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Notes on Return, Recycling and Renewal

By Kim Crowder

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In the second installment of our summer series of new nature writing, Kim Crowder reflects beautifully on the dramas of the natural world that took place during the course of this year’s spring and early summer in the microcosm of a stable roof, noting the ‘returns’ that the season brought and the forms of recycling and renewal that emerged.

For me, April and May are months of great anticipation: I’m watching for the returning birds, especially swallows, house martins and swifts whose arrivals signal the beginnings of summer. My ornithological skills aren’t particularly acute, but first sightings of these species really matter to me for the same reason that swifts matter in Ted Hughes’s poem:

                They’ve made it again,
        Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
        Still waking refreshed

Since 2016, I have been keeping a nature journal, on and off, and in it my first sightings of passerine birds are a high point each year. From April to September, swallow-spotting is all part of the daily routine at my stable because, ever since I began using it in 2015, there has been a nest of one kind or another there. Like me, the pony has learned to cope with near-misses with speeding swallows. In good years the residents of this nest – and of several others hidden in nearby derelict barns – form large aerial congregations. A mixed flock of swallows and martins skims the paddock daily, sometimes hunting for insects, sometimes chattering and swooping as though for the sheer pleasure of acrobatic flying.

By journalling, I’ve kept track of the swallows’ comings and goings over four summers. Given the pessimistic environmental context, this journal-writing has come to feel increasingly important. This year, like last, the swallows were slow to arrive. The first three birds put in a short-lived appearance on 18th April and a group of eight martins arrived the next day. But by the end of the second week of May, I was concerned as many completely swallow-less weeks had passed here while friends in neighbouring villages already had their full complement of swallows. This spring’s journal entries document the story of the life of the nest in my stable.

22nd March, 2019:
At the stable this morning Peter asked me if I had noticed what had happened to the swallows’ nest. At first glance I couldn’t see what he meant as the nest is up in a very dark corner. But then I saw that around the top edge of the nest, several layers of dried leaves had been very carefully added. They are arranged so that there is a small gap at the centre-front of the nest’s rim. We are not sure which bird might have done this – wrens maybe? If so, this will be the third round of recycling this nest has undergone.

When I first took on the stable, which is in fact a re-cycled shed, there was a small defunct wasp nest high up in one corner. In the summer of 2016 a pair of swallows used this empty wasp nest as a kind of foundation on which they built their own nest and raised two broods of chicks. In between one brood and the next, Peter fixed a small shelf under the nest as we were unsure how much support the fragile wasp nest was actually providing. All too often we have seen the disastrous collapses of nests full of swallow fledglings. In 2017 swallows, possibly the 2016 pair, used the nest but only raised one brood. 2018 was a great disappointment – and a worry. Very few swallows returned to the barns adjacent to the stable. Those that did come arrived very late and the nest in the stable stayed vacant all summer. Whenever I piled up his bedding to air, the pony climbed on it, giving himself enough height to chew at the old wasp nest, so I pulled its remains out from underneath the shelf that supports the still-intact swallow nest. I’m still hoping that this summer another chapter will unfold in the story of this nest.

Recently roofers began work on the old Georgian stable block nearby. Local rumour has it that this is the start of conversion to luxury holiday accommodation. The slates and joists are off and today I had a look round the yard at the piles of old timber and debris amongst which I saw the wreckage of two immense wasps’ nests. Perhaps the wasps will find somewhere to relocate this summer as there are still many undisturbed places in other derelict buildings here, but if swallow nests were destroyed too I’m not convinced that the birds will find new nest sites so easily because, to me, swallows seem more choosy than wasps about where they live.

After becoming aware of the remodelling of the nest, I began to observe it very closely. A few words at a time my journal records how, day by day, the leafy brim was carefully developed and embellished, with further materials added piece by tiny piece – but I never spotted the builder at work. Tiny shreds of hay stems and seeds filched from the pony’s feed were carefully placed around the entrance hole. Silks from a large adjacent spider web were stretched across so that they became part of the structure. After a month, we were curious to know what the nest’s interior looked like, so we visited with a camera and a mirror. Peter held the mirror and I quickly photographed what was reflected in the glass. I felt inside the nest for an instant, just long enough to discover that the nest did not, as yet, contain eggs. We left hurriedly, aware that we might well be being watched by an easily discouraged nest-builder.

When magnified on screen, the photos revealed that, in addition to the soft white breast plumage that the swallows had previously used for insulation, the mystery builder had added more feathers, horse hair and velvety green moss. These materials were densely interwoven so that they lined the whole interior. The dried leaves around the brim were from oaks, beeches and bracken nearby and they had been meticulously broken down into tiny, more easily manipulable, fragments. Consultation of our bird books suggested that the re-modelling might be the work of a wren. We learned that a male wren often works on more than one nest so that the female can take her pick. How could could any female wren resist the beautifully decorated structure waiting in the stable?

20th April, 2019:
Record-breaking Easter temperatures today. A sign of global warming? At the stable first thing we found out that the new occupant of the old swallow nest is definitely a wren. I saw her dart out of the little hole at the front of the crown of leaves on top of the swallows’ mud cup. She streaked across the stable and exited through a tiny gap under the eaves. With the wren absent, I reached up and felt very gently inside the nest. Under my fingertip, the unmistakeable shape of a tiny egg. I withdrew my hand immediately for fear that the wren might sense my intrusion and abandon the nest.

Knowing that the wren must be sitting, I didn’t dare touch the nest again. Further consultation of our various bird books showed that she might have laid up to eight eggs which she would incubate for 12 – 15 days. Once hatched, the nestlings would fly 12 – 18 days later. These estimated timings were only partly useful: I didn’t know how long the wren had already been sitting so it was impossible to work out a projected date when her young might fly. Each day I completed my stable work quickly, taking care not to cause any disturbance. After my discovery of the presence of an egg in April, well over three weeks passed before the next notable development.

15th May, 2019:
There’s an adage that says you should be careful what you wish for. Tonight I wish I’d been more careful with my wishing. All last summer, when no swallows nested in the stable, I kept wishing they would. This year I’ve been wishing for their arrival since early April. In their absence, I’ve wished instead that the wren would rear a brood in the old swallow’s nest. Well, now both my wishes have been granted – and it looks like a problem.

This morning I heard a few swallows chattering loudly as they made low swooping passes across the meadow. It was so good to see that they had, at last, arrived. But when I went to stable Ollie for the night, one swallow was making repeated dives in and out of the open door and paying close attention to the nest. Very cautiously I put my finger into the nest entrance and immediately felt several tiny, very warm and well-feathered little bodies. It can’t be long before the hatchlings fly, but I’m not sure whether a swallow might eject the fledglings. How good would a wren mother be at defending ‘her’ nest against swallows who very much want ‘their’ nest back? How patient can the swallows afford to be, given that their time here for breeding is so short?

Three days passed, during which I saw a pair of swallows flying agitatedly in and out of the stable. I knew they were determinedly checking out the nest. I worried. The swallows vanished yet again. Then on the third day this happened:

17th May, 2019:
A dramatic time at the stable tonight!

While changing Ollie’s rug I thought the female wren flew past me. I looked up and saw one baby wren perched precariously on top of one rug hook, one on another, two whizzing straight out of the door, another one flying madly around the back of the stable, and one more scrabbling about in the hay. Baby wren mayhem ensued for several minutes with them repeatedly landing on Ollie’s head and back and clinging to the stable walls with their long sharp claws. Worried that a wren might get trodden on, I wanted to get at least some of them back up on the shelf that the nest sits on. But in the half-light, that was easier said than done as I kept mistaking stray balls of horse-dung for wrens and vice versa. I managed to catch two wrens and lift them onto the shelf and in the second that each was in my hand, I had the chance to see the ferociously tigerish stripes on their wing and tail feathers up close. Once caught, the frenetically hyperactive little birds glared at me, their minute eyes black and shiny as beads of jet. After watching the two who had flown outside, Peter also commented on the birds’ high-speed movements, their frenzied energy and the intensity of their fierce expressions.

Everything settled down eventually, but tonight I’m anxious about the water bucket. I can’t remove it because an equine must have access to water even if he can’t be made to drink it. But I hope no young wrens fall in overnight. We think there are seven fledgelings who all seem completely ready to leave, which is good because the swallows have been back checking the nest again. This could all just work out if the wrens depart safely and the swallows move in promptly. But wrens can rear more than one brood in a season – so there could still be competition for this nest.

18th May, 2019:
Up early, keen to get to the stable to see if all was well. Not a wren in sight. They’d all flown! Walking away, I heard faint cheeping from inside the thick beech hedge, and one wren fledgling shot like an arrow across the track and into the wood.

20th May, 2019:
I’m on the lookout, not just for the wren returning to rear another brood, but also for the swallows who might decide to reconvert the hybrid nest back to a swallow-specific dwelling. I’m watching closely for signs of another kind of nest-building too – a queen wasp grazing the timber of the stable walls, mouth-harvesting tiny particles of timber. By mixing these with her saliva, she creates the material to produce paper honeycomb cells for her eggs. The tell-tale signs of this grazing are networks of tiny light-coloured tracks where wood has been stripped away.

A queen can lay 100 eggs a day, so a big nest like the ones destroyed by the roofers might contain thousands of wasps. A colony of this size is something I definitely don’t want in close proximity with a pony well past 30: he’s the equine equivalent of a human nonagenarian. The idea of locking him in with a vast wasp colony seems risky. If the wasps begin to build, they will have to be stopped.

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The idea of destroying one kind of nest while appreciating and encouraging another kind seems contradictory. Shouldn’t I cherish all nests? What logic is there in treating one nest as though it is more valuable than another? Who am I to decide? It’s a tricky problem – one that is deeply embedded in contemporary concern with wildlife. The RSPB’s current slogan ‘Giving nature a home’ (displayed on signage at a local marshland reserve) makes me uneasy because it contains the unspoken implication that the onus is on humans to decide where nature’s home is, what that home might consist of. The notion of partitioning nature off, creating a divide between ‘it’ and ‘us’ is worrying. Perhaps, unintentionally, the slogan carries the strong suggestion that the homes we might ‘give’ to ‘nature’ are ours to give in the first place, ours to apportion to species we consider most deserving. Which birds, animals and plants do we discard, dispossess, and which do we nurture and foster – and on what grounds? The questions are as old as our species and the answers have probably always involved a balancing act. But now, there is a pressing need to make intelligent and informed choices about our actions and their impacts on the species with whom we share the planet. Acting responsibly towards nature is paramount, but we should beware of ‘homing’ nature in ways that are conscience-salving short-cuts: we need to avoid the trap of thinking that the care we extend towards nature in one context grants us permission to be bird-averse, nature-averse, in another.

Like most of the people I know who care about the state of nature, I slip into inconsistent, irrational habits and thoughts, sometimes playing off one action intended to benefit nature with another that I know to be detrimental. If I feed the wild birds, can I justify exterminating just a few troublesome garden pests? As I’ve never owned or driven a car, do I have enough carbon credit in the bank to offset the ills of having coal fires? When this sub-conscious bargaining between nature-friendly and nature-averse choices occurs, George Orwell’s notion of ‘doublethink’ is apt as it involves ‘…holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them …’ and, or, ‘…forget[ing] any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, [drawing] it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed.’ It is precisely the ‘now you see it – now you don’t’ character of nature and environmental change that makes it difficult to resist this kind of doublethink.

This story of the changing fortunes of various nests is about something more than seeing birds suffering a housing crisis – an avian predicament that might be addressed by well-intentioned provision of assiduously monitored reserves – or ‘homes’. If there is a need to give nature a home, there is a bigger and more urgent need to stop taking nature’s home away from it in the first place. In the case of the roof renovations here, de-construction prior to repair and renovation has dislodged resident populations of birds and insects. But the problem is far bigger than the disturbance to some old buildings and their non-human inhabitants in one defunct farm-yard in Suffolk: the events there are all part of momentous global change. Why have the populations of swallows and martins decreased so suddenly here? What is going on in the distant homes that passerine birds also occupy on the other side of the globe? Although the migratory birds’ return is still a definite cause for rejoicing and reassurance – as in Hughes’s poem – the moment has come to be tinged, too, with a sense of anxiety and foreboding. The number of returnees is dwindling yearly; their behaviour is altering. When will none breed? When will none make it back at all?

There’s no way of knowing if ‘our’ swallows even began their journey out of Africa – impossible to tell what mis-hap befell them. Did they succumb to natural predation? Were they snared, or poisoned, or shot? Did they perish in some unprecedentedly powerful storm? I’ll never know. And this lack of knowing troubles me. I feel their absence as a huge loss, the kind of loss that nags and persists because there can be no closure, no conclusive answer to my questions. Looking up, I see not just empty space, but an emphatically unoccupied place – a blank where something is missing, is meant to be: there is silence where the sounds of bird voices should be. This vacancy exists not just in the air or the empty nests: it extends into my journal, onto this page and into my mental calendar. With just two or three exceptions, all the days of 2019 will remain unmarked by the presence of swallows in this place.

The way I have written about these nests may coincide with what some refer to as the ‘new nature writing’ – a genre that emphasises loss and the belated celebration of those parts of nature at greatest risk. In her 2018 overview of the nature books of the year, Pippa Marland wrote of the ‘widespread sense that we need new stories to narrate our relationship with the natural world – stories that inspire us to pay attention, to mourn what is gone, to cherish what is left, and to translate our enchantment and grief into political action.’ In Hughes’s poem, written almost half a century ago, the swifts’ re-appearance affirms that ‘the globe’s still working’. Were Hughes writing now, alongside the practitioners of the ‘new nature writing’, he might have shifted the poem’s emphasis to highlight how the world is starting to stop working, how not all of creation is waking refreshed.

While Hughes’s ravishing descriptive passages capture the swifts’ exuberant flight, the poem’s celebratory message has an unspoken subtext that points to the birds’ vulnerability and risk-laden existence. The lines that I quote covertly recognise the frailty of migratory birds: their journey is hazardous and their arrival can’t be taken for granted. But what has changed since the poem was written is that now, it’s not just the travel but also the conditions at both the departure point and the destination which make the birds’ existence so precarious. What Hughes didn’t know, as we do in an era of climate breakdown, is just how much the odds are stacking up against the survival of migratory birds.

Twenty years after Hughes wrote ‘Swifts’, my neighbour provided a powerful demonstration of hostility rather than appreciative welcome towards another passerine species – house martins. In the 1990s, the eaves of my house, and of four of my immediate neighbours’ houses, sheltered dozens of house martin nests. All summer, every summer, the martins were an established fact of life. Not only did I take their comings and goings for granted, I also assumed that, like me, everyone would be delighted by their presence. I was wrong. One day there was a commotion, hysterical martins wheeling through the air, shrieking in distress. The cause: a neighbour was leaning out of a window dismantling the nests. Just as you might snap an Easter egg’s chocolate shell piece by piece, she was systematically destroying the nests one by one, indifferent to the anguish of the parent birds who saw their eggs and fledglings falling to the ground. Her justification: the birds had dirtied her laundry. In breaking the nests, she also broke the law. I tell this story alongside the one about the swallow/wren nest because both illustrate ruinous human intervention into the lives of birds.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – intended to protect wild birds and their nests and eggs – is good in theory. But, as in cases like the one mentioned above, it can’t safeguard against ignorant impulse, nor is it always robust enough to answer back to profit-driven agendas. Transgressions against birds do not only happen on remote mountains and moors, or in the unseen private spaces of domestic sheds, attics or roofs: they are far more widespread, and often, paradoxically, legitimised under the terms of the Act. The RSPB’s website quotes several legalised conditions on which exceptions to the Act may be granted, including this one:

‘A person may kill or injure a wild bird […] if they can show, subject to a number of specific conditions, that their action was necessary to preserve public health or air safety, prevent spread of disease, or prevent serious damage to livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, or fisheries.’

Thanks to the granting of such exceptions, bird deaths, damage and reduction of bird habitat take place wherever property development, farming, forestry, road building and a host of other ‘justifiable’ activities occur. In a small country like Britain, that’s just about everywhere. Bird-hospitable spaces are rapidly shrinking. In its 2016 State of Nature report, the RSPB described the UK as being ‘amongst the most nature-depleted countries in the world’.

The kind of political, nature-aware action that Marland advocates was given recent and powerful expression. While the swallows were absent and the opportunist wren was re-building, another kind of migration was taking place 100 miles away from my stable. People were flocking to the multi-sited Extinction Rebellion London rally that ran from 15th – 24th April, 2019. The timing of the home-making event logged in my journal exactly coincided with environmental protesters setting up home in a tented encampment at Marble Arch. During the days when the wren was most active, well-orchestrated acts of civil disobedience were being committed by rally-attendees at Parliament Square, Oxford circus, Heathrow Airport, the Stock Exchange, on railways, on roads and elsewhere.

Extinction Rebellion’s concerns focus on climate breakdown and its ‘utterly catastrophic impacts to life on Earth’. Their website states that ‘A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades means the Sixth Mass Extinction in Earth’s history is under way’ and that ‘The air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth we plant in, the food we eat, and the beauty and diversity of nature that nourishes our psychological well-being, all are being corrupted and compromised by the political and economic systems that promote and support our modern, consumer-focussed lifestyles.’

I am not a wildlife campaigner, and this essay is not offered on behalf of any organisation. This writing is not intended as an elegy for bird species who have probably returned yearly to this site since at least the 13th century. Nor do I want it to merely memorialise the delight that the swallows’ arrival has brought to me and to generations of people who have lived here before me. In describing the chronology of events that occurred in one small birds’ nest in England over the last four summers, the writing is intended to bring alive the reality of the presence – and the absence – of certain wild creatures. Trails cut into wood by a grazing queen wasp might be understood as a kind of writing: the queen’s statement of intent, her prediction of the nest and colony that she will bring into being. They are literally the writing on the wall. The stories I have told here have some resemblance to the queen wasp’s grazing tracks, made one thought, one mouthful of words at a time, to bring this account into being. I am writing about the writing on the wall.

The questions provoked by the absent swallows and the renovating wren are as probably as old as the ruthlessly competitive and power-hungry species that we are. That’s one way of looking at the problem, but then again, the fact that the human species got where it is by being adaptive leaves space for optimism. It could be that the answer is nested inside the problem: the adaptivity and resourcefulness that got us into the current environmentally precarious situation may be the very traits that enable us to find a way out of it – if we want to.

The nest I have described is a complex structure combining materials and techniques contributed by two completely different bird species. Swallows built the superstructure, patiently laying successive courses of pellets of damp earth, a raw material composed of mineral particles – sand, silt and clay – as well as molecules of air and water. Every one of these gobbets of earth comes replete with fungal spores, pollen grains, humus and all the incidental particulars of decay – microbial life forms, bacteria. It also contains swallow saliva and whatever parasites the birds’ mouths may contain, plus bits and bobs of avian DNA. For insulation and soft furnishing, the swallows lined the nest with downy feathers plucked from their own breasts. To all that the swallow had collected, the wren added more feathers, leaves, moss, and animal hair. So the nest is very much a thing made of the stuff of both life and death – a construction cemented together not just by spittle or skilful interweaving, but also by instinct, determination, devotion, labour – and maybe by love too. Although the component parts of the swallow-wren nest can’t easily be picked apart, it is all too easy to undo the bigger patterns of bird lives: remove a roof, lag a loft, fell a tree, and whole systems of bird livelihood begin to unravel.

Did I make this piece too long, too detailed? Possibly, but when detail is omitted or blurred the full meaning of the bigger picture is lost. What’s in the bigger picture? Everything that we stand to lose – the co-inhabitants of the world, and ultimately, our own long-term tenure of the planet. Keeping an eye on the detail, sharpening up awareness of what’s immediate, or, in Pippa Marland’s words, allowing ourselves to be ‘enchanted’ – these are are good places to make a start on renewal and reparations. Such acts are the raw materials that might be used to rebuild outworn relationships and attitudes to the natural world.

In moving between a Suffolk stable and a London protest rally, between poetry and politics, delight and despair, this essay points out how the effects of environmental and anthropogenic change play out very close to home, if not actually at home: they are there to be seen in the every-day as much as in the exotic or the far-away. The nest seen as quintessential home provides a rich metaphor, one which is useful for thinking about the current environmental crisis in which everything is contingent upon everything else. The nest illustrates how what is big, momentous, catastrophic, often manifests most explicitly in the overlooked, the very small. Nature is now deeply entangled in the cat’s cradle of late capitalism, yet the survival of the planet – and of all its creatures – may lie in the little things that fit in the palm of your hand: a car key, a long-haul holiday flight ticket, a throw-away bottle, a plastic spoon. The political is right there in the personal and now is a good moment to take a leaf from the birds’ book, or in this case, a feather from the birds’ nest: to take notice, to repair, recycle and renew.

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Notes and References
1 Hughes, T. 1974. Swifts in Season Songs: Spring Summer, Autumn, Winter. London: The Rainbow Press.
2 To read the full text of Hughes’s poem Swifts, see https://www.racingtheswift.com/cycling-africa/swifts-ted-hughes Accessed 3/6/2019.
3 For information on the lifecycle of swifts see https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/swift/ Accessed 3/6/2019.
4 Marland, P. 2018. Nature Books of the Year at https://landlinesproject.wordpress.com/2018/12/21/nature-books-of-the-year/ Accessed 24/5/19.
5 Oakley, K., Ward, J. Christie, I. Engaging the imagination: ‘new nature writing’, collective politics and the environmental crisis at http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/174288/1/174288.pdf Accessed 24/5/2019
6 For the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wildlife_and_Countryside_Act_1981 Accessed 2/6/2019.
7 Extinction Rebellion Protests: What happened? at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-48051776 Accessed 3/6/2019.
8 Extinction Rebellion website is at https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/the-emergency/ Accessed 3/6/2019.

Kim Crowder is a writer, visual artist and researcher. She holds a PhD in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths, University of London. Her PhD project, which investigated industrial pig farming in Britain, focused on pig-mens’ intuitive knowledges, embodied skills, craftwork and previously unexplored  human-animal relationships which occur during commercially led animal commodification. Current writing concentrates on aspects of nature, agriculture, rural lives and the histories of people, places and things in East Anglia. Her writing and visuals draw together nature, culture, ethnography, history and memory.

You can read more of Kim’s writing here: http://www.livesinnature.co.uk

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‘Snickets’ by Nic Wilson

Snicket Steps, Gyffin. Image credit Rob Carter
Snicket steps, Gyffin, image credit Rob Carter
We are delighted to announce the start of a special series of blog posts throughout July, August and September featuring new work from emerging nature writers. First up is Nic Wilson’s ‘Snickets’ – a beautiful meditation on memory and the daily renewal of our contact with the land.

 

‘All locales and landscapes are … embedded in social and individual times of memory. Their pasts as much as their spaces are crucially constitutive of their presents.’
Christopher Tilley A Phenomenology of Landscape
Snicket, n. – a narrow passage between houses, an alleyway, origin obscure.
Oxford English Dictionary

There are many different types of snicket and each has its own story to tell. I surface in these riven-pathways early; they tower above my head. The stones at eye-level jut out of the mortar and despite their unforgiving corners I’m compelled to run my fingers along the broken edges, remembering the reputation of slate – the letter-bearer, the nose-slitter. With a recent school trip to Beaumaris Gaol still raw in my memory, the subterranean passages behind my grandparents’ house in Gyffin simultaneously draw and repel me.

Slate is a grotto stone, waiting damply for the unwary to slip and graze a knee or elbow. But I’m young enough, in my early snicket days, that there’s always a rough hand holding mine, leading me up the steps from the musty utility room with its cavernous chest freezers and ham radio desk to the square grey terrace and narrow snicket beyond the gate. I look up as I ascend, at the glossy slick on the undersides of the stones, the moisture collecting in ferny fingerpools which feed the liverwort crusting. Ivy-leaves of toadflax drip down the walls smudging the yellow fumitory and up by the fence red campion dots the colour of Welsh lanes onto the empty terrace: a place much celebrated by my grandpa for its horticultural barrenness.

But granny belonged to the wild and it came for her, fed by the floods that gushed down the snicket in heavy rain, breaching the houses, sowing the cracks with soil and seed, floating the foliage of hart’s tongue fern and maidenhair spleenwort. In this intractable, embedded space the gravitational pull of the earth was strong and there was no guarantee of finding a way out. Although my head eventually reached beyond the walls and my hands became the firm clasp around lithe fingers, I discovered a rootedness in those slate passages that has stayed with me as I’ve walked through the past forty years.

Granny and me on Conwy Mountain, Image credit Alan Garner
Granny and me on Conwy Mountain, image credit Alan Garner

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

My daily journeys still connect me to the land: a morning run along Gypsy Lane, one of the ancient holloways carved into the chalk alongside the Roman villa at Purwell; visiting the lightning-blasted black poplar with its roots in the Ashbrook or walking back from the community garden fete with the children, exploring the oldways that used to mark the medieval field boundaries, now forgotten snickets, their entrances hidden behind brambles, buddleia and privet. Many of these ancient pathways survived in Hitchin as a result of the open-field system which remained intact on the east side of the town well into the twentieth century, far longer than in many towns and villages where enclosures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries radically altered the structure of the landscape.

Gypsy Lane 2. Image credit Nic Wilson
Gypsy Lane, image credit Nic Wilson

Overlaying an early sixteenth century map onto Google Earth reveals little change to our local paths, field boundaries and lanes. As the area was developed, the estates, community centres, roads, even the railway was forced to fit into the existing field-strip framework and as ancient boundary paths were surrounded by houses, new snickets were born. These in-between spaces exist on the margins of everyday narratives; we merely pass through, leaving behind us memories of daily journeys and the seeds of our agricultural and horticultural heritage. Like the dead sea scroll deciphered last year by scholars using fragmented marginal notes, old pathways retain the scattered remnants of local histories even when the main body of the landscape has been erased and rewritten. As I trace these porous paths on the school run, on my way to the train station or to the shops, I can feel the past seeping up through the cracks.

In the verges, deadly nightshade lifts its shadowy bells above the nettles, garlic mustard and cuckoo-pint, rising from its agricultural past as a nineteenth-century pharmaceutical crop and embracing the arable margins. Alpine clematis coils over the wall and tumbles into the snicket, freed from the rigours of trellis and twine. Its leaf-stalks tangle with its wild cousin, old man’s beard, on a reverse mission to infiltrate the cottage borders from the hedgerows. At the back of the park beside the path, self-seeded elm saplings have broken through a line of old fence panels and are busy creating thickets in an abandoned garden corner.

After years of walking the snickets I am in step now, trodden into the upwelling of wild and cultivated, past and present, culture and landscape, all muddied and conjoined. I have become grounded in these everyday routes, now the runnels for my commonplace roots, like a network of veins feeding a living landscape.

Deadly Nightshade in the Snickets 2. Image credit Nic Wilson
Deadly nightshade in the snickets, image credit Nic Wilson

Nic Wilson is a freelance writer and editor based in Hertfordshire. She contributes to a range of nature and gardening magazines, journals and websites, and has recently written a piece on John Clare’s Contemporaries for the 2019 John Clare Journal. Nic is currently working on a book about engaging with the nearby wild. She blogs at http://www.dogwooddays.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Places of Poetry: giving voice to environmental heritage

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Calling all poets! Read on to find out about a wonderful new project inviting contributions of poetry that celebrates and commemorates special places around England and Wales. Guest blog by Professor Andrew McRae from the University of Exeter.

On Britain’s disappearing woodlands, Michael Drayton, writing four hundred years ago, was as articulate and passionate as any modern environmental campaigner. Describing in Poly-Olbion the ‘wound[ing]’ of one tree in Blackmore Forest, Dorset, by ‘man’s devouring hand’, he reflected soulfully on ‘The losse that to the Land would shortlie come thereby, / Where no man ever plants to our posteritie’. Today, as environmental campaigners call for a massive tree-planting initiative and the re-wilding of large areas of British land, there is cause to reflect not only on the environmental heritage of our land, but also the history of environmental writing. Places of Poetry, a community arts project running over the summer of 2019, will encourage the inhabitants of England and Wales to do both.

Places of Poetry was inspired by Poly-Olbion. Its quirky use of places as points of entry to history – with the narrative burden often assumed by geographical features, such as rivers or forests – retains the power to intrigue. So too does the sheer mass of detail: the way Drayton values the local and obsessively pursues a fantasy of encyclopedic knowledge. I have been working on it as a critic and editor for too many years, while my colleague on the Places of Poetry, the poet Paul Farley, has been rewriting the poem for the twenty-first century. But we wanted to create something truly polyvocal, and thus devised the model of crowd-sourced poems pinned to a two-layered map. We have been given access to Ordnance Survey data, down to a high level of detail, and we will overlay on this a new map of England and Wales modelled on the decorative and iconographic style of the county maps published with Poly-Olbion.

Poly-Olbion is about more than the natural environment. It is capacious and inclusive, covering the history of settlement, details of civil wars, naval leaders, saints, monarchs, and anything else Drayton perceives to be of significance to the national story. But the environmental detail was unprecedented in the prose genre of chorography, from which Drayton took his structure and much of his information. While some pamphleteers and politicians were becoming concerned about the perceived depletion of woodland, especially for industrial use, Drayton is arguably the first ever poet to respond to this phenonenon emotionally. He also includes catalogues of wildlife, such as fish and birds, and details in another passage the ‘soils’ or agricultural regions of England. Therefore, when planning Places of Poetry and thinking about different kinds of heritage that we wanted to foreground, the environment was always critical. We wanted the project to prompt reflection on the history of the English and Welsh environment, and the ways in which it continues to change.

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The principle of Places of Poetry is that anyone can pin a poem anywhere on the map. But we will use events and activities at partner organisations across England and Wales, supported by professional poets-in-residence, to model different ways of thinking about place and heritage. One of these will be at Sherwood Forest, a site now managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, but best known for containing some of the oldest oak trees in the country. The Major Oak, now supported by an architecture of props, was already mature in the years when Drayton was lamenting the destruction of woodland. Another will be Dovedale, in the Peak District, which has attracted visitors as a site of natural beauty for centuries. Drayton and his contemporaries were fascinated by ‘the wonders of the Peak’. Thomas Hobbes even wrote a Latin poem about them, De Mirabilibus Pecci. And another still will be the Lake District, where we will be based at Dove Cottage.

But rivers were without question the most significant natural features of Poly-Olbion. On the maps, created by the engraver William Hole, they are unnaturally enlarged and lend shape and character to the landscape. Roads were not registered on maps at all in England and Wales until later in the seventeenth century. In the poem, rivers are the principal routes of navigation, and are traced in such detail that it can today be difficult to identify some of the hundreds of streams that Drayton lists. Although Poly-Olbion is not explicitly a river poem, it assumes a key place in a tradition that can be traced from classical texts through to the extraordinary contemporary work of Alice Oswald. Rivers provide pathways into narratives about places, nations, ecosystems.

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The Severn is important to Drayton, not least because of his positioning of it as an informal border between England and Wales. In the fifth song of Poly-Olbion, the Severn – ‘a Queene, miraculouslie faire, / … absolutelie plac’t in her Emperiall Chaire’ – passes judgement on a singing contest between the rivers of England and Wales for sovereignty over the Isle of Lundy. Later Drayton acknowledges the myth of Sabrina, the innocent girl slain for being caught in a love-triangle that involved both of her parents, her body ‘dissolv’d into that crystall streame’. While he does not dwell on the wildlife of the Severn, some of his best fluvial descriptions are devoted to rivers in Wales and the west of England, including a stunning description of salmon migrating upstream:

Forc’t by the rising Rocks that there her course oppose,
As though within their bounds they meant her to inclose;
Heere, when the labouring Fish doth at the foote arrive,
And finds that by his strength but vainlie he doth strive,
His taile takes in his teeth; and bending like a bowe,
That’s to the compasse drawne, aloft himself doth throwe:
Then springing at his height, as doth a little wand,
That bended end to end, and flerted from the hand,
Farre off it selfe doth cast; so doth the Salmon vaut.
And if at first he faile, his second Summersaut
Hee instantlie assaies; and from his nimble Ring,
Still yarking, never leaves, untill himselfe he fling
Above the streamefull top of the surrounded heape.

While Drayton is not greatly interested in why the salmon travels upstream, the commitment to description of this natural phenomenon is nonetheless remarkable. Few writers of his age attempted this level of engagement with the struggle of an animal barely mentioned in any context other than as a foodstuff.

In Drayton’s time rivers were already being blocked to the passage of fish by weirs and other obstructions. It thus feels appropriate that another of our Places of Poetry partners is the ‘Unlocking the Severn’ project, the largest and most ambitious river-restoration project in Western Europe. At its heart is the twaite shad, a migrating fish that will be given improved access to breeding grounds in the upper reaches of the river by a series of fish-passes. So we will invite writers to reflect on environmental heritage by engaging with a river in the process of a process designed to undo centuries of human intervention. And we will have Isabel Galleymore, a poet with an established interest in environmental writing, as our Severn poet-in-residence.

Pinning a poem on a river defies hydrographical logic. As John Donne observed, rivers undermine a cartographer’s myth of stasis: ‘Nor are (although the river keep the name) / Yesterday’s waters, and today’s the same’. The Severn is also a very long river: 220 miles from source to sea. While we cannot make our pins float downstream, we will be curious to see where writers choose to pin their river poems. We hope that our focus on the Severn will inspire poets across England and Wales to put their local rivers – as well as other natural environmental features that matter to people, from ponds to forests, beaches to moors – onto the map. And we hope that our focus within Places of Poetry on the relation between heritage and place will lend a distinctive inflection to the resultant environmental writing, prompting writers and readers to reflect on changes to the natural world. As Drayton observed, these changes have most commonly had detrimental effects; however, as Unlocking the Severn demonstrates, it remains possible to change for the better.

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You can read a recently published poem by Isabel Galleymore, Severn poet-in-residence, here. Isabel’s new collection Significant Other has been shortlisted for the Forward’s Felix Dennis Prize for a first collection of poems.

 

Dog Country

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In celebration of Beltane we bring you a special blog post today –  stunning new nature writing from Ali Cargill, first year Creative Writing PhD student at the University of Hull.

Dog Country

To begin, an ending: I had a dog, Zola – a dark chocolate cocker spaniel, mad for flushing pheasants out of hedgerows. One fogged November walk she took off across field towards road. I whistled her back; she was coming – bless her! Last moment, another pheasant flew up and the dog was after it, fast. At the road: a van, fading into fog. I whistled; and again. Then found her roadside, caught in her own blood pool. I picked her up and her paws flopped as if puppy-playing, rolling on her back. She was still warm. I cried her home in my arms.

Three days later I walk the same field: eulogy for dead dog. She runs with me as far as the split tree. This tree’s time is deep; rounding. One huge bough lies stubble-crashed in October’s gales, the trunk splintered, yawning jaw. But the halftree lives, still. Stop. Gaze up into vast criss-cross. How long do I haunch against its windshielding bark? My dog-spirit smokes over dead stalks of last summer’s crop. She leaps, dog-Frith.

Away from the killing roads. I’ll tell you instead of Big Skies; big green. Scale Sylvandale’s slopes or wander the folds of Deepdale; nothing else exists. Half an hour or so east of the city, the flatlands of York rise into hills, where I live. This is what it doesn’t have: bleak drama in drystone walls and Wuthering Heights. Trees wind-sculpted under flint sky. Flat caps and whippets. This is what it is: colour wheel; noise scape. Wildfest: skylarks sing-hover; lapwings dipflap; red kites circle, fold, fall. Deer, easy running in pairs. Long-horned, fringed cattle that bellow if you come too close to their calves. Hares dash; owls haunt, grey-gliding. Sunfaced oilseed rape; whiskered barley; twisted hawthorn ancients. Gaunt ash stalks. Grand beech. Sun. Wind. Rain. More sun.

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January. I walk to Swineridge View: a small hollow, fringed with ash woodland. Grass, wooden bench; bonfire dregs still, from Guy Fawkes Night. It looks over the Vale of York and if I squint, I can make out York Minster’s white-mist tower. Easier to see are the concave, concrete towers of Drax: biggest power station in the UK.

This used to be the village tip. Under this frost-blenched grass are grown-over years of rubbish: nails, screws, tights, knickers, vests, pipes, pots, irons, radios, washing machines. Vase, cream, pink roses. Bra, Playtex, 38DD, green. Child’s bike, red, Raleigh, three gears. At Pocklington, the nearest town, Roman burial graves have been unearthed: soldiers, sworded, shielded. A chariot, its horses buried standing, now headless: sliced away by plough. I don’t know if this is true. My father-in-law once buried a whole car: hacked the uprights, dug a hole, pushed it in. This is true: somewhere in Four Oaks in Sutton Coldfield there’s a black Austin A35 pushing up first snowdrops. Old earthworks!

Could be anything under here, clay-capped, topsoiled, grassed, bunny-scuttered. Right now I’m benched, bobble-hatted – then Zola leans against me and we sit, grass gazing; rabbit watching. She’s fading; I watch her in her last running. She’s dandelion puff; spider silk; nipped air.

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Today, early spring but rain sheeting down. Up into the Wolds. Wet green; raw windsoaked. Grazed moorland stretches across contours to Rabbit Copse, then downhill to roughland where a spring bursts. But first I step over the stile then off the path into forest corner and that special feeling: no one knows I’m here. Conifers droop and drip in dimmed corners. The smell is wetbark pine, alive, magic where Treebeard comes rootstriding across the mossed undergrowth.

Out from my own personal Fanghorn and downhill to the road that will return me to the village – unless I step off once more and head into unknown, deep-reeded, hawthorn-crowded territory in search of the spring. Bottomed out, puddled squelch-squirch land. Knobbles of bone; fan of feathers. The bones look white; plastic. It’s pheasant: this is shooting country.

It’s easy to spot the course of the beck that flows from the spring: clear-watered, crowded with wild, bright watercress and gravel-bedded – not nature-formed then, but human-made – and ancient. There is wild history, deep time and more Tolkien sorcery to be had. A Roman settlement was here, a temple excavated in a field nearby. Once upon a time, a track led from the temple to the spring. Ancient ways.

I find the spring source, drawn by noisy gush to a spout set into the hillrise where it rushes and pours. For centuries it has been this way, drawing Iron Age settlers to its life-force, then Roman temple communities, then our village – Millington’s water supply came from this small spout, until the Water Board and mains services arrived. I skirt watery channels, climb to higher, dryer ground to stand on the Roman track, its rough channel still visible from the spring to the top of the hill and the lane that turns homeward. Who else has walked this path? Women, head-carrying water urns? Soldiers in full Roman get-up? Gladiators. Iron Age dwellers, hauling beast-backed pots filled with this precious, clearspring water. My steps fill ancient footprints. Humans, through time and landscape. Deep, deep history.

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Text and photos © Ali Cargill 2019

First Year Creative Writing PhD Researcher

University of Hull

 

Sensuous Spring

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Continuing our theme of Spring, we are delighted to bring you today two short pieces of new writing by two of the UK’s finest nature writers: Katharine Norbury and Miriam Darlington. The extracts were written for our crowd-sourced Spring nature diary last month.

The MARCHING – Katharine Norbury

Time has been out of joint for a while now. A glorious, warm, unseasonable January followed a warm, windy winter. Snow drops came up late and muddy; early daffodils hard behind them. Like Wordsworth, my heart with pleasure filled, and danced, although I couldn’t help feeling that Spring had jumped the gun. And then it all went back again, and we learned new words: polar vortex – fresh and unexpected – reminding us that in the north the ice was melting, the climate on the move.

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On the day of the Equinox I crossed the Pedley Street Bridge – one of the magical portals in the East End of London – and found myself in the Nomadic Community Gardens. And for the first time everything felt right. Seeded vegetables from last autumn protruded from flowerbeds engineered from wooden packing crates. Bundles of narcissi announced a second Spring. And blossom formed a canopy of goodness.

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I had always wanted to go to Japan to witness the arrival of the cherry blossom, sakura, as waves of flowers ripen cross the country. Yet in this curious double spring of 2019, the blossom has come to London. And it is the most abundant, fluffy, delicate yet profuse blossoming I have ever seen. Cherry blossom, apple blossom, spritely imported mimosa, damson, pear. A few more weeks and horse chestnuts will put out improbable candelabra. Time may be out of joint. But this strange disjointed London spring is extraordinary to behold.

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(Photos by Katharine Norbury)

Spring Equinox 2019: Walking the dog on Tor Hill, Wells, Somerset – Miriam Darlington

My dog seems to know the way even though we’ve never been here before. He flows over the fat-man’s-squeeze and silks into the coppiced hazel woods. Dotted around are ash, sweet chestnut and spindly oaks. It’s been a long day travelling, but here on the side of this homely hill on the edge of the city of Wells, on this high limestone outcrop, the air is mad with birdsong. Wrens. Robins, Dunnocks, Warblers and at last that herald, the aptly named Chiffchaff, ticking its tune from the highest twigs. On the ground, wild garlic is a choppy foam of green through the dark-wet mud. Soon a gauze of aromatic white will bloom into the warming air. It’s almost here, pungent and mouth-watering. There will be bluebells too. Their slender spikes are scattered in the leaf-light, and sprouting here and there already some blue fronds are beginning to dangle, showing an enticing hint of purply-blue. Walks at this time of the year can feel full of promise. Warmed over the bedrock and earth, the air is fresh with mulch and new growth.

As the dusk falls I go out into it again, and there is the familiar, comforting hoot and scratchy return of a pair of Tawny Owls. Their duet feels like a hinge moment, pivoting the disappeared day with the crepuscular mystery of hidden things to come. They are nesting high up and invisible in a cleft between the boughs of the ivy-clad tree. I walk closer to locate the call of the female, and the male flies in, a shadow amongst many shadows. He warbles a soft song as if to say to his mate ‘I am here for you.’ When I follow the twining path up, up and the light has faded my hearing takes precedence. As the hooting rings out, the birdsong that had increased for a moment, with nothing to do now, falls quiet.

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(Photo of Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, England by c.art, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

The path exits the woodland edge and over an old stone wall covered in moss and liverworts, it crosses swathes of delicate leaves and pale petals. The wood anemones are in bloom. White violets. Periwinkles. Young stinging nettles have just come into flower. Connectedness. I’m experiencing it through the nose, the ears, the eyes, the heart. The evening thrills through the woods, and through the twigs and framed by them, the medieval contours of Wells Cathedral are stark against a crepuscular sky.

The steam trickles, catching the last of the light. I love the way water flows over limestone. Down through its rain-scoured fissures and runnels it fills spaces, even entering caves nobody has ever seen. You can only sense them, seamed with the taste of iron. Nobody thinks of it, but when you do it’s a kind of vertigo that rises from the soles of the feet, and before you know it, you can imagine the watery, dripping under-land. It makes everything you see feel newborn, sparkling.

I pick some Blackthorn flowers to take home; we’ll watch the petals scatter and drop, the new leaves emerge. Once the bees have done their work, in the autumn all along the stream and field margins there will be silvery-coated sloes to gather. In the distance, the lines of Glastonbury Tor with its empty church tower stand out against the Avalon marshes. The memory of murmuring starlings over a million reeds fades and diminishes with the last of the light. ‘There is no part of this world that isn’t looking at you,’ the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said. ‘You must change your life.’

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(Photo by Katharine Norbury)

THE COUNTRY OF LARKS: EXTRACTS

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We’re delighted to share with Land Lines readers extracts from Gail Simmons new book The Country of Larks: A Chiltern Journey, published today by Bradt Travel Guides.

ABOUT ‘THE COUNTRY OF LARKS’

In 1874, a lovesick Robert Louis Stevenson stepped off a train at High Wycombe station on the first leg of a three-day journey across the Chiltern Hills to Tring. Almost 150 years later, Gail Simmons took to the hills in his footsteps, chronicling the world of her childhood before HS2 brings destruction to this historic landscape.

Entwining personal memories with impassioned interviews and extracts from Stevenson’s essay In the Beechwoods, Gail portrays the author’s ‘country of larks’ from prehistory to the present day.

Setting out

In October 1874, a slender young Scotsman carrying a rucksack stepped off the London train onto the platform at High Wycombe station. He was twenty-four, suffering from poor health and in the throes of an unhappy love affair with an older, married woman. Having based himself in London over the summer to be near the object of his affections, and to immerse himself in literary life, Robert Louis Stevenson was now procrastinating over returning to Edinburgh to resume his university studies.

Wearing his favourite velvet jacket, and with his wispy moustache and unkempt hair, the aspiring author must have cut a strikingly bohemian figure in High Wycombe. This was, after all, a respectable working town famed chiefly for the chair-making industry that flourished thanks to the beech woodland covering its nearby hills. The daintier crafts of lace-making and straw-plaiting also thrived here, but from the late eighteenth century it was chairs – particularly good, solid Windsor chairs – that concerned the town’s inhabitants. Passing through in 1822, William Cobbett described Georgian High Wycombe as ‘a very fine and very clean market town’. By the time that Stevenson alighted here some fifty years later, the rows of terraced workers’ cottages had already begun crawling up the steep slopes of the Wye Valley.

Now, almost 150 years on from Stevenson’s arrival, I too alighted the train at High Wycombe station. Built in the Chiltern vernacular style of knapped flint with brick dressings, the station had opened just twenty years before Stevenson turned up. This was the heyday of Victorian engineering, a time dominated by names such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Louis’ own grandfather, the Scottish civil engineer Robert Stevenson.

Layers of history

Antique landscapes such as the one I was walking through that day are palimpsests, layers of history, one lying just beneath another. Sometimes an upper layer peels away, and a buried one is revealed. Such is Kingstreet, which according to my 1880s map existed when Stevenson was here and which leads north from Holmer Green. This was an important drovers’ road, where cattle and sheep would be driven across the Chilterns to seasonal fairs and markets. Nowadays its importance is much reduced, there not being much call for drovers anymore. Yet there are still references to the village’s connection with drovers and their animals in the street names. I was standing in Penfold Lane (where sheep were penned), having just passed Sheepcote Dell Road. Even the neat bungalows lining the street out of the village still cling on to the old rural traditions, with their allotment gardens and signs advertising home-grown runner beans. And names such as Orchard End hark back to Holmer Green’s vanished agricultural past when the village’s proximity to London encouraged fruit-growing, its plentiful cherry orchards still studding my 1880s map.

Kingstreet survives today as a bridleway, its entrance hidden at the edge of the village. Too hidden, it seems, as I could not locate it. I paused to check my map, and an elderly couple with Labradors approached. They looked very like my parents – he tall, with a cloth cap and gilet, she with a trim grey bob and a smiley face.

‘You look like you’re on a long-distance walk,’ the woman said, touching my arm. I wondered if this was a polite way of informing me that I didn’t quite fit in with the Sunday strollers of Holmer Green, with my scruffy hiking gear and old rucksack. Just as the apparently civil enquiry ‘can I help you?’, when uttered by a certain breed of English person, really means ‘what do you think you are you doing here?’

‘I am on a long-distance walk – to Tring,’ I responded to her gentle tease. ‘I’m looking for Kingstreet, which goes to Little Missenden.’ She pointed me in the right direction.

A dream of Middle England

Wider still the track, and greater still the sense of walking on an ancient thoroughfare. Descending steeply, Kingstreet sinks into the earth from centuries of footfall. A sudden clearing, a breach in the hedge and I looked down, over a stubble plain, to a scene – a mirage, almost – of village England. Little Missenden lay cocooned in the Misbourne Valley, its flint church tower winking in the autumn sunshine. Beyond, the hillside rose steeply from the valley bottom, its upper slopes clad with beech hangars.

Hangar: ‘wood on steep side of hill’;
from Old English hangra, ‘hang’

Geologists have a term for this characteristic Chiltern topography in which the land has eroded more dramatically on one side of the valley (usually south and west facing) than the other. They call them ‘asymmetric dry valleys’, with the gentler northern slopes, such as where I now stood, being more suited to cultivation. But even the arid language of geologists could not detract from the tableau before me that day. In the foreground, the village cricket team was playing perhaps its last game of summer. Ripples of applause wafted up from the vale as a run was made or a catch taken, and mingled with the birdsong in the tree canopy above. If you could ignore the pylons striding gigantically across the hillside, little appeared changed since Stevenson travelled here.

I turned back from this dream of Middle England, a microcosm of old certainties in an uncertain world, and continued down the deeply hollowing holloway. Twisted beech roots, like arthritic fingers, emerged from earth banks almost as tall as me. The trees leaned in, branches interlacing over my head like clasping hands.

Above the treetops the early autumn sun was warm, but the air beneath was cool and damp. I was lured further into this verdant tunnel by birdsong, sucked deeper and darker into England’s rural past on a venerable road once trod by drovers and tradesmen, churchgoers and soldiers, merchants and missionaries.

Route map

A most pleasant country

‘The lanes were profoundly still. They would have
been sad but for the sunshine and the singing of the
larks. And as it was, there came over me at times a
feeling of isolation that was not disagreeable, and yet
was enough to make me quicken my steps eagerly when
I saw someone before me on the road.’ R L Stevenson

The lanes were profoundly still that Sunday afternoon too, although sadly no larks were singing. My feeling of isolation was not disagreeable either, as I followed in the footsteps of Stevenson’s lovesick ghost. Heading away from Little Missenden along a narrow road marked on my map as Chalk Lane, the idyll was ruptured by the grumble from the A413 which now bypasses the village. Stevenson, the scion of a great engineering dynasty, might have approved of this road, but I did not as I scurried across, dodging the traffic.

Chalk Lane now led me out of the Misbourne Valley and up into the chalk uplands, and once again I became aware of the geological and climatic forces that shaped these hills. From around 145 million years ago the Chiltern chalk started to form under sub-tropical seas, to be thrust upwards by massive tectonic forces some eighty million years later. And although they were never entirely covered by glaciers during the Ice Ages, their tundra-like hills were carved by ice and frost to emerge as vertebrae in a spine of chalk hills that run from the Dorset Downs in southern England to the Yorkshire Wolds in the north.

It is the Chilterns that John Bunyan is thought to be describing when he writes in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) of ‘a most Pleasant Mountainous Country, beautified with Woods, Vineyards, Fruits of all sorts; Flowers also with Springs and Fountains, very delectable to behold’. Three hundred and forty years on and Chiltern woodlands are beautiful yet: fruit and flowers still grow in Chiltern gardens and vineyards still prosper on their slopes.

Looking back from the top of just such a slope I could no longer see Little Missenden, sequestered in its valley. This mirage of village England had dissolved back into the miasma from where it came.

The eye of the storm

And then, just as I found myself lulled into reveries of this meadow’s history, I was brought up short by a sign barring my way. Ahead, where the portal of HS2 will emerge from under the Chilterns, ‘essential maintenance’ to the electricity pylons was taking place and I was forbidden to take another step. The shouts of workmen scaling the pylon in front of me confirmed the warning. I had no choice but to turn back and retrace my steps to the bottom of the hill and walk up the busy main road to South Heath.

South Heath is a prosperous community, and one that will bear much of the brunt of HS2. Having failed to get the tunnel extended under the whole of the AONB, the inhabitants will see the railway emerging from a portal just north of the village.

If the tunnel had been extended another six miles, to beyond Wendover, then it would have emerged outside the AONB. As it is, the tunnel will descend under the River Misbourne – twice – then climb uphill in one of the steepest gradients in the whole of Network Rail, to surface near the top of one of the most historic and unspoiled valleys in the entire Chilterns.

Now, walking into the village, I was entering the eye of the storm, the illusory calm before the maelstrom of HS2. It was a Monday morning, but an unnatural hush settled over the village like the first autumn mists. My 1880s map shows little development where modern South Heath is, only Sibley’s Coppice, another ancient woodland of oak and beech wood scattered with rowan, cherry and birch. Coppices are woodland in which the trees or shrubs are periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber, the woodland being managed sustainably to provide fuel for generations of villagers.

To hear a skylark?

That morning I wanted to stride out across the hills and the meadows one last time, as summer faded and autumn took hold. Above all, I really wanted to hear a skylark. The air might not have been ‘alive with them from High Wycombe to Tring’ as it was for Stevenson but surely I should hear at least one before the end of my walk. And I was at least walking this last leg. As Stevenson cheerfully admits in ‘In the Beechwoods’:

 ‘The morning cleared a little, and the sky was once more
the old stone-coloured vault over the sallow meadows
and the russet woods, as I set forth on a dog-cart from
Wendover to Tring.’ R L Stevenson

Stevenson was, in Victorian parlance, a sickly youth. Like so many of his contemporaries, he was thought to have been suffering from tuberculosis (‘consumption’), although medical experts today dispute that he had this disease, or at least that he died from it. Besides, to play the role of a romantically ailing poet was the height of late nineteenth-century fashion, which may also have played a role in Stevenson’s decision not to walk the final day of his Chiltern jaunt.

No dog-cart to hand, and preferring to walk anyway, I struck off down a minor road…

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Our grateful thanks for Bradt Travel Guides for permission to reproduce these extracts, artwork and map. Bradt Travel Guides is offering readers of Land Lines a special 20% discount on copies of The Country of Larks. To claim your discount, purchase the book at www.bradtguides.comand enter code LANDLINES at checkout. Offer valid until 30 June 2019.

Angel of the Ocean: An Interview with Philip Hoare

Professor Graham Huggan and Dr Pippa Marland (Land Lines team) are delighted to share with you today an original interview with Philip Hoare, one of the UK’s most fascinating and gifted writers, and a chronicler par excellence of the planet’s oceans and shorelines.  The interview was carried out by email in late February and is published here for the first time.  Graham and Pippa are currently co-writing an article on Philip’s work.

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Philip Hoare in the ocean (Photo by Andrew Sutton)

GH:  Much of your work seems to be a play on resemblances, not necessarily physical ones but figures whose lives, half-real half-mythical, are used as projection screens for your own desires. Would you agree with this?

PH:  I suppose I see my imaginative self in that way, and have done since I was a child.  I was always an Indian, not a cowboy.  I was always dressing up as other people – a super hero, an Aztec, even into teenage, as the starman.  He was merely the culmination of those desires, as if I’d invented him, rather than the other way around.

GH:  Animals, too, seem to act at times as projection screens: birds, for instance, or most prominently, whales.  Human and animal worlds often merge in your work: is that because you want at a certain level to become an animal even though you’re aware that non-human animals are nothing like ourselves?

PH:  Well, I think animals are very like ourselves in ways we don’t care to acknowledge.  The perfectible other, streamlined, unconfined – by gravity in the case of birds, by land in the case of whales.  Because I feel unaccepted by humans – not having a family or a close relationship, not operating technology (cars, phones etc), not being part of a community – ironically, returning to my suburban origins has allowed me to continue this. It as if the preserved back garden of a semi-detached house becomes a last resort, much as the inland sea beyond the hedges is – as though this removal can only go one way, towards another species.

Continue reading “Angel of the Ocean: An Interview with Philip Hoare”