Stories of the Sussex Downs

This amazing book is itself a little like a flint, a misshapen stone egg of the Sussex Downs. It resists the reader at first, coated in the calcite rind of the author’s slow, scholarly journey, missteps and all. But when you persist, breaking the book’s spine or, as it were, knapping the flinty nodule, you find treasure within. Alexandra Harris quotes the painter Paul Nash writing in 1937: ‘If I broke all the shells of all my wild stones, I should find that precious yolk which is like precious stones, the black core of the flint.’ From Nash, it’s a hop and a skip to Henry Vaughan, the metaphysical poet

Finally, the Sherpas are heroes of their own story

John Keay has for many years been a key historian and prolific contributor to the romance attaching to the highest mountains on Earth. His latest book is described as a summation of that lifetime’s contribution, offering an overview of the Himālaya – the Sanskrit version (‘Abode of Snow’) that Keay bids us use – both as a physical place and as a realm of intellectual inquiry. The book opens with a bang. Its first theme is the astonishing mountain-making forces that created the region. Specifically, Keay gives us the prolonged intellectual skirmishes among geologists as they tried to piece together the formative processes. The one who unpicked their genesis was

The watery life of the capital

To write about London and its rivers is to enter a crowded literary field. Many aspects of watery life in the capital have been documented for public consumption over the past 150 years, from Hilaire Belloc’s lament for the river’s lost monasteries in The Historic Thames to Peter Ackroyd’s doorstop, London: A Biography. More recently, it is previously unremarked everyday stories which have found a home on many publishers’ lists. The practice of mudlarking especially of sifting objects from the river’s mud has held readers in thrall. Sometimes it sounds as though the Thames foreshore at low tide must be as busy as a King’s Cross platform during a pre-pandemic

A narrow escape in Britain’s most treacherous mountain range

Twenty-five years ago, my cousin Jock, a Scottish priest, rang in shock. Two priest friends, David and Norman, had been walking in the Cuillin in Skye. As Norman rounded a boulder, it dislodged and rolled him off the mountain. He screamed: ‘David, save me!’ They were his last words. The Cuillin — or Black Ridge — slice the island of Skye in two. On a map they are a Spaghetti Junction of deranged scribbles. Closer to, they rise up like the fangs of Mordor in dizzying spires with names such as ‘The Executioner’. ‘The Inaccessible Pinnacle’ is something like Orkney’s Old Man of Hoy, only rising not out of the

Geology’s dry, rocky road

There has been an argument recently on Twitter about how to do nature-writing. Should it involve the self? Should it be poeticised? Has the oh-my-oh-me-ism of recent nature books got out of hand? Can one not see a blackbird now without considering the nature of consciousness and the tragedy of existence? In short, shouldn’t the nature writers calm down a bit and become ‘more honest’, as one contributor to this row put it? Egregious sentences were quoted out of context. Angry and hate-filled expressions were used. The tone seemed wildly out of whack with the slightly technical question at hand — how to describe plants, places and animals — but

The map as a work of art

’Tis the season of complacency, when we sit in warmth and shiver vicariously with Mary and Joseph out in the snowy wastes, A Christmas Carol or The Snowman. A handsome exploration of Antarctica seems equally appropriate festive fare. Peter Fretwell brings us chillingly close to a continent that has always inspired awe, evidenced by christenings such as Mount Erebus and Fenriskjeften — the Wolf’s Jaw mountains, named after Fenris, the Norse equivalent of the Beast, which will arise at the end of time to eat the world. The coldest, driest, remotest and windiest place on the planet, surrounded by the roughest ocean, has always seemed like somewhere primordial deities might