Winter is the best time to read the landscape

Mid-winter illuminates the upland landscape, highlighting views invisible for the rest of the year.

A soft amber sidelight from a low winter sun and absence of leaf cover unveil a landscape more complex than the hazy greens and browns of other seasons. Whether it’s glimpses of a vista caught while on local errands or views from longer journeys exploring the Peak District, this is the time of year when it’s easiest to read the landscape. The pattern made by field walls, ridges in pastures and the location of field barns, farms and villages tells a story of thousands of years of human activity layered on to millions of years of geology.

From the vantage point of a few square miles of the high Peak District plateau, it’s possible to look out on a vast area of the land of England. On clear days you can see across the Cheshire plain to the Welsh Hills; to the east, the counties of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, as far as Lincoln Cathedral; and to the south, I can track the course of the rivers Dove and Derwent as they run towards the Trent and the vast Midlands farming and industrial plain.

Every county and region has a unique story etched into its landscape. Dorset is different from Devon and within Dorset its heathlands are distinct from its river valleys or chalk downs. Landscape character assessment is the approach that geographers use to describe the different characteristics of England, synthesising those things that make a place what it is: the influence of geology and the uses we have made of it for millennia.

Capital idea
London and New York aren’t famous for their wildlife but on recent visits I spotted peregrines and ravens from my hotel bedroom. New York’s Hudson river attracts many red-necked grebes, while the Thames is a haven for great crested grebes. Both rivers are great places to see wintering ducks: pochard, mallard and tufted duck on the Thames and American wigeon, shoveler and mallard on the Hudson.

Both rivers are classed as internationally important reserves for migrating waterfowl. There’s even a campaign to have London designated a national park. New York shows why that’s not as daft as it sounds: its best wildlife wetlands are cheek by jowl with the metropolis and are managed as the 27,000-acre Gateway national park. This gives New York’s wetlands extra protection and more resources and their National Park Service rangers a mission to explain the richness of its wildlife to the public. Why can’t we value London’s green spaces, wild wetlands and wildlife areas in the same way?

Mistletoe hunting
Of all the green spaces of all the world’s cities, few have more significance in natural history than the Backs, Cambridge. Naturalists such as Charles Darwin, John Henslow and Arthur Tansley walked by the River Cam, avidly recording rare species and thinking through the greatest theories of natural science.

Setting off on a dawn walk this week, I was keen to take part in a wildlife recording project run by Cambridge ecologists. As part of a five-year study of the city’s biodiversity, the world’s finest natural history brains are this month in search of love. High in the lime trees where Queen’s Road meets the Madingley Road, I found great clumps of the parasitic plant mistletoe. Cambridge residents are being asked to report similar sightings to the Natural History Society. Elsewhere, records of mistletoe in gardens and orchards can be logged on the national Mistletoe Matters website.

Stranger than fiction
I’ve often championed the “lost” nature writers who did most to create our modern view of nature and the countryside, notably W H Hudson, who was influential in establishing the RSPB, and Richard Jefferies, a romantic who inspired the countryside conservation movement.

However, there’s a twist to their stories I hadn’t realised until alerted by a New York bibliophile. Henry Wessells tells me that alongside Jules Verne and H G Wells, Hudson and Jefferies were important pioneers of science fiction. Hudson’s A Crystal Age was a utopian vision of a pastoral world and Jefferies’ After London is a post-apocalyptic vision of how nature and an idealised rural lifestyle would replace a depopulated country.

These two English nature writers now take their place along with Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov as some of our most influential science fiction writers in a new book and exhibition mounted by Mr Wessells. Fact, it seems, can be stranger than fiction.