From reporting in South Africa to setting up a literary festival in Yorkshire, Kit Peel heeded nature’s call, says Anastasia Bernhardt
Here’s a trivia question for you: what does international war reporting have in common with a nature writing literary festival in the Yorkshire Dales?
Well, as it turns out, a lot more than you might think, and Kit Peel is the linchpin. Journalist, newswire junkie, festival organiser, beekeeper, horticulturalist, scriptwriter, children’s book author, librettist, husband, father… Kit Peel is not a man to be pigeonholed.
After three years freelance reporting in Johannesburg in the ’90s, Kit returned to the UK to work for Global Radio News, a news agency that specialised in harnessing the world’s best foreign correspondents. ‘We had 400 people in our network, so we could more or less get someone to cover a story anywhere in the world within half an hour,’ says Kit. ‘I travelled to see reporters across the world. There were some real characters, especially those in India, Thailand and Afghanistan,’ he says. ‘Kabul was incredible. When you go to places with that sort of pressure, all of the meaningless stuff gets filtered out, everything feels concentrated. That’s my very fleeting impression of places like that.’
Fortunately, the hairiest it got for Kit was a mix-up at Lagos airport. ‘I was taking Malarone at the time, which I had a bad reaction to. I thought I was on a flight to Enugu and only realised I was on the flight for Port Harcourt, surrounded by mercenaries, a few minutes before take-off. Thankfully, they let the stupid, idiotic journalist off the plane.’
Increasingly, Kit was drawn to writing. ‘I entered an opera competition at the Almeida Theatre with a composer friend of mine. She asked me to be the librettist and, on the virtue of her being a really good composer, we were picked as one of three winners.’ It told the story of the visionaries of Kibeho, three girls who had visions of the Rwandan genocide a decade before it happened. He was also commissioned to write a film script about the Biafran war (which unfortunately never made it to production).
In 2006, he met his wife Megan at a poetry workshop at City University. ‘When I saw her I knew that I would marry her. I tried to write poems to impress her, which didn’t work, especially as the tutor had a bit of a thing for her. When I first asked her out she said no.’
His sonnets can’t have been that awful, because a few years later they were on a year-long honeymoon on the Greek island of Hydra. It was here that Kit’s interest in horticulture started to bloom. ‘While one part of the island is full of rich yachties, the other half is very rustic, it’s completely empty and there are lots of monasteries and little churches. We walked everywhere and I became really fascinated with wildflowers.’
The couple lived in London before their honeymoon but, on their return, they moved into his grandparents’ old house in Yorkshire, where Kit spent his summers as a child. ‘We didn’t have a network of friends,’ says Kit, ‘In the winter it’s a bit isolated. But in the summer we’ve been doing up the house and garden so that it feels like home.’
Before his marriage, Kit was writing a children’s book, which he returned to with renewed vigour after his year off. ‘I decided to write a children’s book because you can write about things that you can’t in an adult’s book. I guess you write what you love to read.’ Naturally, Snow Summer is environmentally minded, it’s about a girl in the sleepy village of Pateley who is the key to inducing summer during a neverending winter.
While writing, Kit volunteered for one day a week at the gardens of Newby Hall in Ripon. ‘It was a meditative thing to do while I was so wrapped up in the book. I didn’t have to think and the team there became really good friends.’ He loved it so much that he enrolled on a three-year garden degree at the Northern School of Garden Design in Skipton, which he is still finishing now. ‘I love the elegant style of Luciano Giubbilei. I find that formal gardens allow you to build more layers of meaning. But, of course, it’s got to be environmentally sound: I want the hedging to benefit the wildlife, I want to use locally sourced stone, I want to minimise the use of concrete and use local craftspeople as much as possible.’
That would be more than enough to be getting on with for most but Kit and Megan decided over the course of a train journey to create a literary festival for nature writing. And so, with the help of Lottery funding, Niddfest was born in 2014, named after the AONB. It weaves together food, fiction, non-fiction and garden writing; just about anything so long as it’s about the natural world.
Carol Ann Duffy was among the first 150 or so festivalgoers. ‘I emailed her and told her what we were doing. She jumped on board. We forgot to put up any signage to show where the festival was, so I ran around chucking botched signs into bushes that read “Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate”. It was quite surreal.’ She is now patron of the festival. She is returning to headline Niddfest (5–7 August) with Imtiaz Dharker, who won the Queen’s gold medal for poetry.
The line-up is diverse: Satish Kumar will talk about Soil, Soul and Society, Nick Davies will take early morning bird walks, while Adam Feinstein will talk about Pablo Neruda’s love of nature. There will also be den building, foraging, wild swimming and, as Nidderdale is about to get dark sky status, an astronomer with his telescope. Plus, the Barrow Band are playing. Their website proclaims they are ‘the first folk-bootanico-encyclopaedic band on the planet’ – whatever that means – but YouTube the Broccoli song and you won’t be disappointed. If you can’t wait until then, Niddfest has a pop-up at The Curious Arts Festival in the New Forest (22–24 July).
What does any self-respecting naturalist do in his spare time? Beekeeping, of course. ‘I went on a course with a friend of mine. We sat at the back of the class drinking mead.’ One day he forgot his protective boots: ‘I had open canvas shoes on. I thought, “I’d done this for a while, bees love me, I love them, we’re all at one with nature”… needless to say I went home with very swollen feet. I couldn’t put shoes on for a week.’
For someone who is so protective of nature, Kit is refreshingly unevangelical. When asked if he thinks it’s a parent’s responsibility to teach their children about nature, he says he’s happy to leave ‘each to their own’. But what he did say is this: ‘The next time you are on a walk, take a moment to stop and take a proper look around you. It’s those moments that stay in your memory.’ I for one can’t comprehend how anybody with a life as full as Kit’s manages to find the time to stand still.
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