The president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England and former poet laureate tells Walk how the countryside inspires his poetry and what Wordsworth would have made of wind farms...
Where would you wake up on your perfect day?
On the coast of Norfolk, sleeping out with the seals of Blakeney Point. My wife and I have had some very happy times together there. There’s a memory cake there for me with several layers in it.
What’s your favourite walk?
I like Holkham Woods above Blakeney, where you see the coast in a different way. But I live in London, so I get onto Hampstead Heath a lot and swim in the ponds. I also have fond memories of Holderness [in East Yorkshire] – it’s a beautifully isolated landscape. I’m almost of the view that mountains can be a bit show-offish and that flat landscapes make you look a lot harder.
Who is your favourite walking companion?
My enthusiasm for walking with my wife is boundless. She’s Korean-American, so everywhere we walk I’m conscious that it’s all new to her, and that has a wonderfully sharpening effect on my own views.
When did you fall in love with the countryside?
In Stisted [in Essex, where Sir Andrew moved to at the age of 12]. There are places that to other people may seem a bit dull, but to you it is all the riches of the universe bundled up together. It felt quite a hairy, ramshackle place then. But it was there that my senses started to function and I did all my growing up. When I’m writing poems, or just daydreaming, that’s the generic landscape in my mind.
Can nature poetry be political?
I am very exercised about certain countryside issues. But the kind of poems I write are not satirical, ironic ones – they don’t have anything to do with wagging fingers. I hate the idea of poems telling us what to think, yet plenty of poets come to the page to censure or to praise – often valuably so. I suspect the poems that will stand the test of time will be the more oblique ones. I think of the ambiguous phrase: “poetry makes nothing happen” – but it can take us into ourselves, make us rewind.
Poets have always seen walking as important. Why?
The tradition of writing poems while walking is a strong one. Wordsworth wrote reams of the stuff while walking. It has something to do with rhythm, getting your body going, freeing up your mind. If you look at Wordsworth’s The Prelude, you can see that iambic pentameter fits well with a walking stride.
Do you have a favourite poem about the countryside?
My first is The Prelude, especially the 1798 version, which is a fraction of the length [of later ones]. Wordsworth talks about the “spots of time”. It’s the most haunted piece of writing, and rather shaggy and unpolished. I also like Old Man by Edward Thomas. Thomas was a most stupendous walker and the poem shows you can go for a walk even if you’re housebound.
What would Wordsworth have said about wind farms?
He would have absolutely hated them, and certainly would never have wanted to see one in the Lake District. But I would have liked to at least have tried to talk to him about energy, and whether there was a case for putting them in other places.
You’ve talked about the “priceless national inheritance” of the English countryside. Why does it matter?
Whether you live in it or not, know it or not, it’s where we came from. We are a rural species and have habits and expectations that are to do with that. When we go to the countryside, there is a foetal bond that cannot be broken. It’s primitive, basic. When you step onto a footpath, it’s difficult to put into words how powerful the feeling of connection is with the mud, the river, the winter trees, every kind of light.
Are you concerned about Government proposals for biodiversity offsetting?
They make me furious. The idea of assessing the value of habitat for a trade-off – that you can compromise over an ancient woodland – displays a general lack of understanding that is very upsetting. These are barbarians, they are totally disconnected from and have a dismaying lack of understanding of the countryside.
INTERVIEW: Mark Rowe
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