to imagine how the world, and his fellow humans, might appear through animal eyes. Very few people will ever attempt so absurd or profound an experiment, but this fascinating, deeply researched and often troubling book is a beautiful reminder of the transformational possibilities of being outside, immersed in nature, and keeping your nose to the ground.
Outlandish: Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes by Nick Hunt is out in May (John Murray, £16.99)
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
Chosen by nature writer Lucy Jones
I always return to My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, for the passages of the 10-year-old Gerry exploring Corfu alone and spending time with the local flora and fauna. I read it at that age, perhaps earlier, and it inspired me to go out looking for insects, plants and birds. The prose is so vibrant you can almost smell the cypress trees and olive groves coming off the page and hear the chorus of cicadas. I love it for its unabashed, child-like joy and curiosity and attention to wild beings. It takes me back to my childhood self and the excitement of that initial falling in love with the natural world.
Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones is out now (Penguin, £9.99)
The Fields Beneath by Gillian Tindall
Chosen by author Sathnam Sanghera
We haven’t been able to travel far in the last year, but we’ve been able to travel through history, and I’ve animated my lockdown walks by learning about the past of London’s streets. On this front, The Fields Beneath by Gillian Tindall is spectacular. She explains how the town is simply “disguised countryside”, how “main roads, some older than history itself, still bend to avoid long-dried marshes”, and how “London gardens owe their rich topsoil to manure from long-forgotten horses”. And wandering lockdown London, you can appreciate how the city is a palimpsest, its history, natural and otherwise, tangible in the peace and quiet.
Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera is out now (Viking , £18.99)
Plan & GO Kungsleden by Danielle and Wayne Fenton
Chosen by novelist Maggie Shipstead
For the past month, Plan & Go Kungsleden: All You Need to Know to Complete Sweden’s Royal Trail by Danielle and Wayne Fenton, a guidebook that covers a 270-mile Arctic hiking trail in Sweden, has been sitting on my coffee table. I was hoping to walk it in the summer of 2019, but my plans were derailed by a magazine assignment. Then everyone knows what happened last year. But could this be the year? The book is a beacon of optimism, a reminder that this too shall pass, and a goad to get out and hike the hills of Los Angeles, so I’m in shape for when the time is finally right.
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is out in May (Transworld, £16.99)
How to take part in Hay Fest 2021
Hay Festival takes place online from 26 May to 6 June 2021, broadcasting the world’s greatest writers and thinkers for free from Hay-on-Wye. For the full festival line-up and to sign up for free events, visit hayfestival.org/wales