Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Last Quality Street in the box...

... is usually a fudge in our household. But what with tins of Roses, Heroes and Celebrations nearby, there is no such thing as a lack of chocolate at this time of year. But just as there needs to be one item of confectionary doomed to be the last one left, the same is true of 2013 posts. This is it.

I won't do a round-up of what I've seen, as it has, by and large, been a spectacularly ordinary year. Instead please accept this bullet-point stream of consciousness that has the year of 2013 as it's link.

Twitching heaven: there were more 'rares'* to see than ever before and if you fancied the odd long haul to the northern isles then so much the better. You could have filled your boots and gripped back more than a few goodies on us old-timers, even if the last time some of us twitched was the 1957 Bardsey Summer Tanager. Out of all of those rare birds on offer, I saw precisely none of them.

Surrey gets rare: who'd have thought it, that most maligned of birding inland deserts managed to rustle up a male Pallid Harrier, a Roller, a Red-rumped Swallow or two and a Two-barred Crossbill. Bloody hell! There have got to be a few Parrot Crossbills out there in my fair county, haven't there? Out of all those rare birds on offer, I saw precisely none of them, although I did go and look for the Two-barred Crossbill - which induced disbelief from those who thought they knew me.

Windfarms attack! The rotor blade that sliced to death a rare Needletail became slightly more infamous than any serial killer back in the summer. I got on my high-horse for the first of several 'opinion' pieces that appeared on this blog, suggesting that the use of the word 'tragic' was not appropriate in this case. Rumours of the Needletail being given a Viking-like funeral on a boat made out of Birding Worlds is only slightly exaggerated. Speaking of which...

Birding World. The publication that was so successful in its early days that it enabled its owners to buy up half of Norfolk, ceased publication. So, goodbye to papers on the pupil colour of second-winter hybrid Herring Gulls. So long to reading about small geese in massive flocks of big geese. Cheerio to all of those pages of pictures of Redpoll's arses...

They think Spurns all over! It is now... no hold on. That strange, narrow, curvy bit of East Yorkshire once more faced up to the big bad North Sea and sent it packing. Breaches and erosion may come and visit, but Spurn still lives. I stayed there for a fortnight in 1985 and had some brilliant birding. I wonder where the regulars will go if it does finally join the rest of the local geology beneath the waves?

BOOM! This has to be the word of the year, used in all innocence to announce the arrival of a rare bird. And the arrival of a knob at the other end of the text... hold on, didn't I say I wouldn't do this any more - take the mickey out of others who are actually out there birding? Where was I most of the year - yes, indoors, tapping out bile from a computer keyboard, that's what... excuse me while I go and thrash myself with a birch until I bleed...

Duskygate: it took one bird and one small group of Devon birders to bring about the downfall of several blogs and a couple of birders careers. Be careful what you wish for in your garden and if it does come true don't tell another soul!

Auk madness: a guillemot with a deformed bill gave hundreds of families a days rest from their annoying husband/father/ brother as they abandoned the family Christmas to show their chums all the Xmas presents that they had been given - ceramic mugs that said 'Tit lover', knitted jumpers depicting a white-haired, bearded man with a rosy nose (Bill Oddie?) and the latest field craft accessory from Ray Mears - camouflaged defibrilators for avian windfarm victims.

Well, that's it for 2013. I bet you that up and down the country right now there are thousands of birders cleaning their optics, checking the weather forecast (rain, rain, rain and wind) and looking forward to tomorrow, a day when a Wren is the equal of a Brunnich's Guillemot, a Blackbird the equal of a White-billed Diver, and we all start off the year on an equal footing. But remember - that blissful state of affairs lasts but one day. Enjoy.

Monday, 30 December 2013

England birding football XI

Again I am indebted to the Bard of Littlestone who, together with a bit of help from The Bedford Plover, came up with the following football team. It must have been a very slow sea-watch...

Rob Greenshank

Ray Wilson's Petrel
Jackdaw Charlton
Terry Butcher Bird
Ashley Cole Tit

Carlton Palmer Dove
Franklin's Gull Lampard
Bobby Moorehen (captain)

Rodney Marsh Warbler
John Raddesford Warbler
Mick Leach's Petrel

No Man United players considered as they are divers!

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Life's learning curve

For 2014 I need to learn a few lessons and eradicate the negative aspects of 2013. These mostly centre around my irrational disapproval directed towards twitching and the banal use of Twitter. Confession time: I have twitched in the past and I do use Twitter (and sometimes in a less than useful way). I must also accept that twitching and the misuse (in my opinion) of a social media tool is harmless. I have the choice not get involved - it is an option.

Twitter does have its uses. It enables me to keep up to date with what is being seen (birds as well as other life forms). It can be entertaining. I can also keep abreast of what my fellow naturalists are up to. There is a downside to all of this, and that is that I will receive every single tweet sent from everybody that I follow. That is how it works. That is something that I have to accept if I am to use Twitter. So, I need to approach it like a prospector who has to sift through a heap of mud to find a gold nugget. Embrace the BOOM! Smile at the 'well dones' for driving a few miles in a car to see a bird. Accept hero status being bestowed upon the ordinary. It doesn't matter. It may do my blood pressure the world of good by doing so. And as for twitching - is it really any different than me driving to the New Forest to look for a rare plant? No...

I hope to get out into the field more next year. I have some freeing up of time. More birding. More botanising. More mothing. The pan-list might benefit. But as long as I benefit from it, that is all that matters - and when I mean benefit, I mean that my time spent doing all of this is enjoyable, is fulfilling, is worthwhile. I cannot quantify this by 'lifers' or 'ticks' alone. That would be shallow.

Most of my interest has focused down to my self-styled 'uber-patch', the local area which includes a small section of the North Downs and the woodland and heathland to the north of those same hills. This will still be the place that gets most of my time. It is, to me, a special place. However, I have neglected other places for too long, so I will try and make the effort to go a bit further afield. There are species, and places, that I miss. And others that I want to see.

Life balance is a skill that we all need a bit of help with. Even after half-a-century plus on this planet I haven't cracked it yet. Maybe 2014 will allow me to get a bit closer to achieving it.

Whatever you are planning to do, may it work out for you - and those close to you.

And if you detect any hint of sarcasm, anger or disapproval on this blog again, please let me know. It was all getting a bit tiresome.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Ho, ho, ho!

The Holly and the Ivy - oh how festive of me....
Unless a Dusky Thrush appears in my garden, I doubt that I will post again this year. So far in 2013 I've posted 220 times, which is an awful lots of waffle, rant, p*ss-taking and - sometimes - observation for you to have to contend with. Visitor numbers have BOOMED! (see what I did there?) this year, with one or two posts having ridiculous numbers of visitors. I'm not complaining, just grateful and bemused.

All that is left for me to do is wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a happy New Year. Whatever it is that floats your boat, be it a 'rare' or a slime mould, I hope you get plenty of them in 2014.

Ah, I hear the postman has just delivered - and it's the new Checklist of the lepidoptera of the British Isles! Well, that's the rest of the day taken care of...

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Time for a change

After 33 years of continuous full-time employment I'm now a free agent. So, if you are in need of a freelance graphic designer, art editor or need help with a bird survey, please let me know.

My extra 'free' time will mean a bit more of it being spent in the field, so the pan-listing should benefit, and I might actually find a decent bird locally - it's been a while.

Apart from 'doing the right thing' and being on hand to carry out the domestic chores that need attention, I will endeavour to write and paint my way to competence.

2014 will be very interesting indeed...

Friday, 20 December 2013

It's just not cricket!

My thanks go to the Bard of Littlestone, who put together this splendid team of birding cricketers.

Cook's Petrel
Rod Marsh Warbler
Clark's Nutcracker
Tom-tit Graveney
Bell's Vireo
Andy Flowerpecker
Jack Snipe Russell
Mitchell Stark's Lark
Ryan Harris' Hawk
Graham Swann
Montagu's Panesar

12th man - Martin Crowe

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Where BOOM! came from

I think that I may have found the inspiration behind the adoption (by a certain sort of birder) of the term BOOM! This is taken from Black Adder goes Forth and was written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton in 1989 - a full 24 years before Britain's finest birders used the word in conjunction with sending out news of a 'rare' being found.

Baldrick: "Hear the words I sing / War's a horrid thing / So I sing sing
      sing / ding-a-ling-a-ling."

George: (applauding) Oh, bravo, yes!

Edmund: Yes. Well, it started badly, it tailed off a little in the middle,
    and the less said about the end, the better. But, apart than that,

Baldrick: Oh, shall I do another one, then, sir?

Edmund: No -- we wouldn't want to exhaust you.

Baldrick: No, don't worry; I could go on all night.

Edmund: Not with a bayonet through your neck, you couldn't!

Baldrick: This one is called "The German Guns."

George: Oh, spiffing! Yes, let's hear that!

Baldrick: "Boom boom boom boom / Boom boom boom / BOOM BOOM, BOOM BOOM--


I would sincerely like to thank Birding Frontiers and The Next Generation Birders for their frequent BOOMING! this autumn. It has cheered me up no end. Please carry on, but only use the word in an 'ironic' context. Maybe think up a new word for next year? Here are a few suggestions...



F*** ME!

Please feel free to use them.

Worthy blogs

I've added a couple of extra 'worthy blogs' to my list (on the right there).

The first is A new nature blog by Miles King. The second is from George Monbiot.

Both are thoughful (and thought-provoking), taking blogging to very high levels indeed. If you want to look deeper into our natural world, the movers and shakers (and destroyers) then take a bit of time and have a look. You won't be disappointed. They both show my stuff up for the fluff that it truly is.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

NDB moth of the year

It wasn't a great year for moths locally. The long, cold spring delayed things to absurd lengths. Although not in the area, my early June visit to Martin Down illustrated how late the season was perfectly, when, on a lovely sunny and warm day, there was little on the wing.

As far as the back garden was concerned, macro highlights were few - Jersey Tiger, Tree-lichen Beauty  and Toadflax Brocades all put in repeat performances, but there was one major surprise and that was this...

...no doubt a wanderer from the chalk downland south of home was this spanking Royal Mantle, my NDB moth of the year. It was also the year in which I tried out my newly purchased pheremone lures. They were a major disappointment, with my only success being two Six-belteds at Chipstead Bottom. Again, the weather may have played havoc with emergence dates and population levels. I'll try again next year.

NDB bird of the year

What could my best bird of the year be? To be honest I've most probably done less birding this year than any other, concentrating as I have on other natural history orders or watching the many sporting events on offer (Ashes tests, Lions tests, Premiership footy). Spectacle of 2013 would probably be awarded to the 110+ Hawfinches at Mickleham, but they come in as runners-up to this little beauty...

For a number of days in mid-March my wife had reported seeing a strange bird in the back garden. She knows most of the commoner species, so the fact that this baffled her had me wondering what on earth it could be. After interrogating her with a blow-torch whilst I was wearing a Bill Oddie mask, she confessed to seeing red flashes somewhere and white in the wing. I suggested Redwing - no, smaller than that. Brambling? A proffered illustration drew a shake of the head. I then showed her a picture of a male Black Redstart and she exclaimed "That's it!". Totally gripped off (and, if I'm being honest, slightly sceptical) I staked the garden out one late afternoon and within ten minutes was watching a spanking male Black Redstart hopping about by the back door.

It remained with us just short of a fortnight, being seen in the front and back garden, plus in neighbouring properties. I never heard it sing. Needless to say it was a garden tick. The weather throughout its stay was very cold with biting easterly winds. Why it remained for so long is a mystery - did the weather influence it to remain off passage? This particular bird will live long in the memory.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Tickling the Ivory (with a few grebes thrown in)

I'm all casual about these recent British Ivory Gulls because I've seen one before - 1980 in Dorset! Some of you old timers out there may remember the 'double' twitch that this gull was part of. The Ivory Gull was frequenting the western beach where the Ferrybridge causeway joins the Isle of Portland, whilst a Pied-billed Grebe had taken up residence at Radipole Lake in Weymouth. I needed two attempts to see the grebe, and since then have seen several - Kenfig (Mid Glam), Tooting Bec Common (Surrey) and Singleton Lake (Kent). The Surrey bird was one of those rarities that proves that anything can turn up anywhere, as it decided to frequent a small pond on a south London common, more the haunt of toddlers feeding the ducks than rarity-seeking birders.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

A rare bird-footballing joke

I may have written the first rare bird - footballing joke. I was so pleased with it that I tweeted the thing and now I am recycling it as a blog post. Here it is...

BOOM! Ivory Gull seen on the pitch at White Hart Lane feeding on the corpse of Tottenham Hotspur.

Now, for those of you that know nothing about birding and football (or only a bit about one of those subjects), I'd better explain the construction of the said joke.

BOOM! - used ironically to lampoon a small section of the birding glitterati to announce the finds of rare birds.

IVORY GULL - a topical rarity, as a few have been seen in Scotland, NE England and now Yorkshire.

WHITE HART LANE - home ground of Tottenham Hotspur (my team)

CORPSE - Ivory Gulls are well known for scavenging on the corpses of cetaceans washed up on beaches

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR - have just been beaten by Liverpool 5-0 at White Hart Lane

If there are any budding stand-up comics out there, you can have this one free of charge.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Where in the world?

I was looking through some chalk downland images of mine after having read Robert Macfarlane's book The Old Ways, when I came across this old favourite of mine. Can anyone guess where it is? There is a prize, but I will not reveal what it is until it has been won...

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

End of the (birding) world.

If the rumours are true, the next edition of the journal Birding World, will be the last.I can clearly remember the day that I was shown the first issue of Twitching, a small A5-sized publication that, as the title suggested, catered for the mushrooming population of twitchers.Those of us who were twitchers, had an interest in scarce migrants, rare birds or the art of identification, were immediately hooked. Until then, apart from the worthy, but dry British Birds, there was no competitor - thus Twitching took off. It was soon renamed Birding World and soared even higher. It was the 'must read' publication for the birder.Ground-breaking identification papers and stunning photography kept the magazine in pole position for a number of years.

I gave up my subscription a few years ago. Why? Because I became fed up with the diet of gulls and geese that was being served. Maybe they were cutting edge subjects, but small geese and intermediate gulls bored me after a while. I don't know why the publication is being closed. Financial reasons? - print is a dying medium we are told. Internet competition? - Birding Frontiers (the people who brought us BOOM!) is a free identification resource and forum. Whatever the reason, it deserves a virtual pat on the back for being there during an exciting time in the evolution of birding and bird identification.I used to look forward to it falling onto the doormat every month, and there weren't many things that the postman brought back then that I could say that about.

Monday, 9 December 2013

A blogger comes clean

For anybody out there who has only come across me via this blog, I must come over as a miserable luddite, always at the ready to have a pop at the modern birder and the way that they conduct themselves. It's fair to say that even those people that do actually know me might agree with some of those statements.

I'd better come clean and put the record straight.

Subject: Steven William Gale
Age: 54 (almost 55)
First started birding: 1974, aged 15.
British BOU list: 376 (not many is it)
Birding history: Began by birding local parks, golf courses and Beddington SF. Regular trips to Staines Reservoir and Pagham Harbour. Started a life-long love affair with Dungeness in 1976. Twitcher phase lasted between 1977 (Hastings Wallcreeper) until 1982 (Nanquidno Varied Thrush), although a few other twitches were undertaken afterwards. Last twitch was the Dungeness Canvasback in 2000. All other lifers since have been incidental.
Birding admin: South Kent recorder 1982-84, Dungeness Bird Observatory committee member 1979 - 1984.
Foreign trips: France, Spain, Greece, Austria, Israel, Malaysia.
Current birding: mainly local patches with the odd trip to the coast. Time shared between other wildlife orders.
Tools: Swarovski bins and scope, Panasonic compact camera, twitter account, blog site

As you can see, I do have, and use, a Twitter account. I use it to gather birding information and, in the rare event that I find something of interest, disseminate it. I also text (or phone) such information to my closer friends. I keep field notes throughout the year and send observations to the relevant recorders (mainly birds, plants, moths and butterflies). I maintain a blog and read many others for a mixture of entertainement and interest.

So, where does my ranting and mickey-taking come from? You can clearly see that I am no luddite as I have adopted 'new media'as it comes along. A big fat dollop of this bile can be referred to as 'tongue-in-cheek'. I might not BOOM! and 'rares' myself, but I'm guilty of sending out just as much waffle as the next person. Age has a part to play. As each generation comes along they bring with them new ways of doing things, new jargon and it is the way of life that the 'oldies' get left behind - even if it is just a little bit. Some can call it sarcasm, others satire, or it could be just having a bit of a laugh with a subject that I've been involved in for almost forty years.When I describe birders as looking like a load of 'overweight middle-aged men dressed like Ray Mears', what do you think I look like when I'm out in the field? You've guessed it - an overweight middle-aged man dressed like Ray Mears. When I take the p*ss, I'm taking it out of myself and the world I losely inhabit. In conversation with birding friends it is clear that many of us 'older' birders see the humour of what is going on. And it is humourous - who cannot see the harmless absurdity in Twitter handles such as 'BigBoyPipitShagger77', the congratulating of birders for travelling to see a bird somebody else found, or the fact that a 54 year-old overweight birder spends some of his spare time sitting in front of a computer blogging about it?

Such things enrich our lives. I want more of these quirks to be present. I like BOOMS! as much as I find them absurd. If they didn't exist then someone would need to come up with something else. And remember - the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about at all.

Friday, 6 December 2013


Scuse me mate, don't think I recognise you. What's your name?


No, your proper name.

That is my proper name. It's John.

No, your birding handle. You know, the one you use on Twitter, like SuckMyList1976 or BillyBigTicks88.

I don't use Twitter.

Don't use Twitter?!! How do you find out what's around then?

Well, I go outside with my binoculars and telescope and look.

With your possee?


You know, with your team, your gang, your crew. Burn up a Cornish valley together or thrash a Scottish Island?

Er, no. I just look in the local parks, woods and farms. On my own.

Blimey, that's a bit odd. When did you last BOOM!

Sorry, you'll have to run that past me again.

When did you last find a rare and tweet it?

I don't use Twitter, I told you. And what does BOOM mean?

You've got to say BOOM! whenever you find a good bird.


Dunno? (scratches head). Everybody else does it. (Phone makes silly noise) Scuse me... Ah, it's BigBoyPipitShagger72. He's just driven 500 miles to year tick a Lancey. I must text him..."That's brilliant mate. Congratulations. Top birding"

Why are you congratulating him? His only driven a car to see a bird somebody else found.

Dunno (scratches head). Everybody else does it. Anyway, where's your big lens?

I haven't got a camera.

Well, how do you record your BOOM! rares?

I've got a field notebook and a pen. I observe the bird and write a description.

You'll never get that accepted. Lone birder, no photograph. That equals no record pal.

Whatever happened to field descriptions?

That's so 1990s. You need photographs from every angle and preferably a feather or shit sample. Let the lab boys look at it. Forensic birding we call it. The only way a single observer record will get through is if you're one of the birding elite.

Who are they?

Someone like you wouldn't know them, but you can spot them a mile off. The rest of us are dressed like Ray Mears, but they look subtly different.


Wearing a bandana. Maybe an Australian bush-hat. One of them wears a white disco suit like John Travolta. There's an unwritten rule that says 'All birders are equal, but some birders are more equal than others'. A dissenter said that it was all getting a bit Orwellian, whatever that means, but he was taken away and sent on a crash course in 'intermediate gulls'. That wiped the smile off his face...

It sounds to me that we've regressed.

You'll have to explain that to me.

Well, in Victorian times a rare bird would only be accepted if it was shot and the skin presented to the recorders. Then we discovered field-craft and could identify birds by describing what we saw by the writing of field notes. Now, it seems, field notes are no good and we need pictures to prove it. We've come full circle.

S'pose so. I've never found anything though because I spend all of my time chasing BOOMS! and rares. Hold on... (phone makes silly noise)... Right, I'm off. There's a flava wagtail showing characteristics of friedegg at Portland. I'd better go before the crew beat me to it. That would make 345 for the year if I'm following UK400, 342 on the Bandana list or 299 with BOU. Are you coming?

Believe it or not, I'm quite happy here.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Laboratory birding

So the BOU have removed Slender-billed Curlew from the British list. The 1998 Druridge Bay bird is no longer considered acceptable by today's standards. Those last three words are quite revealing. Does this mean that as each generation of birders comes along there will be a forensic examination of all the past rarity records so that all which remain are those that satisfy the up-to-date criteria?

If anybody had the time, a trawl through all of the rarity descriptions (pre-digital photography) would reveal plenty of description only accounts. And many of these would be for species that were still poorly understood as far as their identification in the field. If today's high standards were imposed on these older records, how many would survive intact? As we carry on in the era of splitting, there are times when to see a bird very well is not going to ever be enough. We will need mp3 recordings and DNA sequencing to get records accepted. I think there is a danger of imposing today's standards on records that were scrutinised (by experts remember) in days gone by. Unless one of these old records has irrefutable photographic evidence that clearly shows a mistake has been made then we ought to leave well alone.

I know the Curlew has always been contentious, but why is it only now being overturned? It is fair enough to assume that the '10 rare men' who initially accepted it did so by studying the facts in front of them and were happy to give it the green light of acceptance. So, what's changed? (By the way, I didn't see the bird in question.)

Will we ever get to a time when, along with your optics and a notebook, to be considered a red-hot birder, you will have to carry test-tubes and a microscope into the field to make sure that your finds will be accepted?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Something in the air

There is something disturbing in the early winter air. Something that makes birders angry, others confused and a few just plain sad. This has resulted in closed blogs, threats to close blogs and a great big dollop of confusion all round.

Me? I'm actually alright for once, a bemused spectator to all of this angst. But it does beg the question "Why do we do it then?" The 'it', in this case, meaning birding and blogging. I've been down this route before on quite a few posts, so I won't go there again. Is it the colder weather? The darkening afternoons? The thought of scraping ice off the car windscreen? Or the dreaming of hirundines and swifts on balmy evenings, hawking over insect-filled meadows with the summer stretching ahead of you like a great big comfort blanket?

And if your passion is moths, then let's face it, although there are a few species still on the wing, there are slim pickings for the next few months. Same with wild flowers.

Now is the time to sort all of those field notes out from 2013 (you do take notes, don't you?) and send them into the relevant recorders. Clean your optics. Make plans for 2014. And enjoy yourself... to borrow from The Specials - it's later than you think!

Monday, 2 December 2013

Twitcher's Hall

As some of you will know, I live in Surrey. And as some of you will also know, people who live in Surrey are very rich and very posh. Just to prove this point I thought that I'd share with you this photograph of my 'main' residence (above). It is called 'Twitcher's Hall'. I bought it from one of the Birdguide's chaps, who was in need of spending a lot money very quickly to avoid taxes - he has just purchased half of Berkshire. I spend most of my time here, although I do like to spend long weekends at one of my other homes, dotted around the picturesque villages of the United Kingdom, which are boarded up for most of the year and killing off the communities that they are in. It's not my fault that the locals cannot afford to buy them, is it?

I was hot-air ballooning over my acres last week and it struck me just how unlucky that I am - not a decent water body to be seen. There are a few commoners cottages in a dip, so I will just have to eject the tenants and flood the area. I'll soon get the old list up!

This is Evans the butler, sweeping up after a 'twitcher shoot' that we held on Sunday. It worked a treat! We texted a few select twitching types, telling them of a Hawk Owl on site but making them swear to suppression. Thirty of them turned up and we bagged the lot! Trouble is, they left quite a mess, all of that army surplus gear in tatters. One chaps bandana was hanging at the top of one of the Christmas Trees which caused us all to laugh - I nearly left it up there...

Evans has been with my family since the Pallas's Sandgrouse eruption of 1888. He can remember when our Turtle Dove shoots would bag 300 birds in a morning, but now we are lucky if we kill 3 in a spring. Bloody things used to wake me up with that confounded purring in the morning. I reckon the Maltese have got it just about right on taming these winged vermin.

Anyway, enough from me. I'm just about to go and meet Owen Paterson to discuss my being invited onto a government environmental think-tank. Hope none of those bloody troublemakers are there - you know, the likes of Packham, Oddie and May. I'd better take my gun in case any of the blighters are!!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Old Ways

I have just finished reading Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways and it is a book that will long remain with me. The human relationship with the creation and maintenance of pathways is explored, looking through the ages and across the types of land (or sea) affected.

The link between walking and thinking is explored. We meet a colourful cast of characters whose lives are woven into the natural world via an intimate understanding of it through the medium of travelling and embracing the landscape around them.

The book is also an homage to Edward Thomas, writer and poet who died at the Battle of Arras during the First World War. He lived and wrote about his beloved 'South Country', centred on Hampshire and Kent. Bouts of depression were walked off in the chalky hills and these journeys led to an outpouring of writing prior to, and during, his fateful journey to France.

We are also introduced to Eric Ravilious, English water-colourist who, like Thomas, died while on active service, but during World War Two. I was ignorant of his work, but have now obtained a book of his glorious paintings of the downland that he knew. These southern downlands seem to have captured an ideal of what these men were fighting for - gentle rolling hills, white-chalk pathways, discrete copses, singing skylarks.

There are passages of this book that will haunt you - Macfarlane's walk on the sands of the Broomway, a world of neither land nor water off the Essex coast; warm nights sleeping out in the open on the top of chalk downland, being woken by Skylarks singing as the light starts to break; a terrifying experience on Chanctonbury Hill that defies explanation; a walk across mountaintops to reach his grandfather's funeral; furtive excursions into Palestine where a friend keeps open the 'old ways' of travelling in a no-man's land; devotional pilgrimages around the lower elevations of asian mountains.

It is a book of many facets. If you appreciate the natural wonders of our world and like to think that our link to it goes beyond just walking on top of it, then this book will not speak to you, it will shout. After reading this, a walk will never be the same again.