“Thank God I have the seeing eye, that is to say, as I lie in bed I can walk step by step on the fells and rough land seeing every stone and flower and patch of bog and cotton pass where my old legs will never take me again.” – Beatrix Potter
My memories of childhood are centered on our back garden. It was no more than a half acre, but its lush grass, imposing oak tree, and secret paths could fascinate me for hours on end. My mother read to me Beatrix Potter’s tales, describing an entire hidden world of creatures who I easily imagined as human and friendly as my classmates at school. I found some characters, like Mr. Jeremy Fisher, a bit less approachable. But in all, Potter’s stories of the animal inhabitants of the English countryside left me wanting to recreate that same environment in my California backyard. Rainy days were my favorite. I would sit in one of the crooks of our large oak, safe under its shelter, and wonder whether a friendly squirrel was Squirrel Nutkin of Potter’s stories.
Then I read my first James Herriot book, All Creatures Great and Small. This is the first of a series of autobiographical stories that depict Herriot’s life as a veterinarian in the Yorkshire Dales. My father noticed my interest in the book and together we watched the BBC television series “All Creatures Great and Small” based on the novel. The accents, the scenery, and the people I had read about were brought to life. More of interest to me at the time, so too were the animals. I was an avid horse rider and our home was full of animals. Herriot’s stories captivated me and made me wish I too could drive through the hedgerows in the dark of a winter night to help birth a cow (well, perhaps instead in the light of a summer’s day). I became fascinated with this country I saw for the first time on television.
I traded in my usual American horse books about veterinary care and riding techniques for obscure British versions I managed to find at the local library. Pippa Funnel’s Training the Young Horse—a book written by a champion English rider—became my quick favorite, with its plethora of photos of the English countryside and natural jumps.
About five years ago, my sister relocated to London and reignited in me an admiration for the landscape surrounding her city. Though London is an incredible place to visit with its architecture, museums, and diverse communities and cuisines, it was my trip west by car to Cornwall that brought to life my childhood fascination with the country my sister now calls home. I recall getting stuck between hedgerows so tall that I could not make out the fields behind them from my car window. Granted, that was largely because I insisted on renting a beat-up little red Fiat (stick shift of course, because I felt I had to prove something driving my first time in England) with broken airbags and the worst clutch known to man. I stayed at a kind woman’s home in Devon, eating scones with fresh Devonshire clotted cream as we looked out over the heaths through her window. I traveled to Hidcote Manor Garden—the most immaculately kept garden I have ever seen—and got caught in the rain in the alley of beech trees.
The history of England was overwhelming. Small roadside churches—many deemed “redundant” by the Anglican parish—put the gothic architecture of my college to shame.
Upon my return to the United States, I immersed myself in any and all books related to the British landscape. I read about its trees, flowers, bodies of water, rolling hills, and the animals and people that inhabited them. Since starting medical school these books have been my escape into another world. Truthfully I do not always feel at home in the city—despite the palpable charm about which Baltimore accurately boasts—and these books make it possible for me to imagine myself back on the fells. Every time I visit my sister I amass a new collection of books, as many of the works are only available from booksellers in the United Kingdom. On my most recent flight returning from England, I am ashamed to say that I had to pay a large fee for having too heavy of a suitcase. I know for a fact it was my pile of new books that put me over the weight limit.
I recently read a book by Rory Stewart entitled The Marches: A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland which is a cherished book in my collection. In the first section, Stewart describes his journey along Hadrian’s Wall in the company of his aged father. It recounts the stories they shared while traversing the borderlands between England and Scotland. As I was reading the book, I could not help but long for a similar shared experience with my own father. I learned about the Coast-to-Coast walk, a 190-mile footpath in northern England created by author Alfred Wainwright in the 1950s. The path covers land between St. Bees and Robin Hood’s Bay and takes its travelers through the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, and North York Moors national parks.
Inspired by Stewart’s story, my father and I have decided to cover the Coast-to-Coast trail in the spring of 2019 as a celebration of the end of medical school. We hope to continue our tradition of running together by running, rather than walking, the length of the trail. Needless to say, we have already started logging the miles in preparation for our run. In the meantime, I plan to read Wainwright’s A Coast to Coast Walk that features his original observations about the path. I look forward to adding more books to my collection that feature other aspects of the landscape that I have not yet learned about and will doubtless encounter on our run, including moors, coastline, and aquatic life. I also hope to acquire more books written by female authors, who are a still a rarity in nature writing.
I cannot think of a better way to enjoy the landscapes and communities that I love than by seeing them with my father by my side. If only we could devise a way to carry a stack of new books on our journey.