Exploring the wilderness on the doorstep of his Buxton home helped shape Mark Cocker as one of Britain’s leading nature writers.
Now the 57-year-old is returning to his hometown as part of Buxton International Festival’s book series to deliver a talk – and a warning - about the countryside on the edge of town that inspired his work which has appeared on so many literary prize shortlists.
Author, naturalist, broadcaster and campaigner, Mark will be in conversation with Mike Monaghan, Chairman of the Buxton Civic Association which invited him to talk on “Lightwood –The Making of a Nature Writer.”
It’s a long overdue local recognition of Mark’s work which is not only praised for its accuracy and scientific insight, but also for the beauty of its language. Former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion described Mark’s Birds Britannica as “the book that made me feel I’d been waiting for it all my life.”
And it was a lifetime in the making. Mark has travelled in more than 50 countries on six continents and in 1999 was awarded a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to study birds in magico-medicinal practices in Benin and Cameroon.
But it was a childhood on Lightwood Road, which in less than half a mile takes you from its traffic-choked junction with the A6 to the open country behind his home, which brought the magic of the natural world to life.
Speaking in the garden of the family home looking across to Cuckoo Woods and Brown Edge, Mark said: “You can see why I didn’t feel like I was living in a town.”
He and his family and friends would make swimming pools by damming Hogshaw Brook, and play football with goalposts made of jumpers in the middle of the road.
“What a great childhood we had,” said Mark, who studied English Literature at East Anglia University in Norwich, close to where he now lives in the Norfolk fens which he has described in highly-praised books such as Crow Country and Claxton.
“This is the inspiration for it, a childhood that was deeply feral - it was wild in the best sense,” said Mark. “We enjoyed encounters with aspects of natural history. From my bedroom window I could see lapwings, grey partridge and twite when we were children.
“Nature has been a part of my whole life. I had the benefit of being absolutely steeped in it from childhood.”
Humans come under observation along with the animals. In Crow Country (2008), Mark writes about climbing up to the moors of Lightwood and looking down on Buxton: “Our house and its interior world of childhood preoccupations were placed in their perspective... it brought a strange feeling of power over its trivial affairs.”
This ability to weave our story into the study of animals is a feature of the book and Mark’s skill. In his hands, the borders of Crow Country overlap the boundaries of history, literature, psychology and landscape, putting mankind in that perspective he found at Lightwood.
“Making the writing as good as it can be as well as the facts being as accurate as possible are the cornerstones,” said Mark, who makes a convincing case for the humble rook to be Britain’s own Bird of Paradise because it reflects the environment humans most desire.
Crow Country was among a group of books seen as kick-starting what is called New Nature Writing, which has become a significant part of the country scene.
But when he speaks about Lightwood in St John’s Church on July 22, Mark will be sounding the alarm about his old stamping grounds.
“I want to talk about the importance of Buxton as a place,” he said. “It is surrounded by wildlife, but we probably take it for granted. Changes in agriculture are having a big impact on Buxton. It’s astonishing, the changes in Lightwood and the wildlife.”
He remembers seeing jack snipe on the old Hogshaw Tip – a sighting of which today would probably qualify the former rubbish dump to call itself a nature reserve.
But as Mark glances away from Cuckoo Woods to Brown Edge Road where diggers are busy laying the foundations of more new buildings on the borders of Lightwood, there’s no chance of spotting lapwings, grey partridge or twite any more.
• Mark Cocker in conversation with Mike Monaghan: Lightwood – the Making of a Nature Writer, will be presented on July 22, 9am to 10am, at St John’s Church, Buxton. Tickets are £10.50. To book, ring 01298 72190 or visit www.buxtonfestival.co.uk.