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.

Book reviews: The River by Helen Humphreys (#landscapewriting)

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“We tend to look at landscape in relation to what it can do for us. Does it move us with its beauty? Can we make a living from it? But what if we examined a landscape on its own terms, freed from our expectations and assumptions?”

I’ve long been interested by psychogeography, described by Guy Debord as “ “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” and in The River, published by ECW Presscelebrated author Helen Humphreys approaches a landscape familiar to her on its own terms, doing her best to shake free from her own subjectivity.

For more than a decade Huphreys has owned a small waterside property on a section of the Napanee River in Ontario. In the watchful way of writers, she has studied her little piece of the river through the seasons and the years, cataloguing its ebb and flows, the plantsm and creatures that live in and round it, the signs of human usage at its banks and on its bottom.

The River is a wonderful melange of art, history, geography, botany and much much more, by the modern version of the ‘flaneur’. Humphrey notices where she is and she notices what her location has to offer without EXPECTING anything from it. We are all connected though, us humans, the animals around us, the landscape and the air which surrounds it. Humphreys forensically details our human interactions with the world around us and their inevitable effects. She’s a fan of William Faulkner too and this shows beautifully in her own writing: Humphreys has a kinship with this writer whose own observations of the world around him retain a perennial freshness because his language moves with ‘the times’ in the widest sense.

Faulkner knows how to write about rivers and so does Humphreys and here, she observes a botanist collects flowers along the edges of an end of summer stream:

“The red flowers threaded along the stream are dying…The botanist crouches in the soft grass, inspecting the underside of the flower. It dies, the way darkness arrives- from the ground up. Soon only the topmast of the plant will be alive, lighting the waters edge like a torch…. Once inside the bag, the flames of the flower will be extinguished, and the botanist delays the moment of uprooting. He can feel in that moment something of his own ending; the flicker of his own pulse, darkening.”

We then learn that the botanist is accompanying James Cook on his cross ocean journeys, collecting flora and fauna. We read of Bligh and routines adhered to in order to mitigate the effects of Cook’s death, the bright capriciousness of a flower whose redness takes days to fade and we travel back and forth across time, cultures and place with Humphreys as she seeks to draw every last piece of inspiration from her own little place by a river.

Helen Humphreys is the award-winning author of four books of poetry, seven novels, and two works of creative non-fiction, including the bestselling The Frozen Thames. She has won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Harbourfront Festival Prize. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.

 

The best nature writing [1]

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 A N Wilson might sneer at the genre of nature writing, saying, “Thanks to Wordsworth, we all have the idea that ‘poets’ ought to be country dwellers, ought to live up lanes and use a bucket for a lavatory.” Nature writing of this sort, he says in an interview with the Telegraph, “appeals to all that is gentlest and best in us, the lovers of unwrecked England” but recently there have been signs of vigour, of writings taking a new form and addressing the changing relationship we have with the world around us. These changes may be as a result of us increasingly living away from our rural beginnings, either literally because we migrate to cities or metaphorically as we focus inwardly upon the domestic- a result of economic hardship. Or it might be because nature itself is shrinking, further influencing how we interact with it: our garden birds are disappearing and we are less likely to productively coexist with a wide variety of creatures or meet them in an everyday sense. Nature has become commodified too, partly in order to protect it; we ‘buy’ experiences and visit nature reserves; we go to ‘see’ nature instead of perceiving our lives as part of it. We seem to lack affinity with and self-assurance of our sense of place. Indeed we may lack that sense of place in itself.

The best nature writing is not rooted in conservatism or nostalgia. It possesses political agenda because the personal is the political, wrought from our everyday lives. Driving change yet retaining the ability to cast an experienced eye back to the past, it respects history but does not fetishise it, locating humans firmly at the heart of the natural order whilst identifying our disruptive influence upon it. We cannot separate ourselves from this, no matter how much we mistakenly try to and a wise person recognises nature as a greater life force which nonetheless can be vanquished by human misadventure and downright maleficience. We would do well to re-acquaint ourselves with the Pagan folklore which reminds us of our temporary status, as guests and housekeepers for future generations.

Step into the shoes of other living creatures: the peregrine and the wood louse; a skein of flies above a slow moving river; the badger, fat in his binary colours. As Winter settles into our bones, what better way to spend an evening in front of the fire than by travelling with some of our most evocative writers as they challenge us to think afresh about our surroundings. Here then is our guide to the best of the new nature writing, some recommendations for older, classic texts that have stood the test of time and authors writing about other countries too.

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez 51NLiXNCdcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
American nature writers have a lot of material and it is hard to be parochial and small minded when you have so much wilderness to choose from and Lopez, is one of the true greats when it comes to capturing it on the page. Lopez doesn’t do cosy, tame and comforting nature. His world is a big one that can dazzle, lose, harm and kill. He wants to shatter your complacency and intrude into your contemplations. Listen to him on the Arctic; “It is precisely because the regimes of light and time in the Arctic are so different that this landscape is able to expose in startling ways the complacency of our thoughts about land in general.” He writes of the confusion being alone in the alone can produce.  His hunters muddle the scale of their prey and misunderstand threat, mistaking a marmot for a bear in the light, bright light that should make things clearer and cleaner, but actually does not. His prose is perfectly matched to the natural world he describes,  ramming it with information, zooming out over the ice blue yonder then homing in on a tiny detail that interrupts with its difference. He is a human lens.
H is for Hawk’ by Helen MacDonald-
download Winner of this year’s Samuel Johnson Prize and deservedly so, this moving and raw testimony to grief and mourning recounts the authors attempts to tame and train Mabel, a wild goshawk after the death of her father and took over seven years to write. A growing fascination with the writer T H White, author of the fantasy ‘The One and Future King’ acts as a tandem narrative. The chair of the panel judge, Claire Tomalin described the book as “an extraordinary book that displayed an originality and a poetic power. None of us on the panel were either naturalists or wildlife enthusiasts but this book just took hold of us.”
‘The Peregrine’ by J A Baker- 415OKFBgnGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Finally getting its dues, The Peregrine is becoming recognised as the masterpiece it is- one of our finest examples of nature prose. Intricate, detailed and finely wrought, the intensity of the detail of this book contrasts greatly with the little we know about its author. All we know is that he was born in 1926, worked as a librarian and lived in Essex then wrote two books about the local wildlife. Baker appeared to perceive contact with wildlife as an antidote to humans, it “let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence” and the book goes on to recount his experiences following peregrines along a defined part of the Essex coast from Autumn to Spring. He is often compared to Ted Hughes with a similar muscular sensuality and ability to capture the sheer essence of a creature and landscape with just a few words and when the existing lexicon is inadequate, he is more than comfortable with using neologisms: “The north wind brittled icily in the pleached lattice of the hedgerows”.”  In doing so it reminds us of our own frequent awe struck lack of words and cocks a snook at those language pedants who cling unimaginately to some ‘official tenet’ that all too often denies us the joy and pleasure of addiing to the lexicon. Baker takes us straight to the place where he goes to observe his beloved peregrines and we stand alongside him, looking at what he looks at, through his eyes.
‘The Fly Trap’ by Fredrik Sjöberg- 51XKwWX4O-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ In which the author, a hoverfly obsessive spends seven years researching them on a picture perfect Swedish island called Runmarö and then pens a memoir about it after finding 202 species of hoverfly in seven years, 180 in his garden..This is a slim book about an obscure branch of entomology that is utterly captivating and brims over with the personalities of these little creatures. The prose tips a nod at Darwin, Shelley and Bruce Chatwin whilst musing on the problems with environmentalism and the meaning of life. As Sjoberg told the Guardian, ” I realised if I’m going to write this book I have to write it for readers who are not interested in flies. Then you have to tell stories about people. Quite a lot of people say they are interested in nature but all people are interested in people.”  I love how his own pleasure and bright eyed interest translates to the page– he believes that If you want to change the world, you have to build it on some kind of joy. The book has sold more than 30,000 copies in the Scandinavian market and thousands more in translation across mainland Europe and now, ten years after its publication, The Fly Trap has just come out in Britain. 
Landscapes and Englishness by David Matless-
79420265-abed-42d5-9d91-7e6d21a5f04f-480x720 A lot of writing about nature has a gentlemanliness about it, a sense that one needs time, formal education and learning to engage in it and be taken seriously- ie find an audience through publication and be aknowledged as an authority. Indeed this isn’t too wide of the mark as these things also require an income sufficient to fund wanderings and the space to filter ones thoughts and observations before committing them to paper. What is great about Matless is the way he highlights the value of rural knowledge acquired through an everyday working engagement with the land and lived experience, as opposed to a studied and detached eye, acquiline and situationally separate. We see how our national identity, the impressions and assumptions we form about our landscapes developed between the forties and late fifties- entities such as the Country Code, the YHA and Scouts all participated in the way nature was classified for our understanding and consumption. In the post war years we were encouraged to ‘go out to see’ the countryside and the new love of and access to, a family motor car eased us into doing so. And in one fell swoop, we started to detach ourselves from the idea that nature existed all around us in our towns and villages and cities;  we ceased to see the Buddleja pushing itself through the tumbled rubble of war ruins, the industry of woodlice under an upturned slate long blown off a roof. The countryside became a theme park and nature its exhibits, and in writing this book, Matless underpins the importance of class, politics and economics in shaping the way in which we are influenced to engage with it.
The Little Toller series of nature writings-
51UbgV6g10L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The Little Toller publishing house have been putting out some exquisite redesigns of classic nature writing and monographs including gems from HE BatesAdrian Bell,Richard MabeyJoseph Conrad and Gavin Maxwell. Created in 2008 as an imprint of the Dovecote Press, a family-run publishing company that has specialised in books about rural life and local history since 1974. Little Toller was started with a singular purpose: to revive forgotten and classic books about nature and rural life in the British Isles and it has succeeded beautifully- these books are to be treasured forever and I dream of a bookcase filled with them. Some of my favourites? ‘Through the Woods’ by HE Bates with its soft cover illustration of Kentish Bluebell woods explores the woodlands that haunted his imagination and underpinned his writing. Bates reveals the changing character of a single woodland year and how precious they are to the English countryside. In ‘Men and the Fields’, local author Adrian Bell travels through East Anglia and lowland Britain, capturing the character of the countryside before modern agriculture altered the landscape and changed forever the way we eat and live. An introduction by his friend, Ronald Blythe enhances the literary desirability of this edition. Finally, Neil Ansell looks at what attaches us to a community in ‘Deer Island’ with his dual narrative of life in London and on a tiny isolated island near Jura. What do we mean when we call a place home? Are memories the only things we can ever truly own?
‘Wildwood’ ‘Waterlog’ and ‘Notes from Walnut Tree Farm’ by Roger Deakin-
deakin If you are looking to introduce somebody to good nature writing then I recommend purchasing the entire cannon of Roger Deakin, one of our best loved writers, a lifelong resident of Suffolk and sadly gone all too soon from this life. In his first book ‘Waterlog”, Deakin inspired a generation of swimmers to go ‘wild’ and get out among the rivers, lakes and seas of the United Kingdom, recording his experiences as he swam, combining dissent and observation perfectly in an often lament for our changing landscapes. His perfectly observed descriptions of swimming in the moat that surrounded his Mellis farmhouse and a view of life from a frogs perspective is utterly beguiling. ‘Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees” with its stunning jacket design takes us through a diverse yet connected series of essays; among them musings on driftwood artists and contemplations on the economic value of wood; classic pieces about his travels around great woods of the world and a study of the wooden beams of his home, whilst all the time establishing literary leylines to all the great nature writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Blythe. Finally, published posthumously as an abridged collection of diary entries over the years in the form of one contiguous story of a year, we have ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’ – full of relentless curiosity, sharp eyed in its observation and absolute poetry to read. I was, and remain, deeply sad that he has gone.
‘Doubling Back’ by Linds Cracknell-
Doubling_Back_Cover_final_270.270 Described by Sara Maitland as “probably the most physically present to the reader. These are real walks, walked by a real (and clever) writer; and the interesting things she tells us about feel real to the action of walking”, Doubling Back is a fascinating and moving account of walking in the footsteps of others. In 1952 Linda Cracknell’s father embarked on a hike through the Swiss Alps. Fifty years later Linda retraces that fateful journey, following the trail of the man she barely knew. This collection of walking tales takes its theme from that pilgrimage. The walks trace the contours of history, following writers, relations and retreading ways across mountains, valleys and coasts formerly trodden by drovers, saints and adventurers. Each walk is about the reaffirming of memories, beliefs and emotions, and especially of the connection that one can have with the past through particular places. Our favourite chapter? A walk from the tiny Speyside village of Newtonnmore up into the nearby Cairngorms along Minigaig Pass used by drovers to avoid the easier toll paying roads nearby. The other ancient route, Coymns Road, started from the bend near Ruthven Barracks also heading for Blair Atholl. Of these two, the Minigaig was the main route to the south, falling out of favour when a party of soldiers froze to death on the route during a winter storm but remained in use until well after Wades Military Road was built. Our own memories of a teenage skiing trip and a stay in a lodge at Newtonmore: the midges, burns, local Speyside distillery and an ill-fated crush on our ski instructor Denis melded perfectly with Cracknell’s narrative, neither detracting from each other.
‘The Wormingford Trilogy’ / Borderlands / A Year at Bottengoms Farm by Ronald Blythe-
download The well-known author of Akenfield, Ronald Blythe lives near where he was born and brought up, on the Suffolk-Essex border and remains the lay reader to the parishes of Wormingford, Mount Bures and Little Horkesley. More than a diary, not just nature writing and containing meditations and opinions on history, faith and the nature of man, these books are a set of beautifully observed evocations. They mark the changes wrought by time and man in the changing English countryside and collate his ‘Church Times’ columns in one place too. Blythe can be deliciously waspish one moment, warm and accepting the next and he is as rooted in place and Suffolk time as the river Stour that is so beloved to him. If you love the poetry of John Clare, then Blythe will suit- he is the president of the John Clare society and references the poet often.
‘My Year with Hares’ by Martin Hayward Smith-
mywh-spine Film maker and photographer, Hayward Smith has worked with the BBC and the Discovery Channel among many others and this lovely tome records, through words and stunning photography, his encounters with the hares that populate his part of the world in the middle of Norfolk. He was given access to thousands of acres of private land across the region -prime UK hare habitat, from Holkham, The Barshams to Burnham Market and the resulting animal behaviours, many of which were new to him, are told over chapters in the form of diary entries, categorised by season. As well as hares, Martin documents through text and photographs other wildlife encountered while out in the field. Complete with a foreword by Ray Mears, the amazing images were acquired through the employment of a camera carrying drone and remote camera placed inside a stuffed hare. Also documenting his experience of raising a young leveret he rescued from the jaws of his dog, this is an exquisite work and can be purchased via his website- martinhaywardsmith.com.
‘Four Fields’ by Tim Dee-
download (3) A meditation on land and the way humans live on it and live with it ranging from the Enclosures Act to the genocide visited upon Native Americans across the grasslands of their ancestral home, this book examines, in fine, meditative detail, plots of land from the grasslands of the Masai to the barren, poisoned fields surrounding Chernobyl, finally swinging back to the authors own stomping grounds- a small Cambridgeshire fenland field. The theme of birds runs through his musings- the healthy flocks pf larks that range over his own home contrast sadly with the genetic mutations caused to swallows by radiation as they flew over Chernobyl on that fateful day and afterwards. More than 20 per cent have been affected and of course if they had any sentient understanding, their return to the eerily quiet forests that surround the radiation blanketed city would not have happened. When Dee writes of the ‘jewelled toolkit of the Kingfisher’ this dazzling language contrasts all the more with his sombre grief at the damage wrought upon the creatures of the world.
‘The Barley Bird: Notes on the Suffolk Nightingale’ by Richard Mabey-
the-barley-bird-collectors Full Circle editions publishes beautifully designed and printed hardback books by writers and artists of the region, alongside new editions of classics, all with stunning artwork by some of the region’s best artists. This text by well-known writer Richard Mabey explores the nightingale’s links with Suffolk’s culture and landscape, tracing the bird’s course through lore, tradition and myth and packing the 80 pages with historical and literary tit bits. This is a book that is as much a pleasure to own and touch as it is to read with illustrations by Derrick Greaves- a bright green cover with elegant drawings of birds and oak leaves representing the woodland over which our local nightingales swoop. “Below me, Arger Fen arches like a whale-back across the southern horizon. Everywhere, dead elm stumps rear in silhouette amongst the scrub. The light is extraordinary – luminous, dusty, giving every pale surface the lustre of mother-of-pearl. Mounds of cow parsley and scythed grass glow in the moonbeams like suspended balls of mist.” Mabey writesHaving heard Nightingales sing at Arger Fen adds to the thrill of encountering such dreamy and magical descriptions of a woodland I first encountered as a child and now know so well. This book makes a perfect little gift to read on a plane or train journey or to take on a long walk.
‘Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay’ by George Ewart Evans-
ask-the-fellows-inside3 I was recently re-acquainted with this pioneering and classic work at Stowmarket’s Museum of East Anglian Life which devotes a whole room to this and other local classics of countryside and nature writing. As a result I went straight out and bought myself a new copy. Another book that is as much a pleasure to own, its detailed illustrations are by David Gentleman whose work can also be seen in the rescued Roundhouse, once a part of the Bury St Edmunds cattle market where it served as tea house, which now stands in the meadows at the museum. “If you want to find out about something you ask the people who know; the collier, the countryman, you ask the fellows who cut the hay.” said Ewart Evans and he was correct, this record of life in Blaxhall, a small Suffolk community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, stands alongside Ronald Blythe’s ‘Akenfield’ as an absolute classic of local oral testimony to a life that disappeared under the might of agricultural mechanisation.
A Blackbirds Year by Miles Richardson
download “My new year begins when the blackbird returns to song” says the author and bounded by its song, we find wilderness in places close to home, exploring how mind and nature inhabit one another. Guided by the philosophy of the Victorian naturalist and philosopher Richard Jefferies, Richardson looks at how our minds and emotions interact with, and are affected by, our surroundings through his writings which are in turn informed by his profession as an applied research psychologist. Packed with vivid imagery and a thoughtful, experimental freedom, this is a book to dip in and out of as you ponder the questions it asks of you.
Birds and People by Mark Cocker
202711 Mark Cocker makes it clear that the low priority we afford to nature and the environment and the manner by which we separate our human culture from the natural world is absolute folly and, in this book, seeks to reunite both. A compendium of ornitholology and anthropology, Cocker weaves in history, culture, mythology, language and lore alongside soci-politics in a detailed study whilst sumptuous photographs taken over ten years by award-winning wildlife photographer David Tipling show us the roles that birds play in our lives across every continent. Birds have haunted, obsessed and inspired humans, feeding and working for us, inspiring great art, offering companionship and an early warning system for danger. There are lyrical examples of how birds habits and traits are interpreted by different cultures- the hummingbird that represents rebirth to Peruvians because of its ability to enter a hibernation like torpid state closely mimicking death, interspersed with other more disturbing stories. Our British love of owls (in part down to Harry Potter) is not shared by other countries who regard them as terrifying omens of death, spitting at owls incarcerated in zoos and killing them, a sharp and necessary counterbalance to any tendency to anthropomorphise. It isn’t only Cockers voice either: the prose soars in and out of anecdotes and stories from more than 650 individuals all over the globe. From academics to hunters, their stories cannot be separated from the birds they live alongside.
Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks
download Better known for writing ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat’, Sacks has another passion alongside his well documented one for the human mind- ferns and the fern allies, horsetail and selaginella among them. He is fascinated by their ability to grow and survive the most hostile climates and terrains and their constitution, as the three main lineages of vascular plants, all presumably evolved from a Silurian common ancestor. Oaxaca Journal is the account of his trip with a group of fellow enthusiasts to a part of the world that is well populated with these tenacious little plants. Ferns filled Sack’s childhood too, from the awareness that the coal that warmed his house contained the remains of greatly compressed fossilised ferns, to the seemingly filmy, delicate plants that filled the conservatory.  Their apparent delicacy gives no clue to the reality- that ferns prevailed where the dinosaur has not and have outlived all manner of extinctions. We are reminded of the place of ferns in art and literature and of their mystery: their reproductive systems lined along the undersides of foliage, of underground furry rhizomatous runners and the hidden secret heart shaped sex contained deep within the plant. Their invisibility was believed to be conferable, inspiring Falstaff to say “we have receipt of fern-seed. We walk invisible.” A mere 152 pages long, this is a book for jacket pockets, for short journeys, for dipping into and out of.
Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie
Sightlines-215x300 Shifting our attention to make us re examine the landscape of our lives, Jamie telescopes us into the more intimate of perspectives: there’s the encounter between Jamie and a cluster of malignant cells under a miscroscope lens in a hospital path lab; the storm grey wink of a petrels corpse, found on a beach and now in a plastic bodybag on her desk; and then out it pans, taking us up to the heavens and the aurora borealis and back down into the depths of the sea, carved up by the binary sleekness of the killer whales as they range along the cliffs, hunting and travelling. As we travel with her, we find that the more isolated the place, the more effort it is to quieten a mind, “clamorous as a goose” but her writing slowly drills down and cancels out the superfluous row. She is highly attuned to noise, telling us of the mineral silence of an Arctic landscape and the days immediately following the death of her mother which have “a high glassy feel, as though a note was being sung just too high to hear.” Jamie felt compelled then, to reconnect the weird intimate and inner world of human nature and when it goes wrong (cancer), with the nature talked about at environmental conferences. “I’ve never thought of that as nature” says the pathologist and alongside him, we too accompany Jamie on a beautiful and challenging redefining of what we class as nature in fourteen, near perfect little essays.
Last Stand: America’s Virgin Lands by Barbara Kingsolver
download (3) Kingsolver’s nature writing sometimes gets overlooked because of her vast talent for fiction and this appreciation of America’s virgin lands, the remnants of the once vast wilderness that has survived man is one of them. Barbara Kingsolver and award-winning photographer Annie Griffiths Belt roam far and wide over the great untamed tracts of land that have somehow slipped through the net. From wetlands, woodlands, coasts, grasslands, and drylands—and the pioneering, often ornery environmentalists who worked to save them- Kingsolver adds her voice to the chorus calling for better protection and veneration of them. She writes. “Here, in these lost corners, are the reserves of species abundance and strength for a continent that once roared with wild grandeur; they are its swan song. This book is about them.”
Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of New York City by Robert Sullivan
download From Jimmy Hoffa to the myriad animals and plants that survive and thrive in close proximity to one of the worlds great concrete jungles, the Meadowlands, these man made and undervalued lowlands across the Hudson River from Manhattan are a revelation. This post glacial meltwater landscape extends nearly forty miles from Staten Island’s southern end to the southern end of New York’s Rockland County and is now a brackish, low lying saltwater breckland. Hoffa’s corpse may or may not be buried here alongside the granite corpse of Penn Station in the city after it was razed to the ground and transported here for interrment in this mingling of the disposable and the natural. Sounds not available on a CD emanate from the commingling of traffic on the New Jersey turnpike and the rustling reeds of Snake Hill, a marshy terrain through which he canoes. We accompany him to Waldens Swamp, a boggy festering morass of cigarette butts, rubbish and collapsed plastic bottles which, nonetheless, provides a home for carp, muskrat and wildfowl. The place is a paradox, reflected by the juxtaposition of an egret on a giant pylon and Victor, the mosquito inspector. Victor’s landing counts and detailed zoological knowledge are both used for the purposes of exterminating a creature which sticks two fingers up at all our attempts to control it.  In the epigraph, Hopkins says, ”And for all this, nature is never spent. There lives the dearest freshness deep down thing” and Sullivan ensures that we do not forget this, that nature exists in spite of man and not because of it. What we do about this is our call.
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston
The_wild_trees_coverpage When Steve Sillett was nineteen years old, he tree climbed (with no safety ropes) one of the worlds tallest trees, becoming one of only a handful of people who have climbed them and know of where they can be found. Thirty storeys above the ground, surrounded by the crowns of the giant redwoods all around him, Preston was privy to a hidden eco system that would change the way he viewed the world. Preston seeks to connect these trees and their suroundings with the people that yearn to climb them, weaving personal testimony into a narrative that guides us through the intricate ecology of the canopy and the forest. He explains how the climbers developed technique and how they cope when one of their own ‘takes a dive into a dirt nap’ aka falls off. We meet the bride who very nearly did after she made an error attaching a descender device. Had she not checked it before the ceremony, her lichen decorated gown, redwood wedding ring and geologist minister willing to conduct the ceremony harnessed, in mid air, would have all been in vain. They sound barking mad? Well before the end of this book, the author himself ‘goes native,’ joining the cast of characters in their oddness and ‘redwoodphilia’- a state that truly presents as an addiction to these huge titans of the forest.
The Snow Geese by William Fiennes
download Aged twenty five, Fiennes was convalescing from a serious illness in the middle of his postgraduate studies and, during that half life state as recovery approaches, passed his time by rekindling an interest in ornithology.This was inspired by his fathers own interest and Fiennes favourite book from childhood, Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. Duly compelled to follow a related species, the lesser snow goose, as it migrates between its wintering areas in southern Texas to breeding grounds near Churchill on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay, Fiennes set off in pursuit with an ambition to write a book that would be part travelogue, part nature writing and part meditation upon the nature of home. Journey as metaphor is a long established theme and it suits Fiennes book perfectly, acting as bedrock for his musings on what homesickness is, why do we yearn for home and how does this relate to the long and tortuous migration of these beautiful creatures.  Full of intricate and finely observed descriptions of the geese, the land over which they pass and their manner as they settle each night at a fresh overnight site, set centuries ago as their compass point, and a transitory place that is, and yet is not, home.
A Study of Blackbirds by David Snow
download (3) This beautiful monograph on the birds he studied in the Botanic Garden in Oxford in the 1950s, remains one of the loveliest pieces of nature writing I possess. Snow may have spent a great part of his life in the study of tropical, fruit eating and nectar feeding birds, taking him all over central and south America, accompanied by his wife, but the humble blackbird is as enthralling a specimen as the most brilliantly hued hermit humming bird in his writerly hands. He tells of blackbirds returning to old nests, of older male birds singing lustily in the evenings as night approaches and how successful first time parenthood increases their chances of retaining their mate for a second brood in the same year. Here is Snow on their courtship behaviour: “The displaying bird has a curiously wild, staring appearance.[…] The whole time, with his beak held open, he usually utters a low ‘strangled’ song, made up of chattering alarm notes, rough warbles and subdued snatches of what sounds like true song.” Snow then goes on to tell us that during mating, other males will jump at the unfortunate male, barreling at him, aiming to knock him ignomiously off his perch and take his place themselves. The cover of this monograph is a linocut by artist Robert Gilmour whose first commercial use of the technique it was and his line drawings in the text offer a clear interpretation of Snows prose.
 Apple Acre by Adrian Bell
Apple Acre Cover-500x500 As a nation, we British are prone to parochialism and an associated sentimentality about the countryside and in some ways, Apple Acre illustrates this. Despite rationing, black outs and austerity during the Second World War, Adrian and his family lived their lives in the Suffolk farming community where they remained for decades, happily absorbed in the daily tasks of rearing their three children and struggling against those farming eternals, the weather and the land. The rhythms are ones that cannot be modified- the seasons that have dominion over planting, cropping, preserving and storing and the church festivals that mark the arrival of each. There is nostalgia for a life that would soon change and a little pomp and circumstance surrounding the reasons why the war was fought. Yet Bell is a realist and warns us that we risk becoming separated from the land and the origins of our food. He advocates recycling and reusing and of retaining a realistic grasp of what you are capable of managing farm wise. He is no idealist and he espouses many of the values that we are now sadly having to relearn.
 Gods of the Morning by John Lister-Kaye
cover58491-medium For over three decades, John Lister-Kaye has been cpativated by the spectacular seasonal metamorphosis at Aigas, the world-renowned Highlands field centre overlooking a loch and encircled by the untamed glens of Scotland. Gods of the Morning takes us through a year, following the turn of the seasons and their unpredictability which he fears may be due to global climate change. Birds are his Gods of the Morning and a particular passion: the book opens with a mournful tribute to the blackcap which crashes into his patio windows and subsequently dies. Reading this, we are immediately reminded that the rhythms of nature include death and subsequent regeneration- the corpse of the little bird is placed under a pyracantha bush to return to the earth. His descriptions are vital: the blackcap with its “cap as dark and glossy as liquorice”; the winter sun “power vanquished, enfeebled by the years reeling”; the wood mice with underbellies ” as white as the Rose of York” and tails flowing “with all the elegance and style of Elizabethan calligraphy.” Lister-Kaye reminds us to seek out that lost connection with the natural world and embrace its rhythms.

The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy

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“I could smell it myself, honey sweet but with the faintest hint of a sour edge. Drawing them in, the wondrous visitants” writes McCarthy as he describes his first encounters with the winged jewels as they fed on the buddleja which populated every crack of post war Britain. Arguing that we cannot be fully human if we are separate from nature and the intense joy it can bring,  McCarthy proposes this joy as a defence of a natural world which is ever more threatened, and which, he argues, is inadequately served by the two defences put forward hitherto: sustainable development and the recognition of ecosystem services.Drawing on a wealth of memorable experiences from a lifetime of watching and thinking about wildlife and natural landscapes, The Moth Snowstorm not only presents a new way of looking at the world around us, but effortlessly blends with it a remarkable and moving memoir of childhood trauma from which love of the natural world emerged. It is a powerful, timely, and wholly original book which comes at a time when nature has never needed it more.

Common Ground by Rob Cowen

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I’ve always been interested in the edges of things, whether that be a person, a landscape or a subject and in Common Ground, Cowen takes us to a scrap of land near Harrogate when he moves to the area from London, itself a rich source of scrubby edges and half crossed- out margins. The gift of a second-hand Ordnance Survey map helped him find his imperfect Valhalla: “strange, scrubby spaces in the shadow of a thousand houses where human and nature intermesh. Blurry collisions of meadow, pylon, wood, river and old railway, of industry and infrastructure”, or, as the Celts say, a ‘thin place’ whose history fans up and out. Thus follows a kind of lyrical portrait, similar to what AA Gill once said, of what might result if a place interviewed itself. It is beguiling and compelling and doesn’t depict the natural world as other and for that reason, I recommend it highly.

The new nature writing- we review ‘Doubling Back’ by Linda Cracknell

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We love the evolving genre of British nature writing and the fact that new kids on the block are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater as they create fresh narratives. Robert MacFarlane. Richard Mabey, Roger Deakin and Katharine Harris- these are all references in spirit and style in this exquisitely written and designed book.

 ‘Of all the current crop of excellent “new Nature Writers” Linda Cracknell is probably the most physically present to the reader.  These are real walks, walked by a real (and clever) writer; and the interesting things she tells us about feel real to the action of walking.”Sara Maitland

Doubling Back is a fascinating and moving account of walking in the footsteps of others. In 1952 Linda Cracknell’s father embarked on a hike through the Swiss Alps. Fifty years later Linda retraces that fateful journey, following the trail of the man she barely knew. This collection of walking tales takes its theme from that pilgrimage. The walks trace the contours of history, following writers, relations and retreading ways across mountains, valleys and coasts formerly trodden by drovers, saints and adventurers. Each walk is about the reaffirming of memories, beliefs and emotions, and especially of the connection that one can have with the past through particular places. This book celebrates life, family, friendship and walking through landscapes richly textured with stories.

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The river Spey near Newtonnmore

Our favourite? Linda’s walk from the tiny Speyside village of Newtonnmore up into the nearby Cairngorms along Minigaig Pass used by drovers to avoid the easier toll paying roads nearby. The other ancient route, Coymns Road, started from the bend near Ruthven Barracks also heading for Blair Atholl. Of these two, the Minigaig was the main route to the south, falling out of favour when a party of soldiers froze to death on the route during a winter storm but remained in use until well after Wades Military Road was built. Our own memories of a teenage skiing trip and a stay in a lodge at Newtonmore: the midges, burns, local Speyside distillery and an ill fated crush on our ski instructor Denis melded perfectly with Cracknell’s narrative, neither detracting from each other.

The deliberately accidental and surprise filled psychogeography of our youth has yielded to the path chosen for travel simply because it is is the path most travelled. What we value most about this exciting form of  nature/travel writing is its ability to transport us right back to that time when getting there was not the primary purpose of a journey. That’s not to say that the end point was or is not important; whether this be emotionally or practically, but somehow the ability to have still points on the way; to notice, see, hear and feel got lost.