Category Archives: Book Reviews

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 https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/a-z-of-british-trees/plymouth-pear/ 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.

Christmas Reading

Dear Readers, this is just a gentle reminder that today is the last day for submitting your answers to the Christmas Quiz if you decided to have a go. I have been removing completed answers from the comments so that they didn’t influence anyone who came after. Answers will be published tomorrow. 

Dear Readers, ever since I was a little girl all I ever really wanted for Christmas was books. However, it’s often hard for non-readers to appreciate this. Mum and Dad, for example, would look at my Christmas list, shake their heads, and buy me something that they wanted to buy me instead. One year it was a leopard-skin print shirt dress. One year it was a pink faux-fur dressing gown. On one semi-successful year they seem to have bought up the entire contents of The Body Shop, and I smelled of Dewberry for the next eighteen months. I was always grateful, even though the aforementioned leopard-print shirt dress was several sizes too big and creased every time I sat down. After all, part of the joy of Christmas is in the giving, and I was always glad that people had loved me enough to buy me something.

This year has been sad in many ways, but goodness, it’s been a long time since I’ve been so happy with my Christmas presents. I think that nature writing in general is having a real renaissance, and so I was delighted to get ‘The Wild Life of the Fox by John Lewis- Stempel, one of my favourite nature writers, with a long history of interesting, prize-winning books behind him. However, I was also lucky enough to get one of the publishing sensations of the year, by Merlin Sheldrake – ‘The Entangled Life’ is a mind-blowing guide to the world of fungi, an area that I’ve become more and more interested in during lockdown, partly due to the infectious enthusiasm of my friend A, who is never happier than when she’s clambering up a muddy bank in search of an elusive mushroom.

And then there’s this book, by an author who is new to me, Marianne Taylor. Long-time readers will know how I love to champion underloved wildlife, and as gulls are so often cast as villains I fully expect to be enlightened and cheered by this book.

Now, aside from books which will be informative and fun to read, I like to have some heavier reading material so that I can educate myself. First on the list is the new book by Jeff Ollerton, whose London Natural History Talk on Pollinators and Pollination was so interesting. This will be one that will require taking notes and highlighting things I’m sure.

And I have recently fallen in love with the British Wildlife Collection – these books are both beautiful and interesting, and range widely across their subject areas. It makes me happy just to look at them. Roll on retirement, when I can really get stuck in!

But finally, here is a very beautiful book. Not one for taking out into the field for sure, but one to dip into, and one that I’m sure will help when the Wednesday Weed returns very shortly.

Each double-page spread features two plant illustrations that are somehow related – often something from a very old flora juxtaposed with a much more recent painting or photograph. The book explores our relationship to flowers in a myriad ways, and makes me constantly question what I held to be true. Much more than just a coffee-table book (though it is extremely beautiful) I can see me poring over it for years.

And so I feel truly blessed in my friends and family this year, and can’t wait to settle down and get stuck in. In truth, if I lived to be 300 there wouldn’t be time to read all the books that I want to read, but what a joy they are! I would love to hear what Santa Claus brought you for Christmas, and how you’re getting on over the holidays. I am always up for a chat.

Chasing the Ghost – My Search For All the Wildflowers of Britain by Peter Marren

Dear Readers, on a day when I would normally be knocking up a Wednesday Weed, I thought it might be fun to think about the plants that you would never normally come across in a quick march around your local green space. Who among us is regularly falling over Spiked Rampion (Phyteuma spicatum) for example? Who has ever seen Whorled Solomon’s-seal (Polygonatum verticillatum)? And has anybody ever seen ‘The Ghost’ of the title, the Ghost Orchid (Epigogium aphyllum)? Well, Peter Marren’s book ‘Chasing the Ghost‘ enables you to follow him as he attempts to find 50 plants that he’s never seen before.

Photo One By BerndH - Picture taken by BerndH, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34052

Ghost Orchids (Epipogium aphyllum) (Photo One)

When I read the title of the book, I thought that Marren was going to be starting from scratch in his hunt for plant species, but fortunately (because otherwise the book would be the size of a small drinks cabinet) he has already seen most of the commoner species. He looked through his much-thumbed volume ‘The Concise British Flora’ and found that there were exactly fifty species unticked. However, there were difficulties afoot:

A few are plants that flower erratically, while others are found only in remote corners of Britain, and some bloom underwater….More problematic was that some of them flowered at the same time at opposite ends of Britain. ….over the whole enterprise hung the spectre of Epipogium, the Ghost Orchid- a plant almost as unattainable as the Holy Grail. Unless someone found it during the year, which, on recent form, seemed unlikely, it was a built-in guarantee of almost certain failure’. 

Goodness, how I love a quest! I am reminded of the travel and nature writer Peter Mathiesson, with his attempt to see a snow leopard (which I heartily recommend if you’ve never read it). But how much danger could there be in a search for some wild flowers? Well, quite a lot as it happens. Marren isn’t getting any younger, he has health problems which become more apparent as he gets continually rained upon and knocked over, and some of these plants grow in precipitous spots. Here he is looking for Norwegian Mugwort (Artemisia norvegica) on ‘a high, bare ridge, Cul Mor, Scottish Highlands’ for example: he has just identified the plant when:

Then there was the most almighty bang, followed by a flash. The storm had arrived. In terror, I splashed back up the slope as fast as my clunky boots could carry me. The right thing to do was to find shelter well below the rocks on the ridgeline and wait out the storm. But both sides plunged down steeply, and my only thought was to get off the hill as quickly as possible. Another flash burst over Cul Mor, a blast of white light, mighty close, horribly assertive. I swear I I smelt electricity. If I live, I thought, I might find this quite funny – the terrified fleeing figure with the thunder god hurling bolts at him’.

Photo Two By pellaea - https://www.flickr.com/photos/7147684@N03/3818561218/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17279237

Norwegian mugwort (Artemisia norvegica) (Photo Two)

Not all rare plants are in such inhospitable spots however. Take the Childing Pink (Petrorhagia nanteulii) which grows behind a pub in Sussex:

When I pulled up at the forecourt they were rolling beer kegs from the back of a lorry, with metallic rattles and clangs. Behind the clubhouse is a narrow backwater with a few moored boats. Across the narrow inlet lies a desolation of dredgers and warehouses: VW Heritage, Travis Perkins, Screwfix(‘Open 7 days!’). The only beauty lay at my feet, in the patch of a tiny flower growing in bare sand’.

Photo Three By Javier martin - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6523906

Childing Pink (Petrorhagia nanteulii) (Photo Three)

And then there’s the Fen Ragwort (Senecio paludosus), which grows to 7 feet tall, and is now known only from a ‘ditch on the busy road from Ely to Newmarket….the ragwort’s ditch regularly fills with rubbish: in 2001 four sackfuls were removed in one day, along with ‘a road sign, three drums of lubricant and a traffic cone‘. This plant was declared extinct in 1857, but suddenly reappeared when its ditch was dug in 1968, having lain dormant in the soil for all that time. Some seedlings have been replanted in Woodwalton Fen, where maybe, one day, it will start to proliferate.

Photo Four byAlgirdas at the Lithuanian language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Fen Ragwort (Senecio paludosus) (Photo Four)

In some ways, this is a perfect lockdown book, though it did make me yearn for the days when I could jump onto a train and head off in pursuit of some natural wonder or another. It also made me nostalgic for being able to meet up with friends and head off on an adventure – everywhere that Marren goes, he is helped in his search by fellow botanists, friends, conservationists and sometimes complete strangers. There is a kind of comradeship in being an enthusiast – when other people write you off as an eccentric for standing in the cold and rain with binoculars or a hand lens, there is, if we are lucky, someone who understands and will wait around with you. I grew very fond of Marren – if you read the book, you will see that some of his life experiences overlap with mine, and there is a kind of fellowship in suffering, too. He is good company – he wears his extensive knowledge and experience lightly, and he has an irrepressible sense of humour, invaluable when you’re up to your personal parts in bogwater.

I heartily recommend this book. I will certainly be looking at the author’s back catalogue – he has written Rainbow Dust, about our love affair with butterflies, and a guide to Fungi which is extremely readable. If only there were more hours in the day for all the things I want to read!

Photo Credits

Photo One By BerndH – Picture taken by BerndH, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34052

Photo Two By pellaea – https://www.flickr.com/photos/7147684@N03/3818561218/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17279237

Photo Three By pellaea – https://www.flickr.com/photos/7147684@N03/3818561218/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17279237

Photo Four by Algirdas at the Lithuanian language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons