A quick glance at the inside cover of writer and adventurer Phoebe Smith’s new book reveals just how highly regarded the former Denbighshire Free Press journalist is by her contemporaries.
Praise for her writing from the likes of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Sir Chris Bonnington and Clare Balding, who calls her new book Britain’s Best Small Hills, “a magnificent, magical and motivating guide” has planted the 35-year-old bang in the centre of the current renaissance in British nature writing.
Phoebe, who grew up in Colwyn Bay, and now lives in Windsor, has written eight books about the British wilderness and the joys of camping but it was a trip to Australia which really fired her imagination when it came to the great outdoors.
“A friend persuaded me to go and sleep in the middle of the Red Centre, a vast expanse of unpopulated land in the middle of the outback,” she says.
“I was told that everything out there could kill me basically but I remember lying there and thinking why have I never done this back home in Wales?”
After travelling around the world for two years, working at newspapers and magazines in Toronto and Sydney, as well trying a few other more colourful occupations (fairground ride operator in Seattle, dog sitter in California and interpretive naturalist in the Aquarium of the Bay on San Francisco’s Pier 39) she found herself back home in the UK longing for the same kind of exciting escapades she enjoyed all around the globe.
And so, whilst working full-time at NWN’s office in Mold, then later as features editor at Trail magazine, she went out walking in all the free time she had. The walks got longer until she was inspired to try a solo wild camp.
“I was trying to get that same sense of adventure I had when I was travelling,” says Phoebe. “The answer was to start revisiting the places I used to go with my parents and go on the walks I went on as a kid.
“I started to fall in love with my country again and even though it was only down the road I would camp out and make it feel like an adventure.”
Since then she has been an advocate for being a tourist in your own backyard. Actively encouraging others to take the same, push-you-out-of-your-comfort-zone mentality we all get when we travel and apply it to our everyday lives and locations.
“Everyone should love mountains,” says Phoebe about her latest book, in which she selects 60 of her favourite small hills across the length and breadth of England, Scotland and Wales.
“But I’d become a bit of a hill snob. I always wanted to climb the highest mountain or the hardest hill and as a society I think we’re kind of obsessed with that. It’s all about the Three Peaks challenge or climbing Snowdon but I wanted to look at the smaller peaks.
“I found a photograph of me as a child on Bryn Euryn and I realised I really remembered that day and how my dad explained how there was a fort on the top and that there’s a wonderful view of Snowdonia.
“It was only a 30-minute walk so I think these small hills are great for people who need a bit of a push to go walking. You want to share these experiences with people and show them what you love but you’re never going to do that if you haul them up Snowdon because it’s that bit harder.
“Introduce a friend, partner or child to a small hill first and you will more likely get them interested in doing adventures with you rather than if you try a baptism of fire on a giant mountain.”
Other advantages of small hills include better weather and child friendliness and throughout the book Phoebe is careful to mention lots of other attractions, pubs and activities when looking at each hill in detail.
“Hopefully each of these small hills offer them minimum effort but maximum results,” she laughs.You could fit in some of these walks before breakfast, take a flask and watch the sun come up.
“It’s like therapy in a way. I’m not saying it will solve it but there’s no problem too big that can’t be helped by walking a hill.”
Unsurprisingly given her upbringing, there are a number of hills across North Wales which make Phoebe’s selection with Moel Arthur, Bryn Alyn and Bryn Euryn all included.
“Bryn Alyn is a really cool,” she enthuses. “It’s got a great example of a limestone pavement and in the woodlands just off it is this wonderful little cave. It’s a great example of how a small hill can hide its secrets.”
As well as becoming a cottage industry when it comes to books, Phoebe continues to write for a range of newspapers, magazines and websites, both in the UK and overseas including The Telegraph, Guardian, Rough Guides, Countryfile, and Metro.
In the past few years she’s slept at Everest Base Camp in Nepal, met sea gypsies in Burma, slept in a glacier above the Arctic Circle, dog sled beneath the northern lights in Norway, crossed Siberia by train, hiked to the top of Mount Fuji and come face-to-face with grizzly bears in Alaska. A trip to Antarctica is next and she’s also doing her mountain leader training in Snowdonia.
“I want people to walk as many of these hills as possible,” she adds. It’s a jumping-off point for people to find their own routes. Already people have been coming up to me and recommended small hills which I haven’t included
“I’m a big believer in access rights and there’s always a danger that if people don’t use them we’ll lose them. It’s important to exercise our rights that so many people have fought for.
“And it’s the memories you make on the small hills which will push you up the big hills later in life.”
l Britain’s Best Small Hills is published by Bradt Travel Guides.