Countryside living

PUBLISHED: 14:28 16 May 2014 | UPDATED: 14:28 16 May 2014

John Jackson's country upbringing has given him a lot of respect for rural communities. Photo: Nick Strugnell

John Jackson's country upbringing has given him a lot of respect for rural communities. Photo: Nick Strugnell

Copyright NICK STRUGNELL©. +44 (0)7966805565 144 Maldon Road, Colchester, Essex, CO33AY., ***Single UK

Author John Jackson tells Devon Life that his childhood has given him a lifelong respect for countryside communities

John Jackson was born in 1929 in Membury, East Devon, close to where he lives today. He is an established author, lawyer, businessman and political and constitutional campaigner, but he is probably still best known as one of the founders, and former chairman, of the Countryside Alliance.

Recently his first book ‘A Little Piece of England,’ celebrated 35 years in print. Here he recalls how a childhood spent close to the land has given him a lifelong respect and admiration for countryside communities:

I was born in Membury in East Devon and grew up in the West Country. For professional reasons, I spent much of my life elsewhere, but moved back to the county of my birth a few years ago.

When I was young, our family did not have much money, so we had to learn how to use the land – and the sea. My father would go fishing at night, and my brother and I would hope he brought back a conger eel – something which would guarantee us fishcakes for a week (though in our view, they tasted better with ketchup). We foraged blackberries and rose hips, and scoured the rock pools for our tea. I can remember the occasion when I learned that winkles were nocturnal. Returning late at night and hiding a bucket of them that I had collected under my bed, I awoke in the morning to find they had climbed all over the walls and ceiling. It was not my finest hour.

In those times we did not have much in a material sense, but in another sense, we had an awful lot. We learned to appreciate the different seasons and the changes they brought to the natural world. We understood nature primarily because we needed to – but it also gave us a huge amount of pleasure. And my early enthusiasm for the natural world has stayed with me.

When we moved here a few years ago, it did indeed feel like coming home. I mean that not only in the geographical sense – we are only half a mile from where I was born – but also in terms of the outlook I returned to. The Yarty Valley is blessed with a marvellous range of wildlife including otters, badgers, kingfishers and foxes. I am a keen fisherman, and love being beside a river: sea trout come here in autumn. It is a great privilege to be able to experience these natural riches.

I still enjoy watching the changing seasons. Autumn is my favourite time of year – what Keats described as the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. It is a time for harvesting vegetables and for tucking plants up for the winter in the flower garden. The colours are wonderful. I like to grow Crocus and Colchium flowers next to blue and crimson Michaelmas Daisies – and to watch the butterflies taking in nectar to keep them going through their hibernation: Red Admirals, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells. I don’t have my own sheep any more. But if I did, I would be admiring the speed with which their fleeces thicken to keep them warm in the colder months that are coming.

Having spent much time working in London, I value all the more the rural idyll where I live. Indeed, it was a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the constraints of life in a commuter town that prompted my young family and I, almost fifty years ago, to move to the Kent countryside to start up our own smallholding. We had some reservations at the time, but over the course of some ten years, we managed to make ourselves self-sufficient in meat, milk, eggs, vegetables and some fruit. The experience was important to all of us. I wanted to preserve a record of it, so I wrote an account that was first published in 1977 as ‘A Bucket of Nuts and a Herring Net’ and later as ‘A Little Piece of England’.

There is a different pace of life in the countryside – and just as importantly, there is a greater sense of belonging. Communities are strong in the countryside and this, I think, is linked to the connection with the land that country life requires. It is this connection that I feel is sometimes in danger of being lost today, and which can lead to an ignorant and at times complacent attitude towards the countryside. It was in order to stand up for countryside values and encourage a greater understanding of them within the corridors of power that some years ago, I became one of the founders of the Countryside Alliance. (The organisation campaigns on rural issues in a broad sense, not merely the narrow issue of hunting).

Cities are creative and exciting. But as important as they are, we should also all learn to respect the countryside and its way of life. And whether or not we live there, we should all visit – since it gives us time to stop and think, and to take pleasure in nature’s bounty.

‘A Little Piece of England’ by John Jackson is available to order from all quality bookshops, RRP £12.99. iBook and Kindle versions are also available £2.99.

Latest from the Devon Life