Article for Ledbury Naturalists Field Club

A Walk round Frith Wood with Creative Writing Students from Worcester University. Late last summer the club was approached by Dr. Anna Stenning for some wildlife help in taking her students for a field trip round Frith Wood in November. Janet Parry was able to help and the following are two accounts of the expedition. Anna’s version

I was hopeful that the field trip to Frith Woods in Ledbury with my 15, second-year students on the Environmental Writing module – part of a degree programme in Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Worcester – would be inspirational. I have loved these woods since first visiting them when I first moved to this area five years ago, but I underestimated just how much of a physical experience writing is; how ‘environmental writing’ makes little sense in the neutral environment of a classroom. We had been looking at classics of nature writing by writers as diverse as HD Thoreau, Gilbert White, Annie Dillard, Robert Macfarlane and Richard Mabey. Many of the students were new to this type of writing, and had little recent experience of nature study. The writers we were studying probably seemed a little removed from their experiences, and the types of nature they were familiar with. As the poet and nature writer Edward Thomas wrote in his 1908 work The South Country ‘Literature sends us to Nature principally for joy, joy of the senses, of the whole frame, of the contemplative mind, and of the soul’. I have experienced this personally, and I knew that my enthusiastic students, despite having some anxieties about trying new things, could gain from writing about direct experiences of nature.

So we met at Ledbury Station in late November 2015. It had been raining for several weeks by then, and I had been worried the paths would be entirely waterlogged, and that there wouldn’t be enough to see at this austere time of year. But Janet had kindly walked with me a week earlier and we worked out a possible route through the woods – from the main ride to the top ridge and back via Bradlow Knoll (which I’d never visited before). Janet noted quite a few interesting species of fungi, some small-leaved lime I hadn’t noticed before, and pointed out the dormice and bat boxes. On the first part of the route we saw that the bell flower remained in bloom unseasonably late, but the berries of the black bryony and spindle tree shone out brightly from the grey hedge. On the ridge, Janet told me the earthworks indicated the early human occupation of the woods, and we talked about how the limestone ridge had been formed. So I had an idea of what sorts of things I could encourage students to look out for.

I created a quiz for students to work on as they visited the woods – trying to get them to think scientifically and imaginatively about the woods. What they didn’t learn on the route they were able to find out the following week from the booklet ‘Exploring Frith Wood’ to which Ledbury Naturalists had contributed. While I was disappointed at first how few species of trees the students as a whole could identify (perhaps unfairly, given the time of year), they were quickly able to spot many more with Janet’s encouragement. With her experience as a teacher, Janet made a great impression on the group. We waded through a fair amount of mud, dodged overhanging branches and nettles, and wheezed up the slopes. But the students were the happiest I’ve seen them (not just out of relief) by the time we arrived for a photo opportunity at Bradlow Knoll. My friend, the poet Myfanwy Fox, was a very generous back-marker who took photographs and helped the stragglers. Afterwards, she shared with me some of her poems of Herefordshire place names.

The following week we produced some ‘deep maps’ of our experiences of the woods, and these included some thoughtful commentaries on the human, geological and natural histories of Frith Woods, including the macabre associations of the ‘Hangman’s Hill’ and Cut Throat Lane. Given that nature writing can be a rather intimidating and elitist genre, the students have engaged with its ideas with enthusiasm and originality, and their later assignments were informed by this field trip. The trip was also a good basis for moving from classic nature writing to other types of writing about place and environment, and research into setting, in all types of writing, from fiction to poetry.

November

A grey November light tells me
Something about death: it creeps
Through gaps. Grasping for throats
Tenderly. The cat breaches

The space between me and him,
Weaving ribbons of scent
On my face, ribbons that tie
To the smell of hair on a pillow.

A smell that ties me to you,
The same thick wavy-brown hair.
The same kind of smell and the
Same kind of light on you.

But you can’t see it, lying
In your tiny bed, with your
Nut-brown face against the wall.
These ribbons are strong, and so

Are my hands and eyes, and I wish
I could give you their strength to feel
Their soft touch and bright colours. How can
The ribbons be so weak they fall off

And I can’t keep them tied to your hands. Do your
Eyes soak in, but not see,
This deadly November light?
I’d give a thousand November days

August ones even – for you to feel
The cat’s warmth against your belly
To see your beautiful things and feel loved.
But death pulls them with such force.

Let the wars cease; no more remembrances
But for you, a dustman’s child
Child of the Downs. Watch this
Fade into the grey November light.

Walking writing workshop on 25 October in the Ledbury Burgage Hall

Back in August, I thought of running some sort of workshop around walking and writing in Ledbury. This was because I love writing about my walks, I love Ledbury, and I wanted to find out if there are others out there who share these interests. I also wanted to share some of things I’ve learned in my MA and PhD, and I wanted to put into practice Edward Thomas’s teachings about the importance of learning  through intimacy with particular places. So I spoke to my friend Ruth Stacey, who is a local poet that I admire, to see if she would be interested in participating.

Some of our audience knew the texts we looked at well: Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure; Robert Macfarlane’s Wild Places and The Old Ways; less knew Linda Cracknell’s Doubling Back. Less knew Kathleen Jamie and Rebecca Solnit’s critiques of nature writing. We spoke about non-fiction nature writing and its possibilities for changing our awareness of our surroundings and local environment;  about Mabey and Cracknell’s writing; and how Macfarlane has inhabited and popularised a new genre.

In the second half, I briefly talked about Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and Edward Thomas’s The Sun Used to Shine in the contexts of their friendship and stays in Dymock, and their different approach to walking poetry. I also wanted to highlight how walking can provide an imaginative link with landscape, and how writing can benefit from the physical rhythms of the walk. Then poets Ruth Stacey and Jenny Hope amply demonstrated the possibilities for walking as a basis for poetic inspiration and form. Both writers are local to Worcestershire and find themes in the landscape. Ruth started with her beautiful poem ‘Go Round’. Jenny Hope followed with some of her tales of Martley,and showed in her poem about a local culling of rooks, as Edward Thomas said of poet Ralph Hodgson,  ‘a sorrow both for the loss of beauty and for a wound given to an ancient order which passes man’s understanding’.

Our walk was a real pleasure – the sun shone and we fell into an easy pace on our way through Dog Hill Woods and then up through the middle of the ancient Frith Woods. We passed coppiced sweet chestnuts and ancient yew, graffiti magpie and orchards. It was a joy to meet Jackie and hear about her involvement with the Friends of the Dymock Poets and rural tourism. She made me realise how important it is to have people who keep paths open so that those who aren’t local to an area can get to know a place.My young friend Emily (aged ten) enjoyed the walk, and talked about her den-making adventures with her friend in the Wyre Forest.  My main regret was that Sandra couldn’t join us for the walk because of the difficulties of wheelchair access. And this has made me think about the need to be more inclusive in future events. Jackie mentioned an inspired photographer who is working on the Welsh borders to produce ‘Still Walks’, and who I will try to keep following.

I very much hope this will be the beginning of future events about writing the Herefordshire and Worcestershire borders.

For another corvid link from this day, see Myfanwy Fox’s blog.

Walking-writing workshop in Ledbury - copyright James Marcham
Walking-writing workshop in Ledbury – copyright James Marcham

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Self-promotion (again)

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