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Interview: Author Mick Manning on Nature Adventures

Can anyone have a nature adventure? You can if you have a park, a garden, a pond, a beach or the Tyne Bridge near you, as author Mick Manning tells Tamzin Lewis.

620 Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom with their children. Photo by Tom Bland
620 Mick Manning and Brita Granström with their children. Photo by Tom Bland

FOR husband and wife publishing team Mick Manning and Brita Granström, “a nature adventure can happen any time – wherever you are”.

The point is that you don’t have to live in rural Northumberland to appreciate nature, it is right here amongst us.

Take, for instance, the kittiwakes which nest under the Tyne Bridge and perch around the Guildhall. A recent £5,000 report informed Newcastle City Council that the birds should be removed as they were putting off visitors with their “noise, mess and smell”.

Really? I can vouch for visitors from London being perfectly charmed by the Tyne Bridge kittiwakes. Their plight is in my mind as I read the beautifully illustrated Nature Adventures, which is all about “nature in the common place”, so I ask Mick what he thinks to it all.

“If you live in the town there is always a lot to see and Newcastle is a brilliant example of that,” he replies.

“The sound of the kittiwakes is the soundtrack to the Quayside. There is the sight of the Quayside but also the sound.

“Kittiwakes are delicate, gentle seagulls. They are not marauders and the council shouldn’t confuse them with herring gulls.”

He adds: “The book is about not taking nature for granted and there are concerns at the moment about children becoming alienated from nature. I don’t want people to neglect the real world, the natural world.”

Nature Adventures, much of which is based on the North East, was a book waiting to be written by Mick and Brita, who live with their four children in Berwick.

The couple have a deep affiliation with the natural world whether in Northumberland or Brita’s home country of Sweden which they visit regularly.

Their own nature adventures have included discovering a 300million-year-old fish fossil on Cocklawburn beach, near Berwick. The fossil, a species of the three-metre-long predatory rhizodont, is now in Great North Museum: Hancock.

Not all nature adventures can be quite so dramatic and my young kids are pretty content foraging about in the mud, picking up sticks, eating pebbles and rolling about in cut grass.

This intuitive curiosity and love of nature before children get addicted to their Wiis and Xboxes is what Mick and Brita hope to encourage.

Mick, 51, says: “I always wanted to do a British nature book like I had as a boy and I have crammed as much of my lifelong fascination with nature into this book. It is contemporary but unashamedly slightly retro. I wanted it to have a sketchbook feel.”

Describing his inspiration, Mick says: “I drew upon our own experiences when we made the book. When I went to school in the 1960s and 70s each classroom had a nature table, proudly adorned with seasonal finds: feathers, autumn leaves, spring buds and owl pellets.

“To help us identify birdsong on a nature walk a teacher might shoot a Browning quote from the hip, ‘That's the wise thrush. He sings each song twice over’.

“Or when discussing weather lore another teacher might let fly with ‘Oak before the ash – we’re in for a splash’.

“It’s as a homage to that blending of art and nature science that I quote snatches of poetry in our book.”

Mick, who grew up in Yorkshire, adds: “From about the age of six, I drew and wrote furiously, trying to portray the creatures I had seen. They were curlews, snipe, rabbits, lapwings, redshanks, larks and weasels.

“My mum and dad fed my interest by taking me camping to Bamburgh and the wildlife-rich Northumberland coast blew my 11-year-old mind!”

Illustration from Nature Adventures, by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom

Mick was so inspired by the Northumberland coast that he chose to study a degree in graphics and illustration at Newcastle University.

He rented a flat in Tynemouth to be close to the seaside and spent time drawing seabirds on Longsands and Cullercoats.

He says: “I rescued quite a few oiled guillemots and puffins which became my artist's models. I also visited the Hancock Museum, often to draw but also to pester the naturalists there, and that is when I realised what an essential job the wildlife trusts do.”

Following an MA in natural history illustration at the Royal College of Art in London, Mick moved back to Northumberland and lived around Catton and Allendale.

He says: “I found owl pellets in ruined farms along the River Allen, exercised rabbits with my playful lurcher pup, saw dippers and red squirrels and I remember finding curlew and lapwing nests up on the rough sheep pasture and fells around Allenheads.”

Mick found a kindred spirit in Brita, who grew up on a farm in Sweden, and the couple have written and illustrated more than 60 books.

Brita, 41, is also a painter whose work is deeply influenced by the natural world.

She says: “I learned from an early age the importance of the seasons by helping my grandfather plough and harrow, sometimes driving the tractor myself.

“By the lake I saw beavers and moose. With my parents we went on visits to my dad’s native Lapland and there I learned to canoe and fish for perch and cook them on a campfire.

“When I competed at junior county level in cross-country skiing, I spent hours on training runs through the forest, seeing and hearing all sorts of wildlife. Most important of all I learned to draw and paint at a young age by observing what I saw on the farm.”

Since having children (now aged between 14 and four), the couple have continued their “nature adventures come rain or shine, often involving sketchbooks and the child-friendly ritual of a picnic”.

Mick says: “Our objective is to have fun in the open air and to de-mystify the natural world for them in the process.”

Nature Adventures is definitely a de-mystifier to the natural world within our reach. Chapters including town, seashore, the park and woodland incorporate poetry and some quite detailed information.

So what about computer games. Surely Mick and Brita’s boys aren’t immune?

Mick says: “Of course our older boys play computer games and they are addictive, but you have to balance it out. They are not obsessed with natural history, but they relate to it.

“They can identify common plants and wildlife at a glance and understand how nature and rural activities like farming and forestry go hand in hand.

“They also enjoy beach-combing or scrambling through woods or up a hill. They’ve had mucky hands and grazed their knees and torn their jumpers. The natural world has become a part of their life and they like it that way.”

Nature Adventures by Mick Manning and Brita Granström is dedicated to the wildlife trusts. It is published by Frances Lincoln at £12.99, www.frances-lincoln.com

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