Country Books

Lose yourself in this month's essential reads, including Stuart Maconie's search for middle England, Joe Swift's beginners guide to allotments and the plight of British birds

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Adventures on the High Teas: In Search of Middle England
By Stuart Maconie
Ebury Press – £11.99 – Paperback, 344 pages – ISBN: 9780091926502

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Popular Radio 2 presenter Stuart Maconie has a penchant for writing books with punning titles. His Pies and Prejudice and Cider with Roadies were both bestsellers, and even though this latest pun is diabolical,the book deserves to do just as well.
His mission is to locate Middle England, then reveal its essence. While acknowledging that it is primarily a state of mind rather than a geographical location, he begins his journey at Meriden, Warwickshire, slap in the centre of the country. It proves an apposite starting point, embracing many of the landmarks he will soon recognise as being central to his quest: the high street charity shops, the leisure and craft centres, the historic pub (ideally full of quotable locals) and the fish and chip shop. Those last two interest him most, for he is a compulsive grazer, stuffing himself at every opportunity. That he even puts in a good word for Turkey Twizzlers tells you much about his approach: he is on the side of the ordinary against the pretentious. He resents the likes of Jamie Oliver telling us what is good for us, yet he welcomes the gastropub’s more adventurous menu than the gelatinous pies that once constituted pub fare.
Food is just one theme in this engaging travelogue. Maconie is strong, too, on music and literature, searching out the towns and villages that have influenced our perceptions of Middle England. He has fun following the trails of Inspector Morse in Oxford, Mrs Gaskell in Knutsford, Cheshire, and Jane Austen in Bath. He also scours the Buckinghamshire villages that provide the setting for Midsomer Murders, ever fearful of stumbling over something gruesome in the spinney.
This is a high-spirited and perceptive guide to our national foibles, laced with wit and insight. No Middle Englander – and that means most of us – will fail to enjoy it.

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Michael Leapman is an author and journalist who writes about travel and gardening

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The Rambler’s Countryside Companion
by E Mansell
Cassell Illustrated –  £9.99 –  Hardback, 192 pages – ISBN: 9781844036691

Most people never register birdsong, but once you’re told which bird is singing what song, it opens up a whole new world. This delightful guidebook provides the tools for reading the landscape to discover history that is overlooked by others. For example, when you learn that shallow humps on downland are actually the tombs of forgotten kings, you can’t fail to be seized by the magic in our countryside.
Each chapter deals with a variety of landscape features or cultural oddities, from milestones and stocks to village greens and toby jugs. There is no particular order but each little history lesson is charmingly written.
Its tone is very different to modern guidebooks, which dwell on the tedious practicalities of accommodation rather than offering personality and atmosphere. And that’s because this isn’t modern. It is a reprint – with original fonts and line drawings – of a book first published in 1952. But it only feels dated when it talks about country crafts and customs – at least we still have morris dancing.
This is a book to give you a warm glow inside and a yearning to get outside.

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Fergus Collins is Features editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine

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Joe’s Allotment
by Joe Swift
BBC Books –  £17.99 – Hardback, 223 pages – ISBN: 9781846076725

There are plenty of would-be allotmenteers out there and Joe Swift, most familiar as the affable Gardeners’ World presenter, has captured the grow-your-own zeitgeist in this book. Joe is a garden designer, so his decision meant tackling veg growing as a beginner.
The book is both a practical guide and personal account of his first year, from acquiring the site through to planning the plot, sowing and growing.
Written in Joe’s friendly tone, he talks you through the seasons, highlighting key tasks and giving his recommendations of what to grow and how to grow it. There’s advice on all aspects of plot life and first-hand accounts of what worked for Joe – and what went wrong.
Part of the delight of owning an allotment is the sense of community that goes with it, and Joe is quick to pass on tips he’s received from neighbouring plotholders. It’s also encouraging to read his list of plot essentials for those of us too busy to manage more than one day a week at the allotment.

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Sorrel Everton is Deputy editor of Gardens Illustrated

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While Flocks Last
by Charlie Elder
Bantham Press – £14.99 – Hardback, 300 pages – ISBN: 9780593061046

It’s easy to see why birdwatching is growing in popularity. For a start, most of us only have to look out of the window to try the hobby. Secondly, it’s free (well, until you start buying expensive binoculars and charging around the country to spot rare finds, of course).
But the trouble is that it’s also more than a little daunting. Even seasoned birders still find identification tricky and it’s easy to feel a bit of a tool when you don’t know what’s going on or what you’re looking at.
Books such as While Flocks Last help you realise that you’re not on your own. In How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher-style, this is a funny, enduring chronicle of a man who has rediscovered a childhood passion for birds. It is full of amusing anecdotes of mistakes, despairing family memories and wild goose chases. It also packs a punch, as Elder sets out to see all 40 of our Red List birds in one year. Through his journeys we see what’s being done to save some of our rarest birds, and what an uphill challenge that actually is.

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Cavan Scott is the Editor of Countryfile Magazine

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A Shropshire Lad
by A. E. Housman
Merlin Unwin Books – £20 – Hardback, 116 pages – ISBN: 9781906122065

A Shropshire Lad was first published in 1896 by the author himself, a young man just setting out on a successful academic career. It is the fruit of an unrequited love, to which Housman never referred.
The poems are mostly about young men, lovelorn, exiled, grieving, dying, drinking and soldiering on. Gloomy stuff, but it has proved one of the most popular collections in our language. On Wenlock Edge The Wood’s In Trouble and Loveliest Of Trees The Cherry Now are rightly cherished by millions of readers for their beauty and for the way they encapsulate feelings which most of us can share.
Housman did not even know Shropshire, but he could just see the Clee Hills from his boyhood home near Bromsgrove. His imagined landscape is both an image of his lost love and a healing balm.
The novelty in this edition is the photographs. Gareth Thomas has captured some evocative images of Shropshire hills, spires and farms, and managed to exclude the depredations of the 20th century. The introductory remarks by Professor Christopher Ricks are sharp, while David Lloyd offers as judicious an account of Housman’s life as you could give in two pages. Like the poems, this handsome edition will give lasting pleasure to many.

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Andrew Bannerman lectures on great writers

WHAT COUNTRY RELATED BOOKS ARE YOU READING AT THE MOMENT OR WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO OTHERS? CLICK HERE TO DISCUSS THEM ON OUR FORUM


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THESE BOOK REVIEWS FIRST APPEARED IN ISSUE 21 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE, SUBSCRIBE NOW!