In Search of Martians on Horsell Common, Surrey

For a few hours in October 1938, the world was gripped by mass panic. The stoic voice on the wireless set narrated events apparently unfolding on the edge of a small New Jersey township; flares in the night sky, falling stars, strange objects filled with otherworldly creatures, intent on our destruction. The beginning of our human battle for survival; the eve of the war.

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The immediacy and horror of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of H. G Wells’ The War of The Worlds, transposed to the USA, captured the imagination of many at the time, but it isn’t only adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel. The original story is set in the leafy suburban towns surrounding late-Victorian London, like Woking where Wells lived in 1895 and explored the nearby countryside on his bicycle.

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Much closer to the closer to the original story, although with the flourish and excess of 1970s prog-rock, and by far my favourite version, is the musical by Jeff Wayne, with the solemn voice of Richard Burton narrating the story. If you’ve never heard it, I insist you treat yourself to all of its epic awesomeness.

The double cassette of the album was our family “car tape”, the soundtrack of many childhood road trips through the Scottish highlands with our caravan in tow. Just hearing the opening chords evokes memories of empty roads skirting the sides of sea lochs and the flanks of mountains, to end at vast beaches where my sister and I had the whole summer to explore. I think of picnics by the side of the road, of dairylea sandwiches, monster munch crisps, and um-bongo juice boxes; the adventure of being outdoors.

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The Woking Martian by Warofdreams on CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=940898

So this small corner of Surrey heathland, near the commuter town of Woking, has a bit of a special draw for me. It’s here, on Horsell Common, that cylinders fired from the surface of Mars in flares of luminous green gas first fall to earth, landing…

…not far from the sand pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and half away.

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The sandpits are a wide bowl in the heath, edges scalloped from years of aggregate quarrying rather than an extra-terrestrial impact. On the crisp January day that I visited, the shallow pond in the centre was frozen, and footprints are set fast in the icy orange sand. Like a child, I have to plant my footprints in the spot where the Martians landed, before continuing onto the heath.

The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one. But still they come.

The open heathland rolls away into dark pine woodland, frosted heather and bracken a patchwork of green, brown and gold, framed by the reddish trunks of the Scots pine and paths marked out in the burnt orange of fallen needles and sand. Silver birches, with papery white bark, catch glittering dew drops on their dark ruby twigs, flashes of light in darker corners. Bright yellow gorse flowers among the mass of spines are a reminder of the mild weather that makes this frozen day an exception this winter. Its a landscape to be viewed leisurely, at different scales, both close-up and in sweeping views into the distance.

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Lowland heath, like Horsell and other nearby areas in the Thames Basin, is not a remote forbidding planet where no living thing could survive, but a rare and vital habitat. Globally there are more hectares of tropical rainforest, and like rainforest, the diverse botany of lowland heath makes a rich environment for insects and spiders, lizards and snakes, which in turn support a range of birds, just as rare as Martians might be. In the summer heathland is used by ground-nesting species, like curlew, woodlark, and nightjar, which are extremely vulnerable to disturbance from walkers.

Much of the remaining areas of lowland heathland are found in densely-populated, highly urban landscapes like South East England and much of the Netherlands, where pressure on them for leisure and recreation is high. Careful management by organisations like the Horsell Common Preservation Society and Thames Basin Heaths Partnership work to balance the pressure of visitors against the conservation of the habitat.

We stay as long as cold toes can take, before heading to nearby Heather Farm, an area of wetland regeneration adjacent to the common, that was until very recently the site of a massive mushroom farm. Reedbed-fringed lakes and scrapes are found where there was once concrete hard-standing and a series of corrugated tin hangars filled with fungi. Even better is the new café by the water’s edge, where birdwatching can be done with a mug of hot chocolate to hand.

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Armchair Travel: 10 Books for a Wild World

For the second edition of my Armchair Travel series, I’m going back to nature.

Inspired by the Wildlife Trust’s #30DaysWild campaign, I’ve been thinking about some of the nature writing that has inspired me over the years. Not just to travel and spend time outdoors, but in my chosen career: I’ve worked in wildlife and nature conservation as a ranger and environmental education officer for several years.

So lace up your hiking boots and grab your field glasses, in this instalment we’re heading for a close encounter with ten books to go wild with…

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  • The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane pleads the case for wildness in our lives, from wide-open spaces, mountain peaks, and remote islands, to a just a bit of time to stop and stare, at the birds flying overhead, moss growing from a crack in the pavement, the small things. The things that make us feel most alive..

  • Ring of Bright Water – Gavin Maxwell

I watched the film one rainy weekend at my grandparent’s house in Caithness, and I fell in love with the otters. The book is even better, capturing the delight, sadness, and sense of awe that comes from living close to wild animals without being overly sentimental.

  • The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples – Tim Flannery

Though the title sounds like this might be a textbook, the subject matter dense and the scope epic, Flannery is an engaging writer with a deep understanding of the topic. The second part of the book is challenging, sometimes uncomfortable reading, but provokes the reader to consider their own relationship to the natural world.

  • Orison for a Curlew – Horatio Clare

I’m a bit of a birder, a beginner still, but I’m growing to know more and more. This slim book seemed to jump out at me on my last trip to the bookshop, and I was spellbound by the first page alone. The slender-billed curlew is rare, perhaps only a rumour, and in beautiful writing Clare examines the meaning of extinction, and how some species can be gone before we know they really exist.

  • The Outrun – Amy Liptrot

It’s often said that nature is the greatest healer, and this book is a celebration of the windswept nature of Orkney and the balm it provides Liptrot on her road to sobriety. It’s also a meditation on leaving behind the familiar, and returning home after a long exile.

  • Gorillas in the Mist – Dian Fossey

Fossey was a challenging and uncompromising woman, and pioneered the study and conservation of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire). It’s a hard book to read with the hindsight garnered from 30+ years since her murder in 1985, but ultimately rewarding in providing context to bucket-list dreams of mountain gorilla encounters.

  • Winter Count – Barry Lopez

This beautiful collection of short stories are so grounded in the natural world, I didn’t realise they were works of fiction on my first reading. A collection of stunning writing and evocative images that contemplate the relationship between people and nature.

  • Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

Another collection of short works, this time inspired by Scotland and Scandinavia, too beautifully written to be called essays and too sharp and insightful to be called reflections, which conjures up something wafty and vague to my mind. I wish I could write like this.

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  • The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia – Piers Vitebsky

I love reindeer; like really, really love reindeer. Enough to holiday north of the Arctic circle in February, and to visit the Cairngorm herd every time I’m in the area. This book is a beautiful account of people, animals and place; a classic of ethnography.

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell

No list of books about wildlife would be complete without Gerald Durrell, and this is the book that introduces most people (including me) to his, er, well… adventures. So laugh-out-loud funny in places, it’s almost rude to read it in public. If you don’t read any of the other recommendations in my list, you must read this one.

Do you have a favourite piece of nature writing you can recommend to me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.
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