Posted by: billpurdue | January 6, 2013

Natural History of an English village

I wonder how many books there are about the natural history of Great Britain? Probably hundreds I suppose, from the glossy coffee table type to the rather dry academic type. The book I’ve been reading is neither of the above. Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: the natural History of an English Village by Stephen Moss is a month by month account of the changes in the natural surroundings of his village in the Somerset Levels down in the West Country. It’s a very evocative  account of the natural events he sees around him as the months of the year go by. I found that I became envious of him living in such a lovely part of the country,( though I wonder what the recent rainy period has brought for that area, being so low lying). He writes about the migrating birds, the March hares and the decline in numbers of certain species. He writes about the local features of the landscape, the parish church, the churchyard with its yew trees and the rhynes,( a local name for a drainage ditch) and ‘droves’, ancient tracks  used in olden times to take livestock to market.

Wild Hares

Mr Moss is well placed to write a book such as this, being a producer of TV natural history programmes, notably Springwatch. He has worked with many of the great and the good in the world of natural history – David Attenborough, Chris Packham, Kate Humble and Simon King, to name just four. Just take a look at his website to find out the awards and honours he has received. When I started to read this book, I have to admit that his name didn’t sound familiar, but now I know why the book is so good. I think that it is probably best to read a chapter a month, so that you can look out for the animals and birds he writes about at the appropriate time of year.

[Vintage, £8.99 9780099552468. no illus. apart from a line drawing for the start of each monthly chapter]

A few weeks ago I went to hear Catherine Bailey speak at the Sheffield Hallam University about her latest book, Secret Rooms, of which more in a moment. I was slightly disappointed to find that it was not a talk as such, but a sort of interview with Catherine Bailey along with Martyn Johnson, author of What’s Tha up to?: memories of a Yorkshire Bobby. Bailey is best known for her previous book, Black Diamonds, about the Fitzwilliam family of that enormous stately home not far from Barnsley, Wentworth Woodhouse. It was Martyn Johnson who helped Catherine Bailey to do her research for that book, so it was anticipated, rightly as it turned out, that there would be plenty of questions from the audience regarding Black Diamonds. Having read this book, I was keen to find out more about Secret Rooms, the result of much searching the archives at Belvoir Castle in north Leicestershire, but there was far more about her first book than her new release.

Secret rooms

The reviews about the new book, of which there are many, are a bit mixed – just google the title and see what comes up. A friend of mine gave me a cutting from the Daily Mail: Kathryn Hughes calls it a ‘jumble of stories’ with a ‘rambling narrative’. Other reviewers are a little more complementary, but Frances Wilson in The Guardian even calls it ‘silly’. The only way to find out what it’s really like of course is to get hold of it yourself and that’s what I intend to do, but I’m going to get it from the library, not buy a copy.

[Viking, £20 978-0670917556]

I’m reading…

Green and Pleasant Land by Dudley Barker, a novel written in the 1950s. I’m enjoying it now that I have ‘got into it’.


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