Last week, when CJ and I were engaged in our mammoth stroll, we watched a pair of ravens seemingly enjoying a little acrobatic stunting. One of them was carrying something white in its beak. It dropped it and then spiralled down after it and caught it again. Then it dropped it again and once more swooped to retrieve it. Then: another drop and another catch. At the fourth attempt it missed the catch and left the item to fall to the fellside. Watching this performance it was hard not to conclude that it was done for the sheer joy it, or maybe even that the raven was showing off.
A few days later I read this:
Some ornithologists considered the raven to be the most highly developed of all birds, quite easily tamed, given to following a man around like a dog for all its reputation as the aloof spirit of the hills. And people who made a habit of spying on their aerial acrobatics said they often had the uncanny feeling that the ravens knew they were being watched and admired, and put on a show for the occasion. Thus did they capture the imagination. I used to get so excited at the performances sometimes. You couldn’t help it, you whooped like a kid at the movies. The birds made you want to skip off the cliff and have a go yourself, they could be that inspiring.
The raven had a yawn-lazy way of riding the thermals, occasionally flapping a wing to keep awake, but really doing nothing more then letting itself go like a child’s kite. Then, wait for it, the bird switched gears. Wings swept back, it turned, croaked, then went: it dropped diagonally through the sky at a speed which rent you. Flick, another gear, and it was playing about again – its great floppy wings full-stretch, rising and falling in more beautifully drawn arcs. Sometimes it would curl, cry it was coming, and zoom into the cliff face like a strafed aeroplane, stopping short in a flutter, a game, within a few inches; then dumping itself down snugly on a nice unstable cornice.
One thing was certain: the raven hadn’t been out there on the squint for sheep. He was up there for the hell of it; the celebration and the ecstasy.
This from ‘Cockley Beck: A Celebration of Lakeland in Winter’ by John Pepper, which I’ve recently finished reading. This was an entirely fortuitous find at a village coffee morning earlier this year – it was a book I wasn’t aware of, but I knew instantly from the title that I would want to read it. The book has an interesting history – first published in 1984 it went out of print, but was then listed in the Guardian Review, in 2005, as one of ‘the great classics of British nature writing’ and was then republished. At least that’s what the blurb on the book says. I was intrigued by the idea of a list of classics of nature writing. In fact I could remember reading an article about one such list – but that couldn’t be as long ago as 2005 surely?
It turns out that it was that long ago. The list was the result of an appeal to readers for suggestions for books of nature writing rooted in particular regions in Britain. (See the article here).
I’ve enjoyed reading Cockley Beck, but it seems an unusual choice for inclusion in a list dedicated to nature writing. The passage above is unusual: the book is more frequently about the people who live in and around Cockley Beck or further down the Duddon Valley. It’s also celebrates the relative isolation and peace and quiet of the location and perhaps has more in common with Sara Maitland’s ‘A Book of Silence’ then with more conventional nature writing.
Interesting to look at the guardian list again – there are still many more books that I haven’t read on the list then those that I have. There are however many writers which I have become acquainted with since I first read the article: Richard Jefferies, Edward Thomas, Mary Webb, W.H.Hudson, Adrian Bell, John McNeillie (who I wrote about here under his pen name Ian Niall), and of course John Pepper. There are also some glaring omissions it seems to me: Thomas Firbank’s ‘I Bought A Mountain’ springs to mind. Richard Adam. Also some of the great walking writers like Hamish Brown and John Hillaby.
Another great place for a more eclectic list of nature books is ‘Caught By The River’s Nature Book Reader. Actually, it’s more than just a list – it has reviews and seems to be a book in the making.
Tomorrow there’s another coffee morning in the village, as there is almost every Saturday, and a separate charity book sale. So – two opportunities for more serendipitous finds.
Not that I have to rely entirely on the book stall at the coffee morning for that purpose. I often unearth gems in the charity shops in Lancaster, particularly the Oxfam book shop. At the moment I’m reading ‘One Man’s Furrow: Ninety Years of Country Living’ by Reg Gammon, which I picked up there. It’s a delightful book, an anthology of short pieces recording his early life in Hampshire and Sussex, a period of farming in South Wales and then his retirement in the West Country. It’s copiously illustrated with line drawings and also colour plates of his watercolours and oils.
I think that I may have met Reg Gammon once. He was a keen cyclist and drew pictures for the Cycling Touring Gazette. For a few years in my early teens I belonged to the CTC. At weekends I used to join a small local group for half day rides. The second time I joined the group for a spin was a particularly memorable occasion. We cycled to Meriden – a village purported to be ‘the centre of England’. There’s a memorial in Meriden to cyclists killed in the Great War and every May cyclists gather there for a rally. We were joining that rally. I must have had my bike, a birthday present and my first ‘racer’, for about a month. I was eleven or twelve. The round trip would be about 70 miles. The journey there was uneventful, but then to find myself in a huge crowd of cyclists, many on tandems or trikes was, I remember, quite overwhelming. At the rally we went to see a display of artwork – nostalgic drawing of cyclists in tweeds on leafy roads and hump-back bridges. I seem to remember that the pictures were popular at the time with some of the cyclists whom I came to know through the CTC and that the CTC produced calendars illustrated with them. I think that the artist was present – could it have been Reg Gammon? Even then, thirty years ago, he would have been quite an old man.
The journey back really sticks in my mind. The weather had deteriorated. Fortunately, the weekend before I had been shopping with my Dad and he had bought me a waterproof cape for just such an eventuality. A firm believer in ‘growing room’ he had, I think, bought me an adult cape and it covered both me and my bike completely. I remember struggling with the tail-winds of lorries that passed us as the cape acted like a sail. We’d forgotten to buy a sou’wester to go with the cape and I was soon soaked through by the double whammy of rainwater spraying up from the road under my cape and by the droplets running down my neck and into the cape. To add insult to injury I then had my first and most severe experience of the bonk. Suddenly I seemed to be running on empty and I found that my legs simply refused to continue turning the pedals. Several times I ground to a halt and collapsed into the verge, from where – tangled up in my oversized cape – I had to be rescued by my companions.