Reasons to be cheerful: A tree, a breeze and a good book
City slicker James Brown finds some unexpected comfort in the great outdoors.
I’m stood to the side of a stone driveway in a small wood. Beneath my feet, springy brown moss is dripping dew onto my pumps, while above me a bird is singing higher than my distant-motorway-level tinnitus. I’m enjoying the stillness.
It’s 8am on a fresh Saturday morning on Scotland’s Solway Coast. The Hazlefield House B&B lawns are long, the trees high and in the distance there’s a hazy mix of dark and lighter greys where the sea meets the sky. Right now, right here, it’s just me, the trees and a slight breeze, and it feels special.
When I first gave up drink and drugs 17 years ago, it was a belief that nature was greater than me. It was a higher power that helped me move away from a self-obsessed, destructive daily pattern and onto somewhere unsure and new (but undoubtedly better for me). I came to believe that if I placed my faith in nature, then everything would be OK. And on the whole, it has been. During the time I was going through rehab counselling, I lived in a fine old square in Islington, London. Towering above the houses opposite was a huge tree.
In those first few fragile days, as I tried to move my life towards a different path, I would look up at that tree from my bathroom and tell myself, It’s been here longer than me, it will be here after me, it’s strong and growing despite its years. And that’s just one great tree. There are all the mountains and seas and woods all over the world. All more impressive than me. I’m just a tiny part of it, not the centre of it. It took me out of myself and helped me notice the natural world around me.
After a while I started to feel a tremendous power when I found myself in the stillness of woods. Surrounded by the busy madness of the capital city, I sometimes forget about the spiritual strength of nature, but lately I’ve been reconnecting with it. This summer, my dad and I walked along the old, disused railway embankment in Thorner, West Yorkshire (the village he grew up in). We stopped and looked across the golden fields with their rolls of hay, listening to the combine harvesters, and it reminded me of being a kid 40 years ago. It was a perfect view.
"I came to believe that if I placed my faith in nature, then everything would be OK."
Some weeks later, I found a James Herriot book in a second-hand shop in Rye. Now reading it daily, I find myself back in the stonewalled valleys of the Yorkshire Dales with the likeable vet. It’s a familiar world of no-nonsense farmers in tweed caps and hard worn clothing, of lambing ewes and frolicking dray horses. Or, as the Dalesmen call them, “t’osses”.
Starting and ending the day with his tales of 3am journeys to treat injured farm animals, across barren fields in icy winds, really brings home the benefit of being in bed. Warm and comfortable, it’s a delight to know that I won’t at any point during the next 24 hours—or indeed my life—have to put my arm inside a cow.
I wondered whether to bring the Herriot book to Scotland with me, but decided that that sort of tale is best read down south. As it turned out, I discovered a full collection of his best-sellers at the four-star B&B. Arranged on the perfect country bookshelf, there was a great array of literature and guidebooks, and I eagerly helped myself to one of his books and another called Isolation Shepherd.
Of course, I didn’t need reminding of the countryside here. From the moment we turned left at Gretna Green, just miles north of Carlisle where we’d rented a car from an amiable bloke called Kester, we were presented with close skylines of pine forests and outcrops of rock and fields running away with themselves.
"The strength of nature is everywhere you look."
My friend Matt, whose wedding we’re going to here, has been trying to get me to come up to stay at his late grandma’s cottage for years. I asked him why he’d never shown me photographs of any of the lush green landscapes—if he had, I’d have been up here like a shot.
He insisted that he had, but all I remember are pictures of him and his brother dragging a kayak across what looked like an empty, muddy, cold and unforgiving bay. In fact, the views are consistently rewarding but are reassuring rather than spectacular. The strength of nature is everywhere you look.
I’d say any time that anyone feels unwell or needs a rest, pack them off to a decent B&B in Scotland like Hazlefield House. It’s a pleasure to be here now, cheerfully writing off a massive four-course breakfast and looking ahead to a day of fun in the village of Auchencairn. It’s good for the soul when everything you can see out of the window is a different shade of green and there isn’t a bus lane or kebab shop in sight.