Sunday, January 4, 2009

Whatever happened to Derrick Booth?

Ironically, one of the great things about the Internet is the way it can help you find those special books that have somehow vanished from your shelves.

Aged eighteen or so I read a short guide to backpacking which - and there's no overstatement here - changed my life. I bought it when I was working in a crisp factory, endlessly packing boxes of Ready Salted and waiting for Fridays to come. The book inspired me to take my first proper trips to the mountains, and in so doing, gave me a lifelong love of the outdoors. A few weeks after buying it, I packed in my job and walked the Pennine Way.

For years I recommended The Backpacker's Handbook to friends; as much a celebration as a technical guide, a book to keep by your bed and dip into again and again. I must have lent it once too often, as someone didn't return it and for twenty years I'd been looking for a replacement. So imagine my delight when after few clicks on a copy was on its way.

It was just as I recalled: the same cover and red banner strip, the same format and photos that had stuck in my memory. What I'd forgotten though, was the quality of the writing.

How many backpacking guides open like this?

Time was when the world was limitless. Time was when the human race moved around - if at all - on its two feet. Time was when man didn't crave freedom to wander but took it for granted....

Or finish with a note like this:

Today, Boxing Day, was for me the moment the tide turned. Across the grey-blue marshes the sun subsided into the marram grass horizon and a brown froth edged nuzzle of a new tide dribbled up the gulleys between the saltings. .. the world turned to pewter.

As I re-read the first chapters I understood why it had so affected me. It's written not just with knowledge and experience, but with a care for the outdoors and a perception for the landscape that gives it a dimension so many guidebooks lack. Information is easy to collate; inspiration and resonance are harder to achieve.

I wonder what happened to Derrick Booth? I never see his name in print; as far as I can tell he doesn't write for any of the outdoor magazines; for all I know he might have passed on. But his little book on backpacking is a classic - a world apart from the pseudo 'new nature' tosh that seems to centre round East Anglian writers (notable exception being Mark Crocker's, Crow Country). So thanks Derrick Booth -whoever and wherever you are - you changed one person at least.

Sorry, this time my copy is not for borrowing.


  1. Couldnt agree more ....
    I bought a battered old copy from a second hand bookshop in Robin Hoods Bay for £2 - the best book Ive ever read on the outdoors.
    Ive read no other book in which the authors enthusiasm is transmitted in such an infectious way.
    Ive also searched for Derrick Booth related material to no effect.
    A very talented writer ,I believe, and seemingly few -if any (that ive read ) have come close to in quality .
    An unforgetable read ,Thanks to Derrick Booth - a classic in every sense of the word !

  2. The amazing thing about this post is that Derrick Booth actually read it and contacted me - he is alive and well(ish) in California, US.

    I am going to write a follow up post soon.

    Glad you found my blog; hope you return from time to time

  3. Hi Mark

    I'm another person who has been searching for Derrick for many years!

    I was given his book in 1974 by a school mate who wasn't interested in "camping".

    The book really inspired me and led to a life long passion for walking, climbing and backpacking.

    Friends and I were recently discussing the most influential people in our lives. Mine are a physics teacher, who I managed to get in touch with to say "Thanks" and Derrick Booth, who I was afraid had departed this life and whom I would never be able thank.

    Having stumbled across your blog, I'm delighted with the post and hope that you could, with Derricks permission, pass me his email address.

    My address is neil dot fuller at [remove this] gmail dot com

    As far as your blog is concerned, you have a fantastic writing style and I'm slowly making my way through your posts - Thanks for taking the time to put this all together.

    Best regards


  4. Like yourself, I went a long time without my copy of The Backpacker's Handbook...35 years! I first got it in 1975/76, the second edition (1975) with a picture of Derrick on the front, when I was thirteen.

    It was interesting to read it again as a forty-eight-year-old. A teenager has a different perception to a middle-aged man! The biggest difference I noticed was sympathising with him about the pressures of the "rat race" and the need to get away from it! Of course as a teenager, you don't know such pressures.

    One thing that didn't change was the way I was engrossed in it. It's a very practical guide based on experience. I like his take on life too, doing his own thing, avoiding clubs and getting away from the masses...these things appeal to me as much today as they did in 1975, and I feel he is a kindred spirit.

    I also like his no-nonsense, no-frills approach and dislike of the fashionable, pretty-much for the sake of it...again I can relate to that today as then.

    I wondered if anything would jump out at me that I would remember from reading 35 years ago...I think it had to be the ladies tights and freeze-dried food!

    As you metnioned, thanks to the internet I was able to get a copy. Got it on eBay. Second edition as described above. I paid 99p for it! I was initially quite shocked to see that the original price was 75p! Inflation has been creeping up on me! This was also apparent in some of the prices quoted in the book "two 2p coins for the phone"!

    I also couldn't help wondering how the book would have been written today with mobile phones, satellite navigation, Goretex fabrics and microfleece!

    I was also struck by his disgust at man's polluting of the planet, LONG before such a thing became fashionable.

    I never did do any serious backpacking, I think the book was about escapism as much as anything else. With Derrick's descriptions I could imagine I was backpacking!

    I was in the Scouts when I first read the book and did a bit of camping and knot-tying! I also used to camp in the countryside near my home with my pal and make strongly-brewed tea on a real fire, with fried sausages, most of which stuck to the pan!

    I even found myself, re-reading the book, getting out a piece of cord and having another go at tying bowlines!

    I don't know what happened to my original copy but as I got older (17-18!) I got more interested in cars, girls and working for a living, so such things as books from my boyhood could quite easily have been thrown out. When you're 18 you don't give any thought to this, but of course you regret it later when you're older and wiser.

    I just finished reading the book thirty minutes ago and came straight on the internet to find out more about Derrick, and came across this site. I too wondered if he was still with us and was delighted to see that you had heard from Derrick...if you read this...THANK YOU, and keep up the good fight!

  5. I have had a copy of this book since I picked it up in in 1999 (hardback 1st edition, Robert Hale, London. 45p in a charity shop). I read it once and thought the writing and enthusiasm were great even though time and technology had dated some of the specifics. I thought I'd lost it but have just found it again in the back of a cupboard and did a quick Google - and found this blog!

    It was nice to read of this and the sequel. And I'm looking forward to re-reading the book.

  6. I've just read all the above with real interest, because Derrick Booth is my dad and he's alive and kicking and living in California, USA. He's 84 now, and still as interested in the world as ever....
    Alison Flower (nee Booth)

    1. What happened to Eric Gurney of of the Backpackers club UK 1970's? Nick Tucker

  7. I used to go to school in Felixstowe with Derrick's son, Adrian. I remember that the garden usually had backpacking tents erected in it for testing. I bought the book not knowing that it was Adrians' Dad had written it. It was a true inspiration for me as was the fantastic tent maker, Robert Saunders of Chigwell. My son now uses my tent that I bought 36 years ago

    1. Our garden always had tents in it, my own garden with my own children again had tents in it, I'm Derrick's youngest daughter, his legacy are our memories.

    2. My fondest memories were of tents in our garden, my children then also camped in the garden every summer. I'm Derrick's youngest daughter. These memories have become precious.

  8. My husband was wondering too, then we met him Saturday morning in the park. (Sept 7, 2013) He is doing reasonably well.

  9. I found Derrick's book in WHSmith in Colchester whilst looking for books on cycle-camping when I was a student forty years ago! It changed my life, too! It inspired me to immediately take up backpacking and later join the Backpacker's Club. I’ve been a member ever since. My copy went with me on every backpacking trip which meant it eventually fell apart. I was also able to get a replacement via the internet.

    Derrick managed to communicate at so many levels. Of course, he suggested items of kit to buy like all of the other writers on backpacking (the worst of these seemed to write about nothing else). But I loved his readiness to write about other aspects: how many other books on hobbies have a whole chapter on making or modifying your own gear? But it was his ability to speak to my love of nature that made the book memorable. Even now, once a year in the lull between Christmas and New Year I take down ‘The Backpacker’s Handbook’ and reread his final chapter ‘A Winter’s Tale’. It never fails to evoke the estuaries and saltings of the east coast for this expatriate living within sight of the Alps!

    I also tried to trace Derrick some years ago to say thanks. I contacted Eric Gurney of the Backpackers Club but he could only tell me that he’d heard that Derrick had gone abroad. I’m really pleased you managed to make contact with him. If he reads this, I’d like to say ‘Thanks, Derrick. For me, The Backpackers Handbook was always much more than just an introduction to backpacking’

  10. Can anyone tell me how I can contact Eric Gurney now? My picture is in the original Backpackers Handbook looking out of a tent - taken many moons ago

    1. I think it would be best to try the Backpackers Club. I'm afraid I don't have that contact.

    2. Backpacker's handbook is like a bible to all walkers and backpackers, I got my copy in the early eighties and still have it till this day and was only this morning reading the last chapter "A winter's tale", whenever I pack up this book that's the first chapter I always read, another great read is Showell styles "backpacking in Wales"

    3. I joined the Backpackers club at the tender age of 18 from 1977-81. Went everywhere on weekend jaunts.Appeared in that Mag too and did a piece on a walk in Dovedale in The Peak District.Do you remember any member names apart from Eric Gurney?

      West Yorkshire.

  11. Book also changed my life.... as a teen back in the early 80's I found it to be an amazing book.. I'll always remember him saying something along the lines of "anyone who needs to go abroad to find something different I'll call a fool to their face" or something like that... can recall that after 30+ years!

  12. This has brought back so many memories for me. Derek's Book was a game changer for me also. I was an early member of The Backpackers Club and spent many a happy weekend with Eric, Geoff Gadsby and the like. I know it was a few years ago when this was first raised, but I hope Derek is alive and well. What happened to Eric Gurney by the way?

  13. Derrick Boothe and his books were an inspiration to me. I had a craving for the outdoors from a very young age. Living near to Dartmoor provided the opportunities. At 13, I arranged to meet friends at Two Bridges during summer holidays and walk to Okehampton Army Camp. They didn’t turn up, so I walked it alone. I was wearing a green parka, carrying a 37 pattern rucksack, Millets 30 shilling cotton 6x4 pup tent, and a homemade polythene fly. I was self-taught OS map and compass, one inch to the mile. Crossing Fur Tor and up over Fordsland’s Ledge to Yes Tor was life changing; I had discovered the meaning of life, it was a spiritual conversion. 53 years later, I still read his original book for inspiration. I bikepack now, but the sense of a deep association and need for isolation and the wild is still there.