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.

What I read in March 2020 (Part 1)

So far in March I have finished reading two nonfiction books. The first was lent to me by a member of my family; the other came from a second-hand book sale.

Underland: A deep time journey by Robert Macfarlane is a demanding book to read. I began it in January and finished reading it early in March. It is very wide-ranging both in the places described and their geology. Macfarlane has spent time with experts in various fields and had adventures in the landscape above and below ground to provide the content of Underland. His descriptions are vivid. The lessons from history and the warnings about the future do not make for an enjoyable read, rather a disturbing one. It is a book worth reading.


The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women who worked there by Sinclair McKay is a fascinating account of a bygone pivotal age. It is entertaining and informative with many quotes from people who were involved, some of whom have written their own stories. The timeline of the Second World War runs through the book, which ends with the opening of a museum on the site.

A visit to The Lost Words exhibition

As the date for The Lost Words exhibition to close was approaching I realised that it would be possible to visit it in a single day travelling by train and bus. The internet is a wonderful tool for discovering and planning. I booked advance tickets including plusbus, collected them from a machine, set my alarm for an early start and off we went.

My research fell down a little over the location of bus stops, but we still managed to arrive at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh in the morning. There were other people travelling on the same bus to the gardens. Fortunately one of them knew the way!

Inverleith House

Inverleith House

Entry to the gardens is free, as for The Lost Words exhibition. We found Inverleith House with the help of maps in the gardens and arrived there at the same time as a group of primary school children. (The summer holidays start and end earlier in Scotland than in England for reasons connected with the Scottish potato harvest in earlier times.)

We followed the youngsters in and were impressed by their enthusiasm. However we chose a different route around the exhibition so that we could enjoy it more quietly! In fact we went round some of it twice.

The rooms were empty apart from the exhibition on the walls. Jackie Morris’s beautiful artwork was displayed alongside Robert Macfarlane’s acrostic poems. There were other items of interest, such as an enclosed nature table a bird’s nest and egg, another representing the artist’s workspace and yet another with the writer’s notebook showing his work in progress. Relevant items from the Royal Botanic Garden’s archive were also on display.

There were families and individuals visiting the exhibition. The artwork was presumably the originals from which the book was made. The paintings of the absences did not have the scattered letters across them, which are in the book. I didn’t realise the difference until the following day, when I was describing the exhibition to someone, who hadn’t heard about it. (Yes, there still are people, who have not heard of The Lost Words!)

The book is beautiful, but some of the paintings are interrupted by the fold between facing pages. It was lovely to see them as complete pictures in frames and to be able to admire them from a distance or have a closer look.

I am amazed that many of my friends and acquaintances do not seem to have heard of The Lost Words.

One who has, alerted me to other spin-offs from the dictionary, which replaced nature words with technical ones. Malcolm Guite wrote a sonnet. He also has a list of all the old words omitted from the dictionary in order to make room for modern ones.

Many but not all of the missing words are included in The Lost Words. My post about the book may be found here.