Dr Amy-Jane Beer on her love of the Yorkshire outdoors
- Credit: Lyndon Smith
Prolific nature writer and Guardian country diarist, Dr Amy-Jane Beer is well known for her evocative prose about nature and the Yorkshire landscape. She is the new voluntary and honorary President of Yorkshire Dales environmental campaigning charity, Friends of the Dales.
When and where did you develop your love of nature?
My first realisation of the power of nature was when we moved from Germany to Wiltshire. We lived on an army base right on the edge of Salisbury Plain, which I could see from my bedroom window. My sister and I had this vast area to play on and a real freedom to explore, and so we did. This freedom to engage with nature was hugely formative to my sense of independence. I would say my love of nature is still developing; it’s a relationship that grows with every encounter.
I’ve lived in Yorkshire 20 years and now live on the Castle Howard Estate between York and Malton. For the last three years I’ve also been on the Estate’s Conservation Steering Group which looks at ways to create more space for nature. It’s a great place to live, I can walk to woods or the river without having to cross a road.
Favourite way/s to engage with nature?
If I’m wanting to really connect with nature I have to be by myself. My favourite thing is to spend at least 24 hours out there. Pack a bivvy bag and walk and then find somewhere to sleep. To wake up outside and grow gradually aware of your surroundings as your various senses tune in is very powerful. I feel like I’ve had therapy when I get back home.
Best places in Yorkshire for getting back to nature?
Almost wherever you are. There is always something to see even if you are in the middle of a city – look up and see the birds, look down and see the wildflowers growing in the cracks in the pavement or look around and see the trees. I struggle with the concept that nature is an activity that you have to travel to access. You don’t need to plan it, just do it wherever you are. Having said that I do have my favourite locations; Gordale Scar and Malham Cove are elemental, extraordinarily powerful places to rival anywhere in the world. I like to walk there, scramble up the waterfall and swim in the river. I had an amazing encounter with a Peregrine falcon hunting a Curlew there this summer. The pair swooped just metres above my head, with the Curlew calling, panicking, flying chaotically and the Peregrine just holding its form and sliding along in relentless, effortless pursuit. Like a shark. It was mind blowing.
Most memorable moments?
I’ve just finished writing a book about rivers for which I’ve visited rivers all over the country. One I went to with my son was Cowside Beck near Arncliffe where we went for a swim. The cascades on the river were covered in deposits of calcite, like a creamy fudge icing. Afterwards we went up onto the limestone pavement above and as I was explaining to my son how it was formed I had a moment of revelation myself – a sudden thrilling realisation of the connection between the grikes (fissures) in the limestone and the calcite being deposited below. It was moment of clarity as to how the Earth is constantly re-modelling itself around us, of how everything is connected – rocks, water, life - and of the dizzying scale of it all in space and time.
What do you love most about the outdoors?
The sense of belonging. I feel that I’m part of it. We as humans are part of nature and we separate ourselves from it far too much. Being outdoors renews my sense kinship with the non-human and of my responsibility to it.
What do you love most about winter?
The clearer air and the fact that you have light and dark and really accessible transitions between the two – the twilight hours are quite wonderful times of the day. I also love open fires in the pubs and that sense of conviviality and gathering you get on dark evenings!
I’m a big fan of marking the seasons of the year, so we celebrated Yule and the winter solstice on 21 December. We usually decorate our apple tree and do a bit of wassailing. We make Lambswool, an old English recipe made up of beer and spiced syrup and apple. The idea of wassailing is that you’re waking the trees and celebrating the idea of light returning and the promise of spring ahead.
Perfect way to spend a winter's day outdoors?
To be out and stay out so I can experience that transition time from light to dark. A good bracing walk, maybe a dip – I still swim a bit in the river in January. Then a walk to a cosy pub, a pint of Black Sheep Ale and maybe a slice of homemade fruit cake and local cheese – a heavenly combination I’d never encountered before I came to Yorkshire!
Advice for others who want to learn how to re-connect with nature and the seasons?
The most important thing is to take your time. To stop and be still. That’s when you see nature. It doesn’t take long… I always take a sit mat so I can sit comfortably without fidgeting. Sometimes nature comes to you, other times it’s thoughts. Both can be revelatory. Another tip is to try and record your experience in some way; make some notes, try and write a poem or draw a picture – these things really help you to pay attention.
Aspirations for your role as President of Friends of the Dales?
The thing that matters to me most is equality of access to the landscape, to green space and blue space. I recognise that tourism can be a pressure on the people who live in popular places, and on ecosystems, but national parks by definition are for everybody. Accessibility isn’t just about infrastructure. Parking and public transport matter, but I’m also talking about making people from all backgrounds and ethnicities feel welcome and responsible in our beautiful green spaces – that these are their places too. If people don’t feel a strong connection with landscape and nature, they won’t care that we’re losing it – and we need every voice to help protect what we have. Where there are concerns of being ‘overrun’, my aim is to turn this perception on its head: to imagine being overrun with people who’ll pick up the litter, who’ll monitor wildlife, who’ll support the
local economy, and who’ll get behind the campaigns to protect nature and heritage before it’s too late. It’s about harnessing love, and recognising the power of others loving the same thing, though perhaps in different ways.
Look out for Amy's seasonal thoughts throughout the year in Yorkshire Life