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Going back to nature, and the nature of environmental protest

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Nicola Chester book launch: On Gallows Down, at Herongate, Hungerford, on Saturday, October 9, presented by Hungerford Bookshop. Review by Niki Hinman

Nicola Chester is a writer, school librarian and tenant on an Estate in Inkpen. A suitable place to live for a writer, you might think.

Nicola’s part nature writing, part memoir, On Gallows Down, was launched to a literary crowd in Hungerford at the weekend. Someone did in fact ask her if she uses an ink pen. She does.

Nicola Chester book launch Ref: 41-0821
Nicola Chester book launch Ref: 41-0821

On Gallows Down is a powerful, personal story shaped by a landscape deeply loved; it ripples with protest, change, hope - and the search for home. It took eight years to write and, says Nicola, it took her back to the early dawning of her love for nature as she wept at the uprooted trees swept aside to create the Newbury bypass.

“I care passionately about the wildlife around us, and believe we must think differently to save this planet rather than just keep on building roads.

I want to engage people and move them to take action for the environment. Twenty five years ago when the Newbury bypass was being built, it didn't feel like people knew what we were talking about, but now we are actually seeing the changes in weather patterns and wildlife being lost.

Nicola Chester at the book launch with author Claire Fuller Ref: 41-0821
Nicola Chester at the book launch with author Claire Fuller Ref: 41-0821

"When they read the book, I would love people to connect with their own environment and feel that sense of belonging."

Nicola won the BBC Wildlife Magazine’s Nature Writer of the Year, and also has a regular column in the Guardian. She has also contributed Nature Notes to the Newbury Weekly News for many years.

Channel 4’s news reader Jon Snow was in the front row at the Hungerford Bookshop launch in Herongate’s lecture theatre. He asked her for her views on the increasing ‘militarisation’ of policing protests, particularly along the Hs2 route.

Nicola Chester receives a bouquet from her editor Muna Reyal
Nicola Chester receives a bouquet from her editor Muna Reyal

She recalled the Newbury bypass tree top protests, where different security services wore different coloured hats.

“Protest is important to hold decision makers to account,” she said. “Protests must be allowed to happen to bring these issues to bear. But it seems more and more that people are not being heard. ”

From the girl catching the eye of the Peace Women of Greenham Common to the young woman protesting the loss of ancient and beloved trees, and as a mother raising a family in tied and tenanted farm cottages on grand, country estates, this is the story of how Nicola came to write - as a means of protest. Of how she discovered the rich seam of resistance that runs through Newbury's people from the English Civil War to the Swing Riots and the battle against the Newbury Bypass, the hope she finds in the rewilding of Greenham Common after the military left, and the stories told by the landscapes of Watership Down, the gibbet perched high on Gallows Down and Highclere Castle.

Nature is indelibly linked to belonging for Nicola. She charts her story through the walks she takes with her children across the chalk hills of the North Wessex Downs, through the song of the nightingale and the red kites, fieldfares, skylarks and lapwings that accompany her; the badger cubs she watches at night; the velvety mole she discovers in her garden and the cuckoo, whose return she awaits.

“I was walking on the common with my young son, and we disturbed a herd of fallow deer,” she told the listening crowd. “The deer all raised their heads then ran towards us. All I could do was stand still. They ran so close to us we could feel and smell their breath. It was exhilarating.”

On Gallows Down is about how Nicola came to realise that it is she who can decide where she belongs, for home is a place in nature and imagination, which must be protected through words and actions.

“Im a bit of a friendly thorn in the side of the estate managers where we live, they do try under difficult circumstances to do their best,” she added. “I keep on at them that they don’t have to cut the field borders and headlands. Butterflies lay eggs on the long grass. If that grass is cut, we get less and less butterflies. I would have thought this would be a win win really. Less work for the farms, and more butterflies. I shall keep on at them I think!

Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing Co

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