David Lack and The Life of the Robin

by Ian Tattum

Last autumn a robin briefly occupied our church. It flustered some of the parishioners, who thought it was trapped and, in its terror, would soil the church furnishings. Just one more example of the misconceptions which stick burr-like to this familiar bird, for that robin was not a prisoner but a volunteer, enticed in by the abundance of apples left over from the Harvest Festival. Once I had thrown its food source outside and flung wide all the doors it departed in an instant. My confidence in handling the wayward bird was entirely due to me having just completed David Lack’s ‘The Life of the Robin’, which described the robin’s singlemindedness in the pursuit of something to eat; indeed, its high reputation for friendliness is a delusion in the mind of the gardener, who mistakes its predatory opportunism in  harvesting the creatures exposed by  his spade for affection.

Robin - Credit Carl Bovis
Photo: Carl Bovis

The revelation that the robin’s true character doesn’t match its popular image first came to me on my twelfth birthday. My aunt Lesley, whom Bertie Wooster would have described as of the beloved variety, had given me the recently published Fontana paperback edition of Lack’s book, to encourage my dawning interest in ornithology. I can still remember its cover, of a rangy orange-breasted robin, and the scent of the paper which gave all my early literary acquisitions a distinctive aromatic autograph. On opening the book I was immediately daunted by the density of the text, and by the inclusion of diagrams! But it was the discovery of the actual character of the bird which made me recoil from the gift. This creature with appealingly large eyes and a fondness for human company turned out to be a brute. Even its song, which some have judged will give the nightingale’s a run for its money, was laced with menace. The author’s reasonable and objective tone revealed the shocking truth:

‘The most important use of song to the robin in its territory is to advertise possession to rivals and to warn them off. When an intruding robin comes close to the boundary or actually trespasses, the owner’s song becomes particularly loud, the intruder retreats at once, in this way the song saves many fights.’ – David Lack

David Lack’s The Life of the Robin, was first published in 1943 and has since appeared in a number of revised editions, culminating in the one of 2015, which was brought out to celebrate the bird being voted Britain’s National Bird, in a poll launched by David Lindo, also known as The Urban Birder. At first, I voted for the house sparrow. On its early and inevitable elimination, I transferred my allegiance to the blackbird, but knew all along that the duplicitous robin would win the laurels.

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An Extract from Helen Juke’s ‘A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings’

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings is a memoir of a novice beekeeper’s first season and her attempts to understand the strange creatures she’s invited into her city garden. It is also the story of an ancient and shifting relationship – between human and bee, keeper and wild thing. It asks: what does it mean to ‘keep’ in an uncertain world, at a time when our own ability to support and manage life has itself been pulled into question? Who are the true keepers in this relationship – who the kept?cover

The following edited extract comes near the beginning of the book. Helen has been gifted a colony of honeybees, which she will collect in the spring – she must now source a hive to put them in.

I’m at home, perched in front of my laptop. I’m supposed to be buying a hive for our garden, but I got distracted and instead I’m poring over diagrams of early hive forms. There are coil baskets, clay vessels, a skep. A bunch of reeds woven into a hat shape, plastered with dung, puckered at the entrance with handprints. Clay pots, upturned, their lips pushed flat and hard against the ground with a crack near the base for the bees to come and go from.

My housemate Becky comes into the room and peers over my shoulder at the screen. It shows a painting from Medieval Italy, a single wicker hive drawn as a cross-section. The walls are thick and smoothed like gathered skeins of golden thread; the comb inside is depicted as a series of horizontal levels like the floors in some grand building, with sculpted white pillars holding each one very neatly in place.

A Medieval wicker hive

It’s an artist’s impression, and parts of it are accurate (the dark colour of the comb is just how I remember it); but it is more human than bee. The comb wouldn’t have formed in horizontal layers like this, but vertically – and there would have been no need for pillars. Perhaps the artist split open a dead or abandoned hive and, finding a structure inside, opted to present it as a human society in miniature. Because, right up until the beginning of the Enlightenment, there were no lids – the inside of the hive was sealed from view. Early beekeeping was mostly just keeping an eye on.

Wild honeybees nest inside naturally occurring cavities, and the practice of honey-gathering – finding these spaces, which might be a hole in a cliff face, or an inner recess inside a cave – was one of the earliest human activities. Beekeeping was different. This began when hands moved inside these spaces, feeling to the edges of them. Fingers smoothing an empty tree hollow, working at it, making it bigger, filling the gaps where a raiding wasp might slip inside.

Soon these spaces became objects in themselves. They were found objects at first: a hollow log, picked up and strung from a tree branch. Cavities became containers, something people could place in relation to themselves, and the bees came closer. There are records of organised systems of apiculture that date back to Ancient Egypt. Paintings of beehives on the inside of temple walls, 4,500 years old.

They might have heralded the beginning of a new social order, but the first hives were crudely built. Twisted, smoothed and shaped from whatever materials happened to be lying around, and different across different regions. In her book Bee, Claire Preston describes how over the dry and arid areas of the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe the earliest hives were horizontal, the comb inside forming in rows along their length; whereas in the forests of Northern Europe where wild bees nested in hollow trees, the hives stood upright – as though each one took something of the landscape they were built into. It is all a long way from the modern hives for sale today, made in one place, shipped to another, and replicated over and over.

‘What’s this?’ Becky points to a piece of paper.

‘It’s a list of old words for honey.’

Milit, mez, mesi. Mit, mitsu, mi, mil, miele, mel.’

They sound good read out loud.

Preston describes how the words for honey share a single root across Indo-European languages, tracing all those parts of the world where the western honeybee Apis mellifera evolved and spread. (It’s thought that at some point languages along the Germanic branch made a split, and began to describe honey by its colour – from which came the Old Norse hunung, the Old German honang, the Old English hunig. Which is how we arrived at honey.) The words for bee are less similar; the Aryan and Germanic bai and beo are unrelated to the Greek api – maybe because for the first beekeepers the focus was the honey, and not the bees themselves.

Which reminds me – I am supposed to be choosing a hive, not wandering around through beekeeping history. I close the dozen tabs.

‘Which kind will you get?’ Becky asks.

‘I don’t know – there’s so much choice.’

I don’t get a skep. That afternoon a one-line email arrives from my beekeeper friend Luke with a web link copied and pasted. This is the one to go for. And in the end I do go for it, a top-bar hive.

opening the hive BW
Helen with a top bar-style hive (Photo by J. Pritchard)

Top-bar hives were first built in Africa, where hollowed trees were placed lengthways and used to house colonies, but nowadays they’re common all over the world and more often cut and built to shape. Under the roof is a rectangular cavity that tapers towards the bottom, with a series of removable wooden bars rested widthways along the top, from which the bees build their comb freeform. Top-bar hives are completely frameless inside. They’re cheaper than modern hives, and relatively easy to make. The website I’m looking at describes them as offering a more ‘natural approach’.

I like the idea of a natural hive, but when I think back over the early hive forms I’m not sure I could say which were the more natural ones, or where the naturalness might be said to have started or finished. That thought of framelessness is intriguing, though. I like the thought of leaving the bees to build their comb from scratch; of letting them follow their own forms. I’ve been so preoccupied with how I’ll fare without an expert on hand to guide me, I haven’t stopped to consider that I might actually be guided by the bees themselves.


by Helen Jukes

Reprinted with kind permission from Simon + Schuster

Talking Toller: an interview with Jon Woolcott

by Pippa Marland

This week we’re delighted to publish an interview between Pippa Marland of the Land Lines team and Jon Woolcott of Little Toller books, the Dorset-based pre-eminent publishers of nature writing in the UK.

PM: Can you say a little about how Little Toller began and about your ethos as publishers?

JW: Little Toller is nearly ten! It began when Adrian and Gracie Cooper moved to Dorset – the county had been Gracie’s childhood home –and, wanting to learn more, they started looking for the great classics of rural life. To their frustration many were either out or print, or not well published. Interestingly, around the same time, but entirely separately, I had moved to Dorset, and had exactly the same experience. I simply shrugged, but Adrian and Gracie, despite having no experience in publishing, decided to do something about it and began publishing these books again – with new covers from great artists and new introductions from contemporary writers – for a new generation of readers.

PM: How did you become involved and what’s your particular role?

JW: I’ve spent most of my working life in the book business – on the retail side previously, working in all sort of different places, from independent bookshops to doing marketing for Waterstones. About eight years ago I was browsing in Daunt’s in Marylebone High Street and came across a few books with wonderful covers – including Richard Mabey’s Unofficial Countryside and Edward Thomas’ The South Country. These were some of the first books that Little Toller published, and I was immediately captivated. I took a break from work in 2014 and having worked a little with Gracie in the past, I came for a coffee at the office (a converted cow byre adjoining their home),and while chatting, a job emerged. I work principally on selling our books to bookshops and doing marketing and publicity. I also help look after our blog for new writing – The Clearing. But being small, and being deliberately collaborative, means that we all do a little of everything, so inevitably this extends into editorial, or packing up books, or thinking about how we can grow, or how we can make a difference.

PM: Could you describe the Little Toller catalogue?

JW: There’s probably a set of assumptions about Little Toller and our list, some of which are spot on, and many which are not. While we started off publishing older books, and that’s still an important part of what we do, we’ve tried to find voices to respond to the current crisis in nature, and to find new ways of connecting us to landscape and the natural world. We publish our new Nature Monographs, which now number eleven, the most recent being Tim Dee’s Landfill and also features books by Adam Thorpe, Fiona Sampson, Richard Skelton, Iain Sinclair and Oliver Rackham. We also have a series, Field Notes, which tend towards the autobiographical – writers like Carol Donaldson, Horatio Clare, Dexter Petley and John Fowles. Having said all that I think we all know when we’ve found a Little Toller author or book, even if it doesn’t necessarily or immediately fit the “New Nature” genre.


PM: How did you select the texts for your ‘Nature Classics’ series – in other words, what constitutes a ‘classic’ for you? Are there any of these forthcoming? And do you have a wish-list of books you’d love to reproduce if you were given the opportunity?

JW: These are basically the books on our shelves which we think deserve a new outing and have a relevance or interest for today’s readers. Sometimes they’re simply really influential texts like The Natural History of Selborne or The Making of the English Landscape, or sometimes they’re books which will strike a chord again. I’m thinking of books like Clare Leighton’s Four Hedges, for instance. Next year we’re republishing Copsford by Walter Murray, a book about an escape from a city to a place of reflection, a reconnection with nature, albeit with hardship.

PM: What do you look for when selecting titles for your series of contemporary monographs?

JW: They often find us! This series tends to feature established writers who are keen to do something a little different from what they’re known for, like Iain Sinclair writing about the Gower, for instance. The intention was always for us to find a contemporary equivalent to the nature library, to create the classics of the future.

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Rural Reveries by Alison Skinner

During the past two months some films, books and holiday visits have enabled me to think about land and farming and the culture it generates in a deeper way.
All Among the BarleyI started with Melissa Harrison’s new fictional work All Among the Barley, which uses a young woman narrator living in a remote country area, to describe a 1930s farming year in precise agricultural detail and the impact of an urban outsider, who comes ostensibly to collect examples of folk and farming lore but has her own political agenda.  She warns about the ways in which our profound attachment to land and place can be perverted into something dark and excluding. She describes the routine encounters with wildlife around the farm – some tolerated, others persecuted, including an orphaned corncrake chick, rescued from the harvest machinery, raised by the narrator. This is an impossibly exotic pet to think of these days, now that corncrakes have all but vanished from the English countryside.  Melissa Harrison is one of our rare female nature writers, whose earlier book Rain celebrates the encounter with wet weather walking in the countryside when properly protected, but not necessarily in Storm Callum conditions! The book also has echoes of one I read earlier this year – Alison Uttley’s charming, autobiographical A Country Childhood  – which is set in a similar period, catching the memories of a traditional, but starting to change, rural upbringing.

arcadia.jpgA possible sound track to this book is the documentary Arcadia, currently doing the rounds in Art Cinemas. This is a swirling mash-up of documentary and film clips about British country life and customs from the 1900s to 1970s, in which a procession of maypole dancers, Stonehaven fire festival dancers, sword dancers, cheese rollers, village footballers, May Queens, ploughmen, harvesters, Druids, Winstanley’s Diggers, huntsmen, hounds, naturists, hippies and music festival fans celebrate living in the countryside and maintaining its traditions, both exotic and incomprehensible. Someone with a 70 year old’s perspective and a strong interest in folk lore and folk music will pick up most of the references – others will be baffled, and I certainly watched the film with very few other people present. Its eerie sound track is contributed to by a variety of indie bands and the 1960s traditional folk singer Anne Briggs, whose strong unaccompanied voice delves deeper back in time to find her songs. The archive clips of Maud Karpeles folk dancing in her gym slip and George Butterworth morris dancing in full kit make the link between the early song collectors and the 1960s folk revivalists who sought the songs and dances out in libraries and recreated them on vinyl and CD. It shows how so many people have acted out their visions of engagement with the countryside, ranging from political land reform, country sports and pastimes to pagan rituals.

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Adequacy is for archangels: an interview with Tim Robinson

Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, the first volume of Tim Robinson’s comprehensive account of Árainn, the largest of the Irish Aran Islands, was first published in 1985, followed in 1995 by Stones of Aran: Labyrinth. It was not, however, till the reprinting of the volumes in 2008 and 2009 respectively that the books really began to gain traction, establishing Tim’s reputation as one of the greatest living chroniclers of landscape. His more recent oeuvre includes several books about Connemara, also in the west of Ireland. Now ten years on from the re-issue of Pilgrimage we are pleased to feature on the blog a previously unpublished interview with Tim, carried out via email in May 2014 by Land Lines research team member Pippa Marland.

Adequacy is for archangels: an interview with Tim Robinson

PM: You and your wife ‘M’ left London in 1972 to settle on the largest of the Irish Aran islands, which became your home for the next twelve years – can you explain a bit about why you left the metropolis, and what it was about Árainn that so attracted you?

TR: Believing that art is the opposite of money, disconcerted by the turbulent attraction of opposites, I felt adrift in the rapacious London art world, and my art withdrew into privacy and near-invisibility. Then landlord/tenant troubles arose. One day I returned from the search for an alternative to our pleasant West-Hampstead flat, and announced, ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in tedious comfort.’ We took off to Aran, thinking to stay for a month or two while we reinvented our future; but then the islands hi-jacked me, and I spent most of the next twelve years there. It was to say the least an odd thing for us to do, in the middle of life’s road.

PM: One of the main motifs of the Aran diptych is the idea of the ‘good step’ – an ideal integration of self and world, which you symbolise beautifully as “taking a single step as adequate to the ground it clears as is the dolphin’s arc to its wave”. Can you say a little more about what constitutes adequacy in this context?

TR: Adequacy is for archangels; for the rest of us it is a delusion only dispelled by exhausting oneself in its pursuit. I wore the network of tender little fields and bleak rocky shores of Aran into my skin until I could have printed off a map of them by rolling on a sheet of paper, but I was always aware of the infinity of ways in which the place exceeded my knowledge of it. Never mind! – the attempt at comprehensiveness supplied the fodder for three editions, ever more detailed, of my map of the islands, and the two-volume study, Stones of  Aran.

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Along the River Exe: A Photo Essay by Andy Thatcher

Later this month the Land Lines / Being Human Festival community walks will be taking place at Lamplighter’s Marsh in Bristol, where the M5 crosses the River Avon as it meets the Severn Estuary. Ahead of these events we are delighted to publish a photo essay by film maker and photographer Andy Thatcher, focused on another of the M5 bridges, this time over the River Exe in Devon. The images are accompanied by Andy’s meditation in words on the entanglements of the human and natural in this edgeland site.

Andy will be the official photographer for the final Lamplighter’s Marsh walk. You can find out more about the events here:

You can also find more of Andy’s stunning photography on Instagram.

Andy’s commissioned documentary short film, Walks of Life, premieres during Two Short Nights at Exeter Phoenix on November 30th.

Andy Tatcham 1

The M5 crosses the tidal River Exe at Exminster Marshes. This is a little over a mile before it ends at Junction 31 – or begins, depending on how you look at it – 170 miles from its other terminus at West Bromwich. Whether of beginnings or endings, it’s a grand gesture, especially when the sun rises or sets, and the concrete piles, piers and roadways add their own interpretation of whatever the sky happens to be doing.


The eight lanes of commuters, caravaners, Eddie Stobart drivers, boy racers, hay carriers, touring bikers and National Express passengers aren’t the only traffic. Passing beneath are kayakers, paddle-boarders, ramblers, runners, dog-walkers, salmon, eels, egrets, black-headed gulls, swans – and the River Exe itself. The bridge has its loiterers, too. Workmen dangling in their harnesses from the underside carry out continual repairs. Cattle summer there, before lorries ship them away in advance of winter floods. Kingfishers and herons perch, though whether waiting for fish, or simply just waiting, I’ve asked neither them  nor the anglers with their green outfits and iPhones. Dirt bike tracks and a graffiti gallery clustered around the Westernmost piles are traces of nocturnal lingering. What the seals are up to, God only knows. And then there’s me.


I’ve been running this way for years, but it’s only been this year that I’ve been out with my camera, thanks in no small part to my Sony A7iii’s generous low light capacity. I’ve been fine-tuning my photography in 2018, spurred on by a couple of appearances in The Guardian, and looking for a focus. The M5 bridge has it all: grandeur, history, geometry, a place to explore the weather and plant-life as they run through their annual performance. Its beauty shrugs aside the pretty, and in spite of the vastness of this collonaded structure, it affords a solitude ideal for striking up an intense, almost obsessive artistic connection.


There are fifteen or so spots where you can frame a really good shot juxtaposing bridge, canal and river banks, and surrounding fields, marshes, pylons and trees, and I’d thought I’d be done after a few visits at different times of day. However, having repeatedly returned, sometimes on consecutive days, a limitless interplay of shifting variables has emerged, especially when the sun shines. The bridge is a structure of great textural and geometric complexity: depending on the sun’s position in the sky – changing throughout each day and each year – its many surfaces pick up sunlight and cast shadow differently to create continually evolving shapes and patterns. Watch the bridge when there’s scattered cloud, and the piles will also light up and dim in random succession.


The water adds another variable. A windless day turns the canal into a mirror, as does high or low tide on the Exe. Sunlight bouncing off the water throws oak shadows onto the undercarriage, 60s light show patterns if the surface is disturbed by idling swans or ferocious canoeists. And that’s even without considering the life around the bridge – the changing textures of the reeds, trees and wildflowers, the pink, yellow, green, blue, red cyclists, the flocks of pigeons.


These photos form part of a long-term investigation of a strip of edgelands which stretch along the Exeter Shipping Canal from the city centre’s quay to the open estuary at Turf Locks. It’s also part of my research into edgelands for a Masters in Film and TV at the University of Bristol. The strip is abundant in unconventional beauty, unexpected encounters with the non-human world, and hints of stories worth telling. I might often escape to Devon’s open moorland and cliff paths, its wooded rivers, rocky bays, green lanes and farmland, but it’s here I encounter my world, my era, in all its contradictions and complexities. This being so, I’m looking forward with great enthusiasm to joining Land Lines and the Being Human Festival on the Landfill and Lichens walk at Lamplighter’s Marsh, where Bristol’s M5 bridge crosses the Avon.


All photos by Andy Thatcher

Mary Anning: A Short Biography by Ian Tattum

by Ian Tattum

Mary Anning certainly did not sell sea shells on the sea shore, she sold snakestones (ammonites), verteberries (sections of petrified back bone) and eventually entire skeletons of primordial creatures, initially as a means to scraping a living and later as a scientific enterprise.

The false association between the pioneer fossil hunter from Lyme Regis and the famous tongue twister is an example of how Mary Anning’s achievement has often been diminished. There was nothing whimsical about a working-class woman who was only a child when she unearthed the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton, and who spent the rest of her life guiding and advising the men who turned geology and palaeontology into established academic subjects.

Mary Anning was born in Lyme in 1799. She was named after a sibling who had died tragically in a fire just five months earlier. Her father Richard was a cabinet maker, who subsidised his meagre income by collecting ‘curiosities’ from the fragile local cliffs and selling them to the visitors drawn to the newly fashionable spa town. Mary’s mother Molly was level headed and practical, and was to be a pillar in her life up until her death in 1842, just 5 years before Mary’s own.

Mary Anning (Credited to ‘Mr. Grey’ in Crispin Tickell’s book ‘Mary Anning of Lyme Regis’ (1996)


Molly thought that Richard’s passion for collecting ‘curiosities’ was a distraction from his true trade and appallingly dangerous – as it was, being best done immediately after heavy rain when there was a great chance of further landslips. A fall on one of his expeditions probably contributed to his early death in 1810.

Immediately this dangerous hobby became a vital source of income to a family in dire financial straits, as visitors were willing to pay handsomely for the strange items that the Anning children were able to find. At that time, the objects they sold were chiefly valued for their reputed magical properties and their mysterious nature, but Mary was to witness and help to further a transformation in understanding about what they were and what they revealed about the distant past.

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