Writers retreat: seven authors on their outdoor escapes from lockdown

Some literary minds crave a full-throttle rush. For others, it’s the peace in birdwatching, kayaking or finding refuge in the trees

Kayaking by Martin Latham

Before lockdown, I occasionally got uneasily into a sea kayak with my kids – usually unbalancing it and tipping us all in the water. Then they exchanged the big multi-seater kayak for two lighter two-seaters, which I can actually lift.

I am 64 and active – I have swum in the sea off Kent in every month of the year for decades. I thought the sea would be a good keep-fit place during lockdown, and so I perched a kayak on my little Peugeot 107 and took off. My wife, Claire, was on at me to run at dawn with her – she is an NHS key worker – but it didn’t appeal to me, so I must thank her for my seaborne ventures.

I’s a wonderful feeling to be adrift. It resets your mind, I think, more than pounding the tarmac in trainers while listening to Van Halen, or going for a walk in the countryside.

Swalecliffe, just east of Whitstable, is a lovely, safe place where you can tootle around out in the Thames estuary. There’s a fine little nature reserve with free parking. Gannets come up the estuary when it’s rough at sea. St Margaret’s Bay and Deal are best for parking near the beach and sliding in. Deal shelves quite sharply and has currents, but I never go out far, just up and down. A pro told me if you get the tides right you can safely circumnavigate Kent from Hythe to Gravesend.

I saw seals and, off Deal, incredibly, I saw a little auk. They live in the Arctic but stray south in rough weather. That day, a shark catfish was also washed up on Deal beach. The biodiversity is cheering: the Kent Wildlife Trust recently said there is a colony of seahorses just by Dover harbour, and the Deal Pier Kitchen staff tell me they often see porpoises. On clear days I could see France – even field boundaries and the clock tower on the Hotel de Ville in Calais.

I also slipped in at Fordwich and drifted down the River Stour to get out at Grove Ferry, passing the Stodmarsh nature reserve. It’s harder work on the way back, as the Stour is tidal there. There are said to be otters near Fordwich, but I have never seen them.

When lockdown restrictions eased, we put the two kayaks on the little open-boat ferry from Mull to Ulva, dragged them to the one cottage let on the isle, and stayed there for a week. Kayaking is cool enough to make my 15-year-old video-gaming son actually say yes to holidaying with the aged parents. In Ulva, which is a community-owned island, we picnicked on little, uninhabited isles and explored magical cliff caves accessible only by sea.

In the future, I’d like to go kayaking among Scotland’s Western Isles in non-midge season, with snorkels. They have just discovered a colony of flapper skates off Skye, with more than 100 eggs. The species is rarer than a giant panda and bigger than a dining table.
• Martin Latham is Waterstones’ longest-serving manager and author of The Bookseller’s Tale (£16.99, Particular Books). Buy a copy for £14.44 at guardianbookshop.com

Tree climbing by Michelle Paver

Author Michelle Paver, tree climbing in Wimbledon Common woods
Michelle in her local woods in Wimbledon. Photograph: Wimbledon BookFest

When I was a child, I was always scrambling up the conker tree in our back garden or tackling oaks in Epping Forest – and I’ve never lost the urge.

Writing the Wolf Brother books about stone age hunter-gatherers kept it alive. On a research trip to Białowieża Forest in Poland, I climbed a lime tree that had survived a lightning strike a few years before. The tree was thriving, the rope-like scar down its trunk making it temptingly climbable; I put it in one of my books. And in the Taygetos mountains in Greece I shinned up a tree rather fast to avoid a wild boar with piglets.

I didn’t set out to climb more trees during lockdown; it just happened. I live on Wimbledon Common, and over the summer I was in the woods by dawn most days. Climbing the odd tree has been a refuge from worrying about my 89-year-old mother. I’ve never been so thankful to live near woods, or so conscious that many people don’t.

My favourite trees for climbing are some secluded oaks with low branches for that tricky first hoist, as well as one truly enormous beech that is difficult, but worth it. Wild creatures don’t expect people to climb trees, and they often don’t notice I’m there. I’ve had close encounters with bats, crows, trusting little goldcrests, startled squirrels – and, of course, the trees themselves: lichen-crusted branches, faces in the bark.

When I’m feeling anxious or low, being up a tree gives me perspective: it has lived longer than me and seen it all. Tree climbing is also brilliant for solving writing problems. It doesn’t give me the answer, but it helps me see the question I should be asking.

I’m very keen on owls, and during the summer, two tawny owlets practised flying from a pair of lime trees close to my house. If that’s repeated next year, I’d love to be up a nearby tree when they do it. An owl’s-eye view of the woods at dusk – that would be something.
Michelle Paver’s latest book is Viper’s Daughter (£7.99, Head of Zeus). Buy a copy for £7.43 at guardianbookshop.com

Sea swimming by Veronica Henry

Author Veronica Henry, right, and fellow swimmers, north Devon
Veronica, right, and fellow swimmers. Photograph: howaboutdave

I walked endlessly during lockdown, along the stunning coastline where I live in north Devon. The sea was always there beside me, shimmering and enticing, but I refrained, heeding the RNLI’s request. I’d always enjoyed the occasional dip on a summer’s evening, but the urge to immerse myself in the sea grew stronger as my anxiety levels rose.

As soon as restrictions eased, I joined a clinical trial run by chilluk.org on the positive effects of cold-water swimming on mental health. I wanted to boost my water confidence so I could be more adventurous, learning about local tides, currents and rips as well as how to use breathing to keep relaxed and control my core temperature. I took advantage of the breathtaking (literally!) beaches on my doorstep – Woolacombe, Putsborough and Croyde – no longer daunted by the pounding surf and waves twice my height. Floating on my back and staring at the sky was almost an out-of-body experience, my troubles drifting away with the tide.

As summer turned to autumn, I’ve continued swimming once or twice a week to keep acclimatised. Now November is here, I’m still going in in “skins” – just a swimming costume and no wetsuit. There are myriad hidden coves, secret bays and rocky inlets I can easily reach, and they never look the same twice: some days tranquil and calm, others a swirling riot of liquid fury. Lee Bay harbours a perfect Famous Five spot, approached over rockpools teeming with life. Wild Pear beach, near Combe Martin, is a 2km scramble down a vertiginous cliff, and naturist to boot! (I haven’t ventured into skinny dipping yet, but it has been mooted as a moonlight adventure …) Barricane, with its beach of crushed shells, is a safer bet when conditions are more challenging.

My ambition is to swim with the seals off Lundy. I can see the island from my window, yet I’ve never been – and its siren call is loud. I imagine the freedom of frolicking like a mermaid amid these beautiful creatures, at one with nature, the ultimate escape.
Veronica Henry is the author of more than 20 novels. Her latest book is A Wedding at the Beach Hut (£7.99, Orion). Buy a copy for £7.43 at guardianbookshop.com

Running by Ben Williams

I started running in lockdown partly because the gyms were closed – but mainly to clear my head. I’m lucky to live in Devon, where I can run for a mile and be deep in the countryside. I would run to Woodbury Common – where I once trained as a Royal Marine – and take a trip down memory lane. The landscape looks like parts of Spain: a rocky, gorse-covered open space. From here, you can see the tors of Dartmoor and the sea of the Jurassic Coast.

I was averaging six miles a day, with a couple of rest days. There were physical benefits: I got a lot fitter and shed a bit of my dad bod, going from 89.5kg to 83kg. But it was far more about the mental benefits: time to escape, to think, to be myself, to have ideas.

I got to know my local area a lot better. Often I didn’t plan a route, just turned right and left at random. I discovered businesses I never knew existed, such as the place we’ll be getting our Christmas tree from this year.

I definitely caught the running bug. After restrictions eased, I ran the “30 miler” with a couple of former Marine friends – the last commando test in Royal Marine training. Afterwards, we had a pint wearing our green berets. I also ran up and down Pen y Fan in the Brecon Beacons with a colleague, and plodded up Crib Goch, Snowdonia, with some other friends. It was really nice to see other parts of the country again.

There is so much to see in the British Isles. I want to go up Ben Nevis and do the Bob Graham Round, a fell-running challenge in the Lake District. The only far-flung adventure on my bucket list is the Marathon des Sables, an ultra-marathon in the Sahara Desert, Morocco. It’s one way to win the work Strava competition …
Commando Mindset by Ben Williams is published on 14 January (£14.99, Penguin Books). Order a copy for £13.04 at guardianbookshop.com

Paddleboarding by Michelle Elman

Michelle Elman paddleboarding in Suffolk
Michelle Elman (right) paddleboarding in Suffolk Photograph: PR

I grew up in Hong Kong, so I’d done paddleboarding a few times as a child, and again when I was travelling in Australia as a teenager, but I hadn’t done it in years. The original plan was to go on an organised paddleboarding trip for my birthday last year, but it was cancelled because of high winds. This year, it was cancelled by the pandemic.

I got bored of waiting to do something I loved, so I bit the bullet and bought my own paddleboard to use on a local lake. I found the lake on a walk one day – it’s about 15 minutes from where I live in Suffolk, in the middle of fields. According to local farmers, it’s manmade and hasn’t been used for anything in years.

Paddleboarding is the only time in lockdown when I stop thinking. When I’m on the board, I’m completely present. I don’t think about work or my phone or anything other than staying balanced and not falling in. It gives me a sense of calm that I’ve not been able to create doing anything else. Life is very simple on a paddleboard and it’s the best fun I’ve had in years, even when I fall into freezing water!

I was still quite cautious when the first lockdown restrictions lifted, so for now, I’m sticking to the lake. But I would love to work up to feeling confident enough to go paddleboarding in the sea.
The Joy of Being Selfish by Michelle Elman is published on 4 February (£14.99, Welbeck); waterstones.com

Birdwatching by Emma Smith

A flock of swifts at sunset.
Swifts at sunset. Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy

I had been interested in birdwatching before lockdown, but 2020 was the year of one bird – the swift. Seeing the swifts come back from their African feeding grounds to breed at the start of May was a real lift – a sense of a larger world, routines that were not disrupted by the pandemic, and a big sky rather than a small room or screen.

I took part in the Oxford swift survey, watching videos about their behaviour and following the swift webcams on the Oxford Natural History Museum tower. I had a local patch to monitor – a few streets either side of my house – and I walked them every day, looking up to see the screeching swift parties, and the NHS rainbow pictures in people’s windows. The big excitement was finding a nest, and then another, both in the eaves of a terraced house. It wasn’t anything like as high and cliff-like as I was expecting, and made me more optimistic about our yet-unused swift nesting box, which I had thought might be sited too low for them. It was wonderful to watch the adult birds coming back with food.

The swifts leave us in July, so the intense birdwatching months were May, June and July, and then it was over. One year I’d like to follow them through France and Spain, across to Morocco or Tunisia, and down to central Africa. It would be amazing to see them, their anchor shape so familiar in the sky, somewhere so different from suburban Oxford.
Emma Smith is the author of This is Shakespeare (£9.99, Penguin Books). Buy a copy for £9.29 at guardianbookshop.com

Motorbiking by Sam Heughan

Sam Heughan, actor and co-author of Clanlands

I started trying for my motorbike licence before Covid, then lockdown happened. Finally, tests resumed and I was allowed to sit the last part of the exam. Riding is extremely Covid-safe: you wear a full helmet and usually ride solo. I was desperate to get my licence before the weather turned.

It’s such a great way to feel some freedom and explore the countryside. I am extremely busy and at times the job can be very stressful. I love to escape to the Highlands of Scotland and explore the landscape. After a few minutes, you relax into the ride and the bike becomes an extension of you. It feels easy and almost meditative.

As yet, I haven’t gone too far, but I did do a beautiful drive down to the borders. It was a sunny, crisp autumn day and the roads were quiet. I met my brother, who had been mountain biking all day – we both love two wheels! It was dark on the way back home and I found myself, for the first time, tearing along the M8 between Glasgow and Edinburgh in the howling wind. It was pretty nerve-racking.

I’m planning a trip with an old friend to the south coast of England. There is a unity among bikers, a respect and camaraderie. I’d love to do a longer trip – watching Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Up has inspired me. Perhaps some off-roading, adventure stuff. One day I’ll bike to Nepal and see the Himalayas …
Sam Heughan stars in Outlander and is the co-author of Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other (£20, Hodder & Stoughton). Buy a copy for £17.40 at guardianbookshop.com


Compiled by Rachel Dixon

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
10 of the best outdoor activity days out available from 29 March
As restrictions in England ease to allow groups of up to six to meet outside, we pick 10 adventures to enjoy with family or friends

Rachel Dixon

26, Mar, 2021 @6:30 AM

Article image
Cold play: how to enjoy UK outdoor activities – even in winter
There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear, say the experts, who share their top spots for winter fun – and the kit that can make it all possible

Kevin Rushby

24, Oct, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
10 great waterparks in the UK: readers’ tips
Whether it’s hurtling down a waterslide or a spot of paddleboarding, an aquapark on a summer’s day is always fun

Guardian readers

26, Jul, 2018 @10:00 AM

Article image
Strokes of genius: swimmers’ guide to the UK coast
Challenging, invigorating and with great views or beaches to explore, sea-swimmers from around the country describe their favourite dips

Ella Foote

04, Jul, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Posh splosh: wild swimming spots at British stately homes
From Highland castles to Anne Boleyn’s home, take a late summer dip in the lakes and rivers at these historic estates

Gemma Bowes

14, Sep, 2020 @12:48 PM

Article image
10 of the best UK beaches for swimming
Whether you want to swim long distances safely, or just bob about in a beautiful spot, there is a bay or cove to suit

Ella Foote

25, Jul, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
An outdoor swimming tour of London – top 10 lidos and ponds
There’s no better way to escape the stresses of city life than to go for an outdoor swim. London has some historic lidos and even the odd truly beautiful swimming pond, as our writer discovers as she visits 10 of them in a weekend

Isabel Choat

24, Jul, 2015 @5:30 AM

Article image
10 of the best beaches for a winter walk: readers' tips
For a cleansing blast of cold air, nothing beats a seaside hike. From the Atlantic to the Channel, readers pick their favourites

Guardian readers

25, Feb, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Fancy a festive dip? The best outdoor Christmas swims in the UK
Start a new seasonal tradition by plunging into icy British waters – or cheering on those who do. Here are the best spots

Kate Rew

21, Dec, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
In Ireland, lockdown has made us fall in love with the sea
One of the few things Covid did not shut in Ireland was the sea, and from swimming to foraging, it has created a new appreciation of the water

Rory Carroll

31, Aug, 2021 @10:00 AM