Category Archives: Book Reviews

Thoughts on Oaks

Dear Readers, ‘The Trees that Made Britain – An Evergreen History’ by Archie Miles  was apparently made into a television series in 2006 and I can see why – it’s full to bursting with interesting facts about our native trees. I’m sorry I missed the programmes, but there’s something rather nice about reading at your own pace without being overwhelmed by images or (increasingly) overblown background music. There is a new TV series featuring David Attenborough called ‘The Mating Game’, where the music is so overwhelming that it’s difficult to concentrate. How I hate it when the music is designed to tell you what to feel – I blame Steven Spielberg meself.

But I digress, as usual.

I will be reading this book for a while, so today here are a few facts about that most English of trees, the Oak. Except that there are two species, the Pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur) and the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea). Now, one of these species has short stems on the leaves and long stems on the acorns, and the other species has long stems on the leaves and short stems on the acorns. And do you think I can remember which is which? Well, now I will, because a peduncle is a long stem, and sessile comes from the Latin sessilis, meaning ‘low of sitting’, which is not too far from ‘no stem’ in my mind. All I need to remember now is that both terms relate to the acorns and I’ll be in business for once.

Then, Miles discusses Lammas growth, which I had never heard of. Apparently, oaks often throw a new flush of growth around 1st August (Lammas Day), to replace the leaves that were lost to insect infestations earlier in the year. As Miles puts it:

During this time the tree will bear two distinct sets of leaves, the older foliage having matured to a dark green, contrasting with the bright green (or in some cases slightly reddish) colour of the new.”

Has anyone else noticed this? Something to look out for in years to come, I think.

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Lammas growth on a Pedunculate Oak (Photo One)

Miles also talks about ‘stag-headed oaks’, where the canopy on older trees has receded, leaving dead branches sticking out through the live growth. I’ve always thought of this as a bad sign, but Miles points out that it’s a way for the tree to preserve its strength – a smaller canopy needs a much smaller root system, so it’s less ‘expensive’ for the tree to maintain. I suspect that it also reduces the tree’s exposure to the extremes of wind and weather that younger trees are maybe more able to resist.

Photo Two by Kate Jewell / Stag-headed oak, Croxton Park

Stag-headed Oak in Croxton Park (Photo Two)

In his section on ‘The Useful Oak’, Miles talks about the role of the oak in shipbuilding. Until the second half of the nineteenth century when iron hulls were introduced, wood and especially oak was the principal material used for the creation of ships. Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, took the timber of 6000 trees, 90% of which was oak, with elm for the keel and fir, pine and spruce for the masts and yards. The ship cost £63,176 to build, the equivalent of building an aircraft carrier today.

Interestingly, though, Miles points out that the most valuable commodity ever extracted from oakwoods was not the timber, but the bark. Huge quantities were used in the tanning industry from 1780 to the mid nineteenth century, with coppiced oakwoods being managed on rotation to satisfy the demand for the commodity. Miles describes the process:

“In the spring, when the sap was rising, great gangs of men and women would head into the woods, the men to cut and carry, the women to strip the bark with distinctive spoon-bladed knives called barking irons or peeling irons”.

There is a fascinating article here about the Dartmoor ‘rippers’, the people who stripped the bark in the oakwoods of the area. This was a massive industry: an average tannery could get through a ton of bark in a week. Who knew? Not me, for sure.

And finally, Miles considers the myths and legends that surround the oak tree. Oaks that bore mistletoe were sacred to the Druids, and the mistletoe retained its mystical healing powers provided it was never dropped – its magic came from its never having touched the ground. Felling a mistletoe oak was considered a terrible deed, one that would bring disaster to all those involved. It’s a great shame that we haven’t retained such a sense of the importance of trees.

Many churches contain carvings of oak leaves and acorns, and as with so many things, these symbols provide a link to the pagan past. Acorns were thought to provide protection against lightning strikes, which is why you’ll often find them carved on stair banisters or as toggles for pulling blinds. People used to carry acorns in their pockets, not just to prevent themselves from being electrified unexpectedly but also because the acorn was thought to confer good health and fertility. It’s probably no wonder that the Green Man, another pagan figure who sometimes crops up as a sculpture in old churches, is often crowned with oak leaves.

Photo Three from

Green man in Westminster Abbey (Photo Three)

And so I learned a lot about oaks from this wonderful book. The next chapter is on Ash, so let’s see what comes out of my study of that fine tree.

Photo Credits

Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Kate Jewell / Stag-headed oak, Croxton Park

Photo Three from

Book Review – ‘Where Poppies Blow’ by John Lewis-Stempel

Dear Readers, it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a book as much as I have this one. Lewis-Stempel ranges across everything from the way that the British love of nature inspired so many of the soldiers involved in World War I to the origins of the word ‘chat’ (of which more later) to the uses and abuses of animals , both wild and domesticated, during this conflict. I learned so many things that I didn’t know, and I’m pretty sure there’s something to make even the most ardent military historian wrinkle their forehead.

I started to read the book thinking that it would surely have been the officers from the shires and the soldiers from the villages who would be most enamoured of the fields and woods of home, but interestingly it seems that even Tommies from the cities felt a deep nostalgia for the countryside – Lewis-Stempel quotes many of them, and points out that the city dwellers of this generation often spent their holidays picking fruit or hops. There seems to have been a more or less universal longing for the fields of home which was wrapped up in the terrible home-sickness and trauma that many of these young men experienced. And when they were on the Western Front, the croaking of frogs from the shell-holes, the larks who ascended as soon as the guns fell silent, the song of a nightingale all assumed a kind of spiritual importance, a reminder of what was being fought for. It also seemed to jolt men out of their anxiety and trepidation, if just for a moment. Private Stephen Graham recalled:

I had been sent to a neighbouring headquarters with a message, and at noon I sat for a while beside a high hawthorn on a daisy-covered bank. The war ceased to exist; only beauty was infinitely high and broad above and infinitely deep within. Birds again sang in the heavens and in the heart after a long sad silence, as it seemed”

However, it wasn’t just the wild animals that gave solace during World War I, but the domesticated ones too. Cages of canaries were placed in ambulances, to lift the spirits of the wounded, although as these little birds were more susceptible to gas-poisoning than humans they often didn’t last for very long.  Stempel-Lewis has a whole chapter on the horses that were requisitioned for the war, and the relationships that were formed between them and the men who looked after them. Some men would risk their lives to be with their animals, as in the excerpt below:

I was riding when one of the troop’s horses was badly hit by MG (machine gun) fire. Horse and rider crashed down in front of me. The horse lay on its side and the trooper, unhurt, had rolled clear. Kicking one foot off the stirrups I ordered the trooper to mount behind me. Instead, he crawled towards his horse which raised its head and was looking at him. He reached the horse, gently lifted its head on to his knee, and stayed put. I again ordered him to mount and drew my pistol, saying I would shoot the animal. He said nothing, just looked up at me, then down to the horse and continued to stroke its head. From the look in the horse’s eyes, I think it knew it was the end, and I also think it understood that its master was trying to give it what comfort he could. I didn’t shoot. Bullets were still smacking around me, and the squadron was almost out of sight. I said something to the effect of ‘Well, it’s your funeral’ and trotted to regain my place. The trooper caught up with the squadron later; he had stayed with the horse until it died. By all laws of averages, he should have stopped one too.

But not all animals were as well-loved. The trenches were running with vermin, in particular rats, flies and body lice. The latter were known as ‘chats’, derived either from chattel (something carried about) or from the Hindi word ‘chatt’, meaning a parasite. Men would spend hours between battles picking the lice off of one another’s bodies, and this came to be known as ‘chatting’, something to remember next time you meet a neighbour for a ‘chat’.

Lewis-Stempel also describes how gardens were made in the grounds of abandoned houses, in prisoner of war camps and even in the trenches themselves, with spent Howitzer shells being used as flower pots and celery being grown in the dark spots at the very bottom. At the Ruhleben Interment Camp in Germany, the British prisoners asked for (and got) affiliation with the Royal Horticultural Society in England, and were able to hold their own fruit and produce shows. When the blockade of Germany started to really hit food availability, the prisoners dug out a vegetable garden which eventually grew 33,000 lettuces and 18,000 bunches of radishes. Lewis-Stempel remarks that ‘the diet inside the perimeter fence was in all respects superior to that outside it’. Seeds had been provided following an RHS appeal to British nurseries, and the seeds were forwarded inside Red Cross parcels. It seems that, whatever the circumstances, gardening was both a solace and a way of keeping body and soul together.

Perhaps the part of the book that gave me most pause, though, was Lewis-Stempel’s point that although the trenches and the destruction of the First World War were eventually largely healed by nature’s propensity to grow back (though you might want to be careful digging up a field on the Western Front even now – farmers regularly uncover live munitions), the country that was so beloved by those who fought was already in the process of despoliation that has continued to this day. 450,000 acres of woodland were destroyed to provide timber for the war effort. Ancient pastureland and water meadows were ploughed up to provide land for growing crops – by 1917, the U Boat campaign had reduced the country’s food stores to less than 6 weeks. After the war, the lack of manpower for agricultural labour led to increased mechanisation. The National Trust and the Council for the Protection of Rural England were both formed after the war, on the basis that this ‘fair land’ was what the soldiers had been fighting for. And certainly, for many of those who had suffered during the First World War, there was a sense of gratitude towards nature. Here is a final quote, from Captain Carlos Paton Blacker, who wrote a memoir of his wartime experiences called ‘Have you Forgotten Yet?’

I became aware of a sense of awe and gratitude to the trees, to the forest, but above all to the rooks. The feeling of gratitude to the rooks has often come back since. Indeed it comes back every time I hear these birds contentedly calling to each other round their rookeries in spring. It comes back now as I type these lines“.

I highly recommend this book, as you might have guessed.


A Reading Challenge!

Dear Readers, you might remember that during the 2020 lockdown I set myself the task of reading the shortlisted books for the Wainwright Nature Writing Prize. I succeeded, and was introduced to some new writers and some that I was familiar with. All in all, it was a lot of fun, and it set me to wondering about what exactly ‘nature-writing’ was. This year I’m aiming to read the whole longlist, so if anyone wants to join in on any of the books that would be great!

First up is Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald. I loved ‘H is for Hawk’, and I’ve also been very impressed by Macdonald’s TV programmes – she did one which was about the impact of motorways on the countryside which was full of interesting things, and an earlier programme where she traced the route of the River Tay. What I love is that her nature-writing isn’t just about her: she gets that balance between introspection and the natural world’s independent existence just right. I am part way through the book and it is full of underlining, which is always a good sign! I shall hopefully be able to review it next week.

Next up is ‘Into the Tangled Bank’ by Lev Parikian. I’ve actually read this already, and remember laughing out loud at some parts. Nature-writing can be very serious sometimes, so this felt like an alternative way of looking at the world. I am looking forward to a revisit.

‘Birdsong in a Time of Silence’ by Stephen Lovatt is a reflection on what birdsong meant to the author, and to us,  during the lockdown. I remember waking early and trying to pick out the different songs, so I am looking forward to reading the author’s thoughts. The illustrations look lovely too.

‘English Pastoral’ by James Rebanks won the Sunday Times Nature Book of the Year. Rebanks is a farmer, and this is the story of his family farm in the Lake District over three generations. His previous book, ‘The Shepherd’s Life’, was also a prize-winner. I think that the author’s experience will bring depth and understanding to this book, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

‘Featherhood’ by Charlie Gilmour sounds like a combination of memoir and nature-writing, and, as it involves a magpie it has that all-important corvid factor! I am reserving judgement on this one: I am a little allergic to stories in which everything is subjugated to the lessons that we can learn from nature (see my review of ‘My Octopus Teacher‘ for example), but I could be completely wrong, and am prepared to admit it!

I’m looking forward to ‘I Belong Here’ by Anita Sethi because it will provide a completely different view of what it’s like to travel around the UK. As a woman I already know that travel can bring problems that a man wouldn’t experience, so add to that the visibility of being a woman of colour and I am prepared to contemplate all kinds of perspectives that wouldn’t have occurred to me.

‘Seed to Dust’ by Marc Hamer is about a year in the garden, but what an interesting writer he is – he had a period of homelessness, has taught creative writing in prison, has worked in graphic design, studied fine art. The extract that I read is full of new-minted metaphors and a quirky sense of humour.

Stephen Moss is a very well-established nature-writer and broadcaster, and I am looking forward to this latest book, which shares a theme of ‘wildlife in lockdown’ with Stephen Lovatt’s book.

I really enjoyed Neil Ansell’s last book ‘The Last Wilderness’, in which he documents his failing hearing, and the way that the birdsong that has been so familiar all his life is gradually fading. I am looking forward to this account of the New Forest, one of the places that I explored when I was young and foolish and a student at Southampton University.

Charles Foster is a most interesting author – his previous book ‘Being a Beast’ was an account of his attempts to live as a badger, an urban fox and an otter. In this book, about swifts, he takes a view of the particularity of the life of the bird and compares it to his own generic experience. Reading the extract it’s clear that he can certainly write! I think this one might stand out from the crowd.

Can I just start by saying that I love Melissa Harrison’s work? I am looking forward to this book, which moves from the urban verges of London to Harrison’s new home in Suffolk. She always has something new to say.

You might remember Raynor Winn from her book ‘The Salt Road’, which told how, homeless and with an ill husband, she takes to the road to walk the south-west coastal path. In this new book, she once again has a ‘home’, but the book is a meditation on what that actually means. I look forward to catching up with her story.

And finally, Kerri ní Dochartaigh writes about growing up during the Troubles in Derry with one Catholic and one Protestant parent, and how nature kept her sane, and helped her heal. I am looking forward again to getting a different perspective on what nature, and the land, can mean.

Just looking at the dates, it’s clear that I won’t be able to read all of these before the shortlist is announced on 4th August, but I shall get started and see where we get to. After 4th August I shall prioritise the short-listed books, but I hope to get back to the rest of them too. Let me know if you’ve already read any of these, and let’s see how we get on!

Book Review – Much Ado About Mothing by James Lowen

Dear Readers, anyone who has ever had access to a moth trap knows the mixture of apprehension and excitement that comes with peering into it early in the morning. Sometimes there are all sorts of jewelled wonders sitting in the egg-trays that you’ve put inside for their comfort. On other occasions, you have a variety of worn, brown creatures that are almost impossible for a novice to identify. But that’s all part of the fun. Will you spot some unusual migrant, or a stunning hawk moth, or a buff-tip that looks for all the world like a broken twig?

Photo One nick goodrum from Catfield in Norfolk, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Buff tip moth (Phalera bucephala) (Photo One)

My mothy adventures have been limited to my back garden (so far), but James Lowen is on a mission to convert those of us who still think of moths as being the drab relatives of those pretty day-flying butterflies. Personally, I love a quest – I’m thinking about Peter Marren’s wonderful book about finding the rare wildflowers of Britain. Lowen’s quest is a bit looser than Marrens’ but he still manages to travel the length and breadth of Britain in his search for rare and unusual moths -he encounters a man who breeds Death’s Head Hawkmoths at home, longhorn moths that ‘lek’ (perform a mating dance to attract females), moths that were thought to be extinct, moths that are just starting to appear in the UK from mainland Europe, and moths that look like other insects.

Currant Clearwing (Synanthedon tipuliformis) (Photo Two)

Not content with the bigger moths, Lowen takes a shine to micromoths as well. How I love an enthusiast! Even the moths that he admits aren’t particularly brightly coloured or ‘interesting’ are memorably described:

‘Granted, Marsh Moth is never destined to be a pin-up, its hues a greyer beige than a wainscot. Jagged lines across its wings track the share price of a particularly volatile stock. Subtle and understated, it is a moth-er’s moth.’

Photo Three Ilia Ustyantsev from Russia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Marsh moth (Athetis pallustris) (Photo Three)

Lowen describes the highs and lows of being a moth fanatic with great accuracy. The nights sitting in the cold and rain, the stomping up and down hill with heavy equipment, the ones that got away, the ones that turned up without any warning. A friend points him in the direction of a Clifden Nonpareil, the UK’s largest moth, under a strip light at Brockenhurst railway station.

Photo Four By Harald Süpfle - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Clifden Nonpareil (Catocala fraxini) (Photo Four)

He describes the etiquette of moth-ing – can you count a moth that flew into someone else’s trap, for example, even if you saw it first? If a friend catches a rare moth and holds onto it until you can arrive to see it, does that count? Ethical dilemmas abound. All moths caught are released into a safe spot, and the scientific information collected by monitoring numbers is invaluable, but Lowen is clearly a man who wants to do no harm.

This book has really made me want to get the moth trap out to see what’s happening in my garden, and to do some recording – the picture is changing so rapidly with climate change, and moths are an interesting early indicator of what is happening already, and what might happen in the future. Lowen wears his extensive knowledge lightly, and I learnt so much about this fascinating group of insects. Highly recommended.

You can buy the book here.


Book Review – Around the World in 80 Plants by Jonathan Drori, Illustrated by Lucille Clerc

Dear Readers, this book is such a pleasure for the eye and for the brain that if I could I would buy you all a copy! Jonathan Drori was a Trustee on the board of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and was Executive Producer of more than fifty science documentaries. He’s currently a Trustee at the Eden Project. His wide-ranging interests have seen him be a fellow of the Linnean Society, the Zoological Society of London and the Royal Geographical Society. From all of this you might expect that this book would be heavy on information, but Drori knows how to keep the reader entertained at the same time as they are educated.

A good part of the pleasure of this book is the illustrations by Lucille Clerc, who has worked with fashion houses, museums and Historic Royal Palaces. The drawings are not straightforward botanical impressions, but also show the plant in its context, sometimes alongside the people and animals who have made use of it. There is much fun to be had from reading part of the text, and then studying the illustration to see if you can spot the bug.

Take this illustration of the indigo plant from Bangladesh. I had no idea that it was a member of the pea family, but this is clear from the pictures of the flower. Drori explains how the leaves are fermented, then dried and cut into briquettes, as you can see. The briquettes are then powdered and added to water, along with an alkali that turns the water colourless. As he says,

‘It is only once the cloth is withdrawn from the vat and the air reaches it that – ta-da! – stunning, intense colour reappears’.

Who knew? Not me for sure.


And how about the rhododendron, and why is it included in an entry for Scotland? Well, largely because Rhododendron pontica was planted in the estates of landowners on the West Coast, both as a decorative plant and as cover for game birds. Tolerant of shade and acidic soils, it spread inexorably. Over to Drori:

A vast area of western Scotland is now colonized, with a profound effect on native biodiversity: where rhododendrons are present, almost every other species of plant is at risk. In their native range and without the helping hand of humans, rhododendrons play nicely in the ecosystem, but in Britain and Ireland they out-compete local species for light and nutrients. There’s worse. Rhododendrons also harbour Phytophthora ramorum( phytophora is Greek for ‘plant-destroyer), a microscopic fungus-like water mould that attacks trees, especially larches, beeches and sweet chestnuts’. 

You might also recall that the honey of the rhododendron is sometimes called ‘Mad Honey’, and was reputedly left by the Persian king Mithridates for the Roman army who was pursuing him to find – the honey can lower the blood pressure dangerously and slow the heart. Drori again:

‘Mad Honey’ is still collected in the Black Sea area and used occasionally as a pick-me-up or recreational drug to induce a tingling wooziness. It also has a reputation for enhancing sexual performance, which doubtless explains why most of the inadvertent poisonings are among men of a certain age‘.

And for a final taster, how about this strange tree, known as the Cook Pine? In California they all tilt to the south quite dramatically (Drori explains that they average twice the tilt of the Tower of Pisa, which is quite some lean. In Hawaii they stand up relatively straight, but in Australia they lean precariously towards the north. Wherever they are in the world, Cook Pines lean towards the equator, and they are the only tree species in the world that’s been observed to do this. Most plants, as we know, grow towards the light, but this tree doesn’t, and no one knows why.

Cook Pine

If I have whetted your appetite, you might also like Drori and Clerc’s earlier book, ‘Around the World in 80 Trees’. It’s just as delightful, though the colours are generally a little more subdued.

If you wanted to find out about everything from the Kapok tree to the Chinese Lacquer tree, this is the book for you.

Chinese Lacquer Tree

So, as you can see I am very taken with these two books. If you are lucky enough to have a local library that’s still lending, it might be a way to have a look without shelling out nearly £18 for each one. Or maybe you have a birthday coming up?

If you fancy buying them (or sending the link to a beloved 🙂 ) I recommend the NHBS website for all things natural history related…

Book Review – ‘Minding the Garden – Lilactree Farm’ by Brian Bixley

Dear Readers, this book has a number of my very favourite features. It’s divided into 125 sections mapping a composite gardening year, and I do love a book that serves up bite-sized pieces of daily life. Secondly, it is intensely personal, dealing as it does with the development of a garden in Ontario, Canada over many years. Thirdly it has introduced me to many plants that I had never considered for my own tiny garden – I found myself considering small-flowered clematis to twine through my hedge, and was intrigued by the illustrations of a lesser celandine cultivar that I’d never come across in the UK. But finally what I loved most was the connections that Brian Bixley makes between the arts and the creation of a garden. It made me consider all kinds of things that I hadn’t thought about before.

But first, to the gardening itself. When I first visited my husband’s aunts in Ontario, I remember thinking that it must be hard to grow plants in such a climate, with freezing conditions for a big chunk of the year, blazing sun for another chunk and hail, wind, ice storms, drought and flood all possible for the rest of the time. Bixley likes to live on the edge and to coax all manner of plants into surviving in what might be considered borderline conditions. This is a source of both joy and despair. Like gardeners the world over, Bixley listens to the weather forecast, often with a sense of impending doom:

What kind of weirdo gets out of bed, goes to the window, pulls up the blind to see the first rays of sunlight slicing through the morning mists as they rise from the green valley below and says, “Darn it, it’s going to be relentlessly sunny today”? Or as he watched the serene Jane gazing into the teleprompter and reading, “No precipitation to worry about,” shrieks in despair?

I love that Bixley has a list of tasks that ‘absolutely must be done today’, even if they aren’t always accomplished. I enjoyed the story of him pruning the hedge, which involves all manner of tools, ladders and other accoutrements, standing back in satisfaction, putting everything away for another year and then remembering that he has some more plants to prune. That sense of the constant labour of a garden, especially an extensive one like Lilactree Farm, is I’m sure familiar to those of us with much smaller plots as we steel ourselves for another bout of hard physical work, especially as we get older. But the rewards! He grows some foxgloves from seed, as I am doing this year.

“I‘m not sure if we have grown anything quite as beautiful for a long time. They are what they essentially should be: tall, majestic, flowers opening creamily, gradually becoming a pure white. I have cut away branches from some of the surrounding shrubs so that it is possible to see the foxgloves from a distance, pale fire in the heart of darkness“.

I love that sense that a plant is ‘essentially what it should be’ – that seems to me to sum up the quintessence of gardening. When a plant is thriving happily in the perfect spot and has reached that moment when it is in full flower, before it starts to fade, I always feel my heart lift, all the more so if there is a drowsy drone of bees popping by for some nectar. The happiness is worth all the back ache and broken fingernails, and it makes up for the failed experiments, for the plants that we loved and yet lost.

Throughout the book, though, there is an underlying question. In what ways is gardening an ‘art’, like writing or painting or composing a symphony? There are many answers, of course. As Bixley points out, if you have the resources, designing (or getting someone else to design) a handsome garden is not hard. What is hard is the maintenance, the constantly changing conditions, the adjustments as some plants ‘work’ and others don’t. A book is published, a painting is hung in a gallery, but a garden is and always will be a work in progress. While we might reinterpret a novel or a play, the words don’t normally change, but the plants in a garden will flourish and die and be replaced.

On the other hand, whether we like it or not, ‘making’ a garden is just as much a creative act as any of the other arts (and you could argue that it’s much more complex). Bixley compares it to poetry – in a garden created by the gardener, we can get a clear sense of the unmediated ‘voice’ of the person who designed it, unlike with a novelist or playwright who is speaking through the voices of his characters. I think this is true, but I also know that, as in many other arts, the vision in our heads may not be what actually happens, especially in a garden, where nature has thoughts and desires of her own. I sometimes think that  all I can do it try to find what works best in my own conditions of soil and shade, and point the garden in that general direction. Every so often there is what i will forever think of now as one of Bixley’s ‘foxglove moments’ to make up for the failures.

And having made a garden, Bixley considers the role of the garden critic. In the UK there are ‘Open Garden’ schemes, whereby for a few pounds (often donated to charity) you can have a look at what other people are up to in their back gardens. Cake is often involved too, which is a great incentive. And of course the National Trust has open gardens, which are considerably more expensive. I have never visited a garden that didn’t give me some inspiration, though I have a preference for those that are filled with plants and heavy with scent rather than some of the more formal hedge and fountain designs that are sometimes favoured. It seems rather churlish to criticise someone’s garden when it’s essentially private for most of the year: the owner has been kind enough to let you in for a look, so it seems to me the height of rudeness to then castigate it. I can see a little more reason for a review if you’ve paid hard-earned dosh to look around a public garden and discover that it’s half-dead or filled with litter, but not just because it doesn’t meet with your taste. Alas, I think this attitude would put critics of all of the arts out of business within a few weeks. Bixley’s view is that there is nothing wrong with a reasoned commentary on a garden, but that (I am paraphrasing) so often the review is about the commentator and their need to attract attention to themselves rather than the garden itself. He quotes from one particular review (of Sir Roy Strong’s garden The Laskett) where the critic, Anne Wareham, complains that

“Wherever you turn, there is a new space delineated by hedges; there is no space to breathe and no escape. There is no clear sense of where to go next, creating a build-up of tension and disorientation until panic begins to seep in”.

Wareham then goes on to describe the group of people that she took to the garden as ‘angry’ and ‘savage’. Like Bixley, I find it hard to believe that a group of folk out for a nice look around a garden would be more than slightly irritated or mildly disappointed. It seems clear that the review is all about the critic and their desire to be dramatic, rather than the garden itself.

There is so much to savour in this book: thanks to Bixley I am thinking of planting some autumn-flowering crocuses under my geraniums this year. I have acquired an interest in garden history, something which had never previously crossed my mind. I am even more in awe of people who try to create magic in the gardens of Ontario than I was before. The photographs, by Des Townshend, are a delight. And I am aware that there is much in this book that I will need to read again in order to consider it properly. Fortunately, re-reading ‘Minding the Garden- Lilactree Farm’ will be an absolute pleasure.

You can buy the book, published by Friesen Press, here.

Book Review – ‘Strands’ by Jean Sprackland

Dear Readers, I was a great fan of Jean Sprackland’s book ‘These Silent Mansions’ which I reviewed here, so I wanted to have a look at her earlier work, ‘Strands’. Sprackland knows that, in a year, she will be leaving her home in the north west of England to live in London. So, she keeps a kind of diary about the things that she finds on her local beach, ‘ended by Southport Pier to the north and Formby Point to the south‘. Her mission is

‘…to cut through the blur of familiarity, and explore this place as if for the first time. Some of my finds may be real surprises, and others more predictable; but I shall pick them up and hold them to the light, regardless‘.

One of the joys of beachcombing is that sense of the unpredictable. You never know what the sea will bring, and you have to be quick, because at the turn of the tide they can be taken away or hidden again. In spring, Sprackland finds no less than three wrecked ships, uncovered by a combination of tide and wind, including the Star of Hope’, a barque wrecked in a force 10 gale in 1883.

‘Until the sands shift and reveal it, the Star of Hope is sealed in its sandy tomb. From time to time there are tantalising clues: sometimes the place is indicated by a group of wooden stumps sticking up out of the sand at low tide, like grave markers, squatted by a couple of cormorants with hunched black shoulders and reptilian necks. I’d walked out to those mysterious stumps dozens of times, kicked them experimentally and found them solid, speculated about what might lie below the surface‘.

And on this day

There was an abrasive wind, and the sea was flattened to a sullen grey line on the horizon. But the wreck was an astonishing sight, sitting on the sand in a shallow pool of water like an overgrown toy boat in a puddle…..The Star of Hope has her own, very curious afterlife. She’s been sinking and rising, sinking and rising for over a century, in a ghostly reprise of that first calamity‘.

I was fascinated by this. I’d heard that wrecks were sometimes uncovered during storms, but had no idea that they appeared and reappeared in this way. And they are not the only things: in winter, storms uncover the footprints of aurochs and red deer from over 5,000 years ago, and also the footprints of the humans who lived at that time. They, too, appear and are washed away – the scientists who study them have learned to make plaster casts as soon as new traces appear.  There is a sense in which things are both ephemeral and eternal; the children of Neolithic parents played on this beach, just as people do today, but every trace of them can be washed away at the turn of the tide.

Of course, me being me I particularly loved the sections of the book that dealt with the natural world – Sprackland investigates mermaid’s purses, jellyfish, sea squirts, star fish. I love the way that her work moves from natural to social history, from personal observation to folklore. I particularly loved the section on the ‘sea mouse’, a kind of scaleworm with iridescent ‘hairs’ on its back. Sprackland describes her first sight of the creature:

‘It’s exquisitely beautiful, like a strange piece of vintage jewellery….and yet at the same time it is slightly alarming, even repellent’.

Sprackland does some research to find out what the creature is, and finds out how people have longed to see a sea mouse – the American natural history writer Sue Hubbell even wrote a book about her search, called ‘Waiting for Aphrodite‘, (the Latin name for the sea mouse is Aphrodita aculeata‘). The poet Amy Clampitt wrote a whole poem about the creature, which Sprackland quotes:

‘The orphanage of possibility

has had to be expanded to

admit the sea mouse’.

But this is a difficult creature to see, living as it does at the bottom of the deep sea, embedded in mud. It is usually only seen after a storm has ripped it from its hiding place. As one scientist that Hubbell talks to says,  ‘No one has ever seen Aphrodite except when it was unhappy‘.

And so, after her first introduction to the sea mouse, Sprackland looks and looks for more, and is disappointed until one day, after a March storm, she finds five, each one alive and laying on its back in distress. Being the good souls that they are, Sprackland and her husband pick each one up and deposit it back into the water.

Each one, when we slide it into the shallow water, revives quickly and seems to feel the pull of home. It has endured its time under the glare of the sky and wants only to return to obscurity. it begins to bury itself with a slow shuffling motion into the wet sand, until there’s nothing left to see but a soft oval outline, disintegrating eo smoothness under the in-and-out of the waves.

I love the way that this book makes connections between animals, plants, people and the landscape. I learned a lot of interesting things, and was forever interrupting my husband’s reading with ‘I never knew that!’ It’s beautifully written, and I found Sprackland a great companion – I felt that I was walking along with her as she explores the strandline. Above all, it shows me what can be done by observing a single place in depth, over time, provided you approach it with a spirit of curiosity. Highly recommended.



Book Review – A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright

Dear Readers, I fell in love with hedgerows when I was visiting Mum and Dad in Dorset – when I was able to get out for an hour I would spend much of it wondering at the sheer variety of bird life that rustled and fluttered in the depths of the hawthorn, or that flew away at speed as soon as I got within camera range. So I approached this book with a great deal of interest. The fact that the author lives in Dorset was an added bonus. Plus, he sounds very much like me, which is always a bonus (from my perspective anyway):

‘.….a walk from one end of 100 metre hedgerow to the other can take me half an hour and any companions soon get bored and walk on ahead. ‘But aren’t you interested?’ I might ask rather pompously. ‘Look at this elder tree that’s had its bark rubbed away by a deer’, or ‘Here’s an oak apple, let’s see if the wasp has flown,’ or ‘This plant will have you dead in half an hour if you eat it’, and so on.

What Wright has is a stupendous, compendious knowledge of all things hedgerow, ditch, dry wall and dyke -related. He starts with the story of hedgerows, from the arrivals of the first Mesolithic peoples (and here he joins in the discussion about whether the UK was one unbroken forest or ‘oak pasture’, something that ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree discusses at length. Then we get into Neolithic land clearance. What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, we owe such things as

‘ ……oats, cabbage, cherries, wine grapes, apples (a much better species than the native crab apple, which is barely edible), plums (better than sloes, except in gin), several familiar herbs and, perhaps less welcome, the cucumber’.

What has Wright got against the cucumber, we may ask? But then we’re on to the Anglo-Saxons, inclosures and enclosures, parliamentary enclosures and hedgerow loss. In short, the first part of the book is an interesting resumé of not just hedges, but the agricultural history of the UK, and fascinating it is too.

Then we move on to the natural history of the hedgerow, and this is obviously the part that attracted most of my attention. Wright points out that there is no such thing as a typical hedgerow flora, fauna or mycota – the only plant that grows only in hedgerows is the Plymouth Pear (Pyrus cordata). It is vanishingly rare, but if you find one in flower you’ll know all about it – according to the Woodland Trust website, the blossom is said to smell like decaying scampi or wet carpet, and to attract mainly flies.

Photo Two by Ross Joliffe/Alamy Stock Photo from Photo by

The flower of the Plymouth Pear (Photo Two)

What the hedgerow most resembles, Wright says, is woodland edge habitat, although it is more exposed and hence often drier. However, the type of plants and animals that inhabit it will vary according a wide range of variables, including soil type, amount of moisture and sunlight, and location. Furthermore, the habitat in the middle of a hedge will be very different at the top and at the bottom.

Nonetheless, what follows is a most entertaining gallop through the major trees, shrubs and plants that can be found in a hedgerow. It’s clear that Wright is interested in fungi, and in plant galls, and he manages to address the imbalance in between flora and fungi that is so often present in guides of this kind. I learned a lot about mushrooms, and hawthorn, and dog rose. There are frequent ‘aha’ moments, when I recognise the links between the different inhabitants of a hedgerow, and it certainly gave me lots of ideas about what to look for next time I’m walking down a country lane. Plus he is able to bring even the commonest of hedgerow plants into fresh focus.

We have something of a love-hate relationship with the bramble – the berries are by far the most abundant and among the tastiest of all wild fruits, and nearly every child will have happy memories of picking them. On the other hand they are intractable weeds bearing thorns that can rip through clothing and skin. The leaves of bramble look as though they had intended to fall off during the autumn but had changed their minds and soldiered on until spring. It is certainly an untidy and disreputable looking plant and even in late summer, when the berries are full, it seems to have been half eaten by pestilential insects.’

Anyone hoping for details on hedgerow mammals and birds, however, may be a little disappointed, but then I wonder if this would be fair. We are rather deprived of mammals in the UK, and those that we do have are rarely hedgerow specialists, though Wright does discuss the stoat and the weasel. He is even clearer on his lack of interest in birds, though I suspect he is being tongue-in-cheek when he says that

I have little interest in birds, considering them to be nasty, feathery things that fly away before you can even identify them.

But really, what’s wrong with being passionate about plants and fungi? Very few of us can be passionate about all the inhabitants of the natural world, and even those of us who are will admit, if pushed, to having favourites.

The last part of the book is about the different styles and methods of boundary making – there is much on the hurdle, the dry-stone wall and the varying styles of hedge-laying. This was less interesting to me than the earlier parts, but those of you with a more practical bent (and the opportunity to knock up a boundary on your estate) will I’m sure find much of interest here.

Wright finishes with a summing-up of the different regimes and methods that are currently used for maintaining and trimming hedges. All have their advantages and disadvantages, but what seems to work best is for us to take an interest in our own local hedgerows and to hold the council accountable. He mentions Sarah Carter, a Cornishwoman who was so horrified by the loss of species in her local hedgerows due to the flailing technique and timing of council ‘maintenance’ that she kept a list of the species that disappeared and, as Wright says, used the ‘time-honoured practice of making a thorough nuisance of herself to those responsible for the trimming of Cornish hedges‘. As Wright says:

We should, perhaps, all follow Sarah’s example in treasuring what we have in our wonderful hedges and hedgerows and make an almighty fuss about what we perceive to be lost through bad hedge management along the roadside or indeed anywhere else. Then, maybe, we can have our hedges back’.

You can buy A Natural History of the Hedgerow by John Wright from many places, but let me suggest the Natural History Society Bookshop, an absolute treasure trove of titles.


Book Review – These Silent Mansions by Jean Sprackland

Dear Readers, you might remember that last week I was very enthusiastic about Peter Ross’s book ‘ A Tomb With.a View‘. Well, this week I would like to introduce you to a very different but equally compelling book – Jean Sprackland’s ‘These Silent Mansions – A Life in Graveyards’.  It’s a book that’s difficult to categorise –  part memoir, part social history, part biography, but always somehow managing to be a coherent whole. Sprackland is a poet, and I enjoyed the thoughtfulness of her writing, the way that she notices things that others don’t. And as she returns to the towns where she has lived, and the graveyards that were part of her life, she tells one fascinating story after another.

She starts in St. Mary’s Churchyard in Stoke Newington, to follow the story of a young woman whose clothes caught fire back in 1781, and travels on via a secret graveyard for Catholics in Lancashire. In Ilfracombe she investigates the wreck of a slave ship which still divides the local population. Her time as a schoolteacher in Blackbird Leys in Oxford is linked to the story of families so desperate that they sold the bodies of their dead children to science so that they could feed the ones who remained. There is the death of a circus owner, ruminations on holly blues, and why stone angels are so often decapitated, and on nostoc, that strange gluey stuff that sometimes appears overnight on stones and garden furniture.

But it’s the story at the end of the book that’s the real kicker. A child is drowned, and his friend tries to rescue him. Sprackland goes to interview the survivor, who is in his nineties. What happens when she talks to him is one of those moments when your jaw just hangs open.

But to find out what it was, you’ll need to read the book. It’s a splendid companion piece to ‘A Tomb with a View’, rather more introspective and thoughtful, but none the worse for that. It’s made me want to rush out and get her other books, both her poetry and her book about the coast called Strands. That’s the trouble with being a reader, things do rather lead from one to another. But what a splendid path it is.

These Silent Mansions – A Life in Graveyards’ by Jean Sprackland.

Book Review – ‘A Tomb With a View’ by Peter Ross

Dear Readers, as you know I have had a long relationship with graveyards. I find them an endless source of interest, in terms both of social history and of the wildlife that makes its home there. In ‘A Tomb With a View’, Peter Ross zips about between the cemeteries of the British Isles with an unerring sense of a story, and limitless curiosity about people. Whether it’s meeting a British-Nigerian drag queen in Brompton Cemetery, talking to a medium who wants to liberate the spirit of Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh, or being present at the funeral of Lyra McKee in Belfast, he is an evocative and compassionate guide. Take this excerpt, from McKee’s funeral:

One card read, ‘Words fail me’. That felt about right. We carve words on stone to remember our dead – the names and dates and some blandly appropriate text. The formality and finality of headstone convention takes all the mess of grief and loss and reduces it to something that can be said with hammer and chisel. Beloved wife of. Sadly missed by. But that wee card with its admission of the limits of language felt real. Perhaps these are the truths we should engrave in straight lines and elegant fonts. Words fail me. I don’t know how I’m ever going to get through this. I will never be the same again. 

Lyra McKee lies in a corner of Carnmoney Cemetery, north of Belfast. She is wearing a flower in her hair. ‘

When he visits Highgate Cemetery, he talks to the gardener, the stone mason and the person who makes Karl Marx cookies for the gift shop. He tells how the Cedar of Lebanon that stood in the cemetery’s centrepiece, probably a hundred years old when the cemetery was opened in 1839, has finally died after being infected with Chicken of the Woods fungus, and how a tiny new tree has been planted in its place:

A young tree had been planted in the centre of the grass, where the old tree had been. Only three metres tall, it was dwarfed by its surroundings. Yet this new Cedar of Lebanon had a certain forlorn dignity: like a child at a parent’s funeral, it provoked pity, but also admiration for the strength one could already see building within. It might, with luck and care, grow to thirty-five metres and live for a thousand years.’

There is a very interesting and moving chapter on the outcast dead, which moves from Crossbones Graveyard (one of my favourite places) to the cillíns (little churches) of Ireland, where children who died before baptism and people who’d committed suicide were buried, because the church decreed that they could not be buried in consecrated ground. Often these areas were close to conventional graveyards, but sometimes they were in a corner of a field, or even under the flagstones of a house. There are the  stories of the women who are working in Ireland to help reunite families with their beloved dead: Toni Maguire, who has suffered miscarriages herself, speaks of her work:

Sometimes I think, “Was this particular research laid at my door? Did I have to have that experience of miscarriage in order to take this on and relate to it?” I feel these women and babies have nobody to speak for them. But I will bloody speak for them’.

Ross visits the War Graves Commission Cemetery at Loch Shiel in Scotland, and also goes to Belgium where the work of recovering bodies from the First World War is still continuing. He finds the only grave of a woman buried as a witch in Scotland. He visits Haji Taslim Funerals in Whitechapel, and visits the Gardens of Peace in Hainault, where thirty four of those who died in the Grenfell fire are interred. Every chapter has a new story, a new way of looking at death, and life, and the ways that we deal with both. The book manages to be both diverse and coherent, which is difficult to pull off.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. And I’m not alone – you can read about other aspects of the book in this review here. But it’s probably best to read it yourself. You can buy it from one of my favourite bookshops in London if you’re trying to avoid Amazon.

Ross is the author of two previous non-fiction collections ‘Daunderlust – Dispatches from Unreported Scotland‘ and ‘The Passion of Harry Bingo – Further Dispatches from Unreported Scotland‘ which both also look interesting. He’s also written many pieces for The Scotsman and The Guardian. I’m very glad that I’ve made his acquaintance.

Next week, I’ll review my other favourite, and very different, book on graveyards – ‘These Silent Mansions – A Life in Graveyards’ by Jean Sprackland. These two books complement one another very well. But more of that next week.