Award-winning journalist, blogger and tutor, David Atkinson writes for the Daily Telegraph, Guardian and Weekend FT. firstname.lastname@example.org
Far from the Madding Crowd by David Atkinson
I’m forever going absent to get present.
We all do it at this time of year, using a summer escape to
find some space to think amid the daily soundtrack of our spin-cycle lives.
But the distraction of exotic surrounds, foreign aromas and
new horizons are often just a distraction – not a solution.
As the philosopher Alain de Botton writes in The Art of
Travel, “… on the tropical island we learn that the state of the skies and
appearance of our dwellings can never on their own underwrite our joy, nor
condemn us to misery.”
To make the absence we all sometimes crave truly count, we
need to embrace the art of being alone more than the journey itself.
The shepherds Thomas Hardy describes in his breakthrough
tome, Far From The Madding Crowd, understood how to be alone.
The story’s young protagonist, Gabriel Oak, breathes it with
every exhalation of summer breeze, tastes it with every morsel of his
Isolated in a limitless landscape, only the elements and
their flock to commune with, the self-imposed exile of the shepherd is a true
act of conscious absence.
Hardy observed the shepherds seeking refuge from the heat of
the day and the terrors of the night in their little huts. During the 1870s, when
they liberally speckled the landscape alongside scarecrows and horse carts,
Hardy describes these humble dwellings as “A little Noah’s Ark.”
These days the likes of young Gabriel are increasingly rare
but their sanctuaries are returning to the pastoral landscape of Britain.
These new living sheds, hand crafted from local wood and
engrained with centuries of nomadic tradition, are finding new life as places
of escape of writers, artists, thinkers and dreamers.
They are places to embrace being the anti-establishment joy
of being present in your act of absence – lost in nature. Better still, no
airport queues or surly security guards have to be negotiated.
Many are just a short drive from our own backyard. Rhydd
Farm, a five-acre smallholding on the verdant fringes of Penyfford, Flintshire,
was just 20 minutes from my own.
The shepherd’s hut, handcrafted from red cedar and with
furnished with thoughtful touches, offered me more than a simple
woodland-shrouded home from home. It was a place to think and write.
That night, after a couple of pints of summer ale at the
local village pub, I bedded down on a soft mattress to a lullaby of owls. My
hosts were just across the fields in the farmhouse but I was alone with my
But the true sense of absence came the next morning. Beating
the dawn chorus of farm livestock and domestic pets, I stood in the fields at
6am, a mug of tea in my hand and a gentle dousing of morning dew on my walking
boots, to take in the view across the fields to Moel Famau.
According to Thomas Gray's poem Elegy Written in a Country
Churchyard, an inspiration for Hardy’s febrile passion for English rural life,
I was at last, “Far From the madding crowd's ignoble strife … / Along the cool
sequester'd vale of life.”
There would soon be bacon frying on the grill and daily
routines to return to but, in that moment of delicious calm, I knew the
isolation of the shepherds and made peace with it.
My absence had, at last, delivered me to a place of pure presence.