Review: Deep Country – Neil Ansell

Britain has the reputation for being an over-crowded country with a population much the same as France but with only one third of its area. These figures can mask the fact that much of the British population is located in cities and conurbations and as soon as you drive outside these you can find solitude a-plenty, even in counties like my own, East Sussex.  However, Wales is a much less-populated region and if you hanker after the quiet life, that could be the place for you.

Neil Ansell had the opportunity to rent a dilapidated cottage deep in the hills of Mid-Wales, in countryside so remote that you could walk twenty miles in one direction without encountering another dwelling.  What started as short-term let, turned out to be a five-year period of solitary living, far removed from the services we expect to find today – hot water from a tap, central heating and plumbing.  The rent of £100 a year reflected the lack of services but failed to take account of the incredible beauty of the location and the land available to the tenant.

Neil has a great affinity with nature and things which would phase other people were causes of delight.  I am not sure how I would feel about sharing my home with twenty of thirty bats for example.  Even Neil however baulked at the spring-invasions of mice – fortunately the pretty field mouse variety rather than the disease carrying house mouse.  The mice reduced Neil to hanging food in carrier bags from ham hooks embedded in the ceiling.  The only way Neil could reduce the population of mice was to trap them and carry them across a river where he released them.  No doubt killing them would have had no effect other than to make space for others.

Neil found that his life settled down into natural rhythms, “I had a daily routine dictated by the simplicty of my lifestyle, and an annual routine too, led by the seasons, the elements”.  He even developed his own rituals, such as seeing in the New Year from the summit of his hill or walking overnight into the hills at the Summer Solstice so he could watch the dawn from a mountain top.

Five years of solitude was broken up by visits from friends, but Neil became accustomed to his way of life and found that he welcomed the return to quietness when they departed.  He writes,

I couldn’t fee lonely.  Loneliness is the product of an isolation that has not been freely chosen.  You can feel more lonely in the midst of a crowd of people if those people are not giving you the human contact you desir, in the same way that poverty surrounded by affluence feels harsher, more shocking, than poverty shared.

While it is interesting to read how Neil looked after himself, the major part of the book is a sort of extended nature diary – fascinating for anyone who loves the ebb and flow of the seasons and the changing wildlife that accompanies them.  The hills of Wales are remarkable rich in wild-life of every description and Neil went out of his way to cultivate a relationship with it – maintaining a large number of nest boxes for example, which he patrolled regularly to check on the progress of his many bird families.

He became remarkably attuned to the life around him and was aware of every bird in his patch and any new arrivals which turned up.  He rescued an ailing raven at one point and took it indoors to care for it, until passing it on to experts who could nurture it back to a full life.  I was reminded of a time I went for a walk I knew well in the company of an enthusiastic bird-watcher – he kept pointing out birds which I hadn’t even noticed before and began to realise that the area I lived in was far richer in wild-life than I had imagined.

Neil already had an interest in “food for free” having lived in Sweden where “foraging in the wood in autumn is practically a national pastime”.  He gathered chanterelles, parasols and ceps, preserving them in olive oil with dill and coriander seeds.  He made thirty jars of jam each year from berries found in the woods, and he gathered wild strawberries – a pleasure I have shared while walking in South Wales.

Neil had two mild winters and then a third winter when he was snowed in for six weeks.  Fortunately his hoard of logs supplied warmth enough, and he was able to draw flocks of birds and individaul rarities to his home with strategically placed seed and nuts.

The solitary life was a phase which could not last forever. Neil is now a successful BBC journalist and lives with his family  in the city of Brighton. He still returns to his Welsh cottage but things are not quite the same – in his epilogue he gives the impression of returning to the location of an earlier part of his life, now long gone.

Neil has recorded a video for Penguin Books with some footage of the cottage which lets us get a good idea of where he spent his five years with nature and self-sufficiency.


14 thoughts on “Review: Deep Country – Neil Ansell

  1. Hmmm … as one with Welsh forebears (and only a couple of generations back) this intrigues me as I’ve been to England and Ireland but not to Wales (unless Holyhead counts!). Anyhow, I wonder if my 90 year old Dad would like this? Is the nature diary aspect well written or a bit tedious for the general reader?


    • Sue – I think the nature diary stuff is great if you are interested in the details of bird-life, mushrooms, foxes etc, but I think you have to have a liking for this sort of thing. Its a beautifully produced book however – on the Kindle you’d miss much of the book’s attraction I think


  2. This is one of those ideas that I really like in theory, but total isolation in small doses is ok not sure if continuous would appeal. Think of the amount of books you’d need.


    • Hi Parrish – I’m not sure he had time for reading what with the vast amount of time taken up with self-sufficiency. Reading a luxury for the civilized?


  3. Interesting; I’m living in Norway, but my son has just received a place at Aberystwyth University, so I might get the chance to check out the Welsh countryside (if I’m lucky;)

    Right now I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s book: A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit is examining the relations between humans and nature in many ways. I really enjoy reading this book. Highly recommendable.

    All the best!


    • Hi Sigrun – thanks for visiting. Aberystwyth is not the easiest of places to get to, but you will go through some lovely countryside in order to get there. A Field Guide to Getting Lost looks good and I’ve just downloaded a sample to my Kindle.


  4. Hi Tom isn’t that what winter was ,,invented for, A roaring fire a bitter winter outside & a good book .
    ” Reading a luxury for the civilised” or a path to it.


  5. Hello Tom,
    This made me think of Jim Harrison. In True North, the main character David, lives in the woods for a while. Have you read it?


  6. So glad I found this book on your website. It not only echos True North, but this idea of solitary living in a remote location harkens back to Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Readers might also enjoy Pete Fromm’s Indian Creek Chronicles where just a few years ago Mr. Fromm spent a hearty and lonely winter in Idaho’s wilderness, a novice who had no idea what a “cord” of wood was. Entertaining tale. Thank you for reviewing Ansell’s experience.


    • Bink – thanks for visiting. Yes, I also thought of Thoreau’s Walden but I don’t know Pete Fromm’s work. I shall go an look it up straightaway


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