Launching a new book about the outdoors of North Wales in the middle of lockdown isn’t what author Mike Raine would have chosen, but it will give readers time to dream of future visits to the mountains. Nature of Snowdonia is not, you might be surprised to know, a book written for naturalists; that said, everyone will learn something new and ought to have it within easy reach whatever your reason for being in the hills or valleys.
Mike is, at heart, a hillwalker and climber, who has worked as a geography teacher and an outdoor instructor since the 1980s. Living in the Conwy Valley, until recently he worked at Plas-y-Brenin, the National Outdoor Centre near Capel Curig and wrote the first edition of the book a decade ago, but it has long been out of print. This second edition has been extensively rewritten, with hundreds of new photographs. “I’ve met a lot more people in the last ten years, experts from whom I’ve picked up a lot of knowledge,” he says. “My skill is to teach and communicate, and from running hundreds of courses I know what a generalist audience wants. When they’re out, they ask “what’s that plant?, why does that rock formation look like that?, why is that sheep-fold there?”
Nature of Snowdonia tries to answer many of those questions. “I spent two years taking photographs of what I saw when out in North Wales, so the book features what anyone might typically expect to see,” explains Mike. It takes a seasonal approach to narrow down the choices, especially of the many plants that grow in Snowdonia, but this is not purely an identification guide. It describes not just where you’d expect to find wildlife but also why, the origins of their names, and in the case of plants how people have used them for medicine or clothing.
People may buy Nature of Snowdonia as a one-stop guide to upland wildlife, but it does something that I think is unique in a pocket guide. It explains. There is a section on ‘Invaders’ that describes the problems caused by Rhododendron and Himalayan Balsam in the National Park. A chapter on farming describes how it has shaped the Snowdonia we see and the consequences for people and wildlife. It features some of the archaeology a visitor might find, from Neolithic tombs to the slate industry and wartime tank-traps. It even mentions some of the legends of the area, such as The Afanc and the dragons of Dinas Emrys.
Geology is a particular passion of the author, but he sees the difficulty with accessing information from experts. “Geologists have to start with the big picture,” he says, “it’s how you understand the landscape. But when you’re not an expert and come across a boulder embedded with quartz, you want to know what it is and why it’s there, so I’ve flipped geology on its head to make that the starting point”.
The scope of the book is an extension of Mike’s own philosophy: “anyone working or walking in the outdoors should be an ambassador for it,” he says. “You should understand its different users and uses. That’s my personal mission, especially when training those who will lead others. I want people to be aware of the issues that have shaped our landscape in the past, today and will determine its future”.
It’s billed as “a guide to the uplands for hillwalkers and climbers” but farmers, naturalists and householders who live in the area should value it too. When we can go walking again, it’s going to be a fixture in my rucksack.
Nature of Snowdonia by Mike Raine is published by Pesda Press, costs £15.99 and is available by mail order from mikeraine.co.uk/shop.