Two good guidebooks for two East Anglian counties

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If you are planning a trip to Norfolk or Suffolk this year and want to do it old school, that is not wandering around waving your phone about, hoping to connect with Google maps, then these compact yet comprehensive guidebooks will please you.

Written by Laurence Mitchell, local expert and highly regarded travel and landscape writer, Slow Travel Norfolk and Slow Travel Suffolk follow his last guidebook,  Slow Norfolk & Suffolk (Bradt/Alastair Sawday’s) which was shortlisted for the 2010 East Anglian Book Awards.

The concept of ‘slow travel’ is simple: it seeks to free itself from the increasing domination of tourist listicles and encourage travellers to seek out a sense of place wherever they go. It’s not just about ticking off landmarks. Slow Travel wants us to meet people, to immerse ourselves in the natural lay of the land and to free ourselves from imposed timetables.

Both travel guides kick off with a regional map highlighting useful towns to base yourself in. The counties are divided into geographical regions for ease of navigation and each regional section kicks off with a map. Stopping-off points are highlighted and each featured walk comes with its own map. There’s information on public transport, good advice as to how to proceed on foot, suggestions for places to eat, drink and stay and reams of local history. Laurence introduces us to the people who live and work in East Anglia and those artists and writers who have visited and been inspired by the region.

Slow Travel Guides by Laurence Mitchell

Slow Travel Guides sold via Waterstones

East of Elveden- Laurence Mitchell

 

48 hours in Harwich and Wrabness

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Harwich Lighthouse // 1820 John Constable 1776-1837 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01276

Harwich is an under-estimated gem and this plucky Essex port town which faces Flanders across the choppy North Sea has long been a favourite of mine. The older quarters of the town have a rackety, ruffian-like charm, especially at night and as dawn approaches, the seagulls awaken, wheel about, and search for discarded chip wrappers, and the noises from the nearby port carry on the wind as the rest of Harwich sleeps on. And the light here can be mesmerising. Look at the painting [above]  of Harwich Lighthouse by John Constable, completed around 1820 in the small-scale Dutch manner that was so popular at the time. Both of the town lighthouses were leased at the time of their painting by Constable’s friend and patron General Rebow of Wivenhoe Park who was responsible for their maintenance and received tolls from passing ships and Constable would also spend time upriver at Flatford and Dedham, capturing on canvas the more bucolic nature of the River Stour  as it wends its way through the valleys of South Suffolk. His view of Old Harwich remains fairly unchanged though, and the place oozes history, so after a recent 48 visit to the region, here’s what we found.

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The town has been built at the tip of a small Essex peninsula in a grid pattern conceived and built in the 13th Century by the Earl of Norfolk, so as to best exploit its strategic position at the mouths of the rivers Orwell and Stour. The streets around its old port are lined with buildings dating back as far as the sixteenth century and at night when the mists push in from the sea, the tiny alleyways seem to swirl with the ghosts of the sailors and smugglers who lived and died here.  Ports are  a curious melding of pragmatism and romance, their growth stretched across centuries of struggle and aspiration, graft, malfeasance, blood, sweat, and tears, and facing a horizon which taunts with a promise of adventure and escape. A port town is both the end and the beginning of it all.

Copyright Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Image of Harwich by Robert Edwards and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Harwich’s alleyways would have proved very useful as tumultuous press gangs chased their prey and sailors used them to give their assailants a run for their money which could sometimes result in a fair amount of damage to property. Many of the old inns were connected by tunnels so that local men could more easily escape from these press gangs. To add to the chaos, local sailors, smugglers, publicans, and town officials possessed competing interests as demonstrated by an event in 1794 when Lieutenant William Coller was leading a press gang in Harwich. Coller and his gang of men were about to seize three sailors hiding inside a pub called The Royal Oak and the publican shut the door in his face. This prompted lots of outrageous (and pompous) blustering from Lt Coller who demanded the man have his licence revoked. When you realise that many publicans along the coast were involved in smuggling and were in cahoots with local sailors then his anger appears more contextual, especially so as the whole set-up was an unpredictable mess of conflicting loyalties, both familial and fiscal. 

Remember Samuel Johnson on sailing as a profession?

“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. “A ship is worse than a gaol. There is, in a gaol, better air, better company, better conveniency of every kind; and a ship has the additional disadvantage of being in danger.”


[Boswell: Life- and Boswell sailed for Holland from the port of Harwich, leaving behind on the beach his newly made friend Dr. Johnson. It is unclear what inn they dined in the night before]

t Chris Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. beach hut and low lighthouse
View towards Harwich’s lighthouse by Chris Allen // CC 2.0

The town location took advantage of the effects of a storm surge in the 1100s which had already created the largest natural harbour between the Humber and London. This harbour was so large that in the 1600s the entire British Navy could fit into it and when the English Fleet returned from the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, they put into Harwich Harbour. Harwich became a destination for serious sailors: Hawkins, Drake and Frobisher all sailed from the town during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and she herself travelled to the town to inspect the shipyard in 1561, staying at what was a medieval aisled hall in the High Street. Lord Nelson also visited Harwich in his ship Medusa in 1801 to assist in the formation of Sea Fencibles, a naval local defence force. The arrival of the Great Eastern Railway from London in 1854 put the town on the map, transporting thousands of Victorians to the port  where they could be in Rotterdam or Zeebrugge 14 hours later, thanks to steamers which puffed their way across the notoriously short-tempered sea. Cheap flights mounted their own challenge but commercially the port remains vital to the town’s  livelihood and many people still opt to enter and exit the UK via Harwich which has become become Britain’s second largest passenger port and is also designated a Haven Port where maritime traffic can shelter in inclement weather.

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An 1804 seafarers chart of Harwich by Graeme Spence

And that’s not all of Harwich’s illustrious seafaring history either. Centuries ago, in early September 1620, a wooden ship set sail from a port en-route to the brave new world of America, 3000 miles away over an unfamiliar ocean. The ship was the Mayflower and although Portsmouth claims to be the Pilgrim Fathers point of departure, some historians and locals are adamant that the ship was built in Harwich which was also the home town of its captain, Christopher Jones who lived at 21 Kings Head Street.

I love a good historical argument and claims that the Mayflower may have made only a brief stop-over in Plymouth as it began its journey have rattled a few Devonian cages. The ship has been described in some port documents as ‘The Mayflower of Harwich’, and its chief builder/owner was a Harwich native, implying that the town may well have been where the epic voyage began. Passengers embarked at the East End docks before it sailed on to Southampton and then Plymouth and some of its passengers came from Essex (at least four of them). But did the Mayflower first sail up the Thames from Harwich?

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Anchor in front of the Maritime Museum

John Acton, a backer of the Harwich scheme to reclaim the town’s place in Mayflower history, said: “History tells us that Mayflower was only there [Portsmouth]  to take on supplies and to pick up passengers from an accompanying ship that sprang a leak. The Americans are hugely interested in the Founding Fathers, who had very strong ties with this region. Many of the towns in the north-east United States have names like Norwich, Cambridge, Ipswich, Colchester, and Harwich, which reflects the closeness with East Anglia. We want them to know that the real home of Mayflower is here in Essex, not in Devon.”

Copyright nick macneill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licenc
Image of Half’penny pier by Nick MacNeill via CC 2-0

Samuel Pepys was once Harwich’s MP  and held the position of Secretary to the Navy (1679-1685) and now, the Harwich Society maintains records of the town and manage local historical monuments which open to the public. Even if you only have a day to explore the town, there is much that can be seen including a visit to the yard where the Mayflower Project is constructing a replica of the famous ship that sailed to America. The Project intends to sail to America in 2020 in time to commemorate the 400th anniversary of that famous journey and in the process, reclaim what they feel is Harwich’s central place in the Mayflower story.

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Ariel shot of Redoubt Fort by John Fielding //Flickr CC 2.0

Then there’s the circular Redoubt Fort, which dates back to the Napoleonic Wars and has a diameter of 180ft and ten guns sitting on its battlements. The fort was capable of housing 300 troops in eighteen casements but it was never called into use although its construction resulted in the deaths of local people during the 1953 floods that hit Harwich. The excavation of soil at nearby Bathside in order to build the forts earthworks meant Bathside was pushed below sea level. Seawater came in through a breach in the sea wall and was prevented from ebbing away, resulting in the loss of eight lives.

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The Harwich floods of 1953/ imaga via Ruth Wright on Flickr/ CC 2.0

A Maritime Heritage Trail can be followed and the Ha’Penny Pier Visitor Centre on the Quay offers guided walking tours throughout the summer. The Historical Society recommends starting out from the Low Lighthouse Maritime Museum and Lifeboat Museum (you can get climb aboard the lifeboat too) and walking to the Barge Murals which overlook the site where Thames Sailing Barges were built up to 1930. Look out for the Treadwheel Crane, built in 1667 to a Roman design, which resembles a massive, human hamster wheel because of the way two men powered the crane by walking within it, dangerously without a restraining brake system.

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The Electric Palace Cinema: photo with kind permission of the cinema

Available to visit on request is the old Radar Tower, at Beacon Hill Fort, which was the first radar installation of the second world war. (Ask at the Harwich Visitor Centre.) Should you wish for more sedentary entertainment, the gorgeous Electric Palace Cinema has a programme of films and events. It was built in 1911 for Charles Thurston. the well-known East Anglian showman, and is the oldest unaltered purpose built cinema in Britain, boasting the actor Clive Owen as patron. The cinema’s silent screen, original projection room and ornamental frontage remain relatively intact and interestingly, Friese Greene, the inventor of cinematography, lived in Dovercourt, a short stroll away and home to good quality sandy beaches and a genteel promenade.

Back in Harwich, there’s the charming L-shaped Half’Penny pier, so named for the halfpenny toll charged when it opened in 1853 (the pier also used to be the site of transfer from the boat train to the ferry) although visitors no longer have to pay. Return to the quayside and cross over to The Pier hotel  which was built in 1852 in Italianate style to resemble a Venetian palazzo and overlooks the pier- the hotel dining rooms have fantastic views of the huge cruise liners and tankers that pass by on their way to the port. The Pier Hotel’s jolly white stucco and blue painted frontage is topped-off by an octagonal lantern on the roof and the bedroom annex is in sight of the red and white Trinity House lightship that was featured in Richard Curtis’ film, The Boat That Rocked, about the pirate radio ship, Radio Caroline, that was anchored off the coast nearby and broadcast day and night to thousands of teenagers living in Suffolk and Essex, myself included.

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Photo: courtesy of The Alma Inn

The Alma Inn was once the home of Sara Twitt who married Christopher Jones,  the local man named as master and part-owner of the Mayflower in an Admiralty document, and we spent an evening in the pub, listening to the live band and eating some of the best fish and seafood we’ve ever had. Just a few steps away from the quayside and at the heart of old Harwich, it has been a pub since the 1850s, is one of Tendrings finest CAMRA pubs and feeds its guests seven days a week on what is describes as contemporary food with an Iberian twist.

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Directed to a private room at the back of the inn decorated with a piano in one corner and a light fixture made up of barnacle-encrusted bottles [the spoils of the beachcomber], we gorged ourselves on a seafood platter, (oysters, dressed crab, roll mop, North Atlantic prawns, cockles, home-cured gravadlax, smoked mackerel paté, all served with bread and a butter sauce), added in a charcuterie platter too, (jamon Serrano, chorizo picante, salchichon Iberico, iomo, chorizo artisan, manchego with membrillo, olives, potato tortilla caperberries, olive oil, aioli, bread) and  ate a side dish of fried and battered artichokes with parmesan. A deep bowl of sea bass with a rich sauce, softened potatoes and sherry lined our stomachs for the next course, dozens of Mersea Island rock oysters [silky, plump and buttery with a creamy-white heel and lots of ozone-fresh juice], served by the wonderful Pascal who [deservedly] seems to be a local legend. Oysters taste great when they’re washed down with pints of stout and they’re astoundingly good with a little champagne or other fizzy white wine poured into their shells, prior to eating, which gives them the fizzy kick of a 12 -volt battery. Not to everyone’s taste but most definitely mine and that of the Marquis De Vauvert who had this to say about the oyster:

Delight of our appetites,
Oyster, flee the liquid plain;
Enter the pomp of the feast,
Leave this perfidious element,
And, since you must die, rather die in wine.

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There’s locally caught crab and lobster at the Alma, the latter sold by the weight and carried through the pub straight off the boat, and after posting photos on social media, I was deluged with people declaring their love for the place. They do accommodation in rooms, some of which have mullioned windows framing the same sea-view that Sara and Christopher Jones would have enjoyed. There’s no corporate mundanity, room-wise, (one resembles a ship’s cabin) as their descriptions on the website bear out: “There’s a pronounced slope to this room so roller skating is not allowed but people with one leg longer than the other will feel right at home.”

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It would be a shame to be so close to Wrabness and not visit A House For Essex which is perched on a hill overlooking the Stour estuary, and exists as a monument not only to Grayson Perry’s artistic sensibilities but also to an Essex single mother who exists only in his imagination. Inspired by follies, shrines, eccentric homes and fairy tales, this two-bedroom House for Essex is inspired by an imaginary woman called Julie who was born in Canvey Island in 1953, was a former hippy and Greenham Common protester and went on to marry a refinery worker called Dave. After two children and an affair which killed their marriage. Julie went on to marry  Rob, who commissioned the house in her memory after she was knocked down and killed by a takeaway delivery driver in Colchester.

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It is the Taj Mahal of Essex, a secular chapel in other words and Perry’s character study informs every aspect of its design from the copper-gold alloy roof, frog-eye dormer windows and fertility figure weathervane (Julie as mother of us all) to a cladding of bas-relief tiles which bear carved depictions of cassette tapes and nappy pins alongside Julie’s name and her pregnant image. The shape and location reminded me of a restored tin tabernacle and its metaphors and references seem deliberately inconsistent, as if its creator has nostalgically bought up the entire stock of the nearest head-shop and Fair-Trade emporium after returning from a gap-year spent annoying the locals across three continents.

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Perry was commissioned to design the two-bedroom holiday home by Living Architecture, an organisation that aims to enhance Britons’ appreciation of architecture through opening individually designed holiday lettings (there is also a Balancing Barn in Suffolk). It has had a mixed reception locally and persuading the council to grant permission to demolish the old farmhouse that once inhabited the site was a challenge. To gain the assent of local councillors and planners, Perry organised a presentation in the village hall and explained his vision of the English countryside as punctuated with strange and wonderful things. This particular site, with Wrabness railway station behind it, the cranes of the docks in Harwich and Felixstowe to the left and right and a scenic coastal pathway that runs downhill alongside the house and takes walkers along the Stour estuary is the result of a dynamic tension between art, nature, industry and farming. And, in the middle of this, Essex people live, leave their stamp and die.

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Despite this, I was left with a nasty taste in my mouth. The house celebrates the life of a working class local woman yet guest-stays there (which are granted via a ballot process) are not priced so ‘ordinary’ working class or even middle-class people can afford it. Living Architecture was created by Alain de Botton to allow people to experience staying in unusual living spaces created by great architects and artists [their words, not mine] but really it’s about wealthy and indulged people staying in unusual living spaces created by artists and architects.Imagine the Facebook posts of the fortunate few: Crispin and Tabitha– feeling blessed at Julie’s House by Grayson Perry. 

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Either way, you fork out at least £1800 for a weekend stay and find this will include hordes of tourists peering through the gate and in the windows and a bracing smell of horse dung from the stables next door. That’s a lot of dosh for no privacy. The garden is sere and left deliberately empty, which is odd because I didn’t think a tribute to Julie’s [imagined] existence would fail to take into account the likelihood that Julie would landscape her garden, even if it might include (as my Essex-resident friend joked) broken prams, a discarded washing machine, a few straggly petunias and a wind chime.

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If you don’t drive, the estuarine pathway at Wrabness is easily accessed because the railway station lies behind Julie’s House- Wrabness is situated on the branch line to Harwich. The Mayflower line is the name given to the route from Manningtree and it dates back to 1854 when the line was built to provide connections with steamers bound for the continent. As you walk down the hill, the views of the estuary open up and the red-brick buildings of the Royal Hospital School interrupt the horizon of the Stour’s north bank.  The school has close links to the Royal Navy and its pupils are the only ones permitted to wear naval uniform.The port of Harwich lies to the east and Felixstowe can be seen to the west and beyond Harwich, the River Stour reaches its confluence with the River Orwell which flows through the Suffolk county town of Ipswich to the open sea.

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The Stour estuary from Wrabness, the Royal Hospital School in the distance

Keeping left, a walk alongside the river joins the levée beside the saltmarshes which are a popular feeding site for many species of bird, then, after a meandering route which takes you upwards into the surrounding fields, past a caravan site, the down again towards wooded headlands and sandy beaches dotted with chalets, you will arrive at Wrabness Nature Reserve. This 50-acre site is run by the Essex Wildlife Trust and is located on the site of a former MOD depot where sea-mines were once stored.

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Wrabness foreshore by Roger Jones// CC2.0

There are pathways through farm and grazing land, woods, intertidal mudflats and saltmarshes and the keen of eye will spot woodpeckers, kingfishers, avocets and oystercatchers and the red spring plumage of the knot, whilst black-bellied dunlins dabble away at the watery mud for molluscs and worms.

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In spring, nightingales soar overhead then swoop down to hide in newly-leafed hedgerows, their song carrying for miles, whilst Brent geese feed and fatten up before departing for their Arctic summer breeding-grounds. Swallows are newly arrived, streaming over fields of rapeseed already well in flower and the plants buttery scent mingles with the rich salt-mud of the river. Blackcaps, white-throats and blackbirds add their voices to the waterside choir of terns, curlews, and water fowl all the way to Copperas Bay. The woodlands edging the river are thick with stitchwort and the yellow stars of newly opened celandines which feel waxy to the touch. We saw wood anemones, primroses and dog-violets whilst wood-spurge (euphorbia robbiae) had seeded itself liberally and its lime-green floral spume looked particularly striking next to silver birch.

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Stour Wood at Wrabness by Peter Pearson// cc 2.0

I’ve also heard good things about the Ha’penny Brasserie on the Pier, which is currently being refurbished and due to open in May 2016. Oxleys deli in Dovercourt is praised as is the 16th century Samuel Pepys wine bar which also has rooms. There’s a festival towards the end of June and in May, the annual God’s Kitchel throwing ceremony has historically taken place in the town. Staff at The Cabin Bakery in Dovercourt bake the 400 kitchels (fruited flat cakes).

 

 

 

Spring books: reviewed

There’s some really good book releases this spring, rippling with themes universal to us all from parenting and childhood discoveries to the impact of seismic news events and difficult personal choices. Landscape, travel and nature writing is particularly strong this spring and I have chosen books by writers who transcend this genre, weaving together fact and the psychology of place, time and person, creating a conscious form of historiography.

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A few of my favourites are set in the American south, and some of you will know that I have a particular yen for the darkness, quirk and rich history of this part of the world. Chandler Alexander’s The Makings of a Fatherless Child is one such story, a compelling coming-of-age tale of a young boy, Amel River who lives in the Mississippi Delta. He contends with a broken home, poverty, a lack of a father and a voice in his head that won’t go away. Whilst stretching his neck towards adulthood, he is aided by a variety of interesting characters which include a two year old child and a drunken stranger. And where would a story set in the Delta be without a drunken stranger? Out now. 

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My second novel is  GodPretty in the Tobacco Field by Kim Michelle Richardson, a story which laces beauty, love and sweetness with the hardscrabble existence of tobacco farming in Kentucky during the dying days of the sixties. Ruby Lyn Bishop was orphaned at five years of age but has lived since then with her God-fearing uncle Gunnar. As she passes her sixteenth birthday, she is beset with dreams and wishful thinking about her own fortunes after years of making intricate paper fortune-tellers for the townsfolk.If you are a lover of intricate plots set over a small period of time and adore the southern sense of place, this book is for you. Out April 26th.

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Fans of Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, have been eagerly awaiting her next novel and in The Summer Before The War, we can once again enjoy the quietly moving and capable storytelling that made her first book so enjoyable. It’s 1914 and the last days of a beautiful Edwardian British summer in East Sussex but a stranger is about to arrive in the village. When Agatha seeks to engage a woman as the new Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash is the result, and she is far more free of thinking – and attractive – than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. As the village prepares for the Great War, other conflicts rise to the fore as some very British traditions are tested. Out March 24th.

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All families have their myths and legends and when your family is well-known, sorting out the truth from hyperbole and hagiography can be very challenging. The Nicholson family are well-versed in telling their own story and now it is Juliet Nicholson’s turn in her book,  A House Full Of Daughters. She converts her previous acceptance of her complicated family history to intricate, questioning research and in the process, tells a vivid story which roams from Malaga in Spain to the salons of fin-de-siècle Washington DC; from an English boarding school during the Second World War and sexy Chelsea in the 1960s to the bankrupt, and decrepit New York City in the eighties. Then there’s the Nicholson women: her flamenco dancing great-great-grandmother Pepita, the flirty manipulation of her great-grandmother Victoria, the infamous eccentricity of her grandmother Vita and her mother’s Tory-conventional background. This is a delicious book. Out March 24th.

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Onto a different house and two different families in The Two Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman, where, on a snowy Brooklyn night in 1947, two women, sister by marriage and friends by choice, give birth. Helen and Rose are married to brothers Abe and Mort and the two families share a brownstone. Tightly wound around an explosive secret and with complex family dynamics which become known to us over a long period of time, the multiple perspectives can at times feel a little unbalanced but on the whole, this is a highly readable and deft exploration of family life. Out March 8th.

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This new anthology of previously published writing by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard is the sum total of a woman who is relentlessly and forensically alive and in The Abundance, Dillard shines a beautiful light on the everyday, asking us to drop our casual acceptance and re-engage anew with the world around us. She makes us notice through the application of her poets soul, philosophers mind and artists pen and enchants via words which pin down a series of images onto the page: lunar eclipses, leaves, moths to flames and the magnificent sight of birds in flight all catch her eye, and, in turn, ours. As we read, she tasks us to ask ourselves why, how, where and what does the minutiae of my own place in the natural world mean to me? If you’ve never read her, this is the perfect introduction to a writer who is admired by landscape and nature writers everywhere. Out April 7th.

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In Rain, Melissa Harrison explores the relationship we have with the weather as she follows the course of four rain showers, over four seasons, across Wicken Fen, Shropshire, the Darent Valley and Dartmoor. Particularly pertinent to the British who enjoy a good conversation about the weather, Harrison weaves a meditative pathway through all manner of ologies and disciplines: botany and biology; literature and philosophy; geography and psychology to gently encourage us to engage with rain instead of merely grumbling about it. Also included is a meteorological glossary with common terminology such as cloudburst (“sudden, intense rainfall of short duration”) and the esoteric regional words for all things watery from the skies, similar to that employed by Robert MacFarlane in his recent book, Landmarks. Her level-headed gaze ranges from the earthly: germinating seeds and rain-sodden earth, to the sensory [and scientific] delights such weather causes. Her contemplation of petrichor- the particular aroma after a rain shower is particularly delightful. Coined in 1964 by Australian scientists studying the smells of wet weather, petrichor is derived from two chemical reaction when oils secreted by plants during dry periods are released into the air because of rain. Chemicals produced by soil-dwelling bacteria known as actinomycetes are also released and these two aromatic compounds combine to create petrichor. If you aren’t thoroughly charmed and intrigued by this, then I can’t help you.

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I adored The Language of Baklava, Diana Abu Jaber’s previous memoir and in her new memoir, Life Without a Recipe, I am re-acquainted with her funny, warm and poignant writing about creating a family on one’s own terms. As Diana honestly acknowledges, building confidence in one’s own path sometimes takes a mistaken marriage or two—or in her case, three and there are many rows between Bud, her flamboyant, spice-obsessed Arab father and Grace, her sugar-fiend of a German grandmother. Bud and Grace could not agree on anything to do with Diana and her life choices, whether they be food, family, who to love and how to love. Caught between cultures and lavished with contradictory “advice” from both sides of her family, Diana spent years learning how to ignore the well-intentioned prescriptions of others and forging her own, at times imperfect, path. Out April 18th. 

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Going to NYC soon and want to find out more than the best place to shop? The Chronicles series takes a look at the history behind some of the most fascinating cities in the world and now they have published an edition about this most famous of cities. Each book introduces the major characters that shaped the city, then offers comprehensive walking tours to bring its words to life. In Chronicles of Old New York: Exploring Manhattans Landmark Neighborhoods, author James Roman,  a native New Yorker, walks us around the many neighbourhoods and amuses us with anecdotes about those quirks of history that have helped shape the city such as which park lies over a sea of unmarked graves. The inclusion of historical maps and photographs helps bring visionaries, risk-takers, dreamers, and schemers such as John Jacob Astor and Gertrude Whitney to life, showing how they left their mark on a city and continue to shape its development after their deaths. Out April 1st.

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Helen Stevenson’s memoir Love Like Salt is a poignantly beautiful account of what it is like to be the mother of Clara, a child with a chronic illness. Despite the sadness of her daughters diagnosis of cystic fibrosis, this is an uplifting book which describes how Helen and her family are able to triumph over adversity in many forms. Helen is a translator and she uses her own profession to reinterpret the strange landscape of biology and illness. The story is set against a backdrop of music and art and literature which soars over and beyond the confines of the CF diagnosis and the bullying her daughter experiences at school in France. The family moves back to the UK which is where we leave them, all of us cautiously optimistic that Clara will continue to prevail over this awful disease which, as of yet, remains incurable. Out now.

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Remaining with the mother and daughter theme but fictional this time, Jennifer S Brown’s debut novel, called Modern Girls, takes us to New York City in the thirties, at a time when national socialism is on the rise in Europe and women of all ages are starting to define themselves outside of the home. It’s 1935 and Dottie Krasinsky is the epitome of a modern woman, employed as a bookkeeper, a boyfriend in tow, but living still with her Yiddish parents. When she becomes pregnant, she has to face the fact that her options are still very limited. Then there’s Dottie’s mother who is dying to get back some of the fire in her belly, lost to years of childrearing. Her own situation bears uncomfortable parallels with her daughters when she too faces an unwanted pregnancy. Brown has written an eminently readable ages-and-stages story, set in a time when greater freedom and choice loomed tantalisingly close for women. Out April 5th.

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Learning about experiences far removed from my own particularly appealed in Anju Joseph’s The Living, although its themes of discipline through work, the pleasures and rewards of long-term friendship and the tension between the joy and tedium of family life are universal. Claire is a young single mother working in one of England’s last surviving shoe factories, her adult life formed by a teenage relationship. Arun, an older man in a western Indian town, makes hand-sewn chappals at home. A recovered alcoholic, now a grandfather, he negotiates the new-found indignities of old age while returning in thought to the extramarital affair he had years earlier. This is a novel which rewards you for looking closer until you can clearly see the eddies and currents that lie beneath waters that seem, upon first glance, to flow seamlessly. Out now.

I have linked to the authors own page, or to the publishers because I will not link to Amazon. Please order these books through your local booksellers, where at all possible. They need our support and our love. All reviews are honest and have not been solicited.

Coming soon: the best food writing and cook books this spring. 

 

 

 

 

Hidden tiger, crouching bluetits

Image of Bluetits fighting via Creative Commons
via Creative Commons

Don’t be fooled by their sweet exterior, a dumpling of blue-green and yellow bobbing from hedge to feeder to fence and then back again like tiny feathered globes. When blue tits arrive in your garden they arrive with a vengeance, all needle-slash of claw and lethal-weapon beaks and their fierce reputation has followed them across time and literature.

Blue tits [Latin name: Parus caeruleus] are not the star turn from a Hallmark card sent to us by Mother Nature. They might look as if they have just returned from a stint as cast extras in a Disney film, swirling around the head of a princess, tweeting words of love but in reality they are aggressive, furious balls of spitting ire and possessiveness. George Orwell knew this when he depicted the forensically precise beak work of this tiny creature as it gorges itself upon the feeders that householders hang up to attract it:

A blue-tit darts with a flash of wings, to feed
Where the coconut hangs on the pear tree over the well;
He digs at the meat like a tiny pickaxe tapping
With his needle-sharp beak as he clings to the swinging shell.

(Summer Like)

In the UK, blue tits start scouting for a nesting site in January and once they have chosen one, will defend it until they start nest-building in March and April.  The competition for a mate is fierce, their alpha male courting an avian Tarantella for human onlookers, their calls scolding and full of fury. Once paired, copulation happens to a soundtrack of high pitched notes, similar to the begging call a female blue tit may make when a male blue tit enters the nest with freshly killed food. She will time the laying of her eggs so that they hatch just as the caterpillars on which they feed their nestlings are hatching and the babies emerge looking uncannily like miniature versions of the actor Tommy Lee Jones: all cross, feathered brows set above dark and irate eyes.

The adults brook no competition during the breeding season although later in the year they often move and feed in protective flocks, looping from one place to another in short bursts of flight. I had to remove a garden mirror after it ended up smeared with blue tit blood as a lonely male bird set out to attack and drive off his [rival] reflection and battered his own head half to bits in the attempt. They possess sturdy, well defined head markings with a dark blue-black eyestripe and a skull cap of brighter blue, set against their white cheeks and forehead which, in the case of my star crossed lover, darkened with blood as he wheeled and slew into the glass of the mirror.

His aggression shouldn’t have been a surprise to me after reading, years ago, about European great tits who enter bat caves and peck hibernating bats to death: “The Great Titmouse will attack small and weakly birds, splitting their skulls with its powerful beak in order to get at their brains; and it has even been known to serve a bat in this manner” reported Howard Saunders back in 1899 but seeing such a tiny bird driven to death by its own desire to mate was disturbing, even knowing their capabilities.

Blue tit by Nick J Stone /Flickr
Blue tit by Nick J Stone /Flickr

DH Lawrence was no stranger to this titan of the ornithological world and in ‘Two Blue Birds’ their pugilistic nature serves as handy metaphor for the swirling resentment and occasional outbreak of aggressive rivalry between the protagonist and the two women who unhealthily compete for his attention. Mrs Gee and her secretary rival are both dressed in cobalt blue silk, overly obvious maybe although that “blest blue bird of happiness” as Mrs Gee first calls him is soon engaged in a battle royal with another, at their feet:

“And as she was being blest, appeared another blue bird–that is, another blue-tit–and began to wrestle with the first blue-tit. A couple of blue birds of happiness, having a fight over it! Well, I’m blest!

She was more or less out of sight of the human preoccupied pair. But ‘he’ was disturbed by the fighting blue birds, whose little feathers began to float loose.

“Get out!” he said to them mildly, waving a dark-yellow handkerchief at them. “Fight your little fight, and settle your private affairs elsewhere, my dear little gentlemen.”

…”Aren’t they extraordinarily vicious little beasts?” said he.

“Extraordinarily!” she re-echoed, stooping and picking up a little breast-feather. “Extraordinarily! See how the feathers fly!”

And she got the feather on the tip of her finger, and looked at it. Then she looked at the secretary, then she looked at him. She had a queer, were-wolf expression between her brows.”

Talking about blue tits and their reputation for aggression on twitter, I heard about a local bird ringer called Helen Bristol who has been subjected to the wrath of the tit family when going about her bird protection duties:

“We catch the birds in a fine mesh net ( mist net) and generally will check the nets every ½ hour and sooner if the weather is cold /hot/a bit blowy/drizzly,” Helen said. “At this time of year the tits go around in mixed flocks – most usually Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Long Tailed Tits and if you’re lucky Marsh Tits, although where I ring, the Bearded tits don’t join the gang. You can imagine this gang all feeding on or going towards feeders and the catch can be large, 25+ in one go.” 

Instantly you can see the potential for aggressive behaviour because of competition for food and the proximity of bird species in a smaller space, as Helen explains:

“Inevitably several get caught close together and that’s when the pecking starts. Generally it’s the Greats and Blues that hack into each other. Usually they’ll go for the eyes – not a pretty sight- which is why I initially take a look at the net to see which birds are close together, very tangled or too near the ground. Those birds come out first and are put into individual bags, before being taken back to the ringing station for processing.”

The tits obviously can’t kill with one blow to the back of a human’s neck but they seem to know how else to cause maximum irritation to a creature many times their size:

“The Greats and the Blues also attack the ringer, usually pecking away at your cold hands and causing a lot of language. You know what it’s like when you have a sore bit down the side of a nail? They seem to home in on that. I often get home with little peck marks all over my hands. I find it amazing that such small birds can cause such pain. At an owl sanctuary recently I was “bitten” by a tame petting Eagle Owl but that didn’t even bruise. It was a friendly “please stop”. The only other birds who peck/bite are woodpeckers and some sea birds such as gulls.”

Blue_tit_flying_dtab

Aggression from other tits isn’t the only challenge these tiny birds face either. They have to deal with a form of brood parasitism which has seen blue tits and great tits engaged in a potentially bloody war about home invasion and who parents who. This happens when the great tit [Parus Major] fails to find an ideal place to lay its eggs and simply invades the nests of the smaller blue tit, who are half the size of these invaders. Being much smaller, the blue tit often capitulates, deciding to abandon their nest and fly away which, at least, protects them from being pecked to death or incurring severe injuries. Interestingly, the blue tit seems to have evolved a way of salvaging something from its loss with scientists reporting incidences of the bird re-entering nests taken over by great tits, and laying their own eggs in it, in the manner of a cuckoo. The resulting chicks temporarily assume the identity of their foster parents, recognising great tit calls as their own and behaving in species congruent ways. Known as sexual misimprinting, it tends to cease upon fledging and the adult blue tits birds revert back to their species specific behaviour.

The same doesn’t apply though, to great tits raised by blue tits. These tend to remain imprinted upon their blue tit foster parents, even trying to mate with other blue tits when adult. So why do blue tits not remain imprinted then? It has been postulated that perhaps blue tits lead a riskier and more rackety life than great tits and their smaller size [in comparison to a great tit, that is] means they have much to lose should they try to compete with other sexually mature great tits for food and a mate. So they go back to their own kind which is especially critical come the time when they need to raise their own brood.

A nest full of baby birds is a place full of conflict and competition: the needs of the adults have to be balanced against the needs of each chick and the brood as a whole. The parent birds are in competition with their own chicks for food and ensuring that their energy needs are met is a finely tuned thing. This is where humans come in handy, in providing supplementary feeding for birds throughout the winter hunger gap and when birds are nest building and hatching their eggs. A bird that meets the spring, well fed with fat reserves like a butterball turkey is more likely to be a winner in the mate stakes and will certainly have more energy to spend on wooing rather than desperately trying to build its strength up as natural food sources regenerate. Comely female blue tits probably aren’t terribly impressed by a bird more interested in a suet ball than the gentle curve of their saffron- yellow breasts.

So help all birds this coming winter by keeping them fed and remember that not all feeding areas are created equal in the eyes of smaller birds such as the tits. Larger bird feeders and bird tables tend to attract bigger, more voracious birds who are able to fend off tits easily and consume food faster, making it trickier for other birds to eat enough food to maintain body weight and causing them to expend precious energy fighting for their share. If your bird table has hooks to hang nut feeders, shells and fat balls from, alongside a large flat table top for larger birds to eat off, members of the tit family don’t tend to come off very well. Despite their supple, dexterous bodies and beaks, they can end up crowded out.

Birds from the tit family are aerial acrobats, able to feed upside down, contort themselves into the tiniest of spaces to extract food (watch a blue tit or coal tit feed from hanging coconut shells and you’ll see what I mean) and semi hover in the air to peck at nut feeders. So hang up feeders that only the tits can reach, filled with peanuts, fat, niger seeds and sunflower hearts. Hang them at different levels and, if you have a large enough garden, in different areas to discourage avian tit fights over food which waste even more calories and energy during a cold winter. These feeders may well attract goldfinches too but the blue tit can more than easily hold its own against them, giving you your own version of Hidden Tiger, Crouching Bluetit in the garden this winter and spring.

Parus_major_Luc_Viatour


Nick Stone writes Invisible Works
Thank you to Andrew MacDonald and Helen Bristol.