Nicola has experienced the uncertainty of living in tied rural accommodation, a type of dwelling inextricably linked to being employed by your landlord: if you are put out of work, you lose your home too. Although she has lived on beautiful estates and next to stately homes such as Highclere, the setting for Downton Abbey, it has always been in poorly-maintained cottages, where straw blows in under the door, the laundry never dries and rotten floorboards are replaced by crude bits of pallet. Where nature creeps indoors, she delights in it. She and her children observe the house martins nesting under the eaves from their bedroom window and encourage the creeper to wind in through the window gaps. In the evenings they climb a bank behind the house and wait for badgers to appear.
She works hard to ‘heft’ her children to the land. Towards the end of the books she revels in the moment when her long-haired leather-jacketed son, embarking on his first day at college, guitar in hand, sends her a video clip of the otter he has spotted rolling and roiling in the river running through Andover town centre. She is chuffed: job done. And equally so when her daughter joins the school climate strike.
She is innately subversive. A family Christmas tradition is to take mistletoe berries ‘milky, translucent spheres like trout eggs’ and plant them in trees, so that in several years’ time, the tree will be bearing bright balls of the seasonal decoration. Together with the local gamekeeper she makes efforts to protect and encourage endangered species such as the Green Plover and tells the story of its demise through changing farming practices.
As a child she would ride on a pony through the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, seeing their struggles at close hand. As a teenager she joined the fight at Twyford Down to try to block the Newbury by-pass and vividly tells of standing in front of bulldozers and watching ancient trees being ripped from the soil. She has protested the poll tax and the lack of rural bus services. On the day she went to register her father’s death at the local council offices, unhesitatingly joins in with the schools’ climate strike. Protest simply run through her veins.
She takes us back to older struggles, too, telling of past rural riots sparked by hunger, poverty and injustice as land was enclosed and livelihoods removed. She digs into the fascinating history of the hill at the heart of the book: Combe Gibbet, also known as Gallows Down, the ‘smooth green bascule’ of a Neolithic long barrow, sailing high above the Wiltshire landscape. This has been the site, continuously since 1676, of a double gibbet that was erected to hang two adulterous lovers, and it has frequently been a place of political protest up to the present day.
She draws inspiration from the poet Seamus Heaney, who wrote that ‘defiance is part of the lyric job.’ She feels the power of the pen and wants to make a difference. She says: “We are writing for our very lives and the lives of those we share this one lonely planet with.’
In a succession of Wiltshire homes, she puts down roots and digs in to find the meaning of a place as ‘a talisman, a lodestone, a way home.’ She finds comfort in a landscape within an hour’s snatched walk with a child in a backpack, and with a keen and experienced eye notices everything. We follow her on a sensuous and immersive journey in nature: wet through, eyes streaming. We’re with her bird-watching for a rare ruff, confronted by a hare, and even standing frozen as a suddenly-appearing herd of forest deer stampede past her and her small son. Sometimes she scares herself with her alertness to the mysterious history of the land. Once, out on the hill on a wild windy night she spots a swaying flickering handheld light that she cannot account for, that cannot exist. Always there is ‘the pull of the hill’ a place to escape after family rows. Like Brontë’s Cathy, ‘up there I was wild and free’. And she goes further, while questioning. ‘Had this landscape become too much like a person to me?’ she asks, and answers defiantly, ‘…if it had I was part of it; porous chalk with seams of flint, a chip of ice at my heart, a sea inside.’
This is a travel book from someone who does not move far, but digs deep instead. She pins a quote from Patrick Kavanagh above her desk: “To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience.”
Nicola will be sharing her passion for nature and writing in our workshop, Wild Writing, on Saturday 29 April at 10:30am.
About Nicola Chester
Starting with a nature notes column in the local newspaper, the Newbury News, Nicola went on to write about exploring nature with her children for the RSPB magazine that became Nature’s Home. She is a columnist for the Guardian’s Nature Notes and Countryfile magazine. She is a school librarian and has set up several children’s nature and environment clubs.