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Newbury author's On Gallows Down wins top literary prize for nature writing

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Congratulations to Newbury Weekly News nature correspondent Nicola Chester, who has just been announced as winner of the Richard Jefferies Award for the best nature writing published in 2021 for her book On Gallows Down, published by Chelsea Green.

"‘I am absolutely thrilled to have won this award," Nicola, who lives in Inkpen, told @newburytoday. "It means a very great deal to me - as Richard Jefferies’ writing has for much of my life, too. It was such a strong shortlist - it is a great and important time for nature writing.

"Having the privilege of writing a nature column for the Newbury Weekly News for 18 years has been a huge influence on me and my writing. Many of the incidents and themes in On Gallows Down first appeared and were explored in its pages. The Newbury Weekly News has always had a strong tradition of writing about its local countryside, as well as the historic, world-stage events that have occurred here, and appear in my book. My writing has been honed and developed here - and I will always be extremely grateful to the paper & its readership’.

Nicola Chester Ref: 34-0321
Nicola Chester Ref: 34-0321

The award of £1,000 is given to the author/s of the book considered by the judging panel to be the most outstanding nature writing published in a given year. It is given by The Richard Jefferies Society and sponsored by Marlborough's independent White Horse Bookshop to reflect the heritage, content and spirit of Jefferies’ countryside books. The Richard Jefferies Society describes Jefferies (1848-1887) as "the purest and most sensitive nature writer produced by a country that has prided itself on the strength of its nature tradition. He died prematurely of tuberculosis, aged 38, yet produced an astonishingly rich and varied body of work".

On Gallows Down is strongly rooted in Nicola's background and formative years in the Newbury area, a period that included the Greenham Common Peace Camp and Newbury bypass protests, followed by her own family life in cottages on the Highclere and Inkpen estates.

"The book is a seamless blend of memoir and natural and social history, evoking a vivid sense of the impact and influence particular places and landscapes have had on the writer."

After witnessing the disruption and destruction of the environment and its wildlife for military and road-building purposes, Nicola’s own early interest in the natural world became a deep-seated commitment to learning and understanding more about it. In some of the most vivid and personal sections of the book, she tells of her isolated life as the mother of young children, exploring the Highclere estate with them, immersing herself in the local landscape with its long history of great wealth and rural poverty, and delighting in her observations of badgers, foxes and deer.

Nicola Chester at the On Gallows Down book launch in HungerfordRef: 41-0821
Nicola Chester at the On Gallows Down book launch in HungerfordRef: 41-0821
Nicola Chester at Combe Gibbet at the top of Gallows Down Ref: 34-0321
Nicola Chester at Combe Gibbet at the top of Gallows Down Ref: 34-0321

Richard Jefferies Society chairman Professor Barry Sloan, one of the panel of judges, said: "On Gallows Down is not only an eloquent celebration of nature and landscape and of their indispensable value for human mental and emotional health and well-being; it is also unsentimental and alert to the dangers that threaten wildlife and the open countryside, and shows the author’s own experiences of resistance to suggestions for more environmentally friendly land management. It will appeal to a wide readership both as a personal narrative and for its thoughtful reflections on the challenges facing the natural world.

Nicola added: "Richard Jefferies has long been a companion of mine: from books lent to me by my granddad in childhood, to walking a close, worked, peopled and atmospheric wild landscape, just a few hills over from his, populated by white chalk horses. ‘Belonging’ should not be about wherever we are from, but how we engage with a place and how its story becomes part of ours (and our story, its).

"I like to think Jefferies would recognise that to be more important than ever now. The urgency to stem the loss of our wildlife is increasing at a similar rate to that with which we are realising the depth, power and joy in connecting with it, the necessity of it.

The judges were drawn from the Richard Jefferies Society and from their sponsors the White Horse Bookshop, Marlborough, who had the difficult choice of selecting an overall winner from a highly commendable shortlist of books.

And how will Nicola use her prize money?

"A nice meal out to celebrate locally, some new walking boots - and I’ll put the rest towards a piece of art to remember this by. Perhaps something by the artist Anna Dillon!"

The final shortlist for 2021 publications was:

Birdsong in a Time of Silence by Steven Lovatt (Penguin Particular Books)

Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Unlike Any Other by James Aldred (Elliott & Thompson)

Ice Rivers by Jemma Wadham (Allen Lane)

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the post-human Landscape by Cal Flyn (William Collins)

On Gallows Down by Nicola Chester (Chelsea Green Publishing)

The Sea is Not Made of Water: Life Between the Tides by Adam Nicolson (Collins)

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