The Hows and Whys of the Hampshire heaths

With the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Kingsley, I posted recently about his contribution to a sense of ‘place’ in this corner of North-East Hampshire where I live, which referred to one of his works (“Prose Idylls, New and Old“), and how it described the ‘rough commons’ terrain of the area.

Since that post, I’ve learnt more about another of his works, “Madam How and Lady Why: First lessons in earth lore for children“, where he writes at length about the local landscape, name-checking very specific points on the heaths and commons, and in the woods of the area.

In the chapter titled ‘The Glen‘, he begins;

*You find it dull walking up here upon Hartford Bridge Flat this sad November day? Well, I do not deny that the moor looks somewhat dreary, though dull it need never be. Though the fog is clinging to the fir-trees, and creeping among the heather, till you cannot see as far as Minley Corner, hardly as far as Bramshill woods–and all the Berkshire hills are as invisible as if it was a dark midnight–yet there is plenty to be seen here at our very feet. Though there is nothing left for you to pick, and all the flowers are dead and brown, except here and there a poor half-withered scrap of bottle-heath, and nothing left for you to catch either, for the butterflies and insects are all dead too, except one poor old Daddy-long-legs, who sits upon that piece of turf, boring a hole with her tail to lay her eggs in, before the frost catches her and ends her like the rest: though all things, I say, seem dead, yet there is plenty of life around you, at your feet, I may almost say in the very stones on which you tread. And though the place itself be dreary enough, a sheet of flat heather and a little glen in it, with banks of dead fern, and a brown bog between them, and a few fir-trees struggling up–yet, if you only have eyes to see it, that little bit of glen is beautiful and wonderful,–so beautiful and so wonderful and so cunningly devised, that it took thousands of years to make it; and it is not, I believe, half finished yet.”

For those not so well versed in the area, Hartford Bridge Flat(s) is the long, open , flat area of land, traversed by the A30, and now home to Blackbushe Airport. During WWII when it was first built, it was named RAF Hartford Bridge.  Much of the area is now a nature reserve, home to Yateley Common, and nearby Castle Bottom.

The book is an introduction to the ways of nature (using the ‘fairy’ characters ‘Madam How‘ and ‘Lady Why‘), but for me, it is as much a physical connection with this same area of Hampshire that previous generations of my family would have been roaming at the very same time as Kingsley – in particular, the Vickery family, who, at that time, had lines in Minley, Hawley, Hartford Bridge and Elvetham.  Who knows, some of them may even have stumbled upon each other, although probably not my great, great grandfather Alfred, who was exactly two years old when Kingsley died in 1875. His descendants settled in Eversley, and Yateley.

Looking out over the nature reserve at Castle Bottom, which is between Eversley, and what is referred to as Hartford Bridge Flat(s).

Other mentions for locations on this patch in this book include:-

“All round these hills, from here to Aldershot in one direction, and from here to Windsor in another, you see the same shaped glens; the wave-crest along their top, and at the foot of the crest a line of springs which run out over the slopes, or well up through them in deep sand-galls, as you call them–shaking quagmires which are sometimes deep enough to swallow up a horse, and which you love to dance upon in summer time.”

On Yateley Common at Darby Green, looking back over towards the other side of the Blackwater Valley.

“But what could change a beautiful Chine like that at Bournemouth into a wide sloping glen like this of Bracknell’s Bottom, with a wood like Coombs’, many acres large, in the middle of it?…… and so at last, instead of two sharp walls of cliff at the Chine’s mouth, you might have–just what you have here at the mouth of this glen,–our Mount and the Warren Hill,–long slopes with sheets of drifted gravel and sand at their feet, stretching down into what was once an icy sea, and is now the Vale of Blackwater. And this I really believe Madam How has done simply by lifting Hartford Bridge Flat a few more feet out of the sea, and leaving the rest to her trusty tool, the water in the sky.”

Looking at ‘The Mount’ referred to by Kingsley, from the road outside his rectory in Eversley.

“Water, and nothing else, has sawn out such a chasm as that through which the ships run up to Bristol, between Leigh Wood and St. Vincent’s Rocks. Water, and nothing else, has shaped those peaks of the Matterhorn, or the Weisshorn, or the Pic du Midi of the Pyrenees, of which you have seen sketches and photographs. Just so water might saw out Hartford Bridge Flat, if it had time enough, into a labyrinth of valleys, and hills, and peaks standing along; as it has already done by Ambarrow, and Edgbarrow, and the Folly Hill on the other side of the vale.”

The ‘Welsh Drive’ in Bramshill Forest, looking towards Wales.

Reading the text, and seeing the places name-checked finally inspired me enough to take a walk around Bramshill Woods for the first time this week.  I’d always wanted to see the ‘Welsh Drive‘ for myself – the historic, long-distance drove road along which cattle were herded from Wales to markets south of London, and along the route. I had to stop for a while to feel a connection with the track that is still there today, and which Kingsley must have walked himself.

The ‘Welsh Drive’ in Bramshill Forest, looking towards the A30.

Very little how, why, or wherefore, but I just felt inspired to go out, and to collect these words together too in one place, since they have helped make this place more particular for me as Kingsley’s 200th birthday approaches.

 

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The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn

My desire to sniff out ‘the particular’ drew me towards reading “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” by Richard Mabey (2011) [London: Profile Books].  It had long been on my ‘books to read’ list after I had discovered one of his previous books, ‘Dreams of the Good Life’ about Flora Thompson – the author behind ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’, who served briefly as village postmistress in my home town, Yateley.

As the jacket puts it succinctly, he ‘attempts to marry a Romantic’s view of the natural world with the meticulousness of the scientist.  By Romanticism, he refers to the view that nature isn’t a machine to be dissected, but a community of which we, the observers are inextricably part.  And that our feelings about that community are a perfectly proper subject for reflection, because they shape our relationship with it.’  Wow!

Poetry and science are, in effect, comfortable bed-fellows in a book which is equally respectful to traditional country ways, as it is to the rules of the laboratory.

Six elegantly short chapters, illustrated by linocuts, take us through a tour of what the senses might inspire us with on a long walk in the countryside.  Early on, Mabey makes the point that while technological advances in devices like cameras on our phones are supposed to enhance our understanding of nature, they can often end up obscuring it by separating us from it in the moment so we don’t full experience it or reflect on it, or forget to see it within a larger frame, so we miss other relationships which it may be a part of, or a wider live experience in that moment which may have involved all of our senses (see #InstaHorror later).

I particularly identified with common experiences documented, like how he described his Dad (and himself) collecting anything that might ‘come in useful one day’ – just like my Grandad’s garage – and learning the lesson from when it did.

He returns to example of what now manifest themselves as what we might call #Instahorror making the point that we so often now seem to be looking for the perfect shot for our mantelpiece or social media account that it’s never actually from the perspective that you would see it in-situ in nature itself – and that many people are losing all sense of perspective for their own safety.

Not a Stinkhorn, but a Fly Agaric mushroom, which, you’ve guessed it, I’ve seen popping up all over my Instagram feed. Public Domain.

There are some perfect descriptions of ‘particular’ items on his journeys – like samphire  – and activities like foraging, and about how the quality of ‘gatheredness’ can make wild food actually taste different.

He dwells on taste, and in particular, smell, and their role in fixing our memory in place, moment, feeling, time – indeed, essence. And he goes on to document the quality of ‘petrichor’ (the smell after rain) which I’ve seen documented a fair deal elsewhere of late after a moist end to a particularly dry, hot summer.

Gorse on Yateley Common, Hampshire, alongside the disused runways of Blackbushe Airport.

I was particularly excited when he chose to write about a plant – gorse – very familiar to the common land heaths around the area I grew up in Hampshire, and I remembered a hearing Mabey present a short documentary about its characteristics on BBC Radio 4 in recent years too.  Closely associated with ‘courting’ because of the location of the plant on areas of heathland around London such as Richmond Common, and the fact they flower most of the year (hence the famous saying, “When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season“), its distinctive smell of coconut (which it as good as sprays intermittently, as a wonder of nature), and it’s “just right pricklyness” which made it perfect for gypsies over time to hang out washing on to dry (without having to worry about the thorns ripping the material).

The final chapter on maps was a dream for me – about our sixth sense (if we have such a thing) – that of ‘direction’, and dwelling on a sense of ‘place’.  As someone who loves revelling in old Ordnance Survey maps (but doesn’t quite know why), and thinks they inherited their grandfather lorry driver’s sense of direction (pre-Sat Nav), I loved reading this chapter. The whole book bears testimony to that same relationship I have with the area in Hampshire I live in, which my Mum also grew up in, and her Mum and Dad before her – and generations before them too. The soggy borderlands which Hampshire and Berkshire straddle along the Blackwater River; the flats of heath between Yateley and Elvetham, and the greener pastures towards Dogmersfield, Winchfield and Odiham.

A book of delights which makes the point that scientific insight and technological enhancement only powerfully assist our senses when they are guided by our imagination, and crucially, transformed by a special gift we bring to this mix as human beings – that of language.  As such, on this last measure, this book certainly delivers.  This is one of those books that I am the most glad ever that a friend (in this case, Elisabeth-Madalena) has bought for me as a gift.  Not a single strand of disappointment – a huge ‘thank you’, both for this gift, and nature’s gifts too!

Radio Mabey: – listen to some of Richard Mabey’s ‘Mabey in the Wild‘ shows on BBC Radio 4 here.

Richard Mabey on NPR on ‘Weeds’ – listen here.

Richard Mabey on Radio NZ on ‘The Cabaret of Plants’ – listen here.

Richard Mabey at the Hay Festival, 1997 – listen here.

Audiobook of this title, originally broadcast on BBC Radio, and known as “The Scientist and the Romantic”click here.

Maltings radio project takes to the air

The Farnham Maltings is using the occasion of World Radio Day on Monday 13 February to announce that it is to launch its own radio project – and it wants the community to get involved. ‘Sound Vault’ will take to the air in the next year, and will seek to create a ‘radio space for all’, where volunteers can flex their creative muscles, the community can tell their stories, and everyone can get a platform for their artistic talents.

nickycampbell

Me with former ‘charge’, BBC Radio 5 Live breakfast presenter Nicky Campbell.

Sound Vault’ will utilise the possibilities offered by podcasting technology to give a wider range of people the chance to make programmes, and share them with a bigger audience. I’m thrilled to be able to say that I will be leading the project as a volunteer, after going to them with the germ of an idea, and capitalising on my experience working for BBC Radio 1, then later with Kiss FM and Bam-Bam (see below), and subsequently with Mark Goodier and Nicky Campbell.

wrd2017_logo_en_blackblue

Explaining the idea, Gavin Stride, who is the Farnham Maltings’ Director (and head honcho) said;

“World Radio Day – this year on Monday 13 February – was established by the United Nations to celebrate radio as a medium, and to encourage us all to use it to promote freedom of expression. Radio is the mass media reaching the widest audience in the world, and is a powerful storytelling tool. It is only right that the Farnham Maltings use World Radio Day to reveal our exciting plans.”

 

Initial programming plans centre around four themes:-

Voice: personal story-telling; oral history; and voices from the street;

Audio Collage: sound creations, where music meets speech;

Specialist Music: exploring music genres missing a platform elsewhere;

Maltings + : an audio dimension to the Farnham Maltings’ own programme.

The online radio platform will be accompanied by a website, and social media dedicated to celebrating listening more generally around the world.

Former Kiss FM breakfast show DJ Bam Bam has dropped by to advise me on the plans.

Former Kiss FM breakfast show DJ Bam Bam has dropped by to give me some advice on the plans. Bam presented the show for 7 years, and won countless Sony Radio Academy Awards, before going on to become a pioneer in podcasting. Back in 2006, he was one of the first DJs to launch a daily podcast, and his ‘Faceless‘ podcast was one of the most downloaded of that year.  Today, as well as presenting the breakfast show on Southampton’s Sam FM, his audioshows.com consultancy is behind the successful Brain Training Podcast which has reached number 11 in the Top 100 podcasts on iTunes.

Sound Vault’ is now putting out a call for volunteers who are interested in getting involved in the project – whether in the shape of production, technology, digital, legal, music or oral history/digital heritage expertise. People interested in becoming involved with the project can find out more details at Farnham Maltings’ refreshers, festival of retirement on Monday 27 February where I will be running a stand between 11.00am and 4.00pm – or by emailing me at paul@dutchHQ.com.

Once a volunteer team has been recruited, the plan is to reach out to source programme content from the community, using a studio at the Farnham Maltings, portable digital recording equipment, and ‘pop-up’ recording booths.

While I live just eleven or so miles up the road in Yateley, I was born in Farnham, and my family have lived around this area of the Surrey/Hampshire border, whether in Bentley, Church Crookham, Crondall, DeepcutDogmersfield, Elvetham, Frimley,Odiham, Rotherwick, South Warnborough or Yateley for hundreds of years – so a project dedicated to tapping into local story-telling is extremely important to me.

Farnham Maltings

Farnham Maltings

The project, while centred on the Farnham Maltings, and surrounding communities on the Surrey/Hampshire border, will ensure that its horizons are global as well as local. Updates about its development will follow in the coming months. It is expected to launch in time for World Radio Day 2018.  Updates will be posted at www.farnhammaltings.com/soundvault . Stay tuned!

 

a radio space for all.

a radio space for all.

Get involved – email paul@dutchHQ.com

** For anyone who doesn’t know, Farnham Maltings is a creative organisation that works with the artists and communities of South East England to encourage the greatest number of people to make, see and enjoy the best art possible. From a range of buildings, set in the heart of Farnham, they present events and workshops from large scale craft festivals to intimate cabaret shows, as well as proving space for voluntary and community groups to deliver their own ambitions. They enable artists making craft, theatre and dance work to thrive by providing affordable studio and rehearsal space, offering producing and tour booking, developing networks, sharing resources and equipping artists with the skills and opportunities to promote their work locally, nationally and internationally. farnhammaltings.com . They are a perfect fit for a project like Sound Vault – and I’m really excited to be working with them.