Perils and pleasures of island life

I’M not the greatest fan of travel writers.

Obviously, there are exceptions like the legendary Clive James and we all appreciate the sharpest observations of Theroux or Bryson, but for the most part I’d sooner be travelling than reading about someone else’s journey.

Jealousy, perhaps? But it’s not a lot better with nature writers. I genuinely want to savour their words of wisdom but although the bookshop shelves are groaning under the weight of a whole new generation of writers exploring the natural world, many seem to lack sufficient humour or depth to truly engage the reader.

But The Guardian’s natural history writer Patrick Barkham is an exception – and one who defies stereotypes as easily as he crosses literary genres.

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Not only is it hard to neatly categorise his work, but he also seems to brilliantly tread that fine line between caring about things intensely without becoming too pompous, pessimistic or pretentious when it comes to sharing his passion.

Barkham is a convivial travelling companion whose infectious vitality is matched by a ferocious curiosity and forensic attention to detail when it comes to research.

His early literary offerings on butterflies and badgers firmly established him as a nature lover able to combine literary panache with an inspiring brand of boyish zeal. How else could a book about a quest to track down all 59 British butterfly breeds be accessible to anyone other that the most hardened  lepidopterist?

robert-hoffmann-Mo8mILU0EaE-unsplashBADGERLANDS: Barkham’s second book [PICTURE: Robert Hoffman, Unsplash]

Then he’s off on moonlit excursions on the trail of the enigmatic and elusive badger, exploring whether our striped companions deserve their reputation as farmers’ foe needing to be culled or are better served by the homely image of that stoic character from Wind In the Willows, making his way to bed in dressing gown and slippers.

Racking up prize nominations along the way, Barkham found that his next challenge was a commission coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the National Trust’s campaign to save the British coastline from development and destruction.

The strenuous fieldwork involved in that project may have been perfect preparation for Islander, his fourth book, published in 2017.

ramon-vloon-QcCt8uxDTR4-unsplashLIFE ON THE EDGE: the Coastlines project [PICTURE: Ramon Vloon, Unsplash]

More than a travelogue and closer to a personal quest, this is a book which subtly entwines the political, philosophical and sociological as he embarks on a fascinating tour of some of our more unusual island communities.

The book has attracted an extraordinay range of adjectives from reviewers, and for once these are not the glib, overblown phrases we so often see on DVD cover sleeves, perhaps because so many of these words of praise come from people who are themselves writers.

Engaging, enchanting, lyrical, beguiling, vibrant, memorable – take your pick. And what they are excited about is that this isn’t just your average magpie journalist’s article, seizing on a few glittering treasures and lazily presenting them to the reader in a haphazard way.

mike-smith-0FijUNA1GiY-unsplashNEW HORIZONS: Barkham writes about island life [PICTURE: Mike Smith, Unsplash]

It may sound a little trite when it’s boiled down to the bare bones of “the British archipelago has thousands of islands, so author visits a few of the more interesting ones”.

But the premise is more intriguing than that, because this is a journey exploring what it means to live on an island and what it is about island life that intrigues and appals us.

Barkham takes as his starting point DH Lawrence’s 1928 short story The Man Who Loved Islands, where the unfortunate island-obsessed hero Cathcart was said to be somewhat cruelly modelled on his friend Compton Mackenzie, of Whisky Galore fame.

antoine-fabre-XwjICmfI0SQ-unsplashISLAND HOPPING: travels in Scotland [PICTURE: Antoine Fabre, Unsplash]

This adds an intriguing historical dimension to the quest – and a touch of mystery too as we consider Compton Mackenzie’s island-hopping adventures and the similarity or otherwise of his life to that of Cathcart.

The nuts and bolts of the adventure were covered well in reviews at the time, particularly in the Guardian and Observer, but the combination of themes works well as a means of exploring what islands can teach us about human nature and how the atmosphere varies so dramatically around our shores as we move from one to another.

Now as always islands bring out the best and worst in people, inspiring us with fear and longing, the desire to escape, or possess, to be part of a community or apart from one, like Lawrence’s ill-fated hero.

ross-sneddon-L1CLn8ZnXZA-unsplashREFLECTIONS:  Barkham visits 11 islands [PICTURE: Ross Sneddon, Unsplash]

And there is always that background echo of eccentricity echoing across the century as we move from Eigg to Barra and on to Alderney and St Kilda, with Barkham arranging interviews and meetings with the locals wherever he goes.

These provide us with first-hand memories of Compton Mackenzie on Barra and moving testimony from the islanders of Alderney who became wartime refugees when their home was surrendered to the invading Germans and turned into a prison island.

Elsewhere there are a host of fascinating anecdotes and obscure facts, of mad owners and ambitious incomers, of resilience and rebellion, laughter and tears. And always, always the elements, ever present as a backdrop…the crash of the surf, the howl of the wind, the cry of the gulls.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a couple of Barkham’s 11 islands, sampling the desolation of St Kilda and conviviality of Barra. And he’s not wrong about the contradictions and contrasts, the eccentrics and castaways, the superstitions and hardships.

What lessons we can learn from the lives of those communities around the periphery of the British Isles is a moot point. But Barkham leaves us to draw our own conclusions, and frankly whatever the answers, it’s simply a delight to be taken along for the ride.

Islander by Patrick Barkham is published by Granta and available in hardback and paperback.

Tales of the one that got away

MY photographic skills are getting no better, it seems.

Taking an early morning stroll in the woods at Chartwell, near Churchill’s old home, I was in a perfect position to capture the drama of a bee systematically entering the bells of a wild foxglove.

Except that, as the evidence shows, the bee was a little too fast for me. Ho hum.

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The good news is that reading Britain’s Wild Flowers by Rosamond Richardson has partially compensated for my incompetence by informing me that this is the fairies’ flower whose distinctive flowers might even be gloves for foxes, given to them by fairies so that they can silently sneak up on their prey. How nice an idea is that?

Mind you they are known by a variety of different names in different places, from goblins’ thimbles to dead men’s bells – a sinister Scottish warning reflecting the idea that if you can hear them ringing, you are not long for this world.

Elves hide in the bells, apparently. The Druids revered these flowers and used them in midsummer rituals, while they were also incorporated into an ointment which, when rubbed on witches legs’, enabled them to fly.

Oh yes, there’s more. We know digitalis is poisonous, of course, and yet it is also the source of the most potent and widely used sustances in the treatment of heart disease. Thank you, Rosamond, for radically reshaping my knowledge of this wild flower and its intriguing history.

Next up, butterflies.

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Flushed with my success last time out, I’m able to capture another meadow brown in all its glory. But although the scene is idyllic – a field full of bustling butterflies against the backdrop of the Weald of Kent –  this is, after all, the only butterfly I have been able to capture on film.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when a small tortoiseshell starts sunning itself in the flower garden at Chartwell. Out comes the camera and a flurry of shots later, it transpires the bird has flown. Well, the butterfly, to be precise.

Instead of the aforementioned tortoiseshell, there a host of flower pictures of where the offending insect had been. You will just have to take my word for it.

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Likewise, the nesting house martins are out of focus and the other birds were too quick off the mark to feature in frame – there are some 45 species at Chartwell, apparently, but most of them weren’t hanging around long enough to pose for the world’s slowest and least talented photographer.

No matter. It was fun, anyway and I am enjoying the process of learning a little more about the natural world around me – the plants, birds and trees, for example. And I just have even more admiration for the wildlife photographers who have the patience, skill and stamina to capture nature in all its glory.

Yes, they may have the right equipment too, but they know how to use it – as demonstrated by Vincent Van Zalinge’s wonderful picture of a kingfisher from Unsplash.

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Mind you, my picture of the fox wearing gloves came out pretty well, surprisingly. But hey, I don’t suppose you would want to see anything as run of the mill as that…

The house Churchill called home

FOR more than four decades Chartwell in Kent was more than just a family home for the great statesman Sir Winston Churchill.

It was his refuge from the worries of the world, a place of inspiration for his art and provided surroundings in which he could fully indulge his love of nature.

The country house near Westerham boasts stunning views over the Weald of Kent which were the deciding factor in Churchill buying the estate in 1922.

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And for National Trust members in the Chilterns wanting a change of scene, Chartwell is the perfect distance for a leisurely day out.

The legendary wartime prime minister stayed there until 1964, shortly before his death, and a prominent quotation around the property is his assertion that “a day away from Chartwell is a day wasted”.

It’s not hard to understand why the place became such a perfect retreat for the Churchills, and the visitor’s book in the hall reads like a who’s who of 20th-century history.

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Those keen to find out more can get a timed entry ticket to the house where Winston and Clementine brought up their young family, and it is decorated pretty much as it was in the 1930s, with the library, study, sitting room and dining room laid out very much as if the family had only just left the room.

Everywhere there are mementoes drawn from different periods in his life, and upstairs there are museum rooms filled with gifts he received from around the world, along with some of his extraordinary collection of uniforms and other memorabilia.

Churchill may have demanded absolute quiet when he was working in his study, but his biographers recount how he joined in alarmingly strenuous high jinx with his children and turned the garden into a place of enchantment with a tree-house for the older children and a  little brick summer house for the youngest that continues to delight visiting children.

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In its heyday, Chartwell supported a staff of  indoor servants, a chauffeur, three gardeners, a groom for the polo ponies and an estate bailiff.

Here, dinner parties would be hosted for family and friends, political and business associates, and celebrities from around the world. These were the highlight of the day for a man who inspired so many people through his use of language and went on to become one of the most quoted individuals in English history.

At these dinners, biographers recount how table talk, dominated by Churchill, was as important as the meal and the drinks and cigars might extend well past midnight – even though the great man himself might well return to his study for another hour or so of work once his guests had retired.

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A recent addition to the displays at Chartwell, A History of Winston Churchill in 50 Objects contains a fascinating collection of the possessions accumulated by him during his lifetime, from personal mementos to gifts he received from friends, family and political contacts from around the world.

Those intrigued by his art can also find a huge collection of his paintings in his studio in the grounds, a favourite refuge teeming with his canvasses, many unframed and in various stages of completion, his oil paints still out and a whisky and soda poured.

Although he only began to paint in his forties, it soon became an engrossing occupation that would remain with him for the rest of his active life, with subjects ranging from local landscapes to places seen on his travels, from Paris to Egypt and Marrakech.

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For those visitors keen to sample a taste of the great outdoors, livelier walkers can set off for a walk in the woods or even embark on a five-mark circular ramble linking the estate with the nearby Edwardian garden at Emmetts, also owned by the Trust.

The less energetic might prefer to loiter on the terrace listening to the twitter of the swifts and house martins, or soak up the buzz of insect activity around Lady Churchill’s rose garden.

The estate dates from the 14th century, but the house itself was largely rebuilt and extended by the society architect Philip Tilden in the 1920s.

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In 1946, when financial pressures forced Churchill to consider selling Chartwell, it was acquired by the National Trust with funds raised by a consortium of the wartime prime minister’s  friends on condition that the Churchills retain a life tenancy.

After Churchill’s death, Clementine surrendered her lease on the house and it was opened to the public by the Trust in 1966, becoming one of its most popular properties.

In the 50th anniversary year of its opening, more than 230,000 visitors made tracks for the Grade I listed building – and a new generation may have been inspired to find out more about the wartime leader following the release of two major films in 2017, the biopic Churchill and war drama Darkest Hour.

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Today, guests can explore the house, studio and 80 acres of gardens, although check the main website for opening times and individual entry costs.

Anyone prepared to make the journey round the M25 to Kent can also visit a variety of other Trust properties nearby, including the impressive medieval moated manor house at Ightham Mote, the remains of a knight’s house at Old Soar Manor and the 14th-century moated castle at Scotney.

National Trust membership ranges from £120 a year for two adults living at the same address, and £126 for families.

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