Time to go down to the woods

WORRIES about coronavirus may have brought chaos to the supermarkets, but with 500 acres to get lost in, Burnham Beeches should be an ideal place to put social distancing to the test – although gathering in groups to socialise in the park totally defeats the whole purpose of the Government’s strategy.

Few places are more welcoming on a sunny day than this national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.

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Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, with a mix of young and mature trees standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.

A pollard is a tree that has been cut to just above head height, forcing the tree to send up new multiple shoots and preventing livestock grazing among the trees from eating the tender new shoots.

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The constant regrowth encouraged by oak and beech pollarding extends the lives of the trees and older trees often have features such as hollow rotten stems, dead or decaying branches and loose bark which can be a great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.

Dog walkers and families out for a weekend stroll quickly disappear into the 500 acres of beech woodland, and a map of paths and trails offer the opportunity to escape from other visitors, especially on weekdays and out of season.

However the Mother’s Day weekend also brought government warnings that young people in particular were not taking social distancing seriously – and across the country there were concerns about crowds inundating beaches, parks and other public spaces.

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The tarmac roads around the site are mainly closed to cars, so are ideal for cyclists and buggies, although the sensitive habitat here limits the scope for off-road cycling.

There has been woodland here since the last Ice Age and people have used the site since at least the Iron Age, as evidenced by the Seven Ways Plain hill fort located in the south west part of the Beeches.

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If the landscape looks familiar, it might because the proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray studios have made this a perfect filming location, with everyone from Robin Hood to Harry Potter and James Bond using the Beeches as a backdrop for their woodland adventures.

Filming is restricted to no more than 20 days per year and is banned in environmentally sensitive areas, but the revenue goes directly to fund the upkeep and management of the site.

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For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website.

Haunting tale from the riverbank

WITH descriptions on the cover like “haunting” and “heartbreaking” you are under no illusion that Kenneth Grahame’s life story is going to make for easy reading.

Accomplished biographer Matthew Dennison deftly and poignantly portrays an awkward, bookish bachelor dogged by personal tragedy who retreated into his own imagination from an early age.

His lasting legacy, of course, was the book he published in 1908 which became one of the greatest children’s classics of all time, The Wind In The Willows.

And as Dennison explains, the Thames Valley appears to have given Grahame the inspiration for his writing – as well as providing a place of sanctuary and escape from the harsher realities of life.

Born in Edinburgh in 1859, Grahame was only five when his mother died, and his father, who had a drinking problem and was overcome by grief and self-pity, gave the care of his four children to their grandmother, who lived in Cookham Dean in Berkshire.

There they lived in a higgledy-piggledy but dilapidated home in extensive grounds by the River Thames where they would be introduced to the riverside and boating by their uncle, David Inglis, the local curate.

Although they would later have to move to Cranbourne before the young Kenneth attended school in Oxford, it was at The Mount in Cookham Dean that the author became a “doodler and a dreamer”, exploring the adjoining Quarry Wood and the Thames beyond during a golden two-year interlude that would provide him with his most vivid and intense memories.

An unexpected bonus of his schooldays at St Edward’s School in Oxford was that the pupils were free to wander the city’s cobbled streets alone, imbuing in him a fascination for the city that he hoped to further explore as a university undergraduate there.

Unfortunately his sensible Scottish uncle had different ideas about his future prospects, and his appointment as a bank clerk in London was to pave the way for a respectable banking career that would immerse him in City life but leave him free to day-dream about riverside adventures and leave him free at weekends to return to the Thames.

Still in his twenties, he began to publish light stories in London periodicals and in the 1890s started to write tales about a group of parentless children whose circumstances sounded remarkably similar to his own childhood days at Cookham Dean.

By the mid-1890s, Grahame had tasted success in both his banking and writing careers, but Dennison reveals a bookish bachelor more comfortable with his pipe, a solitary ramble or male colleagues than in female company.

Nonetheless Grahame was to marry Elspeth Thomson in 1899 when he was 40 after a pursuit by her characterised by Dennison as “single-minded and unwavering”. But the marital relationship was emotionally sterile and both appeared to find it disappointing and unfulfilling.

Their only son Alastair (“Mouse”) was born blind in one eye and was plagued by health problems throughout his short life. Tragically he would later take his own life on a railway track while an undergraduate at Oxford University a few days before his 20th birthday in 1920. And yet it was Grahame’s bedtime stories for Alastair that formed the basis for The Wind In The Willows.

‘Mouse’ was about four when Grahame started to tell him stories and on the author’s frequent boating holidays without his family he would write further tales of Toad, Mole, Ratty, and Badger in letters to Alastair.

The four animal friends provided the basis for the manuscript for the book which would secure Grahame’s reputation, published in the year he took early retirement from the Bank of England, by which time he had moved back to the Thames, initially to Cookham and later to Blewbury.

Despite its success, he never attempted a sequel, although the book gave rise to many film and television adaptations and Toad remains one of the most celebrated and beloved characters in children’s literature.

Indeed the Julian Fellowes 2017 stage adaptation — filmed at the London Palladium, and starring Rufus Hound as Toad, Simon Lipkin as Ratty and Craig Mather as Mole — was offered free online when theatres closed as the coronavirus scare spread in the UK, with a small donation requested to help support theatre workers.

The pastoral tale of riverside camaraderie seemed to reflect the author’s fascinating with “messing about in boats” and is celebrated for its evocation of the Thames Valley. But as Dennison explores in a sensitive and nuanced account of his life, both the literary and real-life riverbank escapades may have provided a necessary escape from darker emotions.

It also warned about the fragility of the English countryside and express fear at threatened social changes that became a reality in the aftermath of World War I.

Grahame’s life was not without adventure. He met many of the literary greats of the period and was even shot at in 1903 when a gunman opened fire at the Bank of England.

But when he died in Pangbourne in 1932 it was for one thing that he was remembered – as his cousin and successful author Anthony Hope had engraved on his gravestone in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford: the fact that he left childhood and literature “the more blest for all time”.

Matthew Dennison has published a number of works of biography and writes for Country Life and the Telegraph. Eternal Boy: The Life of Kenneth Grahame was published in 2018 by Head of Zeus Ltd at £8.99

Life, but not as we know it

FORGET about the selfish shoppers piling their trolleys high with toilet rolls, or the shopkeepers marking up the price of their hand sanitiser bottles.

Crises have always brought out the best and worst in people, and the coronavirus pandemic is no exception.

But rather than focusing on the aggravating actions of that mean-spirited minority who always think of themselves first at any cost – including the scammers, fraudsters and other criminals eagerly targeting the most vulnerable of prey – it’s time to look at the bigger picture.

From the locals in Madrid applauding public health workers and those on Italian balconies singing into the night to the countless thousands of health and service sector staff knowingly putting themselves at higher risk of catching the virus, this is a time to salute the courage of the many, not the pettiness of the few.

The epidemic is not going to go away quickly. Indeed, it’s likely to spark a global recession on a scale we have not seen before – and make us all rethink our relationship with nature and the world around us.

New York trend forecaster Li Edelkoort was one of many early voices predicting that the virus could provide “a blank page for a new beginning” that could eventually allow humanity to reset its values.

Could it mean us getting used to living with fewer possessions and travelling less, as the virus disrupts global supply chains and transportation networks?

The crisis has already impacted on virtually every aspect of our daily lives – as it did for this priest, who asked parishioners to send him a picture of themselves and their families so he could tape them to the pews and remember them during Mass while the parish is closed.

Some campaigners certainly believe the economic disruption has already had environmental benefits, pointing out how carbon emissions and pollution in China dramatically declined after the virus first hit.

“It seems we are massively entering a quarantine of consumption where we will learn how to be happy just with a simple dress, rediscovering old favourites we own, reading a forgotten book and cooking up a storm to make life beautiful,” Li told the design and architecture magazine Dezeen.

The woman named by Time magazine in 2003 as one of the 25 most influential people in fashion said the impact of the epidemic would be “layered and complex” but would force us to stop taking planes, work from home more and entertain only among close friends or family.

With a younger generation increasingly concerned about the ownership and hoarding of clothes and cars, the transformation could be dramatic.

“Suddenly the fashion shows look bizarre and out of place, the travel ads that enter our computer space seem invasive and ridiculous,” she said. “Every new day we question each system we have known since birth, and are obliged to consider their possible demise.”

It is a time of profound challenges for our national and world leaders but by taking the decision-making power out of our hands, the virus has forced us to wake up and take notice of what we have been doing to the world.

But if it offers the prospect of resetting the dial when it comes to pointless travel, growing pollution and the ever-increasing production of ugly and useless plastic toys and souvenirs, it will come with a heavy price tag.

As well as potentially millions of deaths around the world, we can also expect to see many existing companies wiped out in the process of slowing down the pace – from luxury brands and airlines to hospitality businesses and importers.

Going cold turkey in changing our shopping and socialising habits is only the start. But as country after country shuts down, the process of rediscovering old books, dusting off old recipes and reconnecting with our nearest and dearest may do something to offset the negatives.

Of course, there’s little room for flippancy in celebrating any possible benefits of such societal changes. It’s hard at this stage in the crisis to have any realistic comprehension of the impact these events will have on our lives for generations to come – including the loss of loved ones, the hidden fall-out in terms of anxiety and mental health issues, the countless job losses and the extra strains likely to be imposed on already struggling families.

Not to mention the fearfulness of those who are already ill, the impact of the virus in prisons, hospitals, refugee camps and war zones.

Yet clearly the shutdown will also give people time to think – and maybe time to think differently, about new ways of living. As one popular poetic quote being widely shared on social media puts it: “And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.”

We are not at that stage yet. But we are already at a point where local communities are talking of ways of pulling together to protect the elderly and housebound, to counteract the selfish stockpiling of the greedy.

For many hunkering down at home, there may be different ways of supporting small independent businesses and allowing local ingenuity to flourish against the depressing backdrop of global economic pressures.

For those able to leave their house, there’s still the great outdoors to explore, even if that means a solitary walk rather than an outing with friends. But as these pictures show, when the sun breaks through the clouds, the natural world can provide a welcome escape from the gloomy news feeds or social media chatter.

Will we eventually enter an era where cottage industries flourish and arts-and-crafts initiatives prosper? Is our destruction of nature ultimately responsible for Covid-19 as some environmentalists believe?

We’ve suffered pandemics before, of course, from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu, and all have had a profund impact on society (and not just through the devastating impact on population figures).  

How we cope with and survive from the current crisis is in our hands. It will undoubtedly mean looking at the world in a different way – and changing how we live our lives. It’s also time for all of us to do so with a lightness of heart and kindness of spirit that perhaps belies our own worries and concerns. And one thing’s for sure: for the post-coronavirus generation things will never be quite the same again.

Take time out on the towpath

THE Chilterns may be a fair distance from the sea, but that’s no excuse for not getting down to the waterside for a ramble this month.

With the Thames rushing down to London from Oxford and the slightly more sedate Grand Union Canal linking Paddington Basin in West London with Aylesbury, Milton Keynes and Birmingham, there’s no shortage of towpaths and cosy canalside cafes to explore.

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For wintry walks and an escape from traffic, the network provides a glorious break from office routine, with a stroll promising the opportunity to spot birds and wildlife, study industrial landmarks or just become a lazy “gongoozler” watching canal life from the towpath.And that’s one of the reasons we’ve added ‘Waterside wanders’ as a regular monthly reminder of the delights on our doorstep that we often take for granted.

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It’s one of half a dozen free attractions that can provide a day out with a difference for cash-strapped families – and the Canal & River Trust website offers a range of maps and downloadable regional guides, as well as tips about nature spotting and details of open days and special events.

On its way through Reading, Henley, Windsor and Hampton Court, the Thames offers countless different vistas, and the Thames Path is a national trail offering walkers the chance to “follow the greatest river in England for 184 miles from its source in the Cotswold hills to the sea”.

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From unspoilt rural villages to the heart of London, England’s longest river has been an integral feature of the country’s trade and culture since pre-Roman times.The Queen later recalled how she once sailed up the Thames to London with Winston Churchill in 1954. “One saw this dirty commercial river as one came up and he was describing it as the silver thread which runs through the history of Britain,” she said. “He saw things in a very romantic and glittering way.”

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As popular today with pleasure craft as it’s always been, today the Thames boasts a range of towpath treats from rushing weirs to intriguing locks, from remote river banks reminiscent of Wind In The Willows to bustling towns like Henley and Marlow, with their races and regattas.From Hurley Lock to Maidenhead, Bourne End, Cookham and Cliveden, this is a world of weekend walks and messing about in boats, of riverside pubs and cosy cafes where you can watch the world drift by.

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And if the pace of the Thames is too frantic, there’s always the Grand Union linking London to Birmingham or, out in Berkshire, the Kennet & Avon Canal striking west for a hundred miles from Reading towards Newbury and Hungerford on its way to Bath and Bristol.With a range of free maps and guides to help you find your way around the network, the Canal & River Trust is eager to get the message across that getting active down by the waterside could be a perfect way to enjoy a happier and healthier life. 

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From sailing and canoeing trips to boating holidays, fishing, art and cultural events, there’s no shortage of things to do – and if you like getting your sleeves rolled up, the trust relies on an army of towpath volunteers to keep the network thriving.Check out the Canal & River Trust website for events, free guides and more information about the industrial heritage of the local canal network. And keep a check on our What’s On pages every month for local events across the Chilterns area. 

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‘Delight in the little things’

DELIGHT in the little things, said Kipling – yet all too often the simple daily pleasures slip past us without us taking the time to savour them.

These days there’s an added problem for the selfie generation: everyone is so busy taking pictures for Instagram or Snapchat that the chance to properly relish a reunion with old friends, an extraordinary meal or stunning view is sometimes undermined or lost completely.

It’s the perennial challenge for travel writers and bloggers, of course. Do you soak up that chance conversation with strangers, the scent of exotic spices in the souk or the interminable bus journey through the mountains without capturing a picture for posterity, or do you spend all your time looking at life through a lens?

On the first day of March, with the sun streaming in through the bedroom window after what seems like weeks of gales and torrential downpours, the birds are in full song and, to quote Wodehouse: “The snail was on the wing and the lark on the thorn – or, rather, the other way around – and God was in His heaven and all right with the world.”

And so, turning away for a moment from the grim TV news about coronavirus, locust plagues and war, what are the small reasons to celebrate this week?

One small highlight is the return of an old friend, Fez the pheasant. Or, to be a little more realistic, an avian relation that looks remarkably like Fez, resplendent in his splendid waistcoat, who became a regular visitor round the bird feeder last year.

This year’s lookalike only pays a brief morning visit before scuttling off in a panic, but we hope he will return – like his majestic cousin, so beautifully captured on camera by Roy Battell of The Moorhens and circulated to followers in one of his weekly newsletters.

Other seasonal highlights include the daffodils providing a welcome splash of colour around the nearby Cliveden estate, prompting the predictable outpouring of Wordsworth quotes and perhaps a less well known quote from the Twitter account of @A_AMilne: “I affirm that the daffodil is my favourite flower. For the daffodil comes, not only before the swallow comes, but before all the many flowers of summer; it comes on the heels of a flowerless winter. Yes, a favourite flower must be a spring flower.”

And although the slog up from the river to the house at Cliveden can be a thigh-wearying climb, it’s worth it to look back over the sunlight fading over the swollen Thames.

Other little pleasures in recent weeks have been culinary surprises like an enticing cream tea at the Crazy Bear farm shop, a tasty vegetarian lasagne at the Grocer at 15 in Amersham Old Town, an outstanding Sunday lunch at Flowerland in Bourne End and a tasty bacon butty at The Barn Cafe in picturesque Turville Heath.

Not that we’re name-dropping, I hasten to add. But it was nice to be able to recognise the quality of local produce in our post for the Rearing & Growing page, which was shared on some local tourism websites.

It’s been an exciting week for our website too, because our friends at cbacontent have been helping us finally sort out our top destinations for our What’s On pages, installing links to more than 50 top family attractions across the Chilterns, from free museums to Whipsnade Zoo.

The toughest thing with an outdoors magazine is sitting at the computer when you want to be outdoors, of course – and a call from the kitchen reminds me that we should be getting our boots back on to get back out there – actually delighting in those little things, and not just writing about them…

True taste of the Chilterns

THE distinctive Chilterns landscape has been shaped by centuries of agriculture – and food and drink remain an essential feature of our local heritage.

From historic market towns to sleepy hamlets, this is a working countryside home to quintessentially English pubs, ancient woodlands and picturesque chalk streams, instantly recognisable as the backdrop to countless episodes of the Midsomer Murders TV series.

It many no longer boast “bodgers” in the woods, or as many watercress farms and cherry orchards as it once did, but the landscape known as London’s larder is still home to many artisan food and drink producers, as well as the historic coaching inns, upmarket restaurants, farmers’ markets and food festivals.

On the doorstep of the nation’s capital, an hour from central London, this is a haven for flourishing wildlife populations boasting a network of thousands of miles of footpaths stretching across the 320 square miles designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

From fine dining, famous chefs and Michelin stars in Bray, Chinnor, Cookham or Marlow to ancient inns like the Royal Standard of England in Forty Green, this is a world where you can take your pick from heartwarming soups to signature dishes.

Smart gastropubs jostle for your attention with sleepy village locals with carved beams, sunny beer gardens and 12th-century churches when you fully expect to bump into Inspector Barnaby.

This is a world of muddy boots and excited dogs, log fires and morris men, but without the tourist hordes of the Cotswolds or West Country.

Farm open days across the region allow visitors to come face to face with the local livestock, with cattle and sheep the most widespread and visible farm animal, with pigs and poultry also present in large numbers – not to mention goats and some more unusual livestock like red deer, alpacas and even European bison.

From Sandy Lane Farm near Thame to the Crazy Bear farm shop at Stadhampton, there may the chance to get close to some of the animals, especially during lambing season.

Many of the larger farm shops also have their own cafes or dining areas, offering everything from snacks to cream teas.

Why not explore the wood-lined dining area at the Crazy Bear (above) or the welcoming yurt at the Wild Strawberry Cafe at Peterlea Manor Farm (below).

Parts of the Chilterns have a long history of orchards particularly those growing cherries and during the 19th century parties of cherry pickers came out from Reading and London at harvest time. Take a look at one of the local tourism websites for more details about fruit farms offering pick-your-own opportunities.

The Romans were the first to grow vines on the thin chalky soils of the Chiltern slopes and vineyards and breweries still thrive here, now including a gin distillery, all producing a range of award-winning wines, liqueurs, gin and ales. Visitors can sample home-grown brews in local pubs and restaurants or try them and buy them on the spot.

Most local vineyards offer tours and tastings, often hosted by the winemaker, giving you the chance to share in their passion and knowledge of wine. Check out individual websites for more detail, like Daws Hill at Radnage, the Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery near Henley-on-Thames, Brightwell Vineyard outside Wallingford, the Harrow and Hope Vineyard near Marlow and, for gin lovers, there’s the Puddingstone Distillery just outside Tring.

And if you enjoy a pint of craft beer brewed with passion and skill by real-ale enthusiasts rooted in their local communities, the Chilterns boasts 10 breweries listed in this online guide.

From the watercress beds of the Chess Valley to the footpaths around Buckmoorend Farm, part of the Chequers Estate, a 16th century Elizabethan country house and the official country residence of the serving Prime Minister, local food tastes at its best when bought direct from farmers markets or just at the farm gate.

There’s also a chance to meet many local food producers at the Love Food festivals in Great Missenden in April and August.

For more information about local food and drink, check out Visit Buckinghamshire and Choose the Chilterns. There’s even a video on Youtube you can watch. The fascinating story of the history of the Chilterns landscape can be found on the Chilterns AONB website and in a guide downloadable here.

Fifty fantastic family adventures

FROM stately homes to steam railways and spooky caves, from wildlife sanctuaries to woodland walks, The Beyonder’s What’s On pages have been updated to include more than 50 of the Chilterns’ top attractions.

The at-a-glance array of picture buttons offers ideas for days out that range from free museums and rural rambles to palaces and zoos across four counties.

The buttons link directly to the websites and Facebook pages run by various organisations from the National Trust to town museums.

Attractions for animal lovers range from the Living Rainforest or Beale Park in Berkshire to Whipsnade Zoo and Woburn Safari Park in Bedfordshire.

If rescued hedgehogs are of more interest than lions and tigers, there’s always the Tiggywinkles Wildlife Hsopital in Haddenham, and youngsters wanting to get up close and personal with lambs and baby goats can visit Odds Farm or even foxes and ferrets at the Green Dragon Eco Farm.

History lovers aren’t forgotten, either – from stately homes like those at Stonor Park, Waddesdon or Hughenden, not to mention the majestic delights of Blenheim Palace or Hampton Court.

Museums include those in Amersham, Stevenage, St Albans, Tring and High Wycombe, while those preferring a steam trip can venture out to Chinnor or the Bucks Railway Centre at Quainton Road.

If youngsters need to escape from their smartphones and get the wind in their hair, they can always connect with nature at one of the country parks scattered across the region – or blow away the cobwebs with a walk in Wendover Woods, Penn or Burnham Beeches.

For something that little bit different, there’s always the model village at Bekonscot in Beaconsfield, the gloriumptious Roald Dahl museum at Great Missenden, the mysterious Hellfire Caves at West Wycombe or the exotic attractions of Kew Gardens.

Or what about stepping back in time at the Chiltern Open Air Museum, finding out more about science at the Look Out Discovery Centre or discovering more about the lives of writers like John Milton or CS Lewis by visiting their homes in Chalfont St Giles and Headington, Oxford.

Many of the websites featured offer a regular programme of special one-off events, displays and attractions too, so there’s always more to discover – with further buttons linking to the National Trust, English Heritage, Wildlife Trusts, Chiltern Society and National Garden Scheme for more ideas about places to visit and things to do.

With a host of additional events listed in the monthly What’s On pages too, there’s something for everyone who loves the great outdoors. For more information, click on What’s On whenever you need a little inspiration about how to make the most of your free time.

The website has also launched a “Where to go” section on its Further afield pages, which in the past have featured attractions which might involve Chilterns readers driving just a little further afield, to London, Surrey and Sussex.

The first half-dozen attractions listed include Winston Churchill’s family home at Chartwell, nearby Hever Castle in Kent which was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn and the steam railway centre at Didcot, much loved by railway enthusiasts.

Feeling left out? If we have inadvertently missed an attraction out of our listings, get in touch.

Settle down for a good read

THE GOOD news these days is the sheer number of nature books weighing down the shelves in your local bookshop.

The bad news is the confusion of choice when faced with so many different titles and too little time in the week to read them all.

Luckily there has also been an explosion in the number of good local independent bookshops providing a welcoming place to browse and some expert advice about the best titles to choose. But just in case you haven’t got too many local nature lovers able to advise you, what are some of the most interesting reads fighting for your attention this year?

Given our excitment about Raynor Winn’s prize-winning writing debut The Salt Path, we are naturally looking forward to the September launch of her follow-up narrative about returning to normal life after the period of homelessness which inspired her first book.

The incredible journey she and terminally ill husband Moth made along the South West Coast Path in the wake of the collapse of their livelihoods was as thought-provoking as it was life-affirming, but what happened when their odyssey came to an end?

Or if you need something to get your teeth into before then, what about Lindsay McCrae’s lavishly illustrated memoir of life with an emperor penguin colony, which came out in November.

The award-winning wildlife cameraman spent the best part of a year in Antarctica chronicling the lives of 11,000 emperor penguins and this is the story of their existence in one of the planet’s harshest environments – or as fellow wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan described it on Twitter, “an incredible chap in an extraordinary place”.

Anyone interested in slightly less extreme conditions can find out more about how weather actually works and what the future may hold for us in climate terms in an intriguing analysis from meteorologists Simon King and Clare Nasir.

From how rainbows are formed to whether we could harness the power of lightning, the pair break down our knowledge of the elements to explain the significance of weather in history and explore the science behind a subject that affects us all.

Or if you feel overwhelmed by all the doom-laden talk of climate change, find out what happens when 3,500 acres of land which has been farmed for centuries is left to return to the wild.

Isabella Tree and husband Charlie Burrell were facing bankruptcy working their farm in West Sussex when they decided to try something radical and restore the Knepp Castle Estate to the wild, using herds of free-roaming animals.

Flash forward a few years and the estate has become a breeding hotspot for rare and threatened species where the fabled English nightingale sings again. Despite local and government resistance, here is a story of optimism and hope against a backdrop of looming environmental disaster.

For younger readers who would enjoy and a funny and informative introduction to the natural world, Ben Hoare’s infectious enthusiasm is accompanied by elegant photography and lush illustrations from Angela Rizza and Daniel Long.

Hoare introduces some extraordinary plant life, not to mention the odd tarantula, rattlesnake or wombat.

One book last summer which quickly won plaudits from a number of celebrity fans was Joe Harkness’s groundbreaking testimony to the transformative power of birdwatching.

Described as “life-saving” by Chris Packham and “wonderful” by Bill Bailey, the book chronicles the author’s efforts to recover from a breakdown, and his discovery of how birdwatching could help his sense of wellbeing and self-acceptance.

A slightly different type of natural escape was that chosen by Mark Boyle, whose efforts to live off grid and escape from the pressures of modern technology form the basis for The Way Home.

With no running water, car, electricity or internet, this is about discovering the pleasure of an elemental life governed by the sun and the seasons: building a home with your bare hands, learning to make fire, collecting water from the stream, foraging and fishing to survive.

Nature’s healing powers are explored in more depth in another 2019 book, this time exploring the science behind why being in nature makes us feel alive and helps us thrive.

Why on earth do we spend countless hours indoors in front of screens when being in nature feels so good? This book explores how nurturing our emotional connection with nature can impact on our physical, intellectual and spiritual lives too.

Meanwhile Douglas W. Tallamy’s new book explores practical steps we can all consider to help avert the decline in wildlife populations.

Tallamy’s solution is to encourage a grassroots approach to conservation where home owners everywhere turn their backyards into conservation corridors to provide practical and effective wildlife habitats.

As well as sidestepping the whims of government policy, this encourages neighbours and heighbourhoods to work together to start preserving precious wildlife for future generations.

Of course there are still plenty of other classics to catch up on if you haven’t read them yet, including Robert Macfarlane’s exploration of the world beneath our feet in Underland.

From the burial grounds of the Mendip Hills to the catacombs of Paris and the ancient ice of Greenland, Macfarlane explores the netherworld in a mingling of myth, memoir lyrical travelogue.

Nature lovers needed now

NATURE enthusiasts across the Chilterns are being invited to help monitor and protect local species on their patch.

A four-year citizen science project has started to recruit volunteers who can study how birds, butterflies and plants across the area are coping with climate and habitat changes.

WHAT’S OUT THERE?: a Duke Of Burgundy butterfly and cowslip PICTURE: Roy McDonald

The Tracking The Impact project is part of the five-year Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and spearheaded by the Chilterns Conservation Board.

Volunteers will survey the state of nature in the Chilterns and benefit from training courses in species identification and surveying techniques, with enthusiasts and experts joining forces to “own their patch”.

The data will then be used to track trends across the landscape and inform practical woodland, grassland and farmland habitat management projects.

To deliver the project the CCC has teamed up with Butterfly Conservation, British Trust for Ornithology, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Plantlife, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust and the Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Environmental Records Centre.

Following on from the recent State of Nature report the project is calling for amateur surveyors to work with the experts across 50 1km survey squares to tell the story of the landscape, through understanding the relationship between different species groups.

BIRD IN THE HAND: a corn bunting PICTURE: Roy McDonald

The project will dovetail with existing national recording schemes (Breeding Bird Survey, Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey and National Plant Monitoring Scheme) to bolster coverage in a ground-breaking new partnership.

Unique to the project is its mentoring programme for those who can identify quite a few birds, butterflies or plants but want to learn more about surveying these local species.

The project will last initially for four years, starting in spring 2020. Volunteer surveyors are needed during the spring and summer.

To register an interest or find out more, contact the project lead, Nick Marriner, at nmarriner@chilternsaonb.org.

Chalk, Cherries & Chairs is an ambitious five-year scheme which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns through 18 interweaving projects.

The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) is one of 46 Wildlife Trusts working across the UK to protect .wildlife and special places for generations to come.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is a UK charity that focuses on understanding birds and, in particular, how and why bird populations are changing.

Butterfly Conservation (BC) is the UK wildlife charity dedicated to saving butterflies, moths and our environment.

Listening to our landscape

NOISE is all around usand much of the time it’s not even the sort of sound we want to hear.

Even if it’s not the intrusive irritation of someone else’s music on the train or other people’s children arguing, we frequently want to tune out of the environment around us by plugging into a podcast or our favourite music.

But what about all the noise we are not listening to which might just have huge benefits for our mental health and wellbeing? That’s where Echoed Locations comes in, a project aiming to create the first ever sonic map of the Chilterns. 

Initiated by the Chilterns Conservation Board as part of the Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership, the aim is to establish a sound map of the Chilterns which can be used as a resource for years to come.

The project has designed sound recording workshops for local schools and community groups which focus first on attentive listening before moving on to practical recording techniques.

Elizabeth Buckley, communications and community engagement officer for the partnership scheme, explains: “It’s the seemingly ordinary sounds which make the Chilterns a unique and special place to live.

“Echoed Locations was developed because soundscapes are unique and important and inform how we feel about a place.”

The sounds they hope to collect for the project might range from birdsong in the local park to rush-hour traffic, a babbling stream or hoot of an owl at night. It might be a steam train in the distance, rain on a window pane or even a poem, song or interview.

“When you step off the bus as you arrive home, it is not just the smell of your neighbours’ garden or the sight of your front gate that makes you feel at home,” says Elizabeth (below).

“It is likely also the steady hum of a radio nearby, your mother’s voice calling you inside, far away traffic rumbling by.

“It is only when these sounds are lost from our day-to-day lives do, we really begin to listen. For example, when you arrive in a wood where no birds are singing, it feels odd and we notice the absence of a familiar sound. “

From the chatter of children walking to school to the buzzing of insects or hum of traffic, the project aims to encourage residents, visitors and especially young people to contribute to the sonic map. 

Anyone can participate by adding audio recordings via the Echoed Locations website page and schools, local community groups and youth groups are encouraged to reach out to book a free sound recording workshop in 2020, although spaces are limited.

Volunteers willing to act as ‘Sonic Champions’ in High Wycombe, Amersham, Aylesbury and Princes Risborough (or the surrounding areas) will help promote the project and be given full training.

Contact Elizabeth on lbuckley@chilternsaonb.org to sign up for a sound recording workshop or as a volunteer, or with any other questions about the project.