Thursday, October 07, 2021

Nicola Chester - On Gallows Down: Enclosure, Defiance & the Cuckoo's Return

Browsing the nature sections in bookshops often find brings me to despair. On the one hand it is lovely to see so many books about the natural world. They celebrate ecology and landscapes. But simultaneously they feel inauthentic. Too many writers, perhaps hunting for that unique selling point, break down the natural world into its component parts. We find books about species, geographical features and particular places - yet these are disconnected from a wider ecological web. In particular they frequently ignore a key element - people. Human labour  has shaped the landscape - ploughed, cut, planted, dug and burnt. We have also struggled, fought, trespassed on the land - to defend jobs and pay, to protect landscapes and woods. But all to often where people do appear in contemporary nature writing they tend to be middle class - interlopers in the countryside, visitors or more often landowners. Nature for them is an add on - seen on a walk, a break or through glass.

Which is why Nicola Chester's book On Gallows Down is quite simply one of the best works of nature writing I have ever read. An account of her life in the landscape that she grew up in near Newbury it tells how as a youngster she develops an affinity for the outside, exploring paths, streams, woods and fields. Finding, listening, touching and enjoying everything. But this childhood is disturbed by external forces. Her teenage years are spent watching the Women's Peace Camps at Greenham Common, a public landscape that is very publicly taken from the community. Later she joins the activists trying to stop the Newbury Bypass, a road extension that eats up the land she loves so much. After the defeat of the protesters she writes: 

I walk footpaths that, in my mind, still cross hayfields; bridlepaths that skirt, uninterrupted, the heathland search for the piece of the water meadows; and cannot process, for an unsettling heartbeat, the chain-link fence, the concrete bridge, the motorway embankment. It is a like a shard of glass gone from a mirror.

It reminded me of a passage written by the great historian of the English Landscape William Hoskins, who described how the development of capitalism rapidly transformed the English countryside:

A villager who had played in the open fields as a boy, or watched the sheep in the common pastures, would have lived to see the modern landscape of his parish completed and matured, the roads all made, the hedgerow trees full grown, and new farmhouses built out in the fields where none had ever been before. Everything was different: hardly a landmark of the old parish would have remained.

Chester understands that the countryside she loves and enjoys is being constantly changed, and the forces that transform it are rarely acting in the interest of those who work, or walk, the fields. But this is no abstract activist tract. The book is full of her love for the countryside and all its inhabitants. Her breath-taking night-time encounters with badgers, foxes and owls made me yearn to be there to share in these delights. The book is full of elegant descriptions of bird calls (who knew that fieldfares sound like the "chack" of a washing machine dial), insect behaviour (don't look up videos of Sexton beetles if you are squeamish) or how to propagate mistletoe. 

But Chester's talent isn't just her ability to write evocatively about the countryside. It also stems from a viewpoint likely unique in contemporary nature writing - that of a working class family labouring on the land. Some of the most moving chapters are those that talk about the poverty of rural life, the tied cottages that mean eviction can come a few weeks after angering a landowner, the lack of privacy or the lack of amenities and shops. But they also show community - the other families that will stand alongside one another to protect a wood, or form a reading group or discuss lawnmower prices in a pub.

While Chester sees the landscape shaped by human action, "Heathland is an almost accidental man-made environment", it also constantly evokes the past. That includes her own history at Greenham and Newbury, but also older history. There are Neolithic barrows that dot the landscape, a gibbet that still stands on the hill, warning contemporary transgressors and the class struggle. Those connections where drawn out by her reading, which:

connected me with who had gone before, real or imagined. From then on, every landscape became a narrative one, full of stories that could also be my stories. I cross-referenced, read between the (contour) lines and meandered down paths in sentences and paragraphs so that place became as much a figurative and imaginative landscape as a real one.

But, and it's a big but, "this was no pastoral idyll either". This recognition distinguishes Chester's book from much of the middle class lifestylism that swamps the bookstores. The landowners can send tree cutters into the backyard on a whim, they can order a community's' beloved forest chopped down, cut jobs or wages. Their friends in government can order roads built or deploy nuclear weapons on common land. Chester's anger at these big and small insults shines through:

On coming in for an inspection one day, he [the estate manager] asked me not to leave 'those clothes drying on the radiators, you'll damage my walls.' I had absolutely no rights or grounds to protest about the tree. I didn't own it. The men had the right to enter the garden of my home without asking, and chop it down.

Running through On Gallows Down is a sense that Chester struggles to find somewhere to belong. She loves the countryside, but never quite makes roots. She is moved too frequently, her landscapes are changed too often. But most importantly, the land is never hers. I don't mean that in an ownership way. Chester doesn't want to parcel up and hedge off a chunk of land for the sole use of her family. But the land has been taken away from the community, despite all those fights to keep it in common. In this sense, On Gallows Down is the story of the English countryside, the landscape that was, and ought, to be there for everyone to enjoy and work, but is now mostly the preserve of big landowners, second homers and poorly paid, badly housed workers. No wonder that Chester identifies with Captain Swing's nameless adherents or the anti-enclosure rioters.

But there are new battles. Chester fights to save biodiversity, but finds her hopes and optimism crushed by uncaring powers. She knows she has to take the fight elsewhere and writing offers her a way to do this. For one fearful paragraph I thought the author would join all those others in writing, and nothing else. But, 

To a greater or lesser extent, writing about nature had always dealt with loss. But now it had long passed the point of being imperative. It is impossible to write with integrity about nature without protesting and resisting and waving a desperate red flag.

It is a glorious sentiment. As we prepare to protest for Climate Justice during the COP26 conference, we know what we are against, but we must also remember what we are for. We need a world where nature is not something that is simply acted on in the short term interest of profit, but a constant of our lives. In this remarkable book Nicola Chester shows us the real countryside - a place of love and work, of struggle and hope, of despair and happiness. She urges us to fight for it, as an integral part of making real our dreams of a better world.

Related Reads

Howkins - The Death of Rural England
Hudson - A Shepherd's Life
Rebanks - The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District

Horn - Labouring Life in the Victorian Countryside
Harrison - All Among the Barley
Whitlock - Peasant's Heritage
Archer - A Distant Scene
Kerr Cameron - The Ballad and the Plough
Thompson - Lark Rise to Candleford
Attack - John Clare: Voice of Freedom

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