by Andrew Allen
You should walk home from work. Last week I did exactly this – a four day journey to connect me with places I commute through every week and to raise money for Rewilding Britain. I found landscapes empty not just of plant and animal diversity, but of people – an environment fenced, tamed and emasculated. It is not just Britain’s uplands that need rewilding, it’s the places on our doorstep, too.
I spend a lot of time on trains. A combination of cultish property prices and my narrow career path mean I regularly commute the 80 miles between east Cambridgeshire and London. I am not alone. The capital’s coarse roots have spread across much of south east England, with the rail network alone pouring over a million people into London each day.
For those like me, this has created an extended hinterland. I travel daily a distance that my grandparents would rarely have contemplated. On one level, this means we are probably familiar with more of the country than any previous generation. Along my commute, I know where I am just by the topography. Yet my understanding of it is thread-thin and I feel little connection with it.
So, I planned a walk from my office in Islington to my home in Ely. For the four days it took me, the weather was good for the most part. The sky, fields, hedgerows and copses were just the right shades of blue, ochre and green. Within half a day I stopped being preoccupied with what humanity needs or expects from me. I was no longer thinking about finishing things but instead had settled into just being. Spending so much time outside is restorative if you’re not used to it. I even began to feel a little guilty about raising money for Rewilding Britain. If this was the countryside, did it really need any rewilding?
Then over lunch on my third day, things unravelled a bit. I began to think about what I’d actually seen. Easily the most common birds were wood pigeons. Mammal life was pretty much limited to horses. Even people were notable by their absence. Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire have a population of 1.7 million, but outside towns and villages, I saw only 6 people on my walk. The ‘private’ signs and endless wheat prairies have created a countryside to circumnavigate rather than be in.
This is the root of a bigger problem. Our desire to experience the natural environment is strong. The National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts have a combined membership of 6 million. Our most popular National Park, the Lake District, attracts 15 million visitors a year. But these are also a sign that our relationship with the natural world is one of a hobby attended to at weekends and in holidays — away from our day to day lives.
Our National Parks are hardly wild, but we don’t expect what’s on our doorsteps to meet even these standards. By undervaluing what’s immediately around us we’ve allowed it to become diminished — a place to grow commuters and cheap food. We go somewhere else to be inspired.
My journey has certainly connected me with my elongated hinterland. But it has also made me want something more from it — and for it.
We can’t replant the whole of lowland Britain with primary forest, replete with wolves and lynx, but we can help create much better functioning ecosystems which challenging the low expectations we have of the land around us. Little areas on my walk reminded me what this could mean. One of the few wilder green areas I came across was the banks of the Wilbraham River near Fulbourn. Here in just a couple of miles I saw a huge variety of flying insects, deer and even a stoat and a weasel. This is more than I saw in a day’s walking elsewhere on my trek.
Finally, wouldn’t it be great if all the commuters out there helped make it happen by taking a walk home from work.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewAllen74