Picture of the week: 19/04/21

OUR picture choice this week takes us back to Oxfordshire and the striking work of artist and printmaker Jane Peart.

Jane is one of dozens of local artists whose work features in an online spring show organised by Oxfordshire Artweeks, a sneak preview of work available to buy during the forthcoming May festival.

Mist on the river, Waterperry by Jane Peart

Born in London, Jane graduated from the Ealing School of Art and worked in a design studio before moving to Oxford in 1978.

An avid printmaker, her work ranges from colourful acrylics to stunning etchings of birds and animals.

She has been exhibited all over the country and is a member of the Oxford Printmaker’s Cooperative and Oxford Art Society.

She says: “After many years of devoting my time to pencil and pen and ink drawings, I took up etching, which I love, although it is a very challenging and demanding medium. I now devote most of my creative energies to printmaking.”

Evening Light, Tuscany by Jane Peart

However her online exhibition this year shows off some of the paintings she has completed during lockdown.

“I have found it difficult this last year to produce any new etchings but I’ve enjoyed doing some different work,” she says. “Some of the paintings are from walks I’ve been on during lockdown. It’s opened my eyes to the beautiful scenery walking through the woods or by the river.”

Her pictures stray much further afield too, from the Pyrenees to Tuscany and even China. A flipbook accessible online contains more than 50 examples of her work.

Evening Light, Tuscany by Jane Peart

“For as long as I can remember I have always loved drawing,” she says. “My etchings have always been about trying to evoke the feel and atmosphere of the place that inspires me. When drawing animals and birds I strive to capture their character, endeavouring to show the texture of their fur, feathers and other aspects which make them unique.

“In recent times I have taken up painting in acrylics. One good thing about the lockdown has been the opportunity to work in another medium and discover new exciting things to do and I really love it!”

Many of the other artists exhibitiing at this year’s festival have had their work featured in past Beyonder features, including Katie Cannon, Jane Duff, Maureen Gillespie and Sue Side, with local landscapes proving perennially popular subjects.

Traditionally May is the month that artists across Oxfordshire open their doors to the public.

The Spring Show is a seasonal collection celebrating the natural world as it awakens, awash with vivid greens, blues and golden yellows, hares and songbirds, blooms and blossom. It offers a sneak preview of what’s on offer through May, when more than 650 artists show off their creative talents.

Despite lockdown restrictions, this year there will still be dozens of secure pop-up galleries and studio exhibitions to visit across the county, with another 500 available online.

Finally, nature explodes into colour

AFTER those dull, muddy early weeks of the year, the world suddenly seems to explode into life in March.

Suddenly – and only after long grey days of eager anticipation – the natural world is alive with activity, with something new to spot every day.

CHILLY PROSPECT: wintry skies in Chesham PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

And with many families still finding their movements limited by lockdown restrictions, perhaps more of us than ever have been aware of those daily changes in the fortunes of our local flora and fauna, and have been watching them with fascination.

First it was the daffodils and primroses replacing the snowdrops and blackthorn hedges suddenly awash with abundant small white flowers.

EARLY PROMISE: a long-tailed tit at Dorney Wetlands PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But while the earliest hedgerow shrub to flower may herald the onset of spring, country folk warn of the so-called ‘Blackthorn Winter’, when the white blossoms can be matched in colour by frost-covered grass, icy temperatures and even late snow flurries.

EARLY RISER: a muntjac deer appears out of the mist PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Although depicted in fairy tales throughout Europe as a tree of ill omen, blackthorn is given a rather magical reputational makeover by Dutch storyteller Els Baars, who suggests the “innocent” white flowers are the Lord’s way of telling the world that the blackthorn bush was not to blame for its twigs being used to make Christ’s crown of thorns.

And it’s far from being the only colour to catch the eye. Plumes of fragrant apple and cherry blossom appear all around too, a delight to bees and other pollinators before they start to shower to the ground like pink, white and red confetti.

SPECTACULAR SHOW: March blossoms in Willow Wood, Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Wonderful magnolia trees and glossy everygreen camellias and mahonias are fighting for attention in local gardens, while yellow gorse flowers have opened up across the heathland at Stoke Common and Black Park.

PRICKLY CUSTOMER: gorse flowers on Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

The air is thick with birdsong in morning and early evening, robins, blackbirds and wrens shouting about territory while the local wood pigeons strut and coo. There’s frogspawn aplenty in local ponds and nest-building is under way in earnest.

FRIENDLY FACE: a fluffy garden favourite PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Sometimes even the most familiar local residents are worth a much closer look. Living close to a river, we tend to take for granted the birds and animals we see every day: the squirrels, pigeons and the ducks who amiably wander through the garden or quack for food at the front door.

DRESSED TO IMPRESS: the distinctive green head of a drake PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But as Graham Parkinson’s remarkable portraits show, even the ubiquitous mallard is a remarkably handsome fellow, and while the female lacks such dramatic colours, she has a remarkable depth and subtlety to her plumage that is equally striking.

SAFETY FIRST: nesting female ducks blend into their surroundings PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

There’s an important advantage to not being so dramatically dressed, though – camouflage. Nesting alone means female ducks suffer a higher mortality rate than males, so it makes perfect sense to blend into the vegetation on their nesting areas.

UP FOR A FLUTTER: a peacock butterfly on the Thames Path PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Warmer days are encouraging the first butterflies out for a flutter, like the bright yellow brimstone, peacock, small tortoiseshell or red admiral.

Many beetles have been waking up after their winter hibernation too, most noticeably the bright red seven-spot ladybirds, glistening like little red jewels as they warm their bodies in the morning sunshine.

The warmer daytime temperatures also lure adders out of hibernation, but they can hard to spot, even when sitting motionless in the sun. 

ON THE MOVE: clouds scudding across the sky in Chesham PICTURE: Leigh Richardson

Early morning is the best time to see them while they’re still cold from the previous night and a little slower on the move – once warmed up they can wriggle with remarkable alacrity.

Those early mornings and sunny evenings are the best time for photography, as well as catching the sounds of woodland creatures stirring – the yaffle of a woodpecker, perhaps, or the agitated chittering of argumentative squirrels.

ROAD LESS TRAVELLED: on the Berkshire Loop of the Chiltern Way PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Country lanes are beginning to look a little more welcoming, with splashes of colour to offset the brown: the cowslips and coltsfoot, dandelions and winter aconites providing welcome dots of yellow against an increasingly green backcloth.

Although many think of wild flowers like dandelions as a nuisance, Brtiain’s wild flowers are increasingly being recognised as a valuable asset, with people rediscovering their ancient medicinal properties and old recipes being dusted off for salads, wines and health tonics.

OLD FAVOURITE: the common cowslip PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Spring lambs are gambolling in the fields and local farms are a hive of activity too, with chicks hatching, vegetables to plant and spring cleaning to organise as the earth begins to warm – even if there are still plenty of frosty mornings and chill clear nights to freeze the bones.

MOTHER’S DAY: sheep at Great Missenden PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Whichever aspect of spring gives you most enjoyment – those insects emerging from hibernation, early blooms, noisy rooks or natterjacks, frosty morning walks or the antics of playful baby goats, squirrels and lambs, it’s an extraordinary time of year.

As Melissa Harrison says in her nature diary The Stubborn Light of Things: “It’s the oldest story: the earth coming back to life after its long winter sleep. Yet spring always feels like a miracle when at last it arrives.”

MORNING CALL: a barn owl hunting at dawn PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

As always, we’d like to give a very 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 April, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Picture of the week: 12/04/21

OUR picture choice this week takes us to Abingdon in Oxfordshire and the work of artist Dougie Simpson, which features as part of the UK’s oldest and biggest open studio event next month.

An online spring show organised by Oxfordshire Artweeks offers a sneak preview of work by more than 200 local artists which will be available to buy during the organisation’s forthcoming May festival.

Thames Street, Abingdon by Dougie Simpson

Dougie, who comes originally from Scotland, was relocated to work in Wallingford in 2005, retiring 10 years later.

During a year-long period of rest and recuperation in Venice, he started attending drawing classes and art workshops held at the Bottega del Tinteretto.

“I’m very keen on attending art courses and workshops both here and in Europe,” he says. “Since I started exhibiting four years ago, my work and range of subject matter has developed and increased in popularity.

“Several of my pictures have be found in the USA. Understandably I use the opportunities when I travel to paint outside. So you will find a selection of landscapes and cityscapes amongst my paintings.”

Abingdon Bridge by Dougie Simpson

Dougie will be exhibiting with alongside a quartet of other artists known as the Abbey Group in St Nicolas’ Church in the centre of Abingdon, showing a selection of watercolours and pen-and-wash paintings.

The Abbey Group exhibition runs from May 17-22 from 10am-5pm.

Many of the other artists exhibitiing at this year’s festival have had their work featured in past Beyonder features, including Katie Cannon, Jane Duff, Maureen Gillespie and Sue Side, with local landscapes proving perennially popular subjects.

Traditionally May is the month that artists across Oxfordshire open their doors to the public.

The Spring Show is a seasonal collection celebrating the natural world as it awakens, awash with vivid greens, blues and golden yellows, hares and songbirds, blooms and blossom. It offers a sneak preview of what’s on offer through May, when more than 650 artists show off their creative talents.

Despite lockdown restrictions, this year there will still be dozens of secure pop-up galleries and studio exhibitions to visit across the county, with another 500 available online.

TV detectives return to The Lee

THERE were more dark deeds afoot on the village green on Sunday night when the Midsomer Murders team returned to the Buckinghamshire village where the whole grisly detective series began.

GRISLY PAST: The Lee has featured in several episodes of the crime series

There could hardly be a more picturesque setting that The Lee near Wendover, and 24 years ago it was transformed into Badger’s Drift for the pilot episode of what would become the UK’s longest-running crime drama and most popular drama export.

Followers of the series might recall how the atmospheric Cock & Rabbit pub on the green because the Rose & Chalice for DCI Barnaby’s first outing back in 1997.

This week the pub was back at the heart of the action as a line-up of guest stars joined the regular cast for the second of six feature-length episodes making up Season 22 of the drama, with Neil Dudgeon enjoying his tenth year in the starring role.

CRIME SCENE: Neil Dudgeon and Nick Hendrix investigate PICTURE: ITV/Mark Bourdillon

Tension mounts after a local outcast controversially acquitted of a brutal murder years previously returns to the area – and a death on the village green means Barnaby and sidekick DS Jamie Winter (Nick Hendrix) are called in to investigate.

Prime suspects include John Thomson as Cooper Steinem (best known as Pete from Cold Feet) pulling pints behind the bar, Lily Allen’s dad Keith Allen as Harry Marx and The Queen’s Gambit star Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as the ambitious Gideon Tooms.

Welsh actor Allen has played a variety of “baddie” roles in the past, with a CV that ranges from Shallow Grave and Trainspotting to Kingsman and Marcella.

But undisputed star of Sunday’s instalment, filmed in 2020, was Hannah Waddingham from Game of Thrones in a bravura performance as larger-than-life Mimi Dagmar, Midsomer’s most flirtatious estate agent, whose suggestive asides left even DCI Barnaby looking a little uncomfortable.

ON THE CASE: DCI Barnaby and DS Jamie Winter PICTURE: ITV/Mark Bourdillon

Chilterns residents get an additional delight from spotting local venues used as a backdrop for the series, as Joan Street can testify – over the past 20 years she has chronicled more than 120 locations on her Midsomer Murders website.

Says Joan, who lives in London: “I was inspired to start the site having recognised some of the locations in a very early episode called Written in Blood.  Initially it was only going to be a website for the locations but somehow or other it grew and grew! 

“I launched the first pages way back in 1999, never envisaging the series would still be going on in 2021.  It was a bit of fun but gradually almost became like a second job.  Midsomer’s popularity increased every year with more and more locations being used; something that fascinated many viewers.”

LOCAL LANDMARKS: historic pubs across the Chilterns have featured in the series

It wasn’t long before the site had more than a million hits, with more than 2,300 members joining a forum linked to it.

“A friend and I used to go out on weekends trying to track down some of the locations used,” Joan recalls. “We were very naive at first but soon learnt that a lot of detective work needed to be done in advance to find them.  The quirkiness of Midsomer was also a huge appeal.  We became totally addicted.”

The series became such a worldwide success that a series of guided and self-guided tours have been launched across the region showing tourists favourite locations, from Henley and Marlow to Thame and the Hambleden Valley.

WINNING FORMULA: Season 22 launched on April 4 PICTURE: ITV/Mark Bourdillon

Joan admits: “Prior to Midsomer I’d never visited any of the places used in the Chilterns.  It was a voyage of discovery.  I now know almost every town and village and we both ended up loving the area.”

The Lee has featured in at least four other Midsomer episodes, and Sunday night saw its picturesque cottages back in the public eye, this time as Tamworth Springs, home to an ill-fated social and health club for recovering heart bypass patients.

POPULAR SPOT: the picturesque village green at The Lee has been a favourite TV location

The Stitcher Society was broadcast on Sunday April 11 on ITV and is still available to watch on ITV Hub. Midsomer Murders is made by Bentley Productions, part of ALL3Media.

Young and old join the big clean-up

VILLAGERS across the Chilterns turned out in force to fight back against litter louts and fly-tippers this weekend.

Volunteers of all ages turned out to clean up hedgerows, streets and paths around Cookham, Wooburn Green and Fulmer, with many other communities planning similar spring clean-ups.

In Cookham and Cookham Dean some 80 villagers came together to clean up across four locations, aged from three to 75+.

Organiser Jus Moody said the clean-up included a “disgusting fly tip” on Cookham Dean Common comprising whole car panels, wheel trims and even an entire lamppost.

She said: “We have no explanation for this or the hundreds of coffee cups, pieces of food packaging or other weird items that folks think they’re entitled to dispose of in our village hedgerows.”

In nearby Wooburn Green, Karen Savage Townsend praised the efforts of more than 140 litter pickers who managed to fill some 87 bags of rubbish during a day-long community clean-up.

And in Fulmer village, another village team of conservation volunteers were busy clearing rubbish off Stoke Common Road, Fulmer Road and part of Fulmer Common Road, their haul ranging from discarded face marks, alcohol bottles and cans to car parts.

The clean-ups came as Iceland supermarket boss Sir Malcolm Walker said the rise in litter was making Britain look ‘like an impoverished Third World country’, where thoughtless drivers tossing litter out of windows were among the worst culprits.

The 75-year-old was quoted in the Daily Mail in the run-up to a nationwide litter-picking event organised by Keep Britain Tidy, which starts on May 28.

But local campaigners want to see more done to tackle the upsurge in littering, from tougher punishments to launching a nationwide deposite return scheme and insisting on fast food retailers printing car registration numbers on packaging.

Enforcement officers like David Rounding have had considerable success in ensuring Buckinghamshire has a zero-tolerance approach to illegal waste dumping, but the scale of the problem can sometimes seem relentless and some local farmers feel under siege.

Long-time campaigners like Peter Silverman, John Read and Danny Lucas have repeatedly called on individual councils and bodies like Highways England to do more to fulfil their legal responsibilities, a view echoed by Sir Malcolm Walker, who urged the public to put pressure on elected officials to clean up roadsides, and backed tough action against countryside litterers. 

More than 6,000 members have signed up to a Facebook group representing litterpicking groups across the UK, but while many remain upbeat and determined, others have confessed to feelinhg“disheartened, dispirited and disgusted” after seeing crowds trash popular parks and beaches during rare breaks between lockdowns.

Deadly locations lure the tourists

THERE are more dark deeds afoot this weekend in Britain’s deadliest county when Midsomer DCI John Barnaby is back on the murder trail.

The Stitcher Society is the second of six feature-length episodes making up Season 22 of the popular crime drama, with Neil Dudgeon enjoying his tenth year in the starring role.

CRIME SCENE: Neil Dudgeon and Nick Hendrix investigate PICTURE: ITV/Mark Bourdillon

Tension mounts after a local outcast controversially acquitted of a brutal murder years previously returns to the area – and a death on the village green means Barnaby and sidekick DS Jamie Winter (Nick Hendrix) are called in to investigate before the body count starts to rise.

Locals may not be expecting an early solution to the mystery – since the show launched 24 years ago the area has witnessed more than 400 deaths.

Renowned for its dark humour, stunning scenery and high-profile guest stars, the show is not only the country’s longest-running crime drama but also its most popular drama export.

ON THE CASE: DCI Barnaby and DS Jamie Winter PICTURE: ITV/Mark Bourdillon

Chilterns residents get an additional delight from spotting local venues used as a backdrop for the series, as Joan Street can testify – over the past 20 years she has chronicled more than 120 locations on her Midsomer Murders website.

Says Joan, who lives in London: “I was inspired to start the site having recognised some of the locations in a very early episode called Written in Blood.  Initially it was only going to be a website for the locations but somehow or other it grew and grew! 

“I launched the first pages way back in 1999, never envisaging the series would still be going on in 2021.  It was a bit of fun but gradually almost became like a second job.  Midsomer’s popularity increased every year with more and more locations being used; something that fascinated many viewers.”

LOCAL LANDMARKS: historic pubs across the Chilterns have featured in the series

It wasn’t long before the site had more than a million hits, with more than 2,300 members joining a forum linked to it.

“A friend and I used to go out on weekends trying to track down some of the locations used,” Joan recalls. “We were very naive at first but soon learnt that a lot of detective work needed to be done in advance to find them.  The quirkiness of Midsomer was also a huge appeal.  We became totally addicted.”

The series became such a worldwide success that a series of guided and self-guided tours have been launched across the region showing tourists favourite locations, from Henley and Marlow to Thame and the Hambleden Valley.

WINNING FORMULA: Season 22 launched on April 4 PICTURE: ITV/Mark Bourdillon

Joan admits: “Prior to Midsomer I’d never visited any of the places used in the Chilterns.  It was a voyage of discovery.  I now know almost every town and village and we both ended up loving the area.”

The latest episode sees the detectives return to The Lee near Wendover, scene of numerous earlier investigations over the show’s 24-year history.

The picturesque village was Badger’s Drift in the very first pilot episode back in 1997, when the Cock & Rabbit village pub was rebranded the Rose and Chalice.

This week the famous village green was the location for more murder and mayhem, this time as Tamworth Springs, home to an ill-fated social and health club for recovering heart bypass patients.

The Stitcher Society is broadcast on Sunday at 8pm on ITV. Midsomer Murders is made by Bentley Productions, part of ALL3Media.

Picture of the week: 05/04/21

THIS week’s picture choice takes us north to Milton Keynes and a quite extraordinary rewilding success story we first featured back in 2018.

Gazing out over a bare field in 1990 it would have been hard to believe that a humble couple of acres of cow pasture could become a veritable wildlife haven.

But Roy and Marie Battell’s transformation of the two acres has been inspiring. Today there are hundreds of trees – plus four ponds and meadows attracting a huge cross-section of wildlife.

Over the years the couple’s website depicting life in the nature reserve has developed something an international reputation.

The woods provide a home for all types of birds, insects and mammals with various trail cameras monitoring the movements of visitors ranging from sparrowhawks and kestrels to foxes, badgers and deer.

Dozens of loyal followers sign up for Roy’s weekly newsletter, which chronicles the changing landscape through the seasons, and his carefully chronicled pictures have appeared in a many wildlife textbooks.

His latest weekly selection is a fairly representative snapshot of life with the “Moorhens”, capturing everything from rooks and magpies gathering nesting materials to hungry squirrels, strutting pheasants and hunting owls.

It’s the quality of Roy’s photographs, coupled with his painstaking attention to detail in chronicling and recording the animals’ movements, which has attracted the interest of enthusiasts and academics around the world.

He sends these out every week to around 100 subscribers, while the archives provide an invaluable day-by-day record of the the extraordinary transformation they have achieved on their doorstep. To sign up for the weekly email, visit their website.

Rewilding one of London’s lost railways

IT’S more than half a century since a train last ran through Crouch End railway station in north London.

But there are probably more people wandering along its platforms today than at the height of the steam railway era.

That’s partly because this line never really enjoyed a true “heyday” and partly because the route has been a parkland walk for more than 35 years.

It may be only a few miles from the modern transport hub of Finsbury Park, but the line through here to Highgate and the branch from there to Alexandra Palace never really took off in the way the developers had hoped.

It was built by the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway and opened on 22 August 1867, running from Finsbury Park to Edgware via Highgate.

Branches would follow to Alexandra Palace and High Barnet. Swallowed up by the Great Northern Railway and later the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), part of the route would become the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line, but ambitious Tube expansion plans in the 1930s were thwarted by the Second World War.

In some ways Alexandra Palace was doomed from the start. The branch was constructed by the Muswell Hill Railway Company and opened on 24 May 1873 along with the palace. However, when the palace burned down only two weeks after opening, the service was considerably reduced and then closed for almost two years while the palace was rebuilt.

There were other periods of temporary closure too due to insufficient demand, though in 1935 it looked as if it would get a new lease of life when London Underground revealed plans to electrify the branch.

Works to modernise the track were well advanced when they were halted by the war, services reduced to rush hours only as a result of wartime economy measures.

After the war, dwindling passenger numbers and a shortage of funds led to the cancellation of the unfinished works in 1950 and British Railways withdrew passenger services to Alexandra Palace on 3 July 1954 along with the rest of the route from Finsbury Park.

After the track was lifted, most of the platforms and station buildings were demolished but two sections from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, excluding the tunnels and station at Highgate, were converted into the Parkland Walk, which was officially opened in 1984.

Stroud Green station consisted of two wooden side platforms which were gutted by fire in 1967 and demolished shortly afterwards, but Crouch End was more substantial and both platforms survive.

The line continued to be used for goods into the 1960s and by London Underground for train stock movements until 1970 when it was completely closed. The track was lifted a couple of years later, by which time it was already being used as an unofficial walkway.

A hundred years ago the steam train took just six minutes to get here from Finsbury Park, and another 10 or 11 to chug all the way round to Alexandra Palace.

Today the journey takes a little longer but the 3.9-mile route is designated a local nature reserve, part of the 78-mile Capital Ring Walk round Inner London, and reveals a glimpse of north London life that motorists never see.

From here a glance back at the city skyline reminds you just how far this feels from the hubbub of central London – a green corridor of trees and birdsong providing 21st-century Londoners with a welcome respite from the concrete jungle and rumble of city traffic.

Woodland wander back in time

HOGBACK Wood is one of Beaconsfield’s hidden secrets.

An attractive area of old, mainly deciduous woodland on the western edge of the Seeleys housing estate, it’s owned by the National Trust but not mentioned on their website.

LOCAL SECRET: Hogback Woods in Beaconsfield PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Indeed online references are rare, thought it’s one of a number of local woods mentioned by the Woodland Trust and is very popular with dog walkers and joggers, as well as boasting a plentiful cross-section of birdlife, including jays, goldcrests and firecrests.

Back in the 18th century there were some 30 farms and smallholdings around Beaconsfield, boasting a mixture of arable and pastoral farming, with wheat growing and the rearing of cows, pigs and sheep being the main activities.

Seeley’s farm was swallowed up and the land developed between the late 1940s and early 1970s, though the name lives on in local street names on the estate.

By 1881 the farm covered more than 200 acres and employed nine labourers. Like so many other local places, the land was well suited to growing cherry trees and in 1892 Job Wooster planted a huge 18-acre orchard of cherries.

HOME SWEET HOME: a nuthatch nest building at Hogback PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Cherry trees are still abundant in the area today – but back then there were up to 60 people employed at the height of the picking season, when trainloads of fruit would leave Beaconsfield by rail for the Midlands.

Since the housing development of the 1960s, Hogback today is a natural playground for local youngsters, a perfect place for den-building or playing hide and seek.

The 22.5 acres form a narrow patch of wooded paths linking the village of Forty Green with the outskirts of Holtspur. Usually accessed from Woodside Road, the woods are also perfectly situated for a wander over to the Royal Standard of England for a welcoming pint or meal, when lockdown restrictions permit.

The pub itself is steeped in centuries of history, predating the 16th-century farmhouse at Seeleys, which was originally part of the Gregories Estate, probably taking its name from the Cely family who lived in Beaconsfield in that period.

BUSY BIRDLIFE: a green woodpecker in Hogback Woods PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Researchers from the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society explain how the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds stayed at the farm in the 1780s and while in Beaconsfield fulfilled a commission from Catherine II, Empress of Russia, to paint an historical picture.

He chose as his subject The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents and the model he used was William Rolfe, the six-month-old son of a local family. Today the original painting still hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Farming days at Seeleys may be a distant memory, but the woods provide a perfect base for a circular ramble to Holtspur and beyond, picking up the Berkshire Loop of the Chilterns Way to head towards Wooburn Green, or returning along Riding Lane to Forty Green and that welcoming pint.

Barnaby’s back on the murder trail

FANS of the ITV detective drama Midsomer Murders can anticipate another spate of bizarre deaths across Middle England this weekend when the show returns to the small screen for its 22nd series.

The Wolf Hunter Of Little Worthy will premiere on Sunday April 4 at 8pm as Neil Dudgeon returns as DCI John Barnaby is his 10th year in the role.

MURDER MOST FOUL: Neil Dudgeon and Nick Hendrix PICTURE: ITV/Mark Bourdillon

Chilterns residents get an extra frisson of anticipation from spotting local venues used as a backdrop for the series, which is now in its 24th year and is both the country’s longest-running crime drama and top-rated drama export.

More than 40 towns and villages across the Chilterns, Thames Valley and Vale of Aylesbury have featured in the series and over the past 20 years Joan Street has chronicled more than 120 locations on her Midsomer Murders website.

Renowned for its high body count, dark humour, stunning scenery and a plethora of high-profile guest stars, the show launched with a pilot in 1997, with seasoned TV detective John Nettles in the starring role.

Nettles had been a household name in the 1980s during his 10 years as the fictional Jersey detective Jim Bergerac, but his first outing in Midsomer, probing a murder in the sleepy village of Badger’s Drift, proved such a hit that would go on to play Barnaby in another 81 episodes spanning 14 years.

WINNING FORMULA: Season 22 launches on Sunday April 4 PICTURE: ITV/Mark Bourdillon

By the time Neil Dudgeon took over (ostensibly as Tom Barnaby’s younger cousin John), original sidekick DS Gavin Troy (Daniel Casey) had been replaced after six seasons by DS Ben Jones (Jason Hughes). For the past three series the role of DS Jamie Winter has been played by Nick Hendrix.

Filming on series 21 was halted mid-season by the coronavirus pandemic, but Sunday’s show is the first of six feature-length episodes, also featuring Annette Badland in her role as pathologist Dr Fleur Perkins.

Midsomer Murders is made by Bentley Productions, part of ALL3Media.

Picture of the week: 29/03/21

“I CAN barely remember a time when I didn’t paint, or wasn’t thinking about painting,” says Sue Graham.

Last week the Chilterns artist took us to the west coast of Scotland as she reflected on the challenges of a year like no other, and the need to put a remarkable family rewilding adventure on hold because of the pandemic and ongoing hospital treatment for cancer.

But this week’s picture choice takes us to the other end of the country and a hamlet on the edge of Dartmoor called Water.

BABBLING BROOK: Water, Dartmoor, oil on canvas board by Sue Graham

“Some of my favourite paths wind through it, crunching along stream beds, splashing through rivulets,” says Sue. “And everywhere there’s the music of water, gurgling, burbling, dripping. Such a life-affirming place.

“Parts of the trail are not quite stream, not quite path: my walking boots make a resonant crunching splash. There’s a half-derelict cottage on the edge of the path. It has the best location.”

Closer to home, another location with a story to tell is Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.

“This painting marked a bit of a stylistic turning point for me in that it was my first mixed-media piece: I used spray paint, paint diffuser (that’s like a right-angled straw with a hole that you blow into), acrylic ink and acrylic paint,” says Sue.

SOUNDS OF SUMMER: Henley on Thames, Swifts by Sue Graham

Known for her colourful, expressive and atmospheric paintings in acrylics and oils, Sue frequently finds inspiration in natural landscapes and soundscapes.

“There is nothing (other than blackbird song, maybe) that brings me into a state of summery bliss than the screaming sounds of swifts. It’s the sound of childhood summers, of long evenings, of softness in the air, of possibilities as yet undreamed of.

“In this painting I tried to evoke that sense of ethereal joy: to honour the beauty of the bridge at Henley, without being over-literal in its depiction – photographs can do that better. I wanted to convey the the flow of the Thames and capture the sweetness of an early morning in summer, with the human world not yet making its presence felt, just the flow of water below with swifts wheeling overhead.”

Picture of the week: 22/03/21

IT’S BEEN an extraordinary year in which countless people’s hopes and dreams have been frustrated, shattered or put on hold.

No one knows that better than Chilterns artist Sue Graham, whose family rewilding adventure featured on these pages last spring, when she explained how a series of paintings inspired by her love of the dawn chorus prompted her family to buy a croft and start planting hundreds of trees on a remote Scottish island.

FOND MEMORIES: Argyll Dreaming by Sue Graham, acrylic on poster board

Her painting Argyll Dreaming is our picture choice this week, taking us on a particularly poignant virtual journey back to the beautiful lochside roads that lead from Glasgow to Tayinloan, from where you can catch the 20-minute ferry to the Isle of Gigha in the Inner Hebrides.

It’s the first of two instalments looking at Sue’s most recent work and follows an article in September last year focused on her landscapes from the other end of the country, in Cornwall.

Says Sue: “The painting came to me during Lockdown 2, when (like everybody else) I was longing to get away somewhere. I missed the lochs and the empty spaces of Scotland’s wild west coast. 

“When our family planted a native woodland at the croft back in November 2019, we had no idea what challenges lay ahead; for us, for everyone.”

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE: the first wave of planting, back in 2019

Back in those innocent days the worst of their worries was the possibility of voles damaging the tiny saplings – and competition from grass.

Sue recalls: “We planned a schedule of regular island visits to remove grass, check the vole guards, erect perch poles for birds of prey and keep an eye on our nascent Atlantic rainforest. And then two unexpected things happened: serious health challenges for me and a global pandemic.”

Covid restrictions and cancer treatment through the spring and summer of 2020 made it impossible to travel, although a friend on the island – the local ferryman – reported that the trees were ‘growing well’ – but so was the grass.

“Once the first lockdown eased our two sons, Tom and JP, travelled from Glasgow to Gigha and made a valiant start on the great grass cut-back, sowing grass-parasitic yellow rattle in the hope that this will help keep the grass under control in future years,” Sue explains.

OPEN OUTLOOK: the spectacular Gigha coastline

“When Gabriel and I finally got to Gigha in early October 2020 – almost one full year since planting the woodland – the grass was thigh-high in places, with some feisty trees waist-high, and some less rugged species struggling to breathe in vole guards full of grass.”

Despite days of back-breaking work to clear the saplings of grass, the project has been a resounding success, with the young trees enjoying a 95% survival rate to date.

Having added a small orchard and ‘edible hedge’ to the croft, with a view to encouraging pollinators, the family also made two new native tree additions.

Says Sue: “Gabriel and JP joined the Woodland Trust back in 2016 and were sent a native tree each: an oak and a rowan, all of 25cm tall when they came in the post. Now 7ft tall and repeatedly outgrowing their pots, it was high time for them to move north.

TREES IN TRANSIT: an oak and rowan head north

“So while they were dormant we packed them up, just about fitting them in the car (though the rowan was stroking our cheeks as we drove).

Rowans have a long tradition in European folklore – especially for warding off witches. An islander suggested we plant one so it seemed the perfect fit to situate this lovely young tree near the mill leat at the entrance to the croft. No witch infestation here!”

WARDING OFF WITCHES: the rowan in its new position at the croft

Gigha was set to be a bold new chapter in the family story – but of course that was before the coronavirus crisis and personal health setbacks forced Sue to remain in Buckinghamshire for another year.

Working from the top of their home in Long Crendon near Thame, she has missed exhibiting during the pandemic and her ongoing cancer treatment has posed its own challenges.

But those happy thoughts of the west coast of Scotland have provided one source of inspiration and comfort.

HOME FROM HOME: using compression stockings from surgery to secure the oak

“We’ll get back to Gigha to check on everything as soon as we can,” she says. “We can’t wait to see the trees in leaf and see how much they grow this year.

“Whatever considerable difficulties have come our way recently there is an overwhelming positive sense that we are leaving something potentially beautiful behind for the future in this extraordinary place, a good feeling that we’re trying to give something back to the earth.”

Next week: Sue “escapes” to Dartmoor and Henley-on-Thames

Lockdown puts Steve’s life in sharper focus

SOMETIMES it takes a crisis to make you look at the world in a different way.

That was certainly true for Steve Gozdz. He and his partner Billie O’Connor relocated from Surbiton to the Chilterns in 2019 to be closer to nature, but he was due to head back into corporate life when Covid-19 struck.

BIRD IN THE HAND: wildlife photographer Steve Gozdz

Despite years working as a contracts manager, Steve had always had a keen interest in wildlife, especially birds.

And as he explored the local countryside during the initial lockdown taking pictures of the wildlife he saw and sharing them with others on social media, he was taken aback by the level of appreciation of his photographs – and later, by requests from people to join him on his walks.

OUT AND ABOUT: Steve’s guided walks proved increasingly popular

After setting up a Facebook page encouraging local people to engage with nature, as lockdown restrictions bit hundreds of followers starting to share their own photographs from their walks.

Could wildlife tour guiding provide a new career for the 46-year-old entrepreneur? Goring Gap Wildlife Walks was born.

GAP IN THE MARKET: Steve realised his hobby could provide the basis for a new business

“We agreed now was the time to swap that corporate lifestyle for my passion,” says Steve, whose friends dubbed him ‘The Bird Whisperer’ for his ability to help them seek out and enjoy the local wildlife.

On holidays abroad, the couple would often pay a guide to show them the sights and wildlife of different countries, from Gambia and Senegal to Portugal. Why not try running similar guided walks closer to home?

SNAP HAPPY: a pair of pheasants put on a show PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Says Steve: “I have always been fascinated by wildlife and having moved to the Chilterns, I was able to really indulge in my “serious hobby” of wildlife photography and walking in our amazing countryside.”

Part of his mission is open people’s eyes to the area’s natural wonders, and the couple could hardly be better placed, given the unique Thameside location of the ancient villages of Goring and Streatley, the meeting point of two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs).

RIVERSIDE RAMBLE: Goring and Streatley straddle the Thames PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Here two national trails intersect (the Ridgeway and Thames Path), making the villages a popular stopping-off point for those on long-distance walks, with ready access to both Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

While the immediate surroundings were ideal for guided tours, the area covered by his walks was soon rapidly expanding over neighbouring counties, with options ranging from short family walks geared towards children to private tailored walks for those interested in more specific “sightings”.

BALL OF FLUFF: a tawny owlet PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

“I think there really is a growing interest in the countryside and appreciate of the wildlife within it,” says Steve. “The difficulties of Covid-19 have been numerous, but during these hard times we have seen a positive by-product – the growing love and appreciation of our countryside and wildlife.

“I spend most of my time outdoors. I really believe in the power of nature as a healing agent and to bring about calm and balance. Scientific studies have certainly proven the power of fresh-air therapy – being in the outdoors, walking, and taking in nature.”

FRESH-AIR THERAPY: a firecrest poses for the camera PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Current lockdown restrictions may have prevented Steve from running walks for customers, but he has kept up his daily exercise walks and has been taking plenty of photographs to share across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

“Winter brings a number of birds only seen this time of year such as fieldfare and redwing; both quite shy but beautiful birds, they winter here to escape the harsher climate of their mostly Scandinavian homes,” he says.

“We have also seen small groups of lesser redpoll feeding in the silver birches and alder, and flocks of goldfinch have made their way into our gardens to feast on feeders of nyger and sunflower hearts.”

WINTER VISITOR: a redwing among the rosehips PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

With kingfishers posing obligingly at various places along the river and the signs of spring all around, there’s certainly no shortage of sightings to write about, much to the delight of his social media followers.

“The birds are now more vocal, especially at dawn as they re-establish existing pair bonds and last year’s young are ready to become parents themselves,” says Steve. “We are fortunate in this area of the UK to have four types of owls we could see, especially during the stage of post-fledgling until the end of the summer; my owl walks prove extremely popular from June to August.”

LOCKDOWN ALBUM: a nuthatch PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Steve’s clearly itching to get back out and about as soon as the restrictions allow, having organised walks for more than 200 people since starting the business in July 2020.

Future events include the Chilterns Walking Festival, more family-friendly wildlife walks with spotting guides, and partnerships with local hotels who want to offer wildlife tours and photography sessions for their guests.

FROZEN IN FLIGHT: the barn owl is one of four species of owls found locally PICTURE: Steve Gozdz

Many walks take place on private land, allowing the small groups to be genuinely alone with the wildlife they come across.

“The children really love it and you never know whether you might be inspiring the next Chris Packham,” says Steve.

“I started out thinking this would be a temporary business to see me through lockdown but now I’m hoping to earn a permanent living from my passion. I feel very lucky with the success I’ve had so far.”

For more details see Steve’s website and follow him on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Immerse yourself in the sensory magic of nature

YOU don’t need perfect vision to enjoy a deep and sustaining relationship with nature.

No one knows that better than Andy Shipley, who has been visually impaired for much of his life but whose love of the natural world is matched by his belief in an inclusive society – and his absolute determination to bring those two passions together.   

Over the years he has channelled his experience into his work as a facilitator, campaigner, speaker and coach – and he has even developed a fortnight-long sensory odyssey designed to deepen everyone’s relationship with nature.

“I believe our future depends on people acquiring a deeper relationship with those around them, and with the natural world,” says Andy. “To achieve this, we need to open people’s hearts to the value of nature and awaken their sense of belonging.”

The multi-sensory nature immersion experiences he has developed enable people to start to fully notice the textures under their toes, the breath of the breeze and the banter of the birds.

“They help reconfigure and rebalance your sensory relationship with nature, and shift your perspectives in everyday life,” says Andy.

“Nature is our life-support system.  As well as providing us with the air, water and food vital to keep us alive and breathing, time spent connecting with the natural world sustains our physical and mental health.

“By spending time experiencing nature’s diversity more deeply, we have the opportunity to propagate a life-sustaining relationship that will support us from here on.”

His sensory odyssey was all the more relevant with so many people in isolation because of coronavirus or finding more time to explore nature on their own or as a family.

The programme involves a series of daily audio messages lasting a few minutes which encourage participants to develop a more intimate relationship with the natural world.

​Each sensory exercise includes a link to “little nuggets of inspiration and revelation” – about how plants communicate, for example, or how the human nose can detect a trillion smells, along with other audio stimuli ranging from wind in the trees to the dawn chorus – or even the sound of rhubarb growing.

Participants can do the sensory exercises standing, seated or lying down, outdoors or even in the living room with the windows open wide.

And the resource allows visitors to repeat the odyssey, spending more time on the detail, changing the sequence, or repeating the exercises they enjoyed the most.

“Like any exercise, the more you flex your sensory muscles the richer your experience will become,” says Andy, an experienced campaigner and project leader whose activities have ranged from blindfolded team-building exercises, adventure activities and dining experiences to workshops exploring how natural heritage sites could become more inclusive for the visually impaired.

He explains: “Healthy habitats are those which are abundant with diverse species occupying all strata of the web of life, filling their particular niche, but also contributing to the health and well-being of the whole.

“It seems to me therefore, that for our own human communities to become healthy, we need to work to create the conditions for all, whatever their background and circumstances, to find their niche, flourish and contribute to the well-being of our world.”

Visit Andys sensory odyssey and find details of other events on his website. He has also launched a new podcast called Seasonal Sensations.

Picture of the week: 15/03/21

OUR picture choice this week takes us to West Oxfordshire and the work of Eynsham artist Eric White.

Morning Frost is one of a number of striking images depicting landscapes within a mile or so of Eric’s home in the small historic village some six miles north-west of Oxford.

Morning Frost by Eric White

Like many of his recent pictures, it was created with an initial foundation in acrylic inks and subsequently built up with layers of soft pastel, reflecting a love affair with pastels dating back decades.

Eric recalls: “Having initially worked in watercolour and oils, my focus changed when I was given an expensive boxed set of 72 pastels. Initially daunted by such a gift I took my first tentative steps into the medium and was immediately hooked.

“That was some thirty years ago and since then the majority of my output has been in pastel in one form or another, from pure pastel to pastels worked over watercolour or acrylics and pastel screen prints.”

By The Evenlode by Eric White

Although entirely self-taught, painting and drawing was to become his lifelong interest and passion, endless experimentation and decades of practice helping him to evolve a flexible and personal style.

His galleries range from Cotswolds villages and Oxford townscapes to local landscapes and paintings taken much further afield, from France and Italy to Iceland, Morocco and America.

The locations may vary but his chief goals remain the same, he explains: “to capture the moment and to endow the image with a sense of place and atmosphere”.

Woodpile by Eric White

“Although I work from sketches and photos the challenge is always holding that sense of place and of the moment to capture the essence of the scene. I go out in all weathers – sometimes holding a pencil in the cold can be the biggest challenge of them all.”

Commissions have resulted in paintings of houses and gardens, from the humble to the grand, cricket club grounds and sporting scenes, along with more abstract work for business premises, and he even tackled a portrait as part of the NHS Portrait for Heroes project during the first lockdown.

Travel opportunities may have been limited this year – some coastal views from north Devon before movement restrictions were in place – but that hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for the great outdoors.

“There’s beauty to be found everywhere in your local area if you look for it and I always try to make the most of the changing seasons,” he says. “Out walking during the various lockdowns my wife and I have spotted woodpeckers feeding their young, boxing hares and countless varieties of bird including our local abundance of yellowhammers. You can always count on the song of the skylarks to lift your spirits.”

Eric’s work can be found on his website and Instagram account.

Picture of the week: 08/03/21

IT’S not every day you come face to face with a weasel.

But that’s certainly one of the most memorable wildlife encounters enjoyed by Nick Bell, the Maidenhead photographer whose pictures have been in the spotlight on this page for the past couple of weeks.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: a weasel pauses long enough to be pictured PICTURE: Nick Bell

Stoats and weasels aren’t that unusual in the British countryside, but you don’t get to see them very often other than a quick flash as they streak for cover.

Nick recalls: “I was walking along a path in Ockwells Park, early on a crisp, beautiful March day, when the weasel ran across the path right in front of me.

“It jumped up onto the bottom rail of the fence and, when it came to a break in the undergrowth, stopped and looked at me, no doubt wondering if it could make it past me with no undergrowth to hide it, just long enough for me to get its photo.

“I wasn’t sure if it was a stoat or a weasel, so I did some research. I discovered that a stoat is the size of a cucumber and a weasel the size of a sausage. Stoats also have longer tails than weasels.”

HIDE AND SEEK: a grey squirrel appears to be in playful mood PICTURE: Nick Bell

Some animals are more obliging when it comes to posing for the camera, like the inquisitive grey squirrel which looks as if it’s playing a game of hide and seek.

Mustelids like stoats, weasels, badgers and otters all pose more of a challenge because they generally tend to be active at night, which makes them elusive.

Foxes and deer are timid too, but a little easier to stumble across if you are light on your feet and approach quite cautiously.

FUN AND GAMES: young foxes at play PICTURE: Nick Bell

“I get to see occasional foxes during my walks,” says Nick. “The day that I saw two was unusual, though. They were a couple of young foxes. I watched them play fighting for fifteen or twenty minutes. It was a complete delight. They were at the far end of a field, so I couldn’t get the best photos of them, but it was still a great experience.”

WATCHFUL EYE: a fox appears to be staring straight at the camera PICTURE: Nick Bell

Our previous selections have focused on Nick’s pictures of insects and birds, taken in a variety of locations near his home patch in Maidenhead. He was born in Cookham and moved back to the area after taking early retirement at the age of 61.

But mammals pose their own challenges – and rewards.

SPRING SETTING: a roe deer in the woods among the bluebells PICTURE: Nick Bell

Says Nick: “There are some spots in and around Ockwells Park where I know you are likely to see deer. The great thing about photographing them is that they usually stand absolutely still, no doubt thinking that that will prevent you from seeing them.

“My favourite time to photograph them is when the bluebells are out in the woods. Sometimes, they decide to run for it, and leap in the air as they run, which is great for photos.

ON THE RUN: a deer scampers for cover PICTURE: Nick Bell

“One of my most disappointing ‘near misses’ in a photo was when I spotted a very young roe deer kid standing in front of its mother in the woods. I had time for one photo only before they were gone. The photo was, sadly, not in focus. Oh well; you win some and you lose some.”

BALL OF FLUFF: a gosling among the daisies PICTURE: Nick Bell

From cute goslings to fast-moving dragonflies, Nick’s broad range of subjects have provided a lot of pleasure on local wildlife forums.

“I have heard it said many times during the coronavirus pandemic that many of us are using nature for relaxation during lockdowns. That is certainly true of me,” says Nick.

“Wildlife photography has undoubtedly helped with my mental health during these difficult times. Being outside with nature helps to ground me and to relieve stress. I usually get home with a great sense of well-being.”

NATURAL CURE: an early morning walk provides great stress relief PICTURE: Nick Bell

After the chill, a first hint of spring

FLOODS, snow and sub-zero temperatures all helped to make February a month of contrasts in the Chilterns, but a welcome flurry of warmer days finally helped to herald the first true signs of spring.

HAZY DAYS: the view from West Wycombe Hill PICTURE: Siddharth Upadhya

With the country still in lockdown and wintry walks the only escape for many, footpaths that were not totally submerged soon became muddy quadmires.

BRIGHTER OUTLOOK: West Wycombe wakes up PICTURE: Siddharth Upadhya

But with tree branches bare and vegetation withered, it’s a good time of year to pick out birds as the dawn chorus begins to pick up volume – and equally good for that infuriating task of litter picking before the foliage really begins its resurgence.

MORNING CALL: birdsong is becoming gradually louder PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

As the first flowers poke through the soil crust, weekend wanderers are on the lookout for snowdrop displays and on crisper mornings there are some spectacular sunrises to capture, perhaps made all the more dramatic thanks to sand storms in the Sahara.

SKY HIGH: stunning cloud patterns outside Amersham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Photographers across the Chilterns were up with the lark, the woods echoing to the rat-a-tat of wookpeckers and whistling of red kites, the mornings getting brighter after Candlemas Day and the dull greys and browns of winter beginning to be offset with hazel catkins twitching like lambs’ tails, and even the odd crocus or daffodil.

ON THE LOOKOUT: a kestrel hunts for food PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Ducks and wildfowl may have been enjoying the wet weather but as the big freeze arrived, the number of birds on the feeders dramatically increased and hungry badgers and foxes also got a little braver in their search for an easy snack.

WATERLOGGED: dusk falls on Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Over on the heathland at Stoke Common, the gorse has begun to provide a profuse and colourful backdrop of yellow flowers (recalling those glorious foraging recipes of Rachel Lambert), but elsewhere colours are still muted, at least until the last few days of the month.

SPLASH OF COLOUR: gorse flowers on Stoke Common PICTURE: Andrew Knight

February is the shortest month, when hibernation is coming to an end and spring slowly starts to assert itself as insects start to emerge from their slumbers and the early shoots of crocuses and daffodils spring up to join the snowdrops.

POLLEN COUNT: bees are up and about again PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Young bees are spiralling around on orientation flights, while older bees are busy bringing in the nectar, their legs pleasantly dusted with pollen.

HERE COMES THE SUN: clouds over Cookham PICTURE: Nick Bell

Other insects, birds and mammals are active too, and our Picture of the Week has reflected the skills of a couple of local Beyonder stalwarts, Nick Bell and Graham Parkinson, whose photographs have brought so much variety to the website in recent months.

CLEVER CORVID: crows are known for their intelligence PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

From curious crows to grazing deer and rasping stonechats, the pictures help to bring local wildlife a little closer to us all, while the broader range of visitors to garden feeders provides another opportunity to study colourful plumage in more detail.

STUDY IN SCARLET: pheasants are dressed to impress PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Take a deep breath and head off to the woods to revive body and soul: without their summer coats, the trees are a study in themselves, fluffy lichen and moss coating the bark and new growth beginning to bud and bulge everywhere. 

FRESH SHOOTS: the signs of spring are impossible to ignore PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

On dreary days the landscape may appear dull and bleak, but what an extraordinary rainbow of colours are out there for those prepared to get up early and venture off the beaten track, or wait patiently for the light to be just right.

FIERY GLOW: more startling skies around Amersham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Those noisy birds are getting their breeding plumage and nest building will soon start in earnest. For anyone tempted by the prospect of nettle soup, tea or even beer, now’s the time they are said to be at their best: young, tender and ripe for the picking.

SPRING IN THE AIR: on the hunt for nectar PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Dandelions are a vital source of nectar for bees and early insects out of hibernation, while daffodils are starting to provide that dramatic show of colour, “fluttering and dancing in the breeze” as Wordsworth put it.

FRESH START: familiar paths start to look more appealing PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Butterfly fans might even spot their first yellow brimstone, one of the first to fly in the spring, stealing a march on other species by over-wintering as an adult, often perfectly camouflaged among clusters of ivy leaves.

Almost a year after the first dramatic lockdown, it’s been a tough time for many and we’re not out of the woods yet. But nature has a way of keeping our spirits high – and thanks to our snap-happy band of explorers, we’re delighted to be able to share so many uplifting images of the glorious Chilterns landscape.

GOING GREEN: new growth can be seen everywhere PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

As always, we’d like to give a very 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 March, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Coins have strange stories to tell

FIFTY years ago, decimalisation radically changed the way that the British understood money.

And as people marked the anniversary, looking back over half a century to that day in February 1971 when we exchanged pounds, shillings and pence for our new decimal currency, it encouraged a lot of them to think a little more deeply about the coins in their pocket.

The timing could hardly have been more significant, given the impact of coronavirus on our lives. While some cafes and other outlets had already gone cashless before the pandemic, the practicalities of lockdown meant people turning away from cash transactions entirely, in favour of online shopping.

For many, that meant giving up hard cash altogether, touch-card payments providing a potentially more hygienic way of buying goods rather than having to handle grubby coins and notes.

But as older people recalled the mathematical challenge of going decimal and the archive footage flashed us back to the arguments of the 1970s, the anniversary prompted a nostalgic outpouring of memories that reflect the profound importance of coins as part of our social history – and perhaps even our identity as a country.

Humans have been trading and exchanging goods for tens of thousands of years, as anthropology professor Chapurukha Kusimba explains in an article for The Conversation – whether in the form of beads, precious stones or even live cattle.

The Mesopotamian shekel emerged some 5,000 years ago and, several centuries before the birth of Christ, coins were in widespread use in Asia Minor.

Expert numismatist Lawrence Chard takes up the story in a fascinating explanation of the use of coins by Celtic tribes and the impact of the Roman invasion. The Romans even struck a coin to celebrate their conquest of Britain, although it probably never circulated here.

Flash forward to 1971 and you might be left wondering how the UK ended up with a system as complicated as pounds, shillings and pence in the first place. Blame the Franks, it seems.

Our trade links with Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire encouraged the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to copy their system of currency, which consisted of 12 deniers (pennies) to the sou (shilling) and 240 deniers or 20 sous to the libra (pound).

Our pennies and pounds were based on the fact that 240 pennyweights weighed, at least in theory, a ‘tower pound’ of sterling silver. The English penny first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times as a silver coin, and the silver penny remained the primary unit of coinage for some 500 years.

MEDIEVAL MEMENTO: an Edward I silver penny PICTURE: Lara Maiklem

Down on the Thames foreshore, London mudlark Lara Maiklem has uncovered numerous coins and tokens spanning the centuries – like an Edward I silver penny harking back 700 years to the days of that true medieval king, famous for his feats in hunting, falconry and jousting, and best known for crusades, military conquest and extravagant living.

Another silver penny popped up last year in a farmer’s field in Wallingford, this time issued by Henry of Anjou during a time of civil war in the 12th century.

That’s why instead of there being 100 pennies in the pound there were 240: because pre-decimal money was based on multiples of twelve, as the Royal Mint Museum explains in its story of decimalisation.

Oddly enough Dominic Sandbrook in the Mail Online seems to blame the French for the decimal system, in an article entitled The day Britain lost its soul: How decimalisation signalled the demise of a proudly independent nation.

It was, he says, a “profoundly symbolic moment, marking the end of a proud history of defiant insularity and the beginning of the creeping ­Europeanisation of ­Britain’s institutions”.

The pound sterling, half-crown, shilling and sixpence were all, he insists, symbols of a country set apart, proud of its island status – and on that grey, drizzly day 40 years ago we lost “a little bit of our national soul”.

Hmm. Maybe not. But there’s undoubtedly a recognition that coins link us to the politics, rulers and religions of the past, providing a snapshot of the triumphs and aspirations of ancient kings and insights into the social history of different societies.

The Queen once recalled how Winston Churchill described the Thames to her as the “silver thread which runs through the history of Britain”, and down on the river’s mudbanks, Lara Maiklem has discovered more than her fair share of mementoes of Her Majesty’s predecessors.

TIME MACHINE: a selection of coins and tokens found by the river PICTURE: Lara Maiklem

Some were big silver coins dating from the reign of Mary I (c1557) to George V (1925). Others were of Roman or foreign origin, originating from “all over the Empire and brought to our cold, wet little island by soldiers and traders”.

In a recent Behind the Spine podcast she said: “The foreshore is the closest thing to a time machine: it is like reaching back, physically, with your hand, through the past and touching history and it’s magical.”

So much for ancient history. But if we have long forgotten how much a sceat or groat was worth, what about those coins that filled our pockets half a century ago – the tanners and florins, half-crowns, bobs and thruppenny bits?

All coins since the 17th century have featured a profile of the current monarch’s head. But did you know the direction in which they face changes with each successive monarch?

So the Queen faces to the right and her father George VI to the left. And so on, all the way back to Charles II and Cromwell. Except for a tiny glitch in 1936….

As tradition dictated, Victoria faced left, Edward VII right, George V left…which successfully takes us from 1837 to 1936.

But in 2016 a rare Edward VIII gold sovereign went on display which showed how the monarch broke with tradition – by demanding his profile faced in the “wrong” direction.

THE FACE FITS: Edward VIII is depicted facing to the left PICTURE: Royal Mint

Edward thought his left side, showing the side parting in his hair, was better than his right, which featured a solid fringe, and insisted this was used – although because of his abdication, the coins featuring his image never went into public circulation.

The Royal Mint was due to start striking the coins on 1 January, 1937, but production was stopped when the King stood down after less than a year on the throne in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

When the Queen’s father Bertie – formally known as George VI – came to the throne in 1936, he was portrayed facing left, the same as his father, George V – as if Edward VIII’s coins had faced right, as they should have done according to tradition.

So what of those tanners, florins and other coins? For anyone old enough to remember pre-decimal currency, here’s a mathematical poser for you. (The answer can be found here.)

It’s 1960 and a man goes into a shop to buy a treasured old book, a collector’s item which the old-fashioned shopkeeper has priced at one guinea. The man puts down a ten-bob note and rakes in his pockets for loose change. He comes up with two half-crowns, a florin, a bob, a tanner, two thruppenny bits, 11 pennies, a ha’penny and two farthings. How much more does he need to buy the book?

Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem

Picture of the week: 01/03/21

THE great thing about wildlife photography is the extent to which it immerses you in the landscape.

Capturing the perfect shot means being in just the right place at the right time – and no one knows that better than Nick Bell, whose stunning insect photographs were in the spotlight last week.

BIRD ON THE WIRE: birds silhouetted against a huge sun PICTURE: Nick Bell

This week the focus is on Nick’s bird photographs, starting with a quite extraordinary silhouette taken on one of his forays into the countryside around his Maidenhead home.

The picture was taken at dawn in Ockwells Park, part of which is a local nature reserve.

“I think of each trip out as an opportunity to relax with nature, but also as an opportunity for exercise, so I tend to walk two to four miles on every trip out,” says Nick.

MOUTHS TO FEED: a pair of young kestrels PICTURE: Nick Bell

“This means that I move through different types of habitat – eg by water or through woods – and so see different types of wildlife. Get out there early, ideally for sunrise, when there are fewer people around and the wildlife is most active.”

Although Nick is a relative newcomer to wildlife photography, he has thrown himself wholeheartedly into it since his retirement a couple of years ago and has been a prolific contributor to online nature groups like Wild Maidenhead, Wild Marlow and Wild Cookham.

EYE FOR DETAIL: Cliveden House viewed through a water drop PICTURE: Nick Bell

He has also quickly demonstrated his extraordinary eye for detail and for pictures with dramatically different perspectives, like his unusual portrait of Cliveden House in a water drop or of his own reflection in a horse’s eye.

“Look for slight movements or variations in colour, constantly,” he advises like-minded enthusiasts wanting to capture the natural world on camera.

SELF-PORTRAIT: the photographer reflected in a horse’s eye PICTURE: Nick Bell

“Look up, look down, look to both sides. Look in the distance and also look nearby. You can so easily miss a photo opportunity if you’re not constantly alert,” he says. “Don’t be disheartened if you don’t seem to be seeing much. I can walk for two miles without seeing anything. Then, there’ll suddenly be a flurry of activity.

“In time, you’ll get to know where you’re most likely to see wildlife. In these areas, move slowly and quietly. In the best areas, stand still for five or ten minutes or so. The wildlife will come to you. Always creep round corners, in case there’s something just round the other side. Have your camera ready, just in case.

FLYING HIGH: a Canada goose in transit PICTURE: Nick Bell

“When you see something, photograph it immediately, even if it’s far away. Then gradually creep closer, taking more photographs every few steps.

“Photos are more interesting if the subject is doing something. So, for example, when I photograph a robin, I wait for it to start singing before I press the shutter button. A singing robin makes a better photo than a silent one.”

VALENTINE’S DAY: a robin in the snow PICTURE: Nick Bell

It helps if your subject is prepared to pose in just the right place long enough to provide you with the perfect Valentine’s Day portrait too!

But a closer look at some of Nick’s most striking pictures shows that there always seems to be something happening to capture our attention, whether that means a bird gobbling a tasty treat or red kites swooping and tumbling against a clear blue sky.

CHILTERNS FAVOURITE: red kites at play PICTURE: Nick Bell

“Eyes are everything!” Nick is keen to emphasise. “I rarely keep a photo of any animal if I don’t have its eye clearly visible or well illuminated.

“Goldfinches can be quite a challenge, as their eyes often don’t show up well. The same goes for blackbirds and crows. Try to photograph them with their eyes in sunlight. When focusing the camera, try to focus specifically on the subject’s eye.”

THE EYES HAVE IT: a little owl perches among the branches PICTURE: Nick Bell

A zoom lens makes all the difference, he admits: “I started with a 16-300mm lens, then moved onto am 18-400mm lens, then onto a 150-600mm lens. Each lens change resulted in great improvements in my photos.

“I now use the 18-400mm lens for subjects that are close to me, like insects, and the 150-600mm lens for anything further away. 600mm lenses are heavy! I bought a dual camera harness that puts all of the weight on my shoulders, rather than on my neck. It makes carrying two big lenses (one on each side) relatively easy.”

ON SONG: a yellowhammer provides a rousing chorus PICTURE: Nick Bell

The pictures are taken in a variety of locations near Nick’s home patch in Maidenhead. He was born in Cookham, but lived in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire from 1994, until moving back to Maidenhead and taking early retirement at the age of 61.

An active marathon runner, he took up modern jive dancing in 2009. “I have been hooked on it ever since, competing in national competitions the last eight years or so,” he reveals. “I’ve been lucky enough to compete at Blackpool Tower Ballroom several times.”

KNOCK, KNOCK: a green woodpecker searches for food PICTURE: Nick Bell

In comparison, wildlife photography must seem positively sedentary, though Nick will happily roam a few miles in search of the perfect subject.

“Every day out gives me great pleasure,” he confirms. Thanks to his photographs, those are special moments we can all get a chance to share.

TASTY TREAT: a song thrush rustles up breakfast PICTURE: Nick Bell

And that is particularly valuable when such snapshots frozen in time are often hard to capture on family rambles, when our conversation may scare wildlife away, or a sudden rustle in the bushes is the only evidence that an insect, bird or tiny mammal is close at hand.

Depending on the available light, Nick will use a high aperture or fast shutter speed to freeze a movement, especially when dealing with fast-moving insects or birds like goldcrests, which never stop moving.

COLOUR CONTRASTS: starlings stand out against bright red berries PICTURE: Nick Bell

Insects and mammals feature just as frequently in his pictures, but sometimes it can be the early morning sky or the shadows in the woods at dusk that catch his eye.

“Those are the best times,” he says. “When you can stand silently, enjoying warm early morning sunshine, and being alone with nature, with no other people around.”

EARLY BIRDS: geese at sunrise PICTURE: Nick Bell

Next week: Our final selection of Nick’s pictures turns the spotlight on mammals

What’s new at the back of Beyonder?

SOME stunning new pictures have been added to the header pages of The Beyonder – thanks to the generosity of local photographers Nick Bell and Graham Parkinson.

FROZEN IN FLIGHT: a southern hawker dragonfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

The pictures form part of a carousel of around 30 images which appear as a background on the site whenever someone opens a new page.

LIGHT AND SHADE: a hot day in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Until now the images used on the site have almost all been taken by Beyonder editor Andrew Knight, supplemented with occasional free photographs shared by photographers on the Unsplash photo-sharing website and credited on the magazine’s Support Us page.

SHADOWLANDS: local woodland provides an atmospheric backdrop PICTURE: Nick Bell

Says Andrew: “We have always wanted to feature local photographs on our pages, but in the early days of the site my cheap point-and-shoot digital camera simply wasn’t good enough to produce top-quality images.

AUTUMN COLOURS: fallen leaves in Staplefurze Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“We were grateful to the photographers on Unsplash who share their work in return for a credit, but we also wanted to ensure that all our pictures are local ones and feature a cross-section of wildlife as well as landscapes.”

READY TO DROP: a bee captured over a poppy PICTURE: Nick Bell

Original Beyonder display pictures featured a range of destinations pictured through the changing seasons, from Langley and Black Park to Burnham Beeches, Cliveden, Marlow and Penn.

MORNING GLORY: rays of sunshine in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Several of the new pictures featured in the first part of a profile of Nick Bell featuring his insect pictures.

UNDER COVER: a ladybird potentially unaware of its prey PICTURE: Nick Bell

“Nick’s photographs are stunning and they help us to reflect the breadth of content on the site,” says Andrew. “Capturing fast-moving insects and birds is a very specialist skill, and it’s very exciting to be able to use images of this quality in this way.”

BIRD ON THE WIRE: birds silhouetted against a huge sun PICTURE: Nick Bell

As well as a quartet of insect photographs, other shots show sunbeams in woodland and a dramatic picture of clouds at sunrise. Additional pictures featured in a second article spotlighting Nick’s bird photographs.

MORNING GLORY: a dramatic sunrise PICTURE: Nick Bell

Other pictures taken by Graham Parkinson have featured in an article about his hobby and in local walks featuring a cross-section of his portraits of locations like Homefield Wood and Littleworth Common.

DAWN LIGHT: ominous shadows in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

“Not all pictures are suitable for these background displays because of having to be able to read type over them,” Andrew explains. “But we are looking forward to including more pictures when we can find just the right ones.”

TINY TERRORS: aphids on a rose PICTURE: Nick Bell

The random nature of the header selections means there’s no way of selecting which one will appear on any particular page – so anyone looking for a particular image may find they need to refresh the page quite a few times before it appears.

“It can be quite hard to replace images because some of the older ones have so many happy associations,” says Andrew.

“Many of them were taken on local walks at different times of year and conjure up other images of a particular day out – the colourful fungi in Penn Woods, the flooding by the Thames near Bourne End, an autumn day in Black Park or springtime coming to Spade Oak quarry.

“But Nick and Graham’s pictures are a reminder to visitors that there’s much more to the website than just people enjoying a ramble in the woods.

“We have a lot of articles about all sorts of things, from birds and insects to local history, interesting people with a story to tell, book reviews and places to visit once the lockdown restrictions allow.

NATURAL CURE: an early morning walk provides great stress relief PICTURE: Nick Bell

“For anyone stumbling on the website for the first time, there are now more than 200 different articles to read, so hopefully there will be something that catches their eye.”

Have you a photograph which might be perfect for The Beyonder? Drop us a line at editor@thebeyonder.co.uk

Blogger Mark begins a new chapter

HIS followers aren’t happy about it, but wildlife author, campaigner and blogger Mark Avery is planning to scale back the frequency of his blog posts.

After a decade in which his blog has enjoyed growing popularity, Mark says he is simply wanting to devote a little more time to his many other interests (which range from growing tomatoes to campaigning and writing more books).

While we wait to find out what the “downsizing” plan actually involves, the good news is that he is continuing with his Sunday book reviews for the foreseeable future.

Given the growth of importance of the nature book market – especially during lockdown – it’s very helpful to have someone casting an experienced eye over all those new titles, so long may that part of his blog continue.

And in case you missed some of the recent additions to the nature shelves, here are his thoughts on a trio of new arrivals:

“Three senior naturalists kept diaries of their encounters with nature and their thoughts about wildlife in the time of coronavirus. Beautifully written”

“IT WAS the best of times (the most glorious spring ever), it was the worst of times (a tiny virus had cut us off from normal life) but these tales of three naturalists capture the contradiction that many of us experienced. Were we allowed to enjoy ourselves when hundreds were dying? Was it OK to listen to bird song while NHS staff were sweating in PPE to keep our fellow citizens alive?”

Read Mark’s full review here.

“Uncomplicated, but well-written and enjoyable”

“THIS IS a book about lockdown and the fact that it has appeared well within a year of the start of UK lockdown last spring is quite an achievement by the author and the publisher – so, well done both!”

Read Mark’s full review here.

“a wonderful book, steeped in knowledge and experience of nature and of the more practical ends of nature conservation”

“ROY Dennis is a ‘name’ in ornithology and nature conservation – he was the warden of the Fair Isle Bird Observatory from 1964-70 (following Ken Williamson and Peter Davis), the RSPB’s person in the Highlands (under various job titles) from 1970-90 and, ever since, an independent conservationist mostly involved with species reintroductions and habitat restoration. This book is mostly about aspects of those last two periods and so takes us back to 1970 and partly even beyond then.”

Read Mark’s full review here.

Picture of the week: 22/02/21

NICK Bell’s never been one to shy away from a challenge.

His participation in no fewer than 18 London marathons can testify to his energy and a more recent fascination with modern jive dancing has seen him strutting his stuff in national competitions at the famous Blackpool Tower Ballroom.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that taking up a new retirement hobby a couple of years ago would see him throwing himself with just as much enthusiasm into the world of wildlife photography.

FROZEN IN FLIGHT: a southern hawker dragonfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

His output has been prolific, encompassing such a broad range of subjects that it needs a three-part series to do justice to his new-found passion, starting with a selection of photographs this week focusing on the smallest details of insect life.

“I took early retirement at the age of 61 two years ago,” says Nick. “With the start of the first lockdown, I took up wildlife photography and bought myself a 600mm lens, which I now couldn’t be without.”

That lens has allowed him to capture some extraordinary sights – none more dramatic than our picture choice this week of a southern hawker dragonfly in flight, captured at Stonor Park.

Nick recalls: “There were two or three of them flying over the ponds. They just wouldn’t keep still, so it was really difficult to photograph them. That photo was the best one from thirty minutes of attempting to photograph them. The great light that day helped, too. It was bright enough for me to us a very fast shutter speed – 1/4000th second.”

The large inquisitive dragonflies differ in colour between the male – dark with blue and green markings and the female, which is brown with green markings.

Common across the Chilterns, hawkers prefer non-acidic water and may breed in garden ponds but hunts well away from water, often hawking woodland rides well into the evening.

POLLEN COUNT: fine detail captured on a visiting bee PICTURE: Nick Bell

Other attention-grabbing shots range from flies, beetles and bees to a startling close-up of a wasp spider dangling by a thread.

UNDER COVER: a ladybird potentially unaware of its prey PICTURE: Nick Bell

For the technically minded, Nick explains that the lens which helped to transform his photos is a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens.

READY TO DROP: a bee captured over a poppy PICTURE: Nick Bell

“I also use a Tamron 18-400mm lens for close-up photography. I haven’t really got into macro photography, but it’s something that I want to do,” says Nick.

His studies capture a glorious range of colours and fine detail, as in his portrait of a banded demoiselle damselfly, a large fluttering insect with butterfly-like wings and spectacular metallic colouring.

METALLIC GLINT: a banded demoiselle damselfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

Other insects to catch Nick’s eye include the common darter, one of the most common dragonflies in Europe, but not always as obliging about posing for photographs as this one.

PERFECT POSE: a common darter dragonfly PICTURE: Nick Bell

The pictures are taken in a variety of locations near Nick’s home patch in Maidenhead, with the surrounding fields and woods sometimes taking centre stage too, providing a gorgeous backcloth to the fine detail of the insect, bird and animal studies.

SHADOWLANDS: local woodland provides an atmospheric backdrop PICTURE: Nick Bell

Dramatic colour contrasts range from tiny green aphids exploring a yellow rose to the distinctive body colouring of the wasp spider, a recent arrival in the UK from the continent which has slowly spread over the south of England.

TINY TERRORS: aphids on a rose PICTURE: Nick Bell

It builds large orb webs in grassland and heathland, looking just like a common wasp to keep it safe from predators, even though it is not dangerous itself.

That clever disguise may work with predators but it’s no defence for male spiders coming into close contact with their much larger female counterparts, who are prone to eat the males during mating!

CLEVER MIMIC: a wasp spider keeps predators at bay PICTURE: Nick Bell

Some of the fastest-moving insects and birds pose the biggest tests of both camera and photographer. But then that just adds a bit of spice to the chase for someone who has risen to the different disciplines of marathon running and jive dancing.

“I love taking challenging photos – like fast-moving dragonflies and birds,” says Nick. “In my retirement, I run, dance and take photos – not a bad life!”

Next week: Nick’s focus switches to local birdlife

Picture of the week: 15/02/21

FACED with another week of lockdown, escapism is the theme of this week’s picture choice – in terms of theme, period and geography.

So while our chilly Chilterns landscape continues to provide plenty of inspiration for local artists and photographers, our weekly feature is taking a trip a little further afield – and a step back in time to the unsettling period between the wars when Eric Ravilious was at the height of his powers.

Train Going over a Bridge at Night, Eric Ravilious, 1935

Raised in Eastbourne, the outstanding British painter and designer is particularly known for his watercolours of the South Downs, and he remains as popular as ever almost 80 years after his early wartime death, when the aircraft he was in was lost off Iceland.

For the definitive story of the artist’s home life, the people and places he knew and the culture and customs of 1930s England, essays by art historian, lecturer and curator James Russell feature in a series of volumes published by The Mainstone Press collecting many of his most memorable watercolours.

Wiltshire Landscape, Eric Ravilious, 1937

Various other profiles fill in fascinating details about his work and life – including Paul Laity in The Guardian and Frank Delaney – while Henry Rothwell pays frequent tribute to Ravilious in his Twitter account @HenryRothwell.

More recently Rothwell has launched a trio of greetings cards featuring the artist’s work accompanied by short explanations by James Russell, whose published works include RaviliousRavilious in Pictures 1: Sussex and the DownsRavilious in Pictures 2: The War PaintingsRavilious in Pictures 3: A Country LifeRavilious in Pictures 4: A Travelling Artist, and Ravilious: Submarine.

Russell writes of Ravilious in his blog: “I love the fact that his watercolours and designs are both enjoyable and serious, light-hearted yet powerful, dream-like but rooted in reality.”

Wet Afternoon, Eric Ravilious, 1928

Although he settled in Essex and roved as far afield as Wiltshire and Wales, as captured in his Wet Afternoon portrait from Powys in 1928, Ravilious rediscovered the South Downs in 1934 and over the next five years painted a series of watercolours capturing the beauty of the Sussex landscape.

In a Youtube tribute in 2019, Tom Outdoors embarks on a six-mile circular walk in Essex following in the footsteps of the artist, visiting the church where a war memorial commemorates him and walking through the fields and woods that inspired some of his work.

As an official war artist, Ravilious visited ports, naval bases and airfields around Britain, witnessed the Allied invasion and retreat from Norway and produced watercolours of subjects ranging from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal to the interior of a mobile pigeon loft.

He was only 39 when he died in 1942, yet he had already achieved amazing things. A brilliant wood engraver and designer, he remains best known for those haunting watercolours in which lighthouses, white horses, empty rooms and downland paths came to life. 

The Vale of the White Horse, Eric Ravilious c1939 PICTURE: Tate Gallery

Ravilious was an enigmatic figure who made little public comment on his work, but in his books and blog entries James Russell manages to piece together many of the jigsaw pieces of the artist’s short life.

And at a time when so many families have been taking a fresh look at their local landscapes, this seems a good week to spend a few moments in the company of Eric Ravilious; luminous, evocative and timeless, his extraordinary watercolours reflect the talents of an artist now regarded as one of the finest of the 20th century.

Train Landscape, Eric Ravilious, 1939 PICTURE: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

Celebrities are wild about Poppy

CELEBRITIES have been lining up to endorse a new children’s book about a young girl rewilding her grandad’s farm.

Poppy is on a mission to save the farm by returning the countryside to a time when flower meadows grew wild and native animals flourished.

Can she succeed in helping nature to work its magic? Written by award-winning TV producer Nick Powell and illustrated by Becca Hall, Poppy Goes Wild was published in December by Little Steps Publishing and features a foreword by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the writer and broadcaster known for his commitment to seasonal, ethically produced food and his concern for the environment.

Praise has come from various celebrities, including actress Joanna Lumley and wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan.

Lumley, patron of the environmental charity Earth Restoration Service since 2008, said: “Poppy is the child we all long to be: brave, curious, headstrong, compassionate and the best fun in the world. Her love for wildlife will chime with children everywhere: an adorable book.”

Buchanan said: “Poppy Goes Wild is a beautifully inspiring story wonderfully illustrated. To protect nature we must love nature and hear what our planet is telling us. This book serves as a reminder that we must also listen to our children.”

Nick Powell’s TV credits range from Supernanny to Nigella Bites and Escape to River Cottage. As a teenager he was transfixed by the magical sight of an otter catching a fish and sunning itself on the riverbank but didn’t see another one in the wild until decades later, when rivers began to be cleaned up.

He now lives alongside the South Downs National Park while Becca Hall comes from the Lake District but now lives in Cornwall, where discovering nature is a theme she finds particularly exciting.

PIONEERING PROJECT: Old English longhorn cattle on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex

Teaching resources for the book include information about large-scale rewilding projects like those on the 3,500-acre Knepp Estate in Sussex (above) and at Dundreggan in the Highlands.

TV naturalist and author Iolo Williams said: “Poppy is cheeky and irresistible in her quest to make the world a better place for wildlife.”

Farmer and TV presenter Jimmy Doherty said it was an “enchanting book”, adding: “There are many lessons that we can learn from the past and allowing more land to run wild and free is a vital one.”

In recent decades much of Britain’s wildlife has disappeared, with over half of our species in decline and with 15% threatened with extinction, with problems ranging from habitat loss and agricultural changes to pollution and climate warming.

But across the country, initiatives are being undertaken to restore the balance and to safeguard British wildlife for future generations. Poppy’s quest is to return the countryside to how it was 50 years ago, when hares, skylarks, otters and peregrine falcons flourished.

BACK TO NATURE: the Knepp Estate offers camping, treehouses and wildlife safaris

Broadcaster and wine critic Olly Smith, patron of The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, said: “This charming tale is a timely reminder of the deep value in connecting more deeply with the natural world and allowing it to flourish and grow ever more wonderfully wild.”

Poppy Goes Wild is published by Little Steps Publishing and is available to buy online or at local bookshops.

Capture the magic of the moment

ONCE upon a time, on her holidays in Scotland and the Lake District, a young girl grew up sketching the plants, animals and insects she stumbled across with a particular eye for detail.

From those humble beginnings, Beatrix Potter would go on to become one of the most famous and successful children’s authors of all time, renowned for her precise and enchanting illustrations reflecting her fascination with the natural world.

She became particularly interested in mushrooms and toadstools, and from the late 1880s to the turn of the century produced hundreds of finely detailed and botanically correct drawings of fungi.

She also visited her former governess, Annie Moore, and would send letters with amusing anecdotes to the Moore children, often illustrated with pen and ink sketches, which would provide the basis of some of her later books – including one about a particularly naughty rabbit named Peter.

Flash forward a century and a half, and a new generation of young people are exploring their interest in the natural world through art, painting and photography.

SNAP HAPPY: foliage in Penn Woods PICTURE: Sahasi Upadhya (11)

This week our Picture of the Week featured photographs by 11-year-old Sahasi Upadhya taken on family walks around the area.

And if one good thing has emerged from the pandemic lockdowns, it might be the number of young people and their families reconnecting with nature.

Adults too have found local landscapes a continuing source of inspiration and delight, with more than a dozen professional artists featuring in recent Beyonder articles about their work.

On social media too, Twitter and Facebook feeds have been awash with nature journal entries, sketches and photographs recounting people’s encounters with the natural world.

OUT AND ABOUT: Jules Woolford’s nature journal @DrawnIntoNature

In her Drawn Into Nature blog, Bristol artist Jules Woolford explains how her love for the natural world led her to a career helping people to engage with nature and wildlife.

“When I discovered the world of journaling, it was a natural progression to begin keeping a traditional nature journal, like my idols Edith Holden and Beatrix Potter,” she says.

WILD ENCOUNTERS: nature comes alive in words and pictures @DrawnIntoNature

“Our modern lives are so frantic, often filled with noise, busy work, and negative stress. I’m on a journey to slow down and simplify; concentrate on experiences rather than things, (try to) worry less, be more grateful, and kind.

“Sometimes I take two (or three) steps backwards, but I’m trying to keep going. Nature is a great healer, teacher and an inspiration to me. Through my journals, I try to be an advocate for the earth, and all its life forms. I’m fascinated by the stories we’ve created about the natural world, and I love sharing these little tales from history, folklore and fable.”

ARTIST’S YEARBOOK: Stewart Sexton reviews some of the highlights of 2020 @Stewchat

Up in Northumbria, naturalist Stewart Sexton is a bird enthusiast whose paintings and photographs attract plenty of attention on Twitter @Stewchat, although he modestly claims: “A Northumbrian born and bred, I have been interested in natural history for as long as I can remember. I take photos but I’m no photographer, I paint but I’m not an artist either.”

That’s all very well, but if you lack Stewart’s obvious talent but still want to explore your artistic talent through nature, how do you get started?

Maureen Gillespie, an Oxfordshire artist whose chilly lockdown walks at Blenheim Palace saw her singled out as The Beyonder’s Picture of the Week recently, has some advice: “Probably the easiest way to develop your artist talents is to get outside and really observe nature.”

LOCKDOWN LANDSCAPE: one of Maureen’s series of wintry scenes at Blenheim Palace 

Not that you have to go far to find inspiration, she stresses. “Your local park, trees on your road, flowers in your garden or window box, all these amazing things are there to see, smell and touch and when you really study them you can bring them to life in a drawing or painting.”

Fellow Oxfordshire artist and art teacher Sue Side agrees: “I focus on close looking with my young learners. We look – really look – at the world around us and then we interpret, through drawing, painting, sculpture,” she says. “The aim is to encourage exploration and response – to not worry about finding the right word or the ‘correct answer’.”

INTO THE SHADOWS: a moody shot at Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Photographer Graham Parkinson found his lifelong interest in wildlife was sparked as a six-year-old by the popular I-Spy books – and the fact his gran had a large garden with a field behind it to explore.

He wasn’t alone. The famous spotter books were first published in 1948, with Mansfield head teacher Charles Warrell the man behind the publishing phenomenon of the 1950s and 60s.

A believer in active learning who devised the spotter guides to keep children entertained on long car journeys, he saw the idea rejected by eight publishers and could hardly have known quite how popular they would prove when he set about self-publishing them (just like Beatrix Potter).

“Spotters” gained points for finding the contents of the books in real-life situations. On completion, they sent the books to Big Chief I-Spy, as Mr Warrell had become known, for a feather, an order of merit and entry into the I-Spy Tribe – which by 1953 had grown to half a million members.

The 40-odd titles went on to sell some 25 million copies by the time Michelin relaunched the series after a seven-year gap in 2009-10. Big Chief I-Spy himself died in 1995 in Derbyshire at the ripe old age of 106.

So it might be a modern I-Spy book that ignites today’s youngsters’ interest in nature – or any one of a dozen quizzes, scavenger hunts or nature guides produced by a variety of organisations from Wildlife Trusts to the Chiltern Society. and Chiltern Open Air Museum.

I-SPY OUTDOORS: there are plenty of family activity ideas at the Chiltern Open Air Museum

The National Trust lists keeping a nature diary as one of its “50 things to do before you’re 11 and three-quarters”, whether that means finding an old notebook or making one out of an old cereal box and decorating it with doodles, paper, leaves, feathers or any other natural items you can find nearby.

You certainly don’t need to have any specialist equipment to have fun – and who knows, the next Beatrix Potter could just be out there somewhere!

See The Beyonder’s Nature guides page for some more activity sheets, and check out the Local landscapes feature to meet more artists who have found inspiration in the Chilterns landscape. If you are a photographer, we welcome contributions to our monthly Chilterns calendar feature. Just drop us a line at editor@thebeyonder.co.uk

Picture of the week: 08/02/21

YOU’RE never too young to show an interest in nature – and to prove the point this week’s Picture of the Week is a stunning photograph taken by 11-year-old Sahasi Upadhya on a family walk at Little Chalfont.

CLOUD PATTERNS: crouching low creates a different perspective PICTURE: Sahasi Upadhya

Dad Siddharth is a keen photographer too but says his daughter started showing an interest after seeing him using his camera.

“I have since encouraged her by talking about the basics and left her to experiment on her own,” he says. “She just started off a couple of months ago and has been picking up pace now.”

Says Sahasi: “I had to crouch to take this picture to get the right angle of the sun lighting the clouds and get the right perspective of the subject against the blue sky.”

BACK TO NATURE: blue bracket fungi in Penn Woods PICTURE: Sahasi Upadhya

Sahasi has taken some equally attention-grabbing shots of colourful fungi and foliage on recent outings in Penn Woods using her dad’s Nikon D7000 Dslr.

“A single bit of nature can express so many different things as each person looks at it from different point of view,” she explains. “This is what draws me most to nature.”

COLOUR CONTRASTS: another study in Penn Woods PICTURE: Sahasi Upadhya

Her love of nature is reflected in her art too, where she particularly enjoys Madhubani painting, an Indian art form in which tribal motifs are brought to life with bright colours where nature can often figure prominently.

Siddarth says: “She is drawn to the colours and the flexibility the art form offers, from doing simple motifs to intermediate and very intricate ones.”

PROUD PEACOCK: Sahasi’s latest painting reflects a number of natural motifs

Madhubani art incorporates set motifs and symbols, but each artist will have a unique individual approach to these.

“The peacock is a common motif in Madhubani paintings and this one is Sahasi’s take on it,” Siddarth explains.

The paintings were traditionally done on freshly plastered mud walls and floors of huts in the Mithila region of India, with villagers around Madhubani later creating them on cloth, paper and canvas using colours derived from plants.

Walkers urged not to trample crops

FARMERS and conservation groups are urging people to keep to the paths and keep dogs under control when walking in the countryside.

Farmers’ livelihoods are at risk, with one farmer claiming to have lost the equivalent of 9,000 loaves of bread due to trampled crops.

MUDDY MESS: path widening at Penn Street Farm near Amersham

The latest lockdown has coincided with a period of particularly high rainfall making paths extremely wet and muddy. This, combined with far greater numbers of people using their local paths is damaging both paths and crops.

Paths have widened to several metres across, with people trying to social distance from each other, or seeking drier ground. Some people have abandoned the waymarked paths altogether and followed field edges instead to avoid the worst of the mud, damaging field margin habitats which are important for wildlife.

Georgia Craig form the NFU said: “Mud can’t be avoided at the moment, so your best bet is to put your wellies on and follow the signposted paths. People are welcome on the signposted rights of way but straying off those paths means crops will get trampled, affecting farmers businesses. At this time of year the crops might still be below the surface or look very similar to grass, but walking on them will compact and damage the growing plants.”

Daniel Hares, who farms at Buckmoorend Farm near Wendover, is one of the many Chilterns farmers affected. Walkers widened a path through one of his wheatfields to 10 metres across, equivalent to losing six tonnes of wheat, enough to make around 9,000 loaves.

Seventh-generation farmers in Lane End, the Lacey family, report a big surge in the number of walkers on the land they manage.

Ed Lacey said: “We have ongoing problems with people letting their dogs off the lead and out of control. We have had sheep killed and injured by dogs.”

Chilterns Conservation Board’s chief executive Dr Elaine King, said “It’s great that more people are getting out and enjoying the nature and the beauty of the Chilterns during lockdown, and we want that to continue.

“However, the Chilterns are also a place where people live and work, including the farmers that produce our food. We are working with a wide range of farmers, landowners and conservation partners to raise public awareness of this special landscape and ensure that everyone can enjoy the Chilterns safely.”

Tim Bamford from the CLA added: “It is perfectly natural, in times such as these, for people to want to enjoy the countryside. They are genuinely welcome and we encourage people to enjoy the thousands of miles of footpaths available to them. But we need to work together to ensure the public can have an enjoyable time while also protecting farmland, animals and wildlife.”

The Countryside Code sets out some simple guidance to ensure that people can enjoy their visit to the countryside while being safe and respectful of others.

Picture of the week: 01/02/21

OUR picture choice for the first week in February is a suitably chilly landscape by Oxfordshire artist Maureen Gillespie.

It is one of a series of paintings reflecting Maureen’s “lockdown walk” around the beautiful landscaped grounds of Blenheim Palace, north of Woodstock town centre.

Blue Landscape – Blenheim by Maureen Gillespie

She recalls: “On this particular day it was bitterly cold, -3 degrees. Looking across the lake, the scene before me was shades of blue, with a slight mist over the trees in the background.”

Maureen’s passion is to create pieces of artwork that bring a sensory experience to the viewer, working in oil and incorporating pastel into some of her work to give a textured dimension to the finished piece.

“I use a variety of techniques to obtain the desired result,” she explains. “This could include brushwork, scoring with a palette knife and the use of my fingers, especially for the moody skies.”

View from Bladon Bridge by Maureen Gillespie

Influenced by the impressionists, especially Claude Monet and JMW Turner, she is inspired by nature in her land and seascapes, capturing the mood, light and atmosphere of moments from walks by the coast and countryside – the light on a wave or the glimmer of sunlight through the trees.

INSPIRED BY NATURE: Maureen in her garden studio

Another picture in her Blenheim series is View from Bladon Bridge. She says: “It was a cold but rather grey day where the sky seemed to blend into the lake.  I wanted to convey the stillness of the lake and the almost sepia-like colour and total calm apart from a few ducks dotted about.”

Maureen works from quick sketches and photos, which she then transfers on to board in her garden studio, “a perfect location to capture the wonder of some amazing nature studies”.

A regular participant in Oxfordshire Artweeks and a member of Chipping Norton Arts, Maureen has also exhibited in Ireland, France, Jersey and the Cotswolds since returning to full-time art more than a decade ago.

The third of her featured artworks this week is another from the Blenheim series. She recalls: “One of my favourite walks, this was towards the end of autumn. There was a slight early morning mist on the lake, giving it an eerie atmosphere.

The Edge of the Lake by Maureen Gillespie

“I am a regular walker (with my dogs, Billie and Aggie) as this offers me a great source of inspiration and exercise. 

“Just as lockdown was introduced I received the all-clear from breast cancer; thankfully I had all my treatment. So having stayed positive throughout a difficult year, I wasn’t going to let lockdown get me down!

“My walks varied but as I live on the edge of Blenheim estate this was the natural lengthy walk and of couse stunning scenery allowing me to take in the seasons along the way.”

Maureen can be found on her website, Instagram and Facebook. She also designs a range of silk scarves reproduced from her original artwork, which can be found here.

Glimmers of hope lighten the gloom

A NEW year, another lockdown – and with mud, floods and flurries of snow in the Chilterns, it hasn’t been an easy month for many.

GARDEN FAVOURITE: a robin poses for the camera PICTURE: Nick Bell

Looking back to this time in 2020 when the first news was emerging of the problems in Wuhan, it would still have been unthinkable for most of us to foresee how everyone’s lives would be changed irrevocably by the coronavirus pandemic.

 WINTER LIGHT: Mill Meadows in Henley on Thames PICTURE: Samantha Evans

In 2021, with the UK death toll passing the 100,000 mark and many families grieving the loss of loved ones, the ongoing sense of separation, isolation and loss has been hard to handle – not to mention the devastating impact successive lockdowns have had on local businesses.

 CHILLY PROSPECT: the snow arrives with a vengeance PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

But those fortunate enough to have the countryside on the doorstep and willing to brave the storms, floods and freezing winds have been rewarded with some spectacular early morning walks, stunning vistas and glorious sunsets.

 BRIGHTER OUTLOOK: evening skies outside Amersham PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Even familiar “escapes” have been put under more pressure, though. Welcome as it has been to see more families getting out and about, that influx of extra footsteps has put a strain on the landscape, churning up muddy footpaths, damaging crops and threatening delicate environments like those at Stoke Common and Burnham Beeches, where new parking restrictions come into force in February.

 WATERLOGGED: the landscape takes on a soggy appearance PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

On brighter days those able to avoid the weekend crowds have found plenty to photograph and appreciate, though – especially those small glimpses of light in the darkness promising happier times to come.

SYMBOL OF HOPE: early snowdrops provide a dramatic display PICTURE: Nick Bell

Those obliging early snowdrops, for example, have been a powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, these Candlemas bells which once decorated the windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches marking an important Christian holy day when the dark interior of a medieval church would become a sea of flickering candles.

SMALL WONDER: a hungry blue tit on the lookout for tasty treats PICTURE: Keith Chant

Feathered friends in the garden have provided a welcome ray of sunshine too, in the run-up to the RSPB’s Great Garden Birdwatch 2021.

POWERFUL SONG: robins can be heard all year round PICTURE: Keith Chant

This is the month where the dawn chorus really begins to grow in volume, and various Beyonder features have highlighted the chance to catch those first wintry warbles, the growing popularity of feeding the birds and how to recognise the different songs that make up the most spectacular natural orchestra on earth.

NATURE’S LARDER: berries provide a welcome splash of colour PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Photographers prepared to get up with the lark have been treated to some of the most impressive sights, not just gorgeous sunsets but in the array of wildlife they have been able to capture on camera.

STUNNING SUNRISE: dawn at Spade Oak PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Graham Parkinson’s early-morning forays to Spade Oak quarry have provided a wealth of sightings, from bullfinches and kingfishers to a treecreeper and female kestrel.

FIRST LIGHT: dawn in Homefield Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Homefield Wood can be a similarly lively place in those first daylight hours, between the sounds of barking deer and fox mating calls, the thrum of a woodpecker or whistling of the red kites.

OUT OF THE SHADOWS: Homefield Wood comes to life PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The Thames is another popular place for an early-morning escape, providing stunning waterside views and the chance to spot a heron or great white egret.

RIVERSIDE RAMBLE: an early walk beside the Thames PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Graham was one of a trio of local wildlife photographers to feature recently in our Picture of the Week series, and his regular postings in online bird and wildlife groups continue to delight. A selection of his latest pictures will provide the basis for February’s prize picture quiz – a perfect opportunity for bird-lovers to pick up £25 worth of book tokens.

AMERSHAM SUNSET: the sky puts on a dramatic evening display PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

Meanwhile the skies over Amersham have provided plenty of dramatic postcard vistas this month, from Lesley Tilson’s stunning sunset (above) to Sue Craigs Erwin’s chilly morning vista (below).

COLD COMFORT: a wintry walk outside Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

As always, we’d like to give a very 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 February, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Rediscover our ancient coffin paths

Former Bucks newspaper editor Alan Cleaver explains the fascination of ‘corpse roads’ – and the facts and myths surrounding the ancient footpaths which criss-cross the country

CORPSE roads – the very name conjures up images of ghosts marching over misty fells. But what are the facts behind these ancient paths?

They were used in medieval times to carry the dead from a remote parish to the ‘mother’ church for burial and could be just a couple of miles long or anything up to 20 miles. They are also known as coffin paths, bier roads, lyke or lych ways and by other names.

LOST VILLAGE: the Shap Corpse Road runs from Mardale to Shap, but the village of Mardale was ‘drowned’ in 1935 to build a reservoir PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

The first question has to be: why not just dig a hole in the ground and bury them locally? The answer – as with most questions – is down to money and politics. Mother churches received good money for burials (and baptisms and weddings) and were not giving up that revenue stream easily. 

However by the late 17th and early 18th centuries many rural parishes successfully petitioned the bishop for burial rites at their own chapel.

Many of the petitions still survive in church archives and follow a typical ‘winning’ formula: “…by reason of their distance from the parish church and by reason of inundations and of storms frequently raging in those parts in the winter season, they cannot carry their dead to be buried without great trouble and inconvenience…”

LABOUR OF LOVE: husband and wife writing team Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park

So corpse roads ceased to carry the dead but their route and former sacred purpose survived, not least because of a firmly held belief that once a corpse was carried over a field or path that route was for ever a public right of way.

This belief survives even today but there is no basis in law for it. However, it seems to have ensured that in Cumbria and elsewhere corpse roads survive as public footpaths.

In Cumbria there are seven or eight famous corpse roads that can be found quickly on Google including Shap, Loweswater, Grasmere, Wasdale and Beetham.

Research by my wife and I over the last three years has uncovered around 30 others, some only known by oral tradition (you can view our map of them online. We’ve only studied those in Cumbria but they exist all over the country. For example, fellow corpse road enthusiast Stuart Dunn details one in Oxfordshire in his blog.

TOURIST TRAIL: the Grasmere corpse road runs from Rydal to St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere and has become popular with visitors PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

Perhaps the most famous is the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road which is always very busy with tourists. It is signposted from Rydal and skirts past Wordsworth’s former homes of Rydal Mount and Dove Cottage.

There are even a couple of coffin rests along the way. One of these is very dubious (it was almost certainly erected as a seat in the 1930s) but the other, near Dove Cottage, has a better pedigree.

Many coffin rests survive and are proudly pointed out by villagers but I know of none that were recorded in medieval times, most only being noted in the late 19th century. There is a modern misunderstanding of a coffin rest with many people saying they were large stones on which a coffin was rested by tired pall-bearers travelling the corpse road.

COFFIN REST: the ‘genuine’ stopping point on the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road close to Dove Cottage, former home of poet William Wordsworth PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

But this makes little sense not least because bodies were usually carried on a cart or on back of a horse, the body only being put in a coffin when they reached the lych-gate of the church.

Rather, the coffin rests appear to have marked a spot where the party rested (ie paused) to say a prayer or sing a hymn. The corpse road was as much part of the funeral and any service by the graveside.

WEEPING CROSS: the cross which once stood on the Whitehaven to St Bees corpse road has been moved to St Bees Abbey to ensure its safety PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

You may also see roadside crosses or even holy wells marking the route – or even a ghost. There are a couple of famous ghost stories associated with Cumbria’s corpse roads but for the most part the paths are simply a good excuse to go on a walk with a bit more history than most.

The popularity of the Rydal to Grasmere corpse road with tourists is undoubtedly down to signposts the local council has erected (it’s one of only two in the county to be signposted). I usually point friends in the direction of the Chapel Stile to Grasmere corpse road which is a much nicer walk and has fewer tourists on it!

WALK THIS WAY: the humble wooden signpost at Rydal has succeeded in attracting thousands of walkers every year PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

The parts of Cumbria outside the honeypot of the Lake District are desperate to woo tourists to their part of the county. I am hoping to persuade them to shout louder about their corpse roads (or indeed other ancient paths).

Spending £20 on a wooden sign with ‘coffin path’ painted on it would seem a cheap and easy way to start. Readers may wish to investigate their local corpse roads and do the same.

The Corpse Roads of Cumbria by Alan Cleaver & Lesley Park is £10 from bookshops (please support your local bookshop!) or online. Alan Cleaver is a former editor of the Wycombe & South Bucks Star who retired to Cumbria after a career in journalism which included 10 years as editor of the Hampshire Chronicle.

Picture of the week: 25/01/21

OUR Picture of the Week normally focuses on artists inspired by the Chilterns landscape, but just occasionally it’s good to venture a little further afield.

Maybe lockdown restrictions make us only more aware of the vistas that we’re not allowed to visit for the moment, like the mountains, lakes, seaside and dales of the Lake District.

And no one captures those landscapes in quite such vibrant and vivid colour as our guest artist this week, Mark A Pearce, a painter and printmaker brought up in Cumbria.

Ringed Plovers over Ravenglass by Mark A Pearce

Mark pursued a successful career in London as an award-winning graphic designer and co-founded a design consultancy in the 1990s, which by the time it was bought had more than 30 employees around the world and had been involved in a number of famous brand overhauls.

Now 64, he returned to the Lake District in 2006, where he now works from a home studio with panoramic views over the Ravenglass estuary and Lakeland fells, producing a range of oils, watercolours, pastels, and limited-edition reduction wood and linocuts (like our featured picture choice, above).

Autumn Migration by Mark A Pearce

It’s an extraordinary landscape where the mountains almost reach the shore and three rivers meet to form a perfect estuary, allowing Mark freedom to explore his excitement in the light effects, striking compositions and eye-catching colour combinations that are literally on his doorstep.

“In this beautiful part of the lakes it’s the skies, colours and the effect of the changing light on the water, sky and mountains that are particularly inspiring,” he says.

He always goes out with a camera so he can capture what is about him in real time and take it back to the studio to get it down on paper to share his wonder in the natural world.

Sunlight Through Trees by Mark A Pearce

“I get outside whenever the weather and work allow, and often spend an entire day walking out on the fells alone with the camera,” he says. “It always lifts my mood.”

His galleries range from original reduction linocuts like Autumn Migration to fine-art prints and original oils.

While some landscapes look reassuringly familiar to Chilterns residents, others are strikingly different views of mountains and coastline, often featuring wildfowl in flight, like those at St Bees Head, the county’s most westerly point, where the RSPB has a reserve.

Geese St Bees Head by Mark A Pearce

His home studio was set up in 2010 with his sister and business partner Sarah Bell, who helps to promote and market his work, both locally and further afield.

LAKESIDE VIEWS: Mark Pearce in his home studio PICTURE: Alan Cleaver

He says he rediscovered his own love of creating art partly due to necessity and having to earn a living, and partly his desire to be able to share with other people his view of the natural world in terms of colour, light and composition.

His interest now lies particularly with the format of lino and woodcuts due to their graphic nature. But if his linocuts are attention-grabbing in their use of colour, his oils are equally interesting, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of a family beach walk, spring riverbank, pine forest or rocky outcrop.

Beach Walk by Mark A Pearce

“I absolutely loved living in London: the energy, the culture and the night life,” says Mark. “Although I don’t miss the stress of the constant deadlines or the staying up till 3am to get a client’s brief finished, I couldn’t do that now.

“Having no distractions here gives me time to think and create.  I paint/print what I see, out of the window, on the beach or on the fells. I feel inspired to capture that moment so I can share my excitement of the effects of the light and  shadows in the landscape.”

Visit Mark’s website for details of forthcoming events and exhibitions, opening times of the Estuary Views Tea Room & Gallery in Rosegarth, Ravenglass and details of his online shop.

Mystery of the ship among the trees

Guest writer Tim Pinks discovers how a Royal Navy vessel came to be transformed into an ancient woodland burial ground

SO how does, exactly, one of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy ships (originally one of His Majesty’s) become a beautiful burial ground in an ancient English woodland?

And how did a little piece of coincidence ensure my father, who was alive on the one…come to rest eternally in the other?

And one other question. How did something that was commissioned for war and destruction (but also for our defence and freedom), become something dedicated to nature and renewal, to our natural history, and rebirth?

Well, with a little bit of literary sleight of hand, an abracadabra and a touch of Tommy Cooper (one of dad’s favourites), just like this…

During World War Two (that’s the one after the one that ended all wars), Portsmouth was heavily bombed due to it being the Royal Navy’s biggest base. Among the many operations there was the Signal School. Communications, in other words. It was actually housed near HMS Victory.

So after heavy bombing in 1940 and ’41, it was decided that some of these services had to be moved, and hidden around the country. The signalling school was one of them.

On April 19, 1941, a place called Leydene House was approved to be requisitioned, and by August 16 it was commissioned as a land ship and the Signal School had a new home. They moved into the massive house, set within the lovely Hyden Wood, and the land ship HMS Mercury was launched. It was only a lucky 13 miles north from Portsmouth as the Solent seabird flies.

Leydene House was built for Viscount Robert and Lady Peel in the years after the Great War. Yes, that one, the war that ended all…anyway, once completed it was described by L.H Troyde thus: “No larger house has been built for at least half a century, or has been built since.” Over the years and decades, HMS Mercury was expanded until it was practically the size of a large village or small town.

Also over the years, King George VI (1943), Earl Mountbatten (1956 and ’58) and Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh (1991) visited, the latter on the occasion of its 50th birthday…along with the hundreds of thousands who had of course been piped aboard its woodland setting. Under such a canopy of trees with their resident birds, tweeted aboard, perhaps, would be more apt…

Up to half a million people passed through, it’s believed. Prince Charles was to visit too, in 2006, but by then, that whole little naval woodland world had changed.

Oh, and why ‘Mercury?’ Well, because, like many of the ancient Roman gods, Mercury was a god of many things…including messages and communication.

And then, in 1993…it closed down. Many, many of the old buildings were still there. There was even a cinema. So how did this ship (OK, yes, a land ship…well I did say there’d be a little bit of literary sleight of hand) turn into an ancient woodland? Well, it was already built in the woods, of course, to hide it from German bombing, so there were trees galore.

And so the great metamorphosis began. Most of the land was handed over to the Defence Land Registry and nearly all the buildings were demolished. Some 55 acres were gifted to a newly created Earthworks Trust to help set up The Sustainability Centre. Between then and now, all sorts of things would happen, all green, all good, and all sympathetic to the area.

The Sustainability Centre? Yes, and this is what they’re for, to quote from their own mission statement: “to demonstrate, develop and promote knowledge, skills, technologies and lifestyles that improve people’s quality of life without damaging the local and global environment.” 

There is a campsite which originally was just for ‘traditional camping’ but now has the added attraction of tipis and yurts to stay in.

If you’re an ageing crock like me and find getting up off the floor hard – funny, I find it easy enough to slide off my bar stool to get down there – then one of the few surviving buildings was converted into a green, eco-friendly hostel. So, happily, 2004 saw the opening of The Wetherdown Lodge.

And soon, very soon (work has gone on during the pandemic), the Longdown Wing of the lodge is due to be opened. I can’t wait.

There is more, so much more, to tell you about the old wood that became a ship. About how it is being reconverted into the ancient woodland it once was. About the surviving buildings that became the heart of a green revolution. And about the surrounding woodlands that became a natural burial site.

For this is the one thing I’ve kept secret up to now. As part of the re-rigging of the old boat, in 1997 the South Downs Natural Burial Site was set up and now trees, instead of crosses, stand in memorial over those who rest eternally there.

Among whom is my father, Alfred Herbert George Pinks. Known to everyone as ‘Bill’. You see, like his father before him, he joined the Royal Navy. And apparently, anyone who joined the navy who had the surname ‘Pinks’ was nicknamed ‘Bill.’ Anyway, Dad joined up towards the end of the war, 1944, and he ended up in communications…

… And here is where another twist of fate comes in. My father died rather too quickly, aged 81, in 2006, and it all happened too fast to ask him, if the worst came to the worst, where and how he’d like to be buried. But our mother – I have a brother, Mike – had picked up a couple of items about ‘natural burials’ and the one at HMS Mercury just grabbed us instantly.

It was only after he’d died and we were quickly arranging things and checking places out that we learnt it had been developed in the war for the signals section. And with goose pimples on the skin and shivers down the spine, the possibility that dad had served there was too big a coincidence to ignore.

Also, on a completely different note, the big motorbike I’d bought once I’d passed my test back in 1980 was a 650cc Norton. It was my dad the engineer who rebuilt the thing on his own into the beauty it became. The well-known version of the model was the twin carb ‘SS’ model – the super sports.

But when they took one of the carbs off to make it into a ‘touring’ model, they gave it another name – the Norton 650cc Mercury. Well, well. Sometimes you just can’t script it. I love a good coincidence, even though I do wonder sometimes if they really are coincidences…

One day, if they exist, I would like to view my dad’s service records, and see where he went. Was he, while he was based at Portsmouth, sent with others for a visit to the signal section up at HMS Mercury? Was he based there, but never mentioned it, even after I got a Norton Mercury? It’s of little matter. Dad loved the woods. He loved gardens and flowers and birds and animals, and always the woods.

And he loved walking among the trees. Before his knees got too bad he went on woodland walks with his friends (with a pub as an important part of the outing). After his knees were fixed he kept on going on woodland walks with his friends. Of course, still with a pub somewhere along the way too… So my brother and I have no doubt he’d have been very happy with the site we chose, among this island’s countryside he loved so much.

What else is there, near-abouts? Lots, actually. Apart from beautiful scenery of course, there’s Butser Ancient Farm and Old Winchester Hill, an area rich in Mesolithic archaeology, from those Stone Age hunter-gatherers from after the ice age. There are Bronze Age barrows and an Iron Age hillfort.

There are the remains of a Roman villa nearby at Bury Lodge, and perhaps best, for some, and most English of all, one of the two Hambledons in England. (The other is in Surrey, and there is a Hambleden in Buckinghamshire.) But this one is Hambledon, Hampshire, and it has an oh-so-typically-English claim to fame. It’s the birthplace of cricket.

Up the road, next to the Bat and Ball pub, is the delightfully named Broadhalfpenny Down, where England’s leading cricket club played their cricket from 1765 until the MCC formed in 1787. And the stumps are still standing as they still play cricket there…

But best of all, for my brother and I, a short distance over some fields and hedgerows, and some tracks and woods, is the old HMS Mercury, now the South Downs Natural Burial Site, where my once, always, and future father lies, among the tree-filled woods he loved to walk in so much.

My thanks to one Chris Rickard for his 50-page history of HMS Mercury, and to Christina Seaward at the Sustainability Centre for sending me the Sustainability Centre History booklet, and their permission to use any of their photos that don’t show individuals. Thanks too to Al Blake, the manager, for sending me a load of those photos. There will be more about the place and the people, and the flora and fauna, once we’re unlocked again and can wander, hither and thither, free and happy as clouds….

I shall leave you with a poem, which sums up the beauty of being buried in our beautiful woods. It’s becoming very popular at woodland funerals and it’s going to be read at mine too. Though hopefully not quite yet! I don’t care if it’s one day looked upon as being as common as Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ for a funeral…it’s a lovely poem.

It’s by the incomparable Pam Ayres, and combines not just her humour and heart, but her insightful sensitivity.

Woodland Burial, by Pam Ayres

Don’t lay me in some gloomy churchyard shaded by a wall
Where the dust of ancient bones has spread a dryness over all,
Lay me in some leafy loam where, sheltered from the cold
Little seeds investigate and tender leaves unfold.
There kindly and affectionately, plant a native tree
To grow resplendent before God and hold some part of me.
The roots will not disturb me as they wend their peaceful way
To build the fine and bountiful, from closure and decay.
To seek their small requirements so that when their work is done
I’ll be tall and standing strongly in the beauty of the sun.

Picture of the week: 17/01/21

THE stunning colours in this week’s picture choice capture the spirit of the extraordinary landscapes produced by Oxfordshire artist and art teacher Sue Side.

Sunningwell Field by Sue Side

Based in the village of Cumnor near Oxford, Sue uses graphite and ink to tell the stories hidden in the local environment of tree, copse, land and sky.

“My journey to saying ‘I am an artist’ has been a slow one,” says Sue. “I’ve had a pencil and sketchbook in my hand for as long as I can remember and despite choosing the teaching profession as a career, have never stopped creating, learning and creating.

“I’m head of art at a fantastic school [The Manor Preparatory School in Abingdon] and I focus on close looking with my young learners.

“We look – really look – at the world around us and then we interpret, through drawing, painting, sculpture. The aim is to encourage exploration and response – to not worry about finding the right word or the ‘correct answer’.

“Their ideas and responses always surprise and excite. These inspire me and feed back into my own thinking.”

Sharing Light by Sue Side

As an artist, Sue specialises in illustration and portraiture. She exhibits regularly as a member of The Oxford Art Society, takes part in Oxfordshire Artweeks annually and has been selected to exhibit with The Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Royal Watercolour Society and The Society of Graphic Fine Arts.

She also exhibits in local galleries and in 2013 completed the artist teacher scheme at Oxford Brookes.

“My art has evolved,” Sue admits. “It is good to be able to explore different elements of art practice. I never get bored! I am at my most comfortable with a pencil or pen – they feel like an extension of my hand. I like the direct connection created between me and the paper as well as the range of marks you gain from using them. It feels elemental, basic. No fuss, no disguise.”

Those Dreaming Spires by Sue Side

Sue finds herself particularly drawn to stories hidden in the local landscape.

“Here the human story seems insubstantial and fleeting against the vast stage of nature,” she explains. “I enjoy watching the slow interaction between trees and the way they settle in the landscape. From their mossy root systems to their light-seeking crowns, my work focuses on these incredible carbon storehouses and the symbiotic environment they are part of.”

Filmmaker Will Side produced a study of her artistic process filmed over a period of months and capturing the creation of an artwork from inception to completion.

Inklines, a video portrait of Sue at work by filmmaker Will Side

Her work includes portraits, etchings and drawings, but the past year has brought her into intimate contact with the woods and byways near her home.

“Wandering deep in Wytham Wood, which I am so lucky to live near, always brings a lift to the heart and peace to the soul,” says Sue. “The last year, for obvious pandemic reasons, has taken me down every path and byway of Oxfordshire, giving me a wealth of new material.

“Our local poet, Matthew Arnold, used to wander the fields near Oxford saying that it helped him escape the ‘repeated shocks’ and the ‘harsh, heart-wearying roar’ of the world (The Scholar-Gypsy). How true that has been for me this year! Walking our woods and gentle hills has brought me some solace, as well as lots of new ideas for artworks.”

Ridgeway + Copse by Sue Side

Using ink techniques, Sue explores the atmosphere of forest and tree in all their woody detail.

“I enjoy using ink – it can be both fluid and precise,” she says. “The clarity of inky colour is intense. It sits well in my illustrations; creating contrast between the inky depths of the deep woods and gentle translucent skies.

“It does have its own mind though. I like this – starting a work and not being absolutely sure how it will end up!

Midsummer by Sue Side

Sue is also fascinated by the behaviour of starling flocks as they settle in their treetop roosts at RSPB Otmoor Nature Reserve. She has a series of works capturing their amazing murmurations; thousands of individually ink-drawn birds overlapping one another again and again to create a quite remarkable fluidity of aerial display.

“It is only close up you see the pattern, the purpose and togetherness of these starling flocks,” she says. “A little like family, a starling murmuration is a story of protection, sharing, gossiping and the joy of homecoming on darker winter days.”

Winter roost by Sue Side

See Sue’s website , Instagram feed and Facebook page for details of her cards, prints and original works for sale, along with blog entries and news about forthcoming exhibitions.

Johnson’s cat casts a long shadow

FEW cats can boast such a lasting legacy as Samuel Johnson’s Hodge.

Immortalised in a statue, poetry and various literary references, Hodge was described by his owner as “a very fine cat indeed”, although relatively little is actually known about the favoured feline in question.

The most frequently quoted reference is from his friend James Boswell’s biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791 and unique for the period in that it directly incorporated conversations Boswell had noted down, along with far more personal and human details than contemporary readers were accustomed to reading.

Among such revelations was Boswell’s recollection of how Johnson treated his feline companions: “I shall never forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters.”

He goes on to explain that Johnson’s logic behind this was that if he got his servants to do this job, they would begin to hate the spoilt cat – a scene recreated with a bronze statue outside Johnson’s London home in Gough Square which was unveiled in 1997 and displays Hodge posing proudly on the famous dictionary next to a pair of empty oyster shells.

This is the charming 300-year-old townhouse, now a museum, where Dr Johnson lived and worked in the middle of the 18th century, compiling his great Dictionary of the English Language in the garret.

Although Hodge is undoubtedly the most famous of Johnson’s cats, the writer did have other four-legged friends, including Lily, a ‘white kitling’ who was ‘very well behaved’.

But it was Hodge who was so vividly described by Boswell: “I recollect [Hodge] one day scrambling up Dr Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this,’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed’.”

Another friend of Johnson’s, the poet Percival Stockdale, wrote an ornate elegy in homage to Hodge in 1778:

Shall not his worth a poem fill,
Who never thought, nor uttered ill;
Who by his manner when caressed
Warmly his gratitude expressed;
And never failed his thanks to purr
Whene’er he stroaked his sable furr?

But that wasn’t the last time that Hodge would be remembered in print. Wood engraver and illustrator Yvonne Skargon wrote Lily & Hodge & Dr Johnson in 1991, juxtaposing a series of engravings of the two cats accompanied by quotations from Johnson.

And the writer William Boyd weaved an even more surreal reference into his 2002 novel Any Human Heart when his hedonistic protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, inadvertently sparks a furious argument in the Pyrenees through a chance reference to Hodge, who happens to bear the same name as his travelling companion.

More recently, Robin Saikia has paid his own tribute to Hodge through a dramatic monologue in which Samuel Johnson celebrates the life of his favourite cat and gives a spirited account of his adventures in London coffee houses.

MC Beaton’s fictional detective Angela Raisin called her cats Hodge and Boswell, while in 2020 a new rescue cat, Hodge – complete with his own Twitter account – was adopted by Southwark Cathedral to replace the late lamented Doorkins.

Back in Gough Square, thanks to the sculptor Jon Bickley, Hodge (actually modelled on his own cat, Thomas Henry) is permanently ensconced with his oyster shells round the corner from Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub renowned for its literary associations and maze of atmospherically gloomy bars.

Historically it’s always been a popular meeting place for writers and journalists, somehow epitomising the spirit of that most famous of all Johnson quotes: “Sir, when a man is tired of London he is tired of life: for there is in London all that life can afford.”

Arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history, the poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer and editor found popularity and success when monumental dictionary was finally published in 1755 after nine years of work.

But for some, his fondness for animals was just another demonstration of his underlying compassion, or as Boswell put it, “the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition”.

Picture of the week: 11/01/21

FORTY years ago, as an eagle-eyed six-year-old, Graham Parkinson’s interest in wildlife was sparked by I-Spy books – and the fact his gran had a large garden with a field behind it to explore.

“She’s in her 90s now, and it’s lovely to be able to chat to her about the birds I’ve seen and the ones she has visit her garden,” he says. “I’m jealous of her daily bullfinches.”

Flash forward four decades and Graham’s fascination with what’s happening in his own backyard is undimmed but nowadays he is able to capture it on camera, as in this week’s picture choice, a remarkable if somewhat graphic encounter between a sparrowhawk and a goldfinch.

NATURE IN THE RAW: “This was such an amazing experience. I happened to be at my patio door photographing a woodpecker on a feeder. It disappeared, and as it did so this sparrowhawk flew in and caught a goldfinch less than two metres in front of me.”

“I’ve always had a lot of different birds that visit my garden in Marlow, and enjoyed lots of walks in the local countryside, but I was always keen to see more of the countryside and wildlife,” says Graham.

2020 proved the perfect opportunity to explore his longstanding interest in photography, and in the past few months his pictures have proved a big hit on local nature and wildlife forums.

FULL STRETCH: “This was in Little Marlow near to Spade Oak. I happened to turn round and it proceeded to stretch first this wing and then the other. I’d never seen this captured before.”

“I’ve been out of work, and my wife bought me a camera, a Canon 2000D (good beginner’s choice), and a friend lent me a good lens. I soon purchased a Canon 70-300mm lens, which was great, but even that wasn’t enough for wildlife.

“A kingfisher that came at the same time every day to Marlow Lock (for about two weeks) convinced me to upgrade the lens, so I now have a Sigma 150-600mm.

BEE’S KNEES: “This was by the riverbank in Pergola Field, Marlow. I love the pop of the flower’s colour and the fact you can clearly see the bee extracting nectar from the flower.”

“I still love taking photos of bird visitors to the garden, and all of the insects (hoverfies can be beautiful when you get to see them up close) and what can be seen around town (peregrine falcons, for example) and love going to Spade Oak.

“But what I really enjoy is going on local walks, typically 7-10 miles, and capturing what I can of the local wildlife, flora and the broader environment.”

ONE MOMENT IN TIME: “This was in Homefield Wood, a stunning place to visit, and I loved the light and the background behind the resting speckled wood butterfly.”

Using the Ordnance Survey OS Maps app to plan his own routes, he has visited many new locations, from local favourites like Homefield Wood, Farm Wood and the areas around Burnham Beeches to the many walks between Ibstone and Christmas Common.

“It’s been extremely rewarding, capturing wildlife I’ve never seen before. Also it’s great to take photos of great spotted woodpeckers in the garden, for example, but even more rewarding to spot one on a walk, to track it and then manage to get a good photo.

KITE FANTASTIC: “This is at Littleworth Common. It’s the shape it is forming, something I hadn’t seen a kite do before. I was at the end of a nine-mile walk and almost didn’t respond to the kite being there. I’m glad I stopped: you just never know when you might get a good photo.”

“I’m particularly interested in trying to capture a different pose or something that conveys the character or behaviour of the bird/animal I’m taking a photo of.

“The challenge with taking wildlife photos this way is that you are always on the move. I don’t wait long or have a hide set up at a particular spot where something is likely to come along. I do walk more slowly than I would normally, with all senses alert – it’s often movement that draws me to something.

ON THE MOVE: “This was Ockwells Park, Maidenhead. I love the colour of the light and the background and capturing the goldfinch feeding on the teasels.”

“The other challenge at this time of year is the short days make it more difficult to complete the walks in daylight. Though that has made me set off pre-dawn and led to some great photos in the dawn sunlight.

“At some point I’ll upgrade my camera and probably purchase a landscape-focused lens and take two cameras with me on my walks to more easily capture the landscape alongside the wildlife.”

Professionally, as a director of analytics, he senses that some people might find that quite far removed from something “creative” like photography.

But he adds: “Good analytics tells a story through data, insight, and visualisation; photography is a story of my walks and my garden and the wildlife, flora and environment I see.” Perhaps the two are not so very different after all.

LIGHT AND SHADE: “Homefield Wood again. It was a gorgeous hot day, the sun streaming down, but I got to a bit of the woods that was quite dark, with the sun just getting through to light this one fern frond. I love how it highlights the form of the fern.”

You can follow Graham’s photographs on his Instagram feed.

Rare attractions on the reserve

WEST of Marlow is prime walking country, with the Chiltern Way leading out through Bovingdon Green towards Rotten Row and picturesque Hambleden.

Enticing footpaths split off in every direction, and those favouring a circular loop can take a four-mile circuit from the Royal Oak that takes in both a section of the Chiltern Way and Marlow Common.

One highlight along the route is Homefield Wood, a site of special scientific interest owned by the Forestry Commission and managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

LIGHT AND SHADE: fern fronds lit by the sun PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Here, the chalk grassland of the small but peaceful nature reserve makes it one of just three sites in the country where rare military orchids can be found – not to mention offering a perfect habitat for birds, butterflies, moths and other insects.

WELCOME GUEST: bees are vital for pollination PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The nature reserve may be small, at about 15 acres, but the herb-rich grassland offers a chance to see Chiltern gentians and upright brome grass, as well as a variety of orchids, though visitors need to be careful to avoid trampling rare plants that may not yet be in flower when the reserve is at its busiest towards the end of May and in early June.

As reserves manager Mark Vallance explains, the military orchid is so called because its dense spikes of pinkish-violet flowers have petals and sepals folded in such a way that they resemble a knight’s helmet, with the lower petal shaped like a human form with ‘arms’ and ‘legs’, and spots which resemble buttons on a jacket.

IN THE PINK: foxgloves flourish in late spring, bringing a splash of colour to the woods

Ferns and foxgloves make Homefield a delight in the late spring, and the wood has a mixture of young beech plantations, with some conifers and many native trees.

Resident and visiting species of birds include chiffchaff, cuckoo and blackcap. Tawny owls can often be heard calling during the day.

PARTRIDGE FAMILY: a variety of birds can be found in the woods PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

It’s only a couple of miles west of Marlow but parking is very limited, so getting there on foot is an environmentally kinder and more enjoyable way to travel.

MORNING LIGHT: Homefield features a variety of different trees PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

There’s been woodland on this warm slope for at least 200 years, though forestry work has created many changes. Nowadays the reserve is made up of beech, ash, sycamore and whitebeam with glades and open grassland.

CAUGHT ON CAMERA: deer browse woodland shrubs and herbs PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The rides and glades are home to a range of mammals too, from inquisitive squirrels to shy fallow and roe deer. But for sheer variety, the prize has to go to the huge population of butterflies and moths.

WOODLAND CHOIR: a robin strikes up a song PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Butterfly species range from the marbled white and white-letter hairstreak to the silver-washed fritillary and some 400 species of moth have been recorded, including blotched emerald and striped lychnis.

SUMMER DANCE: butterflies and moths flourish at Homefield PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Visit the BBOWT website for more information about Homefield Wood and how to get there.

Poignant foray down English country lanes

Guest reviewer Tim Pinks finds his spirits lifted by an entrancing but bittersweet rural adventure from a little over a century ago

AS he walked out one Good Friday morning…

Once upon a time one Easter morning, a man walked out of his house in Balham, grabbed his bicycle and set off to walk and cycle south and south-westwards, in search of spring.

It was a very early Easter, Friday March 21st, 1913, and the man’s name was Edward Thomas: a London Welshman born into a Welsh family who loved nature, especially that of his family’s adopted country.

My apologies for borrowing and twisting the title of Laurie Lee’s classic memoir, but the book Thomas wrote and published the following April, in glorious innocent springtime before the nightmare abyss of World War One, is as beautiful and poetic as Lee’s. More so, actually. Cycling With Teddie, perhaps.

In Pursuit Of Spring is not just an evocative journey back to times past, but a homage to England’s countryside, from the flowers and the birds to its villages and pubs. Wonderfully, he took a camera with him.

Somerset Landscape by Spencer Gore (1878-1914) PICTURE: University of Hull Art Collection

Although written in prose, it reads so much like a poem in places that the American poet Robert Frost encouraged Thomas to take up poetry. Which he did. Thank you, Mr Frost. The two became friends, until Thomas’s death.

Philip Edward Thomas was born in 1878 and died in 1917. Yes, just four years after he walked out to find life one Good Friday morning, he died one Easter Monday morning in Arras, France. From one Easter to another, four years later, the writer who became a poet was dead. It would be almost poetically beautiful if it wasn’t so sad.

Philip Edward Thomas died in 1917 one Easter morning in Arras

It’s said he took any opportunity while in the trenches to look for any sign of a bud or see a flower bloom, to see a bird or hear its song. One can only hope that his last sight and sound was of the nature that he loved.

He left behind a wife and three children, some books and many poems. His wife Helen also wrote about him, so there is plenty to read from him, about him and his circle.

Somerset Landscape by Spencer Gore (1878-1914) PICTURE: Government Art Collection

You see, for those who don’t know, he had become known. It is down to not just his poetry, but his books. I first came across him thanks to a second-hand copy of The South Country, about his ramblings in mostly the southern counties of England. These gentle meandering books bring back a not-too-recently lost past and are full of the flora and fauna that surrounded his wanderings.

In Pursuit Of Spring takes us from Balham (yes, ‘the Gateway to the South’!) in a roughly straight but intermittently twisting tour to the coast and the Quantocks. On the way he stays in inns and walks the roads, byways and tracks of the southern lands. The very occasional ‘motor car’ passes, but horses and carts are more likely to be seen.

The Cricket Match by Spencer Gore (1878-1914) PICTURE: The Hepworth, Wakefield

The journey actually begins at chapter two of the book, ‘The Start – London to Guildford’. There’s a lovely bit where he hides from the rain by a shop that sells chaffinches and linnets, and ‘little, bright foreign birds’. All sold because they sing. The less battered, the more expensive. I know, I know…horrible.

A man enters and buys something and takes it away in a little paper bag. Further down the road, Thomas sees him stop, take the bag, and open it. A chaffinch flies away. Lovely. Told you Thomas loved nature.

The book winds delightfully through the southwest until the sea at Bridgwater Bay, and the Quantocks. The first paragraph of the last chapter has this: “The end of the rain, as I hoped, was sung away by the missel (sic) thrushes in the roadside oaks, by a train of larks’ songs which must have reached all over England.” Told you it was poetic!

His wonderful book ends with a little recount of some of the signs of spring he saw on his journey, writing: “Thus I leapt over April and into May, as I sat in the sun on the north side of Cothelstone Hill on that 28th day of March, the last day of my journey westward to find the Spring.”

The poet W H ‘The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp’ Davies wrote this poem about his friend’s death:

Killed in action

(EDWARD THOMAS)

Happy the man whose home is still
In Nature’s green and peaceful ways;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.

And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.

But thou, my friend, art lying dead:
War, with its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, with many more:
The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.

It encompasses Thomas’s love of life and nature, and his death. I’ll leave the last words to Edward Thomas himself, from Light and Twilight: “And I rose up, and knew that I was tired, and continued my journey.”

Somewhere out there, I hope he wanders still, in this land he loved.

In Pursuit Of Spring by Edward Thomas is published by Little Toller Books and features nearly 40 photos Thomas took on the trip.

Ancient acres offer space to escape

EXPLORE the sprawling Ashridge Forest in the company of Chilterns travel writer Mary Tebje, whose blog sets out to capture the beauty in the mundane, the stuff “that the locals have stopped noticing but is the very essence of what makes this place special”.

Despite the continuing lockdown, Ashridge Forest offers plenty of space and the distance needed for enjoying the great outdoors, she writes in her most recent post.

BREATH OF FRESH AIR: the trails are quiet in winter PICTURE: Mary Tebje

“I am fortunate in having many outdoor options that are local to me, where I can walk and feel almost that life is ‘as usual’,” she writes.

Mary has written extensively about Ashridge Forest, Ashridge House and the surrounding countryside.

The monastery and monks are long gone, buildings destroyed, treasures looted and the monks banished on the orders of King Henry Vlll, but you can find out more about the history of the estate in: Ashridge: A Flourishing Trade and explore Ashridge House Gardens too.

Gruelling year ends with an icy blast

IT BEGAN with a dull, damp, grubby couple of weeks and ended with an icy blast as temperatures plummeted and snow fell across much of the country.

ICE CRYSTALS: temperatures plummeted as 2020 came to a close PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

After the murky start that left some areas hit hard by heavy flooding, it was a relatively unremarkable month in the Chilterns, but made a little bleaker as families prepared for a hug-less Christmas separated from loved ones amid growing fears of another surge in pandemic deaths. 

SPLASH OF COLOUR: mandarin ducks at Burnham Beeches PICTURE: Carlene O’Rourke

Despite the dismal weather, muddy paths and bleak headlines, local photographers were soon managing to capture some of the brighter colours on show across the country, from classy mandarin ducks to dramatic sunrises and sunsets.

CLEAR SKIES: Brill Windmill PICTURE: Siddharth Upadhya

While Carlene O’Rourke found the ducks at Burnham Beeches bringing a welcome splash of colour to the grey weather, windmill enthusiast Siddharth Upadhya managed to take advantage of clear skies to capture the beauty of the magnificent post mill at Brill, which has timbers dating from the 17th century.

MILLER’S TALE: the restored windmill at Great Haseley PICTURE: Siddharth Upadhya

The skies were equally obliging over in Oxfordshire at Great Haseley, where the restored stone tower mill has dominated the countryside since the middle of the 18th century but suffered years of deterioration and neglect before being fully restored to its original working order in 2014.

DELICATE PATTERNS: wintry colours near Amersham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Elsewhere bare branches and frozen berries provided some striking patterns for Sue Craigs Erwin’s early morning dog walks, with ice forming delicate filigree patterns on spiders’ webs – at least until temperatures started to climb again, much to the delight of four-legged explorers.

MORNING PADDLE: icy water is no deterrent to intrepid explorers PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Meanwhile widllife photographers were looking to the trees – as in Glynn Walsh’s striking Christmas Day picture of a noisy robin. Bare branches provide a better chance to pick out our feathered friends, so it’s a good time of year for first-time birdwatchers to get their eye in.

ON SONG: a robin shares a little of the Christmas spirit PICTURE: Glynn Walsh

Others keeping their lenses focused on local hedgerows include Graham Parkinson, whose pictures have also featured in our recent Littleworth Common feature, and Nick Bell, who has provided an array of fantastic shots for our recent feature about garden birds and article about Mark Avery’s guides to different types of birdsong.

METALLIC SHEEN: a curious starling at Abbey Park Farm PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

With the month’s striking and appropriately named “cold moon” also grabbing people’s attention, some photographers had their lenses trained slightly further afield, as Phil Laybourne demonstrated.

MOON SHOT: December’s “cold moon” PICTURE: Phil Laybourne

Back on earth there was fog and mist to contend with, not to mention torrential downpours and muddy footpaths where it seemed impossible to find any glimpse of colour to lift the mood. But of course there is always that exceptional sunrise or sunset guaranteed to lift the spirits – and with the winter solstice behind us, the days start getting longer from here on.

RAY OF HOPE: days start getting longer after the winter solstice PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

After a year like 2020 and with so many families still ill, grieving or forced to stay apart, New Year celebrations around the country were muted, to say the least. And with another national lockdown looming, the first few weeks of 2021 will not be any easier.

OUT OF THE WOODS?: spring is just around the corner PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

But for those able to get out of the house and escape the grim headlines for a little, the mud, mist and chill in the air doesn’t matter too much. We may not be out of the woods yet, but as the days start getting longer and lighter it really does feel as if spring is just around the corner…

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 January, contact editor@thebeyonder.co.uk on email or via our Facebook group page.

Picture of the week: 04/01/21

OUR first picture highlight of 2021 is a quite remarkable wildlife shot captured by Phil Laybourne in the River Thames outside Marlow.

CHANCE ENCOUNTER: an otter pops up in the Thames PICTURE: Phil Laybourne

Phil recalls: “Standing in a freezing river early one morning with the cold water seeping into my boots, I was trying to photograph a kingfisher.

“The last thing on my mind was the Eurasian short-clawed otter that suddenly appeared behind me. I almost fell in. He stayed just long enough for me to get a couple of shots off before diving. That is still one of the best moments of my seven years in amateur photography.”

MORNING GLOW: a spectacular sunrise over Marlow PICTURE: Phil Laybourne

Based in Wooburn Green, Phil’s photographs range from stunning landscapes and sunsets to close studies of local wildlife, including swans and deer.

Favourite locations include Marlow, Bourne End, Bisham and Spade Oak and have extended to London and Ivinghoe Beacon – and since the sudden death of his wife Gail in May last year after a short illness, all of his prints have been on sale to raise money for Thames Hospice in Windsor, where she spent her last weeks.

INTO THE BLUE: the Compleat Angler at night PICTURE: Phil Laybourne

He says: “My late wife Gail was always my biggest critic and also my biggest fan. She would moan if i dared to wake her at 5am as I left for a photo shoot, yet would be really excited on my return to see what I had shot.”

In her memory he has set up a website of his pictures, where more than 250 are for sale at prices from £18 to £30, with all the proceeds going to the Thames Hospice.

“Sunrises and sunsets are my favourite medium,” says Phil. “I recently sold my starter camera and upgraded to a Nikon D850 with a Sigma 150-600mm for wildlife and a Sigma 14-24 f2.8 and Sigma 24-105mm for panoramics and day-to-day shooting.

DAWN DELIGHT: sunrise over Cock Marsh PICTURE: Phil Laybourne

“Walking along the Thames at dawn or dusk with the camera is a most rewarding experience. We are so lucky to have such a beautiful location on our doorstep.”

Walkers make tracks for the common

MAYBE it’s the proximity of a couple of welcoming pubs that has made Littleworth Common so popular with walkers.

The location beside Burnham Beeches helps too, not to mention its handy position on the 16-mile Beeches Way, which runs from the Thames at Cookham to the Grand Union Canal at West Drayton.

LONG-DISTANCE PATH: the Beeches Way runs across Littleworth Common

Whatever the reason, a host of ramblers find it a handy starting point for a walk, whether that means a leisurely stroll around the common itself or a more demanding circuit taking in some of the substantial areas of woodland that surround this spot.

QUIET REFLECTIONS: a pond on Littleworth Common PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The 40-acre SSSI (site of special scientific interest) is common land owned by South Bucks District Council and comprises open heathland, most of which has developed into birch and oak woodland, although some remnants of acid heathland survive.

MORNING HAS BROKEN: dew drops lit by the rising sun PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

A network of paths criss-cross the common and the “muddy boots welcome” sign outside the Blackwood Arms says it all.

HOME COMFORTS: a duck house close to the Blackwood Arms

Thirsty souls can choose between here and The Jolly Woodman when lockdown restrictions allow: both pubs have featured in the Midsomer Murders series and provide a perfect base for a wander.

LOOKOUT POST: a red kite with hunger pangs PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Fancy Free Walks, for example, suggest a three-mile circuit that takes in some of the less familiar parts of Burnham Beeches for those who fancy a day exploring the ancient woodlands. It’s one of more than 40 mapped routes contained on the not-for-profit website set up to introduce more people to the countryside and to connect with our historic land, towns and villages.

FOCAL POINT: various routes fan out from the common PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The site has a 10-mile circuit too, taking in Stoke Common and Hedgerley, and for those wanting to ring the changes, permissive paths on the Portman Burtley Estate provide an opportunity to explore a range of mixed woodland habitats.

PERMISSIVE PATH: insect-hunting in Staplefurze Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Burtley Farm boasts around 1,000 acres of mixed woodland ranging from conifer plantations from the 1920s and 1950s to older oaks planted following the Napoleonic wars when there was a perceived shortage of timber for ships.

The most ecologically important area of woodland is Egypt Wood, part of the Burnham Beeches National Nature Reserve complex and reached on a footpath from Abbey Park Farm.

MIXED WOODLAND: on the Portman Burtley estate PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

This is also part of a longer two- to five-and-a-half-mile signposted circular walk taking in a picturesque Buckinghamshire village of Hedgerley as well as an RSPB reserve and remnants of the once important local brick industry.

BRANCHING OUT: a footpath heads south towards Burnham

Many wanderers are happy to stay close to the common, but more ambitious ramblers can check out the long-distance route west to Hedsor and Cookham or east to Stoke Common, Black Park and Langley.

WATCHFUL EYES: starlings in Bristles Wood PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

For other ideas for local walks and places to visit, check out the highlighted pages.

Feathered friends flock to the feast

THE tiny square of pebble-covered ground outside our front door is a little humble to be classed as a front garden.

But a bird bath and feeding station have transformed it into a source of constant activity over the past three years.

DRESSED TO IMPRESS: an aristocratic-looking pheasant drops in for breakfast

Our smattering of largely unremarkable plants may be of only passing interest to wildlife, though our neighbour’s small pond is close enough to provide refuge for the occasional toad and the hibiscus hedge provides welcome cover for the dunnocks later in the year.

SHY VISITOR: dunnocks usually prefer to stay close to the ground PICTURE: Nick Bell

Around the country, millions of us have been relying on our feathered friends for company during the darkest days of the pandemic. And as a nation it seems we are now spending up to £300m feeding the birds in our garden each year.

GOOD COMPANY: UK bird lovers spend millions on garden visitors PICTURE: Angela Scott

Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that seeing and hearing birds in the garden has a direct link to lowering levels of stress, anxiety and depression – and that people who spend less time outside are more likely to feel depressed in their lifetime.