3

Two books about the countryside

Photo of 'The Women's Land Army' and 'Wilding'

Before I read the books about trees, I had just finished reading The Women’s Land Army by V. Sackville-West. My mother was a land-girl during WW2. Although I must have seen the book many times on her shelves, I had not opened it before it came into my possession. The author, Vita Sackville-West, was an aristocratic woman with knowledge of the countryside and gardening. She wrote many books – fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

The Women’s Land Army includes many photographs and anecdotes collected by the author from land-girls. The Women’s Timber Corps was also included in this book, although it does not appear in the title. In 2008 when the UK government decided to recognise the contribution of those who had served in The Women’s Land Army and The Women’s Timber Corps with badges and certificates, the two titles were used. I found the book very interesting, being able to compare the experiences of other women with the tales I heard over the years. It is well written in the language of the time and reflects the social structure of wartime Britain and the contemporary culture.

Logo and wording about conformity with the authorised economy standards

It was published in 1944 and contains many statistics. The list of possible occupations for women leaving the Land Army as the male farm labourers returned to their homes and work was particularly interesting. Nowadays a wider range of occupations is available to women. Nursing was included; my mother trained to be a nurse. All proceeds from the sale of the book went to the Women’s Land Army Benevolent Fund. It was published by Michael Joseph ‘under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries’. There was also a statement about compliance with wartime economy standards. Materials for book production were in short supply like everything else.

The second book was one I borrowed with the two books about trees mentioned in a recent post. It was related to the book about the Land Army as the farming methods, which had been introduced as a result of WW2 had led to a decline in the wildlife in the countryside. Wilding – The return of nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree is the story of how she and her husband, Charles Burrell, allowed and encouraged wildlife to return to his family farm (Knepp) in Sussex, which had become unprofitable due to industrial farming practices.

It is a fascinating book with photographs illustrating the text. There is a wealth of information about agriculture and animal husbandry as well as the personal story of how rewilding a site was not always straightforward. There were regulations to follow and neighbours to pacify! There are literary quotes as well as a timeline from 12th century to 2019, a map of the land in its local context and an index.

The story of how a board of advisors for the project was set up and of places overseas with relevance to this project is fascinating. Explanations of the loss of habitat for birds, which were common around seventy years ago are sobering. The discussion of the pros and cons of reintroduction of some animals, which prey on others, is very interesting. There is a list of all the sources of information for each chapter and another bibliography lists many books about nature.

Wilding represents a huge amount of research and record-keeping. This book won the Richard Jeffries Society/White Horse Bookshop award for Nature Writing 2018. It also gained a special commendation from the judges of the Wainwright Golden Beer Book Prize in 2019, which was won by Robert Macfarlane’s Underland.

You may be interested to learn that the lady who guided the wildflower walk I wrote about on Sue’s words and pictures had recently returned from a visit to Knepp, where tourism is one of the ways the farm has diversified.

Another surprising connection is that the old castle at the farm was built by William de Braose in the 12th century. A historical novel I reviewed recently has a member of the de Braose family as its main character.