Take a walk on the wild side
4th April 2019
Local author Deirdre Huston explains why the High Weald inspires her writing and offers tips on where to get out and about this Easter
One benefit of being a writer is that you learn to follow your hunches. I’d always nursed secret ambitions to be an author but it was not until my youngest child started playgroup that I began to write seriously. I finished a rough draft of a novel, shoved it in a drawer and relished having time to enjoy being outdoors. Then I hit on the idea to write a guide book of cycle routes.
Vertebrate Publishing, a company specialising in the great outdoors, had produced a similar guide featuring off-road trails, quiet lanes and cycle ways, and together with co-author Marina Bullivant, we brokered a deal to produce Cycling in Sussex. The book was a local success and the publishers went on to commission four more. Writing outdoor guides enables me to combine three passions: writing, photography and exploring the outdoors. For my second project, I explored the wider opportunities for traffic-free cycling and this developed into Cycling Days Out South East England, a guide to the fantastic family and leisure cycling on offer in Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire.
I became ever more interested in nature conservation and so switched to being a walks writer, giving myself the perfect excuse to dawdle in the landscape, identify species and habitats, and uncover local stories about places. As I researched Day Walks on the South Downs, I became inspired by the links between landscape and the past, and soon found myself making films with National Trust South Downs to investigate the history of Saddlescombe Farm, near Devil’s Dyke. This interest led me back to fiction and I have written an 18th-Century coming-of-age murder mystery set on the South Downs which has been shortlisted for the Spotlight First Novel Award.
Each guidebook takes about 18 months from idea to publication. I create the kind of trails my friends, family and I would want to walk on a day out. I may start with a stretch of path, such as the High Weald Landscape Trail near Groombridge, and link it with interesting habitats such as Rocks Wood and the RSPB River Medway conservation area. Or I may begin with a unique location, such as Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Eridge Rocks, and then construct a good walk around it.
Some trails feature a work of literature, not just Kipling and Milne, but lesser known works too, and if people recommend walks or tell me about local stories, such as the ‘Smugglers Battle’ of Goudhurst, then I investigate! I love the orchards of that area too.
Ideas for refreshment, facilities and parking are essential. Invaluable friends, family and volunteers test routes out. I double-check everything and we use Ordnance Survey mapping for clarity. I have enjoyed exploring the High Weald, one of the best examples of medieval field systems in Europe. But if you ask me, it’s only when you’ve trodden ancient routeways, tramped along river banks, lingered in meadows and marched down old coach roads that you can truly say you know an area. I hope you enjoy the trails in Day Walks on the High Weald, published in 2018 and widely available from bookshops.
As well as Deirdre’s regular Sussex Life Sunday Strolls column, she is now working on a new novel, revolving around a 19th-Century crime which is committed in a judgemental High Weald village, and developing ideas for an exciting outdoor guidebook.
If you would like to walk with her, or join her for a creative writing walk during this year’s High Weald Walking Festival in September, visit www.deirdrehuston.co.uk