28 July 2014

Book Review: Seven Ages of Britain by Justin Pollard

This is an important book for me because it's the first history book I read because I chose to. I was never interested in history, I wasn't keen on the way it was presented in school and didn't choose it as a GCSE subject. I think what changed for me was that I became interested in history the year I met my wife, Lucy. I lived in North Lincolnshire where not a lot has happened, but Lucy lived in Wiltshire, where things have been happening that are nationally and internationally important for thousands of years.

So, when I saw the television series featured a fair bit of history around Wiltshire, I started watching it. Since then, I've been interested in history and pre-history.

This book is a great introduction to the history of the British Isles from 'the ice age to the industrial revolution'. It's too short (paperback 316 pages) to be anything but an introduction. The selling point of the book is that it focusses on the normal people that don't often make history, but still had to live with it and the consequences. However, while I agree that the book does focus on normal people, living normal everyday lives, I disagree that they didn't make history. If they didn't, then this would be an even shorter book!

The stories told have been well chosen and the normal people made history in their own ways everyday. Whether it was the peasants revolt, or the beginning of mining, or even the invention of flint tools - it wasn't kings and queens that started these things. It was normal people just looking for a way to slightly improve their lives.  This improvement in the early days tended to be slightly changing the environment, from using wood from trees to make semi-permanent houses all the way to later times with cutting down vast tracts of woodland over generations to enable full-scale farming to develop.

I read this book for the first time in 2007 and have recently finished reading it for the second time. I've found it to be a really readable book and if anything it provides enough information to allow the reader to either be happy with what they now know, or to go and research each topic in further detail.

As I say, it's an introductory text, but it's not just for newcomers to history, but will perhaps provide a different viewpoint for people that have been deeply into our British history for years.

21 July 2014

A short walk around Brownsea Island

Brownsea Island is one of our favourite places. We enjoy the feeling of isolation, the chance to see red squirrels, and the amount of habitats available in such a small piece of land.

Brownsea is the largest of the islands within Poole Harbour, Dorset and one of the few remaining homes of the red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) in the UK. It is owned by the National Trust, however around half of the island is managed as a nature reserve by the Dorset Wildlife Trust.

We've found that the best way to increase encounters with red squirrels on the island is to separate yourself from the other visitors - which is important as you'll be arriving with dozens of other passengers on one of the ferries that travel to the island. After that, just walk slowly and quietly and you're likely to see the squirrels either in the trees or gathering food on the ground. This time we had a few geocaches to find near the church, so this ensured that we were mostly on our own.

I had placed the camera down to help Lucy find the geocache, which was about 5 metres away, when a red squirrel joined us. It was taking quite an interest in our bag (and camera, which I now couldn't get to without scaring away the squirrel!), before hopping up to us and sitting face height on a stump. It was a wonderful experience. After a few moments it gently hopped away again. We managed to see a few squirrels during our walk, including this one:

Talking about the different habitats, heathland it just one that visitors will encounter on the island and we saw the heath speedwell (Veronica officinalis) that created a lovely carpet of delicate colour - one that this green woodpecker (Picus viridis) was also enjoying; but for other reasons! Along with this Mouse-ear-hawkweed (Pilosella officinarum)





As we headed towards the beach we saw some other interesting species such as this English stonecrop (Sedum anglicum), spiral wrack seaweed (Fucus spiralis), and of course the very pretty oyster catcher (Haematopus ostralegus); which posed for some photos before having an afternoon nap.



I think we found three geocaches this time around which took us around the National Trust side of the island. It's amazing that within a few steps of having a panoramic view of the harbour, you suddenly have a completely different view - such as this path with coniferous trees.

One of a few geocaches available to find on the island.
Having a sit down and some lunch on the beach we saw what looks like an old kiln from the pottery activity of 100 years ago (lack of demand and poor quality clay resulted in this being a short endeavour). There's lots of evidence of these activities in the fragments of pottery being found along the beach. We also made ourselves a friend in this black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), who was quite happy to walk up to us and seemed quite tame.


We slowly walked back to the ferry and spent a few minutes in the new gift shop - which has a nice second hand book collection; which included the David Attenborough book The First Eden, which I picked up for a couple of pounds. The ferry back takes passengers on a tour around the harbour and it seemed much longer than previous times we've been on it - lasting for nearly an hour. But it's such a lovely place to be, interesting scenery and history, that we didn't mind.

Of course, I can't end this post without showing you one of the other famous species on Brownsea Island; the Peacock

15 July 2014

Book Review: God's Acre by Francesca Greenoak

Cross-over post: This is a post that I wrote last week for a project I'm involved with called the Living Churchyard Project. If you'd like more information, feel free to visit the blog: http://stgileslivingchurchyard.blogspot.co.uk/

Front cover of God's Acre
by Francesca Greenok
Illustrated by Clare Roberts.
Prior to the weekend just gone, I had no idea a book like this existed. It was given to us as a wedding gift by one of our churchyard friends. Francesca's beautiful flowing prose is only matched by the detailed, yet minimal drawings and watercolours provided by Clare Roberts.

The author visited over two hundred churches while collecting material for this book and the detail provided in the text makes this apparent - as each page is full of gems. It's lovely to see that while a lot of churchyard match our own in terms of species, there are differences in species and usage in the churchyards of England and Wales.

The book is laid out in five chapters, the first being History and Heritage. Throughout the book Francesca makes obvious, yet thought provoking points about how our churchyard are used and about the connection of churchyard with wildlife. She makes is clear that it is desirable for wildlife and civilisation to exist in harmony. The research that the author has done for this book is clear throughout, especially in the choices of quotes used, including this one from Pope Gregory the Great that 'people would 'continue to frequent the same sacred places' even if the altar there was dedicated to a new god'. It was also interesting to find that at one point in history it was illegal to donate land to the Church, although it was again legal by the time of George III. We manage our churchyard with grass of primary importance, so it's humbling to know that managing churchyards as a meadow is a traditional practice. As such we can expect to see at least some of the plants and animals that were present in the historic churchyards.

Which brings us on to chapter 2 of Churchyard familiars. I'm a fan of ivy, so was pleased to see that the author chose to speak of ivy as a plant that is good for wildlife throughout the year. Another familiar in churchyards, including ours, is that no matter how it is managed for wildlife there always seems to be a stretch of grass that is always well trimmed on either side of the lych-gate all the way to the porch.

The third chapter talks of the churchyard being a place of sanctuary and survival. I hadn't realised that throughout history people have always been able to find sanctuary within the churchyard, but these days, perhaps more importantly, it is other kingdoms of life that required the safety of a churchyard to survive. This includes the tens, sometimes hundreds, of species of lichen that survive within the grounds of a churchyard, when they cannot survive anywhere else. This is often because churchyards are out of the way and face fewer problems with pollution, but also because the churchyard tends to stay the same for decades or hundreds of years, allowing wildlife to make a home without being disturbed.

For many this is a cause of celebration and ceremony, which is the topic of the fourth chapter. Something that the author points out is so obvious that I hadn't thought about it before and now wonder why it had never come to mind, is that some plant species are in the churchyard because they were used inside the church. Some species such as lady's mantle managed to survive or set seed when they were discard from floral decoration within the church. Other species, such as holly and ivy were grown because they were used at certain ceremonies through the Church year. A wonderful tradition, that I'd never seen, but could picture well because of Francesca's wonderful description is the rush-baring procession whereby the floor covering of rushes would be changed in late summer. This takes place as a community event, which is the discussion of the final chapter of the book.

In the community and conservation chapter, the author points out that most people are totally unaware of the species within the churchyard, but when told are not only interested, but concerned. This is especially the case with species considered as rarities, but I hope even common species would be of concern as the churchyard is often 'a shaded fountain in a parched desert' as Francesca quotes W. H. Hudson at the close of the book.

An appendix of plants with religious names and associates follows two churchyard surveys.

This book was a real pleasure to read and provides so much information within such few pages - but doesn't overwhelm. Instead the words and illustrations only serve to inspire the reader to a deeper appreciation of the churchyard as a place not only for wildlife, but for us to enjoy wildlife.