A light in the dark

WATER CAN BE INCREDIBLY THERAPEUTIC, says author Horatio Clare, whose book The Light In The Dark explores the benefits of getting outside to help combat the winter blues.

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

Words by Roy Wilkinson

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With his nature and travel writing, plus memoirs, fiction, and radio documentaries, Horatio Clare has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award. Although his writing has ranged from trips aboard Arctic ice breakers to swallow watching across the Sahara, Horatio is most at home in Yorkshire’s Calder Valley, which provides the backdrop for his recent book The Light In The Dark: A Winter Journal, in which he documents his fight against the dark-day blues of seasonal affective disorder.

“Rivers were a huge part of my childhood. I grew up in South Wales – the River Usk was right by us. My parents had separated, but when my father visited we would go to the river. I’d swim there all the time and then dad got into boating and we used to hire boats and go on the Thames and the Norfolk Broads. Then we moved on to the Great Glen in Scotland and into France. I worked on Dutch barges in France, on the Rhône – amazing things, kitted out like antique shops inside and charging a thousand US dollars a night. I was the washer-upper and deck hand.

“I love boats. I lived on narrow boats and river cruisers for a year on the Lisson Wide basin – on the Regent’s Canal, just by Marylebone. Canadian canoeing is also one of my favourite things. My dad was a journalist and we used to travel with him – once we travelled down the Zambezi. More recently I was doing some travel journalism in Zambia. We were in inflatable canoes and ours was bitten in half by a hippo. I’m one of the few people I know who has survived a hippo attack!

“I can feel down in the winter time and was diagnosed with cyclothymia [a mild mood disorder that involves periods of depression and periods of hypomania]. Initially I wasn’t that good at dealing with it, but I identified what needs to be done – you put on outdoor gear, whatever the weather, and get outside. Up here in Yorkshire it can be brutal, but you get into it. I walk, cycle and get up onto the top of the hills just for the sake of it. Doing that kind of thing is powerful – doctors are now prescribing being in nature as a powerful antidote to the blues.

“I wrote my diary [published as The Light In The Dark: A Winter Journal] in the winter of 2017 and I’ve gradually got better at fighting the winter blues. Now I’m doing more walking and cycling and pounding the roads – particularly at night. I’m very fond of walking at night. The worst thing you can do, really, is hunch up in an attic trying to write a book [laughs], but I did find the process of writing a diary therapeutic. The other things you can do are take vitamin D and omega-3 oils. Eat well and sleep well, but try not to sleep too long. This winter I’m facing things without any fear at all.

“One of my favourite books about being on the water in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat. It’s the funniest novel in English, but there’s also darkness. It clearly touches on depression and alcoholism. At one point there’s an incident based on a real-life suicide. The books deals with all those things while also remaining funny. It’s so loving in the way it looks at male friendship, all tied in, of course, with this wonderful love of the river.

“It’s no accident there are so many songs about rivers and water. These things fascinate us. I love the track ‘River’ by Joni Mitchell – it’s one of my favourite pieces of all time. When I worked on the barges in France I used to listen to that a lot. I’m also a massive fan of The Waterboys; their track ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ is one of my favourite anthems.

“Water can be incredibly therapeutic. Where we live we’re up by Hebden Beck and we’re also near the Rochdale Canal, which is a wonderful place to walk at this time of year. It just lifts the spirits. I went to school by the sea and my headmaster used to say he never needed to employ a counsellor – any time anyone was feeling blue they went down to the sea and it makes such a difference. You get the same effect when you’re beside streams and rivers – I think it’s the life of them and the way they’re never the same from one day to the next. I guess that as a species we developed on the edge of the sea and rivers – we’re creatures of the coast and river banks. Whenever you can, it’s good to get down to the water and let it wash your cares away.”

Posted on 06/12/2019