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Common Ground, by Rob Cowen

Author Rob Cowen takes a hammock, and strings it up between two trees, so he can sleep outdoors at the Nidd Gorge. Even if you don't go as far as that, you're sure to be intrigued by his book, Common Ground, and you may want to explore the small area of 'edge land' which inspired it. If you've ever walked or ridden the Nidderdale Greenway, you're already familiar with some of Cowen's territory.

Common Ground is an unusual book, and some may even feel that the idea of writing 313 pages about a piece of ground on the edge of Harrogate is unpromising, but Cowen makes a success of it. '[A] cracking book and having finished I now feel deprived,' says Alan Bennett. 

The back cover sums it up in this way: 'After moving from London to a new home in Yorkshire, and about to become a father for the first time, Rob Cowen finds himself in unfamiliar territory. Disoriented, hemmed in by winter and yearning for open space, he ventures out to nearby edge-land...Digging deeper into this lost landscape, he begins to uncover its many layers and lives - beast, bird, insect, plant and people - in kaleidoscopic detail. As the seasons change and the birth of his child draws closer, his transformative journey into the blurry space where humans and nature meet becomes increasingly profound.'

A book that starts with a map

'I like a book that starts with a map,' announced my niece. Common Ground has a rather beautiful one, featuring swifts, a butterfly, a may fly, a fox, a badger, hares, an owl, and a roe deer. That gives a strong clue about the wildlife which features in the pages that follow. The map also serves as a reference point, to identify the author's progress around the harp-shaped piece of ground he decides to explore. 

The land is bounded by the old railway (now the Nidderdale Greenway) to the west, the river Nidd to the north, and a track which the author refers to The Lane/The Holloway to the east.

Drawing the reader in 

The book opens on New Year's Eve, with Cowen heading out to find some open ground, and stumbling across the old railway and the edge land. 'I can't say what imperceptible force drew me there, only that I needed to reach it. That frontier called me.' Explaining his attraction to the place, he writes, 'As a boy I would jump the fences around my home town to walk and play in the scrubby penumbra between the urban and rural.' The Lane/The Holloway takes him to the river Nidd in its gorge.

'I was yet to know how powerfully this colloquial tract would come to affect me over the coming year, how intertwined with my existence and consciousness it would become; how profoundly it would alter me...I began to walk through it at different times of day and night and from different directions. Some days I'd stay until there was no light left; others I'd wake up in darkness, disoriented, unsure where I was, with the haunting calls of tawny owls thrilling my ears.'

He describes it as 'digging down deeper into an overlooked patch of ground...'

The animals and birds

There are some vivid descriptions of the life in the edge land. For example, 'wood mice trickle like rivulets through the under-grass' of the meadow.

The first animal Cowen introduces us to is a fox, which he smells before he sees. 'Its scent, strong and sharp as cut lemons, crowded, pressed and pushed me, as though the animal was dancing between my legs...' The account which follows mixes personal encounters with a fox in the edge land, facts about foxes and how they have adapted to live with humans, and an imagined passage where author merges with the fox, allowing the reader to experience its life and death.

Tawny owls appear in the book. 'Mostly they seem to love the abandoned plaes, the unmanaged islands where man has temporarily laid off interfering and allowed functional ecosystems to thrive - forests, cemeteries, churchyards and, almost always, edge-lands.'

There's memorable writing about a roe deer, which leapt right over Cowen as he lay in a hollow under a birch tree near the river Nidd. 'I open my eyes and the roebuck is right there above me, hanging in mid-air as it leaps the hollow...it is something so immediate and exquisite that it's hard to believe it's happening.'

Swifts have a starring role in the pages of Common Ground. Cowen sees them above the sewage works at the edge of Bilton. 'There must have been eighty, maybe a hundred, but so many that at first I took them not for birds but insects clouding in whirls over the drums...the stiff-winged, black anchor shape against the sky, reversing direction at will, taking what must have been millions of the stirred-up, snub-nosed sewage flies in balletic sweeps and dips.' There's fascinating detail about these intruiging birds. They live their lives on the wing, travelling thousands of miles between Africa and Europe, and they even climb high into the sky to sleep.

The personal

The author melds the personal into Common Ground. We discover that his wife Rosie is expecting their baby, and hear about the 12-week scan, in a chapter called Ultrasound, which also deals with the tawny owls. (Of the owls, Cowen writes, 'their ears are roughly ten times more sensitive than ours and able to detect low-frequency nuanced sounds over considerable distance, even those as subtle as the rustlings of prey moving through vegetation.')

The local history

Nidd Viaduct

One of the features of this varied and interesting book is the local history, thoroughly researched, and presented in an entertaining and readable way. Early on, we hear about the building of the Nidd Viaduct (1846-7) by the Leeds & Thirsk Railway Company. 

Later, Cowen tracks down Bilton Spring (or Bilton Well), near Bilton Hall. The source has a capstone marked 'JW 1778', which refers to John Watson, who bought Bilton Hall in 1742. The account of this search leads on to a discourse about the Acts of Enclosure - how relatively recently the private ownership of land was introduced, and what a radical change it was. ('In the minds of medieval peasants, the idea that a single man or woman might one day have absolute and exclusive rights over an area of ground would have seemed incomprehensible'). In the same chapter, there's mention of The Stray. The rest of Knaresborough Forest was sold into private hands, when George III (via the Duchy of Lancaster) was granted the right to demark and fence up the land, and auction it off to the highest bidder. Harrogate's Stray, regarded as vital to the town's attraction as a spa town, was saved from this fate.

There's also an account of the early days of Bilton Conservation Group in 1979, and the way they cleaned up and restored the edge land. The moment Cowen hears that a cycleway is to be created along the old railway line comes next.

The Nidderdale Greenway

The Nidderdale Greenway over the Nidd Viaduct

At first, Cowen broods as council workers hack back the trees and vegetation to create the Greenway. 'All I can think about is how I don't want those men hacking away. How I don't want any part of the edge-land, my edge-land, to be ruined. And how I can't do a thing about any of it.' Then he realises that he's encountered very few people while exploring the area, and the new path will open it up to a new generation. He reads that Sustrans' goal is '...to promote open access, reduce traffic and increase activity among the unused, unloved areas that fringe our lives. You'd have to be mad to be against that.'

There's drama in the emotional end to Common Ground. The whole book is an extraordinary and moving piece of nature writing, and more.

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Beryl Burton cycleway

Beryl Burton cycleway

The Beryl Burton cycleway is a traffic-free cycle and foot path between Bilton Village Farm and the Nidd at High Bridge, Knaresborough.

Read about the Beryl Burton cycleway.

Nidderdale Greenway

Nidderdale Greenway

The best and most popular cycleway in Harrogate, the Nidderdale Greenway goes about 4 miles to Ripley, using the trackbed of a disused railway. It opened in May 2013, and has become hugely popular with local people for cycling, walking, and walking dogs.

Nidderdale Greenway over the Nidd Viaduct Nidd viaductRiver Nidd at Limekiln Wood

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