Book review: On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester

I spotted On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging by Nicola Chester in the local library on a day when I already had too much to carry. Fortunately, it was still there the following week; I had forgotten to reserve it.

Cover of On Gallows Down

Although I follow Nicola Chester on Twitter, I had not appreciated where in the country (of England) Gallows Down is. It is close to the area made famous by Richard Adams’ book Watership Down, which I read in 1974 about two years after it was published. Watership Down is one of the books Nicola Chester mentions in On Gallows Down. One of my favourite children’s books is also mentioned – The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. I have to admit that I haven’t read all the books or poems she mentions. I didn’t enjoy one or two of the others – notably Tess of the D’Urbevilles. I find Thomas Hardy’s novels depressing, although I have enjoyed some of his poems.

On Gallows Down is a prize-winning book by an author, who combines a love and knowledge of the countryside with a love of and qualifications in the English Language. Other writers with similar preferences include Robert Macfarlane* (who endorsed this book) and Jennifer Ackermann.

Like many of my favourite books On Gallows Down includes a sketch-map. This is very helpful in locating the places mentioned. There is historical background to many events I have been vaguely aware of from the news. Greenham Common has an unusual history described by Nicola Chester, who was an eyewitness to many events around the area.

The natural world is the focus with the author’s experience and observation of it as a real countrywoman. I read it from cover to cover in a few days, sharing her anguish as trees were felled in instances where this did not seem necessary.

Nicola Chester’s own story is threaded through the landscape of this book. It is a fascinating read. I found it more relatable than many nature books I have read, probably because the author writes from the perspective of a mother. The writing is almost poetic in places.

There is so much information in it that I found a single reading was insufficient to take in everything in this book.

Reading it for the second time I listed poems/poets to read.

On Gallows Down was the winner of the Richard Jefferies Award 2021 for Nature Writing and Highly commended for the James Cropper Wainwright Prize 2022.

For a list of other books about nature and climate change, please visit my page, where there are links to reviews I have written.

*Links to reviews of books by Robert Macfarlane, which I have read, appear on the page of nature and climate change books.

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