From a monthly guide to Britain's wildflowers to an enticing browse through our finest pubs, we've chosen 13 of our favourite reads this month. They'll delight you and make great gifts for book lovers this Christmas
Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to British Birds
Author: Bill Bailey
Is there no end to Bill Bailey’s talents? The musician, comedian and actor proves himself a gifted naturalist, writer and illustrator in this Remarkable Guide.
A keen twitcher since childhood, Bailey presents an A to Z of some of the country’s most well-known birds, complete with offbeat descriptions, curious facts and amusing sketches. We hear about the incredible migration of the Arctic tern, the undeserved low reputation of the crow family and how human couples might get cohabitation tips from the tawny owl.
Taking pleasure in the ordinary is a prominent theme. As Bailey says, "beauty is often in the commonplace" and some of the most engaging passages are saved for widespread birds such as the Wood Pigeon and the Robin. A master of observing life and injecting it with surreal humour, Bailey applies his whimsy to the avian world, likening an encounter with puffins to meeting a ‘gang of tiny pirates from Somerset’.
Bailey’s passion for the subject shines throughout and he gives a real sense of birdwatching as a grounding experience that can enrich your life. As well as inspiring and entertaining, the book also serves as a gentle reminder that many species are in decline, with others having returned from the brink of extinction, and the importance of continued conservation efforts to protect them.
Quercus Books: £20
Reviewer, Sam Swannack
Author: Pete Brown
In this beautifully presented compendium of Britain’s finest pubs, author and beer expert Pete Brown reveals a treasure trove of UK watering holes. The tone is lively, entertaining and informal, as though you are sat at a table listening to "the beer drinker's Bill Bryson" over a pint. Brown captures the character and quirks of each establishment, its publican and customers, and groups his findings in loose categories that range from ‘architecturally interesting pubs’ to 'great food pubs' and ‘railway pubs’.
Pubs are notoriously difficult to photograph well, but the charming, colourful images here convey the distinct flavour of each of the various inns and taverns. It's fascinating to explore the broad and varied scope of the nation's locals, and to witness the importance of these cultural and communal institutions. A large coffee-table tome, The Pub is an enticing book that will make you long to wet your whistle as you browse its pages.
Jacqui Small: £22
Reviewer, Maria Hodson
Author: Nick Hayes
Something a little different, Nick Hayes’s handsome Cormorance is a graphic novel without words. It tells the moving story of two children, each of whom is struggling with the loss of a loved one, who find something of a safe haven in a deserted reservoir hidden in the heart of London’s East End. This urban wilderness provides the beating heart of the book, beautifully brought to life in Hayes’s sumptuous illustrations, most notably in the stunning fold-out four-page spread that marks a turning point in the narrative in which the reservoir is depicted in panorama – a city skyline on the horizon, the flora and fauna around the water’s edge, bulrushes, willowy grasses and butterflies blowing in the wind, bees supping on blossoming flowers, a majestic kingfisher surveying his kingdom, swans drifting across the water, a heron swooping in to land. It’s a wordless book, but not a silent one. The “caaaawwk” of the cormorance runs like a refrain throughout the story, eventually joined by other feathered friends; each “cheep”, “kreeyah” and “cheyahcheyah” a distinctive voice. Although set in the modern day – there’s a hipster dad, complete with groomed moustache and pipe – Hayes’s work has the feel of that of William Morris.
Jonathan Cape, £18.99
Reviewer, Lucy Scholes
The Making of the British Landscape: From the Ice Age to the Present
Author: Nicholas Crane
Most of us know Nicholas Crane as either ‘the map man’ or the amiable, enthusiastic host of BBC TV’s superb Coast, but his TV persona is but a jaunty porthole on the expertise and knowledge behind The Making of the British Landscape.
It’s a doorstop of a volume at well over 500 pages, but it twinkles with more than enough enthusiasm to propel the reader through a 12,000 year journey over the British landscape. Crane, who is a longtime Fellow and now President of the Royal Geographical Society, has pulled together archeology, history, geography, geology and cartography into an eminently readable study of Britain and how the concept of ‘place’ evolved on these islands, from the first colonisers that followed the retreat of the glaciers to the application of asphalt and installation of traffic lights twelve millennia later.
It’s a fulsome account and every page of it is spent in the moment that Crane is lingering in, painting landscapes as they once were, noting the wildlife and the likely weather, transporting us in every sense to the there and then. And he doesn’t take it all too seriously either, slipping in observations of how the Romans ‘gave us a good duffing’ or digressing to caricature the curmudgeonly author of The Making of the English Landscape – W G Hoskins – mostly in Hoskins’ own words.
A definitive, encyclopaedic read, but also an evocative paean to the evolution of our scenery, The Making of the British Landscape is a revealing glimpse of the Britain that once was and how we made it the place we know today.
BBC Books: £20
Reviewer, Ian Vince
Author: Alan Partridge
Alan Partridge traverses certain parts of Britain in Denise and Fernando, the walking boots he's named after his grown children. Steve Coogan’s comedy creation stalks the hills and towns of Britain in his entertainingly small-minded and large-ego style.
Commended by its publishers as "beautifully punctuated" and packed with "nod-inducing pieces of wisdom", Nomad charts Alan's attempt to walk 160 miles in the footsteps of his father, the man he simply called 'Papa'. Venturing from his birthplace of Norwich to the mighty form of Dungeness Nuclear Power Station on the Kent coast, Alan dons his Denise-and-Fernando walking boots, windcheater and John Lewis scarf in his deeply personal quest to write a deeply personal memoir.
Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey
Author: Madeline Bunting
“As early as the 1800s visitors were already complaining of sharing their visit” with other tourists in search of “wilderness, solitude and contemplation”, writes historian Madeline Bunting of the Inner Herbridean island of Staffa in Love of Country. It’s sort of comforting to know that even then people were trying and failing to escape each other. This Hebridean journey is both a personal one, to recapture the islands of Bunting’s childhood holidays, and a historical one, which traces the islander identity up to modern Scotland.
She finds great rewards from braving the inhospitable conditions and shorelines, “no friend to boats or people”, often borrowing the words of writers from Virginia Woolf to George Orwell, to evoke the feeling of going ‘north’, to the edge of the continent.
By the end of the 18th century, the Hebrides were drawn into Britain’s impulse to map itself, of its people’s desire to know the country and therefore themselves, opening it up to an influx of visitors, writers and artists who would record their emotional responses to its landscapes and isolation. Keats would lament in a poem that his fellow visitors could “Unweave/All the magic of the place”.
With stronger links to civilization, industry and commerce, came the transferring of the islands from its people to landowners, leading to the ruthless eviction of their inhabitants. The repercussions of this are still felt in Scottish politics and identity today.
Bunting effectively weaves together the islands’ rich histories and culture with her own experience of feeling “both at home and abroad” on these often uninviting but welcoming islands.
Reviewed by Rachael Stiles
Author: Cynan Jones
Cynan Jones’ Cove is a mere slip of a book, but the story it tells, of the battle between a lone fisherman and the elements, packs a punch far above its weight.
Having headed out to sea in his kayak, a nameless man is swept up in a sudden storm. Clouds roll in, the waves whip up and then lightning strikes. He wakes, goodness knows how long later – “The time in between was gone. Like a cigarette burn in a map” – injured, adrift far from the shore, and with just the dimmest of recollections where his memory should be: “The idea of breath on his neck lay under everything. A suspicion someone had been left behind.”
So begins a race against time as, struggling with the pain of his injuries and relying only on the pitiful resources available to him, he attempts to make it back to land. It’s a gruelling, gripping read, a ragged, desperate search for a safe haven: “Find a cove. Get yourself a cove with fresh water, and you will survive,” our hero tells himself. “You can eat limpets if you have to.”
There’s no slack here, every word counts in prose that’s stripped back and pared down to something akin to poetry. It’s Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea meets JC Chandor’s maritime disaster film All is Lost. Nature at its most brutal, and man at his most exposed, poised between “myth” – if he doesn’t return – and “legend” – if he does.
Reviewer, Lucy Scholes
Peaks and Troughs
Author: Nick Perry
It’s 1969 and Nick Perry and his brother Jack inherit the tidy sum of £6,000 each. Tired with swinging London and inspired by the organic philosophies of Rudolf Steiner, Nick decides to buy a farm in the hills of North Wales, and sets off in a rickety van with his wife Ros and two young twins in tow. Arriving at a dilapidated property in the middle of nowhere, he wonders what he has let himself in for and sets about giving himself a crash-course in agriculture.
At Nick’s new home we meet a range of charming and not-so-charming folk - cheeky odd job man Harry, hippy Rob, jovial postman Dewi and Nick’s fiery, disapproving mother-in-law Eryl. Also central is Nick’s prize boar, Rattlerow King David the 57th - Dave for short - whose personality and prodigious sexual appetite provide much comic relief. These colourful characters provide a range of friendships and feuds that keep you engaged throughout.
Peaks and Troughs is a humorous, touching memoir about the trials of being an outsider and the challenge of making a new life for yourself. It charts Perry’s efforts to build a profitable business where others had failed, and the satisfaction of being self-sufficient and living off the land. Surprisingly for such an outwardly breezy book, it also touches upon the deep ways in which tragedy can affect our outlook and behaviour. A solid debut.
Reviewer, Sam Swannack
Wildflowers of Britain Month by Month
Author: Margaret Wilson
A lovely little guide through Britain’s wildflowers by month. Margaret Erskine Wilson’s watercolour illustrations, made over a 45-year period, comprise over 1,000 species and are truly charming.
Wilson was president of the Kendal Natural History Society and a keen amateur botanist. In 1999, she donated 150 sheets of watercolour paintings of wildflowers, painted in situ over many years throughout Britain. She began her paintings in 1943, when a friend said to her; "I might learn the names of flowers if you drew them for me, in the months they're in flower". So she did, and the results are enchanting. Wilson's love of the subject matter and her wonderfully accurate paintings leap from the page, and help readers learn the names of our delicate and delightful wildflowers. A botanical treasure.
Merlin Unwin Books: £8.99
Reviewer, Maria Hodson
The Ethical Carnivore
Author: Louise Gray
This book is a mix of an expose of ‘factory’ farming blended with a John Buchan novel on hunting, shooting and fishing. The author takes us on a personal journey of her year’s quest to kill and source her meat. It’s not without heartfelt emotion, from when she shoots her first rabbit, to her trauma at experiencing abattoir operations first-hand - "the evisceration is too strong, no wonder we protect ourselves from it".
The author doesn’t shy from difficult subjects. She meets ‘pragmatic, unsentimental’ RSPCA inspectors, delves into halal slaughter and engages with those ‘looking like businessman not farmers’ on indoor poultry and caged salmon. She shoots a lamb, stalks a stag and annoys trawler men over dogfish (‘you know it’s a shark?’), nibbles insects and hunts roadkill.
Either seeking to please all readers or being conflicted by her experiences, the author wobbles on the fence. She happily kills ‘vermin’ rabbit for the pot, yet finds it hard to stomach other types of shooting already subject to condemnation by those wishing to ban most field sports (On being told to be a predator, she admits ‘I have no killer instinct’). As someone versed in the relevant subjects, I was conscious that little space was given to framing the complex conservation issues around both game shooting and farming practices.
Rightly lambasting us for only eating five species of fish and questioning why conservation organisations don’t challenge their members’ diet, she concludes, in a thoughtful ‘Author’s Note’, that we can empower ourselves to think more about from where our meat originates.
Reviewer, Rob Yorke
Hidden Histories: A Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape
Author: Mary-Ann Ochota
Recent growth of ‘nature writing’ as a literary genre of its own threatens to eclipse the contribution made by field guides – the very books that satisfy curiosity, identify species and help us understand natural processes in the first place. Works like Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom’s Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe and Oliver Rackham’s History of the Countryside are as important to appreciation of the poetry of our countryside as any narrative journey through it and in Hidden Histories, a definitive classic field guide on a neglected area of interest – the landscape itself – is born.
Billed as ‘a spotter’s guide to the British landscape’, Hidden Histories is all of that and much more – a synthesis of enough salient points of archeology, architecture, geography and anthropology to answer the questions of any landscape or village history detective.
Split into logical, discrete sections of landscape features, the text doesn’t stop at identification alone, adding detail, context and colour to every feature. There is more than enough detail in Hidden Histories to satisfy landscape detectives from the merely curious to the advanced. With seemingly everything covered from Neolithic hummocks to Gothic parapet spires, its scope is as magnificent as our countryside itself.
Frances Lincoln: £25
Reviewed by Ian Vince
Author: Ben Fogle
Not only a history of Land Rover from 1947 to 2016, this is also a history of Britain and the countries in which Land Rover has been involved in a wide variety of situations, from military conflicts to expeditions of discovery.
Author Ben Fogle is no stranger to this machine and has spent years driving one, travelling to television shoots and taking the family around town. In the course of his book, he meets enthusiasts and businesses making a living from the vehicle. Many landscapes blend in to its historic journey, from Islay in Scotland, where the first trials were conducted, to its use in the Falklands. Colour photographs illustrate the wide range of machines into which the 4x4s have been converted, from hearses to the world's most expensive mobile phone. This is not just for the motor freak but for anyone interested in history and the countryside at large.
Reviewer, John Miles
Arboreal: A collection of words from the woods
Ed. by Adrain Cooper
Arboreal is a beautiful collection that brings together a chorus of highly distinct voices describing the majesty of Britain’s woodlands. This, of course, is a landscape that’s changed irrevocably over the last two centuries, and along with it our relationship with trees – no longer primarily identified as sources of heat, food and shelter – is increasingly distant in the contemporary day and age.
If many of us don’t have an intimate relationship with the woodlands around us – “dynamic, living societies,” as the volume’s editor Adrian Cooper reminds us – the writers, woodland ecologists, architects and foresters et al writing here each make visceral their own experiences with a patch of woodland close to their heart (plotted on a map at the beginning of the collection, together these cover the length and breadth of the country).
Poetry, fiction, memoir, history; each contributor chooses a different medium, and descriptions of real coppices sit side-by-side with fictional copses, metaphorical spinneys and memory forests. Complementing the text are images of the artistic works that constituted Common Ground’s 1986 Trees, Woods and the Green Man project, the aim of which was to explore “the natural and cultural value of trees,” and this new collection provides the perfect follow-up/companion piece to the earlier endeavour.
Like the rich, dense British woodlands of yore that supported a wealth of different species of trees, Arboreal – dedicated to the late historical ecologist Oliver Rackham, whose final book, The Ash Tree, was also published by this volume’s editor – is teeming with life.
Little Toller Books: £20
Reviewer, Lucy Scholes
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