The Notebook of a Nature-lover

 

 

THE NOTEBOOK OF A NATURE-LOVER

 

 

nature lover    

First edition, HWS, 1996

E-book, HWS, 2013

 
   
   

Editor's Note

 

Foreword, by Mrs Loetitia Williamson

 

List of Contents

 

Mick Loates's illustrations

 

Extract

 

Critical reception

 

Book cover

 

 

Henry Williamson Society, 1996, paperback, x, 118pp, illus.; 700 copies

Edited by John Gregory

 

Limited edition, 1996; quarter-bound in calf with mauve cloth boards, 50 numbered copies, signed by the artist, Mick Loates

 

E-book edition, 2013

 

 

Editor's note

 

Henry Williamson began writing his weekly column 'The Notebook of a Nature-lover' for the Sunday Referee in May 1933. He noted in his diary on 29 April:

 

Wrote to Pinker accepting Sunday Referee offer of £3/3/- weekly for 52 articles of 300 words each. Good!

 

It continued until February 1936, with the occasional gap, the column heading sometimes changing to 'Note Book of a Nature-lover' or 'A Nature-lover's Notebook' among other variations – exactly 100 articles in all. During this period Williamson and his family were living in a thatched cottage at Shallowford, near Filleigh in North Devon, and he was in the throes of writing Salar the Salmon, ‘every word being chipped from the breast bone’, as he was wont to say afterwards. Now a much-loved classic, Salar was published in October 1935 by Faber and Faber and is in print to this day, a tribute to the remarkable feat of imagination and observation which produced it.

 

For the Sunday Referee Henry Williamson, his reputation then at its height, was a prize catch. The caricature by Coia used as a frontispiece to the book was one of a series which included Aldous Huxley, Richard Aldington and Bertrand Russell. The newspaper stated proudly that ‘week by week this artist will portray in his own unusual style members of that brilliant team of writers who are building up the Sunday Referee’s reputation as the National Newspaper for Thinking Men and Women.’ Emilio Coia (1911–1997), Glaswegian son of Italian immigrants, was a well-known and sought-after cartoonist of the day, contributing his drawings to, among others, the Sunday Chronicle, Daily Express, Tatler, Sketch, News Chronicle and the Sunday Referee. He was hailed as ‘the first Cubist caricaturist’.

 

 

nature lover coia

 

Fifty of the earlier Sunday Referee articles were collected and published, with other material, in The Linhay on the Downs (Jonathan Cape, 1934). Clemence Dane wrote of that book:

 

Here is another volume of Henry Williamson’s tender, illuminating studies of life in the English countryside. . . . He knows his fields and woods, understands and perfectly renders back that mingled charm of colour, scent and shape which is the English countryside. He knows, too, how to translate the hidden life of birds and beasts.

 

The same may well be said of this present anthology, collecting for the first time the remaining fifty Sunday Referee pieces (plus one other duplicated in The Linhay on the Downs: an editorial oversight). They recall a Devon that has all but vanished in the eighty and more years since they were written. Unlike other Society collections, the pieces in the book were not individually dated, but divided into the four seasons. In retrospect that was a mistake, and the date of each article was added to the later e-book edition. However, the List of  Contents below also gives the dates of publication, for those interested.

 

My thanks must go to Ian Rennie, who supplied me with detailed information about Williamson’s Sunday Referee contributions; to Mick Loates for his striking cover design and meticulous and delightful line drawings (some of which are reproduced below); and especially to the late Mrs Loetitia Williamson for both her encouragement and her Foreword recalling those Shallowford days of so long ago.

 

John Gregory

 

 

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Foreword

 

Mrs Loetitia Williamson

 

 

While re-reading these newspaper articles I am taken back in thought to life as it was in the country sixty years ago. So different to life as it is now – then, small children could wander up the lane by themselves to spend their pennies at the village shop, or run through the woods to a cottage half-a-mile away where an old lady made the most delicious ice-cream which she sold in halfpenny and penny cornets, and five- and six-year-olds could walk the mile-and-a-half to school – so very different now when children are hardly safe in their own gardens.

 

No electricity in the cottage at Shallowford in those far-off days: oil-lamps and candles; oil cooking stove; coke boiler for hot water; no vacuum cleaner; no electric iron; no washing machine; no fridges or freezers. What a lot we take for granted now. The cottage itself, however, was warm and dry with thick walls and thatched roof. We used to hear the rats running about overhead and through the cob walls and sometimes they would find their way inside, much to the consternation of visitors.

 

The two neighbouring labourers’ cottages were very primitive: cooking was done on an open fire in which whole faggots were burnt. A kettle or cooking-pot would be suspended by a chain over the fire; there must have been an oven of some sort – perhaps a brick oven at the side? The faggots would have been cut by the farm-worker in his own time, and he would be lent a horse and cart from the estate to take them home where they would be built into a tidy stack. This would be their fuel for the whole year. There is no sign of these cottages now. I don’t know when they were demolished but the occupants had been moved to more modern dwellings during our time at Shallowford.

 

One of them, Mrs Ridd, ‘Riddy’ to the children, was greatly loved. She came and helped in the house at times, and one day when small four-year-old John was ‘helping’ make pastry, sitting up at the kitchen table, he said ‘Be ’ee married to Mr Ridd, Riddy?’ Riddy, rather surprised, ‘For why, Johnnie?’ ‘Oh I dunno, I thought perhaps if you wasn’t I’d marry you myself one day.’ I can see Riddy now, a comfortable warm-hearted Devon woman; no wonder she was a favourite with the children.

 

I seldom went on the Exmoor walks with Henry, there was too much to do at home; but I do remember one day. We came to a small river and leaning over a bridge we saw a young man fly fishing. Of course this intrigued Henry – it was after Salar was published – and he could not help calling out and giving advice on some technical point. Then he said, ‘Have you read a book called Salar the Salmon?’ ‘Of course I have,’ replied the man, obviously impatient at having been interrupted. ‘I wrote it,’ said Henry, ‘Good-bye.’ I shall never forget the astonishment on the fisherman’s face, but by this time Henry was striding away up the hill.

 

These Exmoor walks were very precious to Henry – but I wonder if there would be the same enchantment now? Then, it was a triumph to find ‘Pinkery’ pond; now I believe there is a ‘proper’ path to it. And Dunkery Beacon is no longer as unattainable as it was sixty years ago. Of course there are still wild places and wonderful combes and valleys, but I feel that perhaps members of the Ramblers’ Association know them only too well.

 

There are other changes, too, nearer at hand. The viaduct, over which ran the single line railway track from Taunton to Barnstaple, on which the children, and Henry too, trespassed more than once, is no more. It is now a road-bridge, part of the new by-pass which has shortened by possibly almost two hours the time taken to drive the same distance. No longer do we pass Stag’s Head, where penny ice-creams were made; no longer see the front of Castle Hill, the home of Earl Fortescue – ‘The Lord’ as he was known to the villagers who held him in great awe. He was very aware of his duty to his tenants as I found out when returning home from America after some weeks with Henry, who was on a lecture tour in the USA. I was told that ‘The Lord’ had ridden round several times to the cottage during my absence to make sure that all was well.

 

Many famous and not-so-famous people came to visit us. I remember C. R. W. Nevinson, the artist, and his wife; Sir Alfred Munnings, and of course C. F. Tunnicliffe who did the wonderful illustrations for Tarka and Salar.

 

It was during these years that Henry did a lot of broadcasting from Bristol, driving there in his Alvis Silver Eagle, and often coming home late at night and weary. It was after one of these occasions on a very dark night, about a mile from home, that he was startled by an owl flying suddenly in front of him, and the car turned over. He, fortunately, was not hurt and the Alvis was repaired. It was eventually restored many years later, and is still running.

 

Some of the highlights of those days were the visits to Georgeham, to the ‘Field’ – complete with camping equipment. There was no house there, only Henry’s hut and a large garage. The children and I would sleep in the loft of the garage, and Henry would build wonderful bonfires, and we would all go down to the sands to play and bathe.

 

But eventually Henry became restless for fresh scenes, feeling he had written all he could about the Devon countryside, and so – the migration to the East Coast and a whole new way of life on the Norfolk farm.

 

 

Suffolk, 1996

 

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Contents:

 

Spring          

Spring Lures My Husband Away, by Mrs

Loetitia Williamson  

  Published on 24 March 1935
Secret of the Starling’s Song   31 March 1935
When Dawn Breaks over Exmoor   7 April 1935
The Loneliest Corner of Devon   14 April 1935
Strange Visitor from the Sea   21 April 1935
The Romance of a Rail Journey   28 April 1935
Finding Truth in the Sun’s Path   5 May 1935
Tragedy of the Shot Buzzards   12 May 1935
A Night in a Farmhouse Kitchen      19 May 1935
Memories of Twenty Years Ago   26 May 1935
A Summer Day on the Sands   2 June 1935
When the Salmon Return   21 May 1933
The Angler’s Paradise   4 June 1933
Down a Devonshire Lane   9 June 1935
There was Thunder over Exmoor   16 June 1935
     
Summer    
Story of a Sticky Business   23 June 1935
A Storm Idyll   30 June 1935
My Encounter with a Mother Partridge   7 July 1935
The Devil’s Darning Needle   14 July 1935
An Exmoor Holiday   21 July 1935
Some Secrets of my Day’s Work   28 July 1935
The Birds Vanish from their Sanctuary   4 August 1935
Gulf Stream Brings Strange Visitors to Devon   11 August 1935
Dawn over Exmoor   9 September 1935
The Lesson of the Spider   16 September 1934
     
Autumn    
Summer Passes   23 September 1934
Leaping the Weir   30 September 1934
Bird Migrants of the Stratosphere   7 October 1934
The Doomed Elm Tree   14 October 1934
Just a Bridge   28 October 1934
In Praise of Brighton   11 November 1934
The Ducks   25 November 1934
The Sussex Downs   2 December 1934
Are Animals Trained by Fear?   9 December 1934
After the Rain   16 December 1934
     
Winter    
The Dweller on the Hilltop   23 December 1934
Fisherman’s Paradise   14 January 1934
The Bravest of Birds   20 January 1935
The Silent Sentinel at the Gate   26 January 1936
Stark Tragedy in Bird Land   27 January 1935
The Salmon-leap   28 January 1934
A Sunday Walk on Exmoor   3 February 1935
Peal Leaping   4 February 1934
Out of the Mouth of Babes . . .   10 February 1935
Life is Returning to the Moor   17 February 1935

Hill-top Meditations (in Linhay on the Downs

as part 2 of 'High Peak Canal')

  18 February 1934
The Mystery of the Orange Ship   24 February 1935
Pigeons Come to Breakfast   28 February 1936
The Country Awakes from its Winter Sleep   3 March 1935
The Love Song of the Curlew   17 March 1935
A Message of Hope from the West   10 March 1935

 

 

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Mick Loates's illustrations:

 

Among the other beautifully drawn illustrations by Mick Loates are these four seasonal headings:

 

notebook illus1

notebook illus2

notebook illus3

 

notebook illus4

 

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Extract:

 

Memories of Twenty Years Ago

 

 

It was too late that afternoon to attempt to reach Cranmere, the boggy hill in the middle of Dartmoor, where five rivers have their source, so we decided to walk to the moorland village of Belstone, to find accommodation for the night.

 

We found it in a farmhouse where there was a very fat tame pig, who was sleeping, with a kitten and half-blind old dog, in the kitchen armchair when we arrived. And there he remained most of the time we were there, merely grunting when we tried to shift him.

 

The next morning, after a breakfast of ducks’ eggs and very fat bacon – leading one to think that the pig’s predecessor had spent most of its time in the armchair – we set off along the track leading up to the hillside of the Taw Valley. Before us curlew and snipe flew up from their feeding. Clear and fast among its mossy boulders hastened the little river, broadening where cattle and wild ponies had trodden bays of broken granite gravel.

 

Walking beside the river meant water in our boots, so we climbed the peat hags and up the side of the hill, coming to a dry wall of granite called Irishman’s Wall.

 

A female sparrow-hawk flew up from a tumulus, its plucking place. There lay the remains of her kill, the broken skull and long beak of a snipe, its wings, feathers, and gizzard. The tumulus was also visited by a fox; several pellets of greyish fur and broken rabbit bones lay near it. Perhaps the fox at night came for what the sparrow-hawk left by day.

 

The hillside rose steeper, and so we returned to the river. While we were walking here we heard a dull, faraway report, succeeded by a swishing noise, and, with a loud plop, a dud shell fell fifty yards away. We remembered that this part of the moor was an artillery range, and we were under the arc of fire. As we walked we heard behind us the familiar chromatic whines of heavy stuff, and near the summit of a Tor on our left front there appeared the fan-shaped bursts of high explosive shells. Womp-womp-womp-womp.

 

It was a strange sensation, that of being two personalities at the same time. One thought now that if the War came again one would have no apprehension about death. It is only the very young who long for immortality.

 

With a mild shock one realised that over twenty years ago the British Expeditionary Force was falling back in exhaustion before the right wing of von Kluck’s army-group, and we were awaiting orders to go overseas.

 

It seemed but yesterday that one was marching through the Surrey countryside, while villagers and farmers came out with baskets of fruit and jugs of milk and beer for the brigade. How hot was that August sun, how heavy our equipment, how sore our feet, how proud we were afterwards that not a man of the battalion fell out. How we longed for that burning sun three months later, standing all day and all night in the flooded trenches of Ypres.

 

Now the whining of the shells almost drew the heart out of the breast for those vanished scenes and faces. Then I was thinking how good it was to be alive and free on the wild moor, life clear and natural as the water running on the rock all around us.

 

26 May 1935

 

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Critical reception:

 

Henry Williamson Society Journal (Richard Williamson), September 1996:

 

nature lover review

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Book cover:

 

The same striking cover design by Mick Loates was used for both the paperback and the e-book:

 

 

nature lover large

 

 

 

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