Monday 11 February 2013

The Natural Navigator

I am the first to admit I am not a good navigator. I have no sense of direction whatsoever, and if I’m walking or driving I can lose myself quite easily, even in the area where I have lived for more than 30 years – an achievement (if it could be called that!) which reduces the Man of the House to a quivering wreck. And it’s even worse if he drives and expects me to be the route-finder, as I’m always ill if I read while travelling, and I’ve never managed the art of successful map reading. Up in Cumbria one year I sent us miles in the opposite direction to where we were going because, as the MotH eventually discovered, I had the map aligned the wrong way, and it was upside down...

So the idea of trying to find your way around without the aid of a map, compass, SatNav or Google directions – as explained by Tristan Gooley in The Natural Navigator - sounds enticing, if more than a little scary. I treated myself to the book because since I began walking at the start of the year I’ve become much more aware of the landscape around me, and can remember being entranced by the BBC television series ‘All Roads Lead Home’, in which Sue Perkins, Alison Steadman and Stephen Mangan were coached by Gooley before being let loose to trek across Bodmin Moor and other locations using shadows, lichens, mosses, the shape of trees, the position of the sun, and the way animals lie down.

To be honest, I don’t think I would have the confidence to rely on Gooley’s advice, and I haven’t really had a chance to test his instructions, because my walks so far have been local, or easy to get to. And I’m not sure the MotH will allow me to trial natural navigation during visits to his family in Cumbria, or our elder daughter in Devon. He remains committed to maps, especially after the unfortunate incident with ED’s SatNav back in September.

But even if you’re not prepared to discard modern navigational aids, ‘The Natural Navigator’ is a fascinating read, packed with travellers’ tales, history, natural history, weather lore, meteorology, geology, and all kinds of information about the environment. Snippets from folk tales, myths and legends rub shoulders with hard facts to create one of those wonderfully readable, meandering books I love so much, wandering from subject to subject, interspersed with the author’s own thoughts on life, the universe, and the world around him.
This tree seems much more symmetrical than those in Gooley's
book, and although I walked round and round it, I couldn't see
that it would help find the way.
 I’m only part-way through the book - there is so much to take in I feel I need time to think about it all and, unusually for me, I’m on a slow read, so I may return with another post in a month or so. There are all kinds of tips and hints which I haven’t even begun to look at, including stuff about the weather, and the skies, but in the meantime I’ve bought a compass and am having tremendous fun testing Gooley’s ideas. And anyway, every walker ought to have a compass in their backpack. 
But these silver birches do have branches
leading off in one direction, and I think they
 are pointing south!
He makes natural navigation seem terribly easy, but it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds. Take trees, for example. According to Gooley (who has a lovely a website at, in the northern hemisphere isolated deciduous trees show a ‘heaviness’ on their southern side, and a ‘tick effect’ in their branches, because they grow towards the light. It looks obvious in his illustration, but is not nearly as clear when you look at a real live tree, where the branches and leaves are all much more jumbled up. Plus, prevailing winds also affect the shape, which makes it even more difficult to understand what’s going on. Apparently, tree stumps can also reveal directions, because if a tree grows more densely on its south side, this causes an imbalance which will be reflected in the tree rings. On a recent walk in Dog Hill Wood, Ledbury, where my mother lives (I've been staying with her, which is why I haven't posted anything for a bit), I spent ages crouched precariously in a muddy patch on the edge of a slope while I examined recently cut tree stumps. Again, it’s not easy, because you can see cut marks as well as tree rings, but I felt a sense of triumph when I realised I could actually see what he meant!
You have to look closely, but you can see the rings on this tree
stump are closer together on on side, so that's another success.
 Mosses and lichens are a minefield, because their position and growth varies so much, depending on the habitat and local conditions, and I’m still trying to get my head round them. Actually, the more I learn about them, the more intrigued I am by mosses and lichens, and they are indescribably beautiful when you look at them closely. I wish I had some kind of decent magnifying glass so I could see them in more detail. 
Mosses on a north-facing wall, where there is less sun,
and more moisture.
Even in a built-up area there are pointers to show which way you are walking. On cold mornings the northern part of a path or pavement will stay frosty while the other edge is clear, just as Gooley says. And in the UK satellite dishes usually point south-south-east, while Christian churches are aligned west to east, with the altar at the east end, and yes St Editha’s (Tamworth’s parish church) does abide by this rule.

I know I’ve not been doing natural navigating the right way – I’m just playing around and looking to see if it works, but I like the idea that my distant ancestors may have used these methods to move around the country, and the way it provides a link with the past. And, like books by Robert MacFarlane, Kathleen Jamie, Esther Woolfson and Katherine Swift, it’s made me look much more closely at the world around me (and listen to the sounds of nature),  to think about man’s place in the world, and to try and take things a little more slowly, and appreciate the small things in life, whether it’s a glimpse of the first snowdrops of the year, a blackbird singing in the hedge, or rain making ripples as it falls on water. 


  1. I love this - I knew about lichens on northern aspects etc (we do a biology field practical at school on the subject), but it's undoubtedly so much more difficult in practice!

    1. It is really, really tricky! Since I took up walking at the start of the year I've been desperately trying to remember what I learned about maps, directions etc when I did 'A' level geography!

  2. Sounds like a fascinating book! What most attracts me though is that someone who is like me, in regards to being geographically-challenged, has recommended it. Moreover, I enjoy books which make me more closely at the world around me.

    1. Allison, I am sure you will enjoy it, because you don't have to know anything about geography, and you can dip in and out of it, reading little bits at a time - and it really does make you look at things in a different way.