Exploring Britain’s diverse landscapes for her new book, Jini Reddy learned much about her own identity
I set myself quite a challenge in writing Wanderland. It all began with a yearning to hear “nature’s voice”, sparked in part by an experience I’d had at the top of a mountain in the Pyrenees. I was seeking a spiritual dimension to my roaming, and I longed to connect with an animate nature, to feel moments of genuine awe and wonder. I yearned to be inspired by something mysterious that went beyond the beauty of physical landscapes.
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It was not lost on me that I was about to embark on a maverick journey to connect with a dimension of the British landscape that rarely takes centre stage while grappling with my own feelings of otherness. My mother and father are of Indian heritage, but grew up in a troubled South Africa. I was born in Britain, raised in Quebec, Canada, and have lived in a green southwest London suburb for years. As one book reviewer put it, I “challenge the mono-ethnic view of rural Britain”.
But it seems to me that people are now more open to experiencing their surroundings and the wider world with fresh eyes. Throughout lockdown, who among us, with access to bush or coast or river, hasn’t found their connection to the natural world amplified in the most heart-lifting way?
My research methods were a little unorthodox – not for me a giant map unfurled in the bedroom stuck with pins. Instead, I quietened down, listened to the world around me and slowly a trail began to unfold. That was the beauty of it; improvising, following signs, invoking the divine in the landscape to point me in the right direction. One morning, for example, I spotted a labyrinth drawing on the wall of a London Underground station. My interest piqued, I learnt how, over time, the spiralling paths have appeared on ancient rock carvings, on cathedral floors and even in ammonites.
Three weeks later, having tumbled down the rabbit hole, I found myself walking a giant, grassy labyrinth on a hillside overlooking the sea. Close to Looe in Cornwall, the labyrinth was on the most exquisite private nature reserve. For three nights, I had it entirely to myself. I stayed in an off-grid longhouse on 30ha and wandered through meadows, giddy from the scent and kaleidoscopic colour of the wildflowers. Free-spirited horses and goats kept me company and the azure sea was always in my sights.
The labyrinth wasn’t natural, having been built by my host, and although it didn’t prove to be the oracle I’d hoped it to be – people walk the paths for contemplation or to find insights to life’s great questions – it worked its magic in a different way, having enticed me to a beautiful spot that I would not have otherwise discovered.
On another occasion, I found myself euphorically skinny dipping in a “secret” healing spring in a wood in the High Weald, outside Hastings. An artistically hand-drawn map had found its way into my possession and, eventually, led me to the spot. The local dog walkers I encountered in the woods didn’t even know of the spring’s existence, offering proof, to my mind, that a landscape less ordinary can be camouflaged, hiding in plain sight.
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