Behind the Wall | Living North

Behind the Wall

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Hadrians Wall
John Miles’ guidebook Hadrian’s Wildlife offers a delightful blend of the Wall’s historical context, expertly intertwined with a rich background of the living landscape it cuts through
‘With extensive knowledge and a lifetime of experience, we can also learn to appreciate the fascinating journey each part of nature has survived and adapted from’
Badger Tree
Wood Pecker

It’s only natural to become besotted with the fascinating history steeped in the remnants of Hadrian’s Wall, stretching over 73 miles and 2000 years, and neglect the story behind the vast and wonderful wildlife that accompanies it.

Beginning its journey in the West and traveling East across the World Heritage Site, the guide also absorbs the Solway Estuary, Campfield Marsh Reserve and Kielder, and through its narration paints a vivid picture of the surrounding wildlife set against an epic historical backdrop. Penned by freelance consultant John Miles, whose previous works include Hadrian’s Birds and Pharoah’s Birds, the book is the ideal companion for visitors seeking an enriched experience of the Wall as they walk or cycle its length. 

Built on the orders of Roman emperor Hadrian in 122 A.D. as a defensive fortification to protect the English frontier of his empire, the Wall has since been partially destroyed through quarrying. John explores the crumbled remains that reach from Bowness-on-Solway to Wallsend-on-Tyne, detailing the surrounding natural habitats of each area in each chapter. From additional visitor centre listings and a month-by-month guide of the Wall, to a comprehensive feature on Britain’s birds in Roman times, John has no qualms when it comes to sharing his wealth of knowledge with those who will appreciate it most. 

According to the author himself, wildlife and history are not separate elements; rather, they must be considered as one to create a deeper understanding of the landscapes. ‘There are so many spots that people perhaps don’t already know about,’ explains John. ‘But it’s not just the spot itself that’s magical; it’s the connection it has with the Roman period. It’s exciting that so many of these nearby areas have such links with history, because it’s not just a case of spotting the odd species; it’s like going back in time. You’re traveling back 2,000 years, and that’s just fantastic.’ 

John’s career has taken him far and wide, from leading guided tours on the River Nile in Egypt to advising businesses as a freelance consultant, and providing tips on living in harmony with nature. The six books he has authored complement his other work, with each publication reflecting on his career at that time. His first guide, entitled Hadrian’s Birds, forms the basis of his latest efforts. ‘One of the main stimulants for writing Hadrian’s Wildlife was the fact that 20 years have passed since my first book. So much has happened around the Wall in that time that needs to be addressed. Back then, I only had 23 species to discuss, and now that has rocketed to 136, which is obviously a massive jump.’

His expertise is not just confined to the rolling hills and luscious lakes of the British countryside. ‘What started in Cumbria and the North East soon led me further afield when a lucky break through a book deal landed me a two-year contract leading tours in Egypt. I started out doing the Nile cruises, stretching from Cairo to Aswan, and ended up writing a book called Pharoah’s Birds, which focused on the history of Egyptian birds from 5,000 years ago all the way up to modern day bird watching in the country. It was really exciting. Egypt was like my second home, in many ways.’

Despite his consequent adventures guiding tours in America, Iceland, Israel and the Caribbean, John insists that the exhilaration of working in such exotic locations has not tarnished his local pride. ‘Cumbria is such a great place, and I spend a lot of time in Northumberland as well. It’s always nice coming back. Admittedly, we could maybe do with some better weather, but despite the off days we just have to be grateful that we live here. A few weeks ago, I spent some time up on Holy Island, and it was absolutely superb. You can’t beat it.’   

John’s latest venture into the world of children’s fiction was inspired by a recent trip to the Tyne Bridge, the home of the world’s only inland colony of Kittiwakes, and combines facts about birds with charming illustrations and a unique storyline. ‘I was standing under the bridge in Newcastle, looking up at the Kittiwakes and right across from me was the majestic glass of the Sage building. There were a few Herring Gulls sitting on the roof and all of a sudden I thought, ‘What a beautiful slide that would make for Kittiwakes!’ and the story naturally developed from there. The plumage of the juvenile Kittiwakes is black and white, and it just so happens that a certain local football team sports those exact colours. Their feathers are their camouflage to blend in with the locals, and that’s why they chose Newcastle. So it’s all tied together quite nicely.’ Move over magpies, there’s a new mascot in town! 

Adamant that we should never underestimate the beauty of nature, John insists that it’s not always about spotting the rarest bird or visiting the most exciting country. Sometimes, the simplest aspects can evoke the most pleasure. ‘Nature is so wonderful that you can quite simply look out of your window and see something to get excited about. Personally, I’ve seen the smallest and largest birds in the world, from the famously flightless ostrich in Africa to the miniscule bee hummingbird in Cuba. The contrast was quite something. But I don’t just get excited about rarities; the common things can be just as special.’

Perhaps by reading the engrossing text written by John, whose words ooze with extensive knowledge and a lifetime of experience, we can also learn to appreciate the fascinating journey each part of nature has survived and adapted from. ‘For example, the lead leak at Alston, that spread right throughout the surrounding areas, greatly affected the way in which the plants developed down the Tyne, though obviously fantastic species like the Tyne Hellebrine still flourished. There are so many little links that connect everything in nature; it really does add another dimension. It’s fascinating to think that not only can man have a significant effect on the land, but species can then adapt to it accordingly.’  

'Nature is such a wonderful thing. It’s all around you; it’s in the middle of Newcastle. It’s that extra inspiration that can get you out into the countryside to enjoy the moor.’ So whether you’re an avid walker, a keen historian or simply a little curious, Hadrian’s Wildlife is certainly worth adding to your personal library for those special Sundays in spring that are perfect for getting out of the house and exploring the glorious British countryside. Not only will you learn something new and bring a rosy glow to your cheeks, you’ll have truly earned your roast beef dinner.

Published in: November 2013

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