Sunday, 18 April 2021

What to read where

 While looking for information on authors I came across this site:    It is a "Global Book Map"listing books about or situated in a particular location. There are more than 100,000 books on the map that can be searched by countries, regions, or by any of the thousands of specific places the books are set in or are about. So if you would like to read a book set in your home town or your holiday location this is the place to look.

For me it works the other way too: on a trip to Copenhagen I have visited the apartment block from Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (Peter Hoeg), in Edinburgh I have used locations from Alexander McCall Smith's books as my guide, and I have cycled round northern France trying, and failing, to find the hotel from The Greengage Summer (Rumer Godden). How about you, have you visited places from your favourite books?

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Wild Island, a Year in the Hebrides by Jane Smith (2016)

I read about this book in Country Living (oh, I miss being able to buy British Magazines!) and ordered it in January 2020. In her book, Jane mentions Colonsay's Spring Festival, so I looked it up.  It sounded so wonderful I was beginning to think how nice it would be to visit when the world changed and all foreign travel was off. Maybe next year ...

In paintings and words Jane portrays a year on Oronsay, a small Hebridean island farmed by the RSPB for the benefit of wildlife. She originally worked for the BBC and National Geographic as a wildlife film-maker, then changed direction, studying painting and printing. 


Apart from the pictures, which are wonderful, she also has a way with words, painting a picture of life on the island and of all the creatures living there.

Mike and Val are the RSPB-managers on Oronsay, living there with their helpers and their dogs. You get to Oronsay by driving across from Colonsay at low tide, a hazardous undertaking at all times, and especially in bad weather or at night.

"On Oronsay I set to work, trying to understand what makes this place so rich in wildlife. The main conservation workers on the farm are the cattle and sheep, which shape the wildlife habitat by their grazing. There are different mouths for different jobs. Black-face sheep crop the field grass short so that choughs can feed, while Hebridean sheep have narrower mouths, and graze the rough hill-ground. Luing cattle grab mouthfulls of long grass in the wetter fields. As they poach up the ground with their feet, they create nesting hummocks for lapwings" (I looked up Luing cattle: they are a breed originally developed on the island of Luing)

" At first I find them (the seals) impossible to draw. They look like enormous slugs, galumphing around the shore. Shapeless. I remind myself that they are mammals with the same number of arm and leg bones as me, but in different proportions. They're like humans in sleeping bags. I imagine a skeleton hidden under all that blubber, and it helps".

This is a beautiful book to cheer you up when spring won't come. A great gift for anyone with an interest in art, The Hebrides, birds etc. Jane's website can be found here

Sunday, 4 April 2021

The Good Life, at a price!

 I always try to find out where the authors of my books lived and what happened to their houses. John Seymour wrote "The Fat of the Land" while living in a house near Woodbridge, Suffolk. He paid a peppercorn rent. Well, you can, or could (the information dates from 2019), rent it now for 1500 pounds per month! Details, including photo's can be found here   

Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Looe and Looe Island, then and now

When Evelyn and Babs Atkins bought their cottages in Looe they looked like this:










Today they are Grade II listed buildings

After Evelyn died in1997 Babs remained on the island alone until she passed away at the age of 86 in 2004. AS far as I can tell, Evelyn is buried in Looe, while Babs' grave is on the island. 

Additional interesting information on the sisters can be found here
and here .

Babs left the island to the Cornwall Wildlife Trust

Who knows, I may get to visit it this summer. Last year we had a holiday planned in the Scilly Isles.  It  was postponed to June this year and I have just postpoined it again to August. When we do get to go I want to plan some extra stay on the South West Coast, so maybe . . .


Monday, 22 March 2021

Tales from our Cornish Island by Evelyn E. Atkins (1986)


This is one of my recent buys, 2nd hand from the UK. It came with that typically musty 2nd hand book smell.

I ended my last post by wondering what life on the island would be like for the sisters. This book gives the answer, and it can be summed up in three words: Very Hard Work.
Evelyn writes: We have often wondered how, on that radio programme Desert Island Discs, the castaways had the strength left to put on or listen to their eight records, let alone the time to browse through Shakespeare, the Bible and the tome of their choice. For us, in those early days, surviving was a full-time occupation - and often still is.

She starts by telling us she constantly gets questions on what it is like to live on an island. The book is an attempt to answer these questions. It is impossible to cover everything that has happened to them, so she has written a series of tales, each dealing with a different aspect of island life.
When she first moved to the island (in February 1965), Evelyn was on her own, helped from time to time by friends and volunteers. Her sister Babs, teaching in a school in Looe came over during weekends and holidays, sea and weather permitting.
The consensus of local opinion was we would last three months if we were not drowned before then.

Evelyn and her helpers face many challenges: taking care of the water supply, fixing the AGA and the generator, establishing a vegetable garden, harvesting the daffodils that grow on the island etc. They learn as they go along and adapt.
When you live close to nature you have to get your priorities right, and fussiness over food and drink gives way to thankfulness that you have any at all.

They buy a goat, a number of cats, and become bee-keepers. They do up the two cottages to let to tourists and to house volunteers. They grow lots of fruit and vegetables, and harvesting starts in July, going well into November and even December. Seaweed is used as manure.
In winter, storms cause the island (which has no harbour) to be isolated for long periods. On one memorable occasion Babs was unable to land between Christmas and Easter and I just had fleeting glimpses of her as the all-important mail was tossed to me over the raging surf.

In summer things change, and they discover that while owning an island may be many people’s dream, owning an island only a mile from shore comes with a lage fly in the ointment: visitors.
In the summer visitors come to Looe in their masses and the bay teems with craft. The previous owner has warned them about this: To keep your privacy you wil have to bring out a shotgun.
This Evelyn is not prepared to do. She tries to put off visitors by charging an entrance fee, but people happily pay. What I cannot understand is that she goes so far as to prepare food and drink for them, thus having to work all day and every day in summer.
Volunteers from the Conservation Corps and students come for working holidays. At first they cook for the volunteers too, which only adds to Evelyn’s workload.

They often wonder „why they are doing this"? They are having to use their own income to keep the island open to visitors and to feed the helpers. However it seems such a worthwhile project and appreciated by so many.  So they carry on.
Often we are tempted to close the island and revert to help of friends and the offers of voluntary organizations for the conservation and cultivation of the island which is our primary aim. We often dream of a more leisurely life . . .
Their are moments when we do not think our efforts are worth the strain on our energy and finances, then along wil come someone whose encouragement wil put us on course again.
Such sentiments sustain us and enable us to carry on, and so we shall - as long as the money lasts.

This is a bittersweet tale. It is clear that Evelyn and Babs love the island, but owning it has come at a price.
Visitors say they would do anything to exchange their lives for ours. But would they? We understand their envy but doubt if they understand the responsibilities involved.
Christmas holidays were very precious to us for it was,  and still is, the only time we take a „ holiday”. We have the usual chores to do, the generator and the water pump must be attended to, but we do relax mentally. It is then that we also can appreciate the sheer joy of our island paradise. We feel, on those rare summer days in the depth of winter that sparkle like a jewel in the darkness, that we are on another planet; that we are privileged for a short spell to be part of a timeless universe, where there is nog beginning, no end, only an magical limitless „now”.

This photo made me smile: Calvé Pindakaas is a very popular brand of peanut butter here in The Netherlands. I wonder how that bucket ended up there?

Evelyn and Babs Atkins.

More on Looe Island in my next post.

Monday, 15 March 2021

We Bought an Island by Evelyn E. Atkins (1976)



In the early 60’s sisters Evelyn and Babs Atkins live in Epsom, Surrey. Evelyn has a demanding job at I.C.I. in London, Babs is a deputy head of school. They have busy social lives and many hobbies. Following an accident and a period of ill health Evelyn takes early retirement. She takes up pottery, buys equipment and takes courses.
Evelyn and Babs decide to buy a cottage in Cornwall. They find two adjoining cottages in Looe, one of which Evelyn wants to use as a pottery studio. 


While exploring they discover that there is a small island (St. George’s Island) close to Looe and during they first summer there they find out the island is for sale. Having always entertained fantasies about living on an island, they immediately head for the estate  agent, and after only a short visit they decide to buy it.


Evelyn will live on the island permanently while Babs will try to find a job in Cornwall and live in Looe, visiting the island during her holidays. By some miracle there is a vacancy in Looe and Babs is appointed senior mistress at a school there, They quickly make friends with Wren Toms, who ferries furniture and equipment to the island. A giant removal van takes all their stuff to Looe. 

Moving to the island is not going to be easy:
Like a douch of cold water it hit us that late December is hardly the best time to move furniture in an open boat in darkness to an island that did not have a harbour.  What sent our spirits plummeting however was when Wren Toms said several journeys would have to be made and that the would have to be at the top of the spring tides.


As spring tides come twice every month with the new moon and again with the full moon, it is going to take some time to move everything to the island. Almost half the book is devoted to these, sometimes very hazardous, trips. In February 1965 Evelyn  definitely moves to the island

The book seems one long friendly chat. Evelyn takes her time and clearly thinks we should have all the details: the parties they give, the people they know,  the cameras she owns, her family’s history etc.  This is mostly very entertaining although I could have done without the seemingly endless tale of all the boat trips needed to transport all their stuff to the island. What you would like to know is what life on the island will be like. But then the book ends.
Like the title says the book is about the Buying of an island. If you want to know what life on the island was actually like you will have to read the sequel: Tales from our Cornish Island. More on that in my next post!

Friday, 5 March 2021

Place of Stones by Ruth Janette Ruck (1961)

"I have always wanted to have a farm". Ruth Janette Ruck grows up in a town, but likes to keep animals and grows vegetables in the garden. After finishing school she has no idea what she would like to do next, but then she suddenly falls ill with diphtheria and nearly dies. A long recuperation follows, after which she and her parents, sister Mary and nanny Fred (who has been with the family since Ruth was born) take a holiday in Nantmor, North Wales. During the holiday they discover that Carneddi is for sale, a small farm in the hills (83 acres, of which only a fraction can be used).

"I think it was mother  who first suggested that we bought Carneddi. The thread of out normal existence seemed to have been broken by the end of the war, which made my father’s work redundant, and by my sudden illness. A moment of pause and choice had come to us. (…) At first the idea of farming in the hills seemed quite impracticable. My father was fifty, I was seventeen and we had lived in the city all our lives. It was true that Carneddi was to be sold cheaply, but even so we had little money to cover any mistakes we might make. Yet somehow we were unwilling to settle back into a suburban routine once more. We talked, wondered, and at last decided. We bought the farm, and burned the boats of the life we had always known."

They move to the farm in 1946. With the farm they acquire sheep, cows and a sheepdog. Their neighbours (whose first language is Welsh) are very helpful. At first their policy was "to farm as it had been farmed in the past". Ruth reads all she can find on farming and is especially encouraged by The Farming Ladder by George Henderson.
They watch other people’s farming activities with an eager eye, and copy them.

The farm comes with a small mountain flock of sheep and they find a shepherd, Tom, to help them with it. They make improvements to the house and buy a cart horse.

To learn more. Ruth goes to work on a farm but returns when she realizes her family cannot manage without her. To make the business pay they need to farm more intensively. I wonder it Ruth had any idea what „ intensive farming” would come to mean a few decades later . . .
She starts by keeping more chickens and taking part in a government scheme that means she receives food coupons for chicken feed.
The few cows they keep provide them with enough milk for their own use. I presume they grew their own vegetables but no mention is made of this.

Ruth thinks women do not make good employers. "By nature they prefer to follow rather than to lead and the thought of employing a man can be a horrifying one.”  Nevertheless she employs Paul, to help her with improvements, partly subsidized by the Hill Farming Act. 


Paul is an experienced climber and together with friends he and Ruth make many trips into the hills. Although initially apprehensive, she later begins to relish climbing

After 5 years at Carneddi Fred leaves for Australia; Ruth gets the chance to work at George Henderson’s farm.
Back home again she builds a new shed for the chickens. With an asbestos roof!
Later she keeps turkeys. She also joins a successful scheme for growing strawberry plants in isolated place to keep them far away from aphides.
She manages to rent a cottage (Ty Mawr), does it up and rents it to tourists.
The book ends with the story of how Ruth spends summer months working for a film crew, filming The Inn of Sixth Happiness.


In the first chapter Ruth says: „We had little money to cover any mistakes we might make.”
This makes it even harder to understand what the family lived on, especially during the first few years, when sheep die and chickens are killed by foxes. During this time Ruth spends long periods away from the farm (studying and working on another farm) and her parents are not able to manage on their own.
And then there is „nanny” Fred, who, presumably, they pay. They also employ people to work on the farm.

The family start out as amateurs, but Ruth becomes a real farmer. It is interesting to read how you could apparently make a living from such small scale farming in the 40’s and 50’s.
To the 21st century reader, the enthusiastic use of insecticides and asbestos is startling.

I like this book because of the combination of the personal and the practical. It can be read as a handbook for hill farming, but it is also Ruth’s autobiography.
Ruth went on to write two more books, which I will cover in later posts.

Monday, 22 February 2021

Herm, Our Island Home by Jenny Wood (1972, reprinted in 1981 with a new foreword and an additional chapter)


In 1949 Peter and Jenny Wood take on the lease of Herm, one of the small Channel Islands.
When they start out they have two children, while four more are born on the island. They are keen to create a community and Peter’s brother and his wife join them.

From the back flap of my paperback: it is the story of a wife and mother trying to bring up six children in a ruined house on a derelict island, without a proper water supply or drainage and no electricity.
So there is a lot of work to do, including arranging for a phone line with Guernsey to be put in. Before that the only way to seek help in an emergency is to signal with an Aldis lamp.
Jenny writes: milk was no problem as we were plentifully supplied from the farm- with eggs also - and we grew our own vegetables. I would have liked to learn more about that, but the subject does not come up again.

As the lease makes them responsible for the complete upkeep of the island, they need to run it it as business, so they expand the hotel, do up cottages and open a restaurant, cafe and shops.. They also try their hand at making and selling products (souvenirs made of shells, pottery, weaving, daffodils, stamps). For all this they need to employ lots of people, some of whom come to live on the island with their families. They start a small school and employ a teacher.

I must say I found it hard to understand the economics of the whole operation. On the one hand the cost of running the island must have been enormous. On the other they seem to employ people (and their families) on a whim, send their children to boarding schools and spend two months in a hotel in England while their house is being rebuilt.

Another quote from the back flap: to anyone who has ever dreamed of „ getting away from it all” this book is an absolute must. Well maybe, but only if you have loads of money!

I would not say Jenny tells the story of what happened, but that she entertains us with a series of anecdotes (which is why it is hard to get a complete picture of the operation). Most chapters are only a few pages long. I suppose this could be called a charming book: perfectly entertaining and harmless.
But something bothered me about it: Jenny has a curious way of writing about other people’s misfortunes. The tenants of the neighboring island of Jethou suffer some very serious accidents and someone even drowns. Somehow she gives the impression that it is all their own fault: now, I am happy to say, Jethou is in he hands of people who live there quietly and contentedly, and without recourse to such dramatic events.
And then there is Kay, who they employ to look after the children. She suffers from severe asthma and one day has a fatal attack. She dies in Jenny’s arms. This gets two short paragraphs. Next paragraph: Sapper (their dog) also died that summer … we all felt his loss keenly… Ouch!

Peter and Jenny’s daughter Penny and het husband took over the lease in 1980 and ran the island till 2008, when it was taken over by John and Julia Singer. Jenny Wood died in 1991 and Peter in 1998. They are buried on the island.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Rereading and buying

Starting this blog involves a lot of rereading. At the moment I am reading Herm, our Island Home by Jenny Wood. 
I have also ordered some new (well, second hand) books:
The Good Life by Scott and Helen Nearing
A Place in the Woods by Helen Hoover
Tales from our Cornish Island by Evelyn Atkins (sequel to: We Bought an Island)
My New Forest Home by Irene Soper

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Elizabeth West: Garden in the Hills (1980)

On my first and. so far, only visit to Wales in the late nineties the weather was glorious. I volunteered at the Eisteddfod in Llangollen and cycled round North-Wales (visiting Dorothy Campion’s house en route, but that is another story). I now realize how lucky I was. The weather can be extreme there, especially at 1000 feet and Garden in the Hills can be used as a guide on how to garden at that height. Elizabeth and Allan found advice in gardening books often does not apply so they learned by trial and error and often just by 'what felt right'.

This is the sequel to Hovel in the Hills. It tells the story of how Elizabeth and Allan West made a garden and gives further insight into their life in the hills.
The book includes a map, which is one of the reasons I like it. I have pored over it, trying to place everything that is mentioned in the story. Where is the bluebell forest, and where is the drive? Never mind, I just love maps. 
Once again I find that Elizabeth is very good at writing about plants and animals, but not at describing people. The acknowledgments state that she has invented a few characters so that she could describe true incidents without causing embarrassment to real people. Well, I don’t think these real people will have been very pleased to find themselves represented by two nitwit Welsh farmers and a know-it-all retired teacher. Best to forget about them, the rest of the book is a joy to read.


Making a garden around Hafod involved a lot of hard work: clearing the garden, making paths, creating shelter, building fences to keep out rabbits and sheep (not always successful), and building a water garden around the spring that is the cottage’s only source of water. A special chapter is devoted to the long hot summer of 1976, when, at the end of a long dry period, it took 2 hours to fill a bucket at the spring.
There is a chapter on weeds, which can be very useful as ground cover and as pest food (keeping insects away from vegetables). Elizabeth also includes a list of weeds they regularly eat in salads.
Apart from growing fruit and vegetables they also forage, although it was not called that then. They use berries to make jam and wine and gather mushrooms. A list of all the crops grown is included with tips on which varieties to grow. Elizabeth and Alan find that using seed that they have saved themselves works best.
The garden is also filled with trees and flowers, some of which they have planted, some of which just  'happened'.  We bought crocuses and carnations. But who gave us the double snowdrops? Where did the marguerites come from? Those oriental poppies by the shippen?  They also rescue plants from roadworks or building sites.
There is a chapter on manure (which they get from a farmer friend) and the making of compost.
Though the word „ organic” is not used in the book, Elizabeth and Alan are certainly organic gardeners. They find they are not much bothered by pests, because of the wild plants (attractive to insects and birds) surrounding the vegetable garden and because of the healthy balance of predators and prey.
What comes through in the whole book is the joy they both find in their garden, in the butterflies, birds and other animals that are constant visitors.
One of my favourite chapters is on how Elizabeth keeps house. How does she cook (on a wood stove or an a primus stove) and what? She includes menus and recipes.
The books ends on a sad note. On the one hand there is the perpetual problem of earning money. They find they often have to leave Hafod for a few months to earn money elsewhere, but this is getting harder.
Also 'progress' in the form of road widening schemes and traffic is creeping up on them. So Elizabeth and Alan will have to leave Hafod.   But it won’t all be destroyed. Something will remain … In a hundred years’  years time when the cottage is perhaps a ruins, a lone walker coming across the moor may look down from the hillside and see the Hafod woodland, quiet and secluded at the base of the hill. (...) He will see all these things and he will know that in this wild and lonely place, someone once made a garden.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Norwegian Food

The way Helle keeps house in An Hour by Bus is similar to the situation in The Children Who Lived in a Barn, except that this house has electricity. She does all the laundry by hand, catches fish, grows vegetables and cooks on a wood stove. As for the food, the book gives us a little insight in what Norwegians were eating at the time. On page 52 there is a list of what the girls like or don’t like to eat, on which we find the following dishes: salt fish, fish pudding, raw meat, milk pudding, crab, veal, mutton and apple pie.

By the way, the list does not include Helle’s likes or dislikes. As she states she is the „ mother” and often has to make do with the leftovers.

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Een uur met de autobus (An Hour by Bus) by Annik Saxegaard

I know I set out the „rules” of my collection in my first post, but some exceptions have been allowed in. This is one of them. The book was translated from the Norwegian and published in 1940. The title page states it is for „ 14 and over”. Annik Saxegaard was a prolific writer and published many books, both in Norwegian and in German.                  An Hour by Bus is the story of four girls. Tordis, a medical student, Bente (working in an office) and Ingjerd (married to a sailor and also working in an office) are tired of landladies and decide to live together. They find a house for rent in a village „an hour by bus” from town.
This being the 30’s they cannot look after themselves so Tordis askes Helle, her cousin, to become their housekeeper, for 40 Kroner per month. She accepts and it is Helle who tells the story (in a strange combination of old-fashioned Dutch and badly translated Norwegian).
The house had no running water and housekeeping is a lot of hard work. Helle writes: „I, the youngest of them all, will have to be a kind of mother to them”. And this is what she does: sacrificing herself by working day and night, saving money by doing the laundry herself and catching fish in the lake. She grows vegetables and fruit. 


 There is drama: Ingjerd has a baby, and her husband only just survives a shipwreck. He returns and he, Ingjerd and their baby move into their own home. Bente leaves too, to get married. Actually, to do a domestic science course and work on her trousseau first. Helle becomes desperate: she will be left on her own, because she has red hair and freckles, likes to cook but considers herself too stupid to do anything else. By this time she is even refusing her salary. Fortunately a Man knocks on the door at the right time and all is well. Only medical student Tordis is determined to stay single.
I know this book was written in the 30’s, but even so it is hard to stomach at times. I suppose that at the time, the girls might have been seen as enterprising, for setting out on their own, and employing a maid would have been normal.
I love the domestic detail, and of course, the cover. 

Sunday, 17 January 2021

The Joy of Reading and Things you find in Secondhand Books

Elizabeth West writes in A Patch in the Forest:
I read everything: posters, timetables, soap packets, advertisements. Wherever there are two or three words gathered together I will read them.
I am just the same. I cannot contemplate going on a train journey or a holiday without plenty of reading matter. Going on cycling trips used to present me with problems as I wanted enough books to last me the whole trip but they also had to be lightweight. That is why my e-reader had become my best friend for trips.
At home I mostly read library books, and I buy books secondhand. Sadly, a lot of secondhand bookshops have closed, but there are a lot of „kringloopwinkels”, secondhand shops run by councils or organizations offering employment to people who would otherwise have difficulties finding work. English speaking visitors to The Netherlands please note: lots of English language books can be found there very cheaply.
As Elizabeth West point out, one of the joys of buying second hand books is finding things in them. She writes how, when reading In Search of Wales by H.V. Morton
… as I turned over page 91 (…) I was astonished to find a handwitten letter folded inside. „My own darlingest” I read. I hesitated for a moment and then, feeling rather sneaky, I read on. The letter dated 8th August 1942 was written by Eric stationed at 385 Battery, R.A.Orkney, to his wife Margaret, and recalled with tender details their marriage of the previous year and their honeymoon at Tenby. (…) So what happened? Was Eric killed in Action? Did Margaret die in the Blitz? Or did the arrival of this book on a street market stall have a more mundane explanation? We shall probably never know. And the very private love letter has ben replaced in Morton’s In Search of Wales, where it belongs.

In The Fat of the Land by John Seymour I found a note by Mary to Diana (written in January 2000) which was equally intriguing:
I want to thank you most sincerely for the time after Christmas, and do so; but it is difficult to know what to say more since I seem to have misunderstood at every point, and came as an uninvited and far from perfect guest, making assumptions and spreading germs. I can now only offer you and Harold a very sincere apology and hope in the long run it will not spoil what has been such a long and important friendship.(…) , but whatever you may think, it did not come from arrogance and selfishness, rather from presuming too much about boundaries.
Every time I come across it I reread it and ponder: what happened? Are they stil friends?