Wild words

Over the centuries words have a played a special part in shaping and defining our relationship with the natural world from the carefully crafted wildlife notebooks of Gilbert White to the intense beauty of Helen Macdonald. They have given us the tools to find ways of describing the magic of those moments of wonder when we watch a bird of prey hovering as it hunts for prey or taking a walk through a colour-rich haymeadow in the summer.

Importantly these books have also been vital in capturing our changing relationship with nature. As we have moved en mass from the countryside to the towns and cities in the last two hundred years our deep connection with the natural world waned. Whereas generations ago we could have easily identified wildflowers or trees now we’d struggle to reach double figures for different species.

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In the last decade there has been a remarkable explosion in books about nature. This seems to have co-incided with and maybe even been fuelled by the financial crash of 2007 and that basic human need for the comfort blanket of familiarity and the power of nature to provide certainty that all is well in a turbulent world. It’s also been important in us dealing with that sense of loss – both in terms of our connection with nature but also the disappearance of species and the threat to our green spaces.

Wander in to any bookshop and it’s likely that you’ll come across a table full of books about nature.  Surging sales of modern nature writing and those wonderfully evocative re-discovered classics are playing an important role in helping us to reignite that love of the natural world and make it part of our everyday lives.

As someone whose love of nature was rekindled through my work and having children the written word played a vital role in helping me to navigate my way through the huge challenges facing the natural world and coming to terms with what it means to me and my family. They gave me the confidence to re-engage with nature and not be afraid by my limited knowledge of birds or butterflies; it was the general appreciation that mattered as much as being able to identify them all. At home I have stacks of well-thumbed books about wildlife and eagerly anticipate the latest release.

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Books aimed at kids are a great way to get them into nature

Reading rediscovered classics by Richard Jefferies, wonderful new fiction by Melissa Harrison and the evergreen Lorax by Dr Seuss with my kids, has fired my imagination and created a deeper connection with the wild places where I live. The beauty of new nature writing is that it has found its way into those wild places in the towns and cities as well as the majesty of our ancient woodlands or the pure joy of watching butterflies.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council is launching a bid to find the UK’s favourite book about nature, working with a team of researchers at the universities of Leeds, St Andrews and Sussex, as they start a new two-year research project that will focus on the literary, social and cultural impact of writings about the natural world.  The choice of potential nominees is limitless: it could be a novel, piece of non-fiction or a field guide. Crisp, clear and rich writing has that special ability to draw the reader in to the subject matter and bring to life a simple wildlife encounter or help us navigate the huge environmental change that has been happening in our lifetime.

 

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24 hours that changed the world of woods

Thirty years ago a fierce storm swept across the South East of England that would change the way that we care for our woods and forests for ever. Millions of trees would be uprooted in a matter of hours and the landscape changed beyond recognition.

Ten years ago, when I was working in the National Trust press office, I spent months pulling together the story for the 20th anniversary of the Great Storm of what happened on that fateful night to places such as Churchill’s home at Chartwell and the wonderful Slindon in Sussex. As night became day on the 16 October 1987 the full extent of the devastation became apparent. Once familiar places were changed beyond recognition. Its estimated that 15 million trees came down that night.

At Toys Hill, the highest point in Kent, more than 90 per cent of its trees had fallen. Most of the trees that had survived were the ancient trees, their roots deep enough to survive the power of the winds. It now looked like a lunar landscape and slowly but surely over the years nature began to re-emerge. Toys Hill became the perfect site for an experiment in natural regeneration; something that we take for granted now, but more of a new way of managing the countryside back in the late 1980s.

Talking to the Trust’s rangers, gardeners and forestry experts you got a real sense of the transformational experience of this night for them. Their love of the places that they cared for and the trees that they looked after shone through. It was a night that would change the way that they work forever with the notion of deadwood, or fallen trees, becoming the currency of woodland management, and our relationship woods re-examined and re-imagined.

Mike Calnan, Head of Parks and Gardens in 2007 at the National Trust, had the vision, twenty years earlier, to get up in a helicopter to capture the devastation across the countryside of Kent, Sussex and Surrey. It was a bleak picture of trees that looked like dominoes that had tumbled over with ease. Twenty years on Mike took to the air again to see what had changed and it was fantastic to see the cover of trees back again showing the power of nature to overcome the odds.

It was amazing to listen to how an extreme weather event had changed the way that we think about the management of words so fundamentally.  There was also a feeling that it revived our love, as a nation, for the trees that have played such an important part in our collective story, showing how much we really value them.

 

Food heaven in the heart of Bath

Right in the heart of Bath is a magical world. You can wander into this special place via a normal unassuming door in the middle of the Royal Crescent. Once you pass the threshold you are transported into an oasis of calm that feels a million miles away and seems so unlikely in one of the UK’s top tourism hotspots.

The Royal Crescent Hotel is an important part of my life – its the hotel that I stayed in with my new wife on the night of the day that we were married. I can still remember it as though it was yesterday. And here I am again twelve years later, sampling a newly prepared taster menu to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Royal Crescent.

For me food is always elevated to the next level by the experience of eating. The setting, service and company really does matter and adds to the feeling of well-being when trying beautifully crafted food and wine that massages your taste buds.

Sat in the lovely and carefully managed hotel garden sipping on a glass of martini chatting to my fellow diners, made the stresses and strains of the day melt away. Birdsong filled the warm evening air and the sunlight glowed as I intensely studied the taster menu.

When you look at a menu you’re seeing the chef’s passion and knowledge come through in black and white. Hours of trying and testing new ideas, getting the right combinations together and thinking about the diners experience. The outcome of this careful attention to detail is like an artist working on their canvass, creating a masterpiece that art lovers will devour: with the Executive Chef, David Campbell, as the brains behind this captivating menu.

This was going to be an evening of fine dining – full of new experiences for the taste buds.

With a martini filled mellowness we moved into the classy dining room for the main event. Each course of lovingly created food was to be accompanied by a champagne or wine and the choreography of the service added to the real sense of occasion.

We began the meal with Cucumber Soup with Earl Grey Tea and Cured Salmon, combined with Lime and Nasturtium Leaf. This was a clean and refreshing way to start a deep dive into a wonderful food experience. Freshly made bread, something that makes me very happy, was an additional treat; especially the beetroot bread.

Next came a modern twist on the classic Bath Chaps, a traditional and once locally very popular Bath dish that used a 65-day dry aged middle white pork. This melt in the mouth food was delicious.

Mackerel Tartar with Gentleman’s Relish, Leek Ash and English Sorrel’ followed and was a superb combination of British cooking: clean on the palate and very satisfying.

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I have to declare an interest: I love lamb. For me its the king of meat and I never tire of its taste and texture and always get a large dose of satisfaction and mellowness when its on the menu. So seeing that salt marsh lamb was heading my way created a real sense of anticipation; and I wouldn’t be disappointed. The salt marsh lamb with garden peas and bacon, mint sauce and lamb broth was the sensational star of the evening for me with is luxuriant feeling, each mouthful creating pure and simple pleasure.

Growing up in the 1980s gooseberries were a real favourite and it was so nice to see a classic ingredient, loved by generations, combined with the all round crowd-pleasing and comfort food, the crumble. The gooseberry and elderflower crumble’ didn’t disappoint and was the perfect pud to warm the heart and create that all-round sense of well-being.

We finished the meal with Eves pudding with Somerset Apples, which for me seemed very appropriate, as its my daughters name and I’m a huge fan of English apples. I never used to have a sweet tooth but I have recently got into my deserts and these two, to complete a lovely evening, hit the spot and made me smile inside.

This was an evening of food taken to the next level by a passionate team with a real attention to detail and passion for their craft. The experience of the evening was elevated to something pretty special by the story-telling and love of wine conveyed by the Hotel’s wonderful Head Sommelier, Jean-Marc Leitao. These couple of hours will stay in my food memory bank for a long-time and demonstrates why food is so much more than just the eating.

Available until the end of October this year, The Taittinger Tasting Menu, is £125.00 per person and includes a six-course tasting menu paired with wines and Taittinger Champagnes (the menu is subject to change to incorporate seasonal produce). For more information visit www.royalcrescent.co.uk

Heading for a hillfort

For the last 15 years Solsbury Hill has been part of my life. Looming large in the distance it can be seen from my garden every time I leave the house. Sometimes it can be shrouded in mist and other times it glows in the warmth of the evening sunshine. It’s a view that I never tire of and it always feels so reassuring when I look across to this site of a former hillfort.

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Solsbury Hill in the distance on a sunny day

Standing on the summit of Solsbury you see why it made such a great place to set up home. Over hundreds of years it was a hillfort and you can follow its outline as you walk around, with views across to the Westbury Whitehorse and the rolling Wiltshire countryside to the east and the city of Bath to the west. I’ll often hear the sound of the skylark, a dot in the cloudless sky, or if I’m lucky catch its ascent from ground level.

And now this much loved hillfort is part of a new atlas that for the first time captures all 4,147 hillforts dotted across the landscape of the U.K and Ireland. Over the last 5 years researchers based at the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, on this Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, have been working to collate a wealth of data about these amazing places. Citizen scientists have also been helping to collect information for this treasure chest of an online resource.

Curiosity driven research projects like this can only enrich our understanding of history and having all of this exciting data in one portable place will help people to digitally connect with those story of hillforts where they live.

The beauty of this research project is that it showcases the whole range of hillforts that can be found in the countryside like pearls on a necklace. It takes you beyond the really well-known and much visited sites and demonstrates how fundamental these places have been to the story of these islands over hundreds of years. Scrolling across the map you get a sense of the density of hillforts in some places, that you’d expect, and how they have played such an important part in our national story.

Each hillfort catalogued in this atlas will have its very own story. Clambering over a hillfort you get a deep sense of connection with the people that lived there transporting you back in time. You start to take in the landscape that our ancestors would have seen, imagining a very different view with woodland dominating the horizon. Hillforts were built with a focus on defence and as you enter one you can see the careful thought that went into the access points.

Hambledon Hill in Dorset, which is now owned by the National Trust, was one of the last occupied hillforts in the UK – with a group called the Clubmen living there during the English civil war in the 17th century. The size and complexity of this place is mind boggling. Now it’s lightly grazed by cattle and home to countless wild flowers and fluttering butterflies.

Though this atlas is all about the celebration of hillforts there are also many challenges for them. Any hillfort situated on the coast is at risk of vanishing into the sea as our coastline begins to slowly erode. And some have also suffered at the hands of the plough over many centuries. For me this atlas is a clarion call for us all to visit these atmospheric places rich in history and wildlife; and we also need to champion them and care for them, so that future generations can immerse themselves in history.

 

 

 

 

 

Volunteer army gets wild

Across the UK there are conservation organisations, large and small, that depend on an army of volunteers to help look after special habitats and create the right environment for species to flourish.

More than ever the natural world needs us to do our bit. In just a couple of generations wildlife has started to really struggle. Barely a week goes by without a new report about the challenges facing nature in the UK and across the globe.

Getting involved in supporting a wildlife organisation by giving up some of your time is a great way to make a real difference. Armies of volunteers are helping to create the space for nature and also helping us to understand what is happening and why.

Working at the National Trust for more than a decade I got a real insight into the important role that volunteers made. From a postman who had catalogued the number of birds at Malham Tarn in Yorkshire for over forty years to people getting involved in surveying a precious coastal site in Dorset.

Groups of volunteers from companies coming in to help with improving habitats and helping to survey the land is a brilliant way to make a real difference.

If regular volunteering can prove a bit tricky in terms of time commitments there are loads of great citizen science surveys  – including the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch, the Woodland Trusts’s nature’s calendar and Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count. These really matter in terms of helping wildlife experts understand changes that are happening across the UK.

Volunteering is a wonderful way of giving back to your community and doing your bit to keep our green spaces special.

 

 

Watch the birdie: capturing wildlife on camera

There is something very powerful about an image. It captures a moment in time and creates a memory that can be shared and viewed time and time again.

Digital technology means that we’re all photographers now. Where-ever we go we have a camera in our possession: smartphone cameras are astonishingly good and produce really high quality pictures. And with social media channels, such as instagram and Facebook, we have the places to share the stories of our life and what matters to us.

Photography has always been an essential ingredient of telling the story of the natural world. But now its a much more democratic process where beautiful pictures of wildlife can be used on popular TV programmes such as Springwatch, sourced from the hundreds of thousands of fans that connect with the series via twitter, or can be liked thousands of time on instagram feeds.

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Puffins on the National Trust’s Farne Islands

The ornithologists of the twenty first century want to get the best shots they can of birds in flight and butterfly collecting is now about the exchange of images of Large Blue’s rather than pinning them to a board.

Wildlife pictures work whether a close up of a particular species such as a beetle or a landscape picture of a meadow, orchard or bluebell wood. They are very important ways of helping us to understand what is happening to nature and also our place in nature.

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So, why note use your camera to help us find out more about the wildlife in the places that we live and love to visit time and time again.

Going wild on your way to work

If you travel by train or bus to work its a great time to check out the nature on your journey.

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Bus stops can be surprisingly good places for nature

My commute from Bath to Swindon by train transports me through glorious countryside. Just staring out of the window is a nice way to get to know the green places around where you live or work. I’m lucky that its field after field and I might be able to spot a roaming deer or flock of rooks in the trees. Its a view that I never really tire of.

Even the most urban commute by train will throw up all kinds of wild treats. Its a question of looking. Railways can create great corridors for wildlife and the embankments can be full of life with butterflies settling on buddleia and songbirds perching in the trees. Wildflowers also spring up adding a splash of colour and the brambles and nettles are great as a wonderful food source for all sorts of creatures.

Waiting at a bus stop as you’re just waking up might not seem the best place to do some wildlife watching. You’d be surprised if you did some detective work while you wait as plants and birds particularly can spring up where you least expect them. Insects can also be found making their way from A to B, whether spiders of beetles.

So, 30 Days Wild is a great time to think about using your journey to work as a new found window on the world of wildlife.