Paperback: 368pp

Published: Eye Books (January 2024)

ISBN: 9781785633676

Local

Alastair Humphreys

£12.99

‘Agile, wryly funny and wise’

Robert Macfarlane

A search for nearby nature and wildness

After years of expeditions all over the world, adventurer Alastair Humphreys spends a year exploring the detailed local map around his home.

Can this unassuming landscape, marked by the glow of city lights and the hum of busy roads, hold any surprises for the world traveller or satisfy his wanderlust? Could a single map provide a lifetime of exploration?

Discovering more about the natural world than in all his years in remote environments, he learns the value of truly getting to know his neighbourhood.

An ode to slowing down, Local is a celebration of curiosity and time spent outdoors, as well as a rallying cry to protect the wild places on our doorstep.

Extracts

For more than twenty years, my favourite thing has been to leave here behind, with all its ties and routines. To hit the road and make my way to there. I get twitchy being in one place for too long. I have been lucky enough to cycle a lap of the planet, to row and sail the Atlantic, hike across southern India, and trek over Arctic ice and Arabian sands. The open road, spin the globe, and off I go. Home was for family, friends and real life, but not for exploration and adventure.

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Extracts

For more than twenty years, my favourite thing has been to leave here behind, with all its ties and routines. To hit the road and make my way to there. I get twitchy being in one place for too long. I have been lucky enough to cycle a lap of the planet, to row and sail the Atlantic, hike across southern India, and trek over Arctic ice and Arabian sands. The open road, spin the globe, and off I go. Home was for family, friends and real life, but not for exploration and adventure.

However, like many people’s, my mood has shifted. With the climate in chaos, I can’t justify flying all over the globe for fun anymore, burning jet fuel and spewing carbon for selfies. It feels particularly inappropriate as I write books that encourage everyone to get out and explore. If I love wild places so much, was I willing to not visit them in order to help protect them?

Flying to distant lands is still a rare luxury on a global scale. Each year, the vast majority of the world’s population don’t step onto a plane, and just 1 percent of us take more than half of all flights. How can more of us enjoy beautiful landscapes and the mental and physical benefits of getting out into nature without it costing the Earth?

I have been interested in achievable, inclusive adventuring since I began writing about microadventures more than a decade ago, coining that phrase as I encouraged people to undertake weekend bike rides, overnight camps and wild swims. Grand adventures shouldn’t just be for people with the time and money to cross continents. Neither should wild places only be for the lucky few with national parks on their doorstep and the freedom to explore that is often affected by gender, race and other factors. Could there be a way to put nearby nature into everyday lives?

Family life has curtailed my own expeditions in recent years, while of course adding many delights of its own. Childcare and never-ending chores saw me settled in a less adventurous neck of the woods than I’d ever imagined for myself, on the fringes of a city in an unassuming landscape, pocked by the glow of sodium lights and the rush of busy roads. It is a strange, in-between edgeland: there are fields, but there are factories too. There are villages and farms, train tracks and tower blocks. I do not like where I live. I am here for my family, because they like it and I like them. And that’s reason enough. I’d much rather live in their world than live without them in mine. But I had developed a strong tendency to blame the area for most of my frustrations in life, despite being aware of the paradise paradox, which is the belief that moving to a picture-perfect destination will solve all your problems.

It was time for me to accept that we weren’t going to move to a croft in the Cairngorms, a cabin in Quebec or a condo in California. But I didn’t want that to dampen my enthusiasm for exploration. Could I make exploring my backyard as fulfilling as travelling the world?

One morning I set down the heavy laundry basket on top of the piles of homework scattered over the kitchen table, carried a pair of abandoned cereal bowls to the dishwasher, and looked out of the window. What if where I live, this bog-standard corner of England, which had held no surprises for me, was actually full of them, if only I bothered to go out and find them? Not known, because not looked for. This was an opportunity to get to know my place for the first time and to search closer to home than ever before for things I’ve chased around the globe: adventure, nature, wildness, surprises, silence, people and perspective.

The first step was to get a map. Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national mapping agency, divides the whole country into 403 ‘Explorer’ maps on a 1:25,000 scale, meaning that one 1km of land is represented by 4cm of map. You can also order a customised map with your own home right in the middle. I visited the OS website, zoomed in on where I lived, and clicked ‘Add to basket’.

I decided to swap dreaming of large adventures for spending an entire year roaming the local map I lived on, a square area of land measuring just 20km across. If you ran around its perimeter, it would be shorter than two marathons. It felt tiny.

A couple of days later, I met the postman at the door and carried the envelope across my garden to the shed where I write my books and plan adventures. There’s an old log outside that was a good place to spread out the map. Unfolding a map is the ritual that launches all good journeys.

When the explorers Lewis and Clark set out in 1804, their aim was to survey the 828,000 square miles of the ‘Louisiana Territory’, from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, land that America had just purchased from France. What was out there? What did their country actually look like, and what opportunities did it offer? I felt a similar call to investigate my own map’s more modest span. I wondered what was out there, hiding in plain sight, right under my nose.

I ran my hands over the map to flatten its creases. It was divided into 400 individual grid squares, outlined in light blue, each covering a square kilometre. That’s a decent size, about 140 football pitches, but you could comfortably walk the perimeter of one in an hour. Each week I would explore one of those squares in depth, doing my best to see everything there, to walk or cycle every footpath and street, and to learn as much as I could along the way. A grid square was pretty small so it shouldn’t be too hard.

Hand me any map and I’ll give you any number of ideas for places to camp and to watch the sunrise, routes to ride and efficient ways to move from A to B. But I didn’t want my habits and confirmation biases to determine where I went. I wanted my discoveries to be serendipitous, not governed by my preferences. I hoped to see things I would not ordinarily see. So, after the first week I used an online random-number generator to choose the next square to visit, allowing myself only to veto any squares adjacent to one I had already explored.

From the very first square, it became clear how much of interest there was on my map, so long as I acted on the assumption that everything was interesting. And with that mindset, everything did become interesting. The late Sir Terry Pratchett once gave a lecture on ‘The Importance of Being Amazed about Absolutely Everything’, which felt like a fitting mission statement.

I found myself investigating things I would ordinarily not have noticed: nature in more detail than I’d ever seen it before, and all the history and ephemera I encountered along the way. The amount I had to learn was astonishing. I could tell a daffodil from a daisy, but not a dunnock from a denehole. I’d imagined this would be a year of poking around rabbit holes in the countryside, but it became a year of falling down internet rabbit holes about hundreds of obscure topics, as well as reading dozens of books about history, nature, farming, and the climate emergency.

Anything clever that you read in the following pages, and almost every fact and figure, was new to me when I began this book. Do not make the mistake of thinking I’m a clever person who can stand in an empty field and see biology, geology and every other ’ology, while you merely see a field. I, too, saw only the fields before I started, but paying close attention unveiled so much.

I hope this book encourages you to explore your own neighbourhood. Buy a map of where you live or borrow one from the library. Use it as a prompt to get active and spend more time outdoors. Share your discoveries with friends and family, observe what you’re motivated to learn more about, and then do what you can to get others to care about those things too.

I don’t mention any place names because I want my narrative to be a spark for your ideas, not a recipe to follow. Discover what surprises are waiting at the end of your own street. Richard Jefferies explored similar liminal landscapes to mine in the 19th century. His book Nature Near London also did not specify sites ‘because no two persons look at the same thing with the same eyes. To me this spot may be attractive, to you another; a third thinks yonder gnarled oak the most artistic… Everyone must find their own locality.’

Many times during this year of pottering around my local neighbourhood, I thought about Henry David Thoreau, whose book Walden is a classic reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. Appropriately for my project, his cabin was not in the heart of the wild either, but on the edge of a town. He went to live in a cabin in the woods, but could still entertain visitors, go to the shops and eat pies baked by his mum. Nonetheless, he was very clear about his intentions and they helped to guide my own.

‘I went to the woods,’ Thoreau explained, ‘because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’

Finally, in one of my favourite short films, Of Fells and Hills, runner Rickey Gates pondered something that has stuck with me for years.

‘In the end, I think that a single mountain range is enough exploration for an entire lifetime.’

I love that concept. It became the foundational question during my year of trying to live deliberately on my map and to learn what it had to teach. Is a single map enough exploration for an entire lifetime?

quotes

‘Alastair Humphreys shows us that space is deep as well as wide, and that one need travel only a few hundred yards to become an explorer of the undiscovered country of the nearby. This agile, wryly funny and wise book is dedicated to – as the Australian poet Les Murray once put it – being “only interested in everything”’

Robert Macfarlane

‘Alastair Humphreys is the consummate roamer: big of heart, curious of mind, light of step’

Amy-Jane Beer, winner of the 2023 Wainwright Prize

reviews

‘A paean to the benefits of determined noticing. What really shines through its pages is Humphreys’ omnivorous curiosity’

Financial Times

‘Thanks to some genuinely thoughtful writing about planet, place and political purpose, Humphreys finds beauty in the scruffy margins and makes readers look anew at what might easily be familiar or forgotten’

The Observer

‘A vivid, wry, angry, passionate read from Mr Adventure’

Saga Magazine

‘I wholeheartedly recommend the book. Anything that establishes the view that exploration is an attitude, not an activity, has to be a good thing. The physical bounds of our children will be smaller than ours. It is up to us to show that by rewilding the mind and finding adventure in the commonplace, a life constrained by necessity is  still a life worth living’

Chris Gibson Wildlife

‘Witty and gritty, affectionate and mildly censorious, eager and sometimes weary. This is still a book of a traveller and adventurer – it’s just he can cycle home quite quickly each day. Readable, well-written, stimulating’

Mark Avery

‘If you want a very different sort of travel book and one that you can use as a springboard to find out what is in your local area then this is a really good place to start’

Halfman, Halfbook

‘Humphreys shares the joy he has gained from looking at odd, liminal places, areas he thought would be boring and the details of plants and birds, which makes it a life-affirming and positive book even through the warnings and worry’

Shiny New Books

extras

ABOUT

Alastair Humphreys

Alastair Humphreys is a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. He has cycled around the world, rowed the Atlantic Ocean and walked a lap of the M25 – one of his pioneering microadventures.

He is the best-selling author of 14 books, including Great Adventurers, which won the Stanford’s Children’s Travel Book of the Year and the Teach Primary Award for Non-Fiction.

He has written eight books for Eye including the best-selling The Boy Who Biked the World trilogy, a series of novels for 9–12-year-olds based on the real-life adventures he recounted in Moods of Future Joys, Thunder and Sunshine and Ten Lessons from the Road. His more recent The Girl Who Rowed the Ocean is a similarly novelised version of his transatlantic crossing.

He is a qualified teacher.