Author and ultra-endurance cyclist Emily Chappell writes about the Inside-Out programme at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed an explosion in the number of people getting outdoors, and spending time in nature. Since I got into cycling, nearly 20 years ago now, I’ve watched with delight as first more and more people joined me on the roads – and then increasing numbers of women seemed to show up. In the early days it felt as though there were just a few of us: a bold archipelago in a sea of men. Now it’s increasingly common to pass groups of female cyclists when I’m out for a ride, and countless role models are celebrated throughout the sport, from athletes to explorers to intellectuals to style icons.
The same has been happening elsewhere in the outdoors – along trails, up crags, and in lakes, rivers and oceans – driven by the wealth of literature that has begun to appear, as all sorts of different people describe to us, often in bewitching prose, what the natural world means to them, how they’ve engaged with it over the years, and how it intersects with their own life experiences, unique and universal.
I used to think that writing about exercise would necessarily be dull – all I could think of was ghost-written sports autobiographies, with their fixation on training and winning and losing. Now, having wallowed in adventure writing for a few years, and produced a couple of books of my own, I realise it’s the most interesting subject there is.
Writing about how our bodies move brings together our physical and emotional selves in a way many of us would otherwise find difficult. And writing – or reading – about how body and mind interact with nature helps us understand, better than anything else, how we exist in the world, how it influences us, and how each of us, in all our various ways, can be enabled, endangered and enlightened as we move through it.
So I was very excited last year, when the Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival approached me, and asked if I would curate a strand of the programme on this exact subject. The result is Inside-Out: a series of six events this August, in which we get to hear some of today’s most impressive outdoor writers in conversation – and then also join them in their natural habitat, on guided hikes, runs and cycles.
Each weekend of the Festival we’ll be showcasing a different activity, and the first one will be devoted to exploring the great outdoors on two feet, alongside two wonderful – and very different – writers.
Merryn Glover will be joining us to discuss her new book The Hidden Fires, which follows in the footsteps and contours of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Written over eighty years ago, this masterpiece of nature writing has come to define its genre, and Merryn, the first writer in residence for the Cairngorms National Park, ranges through the same landscapes with Shepherd’s prose as her guide. Unlike Nan Shepherd, she encounters the Cairngorms as an outsider, having been born and raised by missionary parents in the Himalayas, and in her beautiful book we learn how she discovers “the spark that sets the hills and herself on fire.”
Alongside The Hidden Fires, Rachel Hewitt’s award-winning In Her Nature carries the timely message that women have been adventuring all along – and that they played just as crucial a role as men in nurturing the outdoor leisure and sporting industries that we all enjoy today. There is a tendency to assume (as I have in the past) that women are relative newcomers to the outdoors, having only recently found their voice and their independence. Rachel’s book shows us that this is far from the case; that women have been blazing trails (and battling the same social constraints) for centuries. She also describes how moving through nature on two feet has kept her going through a devastating series of bereavements, and helped her to “feel at home in [her] body and the world at large.”
The day after their talk, just as Rachel and Merryn do in their books, we will be bringing bodies and minds together, on a guided hike through some of Edinburgh’s urban wilderness. Our group will be led by Jenny Isherwood, an experienced outdoor educator whose practice is built around helping people to thrive in their chosen environments, and as well as the opportunity to learn some principles of navigation, we’ll be able to explore our connection with the outdoors in real time, rather than just discussing it in an auditorium.
And the cherry on the cake, as far as I’m concerned, is that we have the support of FINDRA, who could not be a more perfect fit for this venture. Since 2014, Alex and the team have been producing comfortable, versatile and stylish clothing, to help people – especially women – enjoy the world around them. As a brand FINDRA has always dedicated itself to sharing the stories of adventurous women, to celebrate their achievements and to encourage even more of us to follow in their footsteps. So it is only fitting that they should be here alongside these inspirational writers, as we all walk forward together.
Where to look for tickets when they go live on the 29th of June:
A few of Emily's Favourite Things
Don't stop me now, by Queen.
This is what I sing at the top of my lungs when it's all going well on the bike, or when I'm in the triumphant final kilometres of a ride. I've sometimes even done an air guitar solo as I'm riding along.
I've read so many books in my lifetime, but I've probably spent more time on this one than any other. I first read it when I was 15, I've returned to it every few years since, and every time it means something different to me.
And it's hard to pick just one favourite location, as my bike has taken me to so many wonderful places over the years. But the quiet hilly roads of Mid Wales, on a sunny day in early summer, can be hard to beat.