As I mentioned in my end of February round up, I’m going to try to keep focused on the indies lurking on Mount TBR and today I wanted to share my thoughts about a book I’d fully intended to get to for #ReadIndies month – “The Unofficial Countryside” by Richard Mabey, published by Little Toller Books as one of their nature writing classics. LT are a firm favourite at the Ramblings, and I’ve previously enjoyed several of their books – “Millstone Grit”, “Snow“, “On Silbury Hill” and “Beyond the Fell Wall“. I picked up “Unofficial” at the same time as “Millstone” and can say that its reputation as an important classic is more than justified…

First published in 1973, the book grew out of Mabey’s observations of the urban areas which we would certainly not describe as ‘countryside’ – abandoned city docks, left over bomb sites which hadn’t been touched since the end of the war, the towpaths of inner city canals, gravel pits, rubbish dumps; none of these are areas we would dub the picturesque countryside, yet as Mabey’s wanderings revealed, the wealth of wildlife to be discovered was surprising and stunning.

Split into four seasonal sections, the book explores these liminal spaces from different angles. So one part considers the earth, and what will grow in the soil of the wastelands; another looks at water, and the pools in gravel pits, marshy abandoned areas and the canals themselves. In Parks, Mabey explores Hampsted Heath and looks at the way we construct green spaces within cities and try to regiment them; and in Gardens he ponders upon the strangeness of humans, who want some wildlife as part of their living space but are intent on controlling it.

These are just some of the places Mabey goes whilst tramping the unofficial countryside, and following his journey is fascinating. Of course, the landscape of the UK has changed dramatically since the 1970s, as I know myself; when growing up during that decade, there was still an area of local scrubland at the end of my ordinary suburban street known locally as “The Woods”. It contained remnants of bomb shelters and a wooded area plus an overgrown area where some houses had formerly stood. It was a small piece of nature but much loved by us local children and we haunted the place, climbing the trees, building dens and occasionally venturing to the entrances of the ruined shelters (though never quite daring to go inside…) That kind of area is gone now – our woods were flattened and housed over by the end of the 20th century – but I look back and relish having had that kind of experience. And if I’d had Mabey’s eyes I would have been able to appreciate the species surviving the suburban sprawl in this natural area.

Because what this book is, most of all, is a tribute to the resilience of nature. The places Mabey is exploring are left over products of human endeavour; whether skulking near the runways at Heathrow, or exploring around industrial estates, he’s engaging with industry and its leftovers. But given a moment’s peace, natural things will return to claim back their space; birds will nest in unlikely places; rare plants will find a space to flourish; and lost species will make a comeback. It’s inspiring to see these examples of nature fighting for their place on our increasingly beleagured planet, and reading through the book, you share Mabey’s joy in encountering the species he does.

In areas of gross contamination most plants and animals quite simply die. They have no choice. We do have one, which is to clear up our own filth.

As I’ve said, the world has of course changed; and many of these havens of nature have been crushed again. Mabey’s writing is prescient in places, recognising that the increase in plane flights and dumping of rubbish will have long term effects on the planet, which we now know but still seem incapable of halting. He’s full of common sense, too, wondering why local authorities need to manicure their green spaces so much; the simple suggestion of putting hedgerows round parks instead of horrible railings, thus making something lovely to look at which will also provide a valuable habitat, seems quite a reasonable one; yet certainly none of my local parks have anything like this. Again, when discussing Hampstead Heath, he comments on the variety of the landscape, the differing levels, trees, overgrown areas, and all the things which add to the experience of being there and also to the visual appeal. Once more, my local parks are mostly bleak, unlandscaped and left as dull stretches of grass, presumably to allow people to kick a ball about. It’s not terribly inspiring…

Weeds are too close to us, too humdrum. We judge them by convention, not for what they are. Buttercups are admired in a grazing meadow yet hunted down with herbicides on front lawns. The notion that a plant is a weed is the most effective barrier for stopping us looking at it closely.

However, with Mabey as our guide perhaps we can get past this. His discussion of weeds is particularly interesting; I have no issue with them, particularly if they’re attractive and don’t try to take over. Some of the nicest plants which pop up in my garden are wild ones which appear every year (we have a particularly attractive batch of cyclamen which flower every late autumn). And I’ve seen small wild pansies popping up in the street through paving stone cracks; truly, nature always seems to find a way.

Colin Smith / Summer Wild Flowers via Wikimedia Commons

“The Unofficial Countryside” was a lovely read; Mabey is a pleasant companion through the world of urban rambling, his observations always on point, his views sensible and his discoveries fascinating. If nothing else, this is a book to set you off on your own local explorations, finding the spaces where nature is peeking through and reclaiming some space. The mania for modern flattening out of everything and building wherever you can is trying to squeeze out the remains of nature in built up areas, but it can still be found. A lovely book and a worthy reprint by Little Toller – another indie which punches above its weight!

(A little word about the loveliness of these Little Toller editions! The Nature Classics come with French flaps, interesting forewords – in this case, by Iain Sinclair – and illustrations. The artist featured here is Mary Newcomb, a name new to me, and her work does really enhance the book!)