The broadcaster and anthropologist explores the ‘hidden history’ of Britain’s landscapes and reveals a love for spending nights out in the wild
Words by Susan Gray
Was walking a big part of your childhood?
I joined the Air Cadets at fourteen and it was then that I realised how brilliant it was to get off the beaten track, plotting your route with a map and compass and having a proper adventure. You learnt skills and put them into practice straight away.
What other benefits does the great outdoors have for young people?
As well as fresh air and exercise, there’s something really liberating about saying: ‘This is a landscape that you are free to explore. Go and wander and learn about yourself.’ I learnt so much about myself outdoors: like realising what you’re good at and not so good at, and needing to work as a team to support each other. Having those moments when you’re a bit scared or lost, but you do it anyway, and are really proud of your achievement afterwards. If kids don’t get the opportunities to experience outdoor activity, we’re doing them a massive disservice.
You’re a fan of sleeping in a bivvy bag...
With bivvy bagging I feel you’re only nominally camping, just stopping briefly – no fires, no evidence you have been there, and you move on at first light. A torch is a super useful bit of kit, so you don’t get scared if you are benighted. Although last winter I was in the middle of putting together my book, Hidden Histories, and I’d been at my desk so long I thought I’d take a break. Harpo, my Labrador, and I went walking on the South Downs Way. The days were short and it was dark and drizzling, but I thought I’d keep walking until 11pm. We bedded down on a shelf near the path. I’d only brought one bivvy bag, so Harpo curled himself up at the top, and I was curled foetally at the bottom. It started raining more heavily, so I zipped us in – the most stupid mistake. About half an hour later Harpo stood up, rearranged his fur and lay down again. But since the bivvy bag and the grass outside were slick and wet from the rain, we started sliding down the hill. I ended up headfirst in a ditch, nose to nose with Harpo. In the course of sliding, the bivvy bag got twisted, and I couldn’t find the zip. Panicking, I thought: ‘If I can’t get out, I’m going to asphyxiate with my dog, and this will be more body bag than bivvy bag’. This all happened in probably 20 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime, and the zip half jammed. By a Wonder Woman feat of strength, I ripped the zip out of the bivvy bag. Harpo and I just sat there in a sweaty, hyperventilating state in the rain. We made the best of it: very damp in the morning, but alive.
What was the inspiration for Hidden Histories?
A university field trip to Wiltshire. I studied archaeology and anthropology at uni, and we visited West Kennet Long Barrow, a chambered neolithic tomb from about 3,500 BC. The chambers once contained the disarticulated remains of Stone Age people – it was a communal tomb. My tutor pointed out a polissoir, a polishing stone used for sharpening and polishing ceremonial axe heads in the early neolithic age, which had been brought and incorporated into the tomb itself. That blew my mind: even the people who built this tomb 5,500 years ago had a sense of history. They took an even more ancient stone and incorporated it into the tomb. Centuries later, people in the Bronze Age and Roman period still respected this site as special, sacred and ritually important. That experience suddenly revealed the depth of history in the British Isles.
The book talks about ‘ghost landscapes’. What does that mean?
In the Scottish Highlands there is a trail that drops through Kintail, past the Falls of Glomach. To walk through that landscape now feels so remote and wild, but what you’re seeing is land that was intentionally depopulated in the late 1700s and early 1800s, because landowners realised that sheep grazing and hunting estates were more profitable than peasants. So they simply chucked the people off the land. The Clearances were a cultural extinction. Today, you can find remains of long houses in the Highlands or walk along trails that seem wider than they should be. That’s because you’re walking through a ghost landscape and along ways that were once well-used thoroughfares. The traces of what came before are still there, slowly being reclaimed by nature.
Do you fantasise about finding an archeological horde?
It would be pretty cool to find something like that – typically in ploughed soil, because the land has been churned over and so it sometimes throws up artefacts. It’s always quite profitable to look around field edges, and also near rabbit holes. People have found rabbits burrowing through Roman coin hordes – bunnies just kicking coins out of their burrows! It’s amazing to think that if you unearth a Roman artefact, the last person who held it was probably a Roman. If you find a stone tool, it might have belonged to someone from the Mesolithic period. So it could be 10,000 or 12,000 years old, and you are the first person to hold it since then. Artefacts unite us.
Do both your books, Britain’s Hidden Treasures and Hidden Histories, aim to democratise archaeology?
I grew up when Time Team made archaeology popular for the first time, and then I had the privilege of presenting it. That series did break down a barrier. It said there was a place for the public to be involved in archaeology, it wasn’t just for stuffy academics. This is all part of our heritage, and the more people that have a stake in protecting it, the better. Since then, amateur archaeologists have rewritten history, like the metal detectorists who found the real site of the Battle of Bosworth.
What was your first TV break?
I presented a BBC4 documentary about Silbury Hill [a prehistoric chalk mound near Avebury in Wiltshire] in 2007, when English Heritage commissioned a major programme of conservation work to stabilise the site. As a presenter you need to be able to turn up and know what to say – for example, in an interview you need to be able to ask the right questions. Your job is to translate for the viewer. You’re not there to be the expert; you’re there to get the information from the expert.
Is access to the landscape important to you?
Absolutely. But it’s really important for us as walkers to realise that with rights come responsibilities. We have a great history of people campaigning hard for access to Britain’s landscapes. But I walked the Yorkshire Three Peaks route last summer, and was basically following a trail of litter: sweet wrappers, chocolate bar wrappers, discarded water bottles. Nothing makes me more mad. You think: ‘If you’ve come to challenge yourself in this landscape, and to enjoy the great outdoors, then at least respect it!’ Not only is it disgusting and ugly, it is also a threat to wildlife and livestock. So if we value access to that land we have to be respectful of what we’ve got.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE
- COUNTRY WALK? The Offa’s Dyke Path in winter, when you can see the topography of a Dark Age landmass that still reflects the modern boundary between England and Wales. It’s a landscape that’s still farmed in quite an ancient way.
- TOWN WALK? A walk around Chester’s walls, showcasing the Roman city, medieval walls and modern developments.
- VIEW? From the top of Great Gable in the Lake District, where you can see the whole of the Scafell Massif laid out in front of you. It feels like an ancient landscape, still farmed by commoners who work together to bring in their sheep.
- COMPANION? Harpo my brown Labrador, who comes into his own when we’re out bivvying in the wild. Walking with him feels very primal.
- KIT? A group shelter, as recommended to me by Edale Mountain Rescue Team. It means you can have lunch out of the wind, but is also useful if somebody has an accident. It’s a small item that maximises your safety and enjoyment.
- SNACK? A flask of hot Ribena and a homemade flapjack: hillwalking isn’t the time to be calorie counting.
Hidden Histories: A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape by Mary-Ann Ochota is published by Frances Lincoln Publishers Ltd (£20)