Going Wild is nothing new, says Wild Things' founder
There can be few authors who can lay claim to having inspired an entire movement. Daniel Start, the founder of Wild Things Publishing, is far too modest to make such a bold claim, so we'll make it for him.
Their Wild Swimming Guides capture the zeitgeist of a generation desperate to get back to nature. Their titles have been a common feature in Adventurous Ink since issue two, back in February 2017, when we managed an exclusive pre-release scoop of their best-selling Bothy Bible.
To celebrate our May 2019 issue, which features their latest publication 'Islandeering', we caught up with Daniel to reflect on how our current back to nature movement has echoes of the past, and celebrate Wild Things being named Independent Publisher of the Year.
Massive congratulations on being named best independent publisher, it’s very well deserved! So how did you get into travel writing and publishing?
I was working for a London council as an environment advisor when I decided to write my first book on Wild Swimming – a guide to most beautiful rivers, lakes and waterfalls in Britain.
It was a really hot summer in 2006 and I kept dreaming of river swimming, but couldn’t find any information on the internet, so thought I would write my own photo guide.
Although Wild Swimming was a best-seller, and spawned several TV programmes, it never made me enough money to provide a proper livelihood for my family. So, a few years later, my wife and I decided to set up our own publishing business, we took back the rights to the original books, and started commissioning new ones.
There are lots of folk travel blogging and writing, do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
Find something unique to write about, or provide information that can’t be found anywhere else. Amazing photos help too!
The photos in your guides are amazing. How do you manage that?
Sunshine only policy! We wait around until the sun comes out as no one like photos of rain.
What about your introduction to the outdoors? How did you find yourself out here?
Brought up on the banks of the river Wye in Herefordshire I had a Huckleberry Finn childhood of river swimming, rope swings and raft making.
I started my career in tropical forest conservation but was taken hostage in New Guinea in 1996. After that I worked in international development on rural poverty projects in Africa and India. I then helped manage a sheep farm and wilderness retreat centre in Snowdonia, which is an area I love as it’s where I did my Duke of Edinburgh expeditions as a teenager.
In one of your books you made a comment about exploring new places throughout the summer and spending winter sat in front of a blazing fire writing it up with a dog at your feet. It sounds like living the dream. Is it?
Actually, there’s far too much time spent in front of a computer, and it’s quite isolating working from home all the time. There’s also a lot of driving involved when researching. This workstyle has some benefits but I am now also working on a barn conversion project nearby, which gets me outside every day using my hands, and is quite sociable.
Islandeering author Lisa Drew, not stuck infront of a computer
One of the reasons we love Wild Guides is that the design, photography and writing are absolutely on point. Do you think there is a connection between outdoor lovers and creativity, or is this something you feel is important for all publications?
Our books fuse three formats: precise instructions found in guidebook, personal stories and colour from a travelog and inspiring photos from a coffee table book.
It’s difficult to achieve all three but we work with authors who can do maps, words and cameras, and they pull it off.
Your books really capture the essence of the modern outdoor movement. What do you make of the way people are enjoying the outdoors today? Why do you think it’s such a big thing?
There have been back to nature movements since the beginning of industrialisation. Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf led the neo-Pagan movement in 1907, a backlash against Victorian pollution inspired by German environmental philosophy, with a lot of naked bathing, foraging and wild camping thrown in.
The hippies of the Woodstock era were a backlash against war and Vietnam while our more recent renaissance is a reaction to increasingly digitalised work lives and long work hours.
Other drivers are rebellion against the ‘extinction of outdoor experiences’ for children and and the popularity of the staycation, partly driven by international terrorism and climate change.
There are clearly some challenges when the new outdoor community bump into other generations or different worldviews. You must have felt this with the rumpus that publicising bothy locations in the Bothy Bible led to in certain circles. What’s your reflection on the wider point about the risk of loving places to death?
There are more than enough wild places to go round, and our books are about trying to encourage people away from the best known ones, so the load is spread more evenly.
If more people go bothying (always carrying tents as back up and behaving responsibly) that is a good thing and one outcome might be an extension of the bothy network and a greater political voice to protect wild lands from development.
Gather Ambassador Gordon exploring a Bothy featured in Wild Guide to Wales
Has there ever been anywhere that you decided not to include in a guidebook?
Generally places that are too dangerous, or are absolutely and obviously private. Or places that are boring!
Your books all seem to pinpoint the activities folk want to do the outdoors, wild swimming, wild camping etc, but have you any thoughts on the next big thing outdoors? Is there one? Or are we getting back to a steady state after a period of disruption?
There’s a lot more adventure to be had, and hopefully ever improving access to the countryside and our wild lands will help this, but none of this ‘back to nature’ passion is new. Think Walt Whitman, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and initiatives such as the Scouts, outdoor education, the Kinder Scout march etc.
Back to the Neopagans, and this lovely quote from Delany: ‘In 1911 the high summer of Neo-Paganism came into full swing. This was the golden age of mass breakfasts under the apple blossoms in the orchard at Grantchester. There were amateur dramatic parties, skiing, walking, climbing, sailing and camping parties, from Wales to Norfolk, and from the Alps to the Beaulieu River. They were apt to dive nude into any available piece of water and to take off their shoes at the slightest opportunity: this was known as dew-dabbling. They were adept at pitching tents and cooking on a primus. Much was inspired by Edward Carpenter [founder of the Labour Party] and the ‘Simple Life’ community he set up at Millthorpe in 1883’.
Kinder Scout Mass Trespass 1932
One of the things we’ve always loved about your books is how you uncover all the best bits of a place. How do you do that?!
OS maps are the best source, combined with google satellite and the public photos available on google maps and Geograph, as a way to assess the potential of a possible place. We also look at a lot of old books on particular topics and themes, and also interview experts in subject areas to get their recommendations. Once the desk work is complete, usually involving a massive online maps of thousands of possible places, the fieldwork begins!
Is there one place you’ve been that you’ve always wanted to return to and not made it back?
Bay of Uig on the Isle of Lewis!
We always love hearing how the books we send out effect subscriber lives. You must have heard lots of this sort of thing, are there any great stories from your readers you can share?
We do get a lot of people who base entire road trips around a book. One couple wrote in to describe how they met while visiting a place in Wild Swimming France and ended up getting married!
Where next for Wild Things Publishing?
We’re going to keep it small, and publish adventure travel guides that feel original, exciting and useful.
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