Another short book review to point you in the direction of a great read.
On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester is a personal account of a life lived within a frame of chalk – Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire. It’s a story of major development threats, many of which prove unstoppable. We’re talking here about the Newbury Bypass and the Greenham Common protests of the 1980s-1990s. These are issues I don’t know much about, but I do have a hint of the landscape having worked nearby on occasion. Nicola’s accounts and research are enlightening and illuminating. The anguish is real, the Newbury Bypass is something she can see or hear from Gallows Down today (below), the hill that gives her the name for the book.
Nicola Chester is clearly a gifted writer in her evocations of the Wiltshire hills the book spends much of its time in. She isn’t writing for the sake of ‘being a nature writer’ but expressing a deep need to find meaning and belonging in the place where she lives, and all the diversity of non-human life that lives and dies in the land around her family home. The details of the book remain with me in fragments like memories that I can’t sometimes differentiate from lived experience.
Personal stories intertwined with nature can often miss the mark, becoming too much a platform for a person’s story, rather than how it might relate to the landscape. But in this book, the personal story, especially at the end, is one of the most affecting things I’ve read in a long time
The story of Nicola’s loss of her father cut right through to me, having experienced something only a year ago that felt almost identical. I have to thank her for her honesty.
The book also makes clear how precarious rural life remains for many people, especially for families without property or the wealth of many rural landowners. This is a story that is rarely told, because ‘the countryside’ is sold as an idyll, a place of wealth and peace where anxieties are few. On Gallows Down will show you another world.
Nicola’s accounts of local landowners and the excruciating processes of trying to get people on side to her ecologically-minded way of thinking ring true. She goes to show how passion and love for nature, and wise diplomacy in human conflict can rival the power and authority of a landowner, despite their untouchable wealth and privilege.
This passion play can go wrong for individuals in a community setting, but Nicola comes across as a master of campaigning and negotiation, a deeply compassionate person. So much of what she says echoed things I’ve witnessed first hand in similar situations, but in different parts of southern England.
There is the sense that this is a book only one person could write, with Nicola’s experience, love and knowledge of a certain part of England. On Gallows Down will always stand up to me as a classic of English biography, landscape, place and nature writing.
Thanks for reading.