Days six and seven of my ’20 days wild’ experience were spent experiencing the same place through two completely different channels, one of which did not actually involve going outdoors. One of the projects I am working on currently is based at the National Trust’s Holnicote Estate in West Somerset. The estate marks the northern limits of Exmoor National Park and stretches from Dunkery Beacon in the south, Exmoor’s highest point, to the coastline at the northern edge. The project, funded by the Brigstow Institute and bringing together Bristol University and the National Trust, has several aims, but one is to investigate the ‘spirit of place‘ of the estate. In other words, what is it that makes the place unique for visitors and residents and how can these unique features or unique essence be protected moving forward? The estate is vast and diverse (over 12000 acres ranging from prime arable land famed for its malting barley to heather clad moorland) and I am slowly getting to know its environs. To get to know a place properly takes years (something I do not have at my disposal given the relative brevity of the project) so, rather than relying on my limited experience to make conclusions, the project will involve many dozens of people, some of whom have come to know the estate over a long period of time, and some who may have only known the place for a short amount of time but still have a sense of its unique character. The project also involves delving into local and regional archives to gather a sense of the views and experiences of people in the past and to map how landscape and local ecology has changed over time.
Day 6 of my ’20 days wild’ experience was spent at Holnicote. My aim was to climb Dunkery Hill to reach Dunkery Beacon, the highest point on Exmoor at 520m. This I did. However, I found myself being distracted throughout the day and took several detours as I spotted something of interest or became subsumed by the intrigue of the place.
On the way to Exmoor I stopped off at the National Trust’s ‘Coleridge Cottage‘ at Nether Stowey in the Quantocks. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was intimately connected with the district and many of his most famous poems, including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan were written locally. Sometimes for days at a time he would roam the landscape with his friends Dorothy and William Wordsworth in search of ‘the sublime’. Coleridge was an advocate for experiencing a place ‘in its true sense’. In other words, one has to leave the security of the given way to truly know a place. With this in mind, I would often leave the well trodden path on my walk yesterday, to explore the different layers of heather on Luccombe Hill, which is situated adjacent to its taller neighbour, Dunkery. It was during these times that my experience was perhaps at its purest. Certainly without doing so I would not have come across the small herd of Red Deer, the individual members of whom stared at me as a foreigner within their domain, before nonchalantly moving on their way.
Eventually I reached the top of Dunkery Hill, looking out across the whole estate, which is surely packed full of stories and species to discover. The work I will carry out over the coming months will hopefully reveal some of these. Of key interest however is how local people react to and live in their local landscape and whether the ways they do this changes over time? What are the challenges the estate will face in the future and how prepared is it to face these?
With this in mind, Friday (day 7 of my ’20 days wild’) was spent delving through the archive of the Exmoor Society at Dulverton. This little archive is a superb resource for the National Park and one day was insufficient to do justice to a plethora of items which are often both directly and indirectly connected to the Holnicote estate. I will therefore be returning.
It was clear that one doesn’t necessarily need to be at the place to experience the ‘spirit’ of it. There are numerous writers who have been inspired by this ‘northern edge of Exmoor’ to such an extent that their vested interests and feelings burst through the pages and into the imagination. By joining together direct experience (visiting, walking, feeling, smelling, seeing, touching) with indirect experience (reading, thinking, writing) our sense and spirit of place is often enhanced, which is perhaps why nature writers usually get to know their subject intimately in the field before putting pen to paper. Sometimes the two are combined and pen and paper come out with the writer to the place itself, to draw direct and indirect inspiration together.
There is much still to explore at Holnicote, much to read, much to look at, much to learn, and much to listen to. I relish the opportunity to do so and look forward to the journey ahead.