The Art of Natural Navigation

Jul 29, 2023 | Nature & Conservation

Tristan Gooley Weald and Downland museum

When my children were primary age, they had a unit of enquiry at school about learning styles to decipher whether they were audio, visual, reading/writing or kinesthetic learners. At the time this seemed rather sophisticated for 6-year-olds. However, the more I learnt, from what trickled home, the more I realised the value of learning this at a young age. That knowledge would certainly have saved me a lot of trial and error working out how best to revise for exams. As a visual learner, it should come as no surprise that I spend hours poring over maps plotting and planning my walking routes. In fact, at the risk of sounding incredibly sad….and very cheap to please…..I’m going to admit that my two best recent birthday presents were a customised OS map (with Petersfield in the middle as opposed to in the bottom left corner of the standard one) and a subscription to the OS map app. The fact that I have just admitted this in public might be the start of my addiction rehabilitation programme!


Before I go out for a walk, I plot and study the route, so I have a firm visual image of where I’m going and what I’m going to encounter. If I’ve done my homework correctly, l only occasionally need to check that I’m on the right path. As I walk I am also continually picturing in my head my location within the wider landscape….a sort of moveable Where’s Wally (Malinka) game. I find it fascinating that other walker friends cannot relate to this method, but their own navigation techniques seem to serve them just fine. I’m particularly in awe of those who go out for a walk without a map or plan, throwing caution to the wind and simply let nature and/or their innate sense of direction guide them.


map and compass


One person who is extremely talented at being guided both by nature and his senses is Tristan Gooley. He is a professional natural navigator and based here on the edge of the Western Weald, at the Forestry Commission’s Eartham Woods, near Goodwood. Tristan is the author of at least 9 books on the subject, his most recent being ‘How To Read A Tree’. According to him, “nature is always making a map for us. Everything outdoors is a clue and a sign”. His books are very readable, explaining the complexities of the natural world in quite simple terms.  He firmly believes it’s not necessary to know all the technical terms to be able to read and understand nature’s clues. For example, with clouds, he urges readers to just know the difference between ‘wispy, flat and bubbly’ ones, rather than remembering they are called Cirrus, Stratus and Cumulus. Overall, Gooley believes GPS navigation has desensitised us to the natural world, and urges us to re-engage our senses, questioning the things we see, hear and smell around us.


Tristan Gooley Weald and Downland


As much as I love my OS map app and the simplicity of GPS navigation, I do feel Tristan makes a very valid point. When I’m out walking alone, I find myself stopping and noticing so much more than when I’m in a group. My hair tells me that the wind has changed direction, which makes me consider the effect on the weather. I pay more attention to the flora and fauna and what it potentially tells me about the local geology or history of the area. Overall, it is a much more sensory and meaningful experience.


Wanting to better understand what I see and why, led me to join a short session with Tristan at the Weald and Downland Museum. It was just a 2-hour amble around the grounds learning how to find ourselves on a map using only natural directional clues, and how to read signs provided by trees, lichens, plants etc, but it was eye-opening. I now properly understand where the sun rises and sets at different times of the year….and for those of you who think it’s east and west respectively there’s a spoiler alert! We also looked at the many ways trees give us signs as to direction. For one, their leaves are essentially solar panels, so just like a shady, north-facing roof would require more/larger panels than one facing south with plentiful light, so the leaves on a tree are often bigger on the northern side to compensate. Lastly, if you are visiting the Weald and Downland Museum look out for the yellowy-orange Xanthoria lichen on the roof of one the long barns. There is noticeably more of this light-sensitive lichen on one side than the other….one guess which way that side faces?



Perhaps, whilst next out on a walk, you can find a place to stand still, look, listen, smell and generally think about all the clues that nature is giving out at that moment in time. According to Tristan, there are as many as 1200 ways to use nature as a compass, so hopefully you’ll be able to detect a few of them.


weald and downland building



Related posts

Walk Of Art

Walk Of Art

Date: Weds 24 July Start: Langham Brewery Start Time: 10.30 Distance: 4 miles Terrain: Undulating...

Walk The Chalk

Walk The Chalk

Date: Weds 31 July Start: South Harting Start Time: 09.30 Distance:  5.6 miles Terrain: 2 climbs...

Social Butterfly

Social Butterfly

Date: Sun 4 August Start: Graffham Start Time: 10.30 Distance: approx 4 miles Terrain: One slow,...