Islander: A Journey Around Our Archipelago
Patrick Barkham, Granta Books (£20 hb)
Who hasn’t dreamed of owning an island? Patrick Barkham claims not to, but his tremendous island-hopping book is full of people who have and did – or at least moved to one. Chief among them is long-forgotten novelist and sometime spy chief Sir Compton Mackenzie, who inspired his pal DH Lawrence to write The Man Who Loved Islands. A romantic, island-infatuated dandy, Mackenzie bought the Shiants in the Hebrides and Herm and Jethou in the Channel Islands, and inhabited a veritable archipelago of other small islands too. He pops up throughout Islander, as Barkham explores the mindset of those living off the mainland, on the fringes.
The narrative is structured as a journey around the 6,300-odd islands that make up the British Isles. Barkham stays on 11 (all very different) in descending size order, from the Isle of Man to tiny Ray Island – 110 acres off the Essex coast, “an island for one”. On these little worlds, life can be tough but also freer than in the ‘centre’ (and sometimes quite hedonistic); usual rules don’t apply. You have to be resourceful to survive, and over the centuries many haven’t.
Surprises emerge. Islanders may be insular or eccentric but others are outward-looking, innovative, ahead of the times. Old and unique ways of life are being lost, yet numbers of schoolchildren (an index of island health) are growing – on St Martin’s in the Scillies and Rathlin in the Irish Sea, for example. Barkham’s journalistic background no doubt helped him persuade so many islanders – by nature wary of outsiders – to open up to him. Their stories, so beautifully told, are the lifeblood of this wonderful book.
Reviewer: Ben Hoare, features editor of BBC Wildlife
The Secret Life of Cows
Rosamund Young, Faber & Faber (£9.99 hb)
“If a cow’s intelligence is sufficient to make her a success as a cow, what more could be wished?” This welcome reprint of a lovely little book is an antidote to the idea that domestic livestock are dull-witted, lower lifeforms – commodities to be utilised. There’s no point judging cows by our world views and needs, says Rosamund Young, they don’t need to worry about commuting or how to switch on an iPad. But they are sentient beings in their own right.
Given freedom to express themselves, cows are capable of complex behaviour, fascinating bonds with each other, to self-medicate when sick and even aid each other give birth – especially mothers with daughters calving for the first time. Rosamund Young has farmed livestock in the Cotswolds since the 1950s and has watched her charges with a meticulous intensity. She knows all of her charges by name and nature – and we follow their lives through some extraordinary anecdotes. Young was an early adopter of organic methods and believes that by allowing cows as much choice as possible – what to eat, which field to wander in and which social group to join – they are happier, healthier and produce better milk and meat. She also argues that cows kept indoors in trammelled conditions lose mental capacity as their cranial size diminishes over time.
So learn about Fat Hat and Black Hat, Dizzy and Charlotte – and what different types of mooing mean – and discover that cows make good decisions, have fantastic memories and don’t make friends casually. I certainly will look on cows with a new wonder from now on.
Reviewer: Fergus Collins, editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine
Oak and Ash and Thorn - The Ancient Woods and New Forests of Britain
Peter Fiennes, Oneworld Publications (£16.99 hb)
It is a precarious time for Britain's woods and trees. The UK languishes at the bottom of the European league for tree cover along with Ireland and the Netherlands.
Peter Fiennes spent a year visiting mostly English woodlands, from ancient mixed forests to bleak conifer plantations. The resultant book is a lament for their decline and the animals that once lived in them. It documents how we have become isolated from trees in our normal daily life. But it also explores our historical, deep-rooted connection to the woods; their beauty, spirituality and power to inspire myth, folklore, poetry and fear.
With literary allusions throughout, the book contains anecdotal asides including Fiennes's reminiscences when revisiting childhood walks. It is full of fascinating facts, sometimes justifiably scathing, but at heart this is a highly personal assessment of the health of our woodlands. According to Fiennes, there has never been a worse time for woods than now. They are threatened by new diseases, climate chaos, population increase and an obsession with development and growth. We mostly appear oblivious or uncaring. But set against this, Britain has the highest number of individual ancient trees in Europe, some up to 5,000 years old, and there is now a move towards gradually replacing sterile conifers with diverse native trees. The book ends with the uplifting story of the new Heart of England forest planted by Felix Dennis.
This passionate book should inspire readers to plant more trees, support woodland campaigns and participate in active conservation. There is still hope.
Reviewer: Stuart Graham, outdoors writer
The Dun Cow Rib
Sir John Lister-Kaye, Canongate Books (£16.99 hb)
The massively (and rightly) popular ecologist and naturalist John Lister-Kaye has produced an odd cross-genre book. The Dun Cow Rib is partly an exploration of why and how children develop a healthy love of and knowledge about nature; partly a memoir of his own childhood and an elegy for his adored and remarkable mother. The two are of course deeply entwined.
The short answer to the first part, he suggests, is a childhood that mixes real tensions and loneliness with a great deal of personal freedom – unsupervised time spent alone in the countryside. This feels not just true but important. We are bringing up a generation of children who are so supervised, risk-assessed, “cabined, cribbed, confined” that no amount of teaching about the dangers of climate change and the importance of conservation can compensate them for never being left alone to find out for themselves, to explore and discover both the beauty and the fear “out there”.
I had more trouble with the other part of the book – not the parts about his mother herself, but that Lister-Kaye seems to have no consciousness of the extraordinary privileges of his own childhood. A little less about how nasty “the poor” smell and “swingeing” death duties, a little more questioning about whether a (well-founded) sense of ownership of the countryside itself affects how one feels about nature wild and wonderful would have made this an even better book.
Reviewer: Sara Maitland, author and BBC Countryfile Magazine columnist
Land of Plenty: A Journey Through the Fields and Foods of Modern Britain
Charlie Pye-Smith, Elliot & Thompson (£20 hb)
He, more rarely she, gives us our daily bread. And meat, milk, cider, and strawberries. The farmer may be a disappearing species – there about a 100,000 left in the UK, average age 59 – but they continue to manage about 75% of our land surface, and produce a decent amount of the foodstuff you put in your supermarket trolley. As the brave new world of Brexit beckons, Charlie Pye-Smith has travelled the length and breadth of the isles to gauge how farmers and farming are doing... A sort of 'agricultural state of the nation', delivered by a seasoned industry writer. Who travels by campervan.
Make no mistake. Pye-Smith writes well. He is a decent chap. He likes lapwings, flowers. He eats beef from grass-fed, native-breed cattle. He approaches the vexed question of factory versus traditional farming with an 'open mind'. And there, in two words, you have the problem. An 'open mind' on pig farming, Pye-Smith's own chosen test of the welfare/ environmental/ profitability standards of UK agriculture, is too easily filled by gullible tripe about the 'virtues' of keeping porkers indoors, tails-docked, teeth-clipped, on concrete slats. One farmer vaunts the indoor system because it saves him and his workers being outside in winter. Bless him. That air-sucking sound? Punches being pulled. Pye-Smith has preferred not to offend the farmers and vets he spoke to. Not once does he mention the degree to which intensive, indoor pig-farming is dependent on the prophylactic use of antibiotics, a potentially apocalyptic health problem, for farm animals and humans alike. Not once.
Reviewer: John Lewis-Stempel, farmer and author, winner of the 2015 and 2017 Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing.
ReWild: the Art of Returning to Nature
Nick Baker, Aurum Press (£16.99 hb)
At the heart of this inspiring call-to-arms is the worry that we’re becoming disconnected from nature. If we lose our ability to appreciate its sights,sounds and smells, that’s bad news for wildlife and us. Nick Baker is a well-travelled naturalist with an apparently instinctive feel for the natural world, but he maintains that his skill of tuning in to the wildlife around him is something we all can acquire. This is a book about personal re-wilding, relishing the “indescribable deliciousness “of finding out things for ourselves.
It’s peppered with juicy anecdotes from close encounters with bears to the sound of a tarantula crawling overhead. The bulk of the book is a tour of our senses and how best to harness them in finding wildlife. First we’re off on a night-walk, then in a genuinely eye-opening chapter, we’re urged to ignore our hand-held devices and slow down to notice more by day. In further chapters we listen to and smell the natural world, including the wonderful petrichor, the scent of a landscape after rain. You may not relish the idea of slug-licking, but you always know that whatever Nick recommends, he’s tried and tested in the field.
There are minor editorial niggles. I’d have preferred fewer technical terms – the rhamphotheca of an oystercatcher is off-putting even to a hardened ornithologist. But this book is a must-read for any naturalist. I guarantee you’ll learn a lot about wildlife, but even more about yourself.
Reviewer: Brett Westwood, BBC presenter and naturalist
Silence in the Age of Noise
Erling Kagge, Penguin Books (£12.99)
I was staring out of a train window the other day when I found my hand creeping into my jacket pocket to pull out my phone. Before I owned a smartphone, I’d happily daydream journeys away – or read. Now I feel impelled to fill the spaces; tackling a boredom that was never there with the inanity of emails, social media, even games. I recognised this sad condition while reading Erling Kagge’s little tome. He warns us of the importance of keeping in contact with ourselves when there is so much chaff, so much enervating distraction around. Kagge found his own silence while tracking through the featureless wastes of Antarctica for 50 days on his own. While that’s mightily extreme, from this experience Kagge explores how we can find greater self-esteem, deeper thinking and really notice the world around us even on a noisy working day. A valuable little jolt to modern life.
Reviewer, Fergus Collins, editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine
One Man and a Mule
Hugh Thomson, Preface Publishing (£20 hb)
The title is a little misleading because author Thomson was accompanied on his coast-to-coast expedition not only by Jethro, a sweet-natured mule loaned by the RSPCA, but also by his Irish friend, expert mule-handler and raconteur Jasper Winn. And to be fair, Jasper adds to the narrative of this entertaining book as much as Stephen Katz did in Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.
Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1879 classic Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Thomson’s 200-mile epic across England from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay was fuelled by his experience of hiking with pack animals across the Andes, as recounted in a previous book.
But he soon found he couldn’t enjoy his Andean freedom, nor follow Alfred Wainwright’s popular Coast to Coast route exactly, for the obvious reason that AW had used footpaths and Thomson needed bridleways for Jethro. As the author points out, stiles and mules just don’t mix. So there were many diversions, often many miles off route without Jethro and Jason, and in truth they make this book the hugely entertaining travelogue it is. The arrival at Robin Hood’s Bay, in fact, comes as a bit of an anti-climax. For as Stevenson himself famously suggested in a 1881 collection of essays: “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”
Reviewer, Roly Smith, outdoors writer
The Red Squirrel: A Future in the Forest
Neil McIntyre and Polly Pullar, Scotland the Big Picture (£25 hb)
A stunning collection of images by photographer Neil McIntyre of the nation's favourite treetop acrobat - the red squirrel. This is a truly beautiful book - Neil has captured his subjects in their wider environment, from crystal-clear close-ups of squirrels scampering to lovely landscape shots of ancient Caledonian forest and the Scots pine that the squirrels relish. Polly Pullar provides clear and informative accompanying text, detailing the squirrels' habitats and habits over the course of the year. Did you know that red squirrels will gnaw discarded deer antlers to obtain vital minerals, or that the average life span of a wild squirrel is between two and five years?
The book is both a showcase of this splendidly characterful species, and a rallying call to preserve Scotland's diminished native forest, of which only 2% remains.
See our online gallery for a sample selection of images from this gorgeous book.
Reviewer: Maria Hodson, BBC Countryfile Magazine reviews editor
Small Island By Little Train
Chris Arnot, AA Publishing (£16.99 hb)
Narrow-gauge railways negotiate steeper gradients, tighter bends, require smaller tunnels and have a way, writes Chris Arnot, "of reaching the places that other railways couldn't reach." The first was built to carry Blaenau Ffestiniog slate to the coast and soon after, numerous small steam trains were transporting iron ore, sand and lead across industrial-age Britain. As the economy shifted, many were neglected and their tracks torn up, but that was not the end of the story, as Arnot's fascinating account of 16 railway births and deaths or inspirational revivals reveals. The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway, for example, was financed by a racing driver; the Southwold Railway carried fish; and that original slate train, the Ffestiniog Railway, now employs more people locally than Tesco's.
Among Arnot's other books are Britain's Lost Cricket Grounds and Britain's Lost Breweries, and this book is equally accessible. It will not, however, tell you much about engine mechanics. Lightweight as it is light-hearted, this is probably not a book for railway enthusiasts. Rather, this is a themed, characteristically cheerful travel book in celebration of Britain's customs, diverse landscapes and people. Indeed, Arnot is as warm-hearted towards his fellow-passengers (including one man who collects "the sort of boots that railway workers wore") and the staff and volunteers who keep the narrow-gauge railways alive (a delivery driver, a solicitor, and former Sellafield safety officer among them), as he is towards the railways and locomotives themselves.
Reviewer: Julie Brominicks, outdoors writer
Ancient Wonderings – Journeys Into Prehistoric Britain
James Canton, HarperCollins (£20 hb)
I confess that I wasn’t quite sure of what to make of this memoir of the British countryside and its prehistoric roots, rites and field furniture until I was some way in. The author, a lecturer on the Wild Writing MA at the University of Essex, did not have an axe to grind, a theory to popularise or that urgent, breathless energy of conquest that so many explorers impose on their journeys. What he did have – and what I was unused to reading – was an openness to experience, a humble desire to be spoken to by the past, a willingness to engage in the landscape.
His approach seems to be one of almost total immersion. He doesn’t stride about the landscape pointing at things and explaining them, he becomes part of the landscape and the conduit through which it explains itself. He seems to enter an almost hermit-like existence on his travels, the kind of meditative state that can be broken by the rustle of an approaching cagoule. On a number of occasions he seems to be hiding from modernity as part of the process of reaching mesolithic, neolithic and bronze age souls. Yet it’s not just experiential; throughout this account, which ranges from Essex to South Uist and Tiree, Norfolk, Cornwall and Wessex, lie interviews with archeologists and historians behind the latest research into prehistoric Britain. The writing can be a bit intense but, for the most part it’s a stirring account of how you can find out much in the process of immersion.
Reviewer, Ian Vince, historian and folklorist
The Girl Who Climbed Everest
Bonita Norris, Hodder & Stoughton (£16.99 hb)
“What we learn from climbing mountains is that we can push ourselves far beyond what we think we are capable of”. Bonita Norris should know – the 29-year-old is the youngest person in the world to have reached both the North Pole and summit of Mount Everest, despite not embarking on her climbing career until she was 20. This is the simply and appealingly written account of her battle to reach the top of the world’s highest peak, to stand on the roof of the world.
There are no endless paragraphs describing frosty tundras in flowery adjectives - instead we journey with Bonita through the challenges of expedition planning and hike with her to her long dreamed-of summit. Bonita recalls her fears and mistakes in a human and often hilarious way (breaking frozen snot off her oxygen mask, or singing Billie Piper songs in her head as she treks), and writes tenderly about her teammates' support. Her euphoric summit turns to a nerve-racking account of the descent, an ordeal in which a small slip or a lost mitten can end in death. Interspaced with the story are evocative photos of Bonita’s mountain adventures, taken on a Boots disposable camera.
Reviewer: Sian Lewis, author of The Girl Outdoors blog
A week on the Broads: Four Gentlemen at sail on a Norfolk gaffer in 1899
SK Baker, Bloomsbury Publishing (£10 hb)
This illustrated fragment of a ‘lads’ holiday on the Norfolk Broads 120 years ago is a very curious thing. Hidden for decades, the manuscript was discovered by one of the sons of the original four adventurers and pieced together – though the names of the other members of the party are now forgotten, save for the illustrator. There is little story, just a series of incredibly characterful sketches and more detailed illustrations with some arch and genuinely funny diary entries alongside that give a gentle taste of leisure time afloat in the Edwardian age. Most curiously, the artist alludes to the crew’s – mostly failing – amorous adventures with barmaids and other “young women” met along the journey. It’s Four Unknown Lotharios in a Boat.
Reviewer: Fergus Collins, editor of BBC Countryfile Magazine
Peak District Boundary Walk: 190 miles around the edge of the National Park
Andrew McCloy, Vertebrate Publishing (£10.00 pb)
As the clouds of war gathered in the late 1930s, Ethel Gallimore, daughter of a Sheffield industrialist and secretary of the Sheffield branch of CPRE (now Friends of the Peak District), drew up a provisional map of a proposed national park in the Peak District, which was eventually published in 1944.
Showing astonishing prescience, it almost perfectly matches the designated boundary when the Peak became the first national park in Britain in 1951. To celebrate those years of pioneering campaigning, Friends of the Peak has published this 190-mile boundary walk, encompassing the limits of Britain’s first and most popular national park. Researched and written by a team of 23 dedicated volunteers and backed by OS mapping, the route follows existing paths, tracks and lanes following as closely as possible the boundary laid down by Ethel and her later husband and Sheffield CPRE secretary Gerald Haythornthwaite.
The biggest anomalies in the boundary remain the charming Georgian spa town of Buxton; the historic former milltown of Glossop, and the moors east of Stalybridge and Mossley, an area now blighted by high-voltage electricity pylons.
Reviewer: Roly Smith, outdoors writer
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