Caught by the River

A Charismatic Walker Writer

13th April 2012

I’ve been happily swamped by new things to read just lately. All of a sudden a bunch of our favourite writers, in particular the ones that engage directly with nature, have new books on the way. The nice thing is that most of them are authors following up books that inspired us five or six years ago and gave us the reason to start this website. Kathleen Jamie’s excellent Sightlines is out this week, Chris Yates’ Nightwalk, you know, the one that isn’t about fishing, well that’s out at the end of the month and does not disappoint. Laura Beatty has spoiled me rotten with extracts from her new novel and I’m enjoying dipping in and out of Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, which is out on 7 June.

Robert has inadvertently allowed me an opportunity to post this extract from a book that I’m really fond of. In The Old Ways, Robert talks of George Borrows, a man he describes as being ‘the most charismatic of walker writers’. I must admit I’d never heard of Mr Borrows, but I do have a personal favourite that matches that description. His name is John Hillaby and I’ve been waiting ages to mention him on here. This is a short passage from the book I consider to be his best, Journey Across Britain, originally published by Paladin, in 1968, now out of print but not too difficult to find. Treat yourself.


‘In a rough pasture on the high tops above Lothersdale I walked by accident into a kindergarten of lapwings. The indignant parents whirled round, diving down, turning and twisting close enough for me to feel the waft of their curiously square wings. Peee-wit, they called. And also peeerweet-weet-weet, which I take to be extraordinarily rude in lapwing language. I looked down.

At foot level two nestlings crouched, quivering. A third made off like a mouse on stilts and then stopped dead, pretending not to be there.

In the air I counted about a hundred birds, maybe more. Say fifty pairs. In a three-acre patch of grassland about two hundred lapwinglets were being taught the hard facts of avian life : the difference, for instance, between a juicy wireworm and an acrid ladybird. Some spiders shalt thou touch, but not all. Keep out of sight of any bird that hovers and, above all, beware of that hairless biped called Man. I went off warily, still pursued until, out of the way behind some gorse bushes, I knelt down and focused the little Talita on a corner of lapwingdom.

Many birds possess what we loosely call grace. The need to keep primaries immaculate is vital to their survival; they respect their outmost extentions as a violinist his fingers. But watch the gulls and related hosts of birds called plovers for something unique in callisthenics. In the air they play with the wind, toying with it, rolling over, apparently not caring how the gusts strike them. But, the flight over, they glide down, landing delicately, scarcely seeming to touch the ground until with a little run they come to rest. For an instant the wings are lifted up and then swept back in the manner of a gallant bow. They settle down on their nests with a little shiver of ecstasy. Whoever invented the word grace, said Aldo Leopold, must have seen the wing-folding of the plover.’


Robert Macfarlane and Chris Yates are appearing at the Caught by the River Variety show at the Purcell Room, London on 25 May. Both of these gentleman, along with Laura Beatty, will be appearing on the Caught by the River stage at the Port Eliot festival in July.