Summer reads: 15 books to revel in this season
Come rain or shine, summer is a wonderful time to relax with a book and explore another world. Venture into Britain's outskirts and wonderlands with our top literary picks. Just click through the gallery to find the book that appeals to you...
On the Marshes
Carol Donaldson, Little Toller, £15
Embarking on a restorative quest following a misfortune is a familiar subject for countryside writing. But Donaldson makes a delightful and refreshingly unconventional guide - she's a working-class Essex girl who has faith, packs lippy in her rucksack and is petrified of daddy longlegs. Following an eviction and painful break-up, she quits her RSPB job to walk through her adopted North Kent Marshes, one of the most windswept, isolated and (Whitstable aside) unfashionable stretches of coast in England. It's a backwater of floods and foghorns, creeks and cranes, power stations and prisons, where industry rubs shoulders with wetland nature reserves and barely profitable farming.
The walking becomes a form of pilgrimage, and as Donaldson traverses the Hoo Peninsula, Medway estuary and Isle of Sheppey, she encounters an extraordinary collection of fellow non-conformists eking out a living in old houseboats, caravans, buses and cabins. She expertly recounts the challenges and rewards of their alternative, low-impact lifestyles, but again and again, discovers that the relentless march of money and 'progress' is putting their futures at risk.
Donaldson's beloved waterland on the fringes of London is threatened by everything from proposed island airports to developments of chic waterside apartments, and you wonder how much longer it can survive.
Reviewer: Ben Hoare, BBC Wildlife Magazine features editor
Wonderland: A Year of Britain's Wildlife Day by Day
Stephen Moss and Brett Westwood, John Murray, £20
As a naturalist and amateur nature writer, I was delighted to immerse myself in Wonderland. Drawn from their personal experiences and vast knowledge, Moss and Brettwood have detailed a whole year (including a leap day, just to be safe). Each date covers a different species, and provides a tantalising glimpse into natural world, as well as into the lives of these two renowned naturalists.
Within their chapters, they have both included fascinating titbits that range from folklore to scientific insights. Whilst reading, I became aware of how different some of our experiences have been and how there has been a shift in the baseline for some species – for example, I am quite used to Mediterranean gulls and hadn’t realised that they only started breeding in the UK in the 1960s.
The evocative writing will bring to mind the times the reader has seen various species. For those not yet spied, the reader can’t help but be inspired, and start to wistfully daydream about spotting them. I feel the publishers missed a slight trick by not including some artwork. It would have been delightful to have the writing peppered with small drawings - a wren ready to dart across the page or a dragonfly hovering over the text.
Reviewer: Megan Shersby, BBC Wildlife Magazine editorial assistant
Alys Fowler, Hodder & Stoughton, £20
Alys Fowler might be a horticultural star but she is compelled to run away from everything; her work, her husband, who has cystic fibrosis; even her garden. And she doesn't know why.
Hidden Nature is about two journeys. It begins with the 37-year-old's eccentric decision to get away from it all, by spending a season exploring the canals of Birmingham in an inflatable canoe.
The adventure on the water starts badly, as Fowler struggles to steer her wobbly new craft. And it's clear she too feels rudderless and out of control.
Her summer on the water reveals hidden wonders in the industrial wastelands of her home city that border the canals; herons, pike, giant eels, secret islands and forgotten tunnels as black and long as the night.
But as the author becomes more daring in her forays into the West Midland Waterways, the reader is drawn deeper into her parallel voyage of personal change. Late in life, Fowler realises that she is gay, and has accidentally fallen in love with a woman. After 14 years in a straight marriage, this hits her as hard as an oar to the face.
While her vivid portrayal of the ensuing fallout feels a little hysterical at times, the author's prose shines when describing the natural world that remains her first love. She paints a glorious picture of the botanical delights of these abandoned edge lands, backed up by her encyclopedic horticultural vocabulary and more than a little humour.
A story that seemed a little flat and forced at the beginning blossoms into a compelling, and emotional memoir that left me feeling inspired, both by her bravery in transforming her life, and by the unexpected beauty she discovered along the way.
Reviewer: Rosee Woodland, outdoors writer
Outskirts: Living on the Edge of the Greenbelt
John Grindrod, Sceptre, £16.99
I’ve never been entirely sure what a green belt is; turns out it can be lots of things. Outskirts is an investigation of the ideals that formed these areas, to prevent the spread of urban sprawl, and the reality in which they exist, of developers, environmentalists and everyone in between.
With strict restrictions on housing, some green belt land creates open spaces, while some accommodates landfill, motorways, prisons or solar farms. “It doesn’t discriminate between beautiful forest, fallow farmland or industrial neglect," writes Grindrod. Green belts and the garden cities that sprang up as a result reduce pressure on urban areas, while intensifying the “misery of commuting”.
A green-tinted view is that they are places for picnics and wildlife, and for Grindrod, the green belt across the road from his family’s home on the edge of a Croydon council estate had a defining impact. While quite heavy with detail in places, Outskirts is also dotted with funny anecdotes and familiar cultural references from a 1970s childhood. Grindrod segues elegantly between memoir and fascinating social history, as the effects of ‘greenbeltmania’ in the decade before “turned townsfolk into countryfolk”.
In the postwar years, green belts were “the only way to save Britain from the swarm of semi-detached houses,” but a growing housing crisis places them under increasing pressure. Ultimately, he suggests, as a piece of policy they should be assessed and changed accordingly. But in the meantime, they are “undoubtedly better than nothing”.
Reviewer: Rachael Stiles, outdoors writer
The Village News
Tom Fort, Simon & Schuster, £14.99
In this meditation on that most quintessentially English phenomenon, the archetypal village, Tom Fort shows us that there really is no such thing, except for the fantasy idyll that catches the last golden rays of sunset in our imagination.
Much ink has been employed over the years to articulate a picture-postcard vision of the village, its beautiful thatched cottages, mowed green, duck pond, bright red postbox and adjacent telephone kiosk. Various authors shored up this image in the 20th century, WG Hoskins and HV Morton among them, insisting it should be preserved at all costs. But Fort thinks that they have missed the point entirely, a charge he also levels at modern planning departments and anyone else intent on preserving the picturesque in aspic for its own sake.
Fort visits over 20 villages the length and breadth of England and illustrates his key points vividly by telling the stories of villagers at turning points in the community's history. While recognising that villages have died through the ages and will inevitably continue to do so, the prevailing view that 'the village' as an institution is dying is given short shrift. Villages need an engaged community and just as that community will inevitably look different from what has gone before, incumbent villagers have to recognise the need for growth in ways that may challenge their ideas of what that growth looks like.
An entertaining book, written with Fort's characteristic conversational style. A real pleasure to read some things that needed writing.
Reviewer: Ian Vince, folklorist and historian
Waiting for the Albino Dunnock
Rosamond Richardson, Orion Books, £16.99
I suspect this book will not prove to be everyone's cup of tea; but it certainly is mine.
In the face of some unnamed emotional disaster (bereavement? betrayal? - we do not learn, which some readers may find rather irritating, but I found it a relief after the torrent of personal narratives that have been so popular recently), Richardson seeks consolation, even perhaps regeneration in the immediacy of watching birds - or rather, learning about birds by watching them.
And out of the time spent looking and seeing she forges a philosophy, even a spirituality (she uses the word 'ornitheology', which I like) that changes her life for the better. Through beautiful writing and a careful consideration of the role of birds in literature - especially John Clare's poetry, so specific and pure - and through the silence and solitude of the watching itself, she discovers a deep and lovely place in herself.
I have to say she is also a dead lucky ornithologist - whatever bird she goes to see, she finds, including some of our rarest or, of particularly interest to her, most threatened species. I did feel a sort of sweet pleasure when, in the final chapter, she returns to her East Anglian home and we actually focus on birds we might all have seen - blackbirds, robins, homely things.
Richardson is both a looker and a see-er and her open-eyed delight in the beauty around her has an infectious quality enhanced by exquisite writing.
Reviewer: Sara Maitland, author and BBC Countryfile Magazine columnist
Linescapes: Remapping and Reconnecting Britain's Fragmented Wildlife
Hugh Warwick, Square Peg, £16.99 hardback
As we tramp, ride, drive or sail along the myriad linear features we have created in our countryside, we seldom pause to reflect on their social and ecological impact. Yet these lines, from ancient ridgeways and green lanes to hedgerows, canals, railways and roads - not forgetting more humble walls, ditches and dykes - have, in their different ways, utterly transformed the fabric of Britain.
In Linescapes, naturalist Hugh Warwick – best-known for 2008 bestseller A Prickly Affair, about his lifelong obsession with hedgehogs – travels from Dartmoor to North Ronaldsay to explore the human history and wildlife of these complex networks of lines. He points out that though they were often made to enclose or defend land or facilitate travel, they have had far-reaching unintended impacts, “spreading power and information; fragmenting habitats”.
If Warwick’s premise sounds a bit dry, it isn’t – his prose is witty and insightful. Lamenting, for example, the disappearance of a “walking pace world” when canal mania gave way to the age of rail, he argues that we lost something vital, having evolved to think best at 3mph. Quirky tidbits abound – I hadn’t heard of the phenomenon of ‘fen blow’ or the medical practice of urtification (as painful as it sounds).
And, as in all the best travelogues, we meet some endearing characters, including the enthusiast able to pinpoint any drystone wall in the country by glancing at a photo of the construction. Pleasingly, not all of the wisdom in these pages is online – to find out what a hedgehog smoot is, you’ll have to read the book.
Reviewer Ben Hoare, BBC Wildlife Magazine features editor
A Sweet Wild Note: What We Hear When the Birds Sing
Richard Smyth, Elliott & Thompson, £14.99
While reading this bright and breezy book, I couldn't help but make comparisons with the bird songs that it celebrates so lavishly. The book isn't like the song of the chaffinch - clear, structured and with a forceful ending. No, this is a linnet's song, a lively discourse of variety, invention and tangents, something you enjoy, perhaps, for its asides rather than its conclusions. After all, as Smyth says himself: "Birdsong on its own is elusive, evasive, evanescent; it always seems, somehow, to slip between our fingers."
A Sweet, Wild Note is subtitled What We Hear When the Birds Sing, which is deliberately a wide question. So here we have sections on romantic poets, composers ancient and modern, novelists and scientists. There are discussions on why birds sing in the wild, but equally we learn about how people once trained captive birds to sing human sounds. While birdsong is biologically a function of trying to breed successfully, to human beings, birdsong can be whatever you make it: joyful or poignant, for example. For Shelley, a Skylark was "a flood of rapture," while to the soldier on the Western Front "...those wretched larks made me more sad than anything else out here" as he ached for home.
Sensibly, the author doesn't neglect one of the most important messages bird song can send us - the world is getting quieter, owing to declines in bird populations. This is an unambiguous looming danger.
Smyth is a natural writer who comes up with some delightful phrases and descriptions of his own. Take this book out for a read on an unhurried sunny day.
Reviewer: Dominic Couzens, naturalist and author
How to Read Water, Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea
Tristan Gooley, Sceptre, £9.99
River rafting is a lovely pastime, made all the more interesting, if sometimes treacherous, by submerged rocks and the occasional waterfall. Happily, I'd already skimmed some of the hardback of Tristan Gooley's How to Read Water when I set off down the River Orb in the south of France last summer. Using his tips for spotting underwater obstacles early allowed me to steer around them rather than end up grounded and I only capsized twice - a new personal best!
Having originally stalled after a few chapters, I was pleasantly surprised on returning to the more portable paperback. Gooley's book is wide-ranging, deciphering nature's clues that tell us where rips are, how clean your local lake is, where the best fishing is to be found, and how to navigate in dicey coastal water.
As a keen river swimmer, I found the sections on predicting current speed and where the pike are likely to be lurking most welcome. But there's much more here, from what reflections on water reveal, to how gauging wind direction can help you to find your way across a seemingly unreadable ocean. This is a book that encourages experimentation, with practical exercises in navigation and water-reading skills. Gooley packs in a lot and sometimes it's a little too much information to digest without re-reading. I found myself rolling my eyes at the occasional naff pun, but in such a dense tome, a little light relief is probably a good thing.
The book opens with a fantastical story about a renowned 11th-century navigator, Captain Abharah, which is worth the cover price alone. Essential, if occasionally weighty reading for anyone with a love of the water.
Reviewer: Rosee Woodland, outdoors writer
The North Sea: A Visual Anthology
Thames & Hudson, £32
This shallow, young but wild sea on our eastern shores has shaped our character as much as it has forged those of the other nations that border its waters, from Belgium and the Netherlands to Germany, Sweden and Norway.
This powerful visual anthology charts the sea's impact on all these coasts - the role the waters play as workplace, passageway, resort, residence. Portraits of wrinkled fishermen sit next to photographs of hardworking harbours; oil paintings of hazy seascapes follow snapshots of vintage seaside antics.
It's a fascinating insight into the nature of both the sea and humans - the gritty seriousness of a man making his living from the deep contrasts with the exuberant delight of a parade of paddling children. Images of violent storms intersperse with snapshots of seafront merriment in Margate and pictures of acrobatic beach antics in St Idesbald in Belgium in 1929 - and it is clear that the sea transcends cultural divides. Beach huts sit on all shores, trawlers roam the same waters, frolickers and fishermen are found on each coast.
Featuring many monochrome images, there's a moodiness to the pages - an apt reflection of a sea that can be both grim and glorious.
Reviewer: Maria Hodson, BBC Countryfile Magazine reviews editor
Inheritors of the Earth
Chris Thomas, Penguin Random House, £20
Before you're tempted to squash an alien harlequin ladybird, you might like to read this revealing book. Its premise is that we live in a period of rapid and widespread biological change, largely brought about by us as we affect the climate, spread species around the globe and alter habitats to create what the author describes as the "biggest biological pile-up in world history".
No surprises there: our detrimental effects on wildlife have been labelled the Sixth Extinction. But as well as reducing wildlife, we are also, in the author's words, forcing "evolution into overdrive" and testing species for their ability to change with us. Some like the Ethiopian wolves and giant mole-rats of the Ethiopian highlands have nowhere to go, squeezed by climate change in their narrow band of mountain habitat. But others, such as the Edith's checkerspot butterfly in North America and our own comma butterfly are either adapting to new foodplants or extending their range.
And, as we move wildlife around the world, we actually increase the biodiversity of some places... think of those harlequin ladybirds in your garden. Change, argues Thomas, has been happening throughout biological history and our attempts to turn back the clock, are probably doomed to failure. He cites the attempts to eradicate introduced carnivores in New Zealand as an example of global conservation's Sisyphean struggle.
This is a refreshing and well-argued case for celebrating evolutionary reponse, while recognising the reality of how humans have irrevocably changed life on earth.
Reviewer: Brett Westwood, naturalist, author and BBC presenter
Camping on the Wye
S.K. Baker, Bloomsbury, £10
In 1892, four "young gents" from University College London spent a holiday rowing the River Wye from Whitney to Chepstow. The journey doesn't get off to a good start when one is late for the train. Leaving his luggage behind, he "came accompanied however by his banjo and a few spare hats".
This almost farcical approach sets the tone for the author, a keen diarist, whose account has been published by the son of a fellow rower. Each stage of their journey is accompanied by his charming watercolours, depicting a lost way of rural life.
Baker writes simply but beautifully about the joys out being outdoors. Encounters with locals and landmarks are noted, and he paints "the many beautiful objects in the insect world that invaded our tent nightly." Shopping in local villages for supplies, camping on river banks and diving from the boat for an early-morning swim all look and sound idyllic through his eyes.
Tourism was an increasingly popular pastime for the gentry in the late 19th century but it was still something of a novelty, and the rowers became minor celebrities as they made their way down river. They get chastised by one farmer for pitching their tent on his land, but another welcomes them in, amid calls for "cyder". There are close calls with the river's currents and they fail to catch either rabbit or fish, but it is all told with a lightheartedness and humour that results in an enjoyable and entertaining read.
Reviewer: Rachael Stiles, outdoors writer
The Art of the Natural Home
Rebecca Sullivan, Kyle Books, £18.99
With an increasing focus on health and wellbeing these days, it seems 'natural' is something many of us crave.
Shunning products packed with chemicals, plastics and preservatives, author Rebecca Sullivan takes inspiration from her grandmother's generation and goes back to basics, updating traditional methods for modern living. From food dishes and household products to beauty concotions, Rebecca has created a handbook for living a natural life.
I loved the fact that this attractive hardback was packed with healthy alternatives for so many essential items - and was keen to try some out.
In need of a pamper, I made a face mask with just two ingredients - green tea and spirulina powder (which I had from a previous smoothie-making phase) - and a coffee body scrub.
Both were simple to make, yet very effective. I hadn't expected the natural things in my cupboard to leave my skin feeling so good. My only warning is, be prepared for a bit of mess. However, it's a small price to pay for the smugness of making your own healthy beauty products. A few ingredients may be hard to find without a visit to a health-food shop, but they can easily be substituted for more readily available items (also keeping costs down).
From the foodie recipes, I chose a simple tomato sauce to use up that glut of tomatoes. This made a lovely smooth batch, popped in a Kilner jar and refrigerated. Perfect for a quick meals without using a shop-bought sauce, full of hidden extras.
Simple and easy-to-follow methods, along with beautiful photography
and illustrations, make this book a visual delight as well as a practical guide. A must for those looking to live a natural life.
Reviewer: Laura Phillips, BBC Countryfile Magazine designer
From Source to Sea
Tom Chesshyre, Summersdale, £16.99
Man walks from source of river to sea, writes book about it. It has been done so many times that I wondered what I might glean from this - a 214 miles hike along the Thames path by The Times travel writer. And yet, I found myself quickly falling into step beside Tom Chesshyre, charmed by his amiable meanderings, pointed observations and meetings with strangers along the way.
He makes no pretence to be a wildlife expert but is a little more sure-footed with history - and relishes retelling great tales of yore, interspersed with modern stories gleaned from passers-by and local papers including drownings and petty theft.
The EU referendum had just taken place and this is reflected in several conversations - against a backdrop of this most English of river valleys. While it's not difficult to work out the author's own views on the big issues, he allows others to speak their mind - while the river flows on, having serenely meandered by during hundreds of such upheavals over hundreds of centuries.
But most of all Chesshyre champions the joys of a good walk through fascinating surroundings - with beer and blisters at the end of the day.
Reviewer: Fergus Collins, BBC Countryfile Magazine editor
Walking the Cape Wrath Trail
Iain Harper, Cicerone Press, £14.95
The Cape Wrath Trail in Scotland's remote north-west is believed by many to be the most difficult long-distance footpath in Britain. Indeed, without waymarkers and often entirely trackless, "it's not really a trail at all", says Iain Harper in his Cicerone Press guidebook Walking the Cape Wrath Trail, "more a jigsaw of routes between Fort William and the most northwesterly point of mainland Britain".
The way passes through Morar, Knoydart, Torridon, Assynt and Sutherland, through swollen rivers, rugged mountain passes, knee-deep bogs and forested glens. "Dark, boggy moments are quickly forgotten amid a solitude and beauty rarely found in modern life," the author writes.
There is no doubting that this three-week wilderness trek is for ambitious and experienced backpackers, but it is made all the more comfortable with Harper's comprehensive and compact trail guide. The book is described in 14 stages with six alternative routes, and is packed with practical detail of bothies, campsites, resupply points, terrain and weather conditions. OS maps of the various trails are complemented with altitude graphs, while a waterproof cover, splash-proof pages and small print size make this addition to your pack both durable and lightweight.
Harper has walked the 230-mile distance many times, and his guidebook reflects both his experience and his love for the way. "Try to hold on to some of the sedate pace of the wilderness, remembering the simple pleasures of getting from one place to another, surviving and traversing a landscape that has existed since time immemorial," he pensively concludes.
My brother and I walked the Cape Wrath Trail in spring, and this guidebook seldom left our side.
Reviewer: Daniel Graham, BBC Countryfile Magazine editorial assistant
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