Books: On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester ๐Ÿ“š

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.

Nicola Chester launches her book in the mist on Gallows Down

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.

On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester

Thanks for reading.

Books: Starling by Sarah Jane Butler ๐Ÿ“š

I recently finished reading Starling, a new novel by Sarah Jane Butler. I’m no reviewer of books and never feel comfortable giving books a rating, but I wanted to promote a book from a fellow Sussex Weald-resident. I really enjoyed the book, which I read while on holiday in a village much like the one portrayed in the book, which helped bring the book to life.

While I’m not necessarily sold on all the books that would come under the moniker of โ€˜eco-fictionโ€™, I like the grounding of ecosystems in this kind of fiction, and how much more you can do with that.

That said, Zoe Gilbert (who I recorded a podcast with recently) uses fantasy and folklore to take real life ecosystems and historic landscapes to all kinds of special places (I told you I’m not a literature reviewer) in Mischief Acts.

Sarah Jane Butler

Another important thing that this kind of fiction can do is put social and ecological issues firmly alongside one another – something that general nature writing often avoids. Starling explores social and ecological challenges, following an abandoned young woman (Starling) on her journey in trying to find work and settle into a new community. As you can imagine, itโ€™s not straightforward for her. I’m keen not to attempt a write-up of the story here, you should read it for yourself if it interests you.

You can buy the book in hard back or digital at the moment, with more information available on Sarah’s website.

Thanks for reading.

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New book: London in the Wild ๐Ÿฆก

It’s official, I am now ‘published’!

Along with several experts on London’s landscapes, wildlife and habitats, I contributed my own chapter to London Wildlife Trust’s London in the Wild: Exploring Nature in the City. It is now available to buy.

My chapter, as you have probably guessed is about fungi, with a focus on south-east London’s woodlands.

I attended the launch of the book along with my family at Camley Street Natural Park in mid-October. It was great to hear Kabir Kaul read his chapter about a young person’s perspective on the future of nature in London and to be in a room with so many people who care so much about London’s wild spaces.

Mathew Frith outlines the book’s place in London’s nature publications, October 2022

I’m grateful to London Wildlife Trust for reaching out to me and asking if I would like to contribute back in January 2021. Particular thanks to Laura Mason, Mathew Frith and David Mooney.

The journey to appearing in print has been a long one for me. I wrote a piece for a book a decade ago, my first paid gig as a writer. Being paid for writing is something that I have never managed to maintain, so it was a big deal. I pre-ordered the book from my local bookshop and marched in there on publication day. I picked up my copy, opened it and leafed through every page in the book.

I couldn’t find my piece.

In its place I found a generic (sorry) article about the landscape I had been asked to write about, and an illustration that looked like it had been chucked in last minute (again, sorry). That was a devastating experience for my writing career, and probably killed my confidence for years and in many ways stopped me from ever wanting to pursue writing as a career. The editors never contacted me to say it wouldn’t be included or to give any explanation. Publishers, that’s not a good way to do things.

There is something poetic about being published in the first book of an organisation that I have such fond memories of, and that gave me opportunities and a sense of trust that can be hard to come by in your working life.

You can buy London in the Wild from the big players and the indie bookshops too. I’m not sure Waterstones are doing so well with their online ordering systems at the moment so I would check that out beforehand.

Thanks for reading.

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The Sussex Weald: Autumn sunset at Cowdray Park

A new blog post series of single images, maybe, to counteract the decline of Twitter and the TikTok-isation of Instagram? This image was taken at Cowdray Park near Midhurst on Monday 14th November. It was a stunning autumn evening, with trees in shades of gold, yellow and orange all the way to the sumptuous Downs.