Interview by Graham Chalmers
Rob Cowen isn’t the first person to prosper in London then turn his back on the bright lights and daily strains of the big city in exchange for the more civilised surroundings of Harrogate.
Having come north with his family, however, he may be the first to fashion a bestselling book about one of the town’s less explored stretches of untamed land.
That book, Common Ground by this regular writer for the Daily Telegraph, is currently shooting up the non-fiction charts in the nature section.
Its famous fans include Michael Palin who has hailed it as “thoughtful and poetic.”
The likes of you and me can hear Rob explain how he found literary gold in the fields of semi-suburban Harrogate at an event at Pateley Bridge in a few weeks’ time sponsored by the Harrogate Advertiser Series.
Taking place at Bewerley Memorial Hall on Sunday, July 26 as part of new family-friendly literary festival NiddFest, it’s a rare chance to catch this award-winning broadcaster, journalist and naturalist in one place for an hour or two.
Since his book was published by Random House, Rob, 38, has been a hard man to pin down.
When I last managed to talk to this Leeds University graduate turned great outdoorsman he was on his way south for another run of book signings, as well as a spot of lunch with Robert McFarlane, a fellow leading light in the revival of nature writing in this country.
Part memoir, part natural history, Common Ground tells the story of how Cowen spend a whole year exploring a single square mile of wood, meadow, hedge and river at the back of Bilton.
More of an obsession than an assignment, his journey into in the hidden fringes of Harrogate began more than 200 miles away with the simple decision to leave London with his wife Rosie.
Rob said: “I was born in Yorkshire but I’d spend the best part of a decade working in London, living all over north London, mainly in Kentish Town by the heath.
“Property is expensive and I was living in a shoebox flat in a room which faced a brick wall. By winter 2011 the pull to come home was taking hold.
“I’d been to Harrogate but never lived here so I came north as an advance party to find a house while Rosie worked during the week down south.”
Alone and disorientated, caught temporarily between past and future, this son of Ilkley and Addingham took refuge in an enduring obsession - nature.
On lonely nights he would explore the land near the viaduct and derelict railway in Bilton leading down to the river Nidd.
Not a man for half measures he got his hands dirty almost literally for this book, the follow-up to his previous successful publication, Skimming Stones co-written with Leo
Rob’s research was hands-on, digging deep into the layers of the history of this neglected landscape between Bilton and Nidd Gorge.
He said: “Some days I’d stay there until there was no light left. Occasionally, I’d awake in darkness, unsure where I was, hearing the calls of tawny owls. I was totally absorbed into this patch of edge land on the edge of town.”
Renowned for immersing himself in his subject, Rob’s explorations took place on paper, too.
As the months past and the seasons came and went, he built up reams of field notes. The extensive bibliography at the back of Common Ground pays testimony to his wider research, covering the entire history of Bilton and its place in history throughout the centuries from the days of King John’s hunting ground in the medieval era to modern developments.
In doing so, Rob’s shows up Harrogate’s character in a new light, too.
Rob said: “People have a set image of Harrogate as a spa resort, all grand facades and ornate parks but that patch of scrubby margin predates all the finery by millennia.
“The land there has the most extraordinary history – from being a Saxon homestead to the heart of a royal forest, as well as being the site of the main railway from London to Edinburgh.
“Whether it was Mesolithic hunter-gatherers or the pioneers of the Bilton Conservation Group in the early 80s pulling rubbish from the beck, I wanted to capture it all. The research was important in understanding how that history evolved into the place I came to know and love.”
Although packed with beautiful writing on flora and fauna and wildlife, Common Ground also follows the story of Rob and his family since they came north to Harrogate.
The excitement at the impending arrival of his and Rosie’s first son, Thomas in the book seems to mirror Rob’s wonder at the transformative powers of nature as a whole.
Rob said: “All the while that our family life was developing, I revisited Bilton relentlessly and delive into its stories. The land, its layers and its inhabitants came to seem bound up somehow with events happening in my own life.”
Since the book was completed, the couple have had a second child, Bea, a baby girl who is nearly six months old.
Having studied literary theory and film at Leeds in the 1990s, Rob is aware of his lineage – those writers such as JG Ballard, Iain Sinclair and W G Sebald who chose to mine the less appreciated aspects of our environment for new meanings and hidden pleasures.
To read his book is to see the world through new eyes. Rob said: “These are largely overlooked places, forgotten fringes, weird, wild borderlands between the town and country, the green field sites currently ripe for housing development.
“But these are also the kind of places we all played in as children. In today’s unsatisfactory world, nature provides something powerful, terrifying, beautiful and wonderfully outside our control.”
Rob Cowen: Common Ground, 4pm, Sunday, July 26, Bishopside & Bewerley Memorial Hall, Pateley Bridge.