Newcastle Alumni at The Athenaeum

My thanks to Newcastle University for inviting me to speak to my fellow alumni at the prestigious Athenaeum Club last Thursday. And thank you to everyone who came to the talk.

One of the attendees, Anna Trevelyan, was kind enough to write up the talk and I’ll pass you over to Anna’s guest blog:


Tristan Gooley navigates Newcastle University alumni

The next time you find yourself waiting for something, don’t immediately reach for your phone. Look around you and ask “Which way am I looking?”. So exhorts Tristan Gooley, The Natural Navigator, speaking to around 35 alumni of his alma mater Newcastle University, at The Athenaeum Club in London on 6th June, 2019.

Using the principle that nothing is random, Gooley believes that everything is a clue that can be made into a map. In our overly visual world, Gooley says that the sense of sight has become a bully, demoting all the other senses. He is trying to redress the balance.

Following a life-long interest in navigation, beginning on a sailing course as a child, Gooley finally took the plunge to give up his job and pursue natural navigation full-time in 2008. Fortunately it worked and soon Radio 4 and The Sunday Times were calling.

Gooley attributes the media interest to the unique shift in priorities at the time of the financial crisis. He explained: “The financial crisis in 2008 lit the fuse of change from consumption to experiences. In 2006, people would have wanted a new car. By 2008, people were into travel and experiences.” This happy coincidence meant there was more interest in knowledge and experience, such as natural navigation.

Gooley’s genuine fascination and enthusiasm are evident as he explains his subject. “Once you’ve tuned into the clues, pretty much everything is a compass.” A certain amount of concentration and focus is needed. When the audience is first shown a photo of a tree, and asked which way the tree is facing, a confusion of ‘North’, ‘West’, and ‘East’ ensues. However, after a few more clues – the south side of the tree will have more branches as it reaches for the sun – a confident voice proclaims ‘West.’

Useful tips for natural navigation include the fact that birch trees are on the outside of woodland, so if you are lost, when you see the birch trees, you are literally nearly out of the woods.

It’s all about asking organisms “why are you there?’. For example, stinging nettles need phosphates to grow. When you see stinging nettles, human activity has been there, which is useful to know if you are looking for a village. They are also noticeable, Gooley said, half an hour’s walk into a wood, because by then someone usually needs a pee.

While many people think that moss is a key natural navigational tool, it wouldn’t make it into Gooley’s Top 20 Tips. Lichen, on the other, hand, Top 5. (It is sensitive to many more factors, making it more dependable than moss.)

Butterflies, rainbows, the moon, the sun and wind all play their part in natural navigation. Gooley is keen to stress that imbuing the nature world with navigational properties does not take away its beauty. The fact that a rainbow can be used as a compass and a clock, with the brightness of the colour giving clues about the size of raindrops – “lots of red means a wet head” – for Gooley makes it all the more beautiful. “If I were to leave you with one thing,” he said, “look around and ask “Which way am I looking?””. Maybe try for five minutes, then reach for your phone and see how you did.


You might also enjoy:

How to Find Your Way in the City

Urban Natural Navigation

Architecture Navigation Clues

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