Caught by the River

The Sacred Combe by Simon Barnes

24th January 2016

The-Sacred-Combe-high-res-646x1024 The Sacred Combe: A Search for Humanity’s Heartland by Simon Barnes
Bloomsbury, hardback, 240 pages. Out now.

Review by Ceri Levy

What is a combe? Well, it’s a valley, possibly a magical valley and most likely unknown to many. It could be an actual location hidden within the world but it could be somewhere we create deep inside our imaginations. It’s that place we connect with immediately, where we go to give life a new meaning, to feel complete and connected with our surroundings. Where we are able to just be…

“It is something deep in all of us, this valley. It is buried in all our memories, even though we have never been there before. It is as old as humanity: this place set apart from the common run, this place where humans are at peace with the rest of creation.”

I have a lot of time for Simon Barnes. Over the years not only has he been one of my favourite sports journalists who has entertained me with his prosaic analysis of sporting dramas, he is also a no-nonsense writer on wildlife and the natural world. And The Sacred Combe is a no-nonsense book about a love affair the writer has been having with a place, his special place, the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. For this is his sacred combe.

The book is a meander through the Luangwa Valley and the mind of Simon Barnes. It is based around many visits to the site and in particular, one two month long stint he spent there. It is usually never recommended to leave your vehicle and walk in Africa, lest one be consumed by lions or trampled underfoot by raging elephants, but for Barnes this is a key activity. “It was walking that changed everything. I would never have loved the Valley as I did had I seen it only from a vehicle… By abandoning your vehicle and setting off on foot you become, at least potentially, part of the ecology of the place.” We accompany him as he explores the animal world and its day-to-day dramas, whether that is a pride of lions devouring prey, two bull hippos battling or simply marvelling at the luxuriant beauty of Carmine Bee-eaters. He writes with sheer joy and love and we see that he is smitten. “The great heresy of the 21st century is the belief that being In Love should be a permanent state and if it isn’t, you’ve been cheated…In Love is the essential precursor to a deeper and more meaningful thing which is, of course, Love: ever changing, ever developing, ever deeper. Being In Love prepares the way for something greater. We fall, we fall, but it’s when we land that we love.” And this is a book of love and Barnes explains how this place, which invokes this love, is with him always. Many of us may have a place that we can remember or imagine that transports us somewhere else. A beautiful reverie of remembered sound, climate or wildlife. According to Barnes this comes from our need of contact with wildlife and the non-human world, otherwise known as biophilia. I certainly know the difference reconnecting with nature has made in my life and for many others too.

The book is dripping with literary and musical stop-off points, which heighten the sense that anyone and everyone in the know is seeking their own sacred combe. It is peppered with references to the work of Tolkien, Kipling, Durrell, Joyce, even Anthony Burgess and Clockwork Orange and then on to The Incredible String Band and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. The world within C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books is mentioned more than once and there is no doubt that what lies through the author’s wardrobe is the Luangwa Valley as he drags his willing audience into a world of enchantment.

This is a collection of thoughts, ideas, lists, moments and happenings. Barnes tears through his thoughts at a pace, (unfortunately his editor may not have worked so quickly, as the only fault in the book is the amount of typos therein) and for a man who is a keen birdwatcher who keeps no bird list, the book is full of intriguing lists – including what one can glean from different animal turds found within Luangwa, and the fact that giraffe poo is very, very tiny! These are facts I appreciate. And through the chattiness of the book there is much to learn, although the greatest feeling to come across is the sense of belonging that Barnes feels when he is in his valley. I think many of us search for this connection through our lives and we may or may not achieve this but the author is adamant that you don’t have to travel far to discover this type of space and that the search can be discovered closer to hand, such as Ipsley Alders, a wildlife reserve by Redditch, which is the sacred combe of his brother-in-law’s neighbour John. As Barnes says, “The realest, deepest and most important truth of this book is that a sacred combe is wherever you want to look for it.”

The blurb that comes with the book suggests that everyone has a sacred combe, but I think that an awful lot of people don’t have one, have never found it or never knew where to look. The pace of modern life often makes us forget to stop, breathe, look and listen. Barnes ignites a fire that could make those that read his book begin searching for their own special place if they don’t already have one, and the truth is, it may be closer than you think. So it is time to go into the attic, open that wardrobe door and step inside. Don’t feel self-conscious about climbing into your wardrobe. Who knows what new worlds await.

“The sacred combe is no idle fancy of mine. You come across it all the time, even if all you can find is a mourning for its loss. It really is something common to us all: that dream of a special place that extorts from us a kind of reverence.”

The Sacred Combe is available from the Caught by the River shop, priced at £13.00.

Ceri Levy on Caught by the River