Local Resistance: On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester

It’s mostly by accident that we came to live in Newbury: five years ago, when a previous landlord served us notice, we viewed a couple of rental houses in the area to compare with what was available in Reading and discovered that our money got us more that little bit further out from London. We’ve come to love this part of West Berkshire and the community we’ve found. It may not be flashy or particularly famous, but it has natural wonders worth celebrating and a rich history of rebellion that Nicola Chester plumbs in On Gallows Down. A hymn-like memoir of place as much as of one person’s life, her book posits that the quiet moments of connection with nature and the rights of ordinary people are worth fighting for.

So many layers of history mingle here: from the English Civil War onward, Newbury has been a locus of resistance for centuries. Nicola* has personal memories of the long-running women’s peace camps at Greenham Common, once a U.S. military base and cruise missile storage site – to go with the Atomic Weapons Establishment down the road at Aldermaston. As a teenager and young woman, she took part in symbolic protests against the Twyford Down and Newbury Bypass road-building projects, which went ahead and destroyed much sensitive habitat and many thousands of trees. Today, through local and national newspaper and magazine columns on wildlife, and through her winsome nagging of the managers of the Estate she lives on, she bears witness to damaging countryside management and points to a better way.

While there is a loose chronological through line, the book is principally arranged by theme, with experiences linked back to historical or literary precedents. An account of John Clare and the history of enclosure undergirds her feeling of the precarity of rural working-class life: as an Estate tenant, she knows she doesn’t own anything, has no real say in how things are done, and couldn’t afford to move elsewhere. Nicola is a school librarian and has always turned to books and writing to understand the world. I particularly loved Chapter 6, about how she grounds herself via the literature of this area: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton, and especially Richard Adams’s Watership Down.

Whatever life throws at her – her husband being called up to fight in Iraq, struggling to make ends meet with small children, a miscarriage, her father’s unexpected death – nature is her solace. She describes places and creatures with a rare intimacy borne out of deep knowledge. To research a book on otters for the RSPB, she seeks out every bridge over every stream. She goes out “lamping” with the local gamekeeper after dark and garners priceless nighttime sightings. Passing on her passion to her children, she gets them excited about badger watching, fossil collecting, and curating shelves of natural history treasures like skulls and feathers. She also serves as a voluntary wildlife advocate on her Estate. For every victory, like the re-establishment of the red kite population in Berkshire and regained public access to Greenham Common, there are multiple setbacks, but she continues to be a hopeful activist, her lyrical writing a means of defiance.

We are writing for our very lives and for those wild lives we share this one, lonely planet with. Writing was also a way to channel the wildness; to investigate and interpret it, to give it a voice and defend it. But it was also a connection between home and action; a plank bridge between a domestic and wild sense. A way both to home and resist.

You know that moment when you’re reading a book and spot a place you’ve been or a landmark you know well, and give a little cheer? Well, every site in this book was familiar to me from our daily lives and countryside wanderings – what a treat! As I was reading, I kept thinking how lucky we are to have such an accomplished nature writer to commemorate the uniqueness of this area. Even though I was born thousands of miles away and have moved more than a dozen times since I settled in England in 2007, I feel the same sense of belonging that Nicola attests to. She explicitly addresses this question of where we ‘come from’ versus where we fit in, and concludes that nature is always the key. There is no exclusion here. “Anyone could make a place their home by engaging with its nature.”


*I normally refer to the author by surname in a book review, but I’m friendly with Nicola from Twitter and have met her several times (and she’s one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet), so somehow can’t bring myself to be that detached!

 

On Gallows Down was released by Chelsea Green Publishing on October 7th. My thanks to the author and publisher for arranging a proof copy for review.

 

My husband and I attended the book launch event for On Gallows Down in Hungerford on Saturday evening. Nicola was introduced by Hungerford Bookshop owner Emma Milne-White and interviewed by Claire Fuller, whose Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional version of the village where Nicola lives.

Nicola Chester and Claire Fuller. Photo by Chris Foster.

Nicola dated the book’s genesis to the moment when, 25 years ago, she queued up to talk to a TV news reporter about Newbury Bypass and froze. She went home and cried, and realized she’d have to write her feelings down instead. Words generally come to her at the time of a sighting, as she thinks about how she would tell someone how amazing it was.

Her memories are tied up with seasons and language, especially poetry, she said, and she has recently tried her hand at poetry herself. Asked about her favourite season, she chose two, the in-between seasons – spring for its abundance and autumn for its nostalgia and distinctive smells like tar spot fungus on sycamore leaves and ivy flowers.

 

A bonus related read:

Anarchipelago by Jay Griffiths (2007)

This limited edition 57-page pamphlet from Glastonbury-based Wooden Books caught my eye from the library’s backroom rolling stacks. Griffiths wrote her impish story of Newbury Bypass resistance in response to her time among the protesters’ encampments and treehouses. Young Roddy finds a purpose for his rebellious attitude wider than his “McTypical McSuburb” by joining other oddballs in solidarity against aggressive policemen and detectives.

There are echoes of Ali Smith in the wordplay and rendering of accents.

“When I think of the road, I think of more and more monoculture of more and more suburbia. What I do, I do in defiance of the Louis Queasy Chintzy, the sickly stale air of suburban car culture. I want the fresh air of nature, the lifefull wind of the French revolution.”

In a nice spot of Book Serendipity, both this and On Gallows Down recount the moment when nature ‘fought back’ as a tree fell on a police cherry-picker. Plus Roddy is kin to the tree-sitting protesters in The Overstory by Richard Powers as well as another big novel I’m reading now, Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson.

18 responses

  1. You don’t live that far from me then – and decidedly, Newbury is prettier than Reading. Maybe we should organise some walks together. I keep meaning to do more walking in the Chilterns or Thames Pathway before I move away from this area.

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    1. We tried Newbury on a whim and it turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made. Though we’re both still fond of Reading (where we met at uni and where my husband still works), Newbury is indeed much nicer! I don’t know the “North Wessex Downs” as well as I’d like to, but Gallows Down and Beacon Hill (overlooking Highclere Castle) are two walks we do often. Oh no – do you have plans to move away?

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      1. In 2-3 years I hope to move abroad. Don’t know how much longer I can put up with life here…

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      2. Yeah, I can understand that 😦 Much as we love our area, if an opportunity arose I’d move to Scotland in a heartbeat (the closest we can get to Europe now!).

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  2. I think Chester’s book, which sounds interesting, has less appeal for me since I simply don’t know that part of the country. This doesn’t always matter – I’ve read several books on parts of Scotland I’ve never visited – but I sense this might be different here. Am I wrong?

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    1. While it had special appeal for me because of the local setting, I think anyone who enjoys lyrical nature writing would appreciate its picture of how to value and stand up for wildlife. I expect you’ll remember the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp? All this is history I had to catch up on when I moved here five years ago, but things like that must have made the national news.

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      1. I’m that generation of course, though never actually made it there.

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      2. We have a neighbour who took part in the protests and was arrested! Early last month there were 40th anniversary events at Greenham Common.

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  3. What an amazing reading experience that would be, to recognize ALL the spaces she writes about. And also to have attended that launch/interview. I can relate to the strange off-kilter sense of writing about a book by someone who has come to inhabit their first name in a way that other writers have not, inviting that last-name protocol that stems to writing and citing for term papers. Is the cover of Antarchipelago actually wooden then? How interesting…

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    1. She also goes by Nic, it seems, but I don’t know her that well!

      No, Anarchipelago is just your average small paper pamphlet. The publisher is a tiny one I’d never heard of that specializes in mostly New Age stuff.

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  4. I really enjoyed reading this post! It’s heartening to know about such passionate advocates for nature and that she’s had some success. And how fun for you to be able to recognize so many locations in her book!

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    1. Thanks, Laila! I’m glad you enjoyed reading, even about sites far away from you. I think her approach can be a model for others to follow, wherever they are, to love their local communities and protect the environment.

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  5. I have a copy that I am hoping to get too soon! I have met Nicola too and she is quite lovely

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    1. You, me, Nicola, next year’s Wainwright Prize ceremony? 🙂

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  6. This book sounds wonderful. Especially for those of you who live in the area. And with the nature writing as well as history and memoir, it sounds perfect for you!

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  7. […] on the Friday evening was, fittingly, about the question of inclusivity. Nicola Chester, author of On Gallows Down; Anita Roy, part of the Transition Town Wellington movement and co-editor of Gifts of Gravity and […]

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