I’ve cycled the world, but my biggest adventure yet was just miles from home

Being an explorer doesn’t have to involve long, expensive journeys and can be just as rewarding

January 19, 2024 6:00 am(Updated 6:03 am)

There is an unfortunate irony that those of us who love the planet’s wild places are causing the most damage to them every time we jet off around the world. Perhaps, though, there is another way to be a modern explorer.

I cycled around the world for four years, trekked across southern India, and even walked a lap of the M25. But I recently decided to spend a whole year exploring just the single small map that I live on – an unremarkable span of land on the outskirts of a big city.

Ordnance Survey divides the whole country into a series of 403 “Explorer” maps, each covering roughly 20km x 20km and further split into individual 1km squares. My idea was to explore one grid square on my map each week, doing my best to investigate every path, street, wood or forgotten-about patch of scruffy wasteland in that small patch.

I worried that the project would be claustrophobic for someone bitten with as much wanderlust as me. Highlights of previous trips have included thousands of miles of beautiful open sea when rowing the Atlantic and peaceful nights under flawless desert skies in the Empty Quarter desert. My map’s lack of crashing ocean waves and soaring mountains didn’t help much.

My concern turned out to be misfounded. I quickly realised that, as long as I was relentlessly curious and determined to be interested in everything, then everywhere became interesting.

Paying closer attention to my neighbourhood than ever before revealed footpaths, woods, quirky landmarks and mysterious industrial zones that I knew nothing about. I noticed the seasons more precisely, surprised to realise that April was a delightful month of green shoots when I’d assumed it heralded yet more grey days. I learned new birdsong, proud when I could pick out the tiny chiffchaff’s monotonous chirp that told me it was back from Africa and that meant spring was on its way.

I was astonished, somewhat ashamed, by how little of my local environment I had been aware of before I began.

A scheduled weekly outing, come rain or shine, was a tonic for my physical and mental wellbeing. So, too, was the conscious effort to slow down and ignore my phone for a few hours.

Alastair Humphreys is a British Adventurer and Author Image supplied by alastair Humphreys via https://alastairhumphreys.com/more/bio/
Alastair Humphreys is an adventurer and author (Photo: Alastair Humphreys)

Not surprisingly, I enjoyed my walks in bluebell woods, summer meadows and snowy fields. But what I had not anticipated was how much I revelled in the forgotten edgelands of my map: the ignored patches of peaceful woodland lining roaring motorways, the crumbling factories where nature was returning – saplings pushing through cracked concrete and butterflies enjoying the pesticide-free wildflowers.

I had worried that restricting my travels to such a small area would be frustrating, but the year turned out to be one of the most interesting journeys of my life, even though I didn’t really go anywhere.

So rather than dreaming of the adventure of a lifetime, what if we tried instead to have a lifetime of living a little bit adventurously every day? Going local is the perfect way to explore this year. Buy your local map and get out there – you won’t regret it.


Local: A Search for Nearby Nature and Wildness, by Alastair Humphreys, is published by Eye Books, at £12.99