Lockdown reading list: our favourite countryside books

Avatar for Ally Davies
By Ally Davies

For as long as we find ourselves on lockdown due to coronavirus, we’re all having to spend more time indoors. We’ve asked CPRE national office staff for some tips on their favourite countryside books.

Spring 2020 will no doubt be remembered as an unusual and unsettling time. Our lives are disrupted and for many of us, that includes having less access to beloved countryside and special green places.

For now, then, we might need to settle for using our imaginations to connect with the countryside. To help with this, we’ve asked some of CPRE’s national office team for their favourite books that help to bring the outdoors in. So put the kettle on, settle in and get ready to visit the countryside from your armchair. Here are our top tips for rural reads.

Harvest, by Jim Crace

Our first book was chosen by Jacqueline, our Volunteering Development Officer in the West Midlands. She told us:

‘Harvest is set in an unnamed remote English hamlet at an unknown point in time. It gradually becomes clear the period is late medieval and the village is on the verge of huge and reluctant change. Traditional crop farming is threatened by enclosure: the widespread introduction of sheep farming, for the production of wool for the newly emerging industrial period. Incomers bring suspicion and fear and village life is about to change forever.

'It's a beautifully evocative book, both heartwarming and saddening with gorgeously rich and detailed prose.'
Jacqueline, Volunteering Development Officer

‘Justine Jordan, The Guardian, summed it up in her review: ‘Harvest can be read in mythical, even biblical terms, but the physical and emotional displacement of individuals and communities at its heart remains as politically resonant today as it was at the time.’

 

The Living Mountain, by Nan Shepherd

Ros Stewart is our Network and Volunteering Communications Officer and describes herself as a big reader who could have chosen many more options! In the end, she settled on Nan Shepherd’s iconic book, telling us:

‘It’s a masterpiece of nature writing. Nan evokes the Cairngorm mountains in beautiful poetic prose. She writes with a deep love for the mountains and a sense of being at one with nature; it’s a book to be read slowly and savoured. I first read it many years ago I return to it frequently whenever I miss the wild places of Scotland where I spent a lot of time when I was younger. The perfect book to transport the reader into the wilderness when we can’t physically be there.’

The front cover of 'The Living Mountain' showing a picture of hills
Ros, a member of our volunteering team, chose this iconic piece of nature writing as her favourite rural read

The Old Ways, by Robert MacFarlane

Some of you might recognise the name of our next ‘rural reader’ – Calum is our Digital Engagement Officer, and sends the emails that our supporters receive (want to get on the list? Sign up here). He notes that Robert MacFarlane ‘must be the most eloquent, observant and compelling contemporary nature writer in Britain’, so it’s no surprise he chose The Old Ways. He said:

‘This was the first book I read by Robert MacFarlane. I read it on a rainy weekend away in deepest rural Norfolk, and I devoured the whole 400 pages in two days. He explores the oldest paths, tracks, holloways, drove-roads and sea paths in Britain and beyond, combining beautiful accounts of the places and people he meets with a wonderful social history of the ancient (and not-so-ancient) people that once walked them.

‘I’m fascinated by how the history of our countryside and the people that live there can be read in the paths and ways that criss-cross our landscapes. After reading this book, I’ve never looked at a path in the same way again.’

The front cover of 'H is for Hawk' showing a bird perched on a branch.
Ellie said that this isn’t a book that she would have normally come to, but that it ‘really resonated with me’

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

This was chosen by Ellie, one of our Campaigns and Policy Assistants. Explaining why it’s so special to her, she said:

‘H is for Hawk is a heartfelt novel about life, love and loss, exploring our relationships with each other and with the world around us. Part-memoir, part-biography, it follows the author as she attempts to cope with grief by taming a wild Goshawk, following in the footsteps of the famous but troubled novelist T. H. White.

‘Not something I would normally read, H is for Hawk is original, well-written and really resonated with me. Worth a try if you need something to help come to terms with these unprecedented times, or have even a passing interest in falconry.’

The front cover of 'Bird Therapy', a bright colour with silhouetted birds on it.
Jamie says that Bird Therapy is a ‘beautiful book in so many ways’

 

Bird Therapy, by Joe Harkness

The next book, with its bright yellow cover, was chosen by Jamie. Jamie is one of our two Media Relations Leads, meaning that he deals a lot with journalists and the press – but in the office he’s also our resident ‘bird man’! Staff come to him with birdwatching pictures and questions and his knowledge knows no bounds. No surprise, then, that he chose a bird-themed book. He said:

‘This is a beautiful book in so many ways. The striking cover design. Joe’s story: how birds had a profound effect on his wellbeing following a breakdown. The powerful message of the book, which recognises how much we need nature for our mental health but goes further by demonstrating how to make the most of your time watching birds. Finally, the quality of writing. I love Joe’s vivid descriptions of birds and their behaviour, from swifts scything through the sky like “aerial scimitars” to flocks of snow buntings rising like “sand caught up in a sudden gust of wind”.’

Addlands, by Tom Bullough

Our next selection comes from the top! – Crispin, our Chief Executive. Crispin has chosen Addlands, and tells us:

‘This is one of my favourite reads because it’s about rural life, but also so much more. It’s all about the edges, the interfaces, the bits of life, society, geography and… fields… which have their own special quality simply because they’re on the edges. Its name relates to the edges of fields that don’t belong to anybody and which get absorbed into a farmer’s land, it’s based on the Welsh borders and it’s about the edges of the time between strongly traditional rural life and its modernisation and breakup in the sixties.

'It’s all about the edges, the interfaces, the bits of life, society, geography...'
Crispin, CEO

‘One of the most poignant sections is the almost peripheral description of the dismantling of the local railway, which was once the lifeblood of the area and had become completely on the edge of lives. It’s also about the edges between countryside and society, between farming and family life and how they are all so interwoven, intermingled, interdependent.

‘It’s a must-read.’

The front cover of 'The Wood' with a woodcut-style depiction of trees
Graeme told us that he chose this because the writing is ‘deft and delicate’

 

The Wood, by John Lewis-Stempel

Graeme is our Agricultural Lead, meaning he knows everything there is to know about peat, farming, soils and so much more! His choice here is about woodland, and he says:

‘It’s a beautiful evocation of a small mixed woodland in Herefordshire through a calendar year. It’s a diary of the changing wood, its character and its wildlife, but also of the pigs and cattle that he brings into the wood to help manage it and feed on it. The writing is deft and delicate with skilled observation ranging from the mystery of trees, fungi and plants to the ordinary but cherished wood dwellers – pigeons, foxes and moorhens – all glimpsed and learnt from with a keen intelligence and obvious passion for their part in the living cycle of the worked and wild countryside.’

So that’s it! Some of our very favourite countryside books to curl up with. Do you agree? What would you choose? Be sure to let us know on our Twitter or Facebook channels. And happy reading!

A woman sits on the end of a red sofa reading a book, with a small dog beside her
Why not use the time indoors during lockdown to catch up on some reading? We have book suggestions that can help connect you to the countryside.