Rob Macfarlane held his audience spellbound in Cambridge on 18 October 2018, which is appropriate for an author whose latest book 'The Lost Words' is of spells to be spoken aloud, conjuring back the names of wild creatures that were falling out of children’s vocabulary. A packed house at West Road Concert Hall was increasingly entranced by a very personal view of the Cambridgeshire landscape and Dr Macfarlane’s relationship with it. We travelled with him from the urban centre through the ‘bastard commons’ to the chalk grasslands of Gog Magog, through the Beechwoods into Wandlebury, Magog Down and the Roman Road. This was not a description of the landscape and nature to be found there, rather a cultural interpretation that left us starting to understand the way landscapes affect us and are affected by us over time. His own journey, both physical and emotional, drew on three of his literary spirit guides - J. A. Baker, Nan Shepherd and Roger Deakin – whose seminal works on wild nature and their wild places clearly paved the way for his own.

In introducing Dr. Macfarlane, I likened him to Sir David Attenborough and will not step back from that analogy, despite his protestations. Not alike in age or chosen art form but in the way both author and filmmaker have realised that helping people feel the draw of wild nature, which they both do so exquisitely, is not quite enough. Given the speed at which we are changing our planet, both have become more proactive in finding ways to make us sit up and take notice, to act before it is too late.  Publication of ‘The Lost Words’, a beautiful collaboration with artist Jackie Morris, caught the public imagination and sparked a flurry of grassroots campaigns to get the book into every primary school in several counties, including Cambridgeshire. In the last year Dr Macfarlane has, apart from finishing a new book “Underland”, also contributed to the ‘People’s Manifesto for Wildlife’ and spoken at the recent ‘People’s March for Wildlife’ in London.  A new poem “Heartwood” was performed by a Community choir in Sheffield during the tree festival that was a popular response to the destruction of so many of the city’s mature trees.  Collaborations emerge from Rob like branches reaching out to form a canopy of connections that cross cultural divides.     

During his talk, Dr Macfarlane made reference to children engaging with nature and landscape at an early age, sparking their curiosity and absorbing a sense of place almost by osmosis. Much of his work with charities is to enable this even as opportunities to do so are pushed back by modern life. Then as the children grow, there is his charity that connects teenagers with mentors from the conservation community and of course the annual progression of students through his college  doors. These latter, seeking inspirational nature beyond the city limits, have established a tradition of following his directions by public transport to the Gogs and round Wandlebury that they have dubbed, fittingly, ‘The Rob Magog Club’.

As his talk drew to a close, Dr Macfarlane responded thoughtfully to questions ranging from the underground communication between trees, to a perceived ‘town and gown’ difference in environmental concern, to the suggestion that the historic landscape of the chalk downs was the eighth wonder of the world, but not widely known even in Cambridge! Signing books proffered reverently by audience members was a very personal experience as he engaged on diverse topics, recognised names he had only seen in Twitter exchanges and recalled conversations from past years. Eventually a buzzing audience, emotions activated by the pleasure of cultural discovery, dispersed into the night; but I fancied, walking in Wandlebury the next day, that I recognised several faces who were already rediscovering their roots along the ancient routes through the woods.  


Dr Macfarlane’s recent discussion with artist Norman Ackroyd is still on BBC i-player*

CambridgePPF member Nick Walker has provided his response to the Cambridge talk on

This blog is by Ros Aveling (Chair of CambridgePPF)