WHAT a difference a month makes. Our picture choice this week takes us back to the end of October, when Olivia turned one of her original artworks into a greetings card for our online shop.
The colourful portrait went on to become the face of her Etsy shop too.
At the time, we mentioned how she had been dreaming of adding a real dog to our Beyonder family for years, checking on rescue sites and Facebook groups on a daily basis but never quite finding the perfect four-legged friend.
In the meantime, drawing dogs would have to suffice, and another fun portrait of an Afghan hound was added to the collection.
But that was before we heard about Teddy, a not-so-small energetic bundle of fun in the shape of a gorgeous four-month-old black labrador, living only half-an-hour away.
The rest, as they say, is history: though despite all the years of research, the practical reality of becoming first-time labrador owners will doubtless pose plenty of challenges.
Yes, we know about the chewing, the love of fox poo, the desire to jump up, the leash-pulling, the need to lead an active life (but not too active before those bones and joints have fully developed).
But I’m sorry, I can’t stay here chatting: there’s important puppy business to attend to in the park….
WHAT could sum up the spirit of November better than Gel Murphy’s spectacular shot of changing leaf colours in Finch Lane, Amersham?
It’s a fantastic foretaste of the November highlights coming soon in our monthly calendar feature, as well as a reflection of the talents of those local photographers like Gel who are out and about in all weathers capturing the beauty of the Chilterns landscape.
This is the month of woodsmoke and fireworks, first frosts and misty mornings, as nature puts on its own glorious fireworks display before the trees get stripped bare for winter, and we can’t wait to sort out a selection of your atmospheric pictures summing up the month in all its technicolour glory…
IT’S 6am and the park, unsurprisingly, is deserted.
It’s bitterly cold, with frost on the grass and steam rising from the river. But a small black shadow beside me is snuffling along quite contentedly, eager to discover just who’s wandered this way before.
It’s a route we’ve already explored a lot, in all kinds of weather conditions and at all times of day and night, but it takes a crisp, sunny morning before we’re actually able to photograph the lively, excited ball at our feet.
Meet Teddy, a four-month-old black labrador who has already seen a lot of upheaval in his young life, but who arrived a few days ago to join our small family.
For us, it’s the culmination of two years of searching and researching, of considering different breeds, of watching training videos, speaking to breeders and reading puppy books. And now he’s actually here, our world’s been turned upside down overnight.
For Teddy, the change is probably just as dramatic. The fact he has already seen a couple of other households since leaving his mum and siblings is no fault of his own, but down to unfortunate changes in personal circumstances affecting the humans in his life.
As we research his birth, vaccinations and back story, we meet a succession of people who are full of praise for our four-legged arrival. The only black lab in a litter of 11, he’s learned some basic commands, is good with children and seems lively and intelligent.
He’s also teething, curious and boisterous in the way that black labs are. Already he’s won our hearts and he is trying SO hard to please – but we know it’s going to be a steep learning curve for us all.
The vet’s pronounced him fit and healthy and friends and family have been helpful with their top tips and sound advice.
But however many books you read, first-time owners are never fully equipped to know how to tackle every new challenge that arises – or how to cope with the sudden and overwhelming imposition on your daily routine (and interruptions to your sleep patterns!).
Not-so-tiny Teddy weighs more than 13kg and has big paws and a healthy appetite. He’s had three names and this is his fourth home in as many months, so it’s not surprising if he has found life a little confusing up to now. Mercifully, he seems relatively unfazed: biddable, eager and affectionate, he wins friends easily.
Best of all, everyone is happy to help. From neighbours and family members with multiple dogs to kindly shop assistants and strangers in the park, there’s a lot of expertise to draw on.
Everyone makes it look so easy, with their polite and respectful packs trotting so neatly around them and responding with alacrity to clickers, calls and whistles. But re-reading old friend and colleague Lucy Parks’ experiences with her rescue dog Yella has been useful too, and a timely reminder of the rollercoaster journey that lies ahead.
Back in the park on our 6am foray I belatedly remember that it’s my birthday. Now in my mid-60s, I’ve only owned cats in the past and despite all the videos still feel I know little about how to train Teddy to become the trusted, loving, loyal and obedient adult companion I know he can be.
But I also know just how many lessons dogs can teach to us humans too, not least about mindfulness, zest for life, grattitude and unconditional love.
“Dogs are our link to paradise,” said author Milan Kundera. Or as author Orhan Pamuk put it: “Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.”
It looks as if we all have a lot of learn. And as those affectionate eyes look up at me and we start heading homewards to the warmth and breakfast, I’m determined not to let the little fellow down. Here’s hoping he really can help to teach an old dog new tricks.
WE DON’T normally like to blow our trumpets here at The Beyonder, but this week’s picture choice is the latest original artwork that my lovely wife Olivia has been able to turn into a greetings card for our online shop.
It’s a suitably autumnal portrait of a rather gorgeous fox who looks as if he’s stepped out of a fairytale, and it’s the seventh piece of art Ollie has been able to transform into a smart greetings card with the help of Tom Allnutt at Amersham Business Services.
Other portraits include a couple of inquisitive badgers, a duck, teddy bear and a pair of endearing dogs, much of the artwork notable for its vibrant colours and celebration of the natural world.
The cards are also for sale on Ollie’s new Etsy shop, where she explains how she has only recently rediscovered her love of painting while struggling to recover from Long Covid.
“It has been such a tonic for me to be able to paint peacefully and prayerfully for just a few minutes each day,” she says. “I have found the process of working with colour to be very restorative and restful as well as uplifting.”
She adds: “I haven’t been able to get out and about in the natural world as much as I would like recently, so escaping into nature via paintbrush and canvas has lifted my spirits.”
IT’S a joy to be relaunching our Picture of the Week feature after an extended break, and to kickstart the new series we have a delicate portrait of a saffrondrop bonnet mushroom taken by regular contributor Graham Parkinson.
It’s one of a series of recent fungi photographs he’s posted on local nature and wildlife forums, some of which featured in our October calendar feature about the Chilterns.
Inspired with a love of wildlife as a child, Graham found that lockdown in 2020 proved the perfect opportunity for him to explore his longstanding interest in photography, and in the past three years his pictures have proved a big hit with nature lovers.
Birds and insects feature prominently, but his great pleasure has been embarking on seven- to 10-mile walks exploring new areas around his Marlow home and capturing what he can of the local flora and fauna.
Using his Ordnance Survey OS Maps app to plan new routes, his journeys have taken him from local favourites like Homefield Wood and Quarry Wood to Bisham, Burnham Beeches and beyond, from the banks of the Thames to the many walks between Ibstone and Christmas Common.
“It’s been extremely rewarding, capturing wildlife I’ve never seen before,” he says. For a long time he didn’t bother with fungi, lacking a good lens that would enable him to take “interesting” shots.
“I’ve now got a macro lens and From a photography point of view what has interested and challenged me is trying to create a lovely photo of them rather than just a record shot,” he says.
“They’re fascinating organisms, really quite beautiful. It’s sort of like landscape photography in miniature.
“I was out again yesterday in beautiful woods and sunlight. It’s quite magical walking through the woods trying to first find fungi and then find ones where I can make a nice shot.
“An added bonus is that there’s always something else to see. Yesterday I watched two bats hunting all around me, in bright sunshine at 1pm.”
IT’S the month of first frosts and stormy nights when the sights, smells and sounds of autumn really bring the countryside to life.
The rapidly-changing colours and glorious textures of October make it a favourite with photographers, especially deep in the woods where the yellow, green and russet hues contrast so beautifully with the rugged outlines of ancient trees.
It’s also a month of ripe berries and falling fruit, with trees and bushes bursting with tasty treats for birds, insects and mammals alike and a huge array of startling fungi hiding beneath the fallen leaves.
From the foul-smelling stinkhorns to poisonous toadstools, it’s thought there are more than six million species of fungi in the world, and we’re only really beginning to fully appreciate what an impact they have on our lives.
They can change our minds, heal our bodies and even help us to avoid environmental disaster, as Merlin Sheldrake showed us in his fascinating 2020 book Entangled Life.
But although we may have only formally identified around 150,000 of the millions of fungi out there, they are a source of fascination for photographers and nature lovers alike.
The colours and shapes fascinate us, even though we know their beauty can be deceptive and that there could be deadly consequences of dabbling with the most poisonous of them.
They vary in size from the microscopic to the largest organisms on earth and boast the most intriguing array of sinister-sounding names, from gelatinous jelly ears to toxic beechwood sickeners.
The glorious array of shapes and textures is a reminder that it’s now three years since we first asked local photographers to share some of their favourite pictures of the local landscape and wildlife in our monthly calendar feature: and what a joy those pictures have been.
Back in October 2020, with half the country still in lockdown, the natural world was providing a vital escape from the stresses and strains of mask wearing and social distancing – and for many, offering an absolutely essential boost to mental health.
Three years on, there may not be quite as many families exploring the local woods any more, but the natural world is still a lifeline to millions, an escape from the stresses and strains of frantic modern living and the all-pervasive hubbub of social media.
As Peak District photographer Suzanne Howard – better known as @peaklass on her social media feeds – recently posted: “Sometimes, when the world is too noisy and sad, it helps to walk into the kaleidoscope of an autumn country lane. To hear nothing but your footsteps and the leaves falling, and to feel the solidity of old trees arching their boughs over you. I hope everyone can find their lane.”
Nature writer Melissa Harrison picks up on the theme of sound in her book The Stubborn Light of Things. She writes: “Sound is such a vital part of our relationship with nature, and yet – apart from birdsong – it’s so easily overlooked.”
Marvelling at the silence surrounding her country cottage in rural Suffolk, she wrote: “For most of our history, total silence – and total darkness – would have been nothing unusual at all.
“This new quietness has made me more aware of sound , from the mysterious creature which processes across my roof each night to the rain gurgling relentlessly in the gutters and the noise the wind makes as it rushes through the last of the ash leaves, tattered and yellowing.”
For Chris Packham, society’s increasing physical and cultural separation from nature is a crisis of disconnection that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency, as he outlined in his book Back To nature, co-authored with stepdaughter Megan McCubbin.
Not that Beyonder readers need any reminder of the importance of maintaining our familiarity with the great outdoors, but that’s not to say it’s always easy. Life gets in the way and health problems or work commitments may make it harder to get out and about on a rainy day, and easier to procrastinate when dusk starts falling fast and the temperatures drop.
But making the extra effort is always worth it, and our photographers have been braving the elements at all times of the day over the past three years.
We’ve included a couple of our favourite shots from our October post in 2020 along with links to some of our regular contributors, but we are always on the lookout for new members who can help expand our coverage of the local area.
By the end of October, houses across the Chilterns are bedecked with cobwebs, witches and carved pumpkin lanterns to welcome the little parties of ghouls and ghosts trotting round to see their neighbours, a prelude to the noisy parties of Bonfire Night.
But away from the welcoming lights and lanterns, from the banks of the Thames to Ivinghoe Beacon, this is an ancient and fascinating landscape with thousands of hidden pathways, Roman roads and drovers’ routes to explore – and we’re grateful, as always, to those hardy souls who are out and about in all weathers capturing the beauty of the local countryside in all its glory.
If you have a picture or two you would like us to feature in a future post, drop us a line by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us in our Facebook group or contact us on Twitter @TheBeyonderUK or Instagram at thebeyonderuk.
IT’S the sort of fantasy guaranteed to delight weary walkers at the end of a long day on the trail…
What if you could find a cosy cottage just yards from the footpath with a comfy king-size bed, luxurious bed linen and a power shower complete with Bluetooth music and steam jets? Ah, bliss.
Throw in a freshly baked Victoria sponge and ice-cold home-made apple juice, and that’s the reassuring reality of a stay at Hedgerow Cottage, a glorious hideaway in the shadow of the ancient Ridgeway at Wainhill on the Buckinghamshire-Oxfordshire border.
Owners Katrina Rowton-Lee and husband Charlie invited us to spend a couple of days sampling their dog-friendly hideaway after spotting a recent Beyonder post about four-legged friends.
With three dogs of their own and such an impressive location in the heart of the Chilterns countryside, they’re keen to share the spot with walking enthusiasts who have a canine companion in tow and who want to spend a few days exploring the many local attractions.
As idyllic country retreats go, Hedgerow takes some beating. It’s spotless, stylish and cosy, a purpose-built luxury cabin with wood-lined rooms decorated in rural chic style and its own kitchen, shower room and separate bedroom off the living room, complete with private garden area and parking.
It’s discreetly hidden to one side of the 17th-century thatched cottage that is Katrina and Charlie’s home, giving guests an open outlook over their own section of garden.
Nestled below the treeline, Wainhill comprises 20 acres of meadow and pasture which house friendly Herdwick sheep, a number of horses and an eclectic collection of classic caravans and other vintage vehicles Katrina hires out for for TV, filming, photoshoots and corporate events.
One of those intriguing vehicles is Alice, Katrina’s original 1955 English Eccles caravan, which has been lovingly restored and provides Hedgerow guests with a lovely space to enjoy during the summer months, just by their front door.
It’s a glorious spot and perfect for trips to places like Oxford, Henley and Marlow, visiting local vineyards or exploring the Midsomer Murders trail.
Take a weekend wander along the footpath to Chinnor and you could be treated to the sight of a steam engine tootling along a restored section of the old Watlington branch line from Princes Risborough which originally closed to passengers back in 1957.
Head off in the other direction towards the treeline, and you’ll quickly discover the Ridgeway national trail, a route used since prehistoric times by travellers, herdsmen and soldiers.
The 87-mile national trail follows a ridge of chalk hills from Avebury in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon and from your bed at Hedgerow the ancient track is about a quarter of a mile away.
For those wanting to tackle a longer section of the route, it’s an indication of Katrina’s “nothing is too much trouble” approach that she will cheerfully drive walkers to a suitable starting point from which they can walk back to Wainhill, allowing them to use the Hedgerow as a central point for a few days of exploring.
Routes fan out from here in all directions, criss-crossing the Chilterns AONB and allowing walkers access to miles of unspoilt countryside, so often overlooked by tourists in favour of the Cotswolds.
Visitors with pets even get home-made dog biscuits and their furry friends may get the chance to rub noses with the resident pack: Tilly the yellow labrador and a pair of teckels, or working dachshunds.
We saunter out of the back gate for a quick circuit up to the Ridgeway, and quickly discover it’s an immensely restful landscape and a welcome escape from city hubbub.
True, there’s a light drizzle on the weekend we visit, but it does nothing to dampen our spirits on a first brief foray up to the ridge and back, pausing only to greet the occasional dog walker or runner showing a similar disregard for the elements.
But even over such a rainy October weekend it’s not long before the sun’s out for long enough to show just how relaxing the garden must be in the summer months, far away from the sound of speeding traffic or aircraft noise.
Later, as dusk falls, with only the hooting of the owls to disturb the clear evening air it’s clear we will have no problem getting a great night’s sleep in our cosy wood-lined bedroom.
With no light pollution, it’s also a spectacular place for stargazing, and as the clouds clear we wander outside for a little to marvel as the heavens stage a dazzling display of planets and constellations.
It’s a fitting finale to a restful stay in a lovely location where those little touches like the fresh flowers and phenomenal Victoria sponge have made all the difference, as the comments in the guest book reflect.
Accommodation is available year round – check out the Wainhill website for details and prices.
THEY’RE our most faithful and trusted companions, and they’ve been close by our side for centuries.
Now we want to hear from dog lovers across the Chilterns about what makes your pets so very special.
Our recent feature reflects how dogs have won our love and admiration for their skills, intelligence and character, and we know that thousands of nature lovers rely on the companionship of their canine chums when they set out to explore the countryside.
Do you have a favourite place to walk or memory to share? Is your pet a pedigree champion or a scruffy rescue dog? It doesn’t matter — we’d love to feature your pictures and stories in our regular ‘dogsofthechilterns’ feature and social media feeds.
You don’t have to give away personal information or precise locations, but send us landscape-shaped pictures of your dog along with any details you’re happy for us to share — and remember to tell us who in the family took the picture.
With more than 200 breeds to choose from, Britain really is a national of dog lovers, and we’d like to celebrate the best aspects of responsible dog ownership on our pages.
As well as sharing your shots on our Twitter and Instagram feeds, we’re keen to hear your own stories about the impact and importance of four-legged friends in your life.
Your pictures should comply with the guidelines of The Kennel Club’s Canine Code and pleasure ensure you own the copyright to any picture you submit.
Contact us by email at email@example.com or our social media links — we look forward to hearing from you.
ROUND our way it sometimes seems as if everyone has a dog.
Little and large, fluffy and hectic or aloof and unflustered, they come in all shapes and sizes, from purebred aristocrats with a proud pedigree to scruffy scoundrels rescued from the streets.
But whatever their size, breed and provenance, we love them just as they are, taking them into our hearts and our families in their millions as part of an extraordinary symbiotic relationship where it can be hard to tell who needs the other more.
Dogs and people have lived together for thousands of years, and we have bred different breeds to hunt and to guard us, to herd sheep, retrieve game and just keep us company.
Domestic dogs may share 99% of their DNA with wolves, but they are social pack animals which thrive on attention and affection, helping them to win our love and admiration for their skills, intelligence and character.
They may need us to survive but it seems that we need them just as much: our most loyal and faithful companions cock a listening ear to our worries, give us a paw to hold and an unconditional love that sometimes borders on obsession.
Mind you, it’s an obsession that is mutual. Britain boasts a canine population of more than nine million, with more than 200 breeds to choose from.
Joyce Campbell, the Armadale farmer whose squad of collies were a hit with viewers of This Farming Life, said: “We really are a nation of dog lovers – my team of dogs have also been inundated with fan mail. We have genuinely all been blown away with everyone’s kindness.”
That’s why we’re setting out to meet some of the best-loved dogs in the Chilterns, and asking you to send us your pictures of them out and about enjoying our wonderful countryside.
As well as sharing your shots on our Twitter and Instagram feeds, we’re keen to hear your own stories about the impact and importance of four-legged friends in your life.
Most dog owners will tell you that their dog is a family member – and for many, dog ownership has proved a life-changing experience.
Lucy Parks has written in detail about her adventures with Cypriot rescue dog Yella as the four-legged arrival adjusted to a new life in the Chiltern Hills.
“She was my first ever dog, although I’d wanted one for ever,” says Lucy. “I finally got her aged 50 and she’s totally changed my life!
“Yella has got me out into the local countryside exploring new places and has introduced me to the dog-owning community in Amersham. I’ve got new friends as a result, as has Yella, and we know far more about the area we live in.”
From beagles to greyhounds, lapdogs to St Bernards, each breed has its own ardent fans, and although dog attacks have contributed to some chilling headlines in recent weeks, millions of responsible owners know how crucial it is to spend time training their pet to ensure that wagging tails and stress-free greetings help to put strangers at their ease.
The rewards are huge. No animal can surpass dogs for their devotion and intelligence, and it’s that unwavering loyalty and pure delight in our company that wins us over so readily. We know that our furry companions accept us for who we are, flaws and all, without reserve or judgement.
For Beyonder photographer Sue Craigs Erwin, energetic sprocker spaniel Ted has been at her side for the past six years.
“He has given me a reason to go out walking again after losing my husband six years ago,” she says. “I have become more aware of our beautiful surroundings. I always take my camera with me, capturing the day’s walk and sharing the beauty of the wildlife and changing seasons with my Facebook friends.
“We have recently made friends with a beautiful little robin in the woods. Ted now runs ahead of me and searches him out before I get there. I can’t resist a few shots of the friendly little chap everyday.
“It’s so therapeutic to be walking in the fresh air whatever the weather. Dogs are just the best company.”
Sue isn’t alone in appreciating Ted’s constant companionship. In a fast-paced world where human connections sometimes feel fleeting or even confrontational, dogs offer us vital emotional support, helping to reduce stress, anxiety and loneliness.
Says Jennifer Wynn, proud owner of a Great Swiss mountain dog: “Fearne is more than just a companion for exploring the beautiful Chilterns.
“She’s a friend for both of my teenage children, one of whom is autistic and the other is awaiting assessment. She listens without judging, loves no matter what and gives 50kg cuddles!”
Dogs have been our friends and protectors for centuries, and although they have transitioned from being primarily working animals to cherished family members, today they perhaps bring more joy and comfort than ever.
They teach us responsibility and help youngsters learn the importance of kindness, while formidable sheepdogs and astonishing therapy dogs startle us with their skill, sensitivity and ability to perform complex tasks.
Of course, the individual breed we favour will vary according to our own preferences and lifestyles. Do we want a snuggly cockapoo happy to flop around the house like a supersoft chenille throw, or a livewire collie who’s panting to head for the hills every morning?
Do we need a miniature dachsund getting under our feet or an Irish wolfhound or Great Swiss mountain dog edging our guests off the sofa?
It’s all very personal, as author Patrick Gale writes in The Returns Home, a chapter of Duncan Minshull’s 2022 collection of walking stories, Where My Feet Fall.
“Hounds are not emotionally needy dogs when walking; whippets and greyhounds have none of the collie’s need for constant affirmative interaction with its human but seem quite content to trot independently from smell to fascinating smell, occasionally breaking off to send up a pheasant or make a show of chasing a rabbit. They enjoy walks hugely but they’re not forever nudging you to say, ‘I’m enjoying my walk. I am. Are you? Are you enjoying yours? Are you really?'”
Whatever our personal choice of companion, those rambles allow us to come across a dozen other breeds, making new friends along the way, from doe-eyed whippets and gentle golden retrievers to inquisitive terriers or rumbustious young labradors.
Back in the Middle Ages, European nobles had close relationships with their dogs. Ladies doted on their fashionable lap dogs and noblemen went hunting with hounds — a practice that grew so popular that breeding hunting dogs became a trend throughout Europe.
By the Victorian era, dogs had wormed their way into the heart of family life and Britain had become a centre for dog breeding, with the first formal competitive dog shows held in the middle of the 19th century.
Canines played such vital roles in military operations during the two World Wars that they steadily gained increasing recognition of their intelligence and abilities throughout the 20th century, with films depicting the adventures of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin capturing the hearts of millions in the 1950s.
The Queen’s fondness for corgis helped to popularise the breed, while on the small screen Blue Peter presenter John Noakes became so inseparable from his excitable border collie that “Get down, Shep!” became a catchphrase so well known that it was even immortalised in song by The Barron Knights when the pair left the show in 1978.
These days dogs have become a much more familiar presence on TV and social media, with the Crufts dog show attracting an unbelievable 18,000 competitors and almost nightly programmes highlighting different aspects of canine behaviour and welfare, from sheepdog trials to different training techniques.
Of course, the difficult down side of our love affair with dogs is the pain we feel at losing them.
Countless online commentators attest to the fact that the death of a beloved pet is excruciating. With their shorter lifespans, it’s also unfortunately an inevitability, made all the more intense by their unconditional love and constant presence by our side.
Shepherdess Alison O’Neill has won a Twitter following of almost 50,000 for her glorious photographs and homely posts from her small hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales, where sheepdog Shadow is a star attraction.
“Dogs are the best,” she says. “But yes, I’ve known the loss of a dog. It’s no different than any family member passing.”
Coping when they are suddenly not there at our side can be devastating. But then perhaps that works both ways.
Many dog trainers and behaviourists believe that dogs feel grief too, being highly intuitive and sensitive animals — perhaps much more than people give them credit for.
It may not quite be on the scale of devotion demonstrated by the apocryphal Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh, but artist Sir Edwin Landseer summed up the sense of loss memorably in his 1837 oil painting, The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner.
In a sparsely furnished room, a moping dog rests its head on the coffin of its master, the shepherd, whose staff and hat lie underneath a table supporting a closed bible.
The pathos of the scene made it popular with both collectors and the Victorian public in general, but it’s a striking representation of loss, described by the influential art critic John Ruskin as one of the “most perfect poems…which modern times have seen”.
Sentimental it may have been, but the painting also became an important part of animal advocacy campaigns in the 19th century, a reminder of the shared experiences and strong emotional bonds that can exist between human and non-human animals, and few 21st-century dog lovers would argue with the importance of that message.
We’d love to share your pictures and stories about your own dogs enjoying our wonderful Chilterns countryside. Contact us by email or our social media links — you don’t have to include personal details or precise locations, but we’d love to hear from you about the four-legged friends in your life.
WALKING is one of the simplest forms of physical exercise there is — but for TV presenter Julia Bradbury, it’s so much more than that.
“It improves sleep, lowers anxiety, boosts brain power and even lengthens life,” she wrote in the Mail recently. “I used it to help me through the breast cancer that upended my life three years ago, as well as IVF and miscarriages, grief and mental health issues.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Julia should take pride in being an enthusiastic evangelist for nature. Born in Dublin, she grew up in Sheffield and was introduced to walking and the power of the great outdoors by her father, Michael.
He would take her roaming across the Peak District, igniting a lifelong passion that has underpinned her career in television and more recently has grown into something of an obsession with the healing power of walking to strengthen the body and soothe the mind.
After starting her on-screen career as a showbusiness reporter for breakfast TV in Los Angeles, she came home to help launch Channel 5 in the UK and has fronted shows like Top Gear and Watchdog.
But it was as a member of the Countryfile presenting team with Matt Baker that she became nationally recognised when the relaunched series became a ratings hit, before she moved on to host a succession of shows about walking, from Cornwall and Devon to the Lake District and beyond.
But while her love of walking has taken her to the furthest corners of the world over the past three decades, she says she still cherishes her little London garden and the old plane tree outside her bathroom window.
“You don’t need big landscapes or seat-of-the-pants travel adventures to benefit from ‘green therapy’,” she says.
And it’s healthy living and the virtues of nature therapy which have featured a lot in her thoughts in recent years, when she has spoken of her struggle to overcome infertility and failed IVF treatments, and of her rollercoaster emotions faced with her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.
She recalls how hiking in Iceland, faced with a huge vista of mountains, icy streams and steaming hillsides, made her IVF problems seem more manageable and reflects that you don’t need such dramatic views to overcome anxious thoughts: “A single tree, the sound of birdsong, a scented rose — all of these can calm us,” she says.
It may take as little as half an hour of walking in nature for our stress hormones to start dropping, and every step can contribute to our feeling of wellbeing if we take the time to savour the feel of the ground beneath our feet, the rustle of the leaves and fragrance of the plants around us.
Part memoir and part self-help guide, her latest book, Walk Yourself Happy, incorporates science-backed research, practical tips and her own experiences to examine how nature can soothe anxiety and stress, helping us to cope with grief, illness and the pressures of everyday life.
Can a mountain or tree keep us company in times of loss? The science certainly suggests that building nature into our everyday lives can help us eat, sleep and function better, and walking is one of the easiest and quickest ways for most of us to immerse ourselves in the natural world.
Past generations may have taken such bonds for granted, but as Chris Packham reminded us in Back To Nature, those connections have unravelled in parallel with our technological progress in the industrial and social revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“We live in sterile modern homes, where we can’t see, hear, taste or touch it, and we drive through it in our air-conditioned cars, disconnected from it,” wrote Packham.
Julia picks up the theme in her book too, encouraging us to rekindle those ancient bonds with nature that have been all but extinguished by modern living, which in turn can encourage closer camaraderie with friends and more intimate knowledge and awareness of self.
“No matter what challenges you face, I promise there is a walk to lift your mood, even if it’s just around your local park,” she says.
It was three years after her Iceland trip that she conceived her son naturally at the age of 41, but there was still a miscarriage and four years of IVF treatment to undergo before her twin daughters arrived.
Flash forward to 2021 and a shock breast cancer diagnosis posed another emotional and physical challenge, suffusing Julia in a sudden flush of grief, not least for “that naive belief that I was invincible and everything would always be all right”.
She thought of her three young children and her eyes filled with tears. Would she live to see them grow up? And later, after her mastectomy, there was a different trauma to cope with, faced with the physical and emotional damage of the angry scarring.
But she is unequivocal about the long-term impact of the experience.
“Cancer saved my life,” she writes. “That may seem a strange thing to say, but it opened my eyes to what I was doing to myself. Before diagnosis, everything I did was at breakneck speed. I wanted it all, and pushed myself emotionally and physically to reach impossible goals.”
It’s a problem most of us can relate to, where the days, weeks and months slip by and we are distracted by false priorities.
Her book chronicles her own journey of recovery but also explores the psychological and scientific reasons for our encounters with nature being of such enormous benefit: why the sound of birdsong, feel of morning sunshine on our faces and smell of the earth can be so powerfully curative and uplifting.
Nature offers a perfect model of resilience and regeneration, she points out, however hostile the environment.
“What the past couple of years have taught me is that since you are a finite person in a world with almost infinite choices and possibilities, you’d be wise to prioritise those choices that serve your health and make you happy. For me that is walking in nature.”
Walk Yourself Happy takes up Julia’s personal journey but opens out to examine the elemental link between our own physical and mental health and the natural world.
It’s more than a decade since she and her sister Gina co-founded an outdoors website designed to share free resources about some of the best walking routes in the UK, including links to many of Julia’s TV programmes.
Nowadays the importance of spreading the word about the health benefits of nature has become not just an integral part of her own life but a true “passion project”.
Since then the pair have worked with disabled ambassador Debbie North, a keen hill walker before she became a wheelchair user, to help create a network of wheel-friendly walks for people with poor or no mobility, and launched a charitable scheme, The Outdoor Guide Foundation, which raises funds to allow schools to get pupils outdoors in all weathers.
Once recovered from her mastectomy, Julia recalls taking a hike up Mam Tor in the Peak District with her whole family.
“It’s where I started walking as a child, and one of the most special places in the world to me,” she recalls.
Standing at the top, holding hands in the sunshine and shouting down into the valley, she found tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Climbing Mam Tor with the people I love most in the world felt like a profound restatement of faith in my future,” she says. “I needed to do it, not just to give thanks, but to overwrite the despair and desolation that cancer had brought into my life.”
Walk Yourself Happy by Julia Bradbury is published by Piatkus at £20.
TV PRESENTER Julia Bradbury is making tracks for the Chilterns next week to promote her new book about the health benefits of walking.
The broadcaster’s lifelong passion for the outdoors has been reflected throughout her career, from her years as co-host of BBC1’s Countryfile to the wide range of walking programmes she has fronted.
More recently, in the wake of her breast cancer diagnosis and surgery, she has increasingly been dedicating her time to promote the benefits of healthy living and the virtues of nature therapy.
Her latest book, Walk Yourself Happy, focuses on both mental and physical wellbeing, and reflects her first-hand experience of the profound impact of nature.
As part of a promotional tour in the wake of the book’s launch on September 14, Julia has been speaking at bookshops and literary festivals from Lancashire to the West Country and arrives in Berkshire next week.
Part memoir and part self-help guide, the book incorporates science-backed research, practical tips and Julia’s own experiences to explore how nature can soothe anxiety and stress, helping us to cope with grief, illness and the pressures of everyday life.
Can connecting more with nature actually make us healthier? And can something as simple as going for a walk really improve our lives?
Julia believes she knows the answer and enlists the help of experts to help convince us of the science behind the importance to us of morning light or the psychological benefits of connecting with our ancestral roots.
For Julia the importance of spreading the word about the health benefits of nature has become not just an integral part of her own life but a true “passion project”.
She and her sister Gina co-founded an outdoors website more than a decade ago designed to share free resources about some of the best walking routes in the UK, including links to many of Julia’s TV programmes.
Since then the pair have worked with disabled ambassador Debbie North, a keen hill walker before she became a wheelchair user, to help create a network of wheel-friendly walks for people with poor or no mobility, and launched a charitable scheme, The Outdoor Guide Foundation, which raises funds to allow schools to get pupils outdoors in all weathers.
Writing recently in the Mail, Julia said: “What the past couple of years have taught me is that since you are a finite person in a world with almost infinite choices and possibilities, you’d be wise to prioritise those choices that serve your health and make you happy.
“For me that is walking in nature.”
Walk Yourself Happy by Julia Bradbury is published by Piatkus at £20. Tickets for her talk in Chorleywood Memorial Hall cost £12 from Chorleywood and Gerrards Cross bookshops or online.
A quick trip round the M25 and we’re visiting an extraordinary edifice in a “royal” forest, which is why our thoughts are flashing back across the centuries to a time when hunting was something of an obsession for the monarchs of the day.
The building dates from Tudor times but reflects the importance of hunting over the previous 200 years – and not just for those in power.
We’ve come to Epping Forest, but although it’s only an hour from home, this is one of only a handful of ancient royal forests which survive around the UK – along with the Forest of Dean, New Forest and Sherwood.
Here, as we discovered in the Forest of Dean last year, is a lost world of forest laws and practices dating back to a time when “kingswoods” that came directly under the king’s control were vast tracts of land covering a third of southern England, including whole counties like Essex.
Following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, King William placed a score of areas under forest law, a Norman institution imported from the continent that was unanimously unpopular with the local population.
It was a separate legal system with its own courts and officers designed to protect and preserve the “venison and vert” for the King’s pleasure – with severe punishments for poaching and taking wood from the forest.
You might think those early monarchs were too busy waging war on France and Scotland to spend so much time in pursuit of deer and boar, but hunting was a favourite pastime for the king and his nobles, offering sport, exercise, entertainment and a chance to practise skills that could be of use in wartime.
By the 14th century there were dozens of royal forests across the land where the ruling class could pursue their sport, whether hunting on horseback with hounds, shooting driven game from stands or using birds of prey such as hawks and falcons.
Some two centuries later and Henry VIII’s enthusiasm for hunting took him to deer parks across the south of England – and it was during his reign, in 1543, that a rather extraordinary Tudor grandstand was erected here in Epping Forest, now known as Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge after his daughter.
Henry’s interest in hunting as a young man was useful in helping to project his image as a renaissance prince, but by the time the lodge was erected he had injured himself in a jousting accident and was painfully lame.
It’s not known if he ever even visited the building, though Elizabeth I renovated it in 1589 and legend has it that she actually rode her horse up the stairs in celebration of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
Although the lodge itself is a relatively basic museum, it’s part of a much larger success story dating back to the late 19th century, when the City of London Corporation responded to public outcry and stepped in to rescue almost 6,000 acres of the ancient forest from destruction.
That means there are countless other attractions to uncover in the forest, but for now we’re just enjoying the view, trying to imagine how Elizabeth’s powerful guests might have looked out over this landscape almost half a millennium ago.
Hounds would be trained to hunt down the stag or boar by its scent, responding to commands on a horn before the huntsmen would circle the animal and chase it back towards the hunting party.
The nobles and their ladies rode on horseback behind the hounds and chased the prey through the dense forest, potentially for hours, before the prey was finally caught and killed, a song being played to honour the dying animal before a great feast was prepared with the freshly-hunted venison or boar as the main course.
High-status guests would have looked out from wide openings here, possibly even using crossbows to shoot at prey driven towards the grandstand.
And of course in Tudor times there would have been no stinting on hospitality when it came to the array of meats and poultry, Mediterranean fruits and Eastern spices on offer to show off the power, wealth and generosity of the monarch.
Some of the timbers in the lodge date from the 16th century, when timber-framed buildings were made from freshly cut “green” oak that was full of sap and would crack as it dried out.
But the fireplace is Victorian and a reminder of the 19th-century history of the hunting lodge, when the lodge’s wall hangings so inspired textile artist William Morris as a boy that they may have influenced the tapestries he started to weave in the 1870s.
The lodge served as a manorial court before opening as a museum in 1895.
Given modern views about hunting, many visitors may have mixed emotions about some of the history they stumble across in Epping Forest.
Just as it’s hard not to get indigestion contemplating the profligate feasting of the Tudor court, it’s distressing to read about animals like lynx and brown bear existing in Britain when the Romans left, or about species like wolves and wild boar being hunted to extinction.
The harsh punishments of the forest courts and oppression of the peasant population may rankle too, along with those gruesome Tudor sports like cock-fighting and bear-baiting.
But you can escape some of the darker memories of past centuries just next door, where a beautifully restored Essex barn offers an idyllic retreat with some great coffee and cake, or something a little more substantial.
Butler’s Retreat also boasts outside seating with stunning views over Chingford Plain and an array of tasty home-made food options, making it a perfect stopping-off spot on a sunny day.
From here it’s also only a stone’s throw to Connaught Water, a perfect place to walk off the cake and ideal for first-time visitors to the area keen to find a popular easy-access path ideal for the whole family.
Take a relaxed ramble round the lake, which boasts a variety of resident wildfowl from mandarin ducks and geese to swans and great crested grebes, or embark on a slightly longer trail, one of dozens fanning out from here that are documented by local walking enthusiasts on their blogs.
After a brief wander round the lake, it’s time to head back round the M25, head still full of visions of medieval monarchs and their friends rampaging through the forest in search of a noble hart.
It’s been only the briefest of introductions to a quite extraordinary landscape, but as it’s only an hour’s drive from home, it’s much more accessible than you might think: a fascinating green oasis just a walk, ride or tube journey away from the Capital with a rich heritage and a wealth of attractions for the first-time visitor.
Perhaps that’s why many dog walkers stick to circular routes from the main car park on Bottrells Lane.
It’s not that the wood is huge: at 250 acres, it’s a good bit smaller than nearby Black Park or sprawling Burnham Beeches. But then there’s no easy grid system to keep you on track and in the densest parts, all the paths tend to look the same.
Owned by Bucks County Council but run by Forestry England, Hodgemoor lies sandwiched between the historic villages of Chalfont St Giles and Seer Green, bordered by farms, stables and almost deserted country lanes.
A natural heritage area designated a site of special scientific interest by Natural England, it’s sufficiently remote to remain unspoilt and is well maintained by riding association members as part of an impressive 20-year project to improve access for all users.
Among the oaks, birches, beeches and hornbeams are elusive foxes and badgers, though it’s much more likely that walkers will stumble across a startled deer or scurrying squirrel.
At night the hoots of owls can provide an atmospheric soundtrack, but there are times when the trails feel almost eerily silent and near deserted, both by humans and wildlife.
It’s pretty hard to believe that for 15 years the woods were home to more than 150 Polish families, and that these hidden paths must have echoed to the sounds of children playing as that post-war generation grew up.
It was in 1946 that Buckinghamshire County Council built and managed a reception and billeting camp for Polish soldiers and there are many families who remember Hodgemoor as providing a safe home after the war, with the camp’s population reaching more than 600 at its peak in the 1950s.
Few remnants remain of those prefabricated barracks buildings and Nissen huts that offered a refuge among the trees here until 1962, mainly to families of servicemen from the Third Carpathian division in Italy who could not safely return to Poland, where the country had fallen under the totalitarian regime of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
They were among some 120,000 Polish servicemen and women who had fought alongside the allies and accepted the British Government’s offer to settle in this country, initially housed in dozens of similar ‘temporary’ camps.
Conditions may have been primitive but those who lived there recall a real sense of community, complete with a church, infant school, post office, cinema, shop and an entertainment hall boasting a dance team, theatre group, choir and sports club.
Locals referred to Hodgemoor as ‘Little Poland’, although it wasn’t until 2017 that the first formal reunion took place at the General Bor-Komorowski Club in Amersham, itself built by former Hodgemoor residents and opened in 1974.
Today a commemmorative plaque recalls the days of the camp, though for the most part it’s hard to imagine just how busy the place would have been in the 1950s, with its own resident priest performing mass every day and with adults picking up jobs in Slough, Amersham and High Wycombe, where many would later settle.
Deep in the heart of Hodgemoor much of the central area is ancient in origin, with records of its existence dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, though the ancient core is surrounded by semi-natural woodland dating from the 18th century to the present day, one of the largest such tracts remaining in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns.
Generations of children recall riding their bikes up and down the slopes of its mysterious dells, some perhaps marking the remains of diggings for clay to be used in the local brick kilns.
With a wide range of soil types and mixed history of planting, the woods boast an extensive array of trees, shrubs and insects.
Bluebells and foxgloves provide splashes of colour in the spring, while mosses, lichens and an assortment of fungi help to add texture and intrigue to the woodland palette.
To the north, more serious ramblers on the Chiltern Way may bypass the woods on their way down from Winchmore Hill and the Red Lion at Coleshill towards Chalfont St Giles, preferring open outlooks over the Misbourne Valley to an unfamiliar detour into the depths of Hodgemoor, perhaps.
Likewise casual visitors to the farm shops which flank the woods – the Hatchery on the main Amersham road and Stockings Farm on Bottrells Lane – may be unaware of the extended network of woodland walks which surround them.
On the edges of the woods, those glimpses of sheep, cattle, pigs and horses are a reminder that civilisation isn’t very far away, and it’s always nice to see members of the riding association cheerily trotting along the bridleways, families building an Eeyore house or inquisitve spaniels nosing among the autumn leaves.
But some of the deeper recesses can feel almost silent, and frozen in time…sometimes a little too quiet for comfort. It’s a reminder of just how overgrown parts of the wood had become back in the 1960s and the extent to which they have been transformed in recent years.
Research carried out by the author and amateur sleuth Monica Weller in 2016 reveals a very different place, with charcoal burners who worked in the woods from the 1950s recalling how dense and impenetrable it had become by the time a brutal murder in 1966 focused the nation’s attention on Hodgemoor.
Weller probes the killing of popular Amersham GP Dr Helen Davidson in her book Injured Parties, and in the process recalls a complex legal battle between the Forestry Commission and local residents over the future management of the woodland.
Thankfully those early wrangles paved the way for what has become something of a model for private-public co-operation, with the horse-riding association members getting the right to use the trails in return for maintaining them.
It’s an arrangement that’s worked well and for the most part helps to protect the area, with a network of riders and dog walkers on the lookout for any anti-social behaviour and the local parish councils working hard to discourage “unsavoury” activities of the sort that has brought one small area of nearby woodland some notoriety over the years as an alleged hotspot for casual sex.
Back in the heart of Hodgemoor, the changing seasons provide a constantly shifting backdrop of different colours and textures, from spring greens to autumn leaves, from frost glittering in the dawn light to evening rays shining through the trees.
The variety is startling, altering with the time of day and the seasons, from those crisp frosty mornings of winter to muggy summer nights where the air is still and listless.
It’s 60 years since the Polish camp shut and those families moved out, but the woods still echo to the sound of children playing, the rustle of inquisitive dogs and hooves of horses on the bridlepaths.
These days, a new generation of ramblers, riders and dog walkers are disappearing into the maze of paths which make it so easy to feel you are alone, even when know other people are close at hand.
In so many ways it’s a very different landscape from that which housed the postwar camp, yet often the place feels timeless: and for villagers in Seer Green and Chalfont St Giles, it remains a wonderful playground on the doorstep where the appeal of a walk in the woods never grows old.
SUMMERTIME, and the livin’ is easy down on the waterfront in Bristol.
Tourists are mingling with the locals sauntering around the historic harbourside, many just sunning themselves on the quayside watching the world go by.
It’s a perfect place for a relaxed father-and-daughter reunion, surrounded by the iconic cargo cranes, dockyard railway wagons and historic vessels which provide such vivid evidence that this is a city built on industry and invention.
During the day, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain dominates the waterfront, dressed with flags and ready for departure, just as she looked at her launch in 1843, welcoming a new generation of visitors aboard to find out more about life on the world’s first great luxury liner.
Brunel built bridges, tunnels, ships and railways that were longer, faster and bigger than anything seen before, but while there’s plenty to celebrate about his engineering genius – and his extraordinary transatlantic steamship – there’s no escaping a much darker aspect of Bristol’s maritime past.
The M Shed is the city’s social history museum, home to iconic objects, documents, photographs, films and personal testimonies that tell Bristol’s story from its prehistoric beginnings to the present day.
Free to visit, it’s one of the old cargo sheds on the quayside that recall a time when the harbourside was a flourishing working dock rather than a trendy leisure destination.
It’s also a reminder that by the late 1730s, Bristol had become Britain’s premier slaving port, with local ships transporting thousands of enslaved Africans to work on sugar plantations in the British Caribbean or in the tobacco farms of Virginia and Maryland.
It was on this waterfront that anti-racism protesters gathered in 2020 after pulling down a bronze statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston, toppling it into the harbour while demonstrating their solidarity with the US Black Lives Matter movement.
The museum doesn’t shy away from that grim legacy, chronicling how profits from the slave trade formed the basis of Bristol’s first banks and some of its finest Georgian architecture, with local ships supplying the British colonies with a wide range of goods and returning laden with slave-produced Caribbean produce such as sugar, rum, indigo and cocoa for refining, processing and manufacturing.
Back in the sunshine of the quayside, the restaurants are gearing up for the evening and the huge dockside entertainment venues are mercifully empty on a Monday night, though those who enjoy a more frantic atmosphere can come back at the weekend for the full-blown party vibe.
It’s a picturesque setting in the fading sunshine, but if you fancy something a little more traditional, the 17th-century Llandoger Trow round the corner in King Street has a huge variety of ales on tap and an intriguing history.
Along with allegedly hosting a variety of ghosts, it is said to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write of the Admiral Benbow Inn in Treasure Island, as well as being the place where Daniel Defoe supposedly met Alexander Selkirk, the castaway who was his inspiration for Robinson Crusoe.
Even so early in the week, the tables outside provide a convivial meeting place on a summer’s night, not least for the joyful sounds emanating from the Old Duke across the road, a legendary Bristol jazz and blues venue which hosts free live music every night of the week.
Dating from around 1775, the pub’s heritage lies with traditional New Orleans-inspired jazz, with some regulars having played at the venue for decades.
We’re in luck, because Monday night boasts an evening of traditional jazz, and on this occasion it’s Jeremy Huggett and friends belting out some memorable favourites.
It’s a perfect choice. Monday nights don’t come much mellower than this, even if it’s only the briefest snapshot of just how much the city has got to offer.
From galleries, museums and theatres to live music, seasonal events and that wonderful waterfront, Bristol’s got a huge range of experiences to offer visitors, and a good variety of city centre hotels offering cheaper accommodation on weekday nights if you can manage a short break.
It’s only been the most fleeting of visits, but definitely one to whet the appetite. Don’t worry, Bristol, we’ll be back…
WHEN you visit Turville for the first time, don’t be surprised if the place looks familiar.
So many films and TV shows have been shot in and around this picturesque Buckinghamshire village that a sense of deja vu is almost unavoidable.
From the Vicar of Dibley and Midsomer Murders to Killing Eve and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the quaint buildings frozen in time against the glorious backdrop of the Hambleden Valley are often indelibly etched on our memories.
Isn’t that the windmill in which Dick van Dyke – sorry, Caractacus Potts – lived with the children back in 1968 when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang hit the big screen?
And isn’t that Geraldine Granger’s cottage in The Vicar of Dibley? And the church where she preaches?
Don’t worry, you’re not imagining it – you really have seen these places before.
In fact Geraldine’s Grade II-listed home in the grounds of St Mary the Virgin Church hit the national headlines when it went up for sale in 2022 for the first time in 60 years.
But then this is the English countryside at it’s best, so it’s not surprising that the ramblers and sightseers flock here at weekends, sometimes clogging the narrow country lanes as they explore the pretty villages, historic churches and cosy pubs that they’ve seen on TV.
Most are keen to combine a leisurely ramble with a sociable Sunday lunch in a classic country pub, so hostelries like Turville’s Bull and Butcher are popular watering holes.
Built in 1550, the quintessentially English pub boasts large open fires and original beams in the winter and a large sunny garden and patio area for warm summer days.
Owners Brakspear know there’s nothing like a walk in the countryside to work up an appetite, so they’ve produced a handy free app describing dozens of circular walks around many of their pubs, some like the Bull boasting downloadable leaflets you can print out too.
A trio of walks feature on the Turville leaflet, ranging from an hour-long wander round the village taking in the church and distinctive Cobstone Windmill – a smock mill dating from around 1816 that was owned by the actress Hayley Mills in the 1970s – to longer and slightly more demanding routes taking you further afield to the villages of Skirmett, Frieth and Fingest.
Incorporating clear directions, pictures and some useful snippets about local history, there are similar leaflets covering routes around other Brakspear pubs in the valley.
Weekend ramblers in this part of the world are also likely to stumble across fans of the Midsomer Murders detective series hot on the trail of DCI Barnaby, thanks to a downloadable guide to the Hambleden Valley launched in 2018.
But this valley is a veritable magnet for ramblers, cyclists and nature lovers, and if you want a friendly guide to an even wider range of picturesque routes around the area, Chilterns-based runner, trekker and “general mud-lover” Richard Gower has a whole range of illustrated walks on his website.
THERE could hardly be a more iconically English landscape than the Limpley Stoke valley.
This is a world of honeyed stone and chocolate-box villages, sleepy canalside pubs and bustling tea rooms, soaring aqueducts and busy locks where weekend strolls are punctuated by the smell of wild garlic and woodsmoke.
A lifetime ago, it was an evening pint in the glorious garden of the 16th-century Inn at Freshford which convinced me that it might be wise to leave a better-paid job in rain-soaked Glasgow and move to Bath, with its impressive Roman baths and Georgian architecture.
During a decade there, and in nearby Bathampton and Bradford on Avon, the Kennet & Avon canal provided a picturesque backdrop to my daughter’s childhood, so it seems fitting that we’re able to meet up here for a ramble on one of those most magical of summer days when the valley is at its best.
It’s a 10-mile walk from Bath to Bradford on Avon, but most locals have their favourite stretch for a less demanding afternoon stroll. and there’s also the option of taking the train out to Freshford or Avoncliff for a shorter circular or one-way trip, returning from one of the other stops on the route.
Our meander will take us from Bradford on Avon to Avoncliff, the outward journey on the canal towpath, the return route running alongside the river.
With the Avon at its heart, the Wiltshire town lies at the southern edge of the Cotswolds, surrounded by glorious countryside.
The Saxons drove their carts across the ‘broad ford’ that gave the town its name and the staple local industry for six centuries was wool and weaving, leaving a legacy of great riverside mills, with ranks of weavers’ cottages lining the hillsides, punctuated by the grand houses of wealthy clothiers.
A variety of canalside watering holes provide a good start or end point to any ramble, along with a reminder that this is part of an impressive 87-mile waterway linking the Bristol Channel with London.
More than 200 years ago horses would have plodded along towpaths like these carrying cargoes of stone and coal, but competition from the railways heralded the demise of the canal network, much of which later fell into disrepair and disuse.
When the canal opened in 1810, the wharf in Bradford would have been a busy place. Back then we might have seen boats loaded with coal from the Somerset coalfield, or goods like barley and local cheeses.
But its fate was sealed only three decades later when the Great Western Railway opened.
Thankfully a resurgence of interest from enthusiasts and volunteers helped to revitalise and restore the waterway, which was officially reopened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990.
And today, as we make our way past one of the largest medieval barns in England, the towpath is positively bustling with activity.
Indeed, sections of the canal path can get a little too hectic at weekends, when there can be an occasional battle for dominance between the more assertive walkers and faster joggers and cyclists.
But if whirring tyres and tinkling bells can prove distracting at times, for the most part everyone’s here to savour the relaxed atmosphere and most are making a conscious effort to show consideration to others.
Out on the water there are a few day rentals and holidaymakers cheerily chugging up and down, while the longer-term residents are moored up along the towpath, their boats laden with bikes, pot plants and other personal paraphernalia.
There are plenty of wildfowl entertaining the passers-by here, including a particularly large family of ducklings, though a hungry-looking heron shows a little too much interest in these cute fluffy snacks until he’s chased away by an obliging spaniel.
We’re making good time on our 1.4-mile saunter towards the village of Avoncliff, home to one of a couple of impressive aqueducts between here and Bath built to carry the canal high over the River Avon and the railway.
Both were designed by the prolific Scottish civil engineer John Rennie, whose bridges, canals, docks and warehouses have stood the test of time, scattered all over the country.
The three arches of the aqueduct at Avoncliff offer a particularly pleasant outlook over the valley below, and the glorious riverside gardens of the Cross Guns inn.
It’s an idyllic location for a traditional pub meal on a summer’s evening like this, with equally spectacular views back towards Rennie’s aqueduct and little to disturb the peace other than the gentle murmur of a train stopping at the village’s tiny railway station.
Like many of the other villages scattered along the valley, this is a quintessentially English setting, and it’s easy to understand why the tourists love the area so much.
Avoncliff is the perfect starting point for rambles up or down the valley, with its succession of pretty villages with their Bath stone cottages, climbing roses and cottage gardens.
The Cross Guns itself is one of the oldest buildings, a Tudor residence extended in the early 1600s and originally known as The Carpenter’s Arms, providing respite for travellers and drovers using the ford across the river and later used by quarrymen, millworkers and travellers.
Business was booming by the turn of the 18th century when the canal arrived, bargees stabling their horses behind the old cellar and relaxing over a game of cards, smoke curling from their clay pipes as they shared tales stretching the length of the canal.
The name change to the Cross Guns stems from the late 18th century, in recognition of the formation of the local yeomanry in the shape of the 9th (Bradford on Avon) Battalion of the Wiltshire Rifle Volunteers.
Like other hostelries along the valley, the inn has seen its fair share of boom times, though trade was tough in the 1960s when the mills had become derelict and the canal was in disrepair.
Thankfully trade is healthy again now that the canal has been revitalised, whether that’s round a roaring fire on a cold winter’s night or like today, basking in the sun by the river tucking into hearty pub grub like fish and chips or a handmade pie.
It’s still warm, but time to start thinking about the homeward leg of our journey, this time taking a slight detour from the canal to follow the river back to Bradford.
Of course we could have jumped on the train to Freshford or Bath, taken time to explore the villages of Limpley Stoke, Bathampton or Claverton (home to the fascinating American Museum), or taken time just to watch the narrowboats negotiate the locks linking the canal to the River Avon in Bath.
But perhaps those are outings best left for another day. For now, the leisurely stroll back to Bradford is the perfect end to our nostalgic waterside walk through this most beautiful of valleys, carved out of the local limestone over millions of years.
Here, historic pubs and glorious views provide a perfect backdrop to the world of the gongoozler, or idle observer of life on the canal – and it’s hard to think if a nicer way of enjoying a lazy day in the sun.
MY BELOVED has no great aversion to men in kilts. She even married one.
She’s as moved as anyone by the sight of a lone piper on a castle battlement and has been known to step out on the ceilidh dance floor with gusto.
But expose her to what she cruelly dubs “maudlin and sentimental” Scottish music and she’s a lot less sympathetic.
This is the source of the occasional good-humoured marital disagreement, because I have a weakness for the sort of poetry and song that’s guaranteed to make any exiled Scot go misty-eyed with emotion over their glass of malt.
Why so? A childhood of holidays on the Moray Coast and four years at Aberdeen University for a start.
Summers in the sixties were spent roaming the cliffs and beaches of the small fishing village of “Finechty” surrounded by what seemed a huge extended family of uncles and cousins.
The chance to study Scots and Irish literature amid the hallowed walls of the ancient university in Aberdeen meant returning north as a teenager to the Granite City with its seagull cries and those biting winds sweeping in off the North Sea.
The latter half of the 1970s were spent here, enjoying the still calm of a lonely desk hidden among the “stacks” of King’s College library in Old Aberdeen and attempting to explore all of the city’s 250-odd drinking establishments.
After that, a decade working on the local paper, initially as a trainee reporter and later as features editor of the Evening Express, meant years spent experiencing, relishing and chronicling all the trials and tribulations of life in the north-east of Scotland.
Life in Thatcher’s Britain was posing plenty of challenges, but from “district drives” in remote Aberdeenshire villages to interviewing everyone from politicians and professors to farmers and teachers, detectives and criminals, there could hardly be a better way of immersing yourself fully in the community.
It was a young, sociable team on the EE too, with 4pm finishes allowing plenty of time for teatime drinks down at the Kirkgate Bar, which had also been a popular student haunt.
All of which of course means countless memories too: of friends and family, student parties and dances, music and laughter, times of loss and fond thoughts of those no longer around to share the reminiscences.
Which is where the music comes in. But why do we listen to sad music? And is nostalgic music necessarily sad?
The song that has prompted the whole conversation is one that’s a new discovery to me: Lewis Capaldi’s Someone You Loved, released back in 2019 and inspired by the death of the Scottish singer-songwriter’s grandmother.
The accompanying video featuring his distant cousin, the actor Peter Capaldi, is a real tearjerker, made in partnership with charity organisation Live Life Give Life to help raise awareness about the issue of organ donation.
It’s a poignant story of loss and hope about a husband who is trying to cope with the death of his wife, who became the heart donor for the young mother of another family, saving her life.
Heartbreaking, uplifting, impactful…the Youtube comments make it clear that this is a song which resonates with listeners, especially those struggling to cope with bereavement. It doubtless became an instant hit to play at funerals.
It’s also brilliantly performed by the actor we know better as Dr Who, or the irascible, foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It and In The Loop.
Like all timeless art, it captures the universality of those shared emotions which help to tie us together, reminding us of our own lost loved ones: the tinkling laugh of a favourite London aunt or soft Scottish burr of a kindly Orcadian uncle, perhaps.
Like a picture from an old album, our thoughts may wander back to a moment frozen in time: that day back in the 1960s when my mum was standing with her brothers and my young sister Fiona outside my grandmother’s home in Findochty, for example.
I don’t remember the smart white coat, but she was obviously very proud of it. My uncles, John-Alec and Willie (“Doods”), would doubtless have been gently teasing my father about his “posh job” in London, and slyly slipping me a half-crown at some point during the holiday that I could use to buy a paperback.
The picture is significant because it’s such an “ordinary” unposed shot, taken at a time when we owned neither a camera nor a car, and all the more poignant because it remained undiscovered for decades in a box of old slides, unseen because we never owned a slide projector either.
It’s not my favourite picture of my uncles, though: that honour goes to an earlier almost biblical shot of the trawler skippers mending their nets in the harbour. But both shots are evocative reminders of where my own family’s journey started.
This is the small fishing village that my mother left as a teenager to train to become a nurse and midwife – initially in Aberdeen and later hundreds of miles away in London.
Our annual childhood visits back to the north-east were an August ritual for years, my grandmother always a familiar figure on the doorstep of “Number Eight”, a house that smelt of polished wood and bubbling broth, where there was an organ in the smart front room and a short-wave radio in the lounge for tuning in to the fishing boats at sea.
This is where my mother and father married in the mid-1950s, surrounded by friends and family at the small village church, guests arriving by steam train on the glorious coastal route along the cliffs from Cullen, a trackbed I would walk as a teenager 20 years later, long after the last train had run.
It’s the same church you can see from the picturesque cemetery where nowadays they and other family members are buried: a last resting place in the most spectacular of locations.
Which takes us back to Lewis Capaldi, perhaps. Nostalgia is all about a sentimental longing for times past, wistful memories of pleasure or sadness from years gone by – like those wonderful summer holidays in Scotland, for example, with relatives who have long since passed.
Capaldi’s sensitive lyrics give the song a broader appeal too, not just for those grieving the loss of a loved one, but for anyone lamenting the end of a relationship, perhaps.
That’s all very well. But why do we often actively enjoy listening to sad music? And are Scots particularly fond of wallowing over sentimental memories?
Scots traditional music is steeped in melancholy, of course: of parting and of unrequited love, of forgotten battles and the homesickness suffered by those forced to leave their homeland and emigrate abroad.
Celtic tunes crossed oceans and ancient ballads and laments became an important basis for American folk, bluegrass, and country music too.
Music was a constant theme of my university years, at ceilidhs and discos and impromptu jam sessions with talented friends.
From nights at the ABC Bowl in George Street watching Frank Robb and Super Klute to sociable sessions at the Malt Mill or Bobbin Mill, we made the most of Aberdeen’s thriving music scene.
There were regular ceilidhs at the Northern Hotel, Celtic Society and university officers’ training corps, Sunday jazz at the Gloucester Hotel, countless informal get-togethers in snug bars and student flats.
And years later those songs would still resonate in the memory, LPs of bands like Five Hand Reel, Ossian and Runrig on regular repeat to recapture happy memories of those sociable years.
Why do we love sad songs so much, though? As Simon McCarthy-Jones discusses in The Conversation, perhaps it’s all about empathy: that flood of emotions we feel when we relate to other people’s circumstances and can share in their hopes, fears and tribulations.
Nostalgia relates to our memories being trigggered by important moments and shared experiences in our own lives: and from Burns poems to Scotland the Brave or the Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, it doesn’t take long for a group of exiled Scots to start belting out some familiar classics.
From protest songs like Hamish Henderson’s evocative Freedom-Come-All-Ye to the unofficial national anthem that is Dougie Maclean’s Caledonia, a song with a story to tell is all the more resonant too.
Whether it’s the technical brilliance of a plaintive chord or haunting melody, the beauty of the lyrics or vividness of the imagery, this is music to make the heart melt.
But let me tell you that I love you, that I think about you all the time Caledonia you’re calling me and now I’m going home
Such songs may stimulate the release of comforting hormones, boost our feelings of connectedness or help to distract us from our problems, but whatever the underlying science, it seems that sometimes allowing ourselves to spend a little time savouring melancholic thoughts can help boost our overall emotional health.
And bring a group of exiled Scots together for a Burns night meal or similar celebration and it’s unthinkable that there won’t be plenty of music and song to accompany sentimental reminiscences about times past.
The lyrics don’t have to directly echo our own life experiences, either: we can empathise with the specifics while tapping into the same broad emotions, conjuring up a kaleidoscope of our own memories spanning the years.
In my case, that might mean nights out with university friends or office outings with colleagues from the Evening Express – to the Insch races, Braemar gathering or rugby in Paris.
Listening to Caledonia might remind me of bumping into Dougie MacLean at a bar during the Edinburgh Festival, the chants on the rugby terraces at Murrayfield, that familiar brewery smell when you step off the train at Haymarket or Waverley.
Or waking on the overnight sleeper to be greeted by those glorious coastal views as the train wends over the border and north towards Dundee and Aberdeen…
Or those countless nights of fun and friendship with work colleagues, tinged with sadness because not all of those smiling faces are still around to share the memories.
Sharing a dram with an old friend who’s been told he is dying, the tunes and the memories are all the more poignant, of course.
We met as 17-year-olds almost half a century ago and have shared plenty of adventures over the years, at home and abroad. There are a lot of tales to tell and laughs to share.
As students we worked long shifts in a Dutch pickle factory and later rode the rails around Europe. We slept on Milan station, played backgammon on a Greek ferry, fell ill on a crowded train in what was then Yugoslavia.
A croupier, teacher, filmmaker, bullrunner and entrepreneur with a mischievous sense of humour, a knack for political incorrectness and a distrust of anyone in authority, he’s fondly remembered by former students for his eccentric ties – one for every day of the teaching year – and even more colourful teaching methods, as well as those school football tours abroad that involved a great deal more socialising than football.
Being around him has its drawbacks. The relentless lack of political incorrectness, the bad jokes and madcap schemes can be exhausting. But the childlike joy at planning a merry jape is ample compensation, especially when you can look back with affection on countless shared adventures spanning more than four decades.
Pour him a large whisky and those old stories start to flow, many particularly poignant because health worries and the advancing years mean that we can’t turn back the clock.
But if the past cannot be repeated, it can certainly still be recaptured – and perhaps that’s where those sad songs are of most importance.
Interestingly, when it comes to his nomination for an old favourite to savour over a dram, it’s a timeless classic from the Scots band Runrig, with a particularly poignant story to tell.
Back in 1973, two brothers and a friend from the Scottish island of Skye formed a ceilidh dance band that would go on to tour the world, release a string of hit records and touch the hearts of millions of fans.
Inspired by the language and history of the Western Isles, Runrig took Gaelic culture from the dance halls of the Highlands to massive arenas across Europe, although when we saw them play at the students’ union in Aberdeen it was a far cry from their final performance four decades later in front of 50,000 crying, dancing fans in the shadow of Stirling Castle.
But you don’t have to come from the Hebrides to understand how our past shapes and defines us, or to appreciate the poignant beauty of music and melody which is infused with both joy and sadness.
And when we watch the emotional video which accompanies “The Story”, there are dozens of intermingled images conjured up by those lyrics: of student nights in an Aberdeen bar or wild ceilidhs in remote village halls, of the annual Highlanders’ dance at Portobello Town Hall in Edinburgh, of all those exploits and hijinks that span the decades: of watching children grow up and grieving the loss of family and friends, of love and loss, of hope and laughter.
And that’s the beauty of good music. Or, as Elton John tells us:
They reach into your room, oh oh oh Just feel their gentle touch (gentle touch) When all hope is gone You know sad songs say so much
It’s more than half a century since she wrote Big Yellow Taxi, though the youthful Joni could hardly have realised her words would turn into quite such a timeless environmental anthem.
Inspired by the juxtaposition of her hotel parking lot against the backdrop of the Hawaiian mountains, she wrote:
Don’t it always seem to go That you don’t know what you’ve got Till it’s gone They paved paradise And put up a parking lot
It was 1969 and she was just 26 when she penned her “little rock and roll song”, which originally appearing on her Ladies of the Canyon album and was released as a single in April 1970.
It was her first trip to Hawaii and she later recalled how she took a taxi to her hotel late at night without getting to see much of the island.
“When I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart,” she said.
Initially a regional hit in Hawaii, it took time for the impact of the music to gain a true international audience.
“It took 20 years for that song to sink in to people most other places,” she later recalled. “That is a powerful little song because there have been cases in a couple of cities of parking lots being torn up and turned into parks because of it.”
Hey farmer farmer Put away that DDT now Give me spots on my apples But leave me the birds and the bees Please!
Flash forward to Britain in 2023 and that concrete jungle has become not just an everyday reality but is posing an existential crisis for our wildlife.
Somehow we’ve become blind to the issue and the insidious way in which the motor car has come to completely dominate our lives.
For a few brief months in the heart of lockdown we were exposed to an alternative reality, where families went out for walks together and we suddenly started to hear the birds and insects above the steady drone of traffic.
But as Paul Donald examines in his new book, Traffication, it seems we have very quickly forgotten any lessons we might have learned during the pandemic.
It’s not just that the trillions of miles of driving we do each year are destroying our natural environment, but that we have become almost oblivious to the scale of the threat.
Our streets and driveways are overflowing with cars. Whereas car ownership was once a dream for poorer families, it’s become a prerequisite of 21st-century life, as much as smartphones and Netflix.
And whereas we once ridiculed Americans for their reliance on gas-guzzling limousines, their endless highway traffic jams and sprawling out-of-town shopping malls, we have hardly noticed how our small island has been transformed in the past 20 years.
More than a decade ago, a report showed millions of the UK’s front gardens had been paved over to become parking spaces, a trend that has continued ever since, with fewer and fewer front gardens boasting any refuge for wildlife.
Such lifeless hardstandings are often actively encouraged by estate agents, boasting that a driveway could add to the value of the property, yet this doesn’t just deprive birds and insects of vital food but increases floodwater run-off, making drains more likely to overflow.
Over the past half-century our lives have changed in many subtle ways. But during that time, car ownership figures have exploded. In 1950 there were just four million vehicles on the road. Today it’s more like 33 million, and they are clustered everywhere: on verges and roadside, car parks and front drives.
The proliferation is every bit as damaging to nature as habitat loss or intensive farming, and not simply in terms of roadkill: a busy road can strip the wildlife from our countryside for miles around and the impact of traffic all-pervasive, affecting every aspect of animals’ lives.
Couple all this with the growing popularity of artificial grass and the fact that our roads are lined with litter and pockmarked by flytipping, and it genuinely feels as if the natural world is increasingly under siege in our urban landscapes.
It’s also not a problem that’s just as bad everywhere else in Europe. Take Amsterdam, for example, where cycles, trams and boats outnumber cars – and where the air quality is much cleaner as a result.
Back in Britain, it feels as if we’re running out of time to protect what’s left of our countryside.
As the wonderful Joni wrote all those years ago:
They took all the trees and put ’em in a tree museum And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them No, no, no
We’re not quite there yet, but we desperately need to reverse the trend. We have lost billions of birds, insects and mammals in recent decades, and wildlife needs all our help to survive and flourish in the coming years.
Large-scale rewilding partnerships are wonderful, but millions of ordinary householders could be doing their own bit to stop the rot…before it really IS too late.
DOZENS of artists from across Oxfordshire throw open their doors this month for the UK’s oldest and biggest open studios event.
Oxfordshire Artweeks runs until May 29, allowing visitors to speak directly to hundreds of artists, makers and designers across the county in venues ranging from their own studios to pop-up galleries in local pubs, farms and churches.
The three-week long celebration of creative talent starts in south Oxfordshire and then moves north and west in mid-May before culminating in a week of events around the city of Oxford.
Those taking part range from painters and sculptors to artists specialising in ceramics, photography, textiles and sculpture, along with craftspeople working in wood, glass, mosaics and jewellery.
The annual event offers a chance to talk to artists about their work, watch demonstrations and even have a go yourself. Many items are for sale, ranging from postcards and prints for a few pounds to large-scale original works costing thousands.
The full programme includes 174 artists across South Oxfordshire whose work is on show until May 14.
Some towns, like Watlington, boast dozens of individual artists showing off their works, with some collaborating in shared spaces like those at Turville Studios or at Greenfield Farm at Christmas Common, which even boasts a pop-up cafe.
The focus moves to north and west Oxfordshire from May 13-21, when another 171 artists have their works on show.
The last week of the event runs from May 20-29 with another 100+ exhibitors in and around the city of Oxford.
CAN a walk in the woods help you cope with chronic pain? Gel Murphy thinks so.
And our picture choice this week reflects the way that photography has transformed her life since she stepped back from her teaching career.
As a busy deputy headteacher in London, her working life was dominated by meeting other people’s needs. But in August 2020 the long-term pain stemming from an old back injury forced her to give up her job and retire.
“I loved my job and in total worked 30 years in education,” she says. “Work had always been my crutch and others’ needs mattered before mine. I had no time to exercise; I had medical treatment to keep me at work.”
But chronic pain takes a heavy toll on your emotions and mental wellbeing, she admits. “Every day I suffer chronic pain, pain that is always there, lurking in the background,” she says.
And that’s when the great outdoors started to play a bigger role in her life.
“To take control and with the support of my wife, family, and friends, I began to manage my pain, through walking, healthy eating and learning about pain,” she recalls. “I still have pain every day, but I built a toolbox of coping strategies.
“One of these strategies to understand the connection between physical and mental pain is mindfulness and walking.
Accompanied by her four-legged friend Obi-dog, and often in the company of fellow rambler and photographer Sue Craigs Erwin, Gel soon found herself spending hours in the woods around Amersham, taking pictures on her phone on the way.
“I walk every day,” she says. “I walk two to three miles in the beautiful Buckinghamshire countryside and take photographs on my iPhone. I don’t have a camera, my phone is my camera.
“I had never taken photographs before. Being in nature helps me forget about my pain and taking that time to stop has opened my eyes to the colours, light, beauty and changes all around.”
Through a pain management program she was introduced to photographer Jo Bradford , who has written a number of books about smartphone photography.
“She is inspirational,” says Gel. “I was also fortunate to meet her and spend a magical morning taking photos on Dartmoor.
“I never realised the seasons had so much depth, or the magic of the light. Every day is a new picture.”
Armed with a clip-on macro lens, she has also started to take close-ups of insects and plants, sharing them on a variety of local Facebook nature and wildlife groups, as well as becoming a regular contributor to The Beyonder’s calendar feature, chronicling the changing seasons in the Chilterns.
Spurred on by the members of an emotional wellbeing group which sprang up online during lockdown – organised by Christine Moran, a mental health specialist and founder of Positive Energy Being – she gained confidence in her photography and the belief that things could and would get better.
“I enjoy walking and being outside,” she says. ” We are blessed living in the Chilterns, an area of outstanding beauty. There are many amazing places to walk, I just had to start.
“I began walking, while listening to my sad music. It was how I felt: I was stuck in my head. Then with the support, I began listening to the sounds around me and taking time to look at the beauty around me.
“I began to see the beauty of nature, the change in the seasons and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. I took photos of what I saw, I shared them and they were applauded.
“Taking photos of nature has distracted me from my pain and led me to create my blog. I hope my photos make people smile.”
AFTER a positively springlike November that contributed to 2022 being the UK’s warmest year on record, December was a very different story.
The first two weeks of the month saw the coldest start to meteorological winter since 2010, with high pressure and a cool northerly airflow resulting in a prolonged spell of low temperatures, bringing snow and icy conditions at times.
But the plummeting temperatures were accompanied by drier than average days with plenty of sunshine, allowing The Beyonder’s photographers to get out and about to make the most of the frosty mornings and chilly afternoons.
Bare branches and frozen berries provide striking patterns on early morning rambles, while the weak winter sunshine can create dramatic light effects.
Yes, there’s always fog and mist to contend with, not to mention torrential downpours and muddy footpaths where on some days it seems impossible to find any glimpse of colour to lift the mood.
But on crisper days when the ice forms delicate filigree patterns on spiders’ webs and animals’ breath hangs in the cold air, such rambles can still be a delight.
It’s a time of year when the past feels very close at hand in our ancient Chilterns landscape, where small villages sit clustered round their ancient churches as they have done for centuries, spirals of woodsmoke curling into the air as dusk falls and the inviting glow of lamps and lanterns lighting up the cottage windows.
Here, even those hallmarks of our industrial past, the railway bridges and canal towpaths, feel wholly immersed in the natural world, their weathered bricks polished and aged by time and the elements until it feels as if they must have always been here.
After two winters of pandemic worries, families were on the move at last, undeterred by the icy conditions and rail strikes from planning long-awaited reunions and travelling a little further afield than they could contemplate in 2020 or 2021.
Closer to home, if many winter walks had a slightly monochrome feel, there were always those marvellous days when the skies clear to allow a spectacular splash of colour, as they did back in 2020 when windmill enthusiast Siddharth Upadhya managed to capture the beauty of the magnificent post mill at Brill.
Meanwhile widllife photographers were looking to the trees, the sparse foliage making it easier to pick out our feathered friends, a perfect opportunity for first-time birdwatchers to begin recognising the different shapes and colours.
For those wanting to identify birds by the sounds they make, there couldn’t be a better starting point than Mark Avery’s guides to different types of birdsong, worth exploring in plenty of time ahead of the spring, when the dawn chorus starts to grow in volume and variety.
Early in the month, clear skies and the almost perfect alignment of the sun, Earth, moon and Mars allowed from some striking views of the month’s appropriately named “Cold Moon”.
For ancient civilisations, the cycles of the lunar phases helped to track the changing seasons, with different Native American peoples naming the months after features they associated with the northern hemisphere seasons (including howling wolves, which give us January’s Wolf Moon).
Wrapped up warm against the elements, a woodland wander on a winter’s evening can make it much easier to imagine how much more familiar early civilisations were with those night skies and glorious constellations.
But at this time of year even our towns have a magical festive feel, the sparkle of Christmas lights helping to lift the spirits now that the winter solstice is behind us, and nature lovers can start relishing the way that the days start getting longer from here on.
For many, this is a difficult time of year, when even nature lovers can struggle with winter depression on those short days when the sun is obscured and the landscape full of greys and browns.
But that’s when those snatched snapshots can provide a welcome foretaste of the excitement of spring, when a ray of sunlight falls perfectly on a leaf or the mist clears to suddenly leave the landscape awash with colour.
For winter ramblers, dusk and dawn are favourite times to brave the elements, not just in the hope of a spectacular sunrise or sunset but because those quiet times are also often the most promising for catching wildlife unawares.
Even when nature is looking at its lowest ebb and many creatures are dormant or hibernating, the hoot of a tawny owl, whistle of a red kite or bark of a fox or muntjac reminds us that our local wildlife is never too far away, even if we can’t always see it.
Furtive and fast-moving, or sleepy and nocturnal, our stoats and weasels, dormice and badgers are not easy to spot, but tracks in the snow and rustles in the hedgerows may give away their presence – and even our most common garden birds like robins, blackbirds and tits are all individually beautiful.
Come rain, hail or shine, our photographers are out in all weathers capturing the beauty of the Chilterns countryside, and we are enormously grateful for their evocative portraits of our local flora and fauna this December.
A big thank you to all the kind local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month, and throughout 2022. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for the coming year, contact firstname.lastname@example.org on email or via our Facebook group page.
MIDNIGHT mass in the picturesque French hilltop town of St Paul de Vence is a true community affair.
Outside the defensive ramparts, just through the original stone gateway that leads to the narrow cobbled main street, a group of locals are dressed in appropriate garb as part of a living nativity scene.
Christmas lights twinkle in deserted alleys across the historic village now that dusk has fallen, hiding the spectacular views out towards the French Riviera.
There’s an eager buzz of anticipation in the centuries-old village church with its ornate side chapels and Rococo frescoes, the youngsters eyeing up the feast of tasty treats prepared for after communion, older villagers catching up with friends, some quite exuberant at the tail end of an evening of celebration.
Outside, a village cat sits demurely observing the comings and goings. The church has filled up and the surrounding streets are almost deserted.
The priest heads down to lead the nativity procession back up to the church, Mary and the shepherds lighting flaming torches for the short journey. There’s even a disgruntled-looking black labrador in tow, dressed in a sheep’s fleece and clearly unconvinced about the necessity to look the part.
Most of the tourists have gone home, so this feels like one of those rare moments when the locals – total population around 3,450 – have the village to themselves.
That’s something of a special experience to share, because the medieval beauty, rich heritage and artistic legacy of St Paul has made it a magnet for visitors across the centuries, nowadays numbered in their millions.
Back in the 1920s, as now, it was the extraordinary light of the south of France that lured artists here, setting up their easels to capture the richness of the colours and intensity of the contrasts between sun and shade.
The first arrived a hundred years ago and others followed in the footsteps, including Matisse and Picasso, many enjoying the company of Paul Roux, a painter, art collector and restaurateur whose modest inn would become a village institution, its dining room and courtyard adorned with the artworks of those early guests.
Today, little has changed. Earlier in the evening, well-heeled diners were still soaking up the timeless atmosphere of the Colombe d’Or, with its attentive waistcoated waiters and colourful handwritten menus.
Still owned by the Roux familiar, the walls still adorned with the artworks of those early guests, the establishment continues to unite the Provençal way of life with an amazing private modern art collection, leaving diners replete with memories of previous conversations that have echoed around these walls among the writers, poets, film-makers and artists who flocked here in the 50s and 60s, from Jacques Prévert and Yves Montand to Braque and Chagall.
Earlier in the day, visitors wandered through the narrow alleys and tiny squares, gazing through gallery windows or staring out from the ramparts over the olive trees and vines that stud the hillsides from here to the azure of the Mediterranean.
Now, back in church communion is at an end, but the nativity tableau is still involved in some enthusiastic carol singing – even if our labrador friend has determinedly shrugged off his woolly fleece.
A firm favourite is the traditional French carol celebrating Christ’s birth:
Il est né le divin enfant, Jouez hautbois, résonnez musettes! Il est né le divin enfant, Chantons tous son avènement!
It’s time to slip away through the peaceful streets of the hilltop village and leave the locals to their songs and festive delicacies.
The “divin enfant” is safely ensconced in his stable bed and for now, all’s right with the world…
IT’S the Christian feast which marks the end of Christmas, and it’s been celebrated all over the globe for centuries.
But in an increasingly secular world, it’s doubtful how many ordinary UK people on the street in 2023 could actually explain the significance of Epiphany.
The celebration commemorates the Magi’s visit to the baby Jesus and the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
Eastern traditions usually call the holiday Theophany and focus on Jesus’ baptism, seen as the revelation of Christ as both fully human and fully divine.
Western traditions focus on the Magi’s visit, seen as the first manifestation of Christ as saviour of Gentiles as well as Jews.
The feast takes place on the day after Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season, which in the Middle Ages was a period of continuous feasting and merrymaking from Christmas Day until January 5.
Shakespeare used Twelfth Night as the setting for one of his most famous stage plays and today we know it as the last day for decorations to be taken down, although in Elizabethan England, decorations were left up until Candlemas.
After Twelfth Night, Epiphany celebrates the revelation that Jesus was the Son of God, focusing on the visit by the Three Wise Men “from the east” to worship the king of the jews, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, along with the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan and the wedding at Cana, when Jesus performed his first public miracle.
In the early Church, Christians celebrated all these events, including the nativity, on January 6. It was only in later centuries that both Christmas Day and Epiphany became established as feast days, separated by the 12 days of the Christmas season.
Many countries celebrate “Three Kings Day” with parades and processions, sweets, cakes and presents, along with baptismal rites, house blessings and special church services.
THIS month’s picture choice is a stained-glass window in rural France which captures the essence of the Christmas spirit.
The tiny window is one of a series which can be found in the Church of Reconciliation at the Taizé Community, an extraordinary monastic fraternity which has become a place of pilgrimage for young people from all over the world.
While thousands of young people descend on Taizé at Easter and during the summer holidays, Christmas is traditionally much quieter – so much so that on our last visit in December 2019, we were virtually alone with the monks on the coldest of winter nights.
Flash forward three years and a gruelling pandemic and we’re finally able to return, once again on a frosty winter’s day…but this time classes and discussion groups have resumed and a few dozen young people are able to join the monks for the afternoon service.
It’s a very special place at any time of year, but at Christmas it’s a particular pleasure to rediscover the peace of this extraordinary community where, as Brother Roger put it “kindness of heart and simplicity would be at the centre of everything”.
It’s also a delight to revisit a luxurious hotel only a few miles away which provides a perfect touring base for this beautiful part of Burgundy.
Firmly ensconced by the roaring fire at the Chateau D’Igé, we can banish memories of those icy roads in northern France and relax over an excellent three-course meal.
The food is excellent, the service impeccable and our room extremely comfortable: a perfect overnight break for anyone tackling the gruelling 1,000-mile journey from the UK to the south of France.
DEEP in the heart of rural France lies an extraordinary monastic community which has become a place of pilgrimage for young people from all over the world.
At Easter and in the height of summer, thousands of young people descend on the Taizé Community to join the 100-odd brothers from Catholic and Protestant traditions who are based in this picturesque corner of Burgundy, themselves originating from some 30 countries around the world.
Young pilgrims are encouraged to seek communion with God through community prayer, song, silence, personal reflection and sharing, living in a spirit of kindness, simplicity and reconciliation, with the distinctive music of Taizé providing a backdrop to their prayers.
At Christmas time, there are far fewer guests, but those still on site regularly gather in the community’s church – designed by Taizé member and architect Brother Denis and inaugurated in 1962 – for services featuring songs, psalms and chants in many languages, emphasising simple repeated scriptural phrases.
Founded in 1940 by Brother Roger Schütz, a reformed protestant, Taizé is best known for its youth work and year-round programme of small group discussions and simple life of prayer, song and communal living.
However over the years the brothers have lived in small fraternities among the poor in different parts of the world from India to Brazil, Kenya and Senegal. Young pilgrims are also encouraged to spread the word when they return to their local churches – and the community has also mounted a series of international gatherings of young adults.
But while the silhouettes formed part of the Remembrance Day commemorations, staged each year to provide an opportunity to remember those who died in battle, the figures had a particular resonance in a year which saw the death of so many famous UK faces, most notably the Queen.
Hundreds of thousands turned out to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth II, with a 10-day mourning period during which around a quarter of a million people queued to file past the Queen’s coffin at Westminster Hall the previous month.
But the intense public mourning which marked the Queen’s death was only the most memorable outpouring of grief in a year which also saw the passing of hundreds of iconic figures from actors and musicians to politicians and pop stars.
From Robbie Coltrane, Olivia Newton-John and Angela Lansbury to Sidney Poitier, Meat Loaf, Pele and Shane Warne, the list extended to stars of the small screen like June Brown and Bill Treacher from EastEnders, Dennis Waterman, Bamber Gascoigne and Bernard Cribbins.
The political world lost Mikhail Gorbachev and Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe, while the year came to a close with the death of the former pope, Benedict XVI.
We’ve written before of our fascination with these amazing organisms, with their spine-tingling names and beautiful shapes and colours, and we’ve even set out on a quest to find out more about how to identify the most common types.
But with literally millions of species of fungi on the Earth – as many as 10 times the estimated number of plant species – there’s plenty more to discover!
OUR picture choice for September shows a very ordinary bench on a very ordinary path: but for those who love a good mystery, there’s nothing “ordinary” about Cannock Chase.
A former royal forest now managed by Forestry England, this area of outstanding natural beauty is a good two-hour drive from the Chilterns.
But although a sunny September evening is a perfect time to see the Chase at its best, this picturesque part of Staffordshire is perhaps best known for its folklore, and mysterious sightings of black dogs, big cats, werewolves, UFOs and even a British Bigfoot.
It also gained notoriety in the late 1960s for the horrifying “Babes in the Ditch” murders, when the remains of three young girls were found on the Chase after going missing from areas along the A34 road to Birmingham. (A motor engineer from Walsall died in prison after being convicted of one of the murders in 1968.)
Periodically since then, local newspaper headlines have seized on a range of mysterious sightings, from demonic ghost dogs to UFOs and a mysterious “black-eyed child”.
One man who’s been investigating the area’s ghostly goings-on for more than a decade is paranormal investigator and author Lee Brickley, who clearly believes there’s plenty of evidence to support his claims that the 26-mile-square forest is the UK’s most active supernatural hotspot.
A string of his short books detail tales of the area’s ghosts, werewolves and UFOs, drawing visits from ghost clubs, paranormal researchers and others determined to establish whether big cats and ‘werewolf-type creature’ really prowl around the woods.
Declassified Government documents have revealed Ministry of Defence concerns about the area being a hot-spot for reported UFO activity, with accounts of silent balls of light circling Pye Green Tower, cigar-shaped tubes flying over Burntwood, and a 10ft light hovering over the Stafford Road.
More recently, Lee embarked on a new line of inquiry, to establish whether documentaries that had enthralled him as a child about Bigfoot sightings in America had ever been matched by similar tales from the British Isles.
Predictably, almost all reports of a “British Bigfoot” come from the Cannock Chase area, and his 2021 book pulled together accounts of some of the most credible local sightings.
Back at the Iron Age hill fort at Castle Ring, looking out over Rugeley, the sunlight is fading but the chill in the air has no particular feel of foreboding about it.
This is a popular place for walkers because of the spectacular views on a clear day, along with a real sense of history: almost 2000 years ago, members of the Cornovii tribe may have looked out from this fort at the sight of Roman soldiers advancing across the land.
It’s also identified by Lee Brickley as hotspot for mysterious sightings and paranormal activity, but on the evening of our visit, there’s no indication of anything amiss.
It’s quite a view, though. And the beauty of the forest makes it worth a detour, even there aren’t any cryptids, werewolves or flying saucers around to add a frisson of excitement to the ramble.
IT’S a chilly November night in the heart of the woods, with the star-studded sky casting a ghostly glow through the ancient branches.
Only an hour ago, the place was awash with autumn colour, the last afternoon rays of sunlight lighting up the russets and browns of the fallen leaves.
Now, although it’s not late, there’s little stirring among the frost-tipped leaves. The dog walkers have long headed home and most creatures with any sense have burrowed down for the night.
The call of an owl pierces the cold night air and the occasional explosive flurry of a startled pigeon or muntjac is enough to get the heart beating a little faster, but for the most part these dark woods seem deserted.
That’s something of an illusion, of course. It may be quiet, but this is still a refuge for wildlife of which we often catch only tantalising glimpses.
How often have we spotted a weasel or dormouse, for example? The occasional rustle among the leaf litter reveals we are not alone, and the reassuring hoots of the owls are a reminder that food is plentiful if you know where to look for it.
But although a fortunate wild swimmer might bump into an otter in the Thames, or spot a bank vole preening its whiskers, you have to get up with the lark or mooch silently around at dusk to stand a chance of catching a glimpse of our more elusive mammals.
On night walks like these, it’s easy to have a sense of time standing still: of past generations sharing the same sounds and emotions as they trudged along the local drovers’ roads and ridgeways on just such a wintry evening in a past century.
Chilterns woodlands reek of history – of charcoal burners and iron age forts, of lurking highwaymen and wartime military camps.
Amid this picture postcard landscape, Romans built their ancient roads out from London, stagecoaches swept past on their way to Oxford or Amersham, and displaced Polish families lived for years among the trees after the Second World War…
November is the month of woodsmoke and fireworks, of first frosts and misty mornings, of fading fungi and a fabulous fortnight of burnished golds, yellows and russet hues as nature puts on its own glorious fireworks display before the trees get stripped bare for winter.
It’s a season of remembrance too: of poppies and memorials, of wreath-laying ceremonies and sombre thoughts of past battles and lost loved ones.
As temperatures fall, this is that bleak, sullen fortnight or so before winter properly sets in that, we learned in 2020 from author and friend Alan Cleaver (better known in the Lake District as @thelonningsguyand for writing about the “corpse roads” of Cumbria), Cumbrian farmers identify as “back end”.
The landscape may start feeling somewhat bleak and unwelcoming, but it’s a time when our bird tables come alive with tiny visitors and crisper mornings reveal gloriously intricate spiders’ webs and colourful mosses and lichens carpeting old tree stumps.
Some less familiar faces may join the native birds feasting on the hawthorn, holly and juniper berries, while hedgehogs and badgers are seeking out comfortable spots for a wintry snooze – and there might even be a chance to catch sight of a stoat in its winter coat of ermine…a camouflage tactic that offers somewhat less protection now that our winters are becoming less and less snowy.
Chilly it may be, but our timeless Chilterns landscape has not lost all its colour yet, tempting us out in our scarves and mittens in the hope of hearing the whistle of a kite or hoot of an owl, watching the wildfowl squabbling at the local quarry or the bats coming out to hunt as darkness falls.
Here, where the buried flints and pots beneath our feet remind us that this landscape has been home to people like us for thousands of years, we can smell the woodsmoke rising from ancient chimneys, watch the silvery Thames slicing through the fields and feel just a little more connected with the natural world around us.
A big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work this month. If you would like to contribute any pictures, favourite moments or seasonal suggestions to our calendar entry for December, contact email@example.com on email or via our Facebook group page.
SOARING temperatures and flash floods marked a summer where climate change concerns were never far from people’s minds.
So after an unseasonally mild October, perhaps it’s a relief to finally feel the chill in the air on a starry Chilterns November night.
Back in the hot, dry summer, temperatures soared to a new UK record temperature of 40.3C in Lincolnshire and much of the local countryside looked brown and parched, with hosepipe bans in place across large areas.
The joint warmest summer on record for England, and the fourth driest, it meant wildlife enthusiasts having to rise early to catch the countryside at its best before the searing heat of the midday sun.
It takes patience and perseverance at the best of times to capture our native species on camera, but all the more so when they are taking refuge from such unpleasant heat.
What a delight, then, to savour the mellower temperatures of autumn and watch the sights, sounds and smells slowly switching to a different pace and palette.
Suddenly it’s crisper and colder in the mornings and darker evenings, though the woods are ablaze with colour as families look out their scarves and winter coats to make the most of the seasonal spectacle.
With Autumnwatch back on our screens and pumpkins suddenly swamping the shelves of local farm shops, a host of animals and birds are stocking up for the winter months.
And from the banks of the Thames to Ivinghoe Beacon, there’s no better time of year to venture outdoors to smell the ripening fruits and admire the beauty of the leaves as they change colour.
In just a few short weeks, the landscape has been transformed: from the August fields of sunflowers ripe for the picking, we have seen the dust of the combine harvesters blowing across the land and subtle changes in the light deeper in the surrounding woods.
In the grounds of Windsor’s Great Park the autumn rutting season may have had an extra resonance for visitors this year following the death of the Queen.
After so many thousands swamped the town to pay their final respects, many returning ramblers might be only too keenly aware of the monarch’s absence from her beloved castle, with the current herd all descendants of 40 hinds and two stags introduced in 1979 by the Duke of Edinburgh.
And from the historic Ridgeway to the depths of Burnham Beeches, a myriad other changes are taking place in this ancient and fascinating landscape, most noticeably the sudden golden glow as nature puts on its most spectacular fireworks display of the year.
The autumnal leaf fall is a clever form of self-protection, allowing deciduous trees to drop thin leaves that would otherwise rupture during the winter, making them useless for photosynthesis, giving the tree a fresh start in the spring while the nutrients from the decaying leaves are recycled to help grow the next generation.
Amid all the leaf mulch, autumn is also one of the best times to head out foraging, with woods and hedgerows filled with a feast of delights from hazelnuts and rosehips to blackberries, sweet chestnuts and crab apples.
The woods play host to a formidable array of mosses, lichens and fungi too, but not all of the intriguing range of shapes and colours to be found among the soaking foliage are safe to eat, as their spine-tingling names might suggest.