Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Home patch

For the next of my pre-Christmas reviews, here's a master naturalist's take on a bit of England where city and country meet...

Richard Mabey, A Good Parcel of English Soil
Published by Penguin

Richard Mabey is our best natural history writer and will need no introduction to most of my readers in Britain. He has been enlightening us about woods and weeds, flowers and nightingales since he burst into the consciousness of British readers in 1972 with Food For Free, which taught us to forage – and, just as importantly, taught us the alert, inquisitive attitude that is the prerequisite of both the forager and the naturalist.

A Good Parcel of English Soil is a short book in a series Penguin commissioned, each of which is by a different author, each based in some way on one of the lines of the London Underground system. Mabey's line is the Metropolitan, the line that snakes its way out of the capital, starting near the centre at Faringdon and heading west and north, through the circling suburbs and out into the countryside towards distant Buckinghamshire places like Chalfont and Amersham. Its heartland is made up of those suburbs that the railway company cannily built to provide passengers for its trains, with their streets of Tudoresque semi-detached houses spreading through places from Wembley Park to Chesham. It's the place they called Metroland.

Mabey summarizes the story of Metroland's opportunistic development, and conjures up the neighbourly and oddball combination that characterizes the area. But the more interesting part of his book is what follows this summary, the author's account of his own explorations in the hinterland of the line – from his experiences around his childhood (and adult) home in Berkhamsted, where he learned to observe and to forage, to his explorations of line-side territory closer to London when he worked as an editor helping Penguin reinvent the school textbook in the 1960s.

These explorations cover a lot of ground. There are ancient woodlands and narrow lanes and bits of the Chiltern hills. But, perhaps more tellingly, there is the experience of finding nature where most people do not bother to look. There are martins nesting in an artificial sandbank, burgeoning Asian and Mediterranean shrubs colonizing derelict Victorian rubbish tips, grebes nesting in floating car tyres, swallows looping beneath gigantic sewage pipes, the remains of wartime vegetable gardens running beside the railway, red-crested pochard ('the oddest, most plastic-looking wild duck I had ever seen') at home on a man-made lake. What emerges from these observations is a sense that Metroland is a borderland between neat development and the countryside and the idea that the disintegration that occurs near development – the yards, vacant lots, rubbish tips, gravel pits, and so on – are sources of wonder and growth. This is the subject of another of Mabey's books, the marvellous The Unofficial Countryside, but it is a subject that is rich enough to warrant further exploration – further exploration is the whole point, after all –  in the light of the closeness of country and city that Metroland embodies. This closeness is wonderfully symbolized at the end of the book by the Red Kite, the bird that, reintroduced to the Chilterns, is now confirming its ability to be at home in urban and rural habitats alike. It's an inspiring source of optimism, this majestic bird, and in that, too, it is like the work of the master naturalist surveying the mix of town, country, and unpromising edgeland that he has described as his home patch.


Jack Kirby said...

I've been reading this book on my commute this week (on the tram in Manchester; commuting in London, much as I love the tube, was one of the reasons I left the capital) and agree with your review. I walk a lot in the countryside and know some of the places to which Mabey refers, but his beautifully written account gave me fresh insights and prompted new thoughts.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jack: Pleased you've enjoyed the book too. I don't know how much other Mabey you've read, but I seem to remember that he goes into his Hertfordshire youth quite a bit in Nature Cure. I also like The Unofficial Countryside a lot.