Category Archives: John Lewis-Stempel
The Wood – The Life & Times of Cockshutt Wood
by John Lewis-Stempel
The standard of nature writing over recent years has just got better and better, we are so fortunate to have so many great nature writers in the UK and twice winner of the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing. (2015 & 2017) John Lewis-Stempel returns with his best book to date. The Wood: The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood is an intimate account of John’s last year managing this three and half acres of mixed woodland in Herefordshire.
Lewis-Stempel’s latest has been written in a diary format and takes us through the four season and the changing face of Cockshutt Wood, the flora and fauna of this working wood comes to life through the poetic words of a nature writer at his very best. We meet the Tawny Owl who is affectionately known as ‘Old Brown’ the various animals from pigs to sheep who mad the wood their home to keep the dreaded bramble at bay.
The book starts in December when the days are at their shortest but even now when the trees are dormant there is still life in John’s working wood. The sheer beauty of this book is how John brings the history, poetry and even recipes (some of which I will be trying through the course of the year) There are recipes ranging from Acorn Coffee, Chestnut Soup and Elderflower Champagne.
John comes from a farming family that dates back to the 13th Century and is ideally placed to write about countryside as he sees it, his passion for everything in the countryside and its history and future. As the season moves from Winter to Spring, Cockshutt Wood wakens from its deep winter sleep, animals and amphibians that have slept through the cold and dark winter months now feel the warmth of Spring and waken from their slumber. The mixed woodland now starts to come to life, the sap is rising with the temperature.
The poetry is just wonderful and carefully selected and really works to bring the wood alive. The sights and sounds and even the smell of the wood just seep from every page not to mention the recipes. John ends his tenure managing the wood in the month of November with the words “I though the trees belonged to me, but I now realise I belonged to them” As he left the wood there is a sense of pain at leaving the wood and its inhabitants behind. The writer at one with the countryside and a book that deserves the plaudits. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The Wood – The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Doubleday and was published on 8th March 2018 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and through your local independent bookshop.
The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel
I was delighted to have been invited to the Wainwright Prize award in August at Blenheim Palace and seeing John Lewis-Stempel collect the award for the Where Poppies Blow. This was the second time the John has won the award and it was great to meet him after the ceremony and talk about his book. John is one of this country’s greatest nature writers and he returns with his next book The Secret Life of the Owl
The Secret Life of the Owl is may only be short at 96 pages but this is a unique look at the Owls of Britain in both word and verse. No other bird has captivated us more than Owls both is legend and also in mythical terms.
Here John talks about all the species of Owl that make this country their home including Eagle Owl and a winter visitor the Snowy Owl also a few of the rarer species of Owl that have come to Britain. There are some incredible facts that even this life-long bird watcher did not know, for instance it was once known that if you touched or ate an Owl it would cure drunkenness, though I am not sure I would eat an Owl. There is also Poetry that makes the pages which as a lover of poetry I enjoyed. At the start of the book there is a Prologue and at the end an Epilogue John talks about ‘Old Brown’ the Tawny Owl he knows so well in Three Acre Wood both are really worth reading and enjoying John Lewis-Stempel’s words as he talks about his wood and ‘Old Brown’.
As a keen birdwatcher back in my younger days, I would go out on to the marsh were I knew there was a pair of Barn Owls and look for Owl pellets and then taken them home to study what the Barn Owls were taking as prey and here in The Secret Life of Owls John, does indeed take a look at Owl pellets.
I am lucky to have a Tawny Owl that visits the tree during the autumn and winter evenings and there is nothing better than hearing the call of a Tawny Owl during the dark hours, and even early of a morning while standing in the garden I know there is a pair of eyes watching every move I make. Over the years I have manged to see every Owl that makes Britain its home from the Tawny Owl through to the Snowy Owl these have been some of my most magical experiences in watching and studying birds.
This is a wonderful little book for anyone who want to know a little more of some of our most secret of birds and ones that should be celebrated. I have already bought a few copies to give as gifts this Christmas to friends who enjoy our cherished Owls.
Thank you to Sophie Christopher at Transworld Publishers for the review copy of The Secret Life of the Owl.
The Secret Life of the Owl by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Doubleday and was published on 19th October 2017 and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel
To be invited along to see the announcement of the winning book/author in this year’s Wainwrights Golden Beer Book Prize held at Blenheim Palace during Countryfile Live was a real honour. I was privileged to meet most of the writers both before and after the prize ceremony. I said during the run up to the day that the 2017 prize was the toughest yet as the quality of the writing is just an exceptional high standard and gets better and better every year. One of the writers on this year’s shortlist was John Lewis-Stempel who had two books with The Running Hare and Where Poppies Blow listed and it was in the end his book Where Poppies Blow came out as the winner of the 2017 Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize.
Many books have been written of the horrors of The Great War and the hell that the soldiers endured. My bookshelves are filled with books on WWI and also natural history but I have not yet come across a book that takes a look at how the British soldiers explored nature during the darkest years of 1914-18. They lived in nature it was in fact all around them and in Where Poppies Blow John Lewis- Stempel explores the soldier’s relationship with the plants and animals and how nature helped to fill the hours and days of the men that filled the trenches. From those who kept logs of the birds and plants they saw to the men who kept gardens as a reminder of home. Nature has a way of enduring like no other. To endure the hell of the trenches in The Great War the men needed something to take their minds off the horror they witnessed on a daily basis. Britain sent over five million men to the battlefields during those years but one fact that many may not understand was just how many horses, mules and donkeys were sent to aid the war effort, in total more than two million with many of them dying in such dreadful conditions. But without these animals Britain would not have been able to have continued the war. Many of the men cared deeply about their horses in their charge and here in Where Poppies Blow there is a chapter dedicated to the bravery of these animals with words and poems.
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
When you read how the British Soldiers kept both flower garden and also vegetable garden and held show to decide winners this was both to keep up morale and the reminder of home life and in fact the growing vegetables helped feed the men in the trenches. There are chapters also on men and how they kept notebooks on the daily bird sightings and even nesting birds despite the shelling. To hear Larks singing in between the fighting must have been on one hand been calming and on another near impossible. Nature carried on despite the hell that was The Great War. Nature had a way of healing it was all around them from the Poppies of the battlefields to the Skylarks that sang while shells rained down.
Where Poppies Blow is a truly remarkable insight to life of the British soldier during The Great War and a side that many will have never known. John Lewis-Stempel has written many books on both natural history and also military history and this deserves its place among the best. The Wainwright chair of judges Julia Bradbury described Where Poppies Blow as “an extraordinary book about the healing power and resilience of nature in the darkest of times”
This is a remarkable and moving book and one that I whole-heartedly recommend. The poems alone will move you to tears. This is the second time that John Lewis-Stempel has won the Wainwrights Golden Beer Book Prize. He previously won it in 2015 with Meadowland (Transworld).
Thank you to Laura Creyke at the Wainwright Prize for the advanced review copy of Where Poppies Blow and all of the books on the 2017 Wainwright Prize
Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops. The Paperback will be released on 14th September.
As we come to the end of July a real sense of excitement for me as one of my favourite book prizes of the year announcements is just a few days away. The Wainwright Book Prize 2017 in association with The National Trust is an award that celebrates the very best in writing about Nature and the great outdoors. One of my boyhood heroes was Alfred Wainwright and I have spent many hours just reading those wonderful iconic Pictorial Guides to the fells of the Lake District. It is no secret that one of my favourite genres in books is nature and the outdoors and my bookshelves are filled to capacity with some of the great books on these subjects. There is nothing better than being out in wilderness whether that is just being at one with nature or just admiring the stunning beautiful wild places that we have in our countryside from the mountains and islands of Scotland to the fells of the Lakes and the valleys of Wales and not forgetting our hardworking farmers. These are places to rejoice and to treasure now but above all for future generations. We are the caretakers and must preserve for our children and theirs to come.
I was honoured to have been given the opportunity to read all the books that make up The Wainwright Book Prize shortlist for 2017. I am still reading through the books and my personal reviews will appear soon. On the 27th June the shortlist was announced and on Thursday 3rd August direct from the BBC Countryfile live show the judges will announce this year’s winners. You can of course read more about the award and the judges chaired by TV’s Julia Bradbury on the website The Wainwright Prize Ahead of the announcement I thought I would give you just give a little introduction into the seven books that make up the shortlist.
The Wainwright Book Prize Shortlist 2017:
The January Man (A Year of Walking Britain) by Christopher Somerville (Doubleday)
The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel (Doubleday)
Love of Country (A Hebridean Journey) by Madeleine Bunting (Granta)
The Otters’ Tale by Simon Cooper (William Collins)
Wild Kingdom by Stephen Moss (Vintage)
The Wild Other by Clover Stroud (Hodder & Stoughton)
Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel (W&N)
Previous Winners of The Wainwright Book Prize.
2016: The Outrun by Amy Liptrot (Canongate Books)
2015: Meadowland by John Lewis-Stempel (Transworld Publishers)
2014: The Green Road into Trees: A Walk Through England by Hugh Thompson (Windmill/Random House)
The 2017 Shortlisted Books
The January Man – A Year Walking of Britain by Christopher Somerville
This is the story of a year of walking around Britain and was in fact inspired by the song of the same name by Dave Goulder. The author sets off on a journey of discovery with memories of his late father walks that would cover all four seasons from all four corners of Britain from the Scottish isles to forests and vales. This in itself is a hope that readers will don their walking boots and grab their walking poles and explore the length and breadth of our country and the rich natural history and landscapes regardless of the vagaries of the British weather.
Rich not only in its descriptions but the exquisite writing of Christopher Somerville who has written thirty-six books.
The Otter’s Tale by Simon Cooper
For those like me who remember reading Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson then The Otter’s Tale by Simon Cooper will also surely appeal. Simon bought what was an abandoned water mill in Southern England and then go on to share his home and his life with a family of wild Otters.
What this enabled Simon Cooper to achieve was to observe one of this country most secretive of mammals and he did so at very close quarters. The family allowed the author to become a member of their own family and in turn this gives the reader a personal and unique insight into the lives of the Otters in what turned out to be an extraordinary relationship of trust between Otter and man the close relationship between Simon and the female Otter called Kuschta is incredibly close and personal.
Within this story Simon Cooper also discusses the natural history of Otters here in the UK and a mammal that was once so persecuted that it was very close to being extinct in this country. A year in the life of not only Simon Cooper but also a beautiful insight to a family of Otters that shared the life of the author.
Love of Country – A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting
Some of my happiest of memories are those when I have been walking on some of the islands of the Western Coast of Scotland. Just mention the names of some of the islands like Jura, St. Kilda, Lewis, Harris, Sky, Rum and so many more. Each rich in their own history and also natural history. Here Madeleine Bunting a former Guardian journalist takes us on a journey that took six years to complete. Each time she would return there was more history and culture to uncover more islands to explore. The history of these islands shapes our countries history even today. The author not only explores but also asks questions. This is a wonderful travel companion if you are heading to one of the islands for a holiday. Read before you go and read while you are there as there is so much to read and learn. A wonderful book.
The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel
A former winner of the Wainwright Book Prize this year has two books on the Shortlist, the first titled The Running Hare looks at life on a farmland, the wild animals and plants that life on it and in it. This is an extraordinary piece of writing and you can see why this writer is so acclaimed. With so many species lost, this is a farmer who took a field and farmed it in a traditional way to conserve the wildlife that inhabit our fields. He talks about the birds that feed off the land and microbes that live in the land each having their own battle to survive modern practices. In fast paced modern world can farming go back to old practices to husband farmland thereby protecting the wildlife that also share the same farmland. A Place were the wild Hare can call home and live safely. Beautifully written and profound. A book that will stand the test of time and will be read by future generations to come. This is one of the great nature writers of our time.
The Wild Other by Clover Stroud
A deeply moving memoir from Clover Stroud about a life that was shaped by a tragic accident to her mother when Clover was only sixteen-years-old. Her mother was left with brain damage after a riding accident. Clover found herself from gypsy camps in Ireland to rodeos of Texas then to the far reaches of Russia before the White Horse vale of England brought her home to England. These journeys she took in the name of trying to understand a sense of home that was left shattered and broken. A remarkable and deeply honest account of loss and love. Nature has the power to heal the wounds that seem never to heal and here in The Wild Other Clover Stroud tells her personal story that is full of bravery and a life lived to the full. At times frank Clover reveals all in this haunting memoir that will both move and inspire the reader.
Wild Kingdom by Stephen Moss
Stephen Moss is the acclaimed naturalist, writer and TV producer. Here in Wild Kingdom Stephen Moss at times is frank about this countries disappearing wildlife and asks some important questions about the land we share with the animals the Britain. It is not all bad news, just look at how Otters are now doing. But many others are not faring so well and Moss poses the question how can we bring back Britain’s wildlife. With intensive farming practices and housing developments taking over and wildlife being squeezed out of their natural homes something has to give and the wildlife suffers as a consequence. There has to be room for both man and wildlife to life in harmony. Rewilding is a term we may yet start to hear more of in the years ahead. So many questions are posed here. Moss takes us on a journey from farmland to wetlands from one part of the country to another. He knows what he is talking about and there is so much to understand. Common sense is key. If we care about our wildlife we can make a difference. It is not all bad news there is much to praise but there is not resting on laurels as there is work to do. Generations to come will point to our generation if we do not. This is so well written by a man who is passionate about the future of our wildlife.
Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel
Where Poppies Blow is the second book by John Lewis-Stempel in this year’s Shortlist along with his The Running Hare. We all know of the horrors of the Great War. But in this book the author takes the connection between the British soldiers fighting in the Great War and the animals and plants and the relationships between them.
For many soldiers living inside the land they were close to nature as you can possibly get, many soldiers sought solace in the birds and plants around them, at desperate times it provided both peace and solace in a place of sheer hell. Many soldiers indeed were birdwatchers and there are stories of officers and men fishing in flooded shell craters. Here you will read of soldiers planting flower beds in trenches, this sounds truly remarkable but John Lewis-Stempel has researched this book and brings to life the incredible stories of fighting men and nature and in the end the cure that only nature can bring in its purest form. There is a quote on the inside of the book that just sums up what the men went through. ‘If it weren’t for the birds, what a hell it would be’. A remarkable book that will take pride of place among the many natural history books in my book case.
I have been following The Wainwright Book Prize now for a number of years and I believe this has to be the strongest of the shortlists yet. The quality of the writing is just outstanding. I am not sure if it is just me but it just gets stronger and stronger every year. I really do not envy the judges in their decision, but every one of these seven books is a real candidate to win the prize. Could John Lewis-Stempel win the prize again? I just have a feeling The Running Hare is going to be the book to look out for on Thursday. I would love to hear your views on the shortlist and if you have a favourite to win. I will of course be following the prize announcement as and when it happens and will Tweet the winning book as soon as I know over on my Twitter page The Last Word 1962 I will be reviewing each of the books in the coming weeks.