Dave Spikey: 'I'm blessed with good places to walk in Lancashire'
The comedian Dave Spikey loves stepping out in his local woodland. It's a great way to clear the head – instantly calming, a quick fix. He tells Mark Rowe why we should all rediscover the British countryside
Sunday 13 January 2008
I've enjoyed going for walks from a young age. My family didn't have a car until I was 12, so I didn't have much choice as a kid but to walk everywhere. I walked to school – it was three miles to the grammar school – so that may have contributed to my interest. We went to North Wales for family holidays and it was never just a beach holiday. We would go walking in Snowdonia – it was just what we did, as kids we weren't forced into it.
I'm very lucky to have a wonderful woodland on my doorstep in Lancashire. I go out of my back gate, turn left and in half a mile I'm in Whittle Spinney. It's surrounded by the 21st century, there's the M61 and a housing estate on its edge, but, once you're in, it's an oasis. There's a lot of mixed woodland – native and introduced – including cherry, holly and alder. I'd like to say I'm an expert on trees but I'm not, especially in winter. I'll walk along and say "Oh, there's an ash, or an alder" and go home, look in the book and realise it wasn't.
The spinney spreads to about six acres. It used to be wet grazing land and still has hedgerows and hawthorn. You hear bird song and it makes you stop. It's a great place to walk on a cold winter's day. There are some paved footpaths and some muddy ones, so it is easy to get around. There's a memorial to St Helen's Well, which was a Catholic shrine but is covered by the M61 now; there are a lot of springs around here but that one was supposed to be the purest. There's also a 19th-century lime kiln, which will be of interest if calcium carbonate is your thing. The point is that such features give you something to talk about if you have kids with you. It makes me smile that, with no irony, the housing estate has roads named after the trees that were bulldozed to build it, such as Oak Tree Drive. I like the fact this woodland is here, fighting its corner.
Whittle Spinney is special to me and I love walking there because it helps me to clear my head, even if I only go for 20 minutes – it's instantly calming, a quick fix. It also helps that there's a pub at the bottom, the Dog Inn. I don't know if I can put a finger on it and say exactly why I like walking, but it gives you time to think. I work from home, so it helps me get away from the office. I can go for a walk with my head full of jumble, thinking about scripts or stand-up, or PR and tours, and become refreshed. There is pressure in my job – I wouldn't call it real stress – and I find walking stimulating, perhaps because it is solitary. Unconsciously, it just helps me with ideas or to overcome a problem with work. It fires your imagination. Walking also helps to keep me fit. I try to go to the gym but I'd rather get out and see some proper countryside than spend all the time on a treadmill. It's much better to get some proper air into your lungs.
There is also a lot of humour in the countryside. Ducks fascinate me and always make me laugh when I see them on a river. I've camped out on a riverbank and gone back to the tent after an evening in the pub (you're tired and you put it down to all the fresh air when it's more about the eight pints you've drunk), snuggled down and just got off to sleep when the ducks have kicked off. They start up a cabaret around midnight and just keep quacking. There's something innately comical about them.
There is etiquette when walking about greeting other walkers and saying "hello". Why do some walkers say it and other's don't? I'm definitely a "hello" person. It's about whether people catch your eye or not. You can tell from somebody's body language if they want to say hello or not. Some people will just be miserable but in the north everyone tends to say "hello" – or "awreet". The only trouble is that all you want to do is just that – say "hello" – but the other person might be feeling a bit lonely or desperate for conversation and want to have a discussion about the state of the footpath.
I'm blessed with good places to walk in Lancashire. A popular choice is Rivington Pike, which overlooks Horwich. There's something of a tradition – a rite of passage – that you have to walk it at Easter. It's a stunning place. I'm drawn to bleak moorlands like that, where you get blown to death by Pennine gales. I'm also only 40 minutes from so many other lovely walking areas. I love the coastal walks of North Wales and I also really enjoy walking in the Lake District. It's a funny thing – we were talking in the pub the other night about how if you're in the North-west you never get around to going there, but once you're past Kendal it's wonderful to walk around Ullswater.
The other place I'm particularly fond of is the route of the Leeds-Liverpool canal. I love walking along canals. Partly it's because of my industrial background, so I like that mixture of industrial heritage and countryside. Once you get through Blackburn and Colne, you start to leave the industrial towns of Lancashire behind and get into the Pennines. There's an embankment that overlooks Burnley and you can see the old industries, the old mill bridges, before you start climbing into the Pennines. A hundred years ago people were doing the same, putting their shoes on and getting outdoors for some recreation. British Waterways has done a fantastic job of regenerating the canals for users and walkers. There are a lot of places to make for – Barrowford, Bingley and Skipton.
My favourite stretch comes just after you've passed Accrington, Nelson and Colne. Just north of Colne there's a tunnel called Foulridge Tunnel – named I'm told for a Civil War battle that took place there and the commanders said they'd fight "on that foul ridge". It's like Narnia; you go through the tunnel on the industrial side and as you come out the other end you get this vast view of the Pennines. It's a wonderful little journey, like travelling through time, from the developed world to the unspoilt countryside.
There's a pub there called The Hole in the Wall. The story goes that a cow fell in the canal on the industrial side but instead of waiting for help, or whatever it is cows do, it decided to swim through and pulled itself out the other end. It was given a brandy in the pub – that's Lancashire hospitality for you. This is a very beautiful country and I think people overlook or undersell it.
Our woods and countryside are important which is why I'm supporting the Woodland Trust's Recycle Now campaign. I'm impressed by what they do, especially this Christmas card initiative. I'm afraid that when I first heard about recycling Christmas cards, a few years ago, I thought it meant that you should keep the cards you got and re-use them the next year. I would put stickers in them and write the new names in. Then I thought maybe you should just cross your name out, so that people could see where you fit in the Christmas card hierarchy, whether you'd been sent a cheap one from a packet of 50 for £4, or something more upmarket.
I find it amazing that without recycling, one billion Christmas cards would go to landfill this year – that's a lot of trees. If you love the countryside you have to do what you can to preserve it; it's negative to say there's no point bothering because China is opening a power station every week.
It's possible that we are just less gobby about what we have in the UK compared with other countries, or that we don't do our research properly or have too many other distractions. I'd always recommend people to have a look and rediscover our countryside. It might sound a bit boring – "we're off to the countryside for a walk" – but you might be surprised by what you find.
Further browsing What to see and do at Whittle Spinney can be downloaded at wt-woods.org.uk/whittlespinney. For more information on the Recycle Now and Woodland Trust Christmas Card Recycling Scheme visit recyclenow.com. Details of Dave Spikey's forthcoming UK tour can be found at www.davespikey.co.uk
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