Skip to content

A Life of Exploring in One's Own Corner of the World

Alastair Humphreys at Noema

Photo by Thierry Lemaitre / Unsplash

For more than 20 years, my favorite thing has been to leave here behind, with all its ties and routines. To hit the road and make my way to there. I get twitchy being in one place for too long. I have been lucky enough to cycle a lap of the planet, row and sail the Atlantic, hike across southern India and trek over Arctic ice and Arabian sands. A spin of the globe and off I go on the open road. Home was for family, friends and real life, not for exploration and adventure.

However, my mood has shifted, like many people’s. With the climate in chaos, I can’t justify flying all over the globe for fun anymore, burning jet fuel and spewing carbon for selfies. It feels particularly inappropriate to write books that encourage everyone to get out and explore. If I love wild places so much, I’ve begun to wonder, am I willing to not visit them in order to help protect them?

Flying to distant lands is still a rare luxury. Only a tiny minority of the people on the planet step onto a plane each year; just 1% of us take more than half of all flights. How can more of us enjoy wild landscapes and the mental and physical benefits of getting out into nature without it costing the Earth?

I started writing about “microadventures” more than a decade ago: encouraging people to undertake weekend bike rides, overnight camps and wild swims close to home. Grand adventures shouldn’t just be for people with the time and money to cross continents. Neither should wild places only be for the lucky few with national parks on their doorstep, or those who have the freedom — so often affected by gender, race and other factors — to explore.

Family life also curtailed my own expeditions in recent years, while of course adding many delights. The never-ending merry-go-round of childcare and chores settled us in a less adventurous neck of the woods than I’d ever imagined for myself, on the fringes of a city in an unassuming landscape, pocked by a glow of sodium lights and the rush of busy roads.

It is a strange, in-between edge-land: There are fields but factories too. There are villages and farms, train tracks and tower blocks. I don’t like it. My family does though, and I like them. That’s reason enough. I’d much rather live in their world than alone in mine. Even so, I developed a tendency to blame the area for most of my frustrations, despite being aware of the paradise paradox — the false belief that a picture-perfect place will solve all your problems.

“I hoped to see things I would not ordinarily come across. I decided to treat everything as interesting.”FacebookTwitterEmail

I felt a need to reconcile my enthusiasm for exploration with my decidedly unadventurous local environment. One morning I set down a heavy laundry basket on top of piles of homework scattered over the kitchen table, carried a pair of abandoned cereal bowls to the dishwasher, and wondered: What if this bog-standard corner of England was actually full of surprises if only I bothered to go out and look? Maybe the things I’ve chased from India to Iceland — adventure, nature, wildness, surprises, silence, perspective — were here too?

The first step was to get a map. Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national mapping agency, divides the whole country into 403 “Explorer” maps at 1:25,000 scale, meaning that 1 kilometer of land is represented by 4 centimeters of map. You can order a customized map with your own home right in the middle. I visited the O.S. website, zoomed in on where I lived, and clicked “Buy Now.”

A couple of days later, I met the postman at the door and eagerly carried the envelope across the garden to an old log outside my shed, where I could spread out the map. Unfolding a map is a ritual that launches all good journeys.

I ran my hands over it to flatten its creases. It showed an area totaling just 20 square kilometers, a tiny place. The map was divided into 400 individual grid squares, outlined in light blue — a single square kilometer each. I could comfortably walk the perimeter of any square in about an hour.

Each week, I decided, I would explore one of those squares in detail, doing my best to see everything there, to walk or cycle every footpath and street, and to learn as much as I could along the way. I wanted it to be serendipitous, not governed by my preferences. I hoped to see things I would not ordinarily come across. I decided to treat everything as interesting. The late Terry Pratchett once gave a lecture on “the importance of being amazed about absolutely everything,” which felt like a fitting mission statement.

Read the rest

A Single Small Map Is Enough For A Lifetime | NOEMA
What if this bog-standard corner of England is actually full of adventure, nature, wildness, surprises, silence, perspective — if only I bothered to go out and look?