Although Britain has an average of over 700 people per square mile, a road network that’s 246,000 miles long and countless other human developments that threaten the future of our wild places, these areas of outstanding natural beauty remain fiercely protected. Their importance to our country is unquestionable, but they also play a precious role in keeping us sane. It’s a point that the American novelist Wallace Stegner made in 1960, when he wrote an impassioned letter to the US Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, pushing for the preservation of wild places. “We simply need wild country available to us even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, as part of the geography of hope,” he argued. Of course, the scale of wilderness in America is monumental compared to Britain, but the sentiment still stands.
Walking, or even driving, through Glen Coe, or climbing up Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons leaves me feeling wonderfully small. These places are humbling: a sort of gentle reminder that as humans we are tiny cogs that fit into a much bigger picture. The physical openness of these environments leads to an openness of mind: a chance to breathe, to momentarily ignore the messiness of human life.
Over the past few months when travel has been limited, I have craved to go to the wildest places I know – Beinn Alligin in the Highlands, Dartmoor, the Penwith coast in Cornwall. Just knowing they are still there is a comfort, but I dream of inhaling the fresh air of the open country and experiencing the mental clarity that goes with it. Between lockdowns, we managed to get up to the Isle of Arran and Argyll and Bute, where we spent a couple of weeks walking without a particular agenda. We made a trip to the southwestern tip of the Kintyre peninsula to the lighthouse – a man-made structure, but an environment so remote it was very easy to forget that. The route undulates along a winding single track road, with great swathes of bracken hemming it in. At the lighthouse, we looked out to sea, across to County Antrim and Rathlin Island. I was struck by the sheer silence.