Richard Williamson

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RICHARD WILLIAMSON

 

AN ILLUSTRATED PROFILE OF THE SOCIETY'S PRESIDENT

 

 

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Richard Williamson has been president of the Henry Williamson Society since its inauguration in 1980. He has always taken an active part in Society affairs and meetings, giving talks and writing the occasional article – and loves meeting members at the various rendezvous. Indeed, he is held in almost as much affection and esteem as his father.

 

 

rclw 10 HWS meeting 2007

Richard and Anne Williamson, Robert Williamson and Tony Evans –

not forgetting Tony's border collie Maggie

(Henry Williamson Society Autumn Meeting, Shallowford, 2007)

 

 

rclw 11 HWS meeting 2015

Richard at Shallowford, holding a copy of The Children of Shallowford

(Henry Williamson Society Autumn Meeting, 2015)

 

 

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Richard was born in Barnstaple, North Devon on 1 August 1935, the fifth child of Henry and his wife Loetitia. The family were then living at Shallowford, on the Fortescue Estate at Filleigh, situated on the edge of Exmoor. In The Children of Shallowford (1939) Richard features as the baby missing after a thunderstorm, who is found in the Deer Park sitting next to a fallen tree struck by lightning, playing with the daffodils.

 

The year following Richard’s birth HW bought Old Hall Farm in Stiffkey, North Norfolk (see The Story of a Norfolk Farm), so Richard spent his youngest years, the duration of the Second World War, on the north Norfolk coast. That his interest in nature was already present is shown by various anecdotes related by his father in newspaper articles written at the time and in the later volumes of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, where he is Phillip Maddison’s son Jonny. Richard imbibed the natural life of the farm and the coastal marshes, encouraged by his father and also by the ornithologist Richard Richardson, whom he first met when aged eight.

 

 

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Richard with his brother Robert outside the Old Hall, Stiffkey
 
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On the marshes at Stiffkey, the children identified by HW

 

 

Richard’s first schooling was in the village school at Stiffkey, and for a short while at Botesdale, where the family moved at the end of the war, with the subsequent divorce of his parents. In 1950 mother and family moved to a small cottage on the outskirts of Bungay on the River Waveney. Richard revelled in being able to roam the marshes and explore the river in a canvas canoe. His main education was at St Michael’s College (a Worcestershire choir school), and then Blundell’s School, Tiverton, Devon.

 

 

rclw 6 Canoeing on Waveney

 

 

However, Richard was not a scholar, his interest from earliest years being that of a lone wanderer watching birds and observing natural history. He wrote the story of his quite idyllic time at Blundell’s in his first book The Dawn is My Brother (1959). This includes the cameo of his rescue and taming of a fox cub.

 

 

rclw 5 Fox cub at Field
At the Field, Ox's Cross

 

 

After leaving school Richard joined the RAF and served for five years in radar stations in England, Iraq, Jordan and Cyprus during the extremely dangerous Suez crisis (being awarded the General Service Medal), so gaining valuable experience in life’s rich and wide panorama.

 

 

rclw 7 Packing kitbag      rclw 8 Receiving home draft
First posting abroad . . .   and, somewhere in Jordan, receiving his home draft

 

 

On leaving the RAF he worked in Forestry and on National Trust Nature Reserves in north Norfolk and Suffolk to gain experience to fit him for a career in what was then the Nature Conservancy (later English Nature, now Natural England).

 

His father encouraged Richard to write, and so while still in the RAF he began his first book, The Dawn is My Brother (Faber & Faber, 1959); it was reprinted as an e-book, newly illustrated with 29 photographs from the author’s own collection, by the Henry Williamson Society in 2015. The book was runner-up for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 1959, and was considered an antidote to the then popular vogue of ‘kitchen-sink’ genre. It is a charmingly innocent story of his young life.

 

 

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Faber & Faber, 1959   New illustrated e-book edition, HWS, 2015

 

 

At this time, after a hard day’s work cutting down or planting hundreds of trees, and cycling several miles to and from work, Richard also wrote a daily ‘wild-life correspondent’ article during 1957‒59 for the Daily Mail. He has also written for many other national newspapers and magazines over the years.

 

In September 1963 his perseverance in following his intention to join the Nature Conservancy paid off and he became warden of the Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve near Chichester, Sussex, famous for its ancient grove of yew trees; he remained in this post until his retirement in 1995, where he has carried out continuous long-term weekly monitoring of breeding birds, butterflies and plants, particularly wild orchid colonies (and continued to do so, even though retired, until 2018). During his years as warden he hosted many hundreds of school parties, many from inner-city London, and inspired them with his enthusiasm and knowledge of every aspect of natural history.

 

He has written two books based on his experiences at Kingley Vale:

 

Capreol: The Story of a Roebuck (Macdonald, 1973; reprinted as e-book by the Henry Williamson Society, 2015): a novel about the life and adventures of a roebuck, situated on the South Downs and the nature reserve where he worked – akin in spirit to his father’s Tarka the Otter, and ending inevitably in the death of Capreol.

 

The Great Yew Forest (Macmillan, 1978): the story of his work in Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve (at the time it was on best-seller lists for the top twenty books of the month). This book includes records of the monitoring of plants, birds and butterflies. As more than 40 years has now passed since it first appeared, Richard is in the process of rewriting and updating all the information and including many new stories of natural adventures.

 

 

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Macdonald, 1973

New e-book edition, HWS, 2015

  Macmillan, 1978

 

 

Richard has also carried out weekly breeding bird monitoring annually in the woods where he lives, and has been one of the volunteers for the wildfowl counts in Chichester Harbour over the same period. He was instrumental in gaining special status for Chichester Harbour by preparing the first report on its natural history value in the late 1960s.

 

In March 1964 Richard married Anne Brighton (who has managed the Henry Williamson Literary Estate since the author’s death; is author of two biographical books on Henry Williamson, many articles and the text for ‘A Life’s Work’ on this website; and for several years was editor of the Society’s Journal). They have a son, Brent (b. 1965, ballet dancer, lives in Portugal, and has 2 children), and a daughter, Bryony (b. 1966, drama and English teacher, has 1 son).

 

Richard and Anne live in an isolated old gamekeeper’s cottage in the middle of a coppice wood on the estate of the late Edward James (an eccentric millionaire patron of surrealist art, with whom they were friends), in an area which is a nature reserve under the aegis of Sussex Wildlife Trust. The wood includes an extensive wild daffodil colony. Richard also carries out wild-life monitoring on this reserve and is chairman of its committee.

 

From 1964 to date he has written the weekly wildlife column ‘Nature Trails’ for the Chichester Observer (and sister titles), together with other features, including for some time a ‘Local Character’ article highlighting many important people past and present in the area; an ‘Old Car’ feature in an associated magazine; and ‘Williamson’s Weekly’ in the West Sussex Gazette. Currently popular is his weekly ‘Williamson’s Walk’ feature. Richard is a well-known and popular local character whose work is thoroughly enjoyed by southern readers. Three books reflect this part of his life:

 

Nature Trails (self-published, Yew Tree Publishing, 1995): a compilation of a small selection of his weekly newspaper articles, illustrated by local artist John Davis.

 

 

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52 Favourite West Sussex Walks (Summersdale, 2012): drawn from his weekly walking column with a wealth of natural history detail and illustrated with his own quirkily decorated hand-drawn maps.

 

The Birdwatcher’s Year (Summersdale, 2013): a handbook full of facts, tips, and folk-lore for each month of the year.

 

 

rclw walks      rclw birdwatcher

 

 

Since his retirement from the Civil Service Richard has had more time to concentrate on writing and has several books in the pipeline, including the story of his service in Cyprus – Posted to Cyprus – at the time of the Suez Crisis. His story relates the rather extraordinary facts of the national situation surrounding the flare-up through a humorous and rueful view of a group of young airmen, including himself, aged just 21 and lovesick for the girl who jilted him the day before he embarked. Also already finished is another story of a grand – and even dangerous adventure in the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan in 1972 where (on special leave) he was sent by the BBC to garner information and write a synopsis for a proposed film on that magnificent creature, the snow leopard. Caught high in the Pamir mountains in the huge snowfall of early winter, he was lucky to get out alive. An internal coup the next year followed by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan meant the proposed film was never made. Shadow in the Clouds awaits a publisher.

 

 

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In search of the snow leopard – Afghanistan, 1972

 

 

With Love from Russia, as yet unpublished, is the story of a brent goose that becomes the go-between for an unhappy and rather frightened Russian girl living and working on the isolated northern island of Kolguev and an unhappily married pilot living on the South Coast near Chichester. The girl takes a brent goose egg and hatches it out. When the time comes for it to migrate to England she fixes a message to its leg in a vain hope that someone will see and understand. In Chichester Harbour the bird gets injured and rescued by a friend of the pilot, who does understand the message and so arranges to visit the island. He finds the girl, who by then is in the middle of a dangerous situation. After a seemingly unsolvable crisis, the story has a happy ending.

 

There are several other books in the pipeline. Particularly in recent months Richard has started to write poetry and is amassing a rather splendid collection of poems on birds, hopefully for publication.

 

Apart from natural history and writing his main interests – indeed, passions – are classical music (particularly Beethoven), vintage cars, trains and planes, all things antique and historical – and literature, and he has a large and varied library reflecting these, all housed in an amazingly full and untidy ‘study’, as well as three Alvis TA14 classic cars (coupe, station wagon, and saloon) and an old BSA motorcycle, housed in equally full and untidy sheds. Richard likes to multi-task!

 

 

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REDWINGS

 

What made those whispers,

Those shadows of sound,

As a young moon floated

Through mountains of cloud?

Then I saw them,

Like motes in the eye,

Or Mallory on Everest

Climbing too high.

The song was of redwings

From forests far north

Singing of summer

And the whisper of trees.

Yet suddenly, snow,

And the crossing of seas,

Dropping to shore-drift

Exhausted on tide-line,

Huddled on pebbles,

Dying of cold.

 

 

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rclw 12 Richard anne oct 2019 MC award

Anne presenting Richard with the Clarke Memorial Award for services to

the Henry Williamson Society, Autumn 2019

 

 

 

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