Otter Country

Nature writer Miriam Darlington, known for her books Otter Country and Owl Sense, talks about her childhood connection with rivers – and how she grew up thinking she was an otter

Otter country

Illustration: Hannah Bailey

Posted on 30/05/2019

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Miriam Darlington grew up in Lewes in East Sussex and now lives in South Devon. Her book Otter Country, a compelling account of a lifelong fascination, was published to acclaim in 2012. This was followed in 2018 by Owl Sense – a quest across Europe, full of memorable encounters with owls and humans. Here Miriam talks at her home in Devon – looking out to a spectacular view where owls and ospreys occasionally fly by, up above the River Dart.

“My first encounters with nature were on a stream, the Cockshut, which is a chalk stream off the South Downs in East Sussex – a tributary of the River Ouse. When I was about six me and my brother would collect sticklebacks in jam jars – keep them for a couple of days and then put them back. My dad was a biologist and he’d have been pointing out the ecology of the river. I became obsessed with otters as a child. I’d read [Henry Williamson’s novel] Tarka The Otter and, in my mind I became an otter.

When I was about ten I produced a homemade magazine called Otter News. There was maybe four editions, which I would distribute to neighbours. It was a kind of campaigning publication – this was in the 1970s when otters were still hunted, and I felt a sense of outrage. There were no otters where we lived, so my mum took me to look for them in East Anglia. We didn’t find any in the wild, but I did get to see otters for the first time, at an Otter Trust sanctuary in Suffolk. I didn’t see an otter in the wild until I was an adult – in Wester Ross in the Scottish Highlands.

Tarka The Otter had a really big effect on me. I would challenge anyone to read it and not to start thinking like an otter. It’s so immersive. The writing is incantatory and it takes you down into this watery world. I first read it when I was ten, and I did think I was an otter for a while. That’s never entirely left me, which is maybe why I now like swimming in rivers so much. I’ve explored Tarka country in North Devon – around the rivers Taw and Torridge. Maybe because of that I like the children’s book Otter Moon by Tudor Humphries, which has these wonderful illustrations of the landscape around the Taw and Torridge.

A recent-ish river book I really like is To the River by Olivia Laing. It’s subtitled ‘A Journey Beneath the Surface’ and is about the Sussex Ouse – about the natural history of the river but also about literary connections, including Virginia Woolf who lived and died on the Ouse. It’s a kind of pilgrimage along the river, very beautifully written and with a lot of swimming in the river. Another book I have to mention is Waterlog by Roger Deakin, which was a real inspiration on my writing Otter Country.

When I was young I really liked Bruce Springsteen’s song ‘The River’, which takes in the romance that rivers can have. A song I like to sing today is the old gospel song ‘Down To The River To Pray’. I sing it, harmonising, in the round, with my daughter. I like the idea of baptism or immersion in a river – not in a religious sense, but more just to wash away the everyday stresses and strains.

During my childhood we went on narrowboat holiday on the Grand Union Canal. I loved the slowness and seeing the remnants of old industry – a ghostly feel in this decayed industrial landscape, now overtaken by nature. We also went on a family holiday on the River Severn. I remember swimming and a long canoe trip down the Severn. There’s something about being in a canoe on a slow-flowing river that makes you feel so at one with the river world around you.

Today the River Dart is probably my favourite river. I swim in it a lot and it’s good for otter-watching. Otters are everywhere in Devon, but people don’t see them. Otters are used to people and dogs and just know how to get out of the way. Further afield, my mum’s house is in the Lake District and there’s a lovely river, the River Cocker, flowing out of Crummock Water to Cockermouth. That river is full of fish and wildlife and is very good for otters. But the Dart is where I spend most time – a wonderful river, great for swimming and great for looking for otters.”

Owl Sense, by Miriam Darlington, is published by Guardian Faber.

Words: Roy Wilkinson