The Essex Serpent
Author: Sarah Perry
Although it opens in London in 1893, The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry’s beguiling second novel, soon swaps the sooty city streets for the wide-open vistas of Essex. Cora Seabourne - a young widow keen to embrace her new-found freedom and nursing ambitions - is drawn to the coastal parish of Aldwinter, where rumours of a terrible beast abound: “a monstrous serpent with eyes like a sheep, come out of the Essex waters and up to the birch woods and commons,” in search of prey.
Her hunt for what she rationally believes must be a “living fossil” brings her into the orbit of the local vicar, William Ransome – a man of strong faith but encouragingly enlightened sentiment – of late much preoccupied with calming the hysteria of his parishioners. A rich and complex friendship forms between the two as Perry – one of the most talented English novelists writing today – draws their imperfections with a flawless attention to detail, all set against a rural backdrop of stunning beauty.
Seasonal shifts – from Essex in Midsummer dressed in “her bride’s gown […] cow parsley frothing by the road and daisies on the common,” to an autumn during which “Skeins of geese unravel over the estuary, and cobwebs dress the gorse in silk” – combine with the more essential metamorphosis of this “changing territory: the seeping of salt water up through the marshes, and the changing patterns of its muddy banks and creeks,” to evoke a landscape as rich as the mythology it feeds.
Serpent’s Tail, £14.99
Reviewed by Lucy Scholes
Like Farmer, Like Son
Author: Adam Henson, with Ian Gittins
It’s fitting that Adam Henson – television presenter, Countryfile columnist, champion of rare breeds but, first and foremost, a farmer – has centred his aptly titled and touching memoir Like Farmer, Like Son around the very idea of home. His family, his farm, and the landscapes of the Cotswolds are ever present as he looks back over 50 years.
Family roots prevail in a memoir that, for all the media engagements and on-location globetrotting, is really about the presenter’s constant desire to get back to Bemborough, the farm that he and his father before him, have rented from an Oxford college on a three-generation lease.
Tales of agricultural trials and triumphs at Bemborough and the Farm Park tourist attraction are woven around elements of family history. From his early adventure to the Orkney Islands as an eight year-old with his dad, to discoveries about his father’s extraordinary early years, Henson never disappoints in recalling a perfect rural idyll, but where there’s light there is always shade. Much of the book was already written when Henson’s father died at the end of 2015 and the final chapters display rare, unvarnished and raw grief.
It’s more a paean to his father than autobiography and that’s what tells you that Henson has deep roots. As any farmer knows, that’s where all the strength comes from.
Reflective and candid throughout, the emotional heart of this book – an enduring love for the British landscape, farming and his family’s part in it – makes it a memoir full of warmth.
BBC Books, £18.99
Reviewed by Ian Vince
The Nature of Autumn
Author: Jim Crumley
It is a little hard to imagine anyone who would pick up this book in the first place and then fail to be engaged by it. Crumley always manages to combine an extraordinary depth of detailed, observed, recorded and thought-about knowledge with vivid warm writing and an obvious deep love for what he is writing about. The Nature of Autumn is no exception.
Crumley is a member of an endangered species – the real naturalists. He has no underlying narrative – he is not dealing with personal issues nor advocating any particular ecological programme. (Except the re-introduction of more Beavers.) He wanders about Scotland – and through his own autobiographical past – looking at what he loves and describing it wonderfully well. I know I will now see things that I would not have seen without this book; I will look better because he has taught me new things to look for and to look at.
The trouble with a take so personal is this is Crumley’s autumn, but it is not mine. I can’t quite 'get' a Scottish autumn with no insects, barely any wild flowers, a curious shortage of rodents, no fish nor reptiles and above all for me no fungi – not a single toadstool! How strange – all that deep autumnal magic goes unmentioned. Crumley’s gaze is more upward: birds, of course, and trees; mountains and long views.
Or perhaps this enchanting book has been wrongly titled.
Reviewed by Sara Maitland
Friend for Life
Author: Kate Humble
In Friend for Life, presenter and dog-lover Kate Humble explores the fascinating and multifaceted nature of our partnership with these animals.
The book places human-dog relations in a wide context, providing a pleasing mix of personal stories, history and biology. We meet the adorable Welsh sheepdog Teg, and follow Humble’s struggle to train her and meet the exacting standards of the Welsh Sheepdog Society. We look at the evolution of dogs from wolves, visiting the unique Wolf Science Centre in Austria where both wolves and their dog descendants are studied in parallel. We also look into recent history - the story of how a team of dog sledders saved a town in Alaska from diphtheria is particularly gripping.
Humble provides many impressive and unexpected examples of how useful dogs are in modern society. As well as more familiar roles in finding drugs and guiding the blind, she relates how dogs have been used to find unexploded mines and protect their owners from having asthma attacks or allergic reactions. Amazingly, recent discoveries suggest that dogs can even detect cancer, and their use in medical detection is an emerging science.
Above all, through interviews with experts and her own experience, Humble reminds us of how potent and enduring our bond with dogs is, and the power that bond has to inspire people and change lives for the better.
Reviewed by Sam Swannack
The Wood for the Trees
Author: Richard Fortey
In 2011, Richard Fortey bought a beechwood in the Chilterns, northwest of Henley-on-Thames. Most of us in this happy situation would be content with strolling under the trees, doing a spot of light management or bird-watching. But few of us are as well-versed or as well-connected as the author. This is an engagingly written and thorough account of Lambridge Wood in time and place. Month by month, as we’re guided expertly from prehistory through more recent influences on the landscape, we discover how the wood has been shaped by geological forces, by landowners, foresters and craftspeople. The Chiltern’s furniture industry has played a key role in the present woodscape and the beeches also provided firewood and coppice timber. Lambridge Wood has also sheltered footpads and highwaymen - and even a ghost.
As for natural history, refreshingly, the smaller creatures are given as much attention as the more obvious ones. We take a red kite’s overview, before swooping down through the trees to the woodland floor where, with the expertise of Richard’s ex-colleagues from London’s Natural History Museum, we unearth slime moulds, craneflies, mosses and molluscs. We travel back to the canopy in a cherry-picker, foray for fungi and even get the chance to share a recipe for beech-leaf liqueur. I say we, because this is a companionable book, a tour with telescope and microscope, which will almost certainly inspire you to find out more about your local “patch”, wherever you live’- and any book which features woodlice on its cover gets my vote.
William Collins, £22
Reviewed by Brett Westwood, BBC presenter and naturalist
Author: Paul Kingsnorth
I began Paul Kingsworth’s novel in the wake of Brexit, with the news cycle on overdrive and the noise of a million impassioned opinions overwhelming. This tale of a man who isolates himself in a remote farmhouse on a West Country moor at first provided dark solace, touching on a deep, core desire for solitude from the baying crowds. But as the story unfolds, the protagonist Edward Buckmaster’s loneliness in the landscape becomes ever-more disturbing and threatening, as a strange creature appears, stalking the moors around him.
Engrossing and unnerving, Beast is an exploration of the raw truths of man and land. Kingsworth breaks down human nature to its bare bones, its fragments and fleeting passions, its fragile flesh and fractured dreams. The prose, at first taut and lean, collapses to a free-flowing frenzy, as Buckmaster’s mind and surroundings unravel.
The tale exposes how entirely bound we are to the earth, no matter how we strive to escape it. But such an existential assault makes it no easy read. Embark on this experimental novel at your mental peril, if you feel brave enough.
Faber & Faber, £12.99
Reviewed by Maria Hodson
The Swordfish and The Star
Author: Gavin Knight
Extraordinary tales from the traditional fishing communities dotted along the Penwith Peninsula in Cornwall are brought to life in The Swordfish and the Star. From stormy battles at sea to legendary pub brawls and de-fingered fishermen, this is a world away from the picture-perfect postcard view of Cornwall, with its quaint whitewash cottages and endless sandy beaches.
Bravely telling the stories of those who still work the treacherous waters of the Atlantic sea - Cornwall’s fishermen and their families - Gavin Knight eloquently depicts the harsh realities of Cornish life today. The perilous conditions endured by Cornish fishermen are told through alarming stories of horrific, and often fatal, accidents at sea, providing a haunting glimpse into Cornwall’s fishing trade.
Knight also touches on the ‘black fish’ scam, which saw owners of Cornwall’s largest fishing fleet, the Stevenson in the Port of Newlyn, fined £200,000 for catching and recording precious fish as a different species, with hake, a quota fish, being passed off as turbot, an endangered species. It is also in Newlyn that Knight finds the title of the book, merging the names of two local drinking haunts - the Swordfish Inn and the Star Inn.
Poverty and hardship is a common thread for this cast of characters, and Knight digs beneath Cornwall’s sunny exterior to highlight the issues affecting those living in one of the most deprived areas of the UK. Stories are told of a lack of jobs and darkened villages in the wintertime, as second-homes dominate the fishing villages of Cadgwith, Mevagissey and Port Issac.
While The Swordfish and the Star shows how Cornwall’s fishing communities have changed in recent times, Knight also celebrates these close-knit communities and colourful characters of the sea with great warmth. I felt sad on reaching the final chapter, as there’s a strong sense that you’ve just spent an entertaining evening in a Cornish inn and you’re not quite ready for last orders.
Chatto and Windus, £16.99
Reviewed by Carys Matthews
Tom Bullough’s latest novel charts the ups and downs of three generations of the Hamer family working the land of ‘the Funnon’, their farm tucked away in the hills of the Welsh borders.
It opens with Idris, still haunted by the horrors of the Trenches, using a horse and plough in 1941. By the time Oliver’s in charge, traditional haymaking has given way to bales of silage; then in his turn, Cefin faces the tragedy of foot-and-mouth.
It’s as much the story of seventy years of post-war agricultural developments as it is the tale of the lives of the Hamer family with the feuds, births, marriages and deaths that constitute their existence. The Hamer’s legacy is carried through the male line but through it all it’s Etty – Idris’s wife, Oliver’s mother and Cefin’s grandmother – who provides the stable, beating heart of the book.
As is the case with much contemporary nature writing, Addlands is an elegy to a world and way of life that’s fading away. Told that Cefin’s mother, a poet, has written an important post-pastoral work, Oliver replies indignantly “We in’t done in yet". In Welsh dialect, ‘addlands’ refers to “the border of plough land which is ploughed last of all” – not quite lost yet, perhaps, but only a matter of time. All the more significant, then, that Bullough captures the beauty of the landscape and those who work it in clear, unfussy always elegant prose.
Reviewed by Lucy Scholes
Six Steps Back to the Land
Author: Colin Tudge
What is to be done about British farming? Economically, it is scaffolded by subsidies and environmentally it is guilty of holocaust. Some key farmland birds, such as the grey partridge, have declined by 90% in 50 years. Soil is so degraded that we have maybe 100 harvests left.
Worried? You should be, because I’m a farmer and default defensive about the industry. If I think it’s bad… The key word here is ‘industry’. As science writer Colin Tudge explains persuasively, the woes of Western farming are largely due to chemical-loving agribusiness, where food equals profit.
Ah, some agro lobbyist says: we need the outsize farms for the high yield to feed the burgeoning billions of hungry mouths. Tudge responds by toppling shibboleths. The sound is lovely. We can already feed the world twice over – the problem is how the food is portioned between Fatty West and Thinny Africa. Besides, and frankly this fact alone is worth the purchase price, as a general rule the smaller the farm, the more produce per acre, because the land there is better tended.
Tudge has pages of food-for-thought. In manifesto mood, he proposes six steps to the goal of “enlightened agriculture”, which is organic plus – the plus being true biodiversity and a million farmers in the UK, mostly working in communal enterprises. Yes, it is bit of a dream. Big Farmer would try and strangle Tudge’s ‘Agrarian Renaissance’ in regulation. But we do need something like it. Soon.
Green Books, £17.99
Reviewed by John Lewis-Stempel, farmer and author of Meadowland and The Running Hare
22 Ideas That Saved the English Countryside
Authors: Peter Waine and Oliver Hilliam
This timely compendium of 22 essays by a former chairman and the communications officer of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) is enlivened by short introductions by some of the country’s leading conservationists and celebrities.
CPRE president Andrew Motion claims in his foreword that the English countryside is a great collaborative masterpiece, and our greatest gift to the world. And in their introduction, the authors take the optimistic view that a book celebrating the ideas that saved it must, to some extent, mean that it has been saved.
But the introductory essays by people as diverse as Kate Adie, Tony Robinson, Simon Jenkins and Max Hastings prove that this is anything but the case, and that the need for eternal vigilance and vigorous defence is as strong as it ever was.
Take Joan Bakewell’s strident take on litter. She appeals for more education to teach children that it’s just wrong. “Litter is a blight we can defeat. And we must,” she says. And comedian Jo Brand is equally forthright about cutting the clutter of garish advertising, which is strewn along our rural roads.
TV wilderness guru Ray Mears reckons that the provision of Green Belts around our cities was one of the most successful acts in the history of conservation. But he adds: “The moment you dig at it, you put a hole in the dyke, and you can’t put it back. If anything, we should be trying to extend the Green Belt.”
Frances Lincoln, £25
Reviewed by Roly Smith
Author: Lucy Jones
From the deepest countryside to busy city streets, foxes seem ever-present across the UK, constantly flickering at the edges of our consciousness. Of course, that brings a range of opinions with them – from wildlife-starved commuters welcoming a flash of their intriguing magic, to the frustrated farmer with dead chickens on his hands.
Lucy Jones deftly explores the natural mystery and controversy surrounding one of the UK’s largest natural predators in this book, weaving an intricate story that takes in news reports, folk stories, interviews and her own experiences. She discovers our deep cultural connection with this adaptable, omnivorous mammal, via its numerous fictional portrayals as a cunning trickster and loveable rogue. She also delves deep into the real world of fox hunting, exploring all sides of a contentious debate.
What emerges in Foxes Unearthed is a complex portrayal, not just of an often-misunderstood wild animal, but also our multifaceted relationship with it. As Jones puts it, “[The fox] is a character, an emblem, a flint for emotions and ethical questions; in short, he poses something of a quandary for us here in Britain, in both town and country.”
Elliott and Thompson, £14.99
Reviewed by Heather McKay
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