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Place, protest and belonging

Many thanks to Sue Clifford for this piece on Nicola Chester's recent talk. (And apologies for delay in getting this into the blog!)

Nicola Chester’s talk for READING the LAND - Shaftesbury Book Festival on Saturday 11 March in The Grosvenor Arms drew a full crowd - and left us all moved. Her book On Gallows Down has been described as a future classic - it is beautifully observed, passionately written and offers ways in to local action of all kinds for all of us.

Imagine a major threat to your local landscape – that ancient wood, those flower-rich fields, the vital wildlife? Would you, could you stand up for it?

There are those amongst us who remember well Greenham Common in the early 1980s as a place of serious protest by women to stop the Mutually Assured Destruction which this nuclear cruise missile airbase was destined to start or finish. None of us realised then it would take two decades of fortitude and resilience.

Nicola Chester grew up with the women ‘embracing the base’ in plain view and in 2000 was amongst those at last able to walk in as it was liberated to revert to commonland. Add involvement in the demonstrations against road incursions through the chalk of Twyford Down and the brave tree-dwelling on the line of the Newbury Bypass and you will know that willingness to protest has been a driving force in this writer’s life.

Feeling deep attachment to where she has grown up, lived and worked in Berkshire and Hampshire, she spent eight years researching and writing a beautifully wrought memoir as she has brought up children and worked as school librarian. Place, protest and belonging is the subtitle of her book On Gallows Down and the words echo through as she leads us via “nature, literature and place twining like wild clematis and ivy through a quickthorn hedge”. Musing with John Clare, William Cobbett, Thomas Hardy and many more she reveals that “phrases come back to me …. as if they were written on the landscape for me to read, in sharp relief”. We can indulge in listening with her for the cuckoo, watching the hare and the otter, learning the origin of the name of the lapwing. And be grateful and inspired by her engagement locally as she “... begged, pleaded, wrote, nagged, motivated, entreated, implored and challenged …”

Existential threats have not gone away - Shaftesbury and it’s surrounding landscapes and lives need our vigilance and action.

READING the LAND - the full Shaftesbury Book Festival will be back in 2024.

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