thomas m wilson

The Path and John Fowles

March 29th, 2007


My interest in conserving and marvelling at global biodiversity and the physical planet has caused me to be more: scientific, optimistic, determined, self-secure and impressed by the world. It has created a path of sorts for me in life.

In 2002 I walked from the West Quantocks Hills in Somerset just under the Bristol channel, with the Exeter University Out of Doors Society, to a small village called Bishops Lydeard. This is when the photograph of the path above was taken. It is also the period of my life when I first met John Fowles.

Fowles was right to insist that you can’t capture the experience of nature in words. Of you can’t capture it with photographs either, which is a salient reminder for myself now that I’m more interested in photography. I remember walking through the trees below Fowles’ house in south-west England, with the wind and the grey light gushing past, leaves swaying and turning, my vision moving as I pass, feelings of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and a man and a place so bound up in nineteenth century notions of refinement.


My bedroom was inside the main house, a room that makes one think of well lived in certain country mansions of the 20s a bit, not big but cultured and hailing from an England you’d never guess existed still as you walked down today’s British high street with its mobile phone shops and ugly mall. And Baag, the big, burly tabby who has now sadly passed away, padded around the house… it really is true that having cats around reduces one’s level of background anxiety.

I uses to often walk into the Undercliff, a wooded area west of Lyme Regis. I strode forth, across a section of open county and then into the chaotic topography and jumble of trees and plants. The path winds along and one thinks: well, here is a bit of wild England after all. The blood pumped through my body and I felt alert, but when I came to a particularly romantic spot – it all is that, one really gets a sense of the spirit of the place that must have motivated the romanticism of the FLW, as Sarah calls The French Lieutenant’s Woman – I stopped. And the silence came flooding in from all sides, and I stood thinking how much these lush vines and trees and shrubs on such wildly up and down terrain stimulant a sense of mystery, of promises around corners. Thinking how, regardless of how hackneyed a word it is, there really was a magic to this place. Of the kind that Fowles talks of in his notion of la bonne vaux. The place is an entrée into a kind of invitation to dream. After the contrast of recent city or town dwelling it came onto my eyes with a fresh, possibility-filled and timeless charm.

How easily I could be Charles Smithson setting out into this wilderness. Or how easily the fictional Sarah could come walking down Ware Lane. The place varied every second as I trod along the path which winded and bobbed up and down, under trees and around corners. The magic of a Samuel Palmer English valley, which Fowles has written about, I truly got an inckling of. As my walking boots had given out the previous weekend, Sarah gave me a pair of John’s old shoes to have and walk in. I was truly walking in the footsteps of John Fowles.