Sunday 9 November 2008

Outdoor Writers, Colin Fletcher & John Muir

Last weekend I travelled down to Longhorsley in Northumberland where the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild Awards Dinner was being held at a rather posh hotel. I was delighted and honoured to win the Award for Excellence for Outdoor Feature for an article about the late Colin Fletcher called The Man Who Walked Through Time that appeared in TGO magazine last year. I was particularly pleased to win an award for this feature as Colin Fletcher is little known in British outdoor circles despite having been arguably the best writer on backpacking. Any excuse to mention him and encourage people to read his books is welcome! The title of my feature is also the title of, in my opinion, his best book, about the first ever backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon.

On my way home from Northumberland I called in at the little Scottish town of Dunbar where John Muir, another significant outdoor writer as well as an inspiring defender of wilderness and one of my heroes, was born in 1838 and where he lived before emigrating to the USA at the age of eleven. His birthplace on the High Street now houses a display about his life. Whilst this is interesting and informative it’s unfortunate that nothing remains of the house itself except the shell. Several years ago I visited the house in Martinez, California, where Muir lived for many years and wrote many of his books. The house is now a National Historic Site and has been kept as it was when Muir lived there. You can look at his study, complete with his writing desk and artefacts he collected in the High Sierra, and see a big fireplace he installed after the original was damaged in the San Francisco Earthquake so he could he have a real log fire. It is easy to imagine Muir there, reading before the fire or poring over his manuscripts.

The coast and fields around Dunbar are where Muir developed his love of nature and wild places. Here he studied the birds and sea life and climbed on the crumbling sea cliffs and the decaying walls of Dunbar Castle, learning skills that would prove useful in the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada. I spent a few hours wandering along the cliff tops and on the beach watching the grey waves crashing on the rocks under hurrying clouds that spattered rain in great gobbets. Reminiscing about his boyhood in Dunbar he wrote “I loved… best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of old Dunbar Castle”. Dunbar has not changed much and you can still do this. I drove the long miles home thinking of Muir and the great debt all of us who love wild places owe to him and the need to continue his work in defence of nature.

Photo info: Waves breaking below the cliffs of Dunbar. Canon EOS 450D, Canon EF-S 18-55mm IS@18mm, f5.6@1/160, ISO 200, raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.


  1. I recall the Fletcher piece tuned my attention towards his writings - so you get my award as well for what its worth

  2. Thanks John. Your award is worth a great deal. Seriously. I'm really pleased my piece had you looking at Fletcher. I hope you enjoyed his writings.

  3. As ever a great piece and it was this blog that led to me reading about Colin Fletcher. When I was in Aberfoyle late last year I came across this quote from John Muir

    All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God's eternal beauty and love. So universally true is this, the spot where we chance to be always seems the best

    John Muir 1890
    However, I am unable to find its origin. Chris do you have any suggestions?

  4. I can't find a source for that quote either Nielsen. The John Muir Trust use it but don't say where it is from.

  5. Mr. Townsend, I hiked a two hundred and eighty mile segment of the AZT (Coronado to Superior) a few years ago and had your book (Crossing Arizona) along with. It was enjoyable to hike and concurrently go with you on your journey. Charles Ross

  6. Charles, thanks for your comment. Good to hear that you read my book while hiking the Arizona Trail. Isn't the trail wonderful?