Fighting for the countryside: West Berkshire nature writer Nicola Chester's memoirs are inspired by her love for the environment and her fierce belief in defending it
Nicola Chester is an award-winning nature writer from Inkpen whose first book On Gallows Down is published in October.
She won BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Nature Writer of the Year Award in 2003 for a piece about Greenham Common and writes for the Guardian, the RSPB, Countryfile, Countryliving and writes Nature Notes for the Newbury Weekly News.
Nicola shares her journey and love of writing and nature and her inspiration and motivation for On Gallows Down with EMMA COLE
Nature has played an important role in Nicola’s from a young age. As a child, she moved around a lot with her parents, but always within the areas of North Hampshire and West Berkshire.
As soon as the family arrived in a new place, her mum would take them down the footpaths with the dogs to explore their new home and these early experiences with nature continue to influence her.
Nicola said: “I think my love for nature stems from childhood. Wherever we have lived we have found nature, we have found woods and we have explored them and most of all loved being in them.”
She has now lived in Inkpen for 17 years, and has a son, 19, and two daughters who are 17 and 13. For the children, nature has played a key role in their upbringing.
“We have never been on a holiday abroad, instead we would go walking through nature, through the fields, up the hill and explore the footpaths. It made sound a bit cliché, but when I think about my children, it is the hill that raised them.”
Nicola regularly goes out walking and exploring. Her favourite footpath goes up Gallows Down, starting in Inkpen and heading towards Combe Gibbet.
“Every day it is different. You can go up there and see nobody or see lots of people. The view can stretch for miles or you can be in this misty world where everything is below you and I love that.”
Indeed, the cover of On Gallows Down is a photograph taken by Nicola of her three children and dog by Combe Gibbet.
Throughout her life, Nicola has always written stories and describes herself as a ‘proper book worm’, but a pivotal moment came when she was protesting against the construction of the Newbury Bypass in 1996.
“I was full of anger and upset. I had all these words crowding my head and I was ready to speak to a Radio 4 interviewer, but the moment he stuck his microphone under my nose I froze and the words wouldn’t come out. I remember thinking I have so much to say, I want to change people’s opinions and get them to feel how I feel but I couldn’t. I just completely dried up.”
Nicola went home and wrote her thoughts down furiously. She has not stopped since.
On Gallows Down initially set out to be a piece of nature writing, but evolved into a personal piece, bundled around the natural landscape in Nicola’s life, an enduring love of nature and the fierce desire to protect it, as well as the history of the rural working class and family life in an estate cottage.
The book is filled with gentle protest and hope, which is neatly nestled within familiar landmarks such as Watership Down and the Highclere estate. It begins with the rewilding of Greenham Common and reflection on the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, and then moves to the Newbury Bypass protest, and through other environmental battles along the way, loosely charting Nicola’s children growing up.
“The whole point of my writing is to engage people with nature, to move them and to make them want to protect it. With On Gallows Down I just felt I had this story to tell which connected everything.
"I am a great believer in connection and linking things together, and the ultimate way of doing that was through this book. It is a memoire of place and a need to find a home, and to show ownership for a place that you don’t own. At the heart of the book is nature, family and home.”
On Gallows Down is full of powerful imagery including a memorable meeting with a herd of deer.
“I was living alone with an 18-month-old baby in a remote cottage as my husband had been called up to Iraq. I spent all my time walking outdoors and one day when walking through a wood a huge herd of fallow deer came galloping up towards us on a narrow ride.
"They were enormous animals with great big antlers. We stood completely still as they stampeded around us. It was incredible to experience but also terrifying at the same time. I remember going home and trying to put into words how exciting and visceral it was. I could smell their breath!”
A big influence on Nicola’s writing has been Thomas Hardy who has himself walked up Gallows Down.
“I’ve read and loved his books and to give that a modern voice would be a wonderful aim to have. I think he shows the rural countryside in a way that is warts and all, yes it’s beautiful but also there is poverty and difficulty.”
Her book took eight years to complete as Nicola was always writing in ‘the gaps of life’, balancing her work as a writer with raising her children and other jobs.
As well as writing for many different magazines, Nicola is the librarian at the John O’Gaunt school in Hungerford, a job which she thoroughly enjoys.
“The library is a fantastic place. It’s not just about books, but about ideas and digital information literacy, and a real flow of that goes on between the students. It’s almost like anything can happen in there.”
Access to books and to nature are causes very close to Nicola’s heart.
“The wildlife crisis and the climate crisis go hand in hand with the issue of equality of access to nature. Currently we only have access to eight per cent of countryside in England and three per cent of rivers and river banks, and fewer than one in ten children regularly play in natural spaces, which is shocking. We can’t say to people we need to save our planet if we don’t give people access to the countryside.”
Notably, when Nicola first took the book to publishers five years ago, she was told that no one really knew what environmental protest was.
Since then, the sentiment has shifted and On Gallows Down has become more poignant and relevant than ever before.
Nicola is now busy writing articles for various countryside magazines, but hopes to write some more poetry along with a novel based around the history of the area.
She is also confident that there will be a sequel to On Gallows Down.
For budding writers, Nicola has some great advice: “Read as widely as you can, about anything and everything, and write what you love as if nobody is ever going to read it but you.”
On Gallows Down is out on October 7 and available to buy in all book shops and on Amazon. It will also be available as an audio book.
There is a book launch at Hungerford Bookshop on October 9, which will include a signing, a reading and an interview with Nicola.
Tickets will be available from www.hungerfordbookshop.co.uk/our-events for more information click here.