In Pursuit of Spring- part three

100 years ago on Easter Day the poet Edward Thomas cycled through the Quantock hills in west Somerset on the last stage of his journey In Pursuit of Spring. The weather was almost spring-like, in sharp contrast to the preceding days of his ride from London. He visited Coleridge Cottage, only he did not find the great poet and metaphysician there. Instead, he encountered the spirit of Coleridge in the lanes around Nether Stowey and on Kilve Beach, a place where Coleridge, William & Dorothy Wordsworth, Charles & Mary Lamb and latterly Shelley had all wandered and mused. Thomas too mused on Kilve Beach, which magnetically attracts poets (Virginia Woolf visited, on her honeymoon, and many living poets).

Then, Thomas ascended to Cothelstone Hill, one of the highest points of the Quantocks, where he found (or perhaps did) something rather odd: ‘By the side of the road were the first bluebells and cowslips. They were not growing there, but some child had gathered them below at Stowey or Durleigh, and then, getting tired of them, had dropped them. They were beginning to wilt, but they lay upon the grave of Winter. I was quite sure of that. Winter may rise up through mould alive with violets and primroses and daffodils, but when cowslips and bluebells have grown over his grave he cannot rise again: he is dead and rotten, and from his ashes the blossoms are springing.’

Had ‘some child’ really carried bluebells and cowslips all the way up there that day – presumably from a garden, for spring was running late, Easter had come early and cowslips and bluebells would not have been out in the Quantocks? Surely only a poet would do such a thing, and a fine one at that? Three Easters later, Edward Thomas was to lose his life on the Western Front. He lives on though, through his words – which touch chords deep within us.

In the final, emotive episode of In Pursuit of Spring Matthew Oates meets with Coleridge scholar Justin Shepherd at Coleridge Cottage and on Kilve Beach to discuss the significance of Nature poets like Coleridge and Thomas today, and to ask whether their voices continue into Now, through the poetic line.

Kilve Beach

Kilve Beach

The final readings, from the book’s concluding chapter (entitled The Grave of Winter), are by Robert Macfarlane.

  • Matthew Oates is a naturalist and follower of the poetic approach to Nature. He has worked for the National Trust for over 20 years, but poetry is steadily taking him over.
  • In Pursuit of Spring, a tribute to Edward Thomas (1878-1917). Radio 4. East Sunday. 2.45pm. Thereafter on iPlayer (3 episodes).

In Pursuit of Spring- part two

A hundred years this Easter, when Easter also arrived early, the poet Edward Thomas embarked upon a journey, by bicycle and foot, from his parent’s house in south London to the Quantock hills in west Somerset, the scene of the remarkable Romantic partnership between Coleridge, whom he particularly admired, and Wordsworth. A year later his account of the journey was published under the title In Pursuit of Spring, as the maelstrom of the Great War was brewing.

In Pursuit of Spring can be viewed as being the jumping off point for Thomas’s greatly admired poetry, for much of the book’s prose is on the very brink of poetry, though the developing poetic trance is frequently broken by moments of laconic humour and sojourns into human trivia. One passage late in the opening chapter transmogrifies easily into –

Meekly, by night, the north-east wind

Gives up its power to the south. Sweet

Soft days follow, when the earth,

An invalid certain of recovery, delicate

With smiles, languors and fatigues,

Discloses violets to children,

And some lovers.

It is St David’s Day.

Copses, roadside hedges, brooksides,

Possessed by myriad primroses

In thick, long-stemmed clusters,

Their green, just flower-like,

Their scent, suited to the invalid,

Strengthens the earth.

The start of the next paragraph outs him: ‘Then for most of the day it rained, and what was done under cover of that deliberate irresistible rain, only a poet can tell.’ He knew what poets can tell, but had yet to find his poetic Muse, or at least his confidence as a poet. His real journey In Pursuit of Spring is towards his poetic Muse.

Thomas’s pilgrimage took him through the Surrey hills into Hampshire, past Winchester and Salisbury, and up over Salisbury Plain, where he was serenaded by an ethereal of skylarks. On descending from the Plain he stayed with friends at the delightfully named Dillybrook Farm, which then must have epitomised the Edwardian rural idyll he loved so dearly.

Dillybrook Farm, Wilts

Dillybrook Farm, Wilts

This Easter you are invited to share Thomas’s In Pursuit of Spring journey on Radio 4, presented by the National Trust’s Matthew Oates, a keen follower of Thomas’s approach to the natural world. Saturday 3.30pm, the concluding programme on Easter Sunday at 2.45pm.

In Pursuit of Spring

Matthew Oates Presenter

I first perused In Pursuit of Spring in my penultimate year at school, naively attracted by the title. I had found a copy in the school library, but I could relate only to the paragraphs based around my native Somerset, including the final chapter The Grave of Winter. I knew Thomas as a minor First World War poet, in the shadow of Owen and Sassoon, but was hugely impressed by his rural descriptions and by his profound love and knowledge of nature. It took me years to discover him properly as a poet, even though I lived within his East Hampshire heartland for 20 years. His is my favourite poetry – and here I am certainly not alone, for it seems that his poetry is growing in popularity almost monthly.

But I fear that his rural prose is underrated and in danger of becoming neglected. The South Country (1909), In Pursuit of Spring (1914) and its precursor The Icknield Way (1913) are classics in English rural prose, every bit as memorable as Adlestrop and As the Team’s Head-brass, his two best known poems. Thomas’s rural writings could follow those of his mentor Richard Jefferies and friend WH Hudson into relative obscurity. That would greatly devalue British natural history – by severing it from its roots.

The Radio 4 series came about when two streams of consciousness converged. I submitted a tentative proposal to R4 to celebrate the book’s centenary, only to find – joyously – that my friend Andrew Dawes of the BBC Natural History Unit (radio) was thinking along similar lines. Of course, the BBC is gearing itself up for the centenary of the First World War anyway.

Originally, I aspired towards following Thomas’s route, on cycle, but today’s traffic – and Thomas detested the traffic levels of 1913 – would erode any vestige of poetic experience from that. It would be purely a physical, mechanical pilgrimage. No, a faithful re-enactment would not work. At one point, live transmissions were considered, involving a network of radio stations, but that was rather over-ambitious and would have proved too costly.

In the event we found Thomas such a rich seam, with so many dedicated and scholarly admirers, that we ended up recording rather more than we originally intended. Much had, of necessity, to be left out, including The Other Man (Thomas’s alter ego which makes a series of curious interjections in the book) and the remarkable responses I received from asking contributors what they felt poets are actually for.

In Pursuit of Spring, a tribute to Edward Thomas, is presented by Matthew Oates and produced by Andrew Dawes. Readings are by Robert Macfarlane, with contributions from Richard Emeny and Colin Thornton of The Edward Thomas Fellowship, Sophie Lake of Values In Nature & Environment (VINE), Justin Shepherd of The Friends of Coleridge, Rebecca Welshman of The Richard Jefferies Society and Lucy and Sophie Milner, Edward’s great and great-great grand daughters.

 In Pursuit of Spring programme 1 Good Friday 3.30pm BBC Radio 4



- National Trust recruits famous faces to encourage the country to share favourite places -

Celebrities are used to life in front of the lens but this spring stars from the world of sport, film and TV are taking a turn behind the camera.

Actor Jude Law, chefs The Fabulous Baker Brothers and England rugby ace Austin Healey are among those who have shared photographs of the places that mean the most to them as part of a nationwide initiative by the National Trust to celebrate the importance of ‘special places’ in people’s lives. 

The campaign follows research undertaken by the charity which found that 84 per cent of Brits have a favourite place they go to which positively affects their wellbeing and happiness.

Photographs by the celebrities are being showcased on a new app created by the National Trust to encourage people to share their favourite place and why it means so much to them. The app will also feature places that are important to National Trust staff and volunteers and members of the public.

Included on the app are well-known names such as Nell McAndrew with photographs of Ham House in London, whilst Kim Cattrall shares memories of Blickling Estate in Norfolk, describing it as a perfect day when she visited with family. Other celebrities involved include The Fabulous Baker Brothers, Tom and Henry Herbert, who chose DyrhamPark near Bath after family picnics there and its spectacular views across the South Gloucestershire countryside. Musician Gary Kemp chose the Lake District as his special place after summers spent holidaying in the heart of National Trust countryside, sharing a picture of his son topping a Lakeland Fell.  

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David Gandy comments, “I wanted to share my favourite photograph of Melford Hall as I have such fond and affectionate memories here, from visiting the beautiful grounds and rooms on school trips with all my school friends to family outings.  Luckily my parents live very close to Melford hall and so we tend to visit together quite often. I particularly enjoy the fun event held on fireworks night, as this is when the gardens and park really come to life. Lots of people have special places that evoke happy memories so I think it’s great that the National Trust is encouraging people to share their love and give these places the importance they deserve.”

Celebrity snaps & locations:

1. Jude Law

Cliveden House, Berkshire

2. Naomie Harris, Actress and Bond girl

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire

3. David Gandy, Model

Melford Hall, Sudbury

4. Kim Cattrall, actress

Blickling Estate, Norfolk

5. Alex Jones, Presenter

Brecon Beacon’s, Wales

6. Samantha Murray, Olympian

Lacock Abbey, Lacock near Bath

7. Austin Healey, former England & British Lions rugby player

Conwy Bridge, North Wales 

8. Tom and Henry Herbert, The Fabulous Baker Brothers – TV chefs

Dyrham Park, Bath 

9. Johny Pitts, CBBC Children’s TV Presenter

Upper Derwent Valley, Peak District

10. Nell McAndrew, Model & fitness expert

Ham House, London 

11. Tyger Drew Honey, Actor in Outnumbered

Box Hill, Surrey

12. Gary Kemp, Musician with Spandau Ballet

Lakeland fell, Lake District

13. Sienna Guillory, Actress best known for her role in Resident Evil

Blakeney, Norfolk

14. Hugo Taylor, Made in Chelsea star

Carlyle House, Chelsea

15. Nick Moran, Actor, famous for his role in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels

The George Inn, London

16. Jacqueline Durran, Oscar winning Costume Designer on recent blockbuster Anna Karenina

Basildon Park, Reading

17. Enzo Cilenti, Actor known for his roles in Wonderland 24 hour party people and Prisoner’s Wives

Cray in Upper Wharfedale, Yorkshire

According to the National Trust study, four out of five people (81 per cent) said visiting their favourite place had a bigger impact on their wellbeing than shopping or going to the cinema. Nearly a third of those surveyed (31 per cent) said their favourite place was where they grew up, while 30 per cent chose a recent holiday spot and one in four (25 per cent) the location of a childhood family outing.

One in ten (ten per cent) are romantically-minded and admitted that their special place was where they were married and five per cent where they were proposed to. 87 per cent said their special place made them happy just thinking about it, with three quarters of those surveyed (75 per cent) revealing the place they love the most reminded them of their family.

The National Trust is now galvanising the nation to discover or revisit their special place and share it with others this bank holiday, wherever it may be.

Laura Malpas, Visitor Experience manager at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire is just one of the Trust’s staff who has shared the place that means the most to her:

“Each of the places we look after has its own individual story but is also uniquely special in thousands of people’s lives for thousands of different reasons. The National Trust is all about championing the importance of special places and we want to get the nation involved in discovering or revisiting their favourite place and sharing it with friends and family.

For me, Canons Ashby will always hold a special place in my heart. I first visited on a magical day with my little girl, aged 3, flying kites and enjoying the spring sunshine. I remember the wide open spaces, big sky, and a fantastic unspoiled view. I fell in love with this secret corner of Northamptonshire, that was so tranquil after all the busyness of my pressured job, and ten years later, after visiting on and off, I started volunteering here. I truly love it here and watching the people who visit fall under the same spell of this unassuming and enchanting place makes my day.”

To explore the National Trust places and find or discover new special places log onto The nation can also register their special place and tell everyone why they love it at and #specialplaces

Watch the video here to see some of the stars sharing some of their special places:

Brownfield first approach to planning is being eroded

New research published today by the National Trust and the Local Government Information Unit [1] suggests that the Government’s assurances of building on brown field sites first is not backed up by reality on the ground.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph today [2] (Wednesday 27 March) the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles states: ‘we are making the most of every single square inch of brownfield land’. 

Yet research carried out by the LGIU points to a dramatically different picture on the ground with developers arguing that it’s not economically viable to develop brown field sites for new housing and pushing for more greenfield sites to meet housing targets.

The National Trust is surprised by the Communities Secretary comments as we are aware of cases – such as in Salford – where the Council’s ambitions for brownfield have been over-ridden in favour of 350 houses on a greenfield site – excluding 10,300 houses which are on brownfield from the Local Plan.

Peter Nixon, Director of Conservation at the National Trust, said: “We are very concerned that the principal of “brownfield first” is being eroded as the new plans emerge.

“Our research suggests a growing number of greenfield sites are being prioritised for development with developers arguing that brownfield sites – many of which already have planning permission for construction – are now unprofitable to build on”.

“We think this shift in priorities is bad news for our cities, bad for our towns, bad for our villages and bad for our countryside”.


[1] ‘Localism at Risk’ has been published by the Local Government Information Unit and was commissioned by the National Trust.  A copy of the report can be accessed here:






NPPF fails to deliver planning for people

Research published today by the National Trust and the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) suggests that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is failing to give local people a genuine say in shaping the future of their communities, falling short of the Government’s own localism ambitions. 

Published by Government a year ago today, after a National Trust campaign to secure vital protections for land, the NPPF was intended to stream-line the planning process while promoting sustainable development and putting local communities at the heart of the planning system. 

Local authorities were given just 12 months to update and adopt their Local Plans, which set out where development should take place in a local area, in consultation with local communities.  Any authorities who fail to have an adopted Local Plan in place by today will be subject to the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ in the NPPF – local authorities will be required to approve development proposals ‘where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out of date’. 

Today’s research suggests that over half (53%) of local authorities surveyed will miss today’s deadline, while more than a quarter (26%) estimate that it will take another year or more to adopt their Local Plans, leaving communities the length and breadth of England at risk of speculative development.  Three-fifths (60%) of local authorities surveyed also said they don’t have the resources necessary to meet future planning workloads. 

The research has also found that the NPPF is leading to the centralisation, rather than localisation, of the planning system – three-fifths (60%) of local authorities surveyed felt that the introduction of the NPPF and Neighbourhood Plans had not helped them produce Local Plans that reflect local communities’ concerns and priorities, while the evidence suggests that development – particularly housing – is being prioritised over the concerns of local people once Plans reach Public Examination stage. 

Finally, the research suggests that the development of brownfield land first, before greenfield land, is being compromised as local authorities are forced to exclude many brownfield sites that already have planning permission from their five-year housing supplies because they are now being deemed as economically unviable to develop, leaving the authorities with little choice but to propose greenfield sites instead. 

We are therefore calling for the implementation of two practical solutions that could help give people a stronger voice in the planning system, as well as deliver sustainable development: an extension of the deadline for local authorities to adopt their Local Plans; and a more sustainable set of criteria to assess the viability of sites that already have planning permission, giving equal weight to social and environmental criteria as well as economic.

Ash Dieback and the threat to our cultural trees

Brian Muelaner – Ancient Tree Adviser for the National Trust gives his overview of ash dieback and how it could affect our ancient trees:

One would have to have been living in a bubble over the past six months not to be aware that Britain’s ash trees are seriously at threat from Chalara fraxinea, a fungal pathogen commonly called ash dieback. Since this fungus was first identified barely 10 years ago it has swept across northern Europe from Poland causing massive dieback of ash trees of all ages and sizes. It now appears to be deeply embedded within the countryside of England and to a lesser extent Scotland and Wales, putting at risk some of Britain’s most important trees.

Since ancient times, well before the Roman’s came to Britain, ash trees were important for providing ‘tree hay’, particularly in upland situations where the severe climate made it difficult to produce traditional hay. This practice has taken place in upland regions across Europe. Trees were pollarded every three to five years in the summer, removing all of the tree’s branches above browsing height at around eight feet. The branches were collected and tied into faggots and stored under cover till winter when they were fed to the stock.


Ash Pollards in Sweden

The practice still survives in some countries, such as in Sweden, through grant aid to help preserve these biologically and culturally important trees. Farmers still regularly pollard ash trees to feed to their cattle in winter. Ash leaves have a much higher level of protein than traditional grass hay.

The landscape in some of the dales in Cumbria such as Langdale and Borrowdale is littered with ash pollards which are many hundreds of years old, yet these are small hollow trees, kept small from the repeated cutting over centuries. The Trust has restored the practice of pollarding these old trees to prevent their collapse as the limbs become too heavy for the fragile shells of the trunks to be able to support. We have even recorded ash pollards on farms as far south as in east Cornwall, which were almost certainly historically managed to provide tree hay. In Cornwall the wet climate makes producing traditional hay a risky business, so before the advent of silage tree hay was a safer option. 

At Dyrham Park in South Gloucestershire there are several dramatic ancient ash pollards which are the sole remnants of an older landscape now incorporated within the designed deer park. These very fragmented old trees are all that remain of a time before the great landscapers created the beautiful parklands we know and love.

Down in Branscombe in East Devon the ancient ash pollards were used for a very different but equally important purpose. Here the trees’ branches were cut on a longer cycle of every 10 to 15 years to provide fuel for the village bread oven. We forget just how significant a role trees have historically played in providing us with warmth and cooking before coal and electricity.


Ash pollards in Brascombe

All of these trees could disappear in the next decade or two as Chalara fraxinea slowly sweeps across the country. We must continue to survey and record these wonderful old trees as quickly as we can before they are sadly lost forever.

  • Brian Muelaner – Ancient Tree Adviser for the National Trust. I advise on how best to manage these special trees to preserve their natural lives. I am often among trees many hundreds of years old, some are a thousand years or more and still quite healthy. I am coordinating a national survey of all ancient and notable trees on Trust land. To date we have recorded a remarkable 25,000 trees and still have many more properties to survey. I am also compiling an inventory of the hundreds of Trust avenues.

“Government plan for ash dieback could buy us time,” says National Trust

In response to the Government’s control plan on ash dieback announced today, Dr Simon Pryor, Director of the Natural Environment at the National Trust, said:

“It is too late to eradicate this disease, but this plan could buy us time.  If we – Government, landowners and foresters – can all work together to reduce the rate at which it spreads across the country we can find ways to ease its impact on our landscapes and wildlife.  But we must use this time energetically, to explore every possible way in which we can increase the resilience of our trees and woods. 

“The National Trust will be inspecting and where necessary removing and replacing all recently planted ash trees on our land, and we call on everyone who has planted ash trees in the last few years to do the same. 

017 Wood pasture with pollards“This is a pragmatic plan, but there are still many unanswered questions about this disease.  We are pleased that the Secretary of State has said that plant health was one of his top priorities.  But it is vital that he does actually make new resources available to enable Defra, FERA and the Forestry Commission to deliver this plan, rather than rely on others. 

“Once these diseases become established it is clear we can’t eradicate them.  So the one really big lesson from this disaster is that we must stop importing pests and diseases in the first place.  The Government must show real leadership by improving controls over the trade in plants and biosecurity at ports.  We must not be wringing our hands again in a few years time when yet another devastating pest or disease is found.”

Further detail about what the National Trust will be doing

Speaking about what the National Trust will be doing over the coming months Dr Pryor commented: “The Trust has already removed thousands of young infected trees that we had planted.  We will continue our inspections this summer and where appropriate will be removing and replacing infected young trees. 

“But one thing that we and other owners must not do is prematurely fell any older trees simply because we think they might be infected.  We need to ensure they remain safe, but there is still a chance some of these mature trees will pull through.  It is much better for wildlife for the trees to gradually decline than be felled prematurely.  

“We will also be making our woodland available to researchers so they can carry out trials and learn more about this disease.  We have also offered our plant conservation centre as an additional resource for growing disease free native ash which can be planted once conditions have improved.

 “This disease has revealed some alarming practices in the nursery trade, and we are taking a long, hard look at how we can ensure the young trees we plant are healthy and genuinely home grown.”

Weekly Witter: Protecting the past, ensuring the future: NT green energy

Last week I visited Croft Castle to consider how we will swap from the existing oil heating for the castle and visitor facilities in the stable yard to a wood fuel system. This is exciting in its own right, as not only will we get the benefit of swapping to a renewable fuel (wood chip), which we can produce from our own estates, but it will also remove the risk of storing oil in this sensitive environment. But what made this visit particularly exciting was that it marked the start of a new journey for the Trust, where we are taking a planned approach to making a significant investment in renewable energy, to help us meet our energy policy commitment that, after a 20% reduction in total energy demand, 50% of the remaining heat and power will come from renewables.

“In looking after special places for ever, we believe strongly in the need to reduce our energy consumption, wean ourselves off fossil fuels and, where possible, generate our own renewable energy.”

Peter Nixon, Director of Conservation

Energy is, of course, essential to our operations, and we spend almost £6 million a year on electricity, oil and gas. By cutting our energy consumption and generating more of our heat and power from renewable sources we will have more to spend on conservation at our properties, and on countryside and wildlife. We will also be a more resilient and adaptable organisation, better placed to face the future whatever challenges come our way.

“We’ve installed over 150 renewable energy systems over the last few years”

Turbine opening event 025

The Archimedean screw on the River Wandle in London

We’ve installed over 150 renewable energy systems over the last few years – everything from small log boilers to district wood chip heating systems, and from photovoltaic panels in fields and on roofs to hydro power systems (the latest to be switched on is the only Archimedean screw on the River Wandle in London). Some of these have worked brilliantly – Wales’ PV outperformed its specified output by a considerable margin – and some less so – Nostell Priory is struggling to make its 300kw wood pellet boiler perform at anything like its best. But we will be using these lessons learnt to ensure future renewable installations deliver all the benefits we demand of them. And we are being demanding! The wide ranging benefits expected include, of course, reducing our dependency on fossil fuel and cutting our carbon emissions, but we also have criteria focussed on investment return, the impact on significance and setting, and the ability the project has to further our conservation performance – through enhanced woodland management for example.

We are using the initial phase of the programme to test out our delivery mechanisms before we hopefully embark on the full programme which will get us to our 2020 target.

So as the country worries about whether there is enough gas to keep us going over this cold snap, it feels exactly right that we should be looking to the resources on our estates to ensure that we can (carefully) keep the heat and lights on!

  • Lizzy Carlyle is Head of Environmental Practices at the National Trust, working to ensure properties, and the organisation as a whole, improve their environmental performance, be it in energy or water use, and waste production, minimise pollution risk, and make best use of their natural resources.
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular Monday mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.
  • The installation of green energy systems like wind power can be controversial, to see the Trusts position on wind turbines please see here.

Comment: Late Spring

Spring is a variable feast, depending on how readily winter is prepared to let go, or not. Winter is holding on grimly, though it will eventually lose out, for spring will break through and lead us joyously into summer. Late springs are not that unusual. During the late 1970s and early 80s we had a run of them. More recently, the spring of 1996 was incredibly late, culminating in a particularly cold May, and those of 2008 and 2010 were also distinctly slow. So we’ve been here before.

An early Easter seems to tempt the weather to produce its worst. In 2008, Easter occurred even earlier than it does this year – and it snowed, and after a snow-free winter. The good news, though, is that a poor spring doesn’t necessarily lead to a dismal summer – the bad springs of 1983 and 1996, as examples, gave way to lovely summers. We are overdue a good summer… .

A slow and late spring is no bad thing, for flowers, leaves, insects, nesting birds and breeding amphibians can all get caught out when an early spring suddenly disintegrates into a cold snap. Slow and steady is perhaps best overall, though some hibernating animals can run out of fuel, so to speak, if their emergence gets badly delayed.

The flower count at Hidcote didn't quite go to plan...

The flower count at Hidcote didn’t quite go according to plan…

  • Matthew Oates has worked for the National Trust for over 20 years.  Although passionate about butterflies he is very much an all-round naturalist and is effectively the Trust’s resident naturalist. He works closely with the Trust’s network of ecologists and naturalist rangers throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. He has recently been featured in his own program on BBC Radio 4 “In pursuit of the ridiculous”.


BBC: Spring equinox today but winter lingers

Guardian: Nature lies dormant ahead of first day of Spring