Review by Jonathan Stevenson
“What do you do when you no longer recognise the place you grew up in? When it has been flayed and torn off the surface of the earth; burnt, excavated heaped up and built on with structures you struggle to make sense of. This feeling of grief and disorientation was new, distressing and seemed to permeate everything. Place was everything to me. I had been uprooted before but now, it seemed, the very place I stood upon was torn up by its roots.”
It is impossible, throughout the richness and beauty of nature that Nicola Chester conjures, not to feel, almost at every page, the heart-wrenching sadness of a life spent witnessing the wanton destruction of the land to which she is so powerfully connected. In spite of moments of hope, the lingering impression is that for the people trying to eke out a stake in a landscape by dint of pure love, care and hard work, their efforts can be swept away by title deeds and by callous stewardship; by ownership of a place taken in law and on paper, but not in the heart. In spite of her bravery in fighting for what is being lost, time and again the reader is hammered with the pain of the destruction.
Her evocations of the natural world are masterful, and there are moments of joy and exhilaration at the sheer majesty of nature that will lift any heart that has ever felt the same thrill of wildness writ-large. Nightingales, hares and roistering badger cubs are beautifully brought to life; the tale of a running herd of deer streaming past her is spine-tingling. On Gallows Down is a love-song to her homeland that exudes her pure, deep and at times ecstatic attachment to that precious chalk downland habitat of the Berkshire-Hampshire border which has been her lifelong home. The pervading message, though, is one of the precarious and slowly-suffocating nature of both the wildlife, and the lives and livelihoods of the rural labouring class that dwell there. Stories of recent protest movements such as the Greenham Common peace camp and the Newbury bypass road protests (and of the author’s part in the latter) are juxtaposed with the tales of other acts of collective resistance in the area around her home throughout the past several centuries. Sometimes these are uplifting; battles and rights won, destruction and injustice prevented (or at least deferred), though just as often she is narrating the history of the brutal repression of those who dared to ask for better.
So many times the wild characters that fill the book with life and lustre: the birds, trees and the landscape itself are introduced with piercing clarity but seemingly only as a prelude to the accounts of their displacement and destruction. Some of these, the author’s own eye-witness statements, are excruciating; the dislocation and loss that she feels so deeply is powerful and painful. It is deeply moving, with an emotional rawness that is sometimes uncomfortable to read. The human characters too are often somewhat tragic, not least the unnamed gamekeeper who at first is a much needed friend and ally, Chester’s guide and access to places she could not otherwise go, but who eventually reveals himself as something darker, and derails what they have been trying to achieve through his own conceit.
Motherhood, family and the struggles of domestic life are a key theme. The beautiful dedication names her children, and the titular Gallows Down is ‘the hill that raised them’. Rural domesticity pervades: the insecurity of insufficient income and the precarious housing situation of a tied estate cottage, the joy of taking her children into nature (in spite of the practical difficulties) and seeing their growing love for the natural world around them, the exhilaration and guilt of her desire to carve out time for herself, alone in the wild. There is much however, in the community and love that she does find amongst the destruction which she relates, to gladden the heart. She finds, somehow, the strength to persist, to fight the good fight in spite of the setbacks and the odds stacked against her; and it is from this that we must all take inspiration.
Jonathan Stevenson is a forester and arborist living, working, and teaching sustainable woodland management in North Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion.
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