Industry Focus: A New Wave in British Nature & Travel Writing


Matt Borne investigates a new wave in British Nature Writing

There is a new wave in British nature and travel writing. Books like Rising Ground by Philip Marsden and Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel, which won the 2015 Wainwright Prize for UK Nature and Travel Writing. H is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2014, the first book in this genre to do so. These books are well written and they sell.

So, what is it about this new wave of writing that appeals to us? And why now? Does this new wave reflect a reaction against an increasingly urbanised existence which has distanced us from our relatively recent agricultural past, or an older, hard-wired human need for wilderness? If the latter then it’s hardly new. John Muir and Henry David Thoreau were campaigning for the protection of wilderness, and advocating its spiritual benefits for people 150 years ago.

Simon Prosser, Publishing Director at Hamish Hamilton and editor for Robert Macfarlane, W.G. Sebald and Iain Sinclair, thinks there is something particularly unsettling about the intensity of our new digital lives which obliges us to stare at screens for hours on end, day after day, ‘... amounting to an assault on our intuitive connections with nature. People are starting to fight back.’

Whether the new wave is tapping into a sense of loss from breaking the last links with rural life, or a primeval need for wilderness, there is hard evidence that concern about the natural environment is growing across society. Green Party membership has shot up over the last year from 14,000 to over 66,000 members, more than the Liberal Democrats or UKIP. Friends of the Earth report an increase in the number of active supporters - the Bee Campaign has been particularly successful at tapping into our collective outrage. People are also spending more of their leisure time in the natural environment. In 2013, there were over 160 million visitor days spent in British National Parks, and this number is rising yearly. Something fundamental is shifting in British society. The new wave of travel and nature writing is reflecting this, and benefitting from it.

For Philip Marsden, this cultural shift is more about our reaction to the physical degradation of the natural world, and as its destruction intensifies, so does our need to re-engage, to reconnect. ‘It’s a very personal awakening for many people and could be linked to childhood memories and experiences.’ Divorced from the natural world for so long, the simplest way to re-connect is through books.

Laura Barber, Editorial Director at Granta Books, says that this kind of writing has the power to transport its readers from their armchair into another world and, thanks to the skill of the writers, feel that they understand more about the experience of inhabiting a place, however briefly.

But what is this kind of writing? Is it about travel, or place, or nature, or biography?  Whilst researching this article I went into my local Waterstones to see what they had and found the same books displayed in the Countryside and Travel sections. I repeated the exercise at a different Waterstones with the same result. I tried a couple of independent bookstores - same outcome. According to Philip Marsden the genre is more about travel than nature: ‘…they usually involve a physical journey’. Simon Prosser thinks that the term ‘nature writing’ carries too much connotation of flora and fauna, and that ‘place’ or ‘landscape’ are more useful terms.

So, is it in fact a single genre? Does it matter? Marsden thinks that we should not get too hung up on whether it is a genre in its own right, or how these books should be displayed. Adrian Cooper agrees, ‘...the word “genre” is useless except for booksellers who need a system for displaying the books on the shelves.’ I asked Andrew Foster, the manager of Waterstones in Truro, how he would describe the new wave. ‘Genre bending’, he said.

One thing is certain. The new wave is very British - it’s about British places, landscapes, history and eccentricities. It’s about what it means to be British. The United States has a long and fine tradition of nature writing, but at the moment there is nothing similar happening across the pond. Or in the rest of Europe for that matter. In fact, it’s just possible that we are seeing the first landings in a new British invasion. H is for Hawk is a New York Times Bestseller, and Helen Macdonald is now writing a regular column for that paper. Laura Barber says that this current flourishing has its heart in the British Isles, and that today’s writers are in dialogue with a distinctive and vibrant literary heritage ‘...while finding their own original, authentic and exhilarating ways of capturing in words what they observe.’

But the tradition goes much further back and classic books on nature and the countryside are coming back into print. Little Toller Books are in the vanguard with new editions of many classics including Through the Woods by H.E. Bates, The South Country by Edward Thomas and A Shepherd’s Life by W.H. Hudson. The travel writing tradition is older still, going back at least as far as Defoe’s A Tour Thro’ the Whole of the Isle of Great Britain, written in the early eighteenth century. The new wave of writers is standing on the shoulders of giants in the British literary tradition.

It is still possible to find wilderness in the British Isles, even in England. Two weeks ago, my sons and I made the long trek up Eskdale and down Langstrath between youth hostels. The horizontal rain had washed other walkers off the hills. We stopped for lunch at the mighty Sampsons Stones on the edge of Great Moss, and found there a pair of walkers going in the opposite direction, as surprised as us to find other people in such a remote, wet place. What did we talk about? The weather of course.

Matt Borne is a London born writer, based in Falmouth, where he moved to in 1993. He has now lived here for 24 years and has no plans to move on. Matt credits all his writing to be deeply inspired by the natural landscapes, seasons, weather, and the luscious flora and fauna. He is interested in the relationship between walking and writing. And admits that he needs to walk and be outside in order to write. He’s had two pieces published in the Elementum Journal, one in the first print edition and one online.