Walk & Talk with Tristan Gooley
Known as the Natural Navigator, Tristan Gooley has spent years learning to read the landscape for orientation, and has written and taught extensively on the subject. Susan Gray talks to him about wanderlust, nature’s indestructibility, migrating with geese and his new book about the art of exploration
Your latest book, The Natural Explorer (Sceptre, £16.99), is a plea for us all to slow down and savour our travels. What was the inspiration behind it?
It was more of a cumulative process than one defining experience. I’m a poacher-turned-gamekeeper, as I was fortunate enough to do a lot of travelling when I was younger. But it wasn’t until my early twenties that I discovered there wasn’t just one way of getting to any destination, but a million. We can’t rely on others to do our travelling for us, or pay for someone else to make us curious. Travel requires us to make decisions and also to be inquisitive.
Exploration still has a macho image, but your book pays tribute to two women: Dorothy Wordsworth and Nan Shepherd. What’s special about their travel writing?
In Inuit and Pacific cultures, women are seen as being the more knowledgeable about exploration. But gender didn’t come into my choice of writers: it was all about perception. Nan Shepherd was ahead of her time in getting more from less. Her descriptions of water are some of the most beautiful and insightful I’ve come across. Dorothy Wordsworth changed the way that we see landscape: for example, seeing someone cold in a field is different from seeing a cold field. That connection to people in a landscape raises it to a whole new level. We can empathise, or even sympathise, if necessary. Also, I like underdogs. Dorothy Wordsworth was a modest person, not published until the end of her life.
Your father founded the travel operator Trailfinders. Do you worry about the carbon footprint of mass long-haul travel?
Travel is an integral part of a rounded education. Of course, you can learn from books and the classroom, but you learn more deeply and effectively through your own experience. And the world is a better place if people have travelled. Regimes that aren’t very nice to their people always shut down the opportunity to travel. People who are allowed to travel and are exposed to different ways of living don’t put up with oppression for very long. That’s the beauty of travel: it’s so complex that you can’t put it in a box.
You’ve both sailed and flown the Atlantic solo. Did your father’s business help to foster your wanderlust?
As a kid I always wanted to run up the hill. At 10, I climbed into a small boat and was determined to set out on an adventure. I don’t know if it was nature or nurture. I’d learned by my late teens that it was rarely the physical activity that thrilled me – I wanted to make the journey. I also learned, if you’re not versed in navigation, you’re just a passenger.
Geese and tennis courts are both navigational aids, according to your first book, The Natural Navigator. Tell us more.
Geese are part of an annual migratory pattern that has also influenced the migratory patterns of human beings. Culdee monks, travelling from Ireland to Iceland in the first millennium, without a compass and in cloudy conditions, probably followed Brent geese. As for tennis courts, they tend to be aligned north-south to minimise the sun’s glare for the players.
Open access land is meant to encourage forays away from established footpaths, but many walkers are uncomfortable doing it. How would you encourage us to just follow our noses more?
The best way of becoming a confident walker is to first of all take a few nibbles. You’ll be put off if the first thing you try is a 20-mile walk in the Cairngorms. You can make a two-mile walk as challenging as possible by being curious about the rocks and the soil around you as you go; the big steps in natural exploration are both mental and philosophical. At the moment, there’s a bias towards the excitement and challenge of wilderness walking. But I’m arguing that each and every walk is interesting, exciting and different in its own way – it doesn’t need to be far-flung to be stimulating. I’m happy if people just put one foot in front of the other and enjoy the richest experience they can.
Wales will soon have a national coastal path. Would you like to see something similar for England’s coastline?
As a walker, I’m in favour. Paths are fascinating because they reflect national psyches. Wales and Scotland have more space, and this has probably shaped a more liberal attitude towards access. I believe that the more places there are to walk, the more people will walk, and the better life will be for everyone. I think that we’re actually very lucky in England with our network of paths. You only have to open a map of Ireland, where so much countryside is private land, to realise that we’re quite well provided for here.
How do you feel about the Government’s proposed National Planning Framework to encourage more sustainable development in England and Wales?
I don’t know enough about the proposal to be specific, but I do lament what feels like the slow suburbanisation of Britain. I used to feel down about this until a friend pointed out grass growing through tarmac. Man makes his best efforts but nature swats them away like a fly. Near the Avon Gorge, in South Dartmoor, you can almost hear the ghosts of the area’s mining past and see the mine melting back into the landscape. We aren’t powerful enough to destroy the planet. Even if we do wipe ourselves out, nature will survive.
Your most recent TV series, All Roads Lead Home, featured three celebrities using natural navigation techniques on a journey. Who impressed you most?
All three of them have different talents. Stephen Mangan has a phenomenal memory. Sue Perkins has an incredible ability to digest and regurgitate things in an entertaining way, while Alison Steadman has the best holistic view. When she burst into tears, I knew she’d got what the subject is capable of. Natural exploration can be a profound, almost spiritual, experience, taking you to a special place.
What’s your favourite…
…country walk? Bignor Hill, South Downs Way, West Sussex.
…city walk? Fulham Broadway to Earl’s Court, sometimes via North End Road for the market crowds.
…view? Between Burgh Field and Downs Farm, near Amberley, West Sussex.
…piece of kit? My Mammut boots. From the desert to the Cairngorms, they’ve never let me down.
…tipple? Still water.