Saturday, 21 September 2019

St Cuthbert’s Church in Wells

A few years ago when I was feeling rather sad, I happened to go into St Cuthbert’s in Wells to get some Christmas cards. It was November and the weather matched my mood.

I am not a religious person, but being in the church lightened and lifted my mood. It was very marked. I came out feeling - well, it sounds fanciful, but blessed. 

Today I went in again, to see if it would have the same effect. It wasn’t quite as noticeable, but there was something: I felt soothed. It’s not a feeling I’ve had in any other church, though I have had a similar sense on the hill and by the sea. 

Anyway, make of that what you will - while I was there I noticed a couple of things. One was the ceiling, which is extraordinary: I can’t imagine how I failed to see it before. They call it an ‘angel roof’ - for obvious reasons - and it dates from the 15th century. 

The other thing relates to Saint Cuthbert. Apparently no-one really knows what the link is between him and this church - he’s very much a product of the northeast. He is associated with Lindisfarne - a place I’m very fond of - and he’s buried at Durham, where I was at university. During the war, he’s said to have saved the cathedral from destruction during a raid by German bombers, by summoning a mist to cloak the tower and hide it from view. I’ve written a short story about this. 

The only apparent link with Somerset is that he’s said to have appeared in a dream to King Alfred and encouraged him to keep on fighting the pesky Vikings when, to be honest, any sensible person would have given up. And I’ve written a book about Alfred, called Warrior King. 

I don’t suppose any of this means anything at all. But I like the sense of there being links. And I like the feeling that maybe - just maybe - I have Saint Cuthbert in my corner. 

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Girl. Boy. Sea. - by Chris Vick

For quite a while now, I've not read much fiction, either for adults or for children, which has really 'blown my socks off.' (For the attribution of this very useful phrase, please see this post about an enthusiastic guide at the Lascaux Caves.) 

But happily, that's recently changed - I've read several very good novels indeed. I've just finished this one, and it's blown my socks right to the other side of Cheddar Reservoir. It's called Girl. Boy. Sea., and it's about exactly what it says in the title: a girl and a boy adrift in a boat on a wide, wide sea.

Bill is crewing a boat with half a dozen other fourteen to sixteen year-olds - they're getting in shape for the Youth Sail Challenge. They are twelve nautical miles north of the Canaries when they get warning of a nasty squall. The boat is badly damaged; everyone else manages to get into the life raft, but after a series of mishaps, Bill finds himself adrift alone in a small boat, the tender. 

More storms ensue, but gradually subside. Bill has managed to grab some supplies from the boat before it sank, so he has some food and water - enough for a few days. Then he comes across another castaway, a girl clinging to a barrel. She is a Berber, and her name is Aya.

They manage to communicate, in a mixture of French and English. She will say very little about where she is from, what her story is. At the beginning, Bill realises that now he will have to share his meagre supplies - but it is such a relief to have company that he soon forgets about this, and they become close. They drift for days - puzzlingly, there is no sign of anyone searching for Bill, although he is sure that his parents will be determined to find him. They drift on, under a hot sun. Bill works out a way to make a small supply of water through evaporation (he is a very resourceful boy) - and they manage to catch some sea creatures which they eat, raw, because they have to if they want to live.

Eventually Aya begins to tell Bill stories, apparently from the Arabian Nights. Bill is enthralled, just as the Sultan was in the stories, and the stories are entrancing. 

And then, when they are almost at the end of what they can cope with, they spot an island. It's tiny, but it has water and coconut trees. Unfortunately, it also has another inhabitant - one who Aya is not at all pleased to see.

The adventure continues: it would spoil it to explain how. Suffice it to say that the story opens out: it comes to be about some of the harshest realities for people living on our planet. The island (which, we learn later, appears on no chart) may seem like a paradise island compared to the hell of drifting without food or water on an unforgiving ocean, but in truth, it provides no escape from the hell which humans create for each other.

Yet, as Aya explains when she tells the first of her stories, about Pandora's box, there is always hope. And there is love and kindness, in the relationship between Aya and Bill, and as evinced by some of the adult characters who help them. It's a beautiful book. The writing is spare, with short sentences that move the story crisply on: yet it's also, when it needs to be, lyrical. For example, this: 

There was metal sky above us now, and light ahead. It was a race to the light, but we were losing. The storm drew over us like a cloak.

I suppose you would say that this is a book for teenagers. But really, it's for anyone who appreciates excellent writing: if adults don't read books like this, they are missing out. It deals with big themes, but also, viscerally, with the reality of what it would actually be like to be adrift on the ocean. It's elegant, in its lack of any extraneous verbiage. I'm chancing it here, because it's a long time since I read any Hemingway, but perhaps there's a hint of The Old Man And The Sea about it. And perhaps, too, a hint of The Lord of the Flies, though it's ultimately much more uplifting than that. 

And just a word about the cover - I can't find a credit as to who did it, but I think it's completely stunning.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Wilding, by Isabella Tree

Wilding is an extraordinary book. It's horrifying, uplifting, a catalogue of things to despair about, a litany of things to be hopeful about. It changes the way you see the world - even well-known and much-loved landscapes. It's sobering, but also intoxicating.

It's about an ancient estate in Sussex called Knepp Castle. Charlie Burrell, the husband of the writer, Isabella Tree, had taken the estate over from his grandmother in 1987 and immediately set about modernising it: '... he began doing what every modern farmer is supposed to do: rationalise, intensify, diversify, and, if possible, spread fixed costs over a larger area.' The five tenant farms were struggling and ready to give up, so Charlie took them all back and began to amalgamate the dairies, streamline and improve farm buildings, and invest in expensive machinery. What happened next is complicated - but basically, for all sorts of reasons, it didn't work. By 1999 it was clear that the business was not viable: intensive farming, which was supposed to lead to healthy profits, was in fact resulting in huge losses. It couldn't go on.

It just so happened that in 1999, they had invited a tree expert called (appropriately) Ted Green, to come and investigate whether a 550 year-old oak tree could possibly be saved. He was optimistic, and he moved on to examine the other great oaks on the estate. He explained to the Burrells that they too were at risk - and the reason wasn't age: it was ploughing and compaction of soil due to cattle grazing. 

A tree's roots may extend two and a half times the radius of the crown, not far below the surface of the soil, where oxygen is available. But the roots are just the beginning. From the roots there extends a network of mycorrhizae - tiny filaments of fungus which take carbohydrates from the tree, but in return supply it with water and essential nutrients. It's far more complicated than that - but if this huge network is disturbed, the health of the plant, or tree, is affected. It's also affected by insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, all of which are part of the armoury of a modern farmer.

This is just one tiny piece of the jigsaw of reasons that made the Burrells decide to take a radically different approach: they would allow nature to take the lead, and see what happened. They were inspired by a Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera, who had used a similar approach on a reserve in the Netherlands called the Oostvaardersplassen. He believed in minimal intervention, in allowing natural processes to develop. This would, he thought - and actually did - result in a tremendous increase in biodiversity. It began when huge numbers of greylag geese found the marshy land, and consumed the vegetation that would otherwise have clogged up the open water. But to keep the geese coming, they needed grassland. So they introduced old, tough breeds of cattle and horses, similar to the large animals that would once have grazed the land thousands of years ago. And they left them to get on with it.

Well, it's all much more complicated than that. But perhaps you begin to get the idea. At the beginning of the book, Isabella Tree writes about turtle doves. There are now a number of pairs of turtle doves at Knepp - but almost nowhere else in Britain. The decline in numbers of this bird is far greater in the UK than anywhere else. Our population density is actually higher than that of India: there are so many of us that the pressure of any 'spare' bits of land is immense. Here in my own place, Cheddar, over the last forty years small orchards have disappeared, large gardens have been halved, fields are disappearing as we speak - because there are more of us, and we need more houses. So the wild places are disappearing, and with them, the nourishment that turtle doves, and many other species, need. 

Of course it's not all bad. There are success stories, such as the reintroduction of red kites, the increase in otters due to cleaner waterways, and so on. But overall, it's a sad story. 'In 1966, according to the RSPB, there were 40 million more birds in the UK than there are today.' There's a terrible list of declining species, but perhaps an effective indicator of the situation is that in terms of lost biodiversity, the UK is ranked twenty-ninth lowest out of 218 countries.

The book tells the story of how the 'wilding' of Knepp has led to massively increased biodiversity, and to the reappearance of masses of species of flora and fauna which have become rare elsewhere in our crowded country. It's absolutely packed with evidence and information - so much so that it's actually difficult to take it all in at one reading. One thing - it is not anti-farming. Clearly, this approach cannot be put into practice everywhere. But there is an enormous amount to be learned from it, and much that can be applied elsewhere. Even in small ways: I know now that ragwort, far from being the poisonous pest I had believed it to be, is actually an enormously valuable food source for many birds and insects during the autumn months - and is only very rarely damaging to horses and cattle. (Had I actually taken note of the evidence of my own eyes, I would have realised this; there is a great deal of ragwort on our hill, and in thirty five years, I've never once heard of any of the cattle that graze up there being made ill by it.) Towards the end of the book, Isabella Tree discusses how she envisages lots of small patches of wilderness in the UK - but joined up, connected, so that wild life has its own habitat alongside ours, instead of being gradually squeezed to the margins, and then to extinction.

Ragwort on the hill

On the nature-writing course I attended recently, and which I wrote about a couple of posts back, I was surprised to hear one of the tutors, Mark Cocker, say sadly after a walk down to the sea that he had passed fields that were little more than a desert in terms of wild life. But now I know exactly what he means. He talked also about how we, like all other living things, are part of a complex network of systems - like, perhaps, the ancient oaks with their mycorrhizae: everything is interdependent. If we lose a species of dung beetle - it matters. Yet we are losing masses of species, some we may not even have known existed.

We need to know about this stuff - and this book is a very good place to start.

Monday, 2 September 2019

A charm of goldfinches

You might look at this picture and think - why? Nice sky, reservoir in the distance, but otherwise there's nothing much to see - just a big patch of rather dull looking scrub in the foreground.

But this morning, that scrub was full of life. I stood and watched it for a while. It's mainly brambles, buddleia and ragwort - you can just see a golden ragwort flower in the centre, but mostly it's gone to seed.

First I saw the butterflies. Mainly white ones, a few patterned brown ones which I think were probably Painted Ladies - I couldn't get close enough to be sure.

Then I saw a couple of goldfinches. I only had my phone with me, so knew I wasn't going to get a good picture, but tried to raise it very slowly and - up they flew. But not only those two. At least twenty fluttered up into the sky, and off they flew as one, dipping and diving, all together - not golden as they caught the sunlight, but silver. Magical.

I looked again. I saw a small bird, I think on a thistle. It was palest grey, quite difficult to see against the thistledown, with a soot-black head. I'm guessing it was a blackcap, though I'm no expert. Even more slowly than before, I raised the camera.

Too late again. But it didn't matter. The picture shows an absence of birds and butterflies. But they were there. I saw them.

Just before the goldfinches, I had come through a wood where, a couple of weeks ago I saw this flower. This picture really doesn't do it justice. It was more of a ruby red, jewel-like, with the white stamens a sharp contrast. I've never seen it before up on the hill (which is in the Mendip range, so limestone.) I showed the picture to my friend Liz, who is a botanist, and she told me it's called 'codlins and cream', or more prosaically, greater willowherb. It normally grows in great numbers, apparently - in ditches. Isn't it a lovely name? But it's a bit odd, because I can see where the cream comes from, but a codling is apparently a green apple. I think it's quite interesting that the single plant was noteworthy for its beauty - it really stood out in the green of the wood - yet although I'm sure I must have seen it growing in its normal habitat, I've never really seen it before.

I'd intended to take a better picture of it today, but I couldn't see it. I guess the flowers had dropped.