Author Q&A: Steven Freeman

Gone Feral: Wild in the Woods and Fells of the Lake District (Outgate Press, £10.99) 

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Priced out of the Lake District by high rents, writer and fell runner Steve Freeman found himself living in a tent in a National Trust woodland for five months. Gone Feral recounts the hardships he faced but is also an homage to nature in a land that he shows has become tamed, domesticated and commodified. 

Tell us a bit about the circumstances that led to you becoming homeless but not jobless?
It’s very difficult to find affordable accommodation in the Lake District when you’re on the minimum wage, which is what most jobs here offer. Prior to my living in the wood I did have a room in North Lakes and a job in a café, but I quit the job to concentrate on writing whilst I was on a creative roll and whilst I had a quiet place to work. The money ran out so I had to move out, but I got a job in a shop in South Lakes and arranged to live in the wood.

Much of Gone Feral is the minutiae of daily life on camp. How much of the book comes from diaries and accounts you kept at the time?
I kept a journal during my time in the wood and wrote in it nearly every day, whatever the weather, sitting in my chair under the tarp. These journal entries were used as the basis for the passages describing being in the wood. They mix observations of my woodland environment, practicalities of the camping life and reflections on my situation in the wider scheme of things.

The book is in some ways an homage to nature, set in the Lake District – one of our greatest natural assets but where the word “season” says more about tourist figures than the weather. How has it changed over the decades you have lived there?
The Lake District has been a tourist destination ever since the time of Wordsworth and the other Lakes poets 200 years ago, and especially since it became a national park in 1951. Now that it has world heritage status visitor numbers are increasing even more. In the 30-odd years I have lived here it has got busier and it has changed in ways that reflect changes in society in general. Visitors these days tend to be less independent and adventurous, and more reliant on visitor centres and guides to tell them what to do. Although there is much talk of the need for “adventure” activities to attract yet more visitors, there has been a trend away from true adventure and towards consuming packaged experiences. There are less people on the fells these days, except for a few very popular ones, as most people visit the Lakes for shopping, eating and drinking, or even apparently just to stare at their smartphones.

You describe a range of accommodation that used to exist for people of limited means – youth hostels and the open door policies of places like the Purple House. Tell us a bit about them and why you think they no longer exist or operate in the same way. 
The Purple House was a bit of a one-off, but there were other places where you could get a room for a reasonable rent. The Purple House burned down 11 years ago to make way for an ostentatious holiday home that is only occupied for a few weeks of the year. Other shared houses that were occupied by local workers are now used by holiday cottage companies, so that the workers usually have to commute long distances from outside the park to their jobs in the honeypots. Towns like Ambleside and Keswick that were once real communities have become expensive resorts that are all about getting and spending.

As for the youth hostels, they were originally set up to “provide simple accommodation, especially for young people of limited means” and just a few decades ago they attracted a lot more young independent travellers. These days however the hostels have gone upmarket and expensive and cater mainly to affluent families or sole-usage groups. I think the YHA lost its way many years ago when it was taken over by a management with no sympathy for the original ethos.

Between fell running, writing and living wild in the woods you were physically, creatively, mental and spiritually fulfilled. What was it then that drove you out of the woods after five months?
It was mainly because I’d outstayed my welcome. I was essentially squatting on private land with the permission of the tenant of the house to which the woodland was attached. Also I was running out of money and had to get a job in town – Kendal, some distance away, where I could also share a flat with a friend. The autumn/winter weather would have made camping there increasingly an arduous ordeal anyway.

You write how you were inspired by Wainwright’s guidebooks as a teenager and your book details the route you take running the 50 mile run you designed – the Freeman Round. Is your intention that Gone Feral is used in part as a guidebook?

Yes, I was inspired by Wainwright in my youth, but no, it is not my intention that the book is used as a guidebook for the Freeman Round. The account of the round is my personal story, interwoven with bits of Lake District history and my own history and philosophy. Anyone wanting to follow in my footsteps in doing the round can find more info on the website gofar.org.uk or email me for detailed route notes at freemansteve@hotmail.co.uk.

Have you found a balance between a wild and domesticated life now? 
I am currently living in a van, although will move into yet another rented room soon. Like anyone else I appreciate the comforts of living in a house with a proper kitchen and bathroom, but the amount of rent requires a full-time job, which for me at the moment consists of stultifying warehouse work. I regard my real work as writing, and there is wildness in that, although I need to live somewhere not too far away from wild country – for the health of mind, body and soul. Living in Kendal there is wildness not far away, the town being the southern gateway to the Lake District. Finding a balance is tricky. It’s impossible to escape from civilisation and society, but to do so permanently would probably not be a good idea anyway. We all need social life, and if that means participating in domesticated civilised society then so be it. But I think that wildness and freedom are basic human needs if we are to live fully and happily. Being close to nature, the wilder the better, and fell-running go some way to answering these needs in my life.

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