THE Moors, be they in Ruabon, Yorkshire or Devon, Cornwall or the Scottish Highlands, have always held a unique place in the British consciousness.
Three years ago the writer William Atkins set out on a mission to understand better this mysterious and alluring part of our landscape.
The result was The Moor, a literary travel book which has been described as nature writing, but is equally a social and cultural history of our upland landscapes.
It was branded a classic of the genre by many reviewers and has now led to William being named as one of Gladstone Library’s Writers in Residence for 2017.
Each author, chosen from a pool of entries from around the world, receives a month’s residency at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden.
During this time, the writers will each run a creative writing masterclass, give an evening talk, submit two blogs to the library website, and use the library to work on their current project. They are also all awarded a small honorarium.
“I haven’t been to Gladstone’s Library yet, but know it by reputation, of course,” says William, who will be presenting a talk there on January 10.
“I spend a lot of my life travelling, but just as important to the way I write is sitting among books and familiarising myself with the accounts of journeys others have made.”
William, who lives in North London, grew up in rural Hampshire, where he spent his childhood exploring the tract of moorland on his doorstep.
After studying photography and art history, he went on to work in poetry and art publishing, before becoming editorial director at Pan Macmillan UK, where he edited and published prize-winning fiction.
“I used to work in publishing so I know that to a large extent the response any book receives is in the lap of the gods.
“But yes, reviewers were kind about The Moor,” he says when I ask about its rapturous reception.
“Gratifying in a different way are the responses from people who have spent their lives on the moors and who felt that I conveyed something true about an area they know and love.
“I recently did a talk to a local history society in Haworth, right in the middle of Bronte country, and I felt like a trainee priest addressing a conclave of bishops on Christian doctrine.”
William is looking forward to exploring North East Wales during his time staying in Hawarden and admits it is one of the few areas of the UK he doesn’t know well.
“I lived in Cardiff for a decade and more so Wales is close to my heart – though I know the south better than the north,” he says.
“As Jan Morris has said, one of the wonderful things about Wales is the sheer diversity of landscapes.”
William’s forthcoming book, The Desert, involved travel to the troubled Xinjiang region of north west China, Kazakhstan’s depleted Aral Sea, the Maralinga nuclear test-zone in southern Australia and the borderlands of southern Arizona, and he will be reflecting on his experiences in the world’s deserts throughout his talk.
“It’s interesting, isn’t it?” he says, when I ask him why travel writing is undergoing such a renaissance at the moment, especially books that celebrate our local landscapes.
“We often hear about ‘nature writing’, but I think a lot of it is simply travel writing, albeit about the British countryside rather than some far-flung place.
“One of the great books about the British countryside, rarely thought of as nature writing, is V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, an utterly unique and haunting semi-autobiographical novel about the changing rural landscape.
“I also love Tim Robinson’s deep histories about the Connemara landscape – another wet and peaty place!
“One of my favourite books about Wales, incidentally, is Lloyd Jones’ extraordinary quixotic novel-cum-travelogue-cum-memoir, Mr Vogel – I know no better modern introduction to the place and its people.
“As for what explains the current surge of interest in nature writing, well, I suspect it’s less about a search for tranquility or escapism than it is about anxiety related to national identity: in a fast-changing, terrifying world, where the old certainties seem less and less fixed, perhaps we are drawn to depictions of a realm – the countryside – that can give the reassuring illusion of permanence.
“One of the great services the best of the new crop of nature writers have done – Robert Macfarlane, especially – is to remind us that we have wonders on our doorstep and needn’t get on a plane to be astonished and changed by the world.”
Despite the modern world’s attempts to tame the moors with grouse shooting, quad bikes, farming and road building, about six per cent of the UK’s total area remains moorland and William thinks it will stay that way.
“One of the things I love about moorland is that it’s so damn stubborn.” he laughs.
“In the course of my research I came across story after story, especially in the 18th century, of farmers attempting to ‘improve’ the moors for cultivation only to find they were too peaty, and too wet, and too cold.
“Somehow these landscapes throw off our attempts to exploit them. We have to accept them on their own terms. There’s a lesson there.”
Into the Wilderness: An Evening with Writer in Residence William Atkins is at Gladstone’s Library at 7.30pm on Tuesday, January 10, 2017.
Tickets are priced at £15 which includes a copy of The Moor.
To book your place, call 01244 532350 or email enquiries@ gladlib.org