‘Wilding’ by Isabellea Tree is, I feel, a super important book…… ‘Forced to accept that intensive farming on the heavy clay of their land at Knepp was economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell made a spectacular leap of faith: they decided to step back and let nature take over. Thanks to the introduction of free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer – proxies of the large animals that once roamed Britain – the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade. Extremely rare species, including turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, lesser spotted woodpeckers and purple emperor butterflies, are now breeding at Knepp, and populations of other species are rocketing. The Burrells’ degraded agricultural land has become a functioning ecosystem again, heaving with life – all by itself.’
As I progressed through the book I came to realise why the Tree’s neighbours wouldn’t and didn’t like what they were doing. Letting land revert to nature meant of course that all kinds of nasties were next door to their land and would soon find their way there. I sympathised. The pictures of neat Sussex hedged fields reverting to scrub didn’t help either. From looking conventionally neat and tidy the farm now started to look like a piece of unloved wasteland. I couldn’t help but wonder whether this ‘hippy’ farming was doing any good to anyone. I was wrong.
What the Trees have done is so radical and important that it deserves huge recognition – which thanks goodness it is starting to get. The crucial moment came when Ted Green the keeper of the Royal Oaks at Windsor came to look around their farm. Peering at some sick-looking oak trees standing alone in fields and ploughed close around, he pointed out that ploughing and the use of nitrogen fertilizers was destroying the mycorrhizae which are the microscopic fungal filaments which spread out enormous distances to supply their hosts with water and nutrients. They do all kinds of other amazing things for instance acting as a communication system with other plants, and are the key natural biological system. This visit lit a lamp with the Trees and after massive amounts of research and extensive travels they got to the stage where as farmers instead of being interested in Nature and trying to slow down the inexorable decline of wildlife they were actually involved in its restoration.
But we are not just talking about wildlife. Getting back to the mycorrhizae, they, when allowed to, contribute a final compelling argument to the value of rewilding the soil – carbon sequestration. Through a very complicated process that scientists have only discovered in recent decades the mycorrhizae produce something called Glomalin which acts as ‘the superglue of the soil’ and is able to store large quantities of carbon. 82% of the carbon in the terrestrial biosphere is in the soil, and the more carbon dioxide levels increase in our atmosphere the more the Glomalin reacts – so that according to the Royal Society carbon capture by the world’s farmlands, if they were managed more naturally (as with the Trees’ lands), could total 10 billion tonnes a year, more than the annual accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
One estimate is that if organic matter in the world’s farmland soil was increased by as little as 1.6% the problem of climate change would be solved. Some go further….one study suggests that restoring the world’s 19 million square miles of degraded grasslands to functioning ecosystems based around our friend the mycorrhizae could return 10 or more gigatonnes of excess atmospheric carbon to the terrestrial sink annually. This could (this being the operative word I suppose) lower greenhouse-gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels in a matter of decades. Basically we are talking about a more natural and rotational system which our medieval ancestors would recognise and which they regarded as common-sense.
The book deals with lots of issues one by one such as reintroducing beavers to control flooding ( and the bete noire of Frances and myself – stopping the canalisation of rivers and allowing them back to their natural courses complete with flood-plains ), going back to pasture-fed cattle thus increasing levels of healthy fatty acids, and so much more besides. It’s a real eye-opener. Read it then campaign for change!
‘Castles From The Air’ must be one of the most comprehensive guides to Britain’s castles. Not the usual aerial photography with a few notes, but an in-depth of analysis of castles at all stages periods of of construction from pre-Roman to ‘modern’ – with absolutely marvellous full-colour high-quality photos. Castles are one of the distinguishing features of our landscape and they tell a tale not just of History but also of Romance. Which child hasn’t been thrilled by stories which have a castle at their heart? Which adult too? I really enjoyed going through this from start to finish over a few nights, but it is a coffee table sort of book that you could dip into at any time. I loved it.
I sent for the Film Script edition of ‘Hobson’s Choice’. Author Harold Brighouse. With a name like that he couldn’t be anything other than one of the Manchester School of dramatists. This was first produced in this country in 1915, having opened in America. The subtitle says it all – ‘A Lancashire Comedy In 4 Acts’. Having just watched ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ on TV (which surprisingly I had never seen before) and found it as slight and disappointing as could be, I was wondering whether I would enjoy this. I am glad to say it was a sheer delight from start to finish. I enjoyed ‘the plot’ if you can call it that….it is more of a situation comedy, I enjoyed the strongly drawn characters, I enjoyed the rather suffocating location – a family shoe shop in Chapel Street Salford in 1880. To me it is rather like Coronation Street – better kept as an everyday story than show authorial indulgence with extremes. I really must find out if there are other Brighouse Plays I can read…..I would certainly like to. Highly recommended (even if you don’t come from Lancashire).
‘Gentleman Jack’ a biography of Anne Lister is certainly an unusual book about a very unusual lady. Probably we all know her story from the excellent TV series starring the incomparable Suranne Jones……It’s 1832 in West Yorkshire, England — the cradle of the evolving Industrial Revolution — where landowner Anne Lister is determined to save her faded ancestral home, Shibden Hall, even if it means bucking society’s expectations. In addition to reopening the coal mines, a part of Lister’s plan to help her family is to marry well. But the charismatic, single-minded Lister — who dresses head-to-toe in black and charms her way into high society — has no intention of marrying a man. ‘Gentleman Jack’ examines Lister’s relationships with her family, servants, tenants and industrial rivals, and would-be wife. Anne kept an amazing secret diary which even the twentieth century apparently found to be too hot to publish, but we have large chunks of it here. At first the sex is overwhelming. It’s sex, sex, sex to an unbelievable degree. And it becomes, well, boring. But a bit further into the life Anne starts to do lots of interesting things and travels extensively, so we get to admire her resolve and strength of character. All in all a fascinating read, and I can’t wait to visit her home Shibden Hall when we move to the North.
Kate Atkinson is an excellent writer and in this novel ‘Transcription’ we see her character building and plot fulfilment to the full. The novel flicks from wartime to the late 50’s. Sometimes this is an annoying affectation, but in skilled hands, as here, it works. The main character Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the security services during the war, and all of this part of the story seems to be well researched according to the sources given and the acknowledgments, which is good. Ten years later, when working at the BBC as a producer, her past catches up with her, as I suppose it may do for anyone who was a spy. At the denouement there is a clever twist which makes you think you have been reading something that is well thought through and put together. Fairly light and enjoyable.
I don’t think I have read any other Murakami, so this – ‘Killing Commendatore’ – would be interesting. It certainly was. As you get into the book the first thing that strikes you is that Murakami is a beautiful writer, a craftsman of the first order. No two ways about it the prose sparkles. And those critics who say that he is a master story teller ‘exhilarating’, ‘bewitching’, are right. He is. However, what I can’t agree is that the story Murakami tells in this novel is plausible or satisfactory. The Commendatore a two-feet tall gremlin? Paintings as portals to ‘the other world’? Really. Others might find this an esoteric mix between the domestic and the fantastic. I just found it plain silly. The novel is about a dissatisfied painter whose wife has just left him, who is holed up in a mountain retreat that is the old home of a famous painter with a murky past. His relationships with those around him, are described in infinite detail, which never grates, including that with a wealthy neighbour who built his house so that he could spy on a young girl he believes may be his daughter. It is all the background to a gripping story. But little folk? Come on. Surely you are better than that Murakami. A long read – very pleasurable, but ultimately very unsatisfactory. Suspend my disbelief? See the whole thing as a metaphor? I don’t think so.
‘The Librarian of Auschwitz’ is based on the true story of Dita Kraus, a 14 year old girl who is imprisoned in the hell that was Auschwitz. When the Jewish leader in the campasks Dita to take charge of the 8 precious books that are all that keep the rotting corpses in touch with civilisation she agrees at enormous risk to herself. If found with the books she will undoubtedly be shot, or worse. The story has many interesting aspects including the ‘extended library’ whereby some people knew other books so well they could teach others about them in the underground school. Obviously the horror of the camp is the background to all this, but the only thing I found slightly irritating was that through most of the book this seems to be a little sanitised. You couldn’t get the full horror of the unspeakable conditions. The infamous Mengele is there to add a further layer of evil. An important addition to the literature.
I started Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’ with a great deal of pleasurable anticipation, having really enjoyed Wolf Hall but not found its follow-up ‘ Bring Up The Bodies’ quite so good. I found some infelicity in the language at the very beginning of this last part of the trilogy, and the odd error (someone threw down a pen for instance……a pen? I think not) but forgetting this, it was sheer enjoyment throughout. With such a large book and such a huge cast of characters, it was indeed right that there was a full Dramatis Personae at the start. The trouble with reading at bedtime however, and then putting the book aside each night, was that I was continually having to refer to that list. Perhaps a small price to pay for an ageing brain. The thing is with Cromwell, we all know he is going to get his head chopped off, so we have the denouement constantly in mind, and in my own case finding him a sympathetic lead character I was always wanting him to get on with his life and get things done. I don’t think he can come in for any criticism on that score. His rags to riches tale is certainly impressive, and what he achieved in transforming the religious ethos and culture of the whole country is frankly amazing. Told in historic detail (as for instance in Dermot Mccullough’s incredibly well-researched biography) one gets bogged down with his administrative dealings, but not in Hilary Mantel’s hands. The book flows. Another prize for Mantel? I hope so – she deserves it.
and this is our new address…
I purchased this because something, I don’t know what, made me think of the BBC TV series in the 60’s which starred Nyree Dawn Porter, Eric Porter and Kenneth More amongst others. Everybody but everybody was glued to the TV at peak time on a Saturday evening…all ages, and no-one went for their Saturday night out without seeing it. No catch-up in those days. The book, which is really a trilogy – ‘The Man of Property’, ‘In Chancery’ and ‘To Let’ is joined together by two short stories ‘Indian Summer of a Forsyte’ and ‘Awakening’ . Altogether just under half a million words made this an epic read. And it is of the highest quality. Since he wrote it all in the 30’s Galsworthy has had a pretty poor press with the critics, but the public have ignored that and loved it. In the last decade or two the critics have come round to the public’s view. Interesting! Basically it is about the varying relationships of one very large upper-middle class family in High Victorian and then Edwardian England. As well as extremely good characterisation, and plots which you want to follow to their outcome, the background is fascinating as many of the main themes of Great Britain in those days are explored – from Empire and foreign travel through to politics, the introduction of the motor car and so much else besides. I cannot speak of the novel too highly. And the short story ‘Indian Summer of a Forsyte’ is so memorable a description of what it is to grow old and not be able to do the things you want, and at the same time the anguish that comes from unrequited love that it will stay with you for ever. What a read.
Another day, another nice thing to do. This time a gentle 2 or 3 mile walk along the river from our house to Bucklers Hard. Board walks in some places to avoid getting wet.And brilliant views of what is a very scenic river indeed.At Bucklers Hard itself we enjoyed the Georgian village, once a thriving shipbuilding village where ships for Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar were built……now, as the blurb says, ‘a tranquil haven’. At the river end of the Buckler’s Hard high street was The Master Builder’s House Hotel where we enjoyed a refreshing drink in the gardens…….We hadn’t been to the seaside yet on this holiday, so off we went in the afternoon to Milford on Sea, a very pleasant location with a good, noisy, shingly beach and a distant view of The Needles. I’m sure all these colourful beach huts will be open on a sunny day……..But we enjoyed ourselves ……….skimming stones amongst other things….and the children’s play area had some unusually good activities…and what nicer at the seaside than to have fish and chips on the promenade?Our cottage being in Beaulieu it would have been ridiculous to have gone home without visiting Palace House and its world-famous car museum. But a stately home, gardens and a car museum for a 5 year old? As it happens, we need not have worried. Aiisha enjoyed the visit as much as anybody, as everywhere there had been a huge attempt made to keep things family-friendly.We went in the car museum first, and not only was it very nostalgic for people who had themselves owned an Austin Healey, a Zephyr, and a Zodiac, and an Austin A35, but it was all incredibly interesting , and there was always something to capture our attention.and didn’t my family look absolutely splendid in Edwardian motoring gear………although the wind can play havoc with the driver’s hat!Over 16 million Model T Fords were manufactured before production ceased in 1927 and interestingly British cars came in blue and green before black became standard in 1914. In the 1920’s grey, red and grey were offered. The first British factory had opened in my home town of Manchester in 1911. The model on show here cost £135 and did 40mph……..Aiisha loved the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car (amongst many other things aimed at children)….and would really have loved to have had a go in this Atco junior trainer designed in the 1930’s to give children basic experience of road craft. Everything is as in a full size car but miniaturised with the exception of there being just 2 gears forward and back.Mind you we did find the interactive driving games exciting….and we got to sit on an old bus…………and then after a great lunch have a trip around the grounds in a replica 1912 London bus. It stopped at the house…….. so we decided to get off and have a look around the historic home of the Montagu family, and later at the ruins of the Abbey………..I can’t stress too highly how accessible everything was and how involving. The house, although stuffed with the usual expensive objets and pictures and furniture and so on, was different from any other I have been in, in that not only was photography allowed, but you could touch or get close to virtually everything. Amazing. One surviving building from the Abbey – the Domus – was once the living quarters of the lay brothers………..And in here were displayed a whole series of embroideries designed by Belinda, Lady Montagu which depict the history of the Abbey. They were exquisite.What else did we do? Visit the Top Gear museum where all the old episodes were showing (of the proper Top Gear with Jeremy et al) alongside the actual vehicles featured………good fun.This was followed by a go for all of us on the full-scale simulator – racing round the Dunsfold Park test track in a Caterham and a Bugatti Veyron. Exciting.We then went for a trip on the mile-long monorail, the oldest in England on a sedate tour of the attraction from above, with sweeping views of the grounds and gardens before passing right through the roof of the National Motor Museum to give another take on things.We just had time then to stroll round the gardens, which were lovely…..A really really good time was had by all, and I can’t recommend this place enough. A fantastic week in a lovely house in a lovely part of the country.
On our way home F. and I diverted a short distance to visit the museum of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Always interesting to see how the downtrodden were able to secure basic rights due to the bravery and persistence of a few heroes. Small but worth visit.
A week in the New Forest in October in a house in the trees with rain forecast every day didn’t seem to augur too well. In the event the rain held off at critical times and at other times we didn’t mind getting wet. After all, being British, we accept bad weather with the equanimity it deserves for what it is. Getting wet is not something you seek, but when you are wet, well you’re wet and that’s sort of ok.We were all converging on the house from different directions. F and me in our car from Cornwall, Katherine and Aiisha from Southampton airport, and David and Jennifer from London. On our way we called into Forde Abbey as it was on our route and free to HHA members. A good call for lunch. Forde Abbey is a former Cistercian monastery dating back to the early 12th century. One of the richest abbeys in England it was of course quickly dissolved by Henry VIII. It then had a rich and varied history as a private home. Its first lay owner entertained the Duke of Monmouth as he planned his rebellion and ended up in the Tower of London, and Jeremy Bentham also rented the house for a period during the 19th century, and did much of his writing here.
It was in fact converted into quite a palatial family home during the mid 17th century. The house has exquisitely ornate plaster ceilings throughout the state rooms, together with a collection of very impressive Mortlake tapestries woven from cartoons drawn by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel. It is indeed a unique family house.
Throughout the 20th century the 30 acres of gardens that surround the house have been transformed by the present owners. The gardens are now a diverse and breathtaking landscape fit for the house that they surround, from the productive Kitchen Garden, to the Arboretum, Rock Garden, Herbaceous Borders, Bog Garden, and Woodland Garden.
And with it being near to Halloween they had lavish displays everywhere of pumpkins of all shapes and sizes…A fleeting but fascinating visit. Now, the clans having gathered and made ourselves at home, we set out on the first full day for Lymington as I knew the market was there on Saturdays….the journey there gave us some inkling of just how many ponies we would see in the following days…..they are everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, (and very friendly).We loved Lymington, who wouldn’t, and the busy and engaging market stretched in two rows a long long way down the main shopping street, and was great. We also found amazing bargains in a charity shop where we purchased 5 or 6 games suitable for children and adults (bearing in mind the weather).At the end of the main run a couple of very pretty cobbled streets took us down to the harbour….where we availed ourselves of some refreshments and lunch.A great place all round. A bit later in the day we walked along country paths to Beaulieu where we encountered rather a lot of donkeys (also friendly).Now why didn’t the others follow the example of this one sheltering under a large archway? Mind you, they do always seem to look sad….Back ‘home’ it was time for a belated birthday cake for Katherine and Aiisha which went down well, and after it some of the games we had bought.The ‘Load the Camel’ game was hilarious and we played with it lots of times. When overloaded it kind of jumped into life shocking me more than anyone every single time, and scaring poor Aiisha!Sunday was to be our adventure day. We walked to the Outdoor Activities Centre at Beaulieu….and prepared for our bike rides. Very very enjoyable if a little scary (as one of the main cycle routes was closed for pony counting!!) leaving us no option but to travel on busy main roads. Having completed our rides we prepared for canoeing. As you can see the rain was not putting anyone off.We travelled upstream to the weir at Beaulieu where we called into a little inlet for cups of hot chocolate provided by our instructor Chris. He was a terrific guide pointing out lots of rivery things, and always aware of which birds and features we were seeing…A great day all round, and highly recommended.Always nice to have a pint or whatever in the local Beaulieu pub after our exertions……And a nice sky on our walk home.Another day took us to Portsmouth where we were to see the Mary Rose (something I have always wanted to do). The dockland surroundings were very impressive and we glimpsed some very famous ships before entering a very active repair and building shed……..where we had a very decent lunch ( and did a bit of colouring)…..Getting closer to the Mary Rose museum we were intrigued and impressed by Nelson’s very own HMS Victory…and in between it and the Mary Rose was the iconic 25ft statue ‘Embracing Peace’, also known as Unconditional Surrender. This European replica of the US based original has been touring Europe, the original statue famously depicting an embrace in Times Square, New York, at the end of the World War II, between a returning serviceman and a local girl. Very impressive indeed.At last the Museum. We didn’t really know what to expect and whether it would be suitable for a 5 year-old. We were not to be disappointed. The ship itself at the centre, of course, of the museum is encircled by a “Hot Box” chamber that houses it whilst a highly technical drying out process takes place. Spotlit in different places at different times it is magical to see, and surrounding it on several floors equivalent to the decks are many of the items recovered from the ship which tell us so much about the England of Henry VIII and those who worked in its navy.Items which show the essence of a very powerful warship of its day, and a warship which moreover had already had a successful career of 34 years (news to me).And items which show us how its crew lived – and died.These are items from the carpenters store….and in their midst something which to me was the most astonishing thing of all…..….this multi-purpose tool. How incredible, a Swiss Army knife of the sixteenth century.There was so much to see that we only were able to have a good look at a tiny fraction…..Who could not be impressed by the galley with its two large, brick built ovens each with a huge copper cauldron on the top. Meat and fish were boiled in these to feed the 400 or 500 men on board. No chimneys – the smoke was trapped in a box-like area above the ovens, where it could be used to flavour fish and meat.The adults were entranced. And as for Aiisha, there were interactive games..skeletons to rebuild…..clothes to dress up in….food casks to see what people eat….and a kind of treasure hunt where successfully spotting various things all around the museum was rewarded with a certificate and badge. What a successful day. And we can return any time in the next year – we will!Yet another day found us at Poultons Park a theme park like no other and the #1 UK theme park as voted for by TripAdvisor, Mumsnet and Which readers, and most definitely by the Smith family. It was quite exceptional. Our first job on entering was to get ourselves fed and watered. And I can honestly say that the curry I had was one of the very best (and cheapest) curries I have ever had. Terrific to find such quality in a theme park.And what then struck us before anything else was the beauty of the surroundings with Japanese gardens, dinosaur jungles, and lots of birds………But of course some of us had come for the rides, and they were great. Naturally neither F. nor I ventured onto the more extreme, adrenelin-inducing rides but we did try some of the more moderate ones which gave us ample flavour of what theme park rides are about…..And what I found fascinating was the way that Aiisha not only got super enjoyment from the big rides, but also from the gentler ones too……And at the end, to cap it all off there was Peppa Pig’s World, and who couldn’t like that?A really, really really successful day…..well done to Paulton Park!