On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester

4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Nicola Chester was born in Petersfield but was always on the move because of her father’s job. Her earliest memories were of chalk downland, seen as they moved across Hampshire and into Berkshire before she moved to Pangbourne at the age of eight. It was here on this housing estate that she fell head over heels in love with nature> She was wild, free and happy in the fields alongside the houses, playing in the River Pang and water meadows.

But all my best memories, of love and family and living have been spent outdoors in nature. How can we stop fighting for this?

Another move to Greenham felt like a body part was being removed, but she soon felt at home in the natural world again as she discovered what was new around there. But it was also a realisation that not everywhere was accessible. This once common ground had been seized for the use of the RAF and it became the home of the American Nuclear force. It was also the home of the peace camp full of women protesting about the presence of these weapons of mass destruction. In the same way, she became aware of the natural world, Chester realised that land and who owned it and was granted access was a political issue.

It was an eye opening moment.

It is the natural world that is her bedrock and that enables her to cope with all that life throws at her and that she writes about in this book. We hear about the tragedies and the moments of joy, but not in a way that is overwhelming as a reader. She gets angry about the way that the landowners treat wildlife on their property and their disregard for life as they drench it in chemicals. But there are stories of hope and success too, Greenham Common can now be accessed by anyone again and it is buzzing with life around the brutal missile hangers. In this narrative, she weaves the history of the place as seen through other writers such as Richard Adam and John Clare.

A landscape doesn’t forget its stories. It wears them like lines on an old face, markings on an old body.

This is a searingly honest and open memoir of her and her families life set in the chalk downs of Wiltshire and I really liked it. Chester is a beautiful writer, she has a knack of describing what she sees in the most evocative way. But at its heart, this book is political; it is a critique of the still existing feudal system, tied houses and oppressive landowners that still dominate our country and ride roughshod over our rights and the natural world and a reminder that we need to stand up against these vested interests.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    This sounds like a very special book. I heard a lot about Greenham Common working on two books by Richard King, and I am old enough to remember one of my primary school teachers going off to the women’s camp there!

    • Paul

      I think so. I am not sure it quite that that little extra something to lift it to five stars, but still worth reading.

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