Sunday, 16 November 2014

For the love of books

"When o'er these verdant hills I stray, whose outlines bold and flowing to the sight, and forms of beauty swell in soft delight..."
'The South Downs. Sonnet.' - Charlotte Smith : "The Sussex Garland", James Taylor

I found treasure today; it smells wonderful and stirs the imagination in a delightful way. 

I have always adored books. Particularly old, sweet smelling books which have passed from hand to hand and seen a history of love, imaginings, and life. 
Second-hand bookshops and fairs have an irresistible lure for me and the few precious pennies in my pocket.
Throughout the winter, a monthly book fair is held in the community's centre in Midhurst, my home town, and I am often to be found browsing the numerous tables and shelves very much aware of, but trying to ignore, the dwindling bookshelf and storage space available at home. Today was no different, and once again the romanticism of soft paper and faded printers ink drew me to a number of lovely books. Alas, I could not give them all a loving home, and so I settled on one that kept catching my eye. 
Its blue-cloth and gilded cover is a little rough around the edges, but the spine is intact and the pages largely clean and unmarked. Gold letters adorn the spine; "The Sussex Garland". Upon closer inspection I found that its pages were filled with verse, rhyme and descriptive passage clearly inspired by and 'Illustrative of the County of Sussex". The foremost pages include a list of some 89 subscribers, a dedication to the Sussex Archaeological Society, and the date of 1851. It is a piece of Sussex Literary History, and I couldn't resist.

One poem that caught my eye was written by Lady Sophia Burrell (nee Raymond) of Knepp Castle near Shipley. The lines speak of the ruins of the former castle at Knepp that gave the later house its name, and of the rich history woven into the ruined walls and the landscape of the estate. Lady Burrell muses on the scenes the castle would have witnessed and the stories it could tell, and how the fallen stones remind us of how we are each only here for a lifetime and all must give in to fate and the rolling on of time. One of the subscribers was the then vice-president of the Sussex Archaeological Society Sir Charles M. Burrell, Bart., MP., who I am sure would have read the poem on Knepp Castle many a time with the perspective of familiarity.

Later in the book Shelley’s ‘The Skylark’ soars from the page and brings to mind one foggy day early this year when I stood atop The Trundle and listened to the song of a skylark that must have been flying in sunny heavens high above the dank cloud that cloaked my view.

The lines at the top of this blog-post are taken from ‘The South Downs. Sonnet.’ By Charlotte Smith and are just one example of how the downs and the county of Sussex have moved many a literary heart and soul across the years. And now the words of the moved live on long after the author's pen has ceased, to move us now as they have for the 163 years or more since they were recorded and this book was first read. 

I wonder what the history is of this particular copy. It has survived two world wars, and countless other conflicts from global scale down perhaps to family feuds and sibling squabbles. The soaking touch of damp has not reached it, and the fingers of fire have been kept at bay. All that, and now it has landed in my hands. 

'The Sussex Garland' is a book which I can see will have a special place on my shelf. It will join a number of other books that have found their way into my home and make me smile to gaze upon them and remind me of my place in time. Among their number are some with names handwritten within the cover, of family members in previous generations including a small copy of 'Wayside Thoughts From Tennyson', inside which reads "To Mary, from Edwards", names which I have come to know, to put personalities to, and to love, as I have discovered my family history through research in recent months. 

It is often said of how we are not owners but guardians, of land or suchlike, simply looking after it for our ancestors, before passing it on to those who will come after us. And so it is with anything, even with books.  

Friday, 14 November 2014

Causeway grounds

A wet dawn progressed into a sunny, bright day. A good day for a stretch and to re-visit a too-long-neglected area of my local patch. 

From the centre of town, a causeway runs, perpendicular to the main street, from busy road to quieter river. Originally the Tudor approach for the now ruined Cowdray House, the raised path today is popular with local towns people and dog walkers, and still provides a safer route when winter rains fill the low flood meadows either side. The damp fertile soil of these flood meadows is enriched and hoof-hollowed by summer grazing of cattle, but by this end of the year the cattle have been taken to drier pastures and already chill water glimmers between the rush clumps. A barn owl used to hunt here, but it has been many years since his ghostly apparition has bothered the voles that squeak between the rough grass and tussocks. 

Despite the plastic bottles, cans and crisp packets that huddle beneath the squat bridge halfway along the causeway, and the varying volume of the traffic from the main road and adjoining car-park and bus station, the Cowdray Meadows are often rich in wildlife. Multi-stemmed willows, linden trees with baubles of mistletoe in their crowns, and sepia-tinged alders crowd the meadow margins and shade the bank-sides of the River Rother that borders the north and eastern ends, often lending its waters to the seasonal floods. Beside that squat bridge, a small scattering of willows grow with their feet in the meadow floodwaters, the rushes maturing taller and ungrazed between them. Stonechats are a regular sight here in the winter months, but there is no sign of them yet. I remember an early morning, when the sun shone low between these trees on a pair of roe deer browsing. Today it looks perfect for unseen snipe and woodcock to shelter, and probe the mud with their long beaks, but I wouldn't like to wade out through the rushes to encourage one to break cover, and it doesn't seem fair to flush them anyway. 

As is my habit when walking this route, I stood for a while leaning over the stone walls of another, bigger bridge, this one allowing me to watch the waters of the Rother rushing underneath and listen to it singing. I had not realised how much rain fell overnight, but the swirling brown waters were testament to the amount of water rolling of the hills and fields upstream. 
From here, the path drops down off the causeway, along the edge of the meadows and around the base of a small hill. Atop this hill, under the roots of gnarled chestnut trees are the remains of a Norman castle which has leant its name to the mound; St Anns Hill. Other steeper paths climb up this hill away from mine which runs following the river, and lead over the top back into town. Russet foxes sometimes slink through the woods, or sunbathe on the low stone castle walls on quiet afternoons. This afternoon, jackdaws and grey squirrels quarrel over crevices and rain-worn holes in the trees. Great giants of fallen trucks rest on blankets of chestnut cases, lulled asleep by the soft "hoo" of stock doves. Blackbirds chattered in alarm from the bushes, swooping low across the river. On the opposite bank, the polo lawns roll away to a fringe of woodland and distant chimney pots, its velvet green dusted with white specks of gulls. 

I felt like I was walking through the image in a stained glass window, with the way the sunlight shone through the leaves overhead. Chestnuts and sycamores, glowing golden hues. 
My path soon veered away from the main river, wishing it well as it gurgles and hurries on its way, and I followed backwards in the steps of its tributary along the old forgotten wharf, towards home, leaving long shadows to finger across the Cowdray Meadows, and the Jackdaws to their squabbling and chattering above the ruins on St Anns Hill. 

Sunday, 9 November 2014


Today I am remembering them all, but especially our boys; brothers Thomas and Charles Hall, because their other brother Great-Grandad Ernest isn't here to do so. 
Also the Meachems; young Teddy, and his father Edward James, of whom I have photos and know nothing more. 
They all went to fight in the 1914-1918 First World War. 
The Meachem men made it home, but the two Hall brothers fell, among the thousands, at The Somme.

In years past photos were lost and names forgotten, but they are remembered now.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

We sensed it last night

Better allow a bit of extra time before leaving for work this morning; time to rummage in the boot of the car for the ice-scrapper that has been hibernating beneath shopping-bags and rain-coats and map-books through the long summer. First frosts have fallen. We sensed it last night, when our fingers numbed and we shivered, gathering just a little closer to the roaring bonfire, gazing up at fireworks that cracked and sparked across the starlit sky, their brightness competing with the full orb of the glowing moon.
This morning, the sun was having his usual late-season lie-in, but when he eventually rose above the horizon, the sky brightened quickly, light reflected by the frozen ground.

No breathe of wind, the trees stand unstirred, stark and starched-stiff against the pale sky like mourning lace. Birds move between the branches, their thin calls piercing brightly through the cold still air. Those leaves not yet persuaded to relinquish their hold are rimmed with white. The self-seeded nasturtium that chose to grow beside the kitchen window, bringing cheer long into the autumn with its pumpkin coloured flowers and hand-span round leaves, is not so brave now and bows its head in submission to the coming winter. 
Jackdaws call to each other now, passing overhead in little parties, and in the distance rooks are squabbling over spilt silage around the barns. 
A starling whistles and sings his strange songs of clicks and trills. The rest of his flock are already busily feeding, attempting to stab the frosted ground with their sharp bills. The songster joins them as they swirl and dart away, in search of the easier pickings the rooks have already discovered, across the fields on the farm.

It is early November, Halloween has come and gone, and many folk as they clear up the remains of fifth-night’s celebrations and rake over the chilled embers of the bonfire, are turning their thoughts towards the first preparations for Christmas. Maybe you are heading out to the hedgerows to collect the sloes the frost has now sweetened, or crab apples and rosehips to turn into jellies. Will you look up at the half-familiar, half-forgotten chattering as thrushes and fieldfares from the far north fly overhead? They have their eye on the same ripe berries, hoping you will leave them a few to see them through the winter months.  Or perhaps it is the shops that call you, with their bright windows and warm, comforting displays, reassuring you that you really do deserve that extra cup of hot chocolate or new pair of boots for winter. Will you hesitate, rummage in your pocket and drop an extra coin or two in the charity’s collection tin as you pass? Someone will be finding it hard to keep warm tonight if the cold weather stays with us. 

The sun is well risen and the road outside is busy now. The frost will not last long once the sun reaches its full-day’s height, and the autumn colours will seep back into the landscape, reflected later in the burning sunset before the cold grip tightens once again.  Even the busiest person, who misjudged the time to clear their windscreen and is no running late for work, cannot help but loose themselves for a half second in memories, as their breath steams in foggy clouds and they are a child again pretending to be a dragon or a train. All too soon the moment is lost, forgotten; has it no place in the rush of the day’s affairs? How much good it would do us all if we were each to recognise such pauses, to hold them just a moment, a second, longer before they evaporate into the bright harshness of day, and let the moment of awareness, of noticing, warm us from the inside.

Monday, 3 November 2014

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields”…if there’s any left

Inspired by an issue raised by BBC’s Countryfile one Sunday evening, I share my own experiences of the stigma surrounding a land-based education and vocation…

There are many times when England has been described as a rural idyll; a green and pleasant land to be protected “whatever the cost may be”.

And at first glance this would look to be true.
The land based and environmental sector employs 1.3 million people in the UK. It produces our food, keeps our drinking water fresh, and manages our ‘green and pleasant land’, which includes conserving the wildlife, history and culture of our rural areas, and providing recreational opportunities for ourselves, and the tourists who flock to ‘quaint old England’ every year.

But there is a problem. 

The average age of a farmer in the UK is 59.  Land-based and vocational qualifications are at risk from being removed from school education after changes to which qualifications count toward league tables. The term ‘dissconected’ runs in front of the words ‘from nature’ in countless papers, with increasing frequency. 

Are we in danger of losing skills, knowledge, and labour force, from our fields and woodlands (and marshes, heaths, uplands, wetlands…) entirely?
In 50, 70, 100 years from now, will Hardy country and Kipling’s whale-backed downs, be lost beneath thorny scrub and the Darkling Thrush sing no more, as we shiver on the quay awaiting the food-ships from foreign lands?

Six years ago I sat in a classroom and listened in amazement as one of my kind and very proficient teachers, tried to persuade me away from my chosen further education route. The problem was, my secondary school, although it had served me well through my GCSE’s, had no provision for education in conservation and land management, the subject area of my aspirations, particularly following the closure of the school farm the year before my education had started at that establishment. I had therefore elected to attend my local, land-based further education college to study a vocational course, a Btec National Diploma in Countryside Management. This was not a popular idea.

A recent episode of BBC’s Countryfile (Sunday 2nd November 2014) raised the issue of the potential loss of land-based and vocational education in Britain’s schools, focusing on the potential closure of the few remaining school farms as vocational courses are dropped from education league tables in favour of academic GCSE’s. Some of the points highlighted both in the program and in the Twitter-aftermath, were uncomfortably reminiscent of the comments made by my teacher that day.

I was an A-Grade student in the majority of my main subjects including Sciences, Geography and English. 
In my teacher’s opinion this meant that I should stay at school for A-levels, and go to university, pursuing a purely academic, and what to me seemed a ‘mass-production’, route.
Apparently I was “too bright to do vocational qualifications”.
And that teacher wasn’t the only person to share that view.

Time and again I was asked the question ‘why?’ and people are still surprised when I say I haven’t been to University, when they automatically ask what subject I am reading or degree I have.
It took quite a determination and belief in my ambitions to stick to my decision.

Throughout my journey through my education I have encountered this same attitude from numerous, and often surprising sources. Students who were low achievers on the academic scale for various reasons, were taken from the classroom and dumped into vocational qualifications with the attitude ‘if you can’t handle exams or increase our pass rate and make the school/college look good, you might as well go and muck out pigs and chop down trees. Many of them thrived and developed, whilst many of the ‘smart’ students glared at them through the window, green with envy.

My local land based college received an unfortunate nick-name from students at my school and others in the area, in reference to it being ‘somewhere the stupid kids go’.
Meanwhile the students there, and the farmers, horticulturalists, arboriculturalists, vets and other qualified practitioners who had already passed through the college gates, work through mountains of paper work, calculate complex mathematical problems, and stretch their grasp of physics, biology and chemistry, on a daily basis.

However there are some enlightened education providers; just over 100 schools are clinging onto their school farms, whilst teachers, students and employers are standing by the need for and value of land-based qualifications within our education system. They can see how land-based education links to and provides opportunity to assist and extend students’ learning in every key subject area: maths, literacy, sciences, as well as providing life skills, confidence and a taste of workplace skills, all of which are vital to both the future employability and further education success of young people.

Meanwhile, the majority of children and young people are increasingly loosing connection with the food they eat and the ground they walk on.

I don’t blame my teachers for wanting to keep top-grade students at their school, but a young person’s future and ambitions should come before positions on league tables. I have always believed that whatever career you choose, from road sweeping to politics, it should provide job satisfaction and quality of life. It should make you happy.

We need to erase the stigma and make land-based and vocational style qualifications open to all. Farming, horticulture and the other connected industries are not exclusively simple, manual, low-skilled workplaces but a ‘respectable’ valid aspirational career choice for anyone, with huge potential to develop and progress, and to contribute to your country. And land-based education isn’t just for school and college. You can take it as far as you want – practical or theoretical, academic or vocational, from tiny-tots to PhD and doctorates. You might save an endangered species, solve world hunger or even bring a smile to the face of the people who walk through the city-park as you mow the grass.

Personally, I now have two vocational qualifications, along with a number of additional units and training courses, coupled in an employer-attracting package, with copious volunteering and workplace experience.
And I count myself lucky in knowing what I want to do with it.