Spring 2023 blog update


I wanted to do a blog update post as I have fallen behind with writing and photography, but am still in existence. Believe me it pains me not having the time or mental space to write anything, possibly more than it pains you to read this blog.

I’ve just finished working on a short-term project job and it’s been pretty full on. I’m hopeful that in April I’ll be able to post more, especially with the invertebrate world coming to life again. I’m also about to embark on a new project job, full-time, meaning I will have to be more organised about how I post on here. As ever I want to keep my blog as an outlet.

Hairy footed flower bee rescued from the road

Spring, it cometh

There have been a couple of signs of spring awakening in my garden, with a hairy-footed flower bee my most seasonal sighting. That said, I have only seen one, which is perhaps unusual for this time of year.

It’s late March now and the local green spaces have their chiffchaffs back.

In mid-March I led a spring walk in Dulwich for London Wildlife Trust. It was rather wet but there were still signs of the season changing.

Lesser celandines were the closest thing to a flowering plant I could find, but ramsons, bluebells and wood anemone were in leaf. That said, wood anemone appears to be a casualty of lockdown, in that the increased footfall has trampled this delicate ancient woodland plant out.

In terms of the more distant past, I spoke to the group about the Victorian impact on the woods, how invasive species like knotweed, laurel and rhododendron had been introduced by them. At the end of the walk one attendee spoke to me and told me something that astonished me.

“My family, back in the 1700s, were responsible for introducing rhododendrons to the country,” he said. “It’s in the bones.”

I was aware of the fact that my throwaway comment about Victorian introductions might have potentially been an insult. I explained that it was more in regard to their place in wilder landscapes which he agreed with, mentioning just how destructive they are in more rainy places like Scotland. 

I’ve said before on here that one of the great things about leading guided walks is that people feel comfortable sharing their knowledge with you. Guided walks are always a shared experience, not a lecture. They’re an invitation for people to look differently at a place and make others aware of things you didn’t know yourself.

I’ll have to be more careful in my (mild) criticism of the role Britons past have played in changing the flora, fauna and funga of the UK.

A worrying extract from The Gallows Pole

The Gallows Pole

I’ve been reading the novels of Benjamin Myers recently, an author of poetry, fiction and place writing based in Yorkshire. While on a weekend break I read The Offing and gobbled it up. It’s the story of a young man walking in the north of England one summer after the Second World War. He becomes friends with a very charismatic woman who takes him under her wing, in the way that people in their 30s upwards can often do for young people at the end of their teenage years. It’s a beautiful book and much recommended.

I’ve just finished the very brutal The Gallows Pole. The story is based in ‘the land of my forefathers’, the Calder Valley near Hebden Bridge in North Yorkshire. It’s a visceral, violent and disturbing novel but is one of the best I’ve read in years. It has that ‘unputdownable’ quality. More disturbing for me is the number of Greenwoods who crop up as part of the illegal coin clipping industry that blossomed in the rainy hills of Calderdale. Not least, a Daniel Greenwood! And it’s historical fiction! My family were hillfarmers there up until some point in the 1800s, living in the area around Haworth at the time of the Brontรซs, before moving to Liverpool where my father was born. Greenwood is a Yorkshire name with heavy concentrations around Lancashire, too, probably because they moved to work in the cotton industries at the advent of the Industrial Revolution. My Dad told me that Greenwood comes from a wooded place known as ‘Greenwode’. ‘Wode’ of course is the Anglo-Saxon name for woodland.

The Lost Rainforests of Britain

In the nature writing world, in February I read The Lost Rainforests of Britain by Guy Shrubshole. It’s great to see these woodlands getting some press, especially seeing as they have been decimated over the centuries, with very little of the the habitat left. Shrubshole shows the way for how much of the landscape in Western Britain can be home to more of this unique habitat. I hope it can progress but worry that in a warming climate it becomes less viable.

I felt the book might have benefitted more from a deeper focus on the landscape at its heart – Dartmoor, close to where Shrubshole lives. The random trips to tick off other woods felt a bit of a distraction from a more meaningful account, such is the style of this type of species or habitat-focused genre. In terms of personal taste, the name-dropping of other writers and musicians has become a tedious pastime of this genre and makes it seem like a clique. I don’t think that helps the movement, though again it’s probably about personal taste.

It’s definitely worth a read if you want to know more about things like Atlantic oak woodland and the habitats and landscape history of Dartmoor.

Thanks for reading.

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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A spring epistrophe? ๐Ÿ

Another week of some sun, some showers, and some temperatures that got close to freezing. That sentence may turn out to be a spring epistrophe, but more of that later. In Scotland it reached as low as -5C. April 2023 has been a mishmash of seasons. Here’s what I encountered in my garden on 22ndโ€ฆ

Is this England’s national mushroom? ๐Ÿ„

On a recent visit to the National Trust’s Nymans Gardens I spotted some big, cream-coloured things in the lawns near the car park. No, these were not scones or cream cakes, or even pasties discarded by visitors.

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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What this hoverfly doesnโ€™t know ๐Ÿ

On Sunday 16th April my garden thermometer (kept in the shade, don’t worry) read 16C, and the garden was alive. Here’s what I found in the space of about half an hour.

Bogshrooms, and a life lived wild and free ๐Ÿ„๐Ÿ

I went for an evening walk down the old trackway to the foot of the mountain. The track was flooded, meaning that without wellies I had to find tussocks and rocks to move further. Where the track turned, I noticed a ram of some kind grazing up ahead. After a time, I realised it wasโ€ฆ