Book review – Local by Alastair Humphreys

I very much enjoyed this book, and when it is published on Thursday I  think many readers of this blog will like it too.

Alastair Humphreys is a traveller and adventurer who has travelled the world but in this book he still has mini-adventures and is always travelling, it’s just that he chooses about 50 1kmx1km squares from the 20kmx20km map centred on his home and visits them. It’s a neat idea, and anyone could do it, but the success of the project depends on the author’s ability to win us over and keep us interested. On the face of it, that task is not made any the easier by the fact that Humphreys’s local area is a somewhat ‘scuzzy’ one (his phrase) that has motorways, industrial areas, seemingly quite a lot of people but also marshes, woods and fields.

He had me right from the quote from Little Gidding, at the very beginning of this book, which was appropriate to this book and also to my PhD thesis where I used it at the end. If you wander into a bookshop on Thursday (do!) and pick up this book then you’ll find quotes at the start of each mini-adventure and they are well chosen, although a bit heavy on Thoreau in my view.  I warmed to the book just by flicking through the quotes – this was a mind which worked a bit like mine. There are also photographs, black and white, dotted through the book which show the variety of views and habitats that occupy these locations. They serve a useful purpose but look a bit dull – then they are taken on some dull days as well as bright days and reflect the mixture of bright and dull places that are dotted around us.

But it’s the prose that sparkles and spreads warmth from the pages of this book: witty and gritty, affectionate and mildly censorious, eager and sometimes weary.

I assume the publisher wrote the guff on the back cover, and where it says that this book is an ‘ode to slowing down’ then that’s not really true. This book has pace, thank heaven!, otherwise it would be a less good read, but the author is always whizzing around on his bike and the visit to every square moves with a pace that carries us from one natural encounter to an interesting observation of a building or motorway. Most readers of this book, and most certainly this one, would have to speed up a lot to keep pace with the author. The only time he stops is for punctures, pubs and cups of coffee it seems. There is no sitting down for a few hours and thinking about the view.  This is still a book of a traveller and adventurer – it’s just he can cycle home quite quickly each day.

There is quite a lot of wildlife in this book but those aren’t necessarily the best bits of it. There are visits to squares which are entitled Blackberries, Cuckoos, Bluebells and Swifts and of those four only Swifts is remotely dominated by the species that gives its name to that account. I found the paragraphs on Hereford cows and kissing gates (in Cuckoos) more gripping than those on Cuckoos, but that might just be me.

Where the back cover is right is where it states that this is ‘a celebration of curiosity and time spent outdoors…‘. That’s exactly right, the author is open to so many subjects that he sucks the reader in to being interested in everything too. But that sentence ends with another overclaim when it says ‘…as well as a rallying cry to protect the wild places on our doorstep‘. The book does end with some useful pages with useful resources and things that we can all do to make the world a better place but they are offered too incidentally and with little explanation to be a true rallying cry. I don’t think I want a rallying cry from this book – it is eclectic and about far more than wild places.

There are some passages here about access to land and the author comes down gently, I reckon, in favour of much more access for us all in England perhaps along the lines of Scotland or Scandinavia.  That is probably what you might expect from a traveller and adventurer. I am conflicted on this subject, and haven’t really made up my mind very firmly. I don’t think I am very tribal in my views but the people who want more access are, emotionally and probably politically, the people with whom I’d normally associate but intellectually I share some of the grave concerns (coming from positions with which I usually find agreement difficult) about what an opening up of access would do to wildlife and landscape. You can tell me that nothing bad has happened in Scotland or Finland but the population density of England is seven times that of Scotland and about 25 times that of Finland.  I enjoyed reading this author’s views and they made sense to me, but not completely convincingly.

To summarise – this is a very good, readable, well-written, stimulating, interesting book.

The cover? I think I’d have preferred something based on a map and this doesn’t say ‘local’ to me, but it’s reasonably attractive – I’d give it 6/10.

Local: a search for nearby nature and wildness by Alastair Humphreys is published by Eye Books.


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