Young at heart

Liz Nicholls

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Ruth Young’s new children’s book is called The Turkey Shed Gang. She tells us about her love for teaching, as well as why Cranleigh is the best place in the world

Ruth loves walking in the Surrey Hills which surround Cranleigh. She often goes up nearby Pitch Hill to see the far-reaching views over the beautiful countryside down towards the sea. “It’s very rural and yet just an hour from Londo,” she says, “which makes it a great place to live. And you can be down at the coast in under an hour.”

Ruth is a teacher and taught in local schools until she retired. Now she teaches children at home who may need help with their learning. She is a teaching of reading specialist and particularly loves teaching children with dyslexia. She says: “Learning to read is the most important skill to learn. It opens up the ability to access all the curriculum. That’s why if a child needs specific help they must get it. She loves helping these children and seeing their excitement when they achieve their goals. There’s nothing better!”

Ruth has spoken on BBC Surrey three times about teaching and learning and written articles in a national parenting magazine.

The Turkey Shed Gang is a story about Joe, his Granny Sal and a parrot called Mr Percival. They go on the run to escape the police… It’s for children aged 7 and up who can read independently or anyone who may need a little extra help. She hopes it encourages children to keep turning the pages. The children she’s heard from who have read it have said it does just that!

The Turkey Shed Gang

It’s available on Amazon or from Ruth’s website ruthyoung.co.uk

Winnie-the-Pooh 95th anniversary prequel

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Once There Was A Bear, a new prequel to mark the 95th anniversary of the classic Winnie-The-Pooh.

With so much uncertainty in the world the familiar, beloved characters from our childhood are more welcome than ever. So the enchanting new 95th anniversary prequel to Winnie-The-Pooh’s adventures is perfectly timed for anyone who has the privilege of reading a bedtime story to younger ones this year.

We all have a place in our hearts for the adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, as told by A.A. Milne, in Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. In honour of the 95th anniversary of Winnie-the-Pooh, highly talented author Jane Riordan has created a wonderful collection of new stories, written in the style of A.A. Milne, that take us back to when it all began, when Winnie-the-Pooh was first purchased for baby Christopher Robin.

From London and Christopher Robin’s Mallard Street playroom to the familiar surroundings of the Hundred Acre Wood, this timeless collection follows Pooh and friends on a new series of adventures, with outings to the Natural History Museum and London Zoo, where Pooh meets his namesake, Winnipeg. A.A Milne and his son visited the real-life Canadian bear – known as Winnie – and this inspired the name of the book’s much-loved bear.

Illustrated with beautiful decorations by Mark Burgess in the style of E.H. Shepard, and radiating the warmth and playfulness of the original stories, Once There Was a Bear is a tribute to The Best Bear in All the World and the perfect opportunity to revisit these favourite friends and find out how they become the larger than life characters that we all know and love.

Winnie-the-Pooh Timeline

1914

Winnipeg the black bear arrives at London Zoo for safekeeping whilst her owner, Lt. Colebourn, is posted to France with his regiment.


1920

A.A. Milne’s son Christopher Milne is born and in his early years is a frequent visitor to London Zoo.


1921

Christopher Milne is bought a bear from Harrods. Originally christened Mr Edward Bear or Teddy Bear, he is eventually renamed Winnie, inspired by the real-life bear, Winnipeg.


1924

A.A. Milne publishes his first book of children’s poetry When We Were Very Young, where Teddy Bear makes his first appearance. The book features decorations by E.H. Shepard, later earning him the name ‘the man who drew Pooh’.


1925

The London Evening Standard approach A.A. Milne to create a story for its Christmas Eve edition. The Wrong Sort of Bees becomes the first stand-alone Winnie-the-Pooh story.


1926

On October 14th, A.A. Milne’s first volume of stories Winnie-the-Pooh is published, including decorations by E.H. Shepard, which have become an inseparable part of the Pooh stories.


1927

A.A. Milne’s second poetry collection, Now We are Six, is released.


1928

A.A. Milne’s final book in the series, The House at Pooh Corner, is published introducing a new character named Tigger.

About the author

Jane Riordan grew up next to, and often paddling in, the River Itchen. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be a writer because, like Winnie-the-Pooh, her spelling wobbled. She now lives in London and has two boys who are much better at spelling than she is. Jane has a strong pedigree in writing in the style of A.A. Milne, having created Winnie-the-Pooh Meets the Queen, and the re-issue edition Winnie-the-Pooh Goes to London. She is author of many other books for children including Watch Out, Little Narwhal!, I am NOT a Sleepy Sloth and A Pudding for Christmas.

Originally published in the 1920s, following the First World War, A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories were an instant success. Their enduring appeal means the books have never been out of print and, to date, have been translated into 72 languages. The stories remain some of the best loved works in children’s fiction, with Winnie-the-Pooh named both the UK’s best-loved children’s book (YouGov, 2014) and favourite childhood book character (The Reading Agency, 2016). Marking the 95th anniversary of Winnie-the-Pooh, author Jane Riordan discusses the iconic bear, recreating A.A. Milne’s style and her favourite Pooh moments …

What are your early memories of Winnie-the-Pooh? I can’t think of a time when I didn’t know A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories – the poetry has also been in my head for as long as I can remember. I do remember though having a record with a sung version of Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace which I loved because London was a very exotic and far-away place for me at the time.

I was lucky enough to grow up in the countryside, with a river at the bottom of the garden and nearby there is a bridge which we still call the Poohsticks bridge. I used to play Poohsticks there very calmly with my sister and sometimes in a much louder, riskier way with my naughty cousins – I don’t think that, like Eeyore, any of them actually fell in but they tried their best to!

What inspired you to write the prequel? In the original stories Winnie-the-Pooh lives in a tree in the Hundred Acre Wood but history tells us that he was bought from Harrods for Christopher Robin’s first birthday. I loved the idea of seeing Pooh and Eeyore and Piglet in London, in the nursery that is written about so much in the poetry and also out and about in London as well.

What adventures does the city hold for Pooh and friends? We know that Pooh in part got his name from a real bear in London Zoo, Winnipeg, or Winnie for short and so I couldn’t wait for them to meet in one of my stories. I couldn’t resist our Winnie being a little bit jealous of how much Christopher Robin admired the real bear. This is what Pooh had to say about that meeting: ‘“One bear in London is probably enough,”thought Pooh to himself, hoping it could be him.’

How difficult was it to recreate A.A. Milne’s style? A.A. Milne’s style is so distinctive and the characters have such strong voices that once I’ve decided where to take them, it’s as if I can hear them in my head, worrying, in the case of Piglet, or bemoaning something, in the case of Eeyore! Sometimes it’s more a question of asking them to hush so that the plot can move on! But that’s the beauty of Winnie-the-Pooh, it’s not so much about what happens in a story, it’s more about the characters’ observations and interactions – the smallest happenings can become big adventures.

What are your favourite Pooh moments? In the original stories there’s something about the pathos of the Eeyore birthday story that really resonates with me. When Pooh realises it’s Eeyore’s birthday and everyone has forgotten he rushes home to find a present for him, the detail I love is that he looks to see if he has ‘quite a small jar’ of honey… Of course the best-known part of the story is Piglet bursting the birthday balloon and Pooh eating the birthday honey but the pleasure Eeyore takes in putting his burst balloon in the jar and taking it out again, is so poignant and just brilliant.

What are your favourite words of wisdom from the original books? My favourite quote would have to be when Pooh pays a visit to Rabbit and Rabbit asks if he would like honey or condensed milk with his bread and he is so excited that he answers “both”, and then, so as to not seem rude, he added, “But don’t bother about the bread, please.”

What do you think made the Pooh stories such an instant hit? A.A. Milne was in fact already a successful and well-known writer, primarily a playwright before he became associated with Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh Bear first appeared in Punch magazine before having his very own book written about him! But the poetry collections that first introduced audiences to Edward Bear were instant bestsellers, as were the three books that followed it. At the time Europe was still reeling from the First World War and A.A. Milne’s poems and stories offered a safe place for readers – the Hundred Acre Wood – and let’s not forget just how funny the stories are – they were the perfect distraction for adults and children alike.

Why do you think these stories continue to resonate with readers? No matter how much the world changes, some things remain timeless. The Pooh stories have a comforting, gentle wisdom that reminds us about the importance of friendship and the joy of simple pleasures. There’s a wonderful familiarity about shy Piglet, know-it-all Owl and bumbling Pooh. And a charming reassurance that everything will be OK in the end. Sometimes even the rainiest days can lead to the biggest adventures.

These are ideas that speak to readers across generations. It makes them perfect stories to escape to by yourself or read aloud together- something we know is enormously beneficial to children.

Winnie-the-Pooh: Once There Was a Bear
The Official 95th Anniversary Prequel

By Jane Riordan, illustrated by Mark Burgess
(Farshore, £14.99, 30 September 2021)

Hardback/gift edition

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My Journey as a Belly Dancer

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Elizabeth Gordon’s book details the extraordinary moves that took her from legal secretary to belly dancer

From legal secretary to belly dancer may not sound like an obvious career move but for Elizabeth Gordon it proved to be the perfect one.

Her moves as a belly dancer set her off on a path that would change her life forever and one which she has captured in her book My Journey as a Belly Dancer.

After the breakdown of a relationship in Barrister’s chambers, Elizabeth took herself off to the more exotic climes of Morocco, keen to get away from her broken heart and feeling rather uncertain about her future. Not knowing which direction to take other than to board the plane and bring about a break from her daily routine, she became inspired having watched an Arabic belly dancer perform in a hotel.

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From that moment, Elizabeth says she knew “that I would be in her shoes one day” and on her return home she signed up for classes. Her true story “delves into the glitz and dangers of a world she found herself caught up in, when she began dancing at a Turkish Cypriot restaurant in London”.

Elizabeth features in the book as Shariffa, highlighting her experiences as a dancer in Northern Cyprus in the late 1980s for a couple of months. Here she met Mr Bedis at his taverna and danced for soldiers in the barracks.

Fascinating and insightful, she hopes it will be “an inspiring tale of how anyone can find something new within themselves when they believe all is lost”.

Her book is available to buy on Amazon.

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Where’s Brian’s Bottom? asks Abingdon illustrator

Liz Nicholls

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Local illustrator Rob Jones always wanted to create a children’s book and, in Where’s Brian’s Bottom? the dream has unfolded!

“I’ve always loved dogs, especially sausage dogs,” says Rob, who lives in Abingdon, “but sadly I’ve never owned one. I’m hoping one day I’ll have one called Brian!”

Where’s Brian’s Bottom? is Rob’s new board book for toddlers that unfolds to two metres long. Young readers are encouraged to help Brian find his bottom in the house and learn about different animals and the sounds they make.

“I didn’t used to draw dogs that often,” adds Rob, “until I illustrated The Funny Life of Pets by James Campbell. I find I draw them all the time now. Anytime I sign a card or book, there will usually be a doodle of a dog.”

Rob studied illustration at the University of Gloucestershire and it was during this time that he discovered a love for making books, toys and puppets. He has made many puppets for the Story Museum’s Christmas production in Oxford. His first book, Bernard, won the People’s Book Prize in 2014. “I owe a lot to the Story Museum,” says Rob. “They were really supportive of me when my first book Bernard was released.

I once took part in an exhibition there called “the illustrator zoo” where visitors could watch me work on book ideas. I’ve made puppets for four of their shows, the first being Winter Mouse, which was made using a sleeve from an old jumper. I’m looking forward to taking my son there once it reopens.

“My advice to any budding illustrators out there is not to give up! There have been many times over the last 10 years when I’ve been close, but something has always happened to keep me going. I am also very lucky, as my family, friends and colleagues are all so supportive of me.”

Where’s Brian’s Bottom? £6.99, ISBN 9781843654667


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Guildford inspires Alice In Wonderland stories

Liz Nicholls

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Take a journey through the looking glass and discover a new story based on the Alice in Wonderland tales just released by a Guildford author.

Alice Ventures Beyond Wonderland written by Robin G Smith introduces a host of new creatures to an audience of children and adults alike.

Guildford has been associated with Alice in Wonderland since author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, completed the sequel, Through the Looking Glass.

Robin has written children’s books as well as adult science-fiction and factual titles, for 20 years, but it wasn’t until lockdown he turned his skills to reimagining the world that Carroll created. Alice Ventures Beyond Wonderland introduces a new audience to a world of intriguing creatures through strange encounters yet also touches on difficult issues that we are all too familiar with today, such as bullying and identity.

Robin says: “I have always loved the two Alice in Wonderland books and wanted to see if it was possible to write something similar. I had been collecting ideas for years and lockdown gave me the opportunity to concentrate on completing the project. I’m delighted with the response I’ve already had from adults and children alike, who seem to enjoy its blend of subtle humour and contemporary issues.”

He is already planning the sequel to Alice Ventures Beyond Wonderland. Alice Ventures Beyond Wonderland is illustrated by Helena Chessher and available to buy now in hardback, paperback, and e-book from Amazon or www.treefirecreative.com

For a preview, visit www.alicebeyondwonderland.com

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April recipes: Baking power

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We’ve cooked up a sneaky slice of The National Trust Book of Baking by Sybil Kapoor, which is out on 15th April, with these heart-warming spring recipes.

Easy leek tart

Ingredients:

• 225g/8oz puff pastry (see below if making fresh)
• 680g/11⁄2 lb untrimmed leeks
• 1⁄2 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
• salt and freshly ground black pepper
• 225g/8oz taleggio cheese

For the puff pastry

• 225g/8oz plain flour pinch of salt
• 225g/8oz cold butter about 120ml/4fl oz cold water

PREP: 15 minutes & 30 minutes rest time

COOKING: 25 minutes

SERVES: 6

Method:

1 On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry into a large rectangle about 3mm/1⁄8 in thick. Using a 20 x 30cm/8 x 12in Swiss roll tin as a giant pastry cutter, cut out a rectangle of that size. If you are using homemade puff pastry there will be quite
a lot of leftover pastry, so carefully fold up the trimmings and freeze. Take a sharp knife and lightly run it about 1cm/1⁄2 in inside the pastry edge, so that you score a line to create a rim for the tart. Prick the internal rectangle with a fork. Place on a non-stick baking sheet and chill for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to fan 200°C/gas 7.

2 Trim the leeks of their roots and darker green leaves. Remove the tough outer leaves then slice lengthways through the green- coloured section of leaves. Wash thoroughly in a sink of cold water. Bring a pan of water to the boil. Add the leeks, return to the boil and cook briskly for 5 minutes or until just tender. Drain and cool under the cold tap. Squeeze out the excess water and pat dry on kitchen paper.

3 Slice the leeks and spread them over the pastry, taking care not to cover the rim. Scatter with the chopped tarragon and lightly season. Remove the rind from the cheese and slice or break into pieces. Dot over the filling.

4 Bake for 20 minutes or until the pastry is crisp and the cheese is bubbling and flecked gold.

Puff Pastry:

The pastry itself doesn’t take long to make, but it needs to be rested regularly in between rollings. The chilling times are the minimum period of time you should leave the dough, but you can leave it several hours if you like.

1 Mix together the flour and salt in a food processor. Cut 30g/1oz of the cold butter into small dice, add to the flour and whiz until it forms fine crumbs. Tip into a bowl and mix in enough cold water to form a rough dough. Lightly knead into a ball, wrap and chill for 30 minutes. Return the remaining butter to the fridge.

2 Fifteen minutes before you are ready to roll, take the remaining 200g/7oz butter out of the fridge and let it soften slightly. Place the butter between two sheets of greaseproof paper or baking parchment and use a rolling pin to flatten it into a 2.5cm/1in thick rectangle.

3 On a floured work surface, roll out the dough into a rectangle that is three times the length of the butter and about 2.5cm/1in wider than the butter. Place the butter in the centre of the dough and then fold over the top and bottom flaps of dough, so that the butter is completely covered. Using the rolling pin, lightly press down on each edge so that the butter is sealed in. Give the dough a half-turn clockwise.

4 Using short sharp strokes, roll out the dough so that it returns to its original length (three times that of the butter) but retains the same thickness. Then fold in the top and bottom ends, press the edges with the rolling pin and give a further half-turn clockwise. If the butter is breaking through the pastry or the pastry is becoming warm, stop, wrap and chill for 30 minutes. If not, you can repeat the rolling process one more time before resting the dough. Make a note of which way the dough is facing before chilling, as you will need to continue with the clockwise half-turns.

5 After 30 minutes’ chilling, replace the pastry on the floured surface in the position that you left off and continue with a further two rolls and half-turns. Chill for another 30 minutes and then make two more rolls and half-turns. Wrap and chill until needed or cut in half and freeze.

Strawberry cream cake

Ingredients:

Whisked sponge

• 85g/3oz caster sugar, plus extra for dusting
• 85g/3oz plain flour, sifted, plus extra for dusting
• pinch of salt
• 3 medium eggs

Strawberry filling

• 310g/11oz strawberries 1 tablespoon kirsch
• 2 tablespoons caster sugar 225ml/8fl oz double cream

PREP: 15 minutes

COOKING: 20 minutes

SERVES: 8

This cake is the picture of summer if you place a freshly opened rose on its sugary top. Perfect for June birthdays. As it is a whisked sponge, and contains no fat, it is best eaten on the day it’s baked. The sponge freezes well and makes a wonderful trifle.

Method:

1 Preheat the oven to fan 170°C/gas 4. Lightly oil two 18cm/7in cake tins. Line the base of each with baking parchment and lightly oil. Dust the sides of each tin with caster sugar and then with flour.
2 Sift the flour and salt together and set aside. Place the eggs and sugar in a large bowl. If you have an electric whisk, beat until the mixture is pale and thick and leaves a trail when you lift the whisk. If you’re whisking by hand, place the bowl over a pan of just-boiled water (off the heat); whisk until it is pale and thick, then remove from the pan and continue to whisk until cool.
3 Tip the flour over the surface of the whisked egg mixture and, using a flat metal spoon, gently fold the flour into the mixture. Divide between the two tins and bake for 20 minutes or until golden. Test by lightly pressing the cake with your fingertip: it will spring back if cooked.
4 Leave the cakes in their tins on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Turn out the cakes and peel off the baking paper. Dust the top of one cake (baked-side up) with caster sugar. Leave until cold.
5 Meanwhile, hull, halve and slice the strawberries. Toss with the kirsch and 2 tablespoons caster sugar.
6 Once the cakes are cold, whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Fold in the strawberry mixture. Spread over the bottom sponge, leaving a clear edge for the cream to squeeze into when you
add the top. Gently squash on the sugared top and add a further dusting of caster sugar.

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Guildford Book Festival

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Guildford Book Festival, 6th-13th October, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Over the years it has hosted some very well-known names but it began in 1989 with a free lunchtime event with an at the time little-known author, Sebastian Faulks. His first novel The Girl at the Lion d’Or had just come out, the first part of the French trilogy which went on to include the emotional First World War best-seller Birdsong and later the Second World War story of heroine Charlotte Gray.

Events this year include Chris Ryan (Electric Theatre, 6th October) speaking about his experiences in the SAS and how events such as Brexit may impact in intelligence sharing and our security, as well as talking about his latest book Black Ops.

David Suchet, better known as Poirot, will talk about his passion for photography, his life and career, with Michael Buerk (Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, 6th October). Behind the Lens: My Life in Photos features images from his life which he’ll be sharing.

Monday 7th includes the start of a week-long creative writing workshop; Deborah Moggach and Nicholas Coleridge at the Literary Lunch; broadcaster Kirsty Wark will be talking about her second novel The House by the Loch and historian Max Hastings will be looking at Operation Chastise – The Dambusters Story 1943.

If you haven’t already got a ticket you’re too late to enjoy a coffee morning with The Countess of Carnarvon when she’ll be sharing secrets of Christmas of Highclere, aka the fictional Downton Abbey, but there are a host of other great events to enjoy on Tuesday 8th.

There are still a few tickets left for William Clegg QC’s Under the Wig – A lawyer’s stories of murder, guilt and innocence, John Craven’ sHeadlines and Hedgerows and Luke Jennings is talking about No Tomorrow, the second in the Killing Eve trilogy, now a hugely successful BBC series.

Among the highlights on Wednesday are a look at life on the glamorous French Riveria with Anne de Courcy’s Chanel’s Riviera – Life, Love and the Struggle for Survival on the Cote d’Azur, 1930-1944. Virginia Nicholson takes us into the 1960s with How Was It For You? Women, Sex, Love and Power in the 1960s and there’s the chance to enjoy Cocktail Night with Signe Johansen’s Spirited – How to create easy, fun drinks at home.

Thursday puts the spotlight on Leonardo da Vinci with Ben Lewis’s book The Last Leonardo, Andrew Lownie shares secrets of The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves while Paul Arnott looks at Windrush – A ship through time and Professor Mike Berners-Lee examines the ‘very hot’ topic of the environmental and economic challenges we face in There is no planet B – A handbook for the make or break years.

Fans of Dirty Dancing – and who isn’t – will be excited by the showing of this eighties classic on Friday evening after Katy Brand’s talk on her book, I Carried a Watermelon – Dirty Dancing and Me which tells of the comedian’s lifelong obsession with the movie in her love letter to the iconic film.

Saturday is Readers’ Day with the mini festival in a day, which is already sold out – book very early for next year! There’s still fun to be had courtesy of Pam Ayres with her collection of verse, Up in the Attic.

Guildford Book Festival winds up on Sunday 13th with an extra session of Peter FiennesA Walk in the Woods, Steve Backshall shares his latest adventures in Expedition – Adventures into Undiscovered Worlds before it winds up with an evening with Louis de BernieresCaptain Correlli and Beyond.

More info

For details about all these events and more visit

Headlines & Hedgerows

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Our countryside & its wildlife is at risk. We encourage you to join the campaign to save our endangered hedgerows and share an exclusive extract from John Craven’s new book.

The hedgerows that criss-cross our countryside are not only an iconic sight, but a vital habitat and corridor for many of our native species. However, they are becoming increasingly fragmented which is threatening the wildlife that depends on them.

We’ve lost about half our hedgerows since WWII. Although the rate of direct hedge removal has been reduced, hedgerows are being lost simply through how they are managed.

“With 70% of UK land being agricultural, hedgerows offer the safest route for wildlife to travel across farmland,” says Megan Gimber, key habitats project officer at PTES. “Sadly, many hedgerows are becoming ‘gappy’, which fragments this amazing network. And, without more sensitive management, many hedgerows are at risk of being lost altogether. This is problematic, especially when we’re seeing a fall in numbers of the animals that depend on them, such as hedgehogs, bats, hazel dormice and song thrush.”

In Britain, habitat fragmentation is thought to be a limiting factor for the distribution of some species and a threat to others’ survival. Corridors play a vital role preserving a number of species deemed ‘at risk’. Some 16 out of the 19 birds included in the Farmland Bird Index, used by government to assess the state of farmland wildlife, are associated with hedgerows.

Healthy hedgerows reduce soil erosion, flooding damage and air and water pollution. They provide forage for pollinating insects, predators to keep crop pests in check and shelter for livestock, reducing deaths from exposure and improving milk yields. Hedges help us fight climate change by storing carbon and reduce the damage from flooding.
To take part in the Great British Hedgerow Survey or find out more, visit hedgerowsurvey.ptes.org

Hedgerow. Credit Allen Paul Photography & Shutterstock.com
annie-spratt-cZFe4oIIPg8-unsplash
An extract from John Craven’s new book

Headlines and Hedgerows is published by Michael Joseph

We have all heard that well-known piece of advice first coined by W.C. Fields: “Never work with animals or children.” Well, I’ve done both throughout my career (in fact, I couldn’t have succeeded without them!) so in my case at least that old adage is totally wrong.

I suppose one reason for my longevity is that I have never been very ambitious. I have not sought the headlines, never seriously courted celebrity nor been tempted to take chances on high-profile but potentially risky and short-lived programmes – apart from one, and that was Newsround, which was a six-week experiment in 1972. Thankfully it is still going strong so, as it turned out, it was not much of a gamble and a recent poll in Radio Times placed Newsround at number three in a list of the top 20 children’s programmes of all time.

And Countryfile is often in the top 20 of most-watched shows. During my 30 years there I’ve seen rural issues ranging from social isolation and deprivation to the way our food is produced climb higher and higher up the national agenda. That our audience is split pretty evenly between country dwellers and townies proves to me that, united as a nation in this at least, we want to preserve, protect and enjoy our glorious countryside…

For my Countryfile interview with Prime Minister David Cameron, we met for an hour at Cogges Manor Farm, a rural heritage centre in his Oxfordshire constituency. The cameras were set up around the kitchen table and before he arrived a lady who seemed to be in charge of his “image” wanted to know where he’d sit. She checked the angles and saw a large Welsh dresser in the background. “Could we move some of those plates and ornaments,” she said. “It’s too fussy.” It proved that politicians have learned to be careful what’s behind them on screen. An exit sign, for instance, would be the last thing they wanted.

When Mr Cameron came in, dressed casually in a jumper – this, after all, was Countryfile – he said “I was brought up on you, John!” I don’t feel particularly old but it’s alarming when the man leading the country says you were part of his childhood! We had a wide-ranging conversation and he had no idea of the questions beforehand. I challenged him on his plan to make his administration the greenest government ever (which didn’t really happen) and overdevelopment threats to the landscape. “I care deeply about our countryside and environment,” he told me earnestly. “I’d no more put them at risk than I would my own family.”

Today, I wonder what he’d make of the report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England revealing 15,500 new houses have been approved in areas of outstanding natural beauty in the years since. We also talked of his plans for a free vote in Parliament on bringing back hunting with hounds (which never happened) and persuading all other EU countries to enforce farm animal welfare laws as diligently as the UK (still waiting for that). I was impressed by his detailed knowledge of rural issues, even when pressed for details. A few months later at a Downing Street lunch for people involved in all aspects of the countryside, he smiled and said he hadn’t expected to be grilled by “a rural Jeremy Paxman.”

The Great British Hedgerow Survey

To take part in the Great British Hedgerow Survey or find out more

Literary heaven

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Marlborough is set to welcome writers and readers of all sorts as it celebrates 10 years of its LitFest

Award-winning writers, established names and emerging authors are all on the bill at this year’s Marlborough LitFest which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Children’s authors, poetry events and themes including history, archaeology, mental health, travel, sports, food, nature and adventure should guarantee that there truly is something for everyone to enjoy this month.

Among the well-known names set to appear are Ben Okri, who is this year’s Golding Speaker, and favourites such as ian Rankin, Joanne Harris, Carol Ann Duffy, Robert Harris and David Baddiel.

Chair of Marlborough LitFest, Genevieve Clarke, said: “The LitFest has come a long way in 10 years. We’re thrilled to be celebrating our first decade with established literary names, plenty of writers just starting out, a mix of themes, creative workshops and a fabulous children’s programme. We’ve also stepped up our commitment to outreach as a way of drawing in new audiences from Marlborough and beyond. I’d like to thank our committee, volunteers and sponsors for all their help in putting together an exciting programme for 2019.”

The festival which features nearly 40 events this year will begin with poet Carol Ann Duffy on Thursday, 26th September at Marlborough College where she will read from her latest collection, Sincerity as well as some of her earlier work.

The Golding Speaker Ben Okri will address the audience at the Town Hall on Friday 27th. The Nigerian-born writer came to recognition in 1991 when aged just 32 he was the youngest winner of the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road.

Debut authors will feature alongside the established with Elizabeth Macneal and Stacey Halls showcasing their novels on Saturday 28th. Macneal’s The Doll Factory is set in 1850s London and tells of a woman who is both artist and artist’s model. Halls’s novel The Familiars is set at the time of the Pendle witch trials when 10 people were hanged for murder by witchcraft.

Among the other attractions is this year’s Big Town Read, Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path,

chosen for local book groups to enjoy and telling the true story of a homeless, penniless, jobless couple who walk the 630 miles of the South West Coast Path from Minehead to Poole. Their walk and the story of it is defiant and life-affirming.

Festival favourite, Poetry in the Pub returns and new for this year is LitFest’s own What the Papers Say on Sunday morning.

A key feature of this year’s festival is the growth of its outreach events which intend to bring the best of good writing to Marlborough and this year includes a partnership with Save the Children, links with HMP Erlestoke and increased activity with local schools.

Find out more

To find out more about everything that’s going on and to book, visit

Good things

Round & About

book

Acclaimed author Vesna Main, who lives in Putney, tells us about her new novel Good Day? and the ideas that helped it come to fruition

One January more than a decade ago, Woman’s Hour broadcast an interview with a woman whose husband had been visiting prostitutes for many years. The programme had an online discussion board and many other women poured out similar traumatic stories.

Most of them were in happy, sexually fulfilling relationships. More often than not, their partners were professionally successful, gregarious. There were many conflicting views – some hated the prostitutes seeing them as rivals but also believed as ‘sisters’ they should support them.

That discussion made me question many of my views. I used to think men who visited prostitutes were mostly single and that prostitution was no different from any other industry, with workers freely offering a service in exchange for remuneration. Reading academic research and interviews with prostitutes, it became clear to me that selling one’s body is very different from selling one’s skills and that most of the sex workers were forced to do so usually through social or personal circumstances.

From the material I gathered, a story emerged of two characters, Richard and Anna, a middle aged, middle-class, educated, articulate couple. Richard had been seeing prostitutes for many years and when he was discovered, Anna’s world fell apart. Her past felt false knowing he had had a secret life. Her dignity as a woman was undermined: her husband had chosen others over her. If she confided in a friend, she feared being judged as a woman who denied sex to her partner. She was at a loss at to what to do.

I wrote two versions of the novel, both in a more or less classic realist style, the style that I associate with the great novels of the 19th-century. I abandoned both versions.

After various false starts, I had the idea of writing a novel within a novel. In Good Day?, the main character is a woman writer and every day, as her husband, the reader, returns from work, they discuss her progress.

The story of Richard and Anna is the novel she is working on. In this way, the text had two equally important view points and the dialogue structure suited the questioning nature of the exchanges between the reader and the writer which, as the story progresses, become increasingly confrontational, with the two regularly siding with Richard or Anna, according to their gender role.
We asked Vesna about where she lives and how it inspires her…

Q. Do you have any favourite local places to write, or simply relax? “I tend to write at home. Putney is great for walks and walks are good for thinking. Anywhere I go, the world of the text I am working on is with me and any ideas that pop into my head, I jot down in a pocket notebook. I particularly love the path up or down the Thames near Wandsworth Park. The walled garden at the Bishop’s Palace, just across Putney bridge, is another favourite spot.”

Q. Do you already know what your next book is going to be about? “I wrote a novel last summer and it is in my drawer, left to ‘mature’ before I send it out. Its protagonist is a woman of 92, a former piano teacher. The story takes place over one day as she looks back on her life. Without disclosing what happens, let me just say that my main impulse in writing it was to create a woman at an advanced age who is still very much a sexual being, longing for love and physical affection. It is a positive, affirmative story.”

Q. Do you feel as though you live with the characters while you’re writing them? “In some ways, it is inevitable. I am not a writer who works out the story in advance. I start with an idea, or an image, and the characters and their lives emerge, or not, gradually as they gain confidence in me and tell me what they are about. I have to be patient and leave them time to come back to me. While waiting, I might write a short story or a novella. At the moment, I have two projects I have just started, or rather false started. But that’s how it works with me. I have to keep trying, beginning and abandoning the first 10,000 words until the story emerges. One of the two novels I am working on emerged from a sentence one of my grown-up daughters said, a casual, inconsequential remark that sparked my imagination. The other grew from something I saw through the window of my study, which faces a large block of flats with balconies. One warm day, a man took his laptop onto his balcony and proceeded to work there. At some point we seemed to look at each other, or at least, that’s what it appeared to me. I don’t think he saw me because my side of the house was in the shade but that’s irrelevant. A vague trajectory of a story emerged, very blurred, rather like an image that appears on photographic paper bathing in a tray of film developer.

Q. Do you have any favourite book shops locally that you enjoy visiting?
“The second-hand bookshop by Putney Bridge is excellent and the owner is very knowledgeable.”

Q. How friendly do you feel the Putney community is?
“The best thing about Putney residents is their diversity, in terms of age, class and ethnicity. The area is also home to many Europeans and, as a Francophile, I love hearing French and take every opportunity to speak it.”

Good Day?

is out now