I took part in a unique (to me) and bizarre exercise earlier this week, when I was interviewed for a ‘radio’ documentary. I put the word radio in scare-quotes, because the documentary will actually comprise the dissertation of a masters student studying Radio at the University of Sunderland.
The subject of the documentary is Robert FitzRoy, descendant of Charles II, captain of HMS Beagle, friend of Charles Darwin, surveyor, religious fundamentalist, inventor of the weather forecast, Governor of New Zealand, suicide, and a bunch of other stuff. Robert FitzRoy was an interesting chap.
I’m relieved to say the documentary will include contributions from a number of interviewees, so will not rely entirely on my shambolic, rambling contribution. No, this is not my incorrigible, self-deprecating modesty kicking in: I really was dreadful. Performing live has never been my forté; I much prefer to work asynchronously, brainstorming ideas, getting them down in draft, tweaking them to within an inch of their lives, then tweaking them a whole lot more.
I dare say giving interviews is something you get better at with practice. I used to be pretty dreadful at reading out loud, but improved dramatically when writing On the Moor, having discovered that reading your writing out loud is by far the best way to work out what’s wrong with it. But I reckon I’d have to go through a hell of a lot of interviews before the shambolic rambling turns into something half-usable.
Still, though, at least I know what to expect next time—in the unlikely event there ever is a next time!
I was up on the Moor earlier this week, hoping to take some photos of the heather at its finest. In August, the Moor reaches peak purple. But the unusually dry summer has left it parched. There’s plenty of purple on the lower, damper levels and slopes, but the tops are decidedly lacklustre.
This is what it looked like at the trig point in August 2016:
…and here’s what it looks like in August 2018:
It has not been a good year for heather.
With no purple to shoot, I decided to make a time-lapse video of the rocks just below the edge. The same rocks feature on the cover of my book On the Moor. But making a video was really just an excuse for sitting there doing nothing for 20 minutes. I made a brew, took in the view, and admired a family of four kestrels hanging in updraught.
Without doubt, my favourite part of our garden is the Rough Patch.
The Rough Patch led a brief life as a vegetable patch shortly after we moved in, but events soon overtook us. By events, I mean nettles. Fortunately, stinging nettles are one of my favourite flowers, so I didn’t go out of my way to do anything about them. They seemed to like it there, so live and let live. (Live and let live being so much easier than weeding.)
Once the nettles had established themselves, our former vegetable patch became fair game as a dumping ground for any garden waste too bulky to compost: lopped branches, excavated roots and soil, last year’s Christmas tree. Until we bought a garden incinerator, the Rough Patch, as is soon became known, was also the site of occasional bonfires. Despite all this chopping and changing, burning and dumping—or, more likely, because of it—the Rough Patch continues to thrive.
Not only is the Rough Patch my favourite part of our garden, it’s also a firm favourite with the local invertebrates—and, therefore, the garden wrens. My natural gift for horticultural lethargy has resulted in a thriving ecosystem. I should probably get some sort of environmental award.
A few years back, I took one of the heavy millstone grit blocks removed from our house during some building work and set it on end against our workshop wall, overlooking the Rough Patch. It became known as Richard’s Seat. Known to me, that is. I like nothing better that to sit there quietly for ten minutes with a mug of tea, taking in the view, pondering over which garden project I’m not going to do next.
A fortnight ago, after putting it off for a decade, I finally underwent surgery to sort out a hernia. I’m pleased to report everything seems to have gone remarkably smoothly, and I’ve experienced very little pain. Thank you, NHS!
I’m under instructions to take plenty of gentle exercise, and not to lift anything heavy for six weeks. So, I’ve been walking around the local lanes most days. Usually, when I take a walk, I lug around my bulky camera bag. But that’s not an option at the moment. I’ve been forced to go camera-less. (Well, camera-less apart from my mobile phone.)
I have to say, the experience has been a revelation. I’ve always found the constant burden of a camera bag something of a nuisance, but I love taking photographs, so along comes the gear. Being forced to leave my camera at home, and to walk a bit more slowly than normal, has been an incredibly enjoyable experience. When I see something that piques my interest, I simply stop and have a good look, without the option/compulsion to record the experience for posterity. It’s weird: this must be how non-photographers experience stuff all the time. I’m kind of envious.
After my enforced photographic break, I’ll be tempted to go camera-less more often. But I suspect I’ll resist the temptation. You never know what you might bump into on a walk. Not having a proper camera to hand seems an unnecessary risk to me. I mean, what if I were to come across something unusual like—oh, I don’t know—a fantastic wasps’ nest, and I only had my crappy phone-camera with me?
Well, this, actually:
Dammit! It’s no good: I’m going to have to go back with my telephoto lens soon!
Catching up on Twitter in a Wirral Starbucks the morning after Storm Eleanor, I read the following:
@RSPB_BurtonMere Burton Marsh completely flooded! Lunchtime’s high tide could be spectacular! Get down to Parkgate!
An immediate change of plan. Twenty minutes later, I pull into the marsh-side car park at Parkgate. There are dozens of birders already there, all of them far better equipped (and insulated) than me. So I head over to a quiet corner and take shelter behind a convenient wall.
The Dee Marshes only flood a few times a year. The signs of the previous high tide are unmistakeable: flattened marsh grass; plastic jetsam; rank, salty mud. A second flood seems unlikely: an hour before high tide, there’s only the customary distant glint of water way across the marshes near the Welsh bank.
I’m soon joined by a couple of birders. We trade bird tales as the waters slowly encroach into the marsh. It’s bitterly cold. I’m ill-prepared for such conditions, but it’s worth it. There are far more birds flying about than usual: gulls, geese, ducks, waders, starlings, herons, egrets. I’m told I just missed a male hen harrier. I’m immediately compensated with a brief sighting of a short-eared owl scudding low across the rising water channels.
The birds become more agitated as the tide reaches the scrape. A water rail comes tearing across the marsh like a roadrunner and vanishes beneath the wall at our feet. He’s followed by dozens of terrified voles, many of which are swept up by gulls and gobbled down whole, mid-air. Others are dropped during gullish squabbles. One jettisoned vole flies so close that all three of us duck. It splats into the soft marsh and promptly disappears: a lucky escape. I take another look for the hiding water rail. He spots me, and makes a bolt for it across a shallow pool, disappearing round the corner of the wall.
I’m shivering uncontrollably now. My heated car-seat beckons, but I manage to hold out for another half-hour or so, until I can no longer feel my fingers.
158 years ago today saw the publication of my hero Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Darwin was staying on the edge of Ilkley Moor at the time, just 13 miles as the curlew flies from where I type these words.
What better excuse could I possibly need for choosing today to launch my own medium opus inspired by another Yorkshire moor…
On the Moor shows how a routine walk in the countryside is enhanced by an appreciation of science, history, and natural history. It covers an eclectic mix of topics, with each chapter being inspired by something I encountered or was thinking about during one of my regular walks over the last 25 years on the Moor above my home. These topics include:
Charles Darwin’s weird experiments and ailments;
the 17th-century skeptic Sir Thomas Browne;
Bronze Age burials;
evolution’s kludgy compromises;
where Earth got its water;
the mapping of Great Britain;
Scott of the Antarctic;
how to define a species;
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath;
the Laws of Thermodynamics;
why the sky is blue (and sunsets red);
the Greenhouse Effect;
the songs of skylarks;
the best way to cook a wheatear.
…Oh, and there’s even a plane crash!
I appreciate I’m a bit biased, but I think you’ll like it.
But don’t feel you have to take my word for it. Here’s what nature writer Neil Ansell had to say about On the Moor:
Richard Carter’s fascinating exploration of his local grouse-moor in West Yorkshire digs deep into natural history, human history, prehistory, and the history of science. His writing is grounded, insightful, and frequently hilarious, and he shows how falling in love with your own local patch can be a gateway to the whole world.
‘I am infinitely pleased & proud at the appearance of my child.’ —Charles Darwin, writing from just below a Yorkshire moor to his publisher, John Murray, 3rd Nov 1859, on receiving his first copy of On the Origin of Species.
I finally know the feeling, Charles.
This afternoon, I received my proof copy of On the Moor:
Not quite as ground-breaking as On the Origin of Species, perhaps, but no reason to be any less pleased or proud.
I’ve been experimenting with some different cover designs for On the Moor. I’d be interested in hearing any feedback you might have. The advice from Amazon is to use big text on the cover, so it can still be read when reduced to a minuscule thumbnail image in their store.
I don’t consider any of these potential covers to be finished yet, but I’ll be very interested to hear what you think. In particular, which, if any, of these covers might tempt you to take a peek inside the book to find out more?
Please feel free to leave your feedback in the comments below, or you can email me, or post comments on Facebook or Twitter.