“A name, a colour, a smell, a season…” #richardmabey #theunofficialcountryside @LittleToller


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!)

“Another reason for walking is… for contemplation.” @LittleToller #millstonegrit


Back in August, I spoiled myself by sending off for a couple of books published by Little Toller; they’re one of my favourite indies, issuing wonderful nature-focused works, and I’ve covered a couple on the blog already. The two titled I picked up were “The Unofficial Countryside” by Richard Mabey and “Millstone Grit” by Glyn Hughes; and typically for me, having drafted my end of November post where I thought I might spend December wallowing in classic crime, I then went and instantly decided that the Hughes would be my next read!!

Little Toller’s nature classics are beautiful works; slightly larger format than usual, with striking covers, illustrations (at least in this case, by Peter Hollings), interesting forewords and French flaps. Glyn Hughes, a new name to me, hailed from Chester and had a varied career, teaching and writing. In 1971 he moved to Mill Bank, Sowerby Bridge, where he died in 2011, and the landscape of West Yorkshire was obviously a huge inspiration. “Millstone Grit” was first published in 1975 and it’s a fascinating look at the north at the time when the region was undergoing significant change.

The book comes with an  introduction from Benjamin Myers, and “Millstone Grit” is hung upon a fifty-mile walk Hughes takes through the West Riding and East Lancashire, exploring the moorlands alongside the industrial towns of the Pennines. The landscape is unforgiving, and the industries in decline, with most of the cotton mills closing down, the villages decaying and people moving away. Hughes, however, has been drawn back to the area after his marriage collapsed, and the location and closeness to nature informs his work.

… I love quiet the more because I live in an age that appreciates it so little; one of sound pollution that is ignored more than other environmental adulterations. I was able to listen to the pleasant sounds of birds, wind, rain, or sporadic human noises: the postman, milkman, or forlorn door-to-door sales people combing their most desperate beat.

Hughes’s writing is indeed beautiful and he draws into his narrative musings on nature, the histories of the areas through which he’s passing, memories of those who lived and worked in the Mills and poetry, both his own and that by others. The result is a lyrical book which explores the millstone grit landscape from a fascinating variety of viewpoints. As I mentioned, at the time when the book was written the cotton industries were in decline, and the many of the villages of the region would not survive this. Those that did were ones which inevitably were being gentrified, and Hughes recognises the issues this created.

As transport improved and initially hippies moved into the area, the changes were not so great. But the villages came to be seen as viable for commuters, and so old cottages were demolished, new buildings put up which were out of keeping with the landscape and a divide created between original residents and incomers. It’s a situation still relevant today, and unavoidable it seems. No-one wants to live somewhere with no plumbing or electricity, in primitive conditions; but not all developers will make changes with sensitivity.

The shaping of stone, whether by masons or by the wear of humans, animals or weather, always stirs me. Here, every paving stone had been worn into a saddle-shaped trough by the passage of horses and men. It is the same shaping that one sees in the stones of mill stairs, and it moves me to think of the working men, women and children whose feet sculpted those shapes, their only memorials to a hundred years of daily labour. Yet when mills and passageways are demolished, they are broken or thrown away.

Hughes ranges far and wide over the landscape of the north, passing by Heptonstall (where he mentions the grave of Sylvia Plath), the notorious Saddleworth Moor, and of course Haworth; even then the latter was being consumed by Bronte tourism and though I’d love to visit I doubt I could cope with the level of commercialism involved nowadays.

“Millstone Grit” is very much a book of its time, although parts of the landscape Hughes explores are timeless; and interestingly, I occasionally picked up hints that the author’s attitudes were of his time, too. The odd description of the land using unusual metaphors of female anatomy; the fact that many of his male friends appear to be on the run from domesticity, leaving the women and children behind; nothing overt, but just a feeling that some of his attitudes might not quite have agreed with mine!

But this is a minor point, because the book is a wonderful and evocative read, exploring landscape, politics, art, poetry, change – life itself. The text is accompanied by the aforementioned excellent photographs by Peter Hollings (I would have liked to have a little more info about him included in the book), and captures the sense of bleak space of the northern moors. A great reissue by Little Toller, and I’m rather keen to continue with a little more nature writing now… ;D

“… an elemental power.” @LittleToller @marcussedgwick #ReadIndies


Today on the blog, I’m off to explore for #ReadIndies a book from a lovely indie press which is relatively new to me – Little Toller Books. I’m not entirely sure where I came across them, but it was probably on book Twitter; and they’re a publisher specialising in classic and new writing about nature, wildlife and landscape. I’ve read and loved two of their books so far – “Beyond the Fell Wall” and “On Silbury Hill“. Both are part of the Little Toller Monographs range, and today’s book is another one of those – “Snow” by Marcus Sedgwick.

Since every snowflake must take an individual path towards the ground, no two will have had precisely the same conditions for growth, and so no two will be alike.

Sedgwick is an author and illustrator with many prizes under his belt; and “Snow” takes a very personal look at that white fluffy stuff that appears to be so pretty but can be so devastating to the human species. Divided into six sections, to replicate the six points of a snowflake, the book explores different aspects of show – from the science, the art inspired by it, its histories and mythologies to the transformations it brings about. Sedgwick is old enough (like me) to remember times when snowfall was more prolonged and dramatic in the south of Britain; and interestingly, he explores whether this is just his faulty memory making more of what happened and concludes from consulting meteorological records that in fact it was the case – winters *were* snowier when he (and I!) were younger.

The explorations of the past are also fascinating, looking at periods like the Little Ice Age (which features so memorably, for example, in Woolf’s “Orlando” during eras when the Thames would freeze); and also going back to the times of the glaciers, looking at the effects on our landscapes. There are of course many fables and legends set in cold worlds, such as the fairy tale of the Snow Queen; and as Sedgwick points out, it’s not surprising that Jadis in the Narnia stories has the land plunged into permanent winter. Cold and snow equate with ice which is symbolic of darker, more evil people and intent.

For most of us, life in the fullest sense of the word is unthinkable without some form of art. I have met people who deny there is any great need for art; that the important things in life are food, shelter, education and so on. And yes, of course these things are vital, with but without art in some form, be it music, film, literature etc., we are not living.

“Snow” is a slim work of only 104 pages, yet it probes deeply into our relationship with the weather, and how snowfall appears throughout our stories, whatever form they appear in. Woven into the book are Sedgwick’s personal experiences with the substance; he currently lives at the edge of the French Alps, and as he relates, snowfall and the avalanches it brings can be a matter of life and death.  Sedgwick’s descriptions of waking up to a silent, changed world really resonated – there’s a strangeness to the world when it’s been blanketed in snow, and I’m not sure humans are ever completely reconciled to that.

Nature’s timescales are somewhat longer than our own, even than that of our species. Nature has a way of doing what she wants to, in the end, and it only needs a little land and snowslide to block the road to remind us of that.

Ironically, I started reading this book on the first day of this winter’s snow in my part of the world; and it certainly shed light on my sometimes complex feelings about this kind of weather and the effect it has on our everyday world. The emotions stirred when you’re faced with a landscape covered with untouched snow are deep, and the spectacle is beautiful. Yet there’s always an ambivalence because of the restriction and disruption it can cause to everyday life, as well as the actual physical danger it can create. Particularly in this country, we never seem prepared to deal with the changes snow brings, and I have felt nervous and slightly threatened in the past during heavy falls; at those times, my go-to therapy is reading “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder and reminding myself that what’s happening here is not so bad and even if the trains aren’t running properly for a day, I’m not going to starve… And during these lockdown times I am less bothered as I’m not exactly going anywhere much; though seeing how the car behaved during the recent snow on a short trip to the shop for vegetables was a reminder of the substance’s power to disrupt.

Psy guy, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

But I digress. “Snow” is a beautiful book and another delight from Little Toller. An often poetic and profound meditation on the white stuff and its effects, it was ideal reading whilst snuggled down and cosy. The book is the perfect mix of the personal and the universal, and Sedgwick’s thoughts on the effects of climate change were also sobering, and got me thinking again about the need to channel my inner Greta Thunberg. Will we reach a time on the planet when there is no more snow? I fear we will, and that will be such a shame. It’s a substance that has the ability to transform our landscape, fascinate us and allow us to look at our world anew, inspiring myths and stories – and without snow, our world will be a poorer place.

#ReadIndies – some independent publishers from my shelves!


As you might have noticed, we’re edging ever closer to February and Reading Independent Publishers Month! Hopefully you’ve all been trawling your TBRs to find suitable reads, or even purchasing the odd book or three to help support our smaller presses. However, I thought it might be nice to share a few images of some of my indie books – let’s face it, gratuitous pictures of books are always fun, and this also might give you a few ideas for interesting reads, should you need them. So here goes!

First up, let’s take a look at Fitzcarraldo Editions, the subject of Lizzy and my Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight last year:

These are books from the publisher I’ve read – quite a few of them actually! And all were marvellous, whether blue fiction or white non-fiction titles. However, I still have some unread:

All of these look wonderful, and there are also some ARCs hanging about the house too. There will definitely be Fitzcarraldo titles read during February – watch this space to see which ones! 😀

Next up let’s have some Versos:

Verso are a left-wing publisher with a wide range of publications from politics and philosophy to fiction and biography (and they do a diary and a notebook…) I signed up for their book club last year and haven’t regretted it – some fascinating physical books (and shedloads of ebooks) have come my way and I am also certain there will be Verso books appearing in Febuary’s posts. I mean, look! A Saramago I haven’t read yet!!

A more recent discovery for me has been Little Toller:

A smaller collection of these so far – but both were recent successes (the Skelton is here and the Thorpe here). I have another Little Toller lurking which promises to be just as good!

One of my all time favourite indie presses is Notting Hill Editions, and I have a larger collection of these:

NHE produced beautiful books, often essay collections or anthologies, but also works which are unclassifiable – but all are wonderful, and since they published my beloved Perec and Barthes they’re always welcome on my shelves. Plus, they *also* do notebooks… ;D

Let’s see what else I can track down – well, here’s a few things from another lockdown discovery, Sublunary Editions:

Based in the USA, they publish all manner of fascinating texts in different formats and I’ve loved what I’ve read from them so far. Like many of the indies, they push the boundaries in terms of both form and content, which is wonderful.

Based ‘oop North’ in Manchester, Comma Press produced some amazing books; as well as two wonderful collections of M. John Harrison’s shorter works, I loved their Book of Newcastle.

Here are the MJH books; Comma is definitely an imprint worth exploring!

A publisher I’ve been reading for a bit longer is Pushkin Press and here’s some of my collection (probably not all of them, as I they’re not all shelved together):

Not shown here are my Russian author Pushkins which are on my Russian shelves. But you can see a few other interesting publishers like Peter Owen, Calder, Granta and Melville House Press (assuming they’re all indies…)

Some poetry next, in the form of Bloodaxe Books:

Again, this is not all my Bloodaxes – I have several on the poetry shelves and also the TBR. The great Basil Bunting features here and plenty of stuff which hails from Newcastle. Really, I should consider doing a month of reading only poetry…

Back to US publishers, and here we have some works from NYRB Classics – again, I’m presuming they count as an indie press. I’ve read a *lot* of their books and have many TBR – always fascinating, and lovely to see them reissuing so many lost works.

And last, a couple of more recent finds, in the form of Fum d’Estampa and Renard Press:

Here you can see a few of my Fum d’Estampa titles – beautiful translations from the Catalan, and in such lovely covers. At least one of their books will be featuring in #ReadIndies month! And next to them is the beautiful shiny edition of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” from Renard Press – here is another image:

Both of these indies are presses I’ve subscribed to, and haven’t regretted it; a regular supply of interesting and beautiful new reading material has been helping keep me sane in these pandemic times.

So there you go – just a few of the indie books on my shelves. There are so many other publishers I could have mentioned or featured, had I more time and space (and been able to find them – where *is* my small collection of Peirene Press books???) But hopefully this might give you some ideas of what to read during February – there are riches to be found from independent publishers! 😀

2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D


As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…


I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!


Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

“Something in me responds to dereliction, to ruins…” #adamthorpe @LittleToller


On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe

Amongst other things, 2020 really does seem to have been the year of the independent publisher for me. I’ve discovered some wonderful imprints and read some amazing books from some fascinating indies, and one lovely recent discovery was Little Toller. As I mentioned in my review of my first book from their range, “Beyond the Fell Wall” by Richard Skelton, they’re based in Dorset and focus on work based in nature and the landscape. I picked up two works in my first purchase from LT, the Skelton book and “On Silbury Hill” by Adam Thorpe. Both works are in LT’s ‘monographs’ range, and although very different books both are wonderful and fascinating.

Thorpe may be best known as a novelist; certainly, his debut “Ulverton” I recall being very lauded when it came out. And I think I may have read it, although as this was when the offspring were small and so I was in the midst of the mania of child rearing, I can’t be sure… Anyway, I was very much drawn to “On Silbury Hill” because of the subject matter and location. Although I was born in Edinburgh, we moved south when I was six, and so I grew up in Hampshire, close to the border with Wiltshire. Additionally, I worked in Salisbury for some years so the area is familiar to me; and I have happy memories of visits to Stonehenge and the surrounding areas. I can’t recall going to Silbury – but frankly, with my rubbish memory, who knows…

Adam Thorpe also knows the region well, and has a long and powerful relationship with Silbury Hill. Although born abroad, he spent much time in the area nearby when he attented Marlborough College; and indeed those were pivotal teenage years when the personality develops and takes on forms which will stay throughout a person’s life. A strong bond grew between Thorpe and the hill, and he uses his monograph to explore not only the history of Silbury, the discoveries and theories about it over the years, and the possible reasons for it having been built; but also to look back at the periods of his life in relation to the hill, as well as links to other parts of his life which might initially seem to have no connection to a strange prehistoric man-made structure….

Silbury Hill itself is something of a mystery; the largest artificial mound in Europe, its size compares to Egyptian pyramids of the same era. Yet nobody actually knows what it’s there for. It’s not any kind of burial chamber or tomb – excavations (with near catastrophic results) have revealed that – and as obviously there are no records from prehistoric times, any theory about Silbury’s purpose is pretty much pure guesswork. So Thorpe explores the various attempts to explain and explore the place over the centuries; the damage done to it (and other ancient monuments in the area) by greedy, land-grabbing farmers; and finds himself in sympathy with Wiccans and others who see some kind of religious or pagan importance in the area. His narrative reflects a growing concern (which I share) about the pollution of the modern landscape with chemicals and unrestricted building, and the fact that it’s becoming harder and harder to connect properly with the natural world.

So a life builds up in layers, piecemeal, a kind of haphazard engineering that has elements of skill and cunning – the previous layers mostly hidden, as are the small mounds within, the clumps of different-coloured earth, the burnt offerings, the nodules of pain and the delight. The hard graft of the chopped off antlers, picking and stabbing and scraping. The embers of old fires, old flames, in mute fragments of charcoal.

Thorpe’s book is a very personal take on the area, as you would expect I suppose from a monograph. This is *his* Silbury Hill, a meditation on what the area has meant to him over the decades and, indeed, continues to mean. Places *do* have an emotional resonance with us, even if we don’t physically visit them often (Edinburgh has had that effect on me); and it’s clear that a place like Silbury, encountered at a young and impressionable age, left a lasting mark on Thorpe. The book is laced with quotations, illustrations and photographs and builds up a wonderfully vivid picture not only of Silbury and its history, but also of Thorpe’s experiences with the place.

Silbury Hill (via Wikimedia Commons)

In truth, “On Silbury Hill” is a hard book to categorise. A beautiful and evocative mix of memoir, history, archaeology, I found it absolutely compelling reading and impossible to put down. The intertwining of mythologies, stories of Neolithic peoples, discussions of the shadows of the past and meditations on his own life and experiences created a wonderfully unique narrative, which I loved. Thorpe’s theories on the possible use of the chalkland areas were just as convincing as any others I’d heard, and he introduced an interesting angle on the monuments of the past about which I’d never thought.

So “On Silbury Hill” turned out to be a second winner from Little Toller. My familiarity with the area, and the fact that I was growing up in the vicinity at a similar time to Thorpe, gave even more resonance to my reading of the book. I like writing that steps outside boundaries and genres; both of the the publisher’s books have done this, featuring beautiful, evocative writing and wonderful ideas. There’s definitely a risk I could be wanting to start a Little Toller collection….

(My first read of the month qualifies for Non-Fiction November – so yay! That’s a good start!)

“From dissolution springs forth desire” @LittleToller #RichardSkelton


Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton

We have all been living through very strange times in 2020, and frankly I see no sign of things getting anything like back to normal. Books have, as usual, been my main coping mechanism – particularly while we have been stuck in place, unable to go anywhere except in our heads. And it’s been impossible to ignore the economic strain being put on smaller publishers during the pandemic, with many struggling to keep their heads above water. I have been buying books directly from them wherever I can, and one imprint I came across fairly recently was Little Toller. Based in Dorset, they publish works rooted in nature and the landscape, both new and classic; and so to support them I was happy to send off for a couple of their works. This was my first experience with them, and the books not only arrived promptly, they’re also attractive and beautifully produced works. I can see myself wanting to explore further… But anyway, let’s get on to my first Little Toller read: “Beyond the Fell Wall” by Richard Skelton.

Skelton is a new name to me; a British musician, his early work was apparently triggered by the death of his wife, as a way to come to terms with his loss. His music has been compared to Arvo Part and Eno, and his work is mostly released via Corbel Stone Press. “Beyond the Fell Wall” is part of Little Toller’s ‘Monograph’ series, and it’s a beautiful and evocative piece of work.

There is something unsettling about living beside ruins. It reminds us, perhaps, of the brevity of the human span, and the folly of ‘civilisation’ in the face of enduring nature.

It’s hard, really, to know where to start in describing this work. Composed while Skelton was living in the Furness Hills of Cumbria, it straddles the line between poetry and prose (which I often think is an artificial one anyway); and explores the landscape of the area as Skelton spends time amongst the paths, streams and, in particular, the dry-stone walls of the region. This is a land with a long history of occupation by man and animal; and Skelton’s meditations reach back into this past, drawing on folklore, myth and language. It’s a heady and beautiful mix, enhanced by illustrations by Michael Kirkman, and rewards slow, meditative reading.

Is there a glimmer, then, of something older – some remnant of profane, beautiful knowledge lodged within the wall’s foundations – in those great hefts of rock, too huge to be shifted?

The thread running through the book, as it does through the landscape, is the dry-stone wall itself. These are all over the land, constructed from stones scoured out by glaciers and deposited there in the past. Nothing holds them together apart from their careful assembly, and they are as subject to entropy as everything else which lives and dies on our planet. Skelton explores how walls came to define the topography of an area, as a human act to try to enclose and restrict. But like everything else human, they will eventually pass on…

These men never grew complacent when there was something to be exploited. These men never fell idle when there was time to kill. The hills rang with their industry, and so they, exclaiming with sheer effort, ushered their own song into being.

As you might have guessed, I absolutely loved this book. Skelton’s poetic, emotional responses and connections to the world, the landscape and its history resonated deeply; and at a moment in time where I think I am more of aware of that natural world and where we sit in it, it was also a timely reminder that humans may well eventually fall by the wayside. “Beyond…” is beautifully written, with explanatory linguistic notes at the back, visually poetic pages which draw on old English field names, and it’s a book which has the effect of pulling you back towards nature. It certainly lingers in the mind and is a work I’ll return to when I’m in need of the solace of the natural world.

Alexey Komarov / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) – via Wikimedia Commons

No line drawn, however straight, remains unwavering. All resolve ultimately weakens. Everything tends to disorder.

So my first foray into reading a Little Toller book was a real winner. Now, more than ever, we need to reconnect with nature and try to stop destroying it; books like Skelton’s are a reminder of how much we belong the natural world, are a part of it. A lovely, lovely book and highly recommended!

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