Why do so many nature writers live in Suffolk?

Richard Mabey

Richard Mabey - Credit: Archant

Some of the country’s best-loved nature writers have an affiliation with Suffolk and the wider East Anglian region.

The late Roger Deakin swimming in a moat at his home in Mellis, Suffolk
PIC: Owen Hineseadt

The late Roger Deakin swimming in a moat at his home in Mellis, Suffolk PIC: Owen Hineseadt

Probably the best known for Suffolkness is the late, great Roger Deakin, whose book Waterlog is widely credited as being the catalyst for the wild swimming movement while his wonderful Notes from a Walnut Tree Farm is an amalgam of his diaries written at his home in Mellis.

Richard Mabey, one of Britain’s finest natural history writers and author of some 30 books, moved to the Waveney Valley on the Suffolk/Norfolk border around 15 years ago while new writers such as Matt Gaw, whose work The Pull of River is about canoeing, and Nick Cottam, author of Life on the Deben, have both been inspired by the waterways of Suffolk, the county where they live. And there’s Melissa Harrison who has been inspired to move to the county as a setting for her nature writing.

Widen the net a bit further towards Cambridge and nature writing royalty such as Robert Macfarlane, Tim Dee and Helen Macdonald, author of H is for Hawk, can be included. Venture north into Norfolk and important current nature writers such as Mark Cocker and Patrick Barkham are brought into the fold.

New nature writing

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All of these wordsmiths are part of what has been called the new nature writing revolution.

Dr James Canton

Dr James Canton - Credit: Archant

Dr James Canton, who lives on the Essex/Suffolk border near Sudbury and leads an MA course in Wild Writing at the University of Essex, defines new nature writing as prose where nature and human emotions are interlinked.

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“Nature writing is shifting and changing,” he said.

“Traditionally, nature writing has been, for example, an expert ornithologist writing about a bird. There is still a place for this, but increasingly human emotions are being brought into nature writing.

“The person writing has become an essential element of the book - it’s about the interrelationship between an aspect of the natural world and the writer themselves.”

Mr Canton believes the rise in the popularity of nature writing is a result of our growing “disconnect” with the natural world - a reaction to the fact that for the last million years we have been part of the natural world and now, within a relatively short space of time, many of us find ourselves living in cities and towns, mainly indoors. Hemmed in by urban creep, access to rural and wild places become ever more important - even if that can only be achieved via the pages of a book.

He added: “The East Anglian landscape is extremely important to nature writers - everyone who lives in this area realises what a special and unique place it is.”

Matt Gaw, whose book The Pull of the River includes accounts of his adventures on Suffolk's waterway

Matt Gaw, whose book The Pull of the River includes accounts of his adventures on Suffolk's waterways. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Wild genes

Surprisingly, when I speak to Richard Mabey, he is rather downbeat about the region’s ability to inspire - and points to the on-going intensification of farming and loss of hedgerows as a key reason why East Anglia is losing its inspirational edge.

“I love being here and I love being near the coast,” he said. “But I live in a rural setting and if I wanted to go to woodland I would have to travel for 15 minutes – that is not encouraging.

“If water is the element that tickles the wild genes inside you – this is a fine place for a writer but if it is forests, mountains or even hills that tickle you, you wouldn’t be here.”

Mr Mabey’s theory as to why so many nature writers have congregated in this region is that “it’s pretty much a networking thing”.

Helen Macdonald PIC: Mike Birkhead Associates

Helen Macdonald PIC: Mike Birkhead Associates - Credit: BBC/Mike Birkhead Associates

“We’ve all known each other since the early 1980s - and one single thing that ties us together is that a lot of us began our encounters with the wilder side of nature, bird-watching on the North Norfolk Coast.

“But I don’t think it was the local landscape that inspired the [new nature writing] revolution – it is more likely that would have happened in the West County, Lake District or Scotland.”


But when I speak to Nick Cottam, he tells me Suffolk offers wonders aplenty.

“It’s those big skies, and open spaces that make any experience with nature in the raw that more dramatic,” he said.

Naturalist and environmental writer Mark Cocker PHOTO: Wymondham Words

Naturalist and environmental writer Mark Cocker PHOTO: Wymondham Words - Credit: Archant

Mr Cottam’s book Life on The Deben, due out this summer, is an account of a journey down the Suffolk river with journalist John McCarthy - detailing the waterway’s history and its current splendour.

“Suffolk is still unspoilt and uncrowded – as I was getting the train today, I saw oyster catchers, lapwing, heron and egrets from the window. On the river you see kingfishers and otters have returned.

“It certainly inspires me,” he added.

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