Perils and pleasures of island life

I’M not the greatest fan of travel writers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tales of the one that got away

MY photographic skills are getting no better, it seems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up, butterflies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The house Churchill called home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Local artists open their doors

ART lovers in Buckinghamshire who enjoyed this year’s open studios events should make a note in their diaries for June 2020.

Once again, hundreds of local artists and makers across the county will be throwing open their doors for a fortnight next summer to showcase their work.

TWO WRENS, SINGINGSOUNDS OF NATURE: Two Wrens, Singing by Sue Graham

The Bucks Arts Weeks project – which follows similar events across Oxfordshire in May – allows the public a unique opportunity to hear artists, sculptors, printmakers, photographers and jewellery makers talk about their work and see them in action.

The open studios scheme has been running in Buckinghamshire since 1985 and all the events are free to the public – including exhibitions, pop-up displays and dozens of working studios.

From calligraphy to ceramics and sculpture to digital art, the skills on display include printmaking, jewellery, drawing and painting, metalwork and photography.

For wildlife and nature lovers, highlights include many works inspired by or reflecting the natural world, including animal portraits and sculptures, and paintings rooted in the local Chilterns landscape.

SUE GRAHAMOPEN STUDIOS: artist Sue Graham at work

Geographically the open studios and exhibitions stretch from Milton Keynes and Buckingham in the north to Aylesbury, Chesham, High Wycombe, Chorleywood, Henley and Maidenhead, on the southern edge of the county.

Some towns like Princes Risborough, Amersham and Chesham have their own trail maps and exhibitors are grouped geographically to make it possible to visit a number at a time.

In 2020 the programme takes place from June 6 to June 21, incorporating three weekends.

Past highlights have included striking works by local artists like Sue Graham which have graphically illustrated the loss of birdsong from woods and gardens.

going-going-gone-birds-etc.-600x450MISSING VOICES: Going, Going, Gone by Sue Graham

To the north of the county, the striking fine art photographs of David Quinn have reflected landscapes from the Outer Hebrides to Vietnam, while Katy Quinn has also found inspiration in the landscapes of Scotland and Scandinavia for her jewellery and glass art.

Pop-up exhibitions suddenly appear in churches and village halls across the county, but visitors have to slip into Bedfordshire to see the striking landscapes of Graham Pellow, who works in a variety of mediums and has found inspiration in his local surroundings since moving to Leighton Buzzard.

Another artist inspired by local landscapes is Alexandra Buckle, many of whose linocuts are woodland themed, reflecting her love of walking her dog in the woods. Her proximity to National Trust properties like Stowe, Waddesdon and Claydon also allows easy access to locations which can provide watery reflections and scenes with interesting combinations of colours or dramatic light.

AN-EPISODE-OF-SPARROWS-websiteSENSE OF HISTORY: An Epsiode of Sparrows by Julie Rumsey

Further south in the Chalfonts, working from her gorgeous garden studio in Chalfont St Giles, Julie Rumsey has branched out into mixed media work using acrylic as well as her eye-catching collagraphs, many of which have been inspired by ancient naïve artefacts.

She haa exhibited alongside contemporary fine artist E J England, who often uses damaged vintage books as a canvas and whose works are inspired by the landscapes, cityscapes, flora and fauna of the British Isles.

Animals, flowers and the natural world also provide inspiration for the work of Jay Nolan-Latchford,whose eclectic body of art and home decor ranges from watercolour illustrations with embellishments through to large mixed media canvases.

JAY NOLAN-LATCHFORDINTO THE NIGHT: Jay Nolan-Latchford creates a mystical mood

Sally Bassett is another artist inspired by the Chiltern countryside, as well as the wild sea coasts of the west country. Her work explores and celebrates the seasons of the year, her paintings dynamic, bold and full of colour, energy and movement.

Similar themes are echoed by artist and tutor Susan Gray, who runs workshops and painting days from her studio in Wendover and exhibits in Cornwall and London, as well as in Buckinghamshire.

Also drawing inspiration from the beauty of the Chilterns countryside is Christine Bass, whose vivid tropical colour schemes betray her Trinidadian roots and feature extraordinary scenes across the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty from Ivinghoe Beacon to Bledlow Ridge.

She is one of a number of artists and craft workers who have shown their work in the atmospheric surroundings of St Dunstan’s Church in Monks Risborough.

Track beneath Ivinghoe BeaconFAVOURITE WALK: a track beneath Ivinghoe Beacon

During the fortnight of displays and demonstrations, visitors can buy or commission work – or even try their hand at some of the skills or sign up for classes. Prices range from postcards and small gifts costing a few pounds to major pieces of original artwork or sculpture costing hundreds.

Any artist or maker interested in taking part next year should contact the organisers on admin@bucksartweeks.org.uk.

Hundreds of artists are featured at venues across Buckinghamshire from June 6 until June 21. Free hard copy directories are available from May from art galleries, libraries, tourist information centres and participating venues.

Hardy echoes down the years

THERE’S such a deep melancholy about so many of Thomas Hardy’s novels that it’s almost a relief to re-read Under The Greenwood Tree, one of his earliest and gentlest works.

And yet there’s still something haunting about this relatively short love story between Dick Dewy and Fancy Day, traced through the course of the four seasons during one Wessex year.

One reason for revisiting the 1872 novel is to take temporary refuge from the travails of modern existence in a simpler earlier age – and who better to capture the English country scene of the early 1800s than a novelist famed for his pastoral depictions of rural life?

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Actually, there’s remarkably little in-depth description of the countryside in this novel, apart from the atmospheric opening pages when we first meet the Mellstock Choir on a lonely country lane through the woods and learn how to wood dwellers, every species of tree has its own “voice”, from the sob of the fir to the whistle of the holly and hiss of the ash.

But Hardy’s second published novel, which takes its name from Shakespeare’s poem in his pastoral comedy As You Like It, is an extraordinary rural idyll which introduces some familiar themes which will recur in his later fiction – not least a fickle heroine struggling to choose between suitors of different social status.

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And if it’s not stand-out descriptions of the scenery which make the novel memorable, Hardy achieves such an extraordinarily intimate depiction of the colourful characters in the choir that they all come instantly to life across the centuries, their banter and mannerisms as real and true as if we had bumped into them in the village pub at lunchtime.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising given Hardy’s familiarity with this world. Both his father and paternal grandfather were members of the local parish choir and this book was written in the cottage next to Thorncombe Woods where Hardy was born in 1840.

Bearing a remarkable resemblance to the tranter’s cottage, Hardy’s home – built of cob and thatch by his great-grandfather and little altered since the family left, is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.

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It’s just one of a number of autobiographical elements in the book, including the author’s love of old rustic musical instruments, which he inherited from his father, a keen violinist.

You can almost imagine Hardy as part of the group as the choir makes its way up the chilly country lanes with their instruments and lanterns for that Christmas tour of the village in the book’s opening pages.

Village musicians reappear in Hardy’s later novels, reflecting his childhood memories of rural music and dance, and there’s already that sorrowful sense that old traditions are being lost or challenged by new ways of doing things.

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It’s the same feeling you get when you visit the Chiltern Open Air Museum and start taking a journey back to a simpler age, where there’s a solidity and authenticity about the buildings and equipment that’s echoed in Hardy’s more colourful characters, like Gabriel Oak.

Already in Under The Greenwood Tree we can see a clash between the old and new order – in this novel reflected in the vicar’s attempt to replace the choir with a new mechanical church organ.

That emphasis on modernisation and the decline of traditional English country life anticipates Hardy’s later novels, particularly The Mayor of Casterbridge.

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Not that Hardy was naive about the gruelling realities of agricultural life in the early part of the 19th century, when working hours were long and poverty was widespread.

But he was vividly aware of how industrialisation was sweeping away the old ways, as labourers moved to the cities and the railways began to transform the rural landscape.

And that was something he reflected on in his 1896 preface to Under The Greenwood Tree, in which he pays personal tribute to the merry band of church musicians of whom he has written, and in a further note from 1912 which appears to lament having treated the choir so “flippantly”.

The book has been filmed on three occasions: in 1918 and 1930, and in 2005 was adapted for television, starring Keeley Hawes as Fancy Day. But if the story is a little slow for modern tastes and Fancy a little too infuriatingly fickle, the novel still provides a wonderful glimpse into a long-lost way of life – to the extent that on a lonely path through the woods on a chill winter’s eve, you might just fancy you can hear a few strains of fiddle music from the Mellstock choir on the chill night air.

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Numerous different editions of the book are available online and in booksellers, with the 2005 series available from BBC Video.

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Crime spotters take to the saddle

THAMES Valley Police is recruiting a new team of volunteer rural crime spotters in Chiltern and South Bucks.

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The volunteers are horse riders who will help with rural crime prevention while out on their normal hacking routes.

The role is voluntary and has no police powers attached but builds on the work of the force’s Horse Watch network which links horse owners, riders and equestrian workers with their local police teams.

To become a rural spotter, riders must past an application process and undertake a short training course. They must be 18+ with their own horse, personal liability insurance, own transport and no criminal record.

Volunteers will report any suspicious activity, including fly-tipping, unauthorised off- road biking and hare coursing to the NFU Rural Crime Reporting line on a free phone number, 0800 7830137.

Anyone interested should email Helen Evans, the Thames Valley Police equine liaison volunteer, who had the idea for the scheme. She said: Within the equine community we have an untapped source of people who are able to act as the eyes and ears of the police in rural areas.

Riders have the unique ability to go to fairly inaccessible places and have the advantage of height to see over hedges. My hope is that the scheme will make the countryside a safer place for all.”

Neighbourhood Sergeant Darren Walsh said: “By working together with the riding community, we can make criminals think twice, and deter and detect crime.”

Berks, Bucks and Oxon NFU Chairman Jeff Powell said: “Rural Spotters on horseback will be well placed to report any unusual or suspicious behaviour in the Buckinghamshire countryside and then log this anonymously through the NFU’s Rural Crime Reporting Line, run in partnership with Crimestoppers.”

For more details, see the Chiltern Community Forum.

 

Tales from the riverbank

IT’S hardly surprising to hear the mental health charity Mind saying how time spent surrounded by nature benefits both our mental and physical wellbeing.

It’s almost self-evident that nature heals, connects and gives us a clearer sense of perspective, not to mention all those measurable bonuses in terms of blood pressure, heart rate and reduction of stress hormones.

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Half an hour out of the house and striding through open meadowland with only the whistle of the red kites for company, I’m already feeling the benefit of escaping from the computer, the news feeds and the endless soul-destroying political intrigues about Boris, Brexit and our relentless destruction of our beautiful planet.

Apart from the startling view over the valley and the site of the soaring kites riding the thermals, there’s also a flurry of activity among the wild flowers as a handful of small heath butterflies flutter about in the breeze.

I wish I could accurately identify more of the insects and plant life around me, but for once, this one hung around long enough for me to see the markings…

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I’m nipping across the fields to explore a section of the ‘Berkshire Loop’, an extension to the Chiltern Way created in 2010 by the Chiltern Society to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the 134-mile circular walking route.

As explained by Pete Collins on his excellent walking website, the 28-mile loop starts near Penn and branches south from the Chiltern Way, passing just west of Beaconsfield to cross the Thames at Cookham.

It then heads west through Cookham Dean, before re-crossing the Thames at Henley and eventually meeting the southern extension of the Chiltern Way at Harpsden Bottom.

From my lofty perch in the meadow on the climb up to Kiln Lane, it’s a picture of Buckinghamshire peace – although in times past from here you might have spotted a puff of steam across the valley from a train taking the old Great Western line from Maidenhead to High Wycombe.

Nowadays the rails stop at Bourne End, but they used to run through single-platform stations in Wooburn Green and Loudwater, closed with the line in 1970.

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I pick up the Berkshire Loop in Wooburn Common just past the Chequers Inn, a 17th-century coaching inn which has been transformed into a welcoming modern hotel and pub with an interesting menu which will provide a welcome venue for my evening meal at the end of my six-and-half-mile ramble.

For now, open country is beckoning and I’m heading down a road marked as unsuitable for motor vehicles before taking the picturesque path through the woods which heads down towards the 12th-century church of St Nicholas.

The footpath leading across the field up to the church is particularly inviting – a real flashback to a bygone era and a well-trodden path across the centuries.

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Given the spectacular location, there may well have been a Saxon church on this site – or even an earlier Pagan temple, as an old Roman road from Silchester to St Albans is rumoured to have crossed the Thames at Hedsor Wharf close by.

Hedsor Wharf is the where the route heads next, past a field of what look like coal-black dragonflies dancing in the breeze as the path leads down to the Thames at Cookham.

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It’s not hard to see why this area has known different civilisations across the past 4,000 years. There is a small Bronze Age settlement between Marlow and Cookham, signs of a Roman settlement to the southern end of Cookham Rise, and crossing points were always crucial on a great river like the Thames.

Here, the stylish Ferry pub harks back to earlier times, before the building of a bridge in 1840 provided an easier crossing point. The current single-track road bridge dates from 1867 and was a toll bridge until it was bought by the council in 1947.

From here, after the briefest of encounters with the traffic queueing to cross the old bridge, it’s a pleasant and much less polluted riverside ramble west to Bourne End, accompanied by swans, coots and geese, and still pleasantly warm in the late-afternoon sun.

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The narrow boat and cruiser owners are out tinkering with their mooring ropes, the dog walkers from Cookham are taking the air and there’s more of a bustle on the footpath than on the deserted sections north of the river.

But then this is a popular saunter down to Bourne End, and a more conventional route would be to cross the river there on the railway bridge and continue to take the Thames path on the other side on into Marlow.

Past the rail bridge, families are chilling out in the terrace of The Bounty pub at Cockmarsh, and an alternative option would be to follow the four-mile National Trust circular tour back across Cock Marsh to rejoin the Chiltern Way near the Winter Hill Golf Club.

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Or you can stick to the riverside path a little longer before cutting away at an angle towards Winter Hill, another section of National Trust land where the terraces are known to have been colonised by the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age (350,000 – 10,000 BC).

Habitation at the site has continued ever since, as is evident from the Bronze Age burial mounds at Cock Marsh, and huge amounts of Roman pottery were removed from the foot of Winter Hill in 1906, which is thought to have been the site of a ferry across the River Thames.

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For now the marshy terrain looks slightly less welcoming, although it’s a very pleasing outlook over the valley and runners and dog walkers are out on the main paths, where the National Trust is working to maintain what it can of the surrounding chalk grasslands.

It makes a perfect hunting ground for a sneaky heron, however, whose hungry stance is a reminder that it’s time to get a move on and complete the final lap of the journey towards Marlow and dinner…

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The weather becomes a little duller for this stretch, as I depart from the Chiltern Way again and make tracks towards Marlow, utilising part of the 11-mile Cookham Bridleway Circuit and being side-tracked through Longridge and Bisham before finally emerging onto the welcome last leg.

The historic bridge beckons, along with the equally iconic image of All Saints Church. From here, it’s an easy wander through the town’s picturesque back streets to the station, from where the weary traveller can still catch the “Marlow Donkey” back to Bourne End or Maidenhead.

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It seems likely the nickname was actually bestowed on the little Great Western Railway 0-4-2 saddle tank locomotive which used to provide this service back in the early part of the 19th century rather than the two-coach multiple units which run the service today, but the name lives on the local Greene King pub and is too atmospheric not to treasure.

Back at the Chequers Inn for dinner, there’s  time to ponder an earlier form of transport. What must it have been like travelling in these parts three centuries ago, when the first regular stagecoach services began?

By the mid-18th century, England was crisscrossed with coach routes, and hundreds of inns were spread out at seven to 10 mile stages across the land. The coach stopped at the end of each stage to change horses and allow passengers to refresh themselves.

From the 17th century onwards, a stage coach service was well established from London to Oxford, passing though Uxbridge, Beaconsfield and High Wycombe. By the end of the 18th century as many as twenty coaches might come by in a day – and as Clare Bull explains on the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society’s website, those early travellers must have been glad to reach a place of safety, as well as comfort.

Whether coming from London or Oxford they had to pass through some of the most notorious highwaymen’s haunts, it seems.

From Oxford, the steep climb out of the marshes of the Wye Valley up the hill to Holtspur presented ideal conditions for attacks on slow-moving coaches with tired horses. The wood through which the road passes just before reaching Holtspur is still known as Cut-Throat Wood, and The King’s Head at Holtspur had a reputation as one of the marauders’ favourite drinking dens.

On the Oxford Road the most notorious marauder was Jack Shrimpton, a native of Penn who was hanged in 1713. Earlier still, Claude Du Val, renowned for many stories of his gallantry, was hanged at Tyburn in 1670 at the age of 27.

The last man to be condemned to death for highway robbery in the area was tried in 1800 for holding up a coach at Beaconsfield and stealing thirty shillings; he was hanged at Gallows Road, Aylesbury – a suitably gripping fireside story to regale the weary traveller before a welcoming bath and bed.

 

It’s high time to build an Ark

PAUL Kingsnorth has chilled out a lot since the days when he was chaining himself to bulldozers and saw direct action as the best way of changing the world.

We saw this very clearly in the recent documentary by the Dutch TV channel VPRO, which visited him at home in Ireland for a few days to make a film themed around his essay collection Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.

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But that doesn’t mean the writer and environmentalist has given up fighting for what he believes in – as a recent post from his Facebook page shows. And since it speaks for itself, here is Paul’s post in full, complete with links to his own website and that of Mary Reynolds, whose project he is discussing.

It’s by no means an isolated project, and the theme has been repeatedly reflected in other Beyonder stories and Tweets, as well as on the most recent series of BBC’s Springwatch. But that doesn’t make the story any less important, so over to Paul:

“Here is something entirely unrelated to my books, etc, which I want to tell everyone about, because I think you should all hear of it.

People often ask me ‘what can I/we do?’ about the ongoing grinding-down of life on Earth by industrial humanity. My twin answer is: nothing. And also everything. My other answer is: action, not ‘activism.’

What I mean by this is: future climate change is inevitable, and we are unable at this point to halt the momentum of the industrial machine, which needs ‘growth’ in order to sustain itself. ‘Growth’ in this context translates as ‘mass destruction of life.’ The human industrial economy is like cancer: literally. It metastasises, it must grow in order to survive, and it grows by consuming its host.

At some stage, this thing will collapse; I would say this is already happening. This creates despair in many people – as does the inability of ‘activism’, argument, campaigning, rational alternatives presented in nice books by well-meaning people, etc, to make any dent in the greed, destruction and momentum of this thing we all live within.

So far, so depressing. And yet, on the human scale, and on the non-human scale too, everyone reading this has the power of rescue. Everything I have just written is, to some degree, an abstraction. Reality is what you live with, and live within: grass and trees, hedgehogs and tractors, people and pavements. Reality is land, and how it is used. The planetary crisis is a crisis of land use. We are using it disastrously, as if it were a ‘resource’, not a living web. We think we own it, and can control it. The Earth is in the process of showing us just how wrong we are.

The alternative is to do the opposite: to build an ark, in which life can thrive. Or rather: a series of arks, all over the country, and the world. Here is a new initiative, set up and run by an Irish woman, Mary Reynolds, who calls herself a ‘reformed landscape designer.’

It is beautifully simple – home-made, very local, accessible to everyone. Its aim: not to ‘save the planet’, but to build small ‘arks’ in our own places – and then to tell people about them. To spread the word, and the idea. Whether you have a field or a window box, this is possible and inspiring and entirely doable. It is real action, and it has real, deeply valuable results. Best of all, it mostly involves doing nothing: just leaving things alone. Which, in my humble opinion, is probably the best way to ‘save the planet’ in the end.

I’d encourage you all to look at Mary’s website, and to ask yourself how you can build your own ark – and tell the world it exists.”

Listen to the buzz on the street

THE laburnum outside the bedroom window is suddenly in full bloom after the bare twigs of winter have reclothed themselves – and equally suddenly, it’s abuzz with life, literally humming with bees.

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The yellow cascades are dramatic, pristine eye-catching waterfalls which will be gradually turn into drifts of yellow husks on the grass, as if some benevolent monster has been eating a LOT of sweetcorn.

As the Twitter feed starts filling up with posts about World Bee Day (May 20), those schoolday poems suddenly seem very vivid – particularly Tennyson’s onomatopoeic “murmuring of innumerable bees” and Yeats’ “bee-loud glade”.

Standing under the hanging blooms, this is no distant drone though, but a frenzied flurry of activity and a very welcome one after all the negative publicity about bees becoming increasingly endangered.

Without bees, we cannot strive towards a world without hunger – and that’s the underlying message behind the World Bee Day project, as Boštjan Noč, author of the initiative and President of the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association, says:  “It is time for everyone to listen to bees, in particular, leaders and decision-makers.

“I believe that – with the proclamation of World Bee Day – the world will begin to think more broadly about bees, in particular in the context of ensuring conditions for their survival, and thus for the survival of the human race.”

That’s an enthusiasm shared by campaigner Amanda on her website BuzzAboutBees which also includes just about everything you could want to know about the thousands of different types of bees and their habits.

Even the Woodland Trust has got in on the act, with its easy guide to telling the difference between different types.

With May 20 behind us the laburnum blossoms are falling but the bees have been constantly busy. And even far from home, you can still hear them. As Yeats said (albeit in the context of the lake waters lapping), the sound tells to follow you: While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

 

Cunning intruder at the palace

IT’S JUST as well a competent photographer was on hand to capture the magic of a recent crafty visitor to the Pond Gardens at Hampton Court Palace.

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I’m normally quick to blame my photographic disasters on my equipment – the cheapest digital camera in the shop which has subsequently suffered plenty of bumps and scratches on our rural rambles.

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Fortunately as I fumble with the zoom to try to capture a fleeting image of the surprise visitor in the foliage, partner Olivia is on hand to take charge of the equipment and show me how it should be done.

Hence for once we actually have some pictures of the animal in question that are not obliterated by branches or marred by careless camera movements.

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However it also turns out our visitor is not so cunning or elusive as the folklore might suggest – and the warmth of a sun-drenched grassy spot proved too alluring to resist as the perfect place for a quick afternoon nap.

Even the excited squeaks of ‘Reynard!’ from the visiting French schoolchildren could not disturb the slumbers of this rather majestic palace guest…