A Good Read

Both of the Society’s Vice-Presidents enjoy reading books about Surrey, the Surrey Hills and the surrounding area.  For this newsletter, they have each selected a book which they have enjoyed and which you might like to find for yourselves.  Ken has chosen a historical novel centred on Hindhead whilst Chris has selected a recent non-fiction book which gives some thought-provoking ideas about how we could enrich our countryside.  If you know of books that have a storyline based on and around recognisable locations within the Surrey Hills or relevant non-fiction books that make good reading, why not let us know at info@surreyhillssociety.org and we can create a book list on our website.

The Broom-Squire by Sabine Baring-Gould

Set in and around the Devils Punchbowl, this is a wonderful Victorian novel that deserves to have a wider modern readership.  It starts from the idea that the sailor who was murdered near Hindhead in 1786 had his baby daughter with him (his wife having just died in London).  Following the murder, the baby is found and brought up at a Thursley inn.  The story then does a “fast forward” of 18 years so that the baby is now a grown woman – naturally a very good looking one!

The woman has grown up with the son of the innkeeper but he leaves home after a family disagreement.  She falls into a hasty and ill-conceived marriage with the Broom-Squire.  He is one of a group of inter-related squatters who live in the bottom of the Punchbowl and dislikes (and is disliked by) everyone.

The core of the story is the interplay between the woman, the broom-squire and the inn-keepers son.  It may seem like the story-line for many Victorian romantic novels but there are all sorts of unexpected twists to the tale.

For a local reader, an added interest is that Baring-Gould was writing in the 1890s about an event which happened a century beforehand.  Thus his descriptive text contrasts Victorian landscape and life with that of an earlier period – both of which make a fascinating contrast to the area in modern times.

This book often pops up in antiquarian bookshops and is readily available (both as original and modern reprint) online via AbeBooks.co.uk or as a free download at Project Gutenberg.

Wilding by Isabella Tree

Anyone with an interest in the management of the Surrey Hills landscape needs to read this book.  It challenges the assumption that ‘natural’ Britain was a closed canopy forest.  Many Surrey residents think we should just stop managing our woodlands and let them go back to primeval forest.  However, Isabella Tree expertly reveals why this version of our history is being challenged in re-wilding projects across Europe and more personally, at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, owned by Isabella and her husband.

Like many of our struggling farmers, Isabella and her husband Charlie Burrell have been forced to question whether intensive farming is sustainable.  They decided to step back from all the EU farming grants and intensive farming techniques and just let nature take over.  By introducing free-roaming heritage cattle, ponies, pigs and deer – proxies for the large animals that once roamed Britain – the 3,500 acre project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife numbers and diversity in little over a decade.  Their beef is now sought after by top London restaurants.  Chef, Heston Blumenthal claims it is even better than the famous Japanese wagyu beef.

The results have been astounding and challenge many of our commonly held beliefs about land and habitat management.  This includes assumptions about where rare birds such as nightingales and turtle doves, peregrine falcons and lesser spotted woodpeckers choose to live and breed and what the favourite haunts of rare butterflies are.

The book is beautifully written by this accomplished author and travel writer, who has also written The Living Goddess and The Bird Man.  Wilding has won several prizes and is a thoroughly recommended read for anyone interested in wildlife, farming or the environment.

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