Each month I suggest books to read in the newsletter and here are some recent reviews. These are originally posted on my Goodreads page and if interested you can see more here on a range of topics, including the Mersey Estuary, travel, aviation and environmental themes.
November 2020 newsletter
The Gathering Tide, Karen Lloyd
In this very personal account, Karen Lloyd takes an in-depth look at the history, environment and wildlife of Morecambe Bay, weaving in childhood recollections with those from more recent walks around its shores. The journey begins at Sunderland Point near Lancaster and ends at Walney Island, on the opposite side of the bay.
The book covers a lot of ground, including the slave trade, creek ports, peat cutting, early human settlement and the dangers of the sands, including the cockling disaster. I particularly liked the accounts of crossing the sands to Piel Island with a local expert and the Kent Estuary with Cedric Robinson, former Queen’s Guide to the Sands. Several other experts are met along the way and some eccentric characters too.
Common themes throughout include the ever-changing weather and tides along with the spectacular birdlife, including avocets and ospreys. Beautifully written, the book helps to bring the area to life. Highly recommended.
October 2020 newsletter
The Fresh and the Salt, Ann Lingard
In this intriguingly titled book, Ann Lingard shares her love of the Solway Firth through its history, environment and wildlife. The scope is huge and ranges from microscopic to geological scales, with insights into the lives of people who work around its shores. The science is presented in an accessible way, often through personal recollections of meetings and field trips with experts.
Topics covered include the Solway’s mining history, fisheries, ports, peat bogs, Roman presence, barnacle geese, invasive species and more. The descriptions of adventures are the most fun though, such as flying high above the Solway in a gyroplane, taking control of a lifeboat, and wading from Cumbria to Scotland with some haaf net fishermen.
It’s a wide ranging and entertaining book for anyone who wants to learn more about this fascinating area or more generally has an interest in estuarine and coastal areas.
September 2020 newsletter
Kendal’s Port – Leonard Smith
In these days of road and rail, it’s strange to think that estuaries were once key transport routes, both for raw materials and finished goods. This meant that places far inland, such as Warrington and Chester, were once important ports, with all the infrastructure that entails, such as warehouses and wharves, and even some pubs that remain to the present day.
I’ve recently been reading about another unlikely place for a port, namely Milnthorpe on the River Kent in Cumbria, which is dubbed as ‘Kendal’s Port’, having once been a key supply point for the town. This well-researched book traces its history, with ships travelling as far afield as Liverpool, Ireland and the Baltic States. Of more general interest, though, in many ways it traces the early stages of the industrial revolution, in a story that is echoed in many estuaries around our shores. This includes a brief discussion of topics such as smuggling, the slave trade and those state-sanctioned pirates: the privateers
How to be right: in a world gone wrong – James O’Brien
James O’Brien is a radio presenter who in recent years has become famous for challenging stereotypes and generalisations on his show. This is an important skill and sadly lacking in some presenters. He’s usually well briefed on the topic and, if he isn’t, brings on experts to talk through the issues. This book published a couple of years ago describes how he approaches interviews and how long-held but flawed beliefs can be challenged, in a calm, fact-based and empathetic way. It is illustrated by some transcripts from the show. Thoroughly recommended in these days of fake news and disinformation, and he has a new book out on ‘How not to be wrong’, in which he admits that he is not always right, which could be good too.
August 2020 newsletter
Schooner Port: Two Centuries of Upper Mersey Sail by H. F. Starkey
It seems hard to believe nowadays but, in the days before road and rail, the upper parts of the Mersey Estuary were once busy with barges and other vessels travelling to docks and ports at Warrington, Runcorn and Widnes. There were also active shipbuilding industries, launching schooners, steamships and barges.
Surprisingly little has been written about these times and this well-researched book explores the history of this trade. Fascinating snippets of information include that in 1830 about there were about seven thousand sailing barge passages from Runcorn to Warrington, and that in 1836 about 60,000 tons of freight arrived this way.
The book was published many years ago so may not be readily available, but is worth tracking down if you are interested in this little known aspect of maritime history.
The Tide: The Science and Stories Behind the Greatest Force on Earth by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
As someone interested in the tides, I had to read this book, but it should be of much wider interest as it delves into both the science and folklore, whilst trying to avoid technical jargon.
On one level, it traces the history of our understanding of the tides from the times of Aristotle, Newton and Galileo to the modern day. Along the way, some myths from the past are explored from a scientific standpoint, such as mysterious whirlpools and tidal waves that our ancestors couldn’t explain, and theories about King Canute’s efforts to hold back the waves. There is also a historical account of the development of the science of tidal observations and predictions, including tide gauges and tide tables.
Whilst these aspects were interesting, it was the more personal accounts that I enjoyed most, such as of a family sailing trip that nearly went wrong and a low tide walk across Morecambe Bay with the Queen’s Guide to the Sands. Other highlights included watching a tidal bore in Nova Scotia and a murmuration of waterbirds in Norfolk, and the sights, sounds and wildlife that appeared while watching the whole thirteen hours or so of a tidal cycle.
Overall, it’s a fascinating book on one of the less well-known wonders of nature and brings the science to life in an imaginative way.
July 2020 newsletter
Both Sides Of The River: Merseyside In Poetry And Prose by Gladys Mary Coles
This imaginative book collects together a huge variety of extracts of published work on Merseyside into a single volume, with a particular focus on Liverpool. These are drawn from ‘…poetry, novels, short stories, scripts for stage, television and radio, songs, legends, biographies and autobiographies, diaries, letters, travel-writing and journalism’. Edited by a renowned poet, it is a book to dip into, with both modern and historical works featured, including some fascinating traveller’s accounts of visits to the Port of Liverpool in the early days. It also features a great selection of photographs and paintings.
Wild Merseyside by John Dempsey
Merseyside stretches from south and east of Liverpool to Southport to the north and includes much of the Wirral. This book celebrates its wildlife including seals, lizards, seabirds and rare plants. Written by a local wildlife expert, it is stunningly illustrated with many insider’s tips on when and where to go. Habitats discussed include parks, nature reserves and the coast. Suitable for both beginners and enthusiasts, it is great to dip into when planning a trip or to take out in the field to see what you can find.
June 2020 newsletter
Faster Than the Wind: The Liverpool to Holyhead Telegraph by Frank Large
Even before the days of radios and satellites, it was a great help to have early warning of a ship’s arrival in port, allowing owners to arrange berths and hire labour, and to start finding buyers on commodity exchanges.
This meticulously researched book tells the story of an ingenious signalling system that was set up in 1827 along the north Wales coast from Anglesey to the Port of Liverpool, using semaphore masts with several mechanical arms to relay information. Typically, it took just a few minutes to send a signal along the twelve stations from start to end although a BBC Coast programme suggested the record was under a minute.
I particularly liked the imagined description of how a day’s work must have been for the key operator at Holyhead, interpreting the flags on ships as they came into sight, and of the elaborate semaphore coding system, which allowed a huge variety of messages to be transmitted. The older flag signalling system that it replaced also features. The system was finally replaced by electrical telegraph in the 1860s.
Mersey: the river that changed the world. Edited by Ian Wray
Several decades ago, the Mersey Estuary was heavily polluted, before the work of the Mersey Basin Campaign, which brought together government, businesses and community organisations to tackle the problems. The resulting changes sparked a new pride in the waterfront and economic development and its waters are now so clean that even salmon have returned.
This book celebrates these changes, bringing together several authors writing on different aspects of the estuary. This includes a fabulous article called Wild Mersey by Chris Baines on how wildlife has returned and On the Waterfront by Peter de Figueirido, which describes historical developments along the Mersey from Stockport to Liverpool.
Richly illustrated, it’s the type of book you would normally dip into but, like me, you may end up reading it all the way through.
May 2020 newsletter
Step by Step: The Life in my Journeys by Simon Reeve
I decided to read this book after seeing Simon speak during his recent UK tour, in which he talked about his early years as well as his current success. It was an entertaining evening and quite a surprise that his route into journalism and documentary making was far from conventional. The book gives more detail, starting with his troubled childhood, including depression, and mixed success finding work, and then a lucky break, getting a job in the post room of a national newspaper. A combination of limitless enthusiasm, persistence and a willingness to take on the toughest assignments helped him to make the most of this opportunity, soon becoming a staff writer, and afterwards going on to write a landmark book on terrorism. As with his presenting style, he writes in an engaging way, with some interesting reflections on the documentary making process and how he seeks out the good and bad on trips, or the light and the shade as he puts it. As he says ‘Personally, on any trip I try to push myself a little and follow a simple set of rules: go to strange places, take chances, ask questions, do things that are exciting, eat strange foreign food, and dive into the culture and embrace risk’.
East of Croydon: Travels through South East Asia by Sue Perkins
Sue Perkins is perhaps best known from Bake-off cookery programmes and appearances on radio and television panel shows. Someone once said that you know a comedian has made it when they are asked to make a travel documentary, but Sue makes an excellent host. This book describes her first trip – along the Mekong River – along with occasional flashbacks to her childhood and insights into documentary making. It’s an entertaining read with the usual traveller’s tales of stomach bugs and outlandish food, mixed in with some more serious reflections on poverty and environmental degradation. I particularly liked her descriptions from Laos. Having reached the source of the Mekong in China, we are then transported to India; subject of a documentary on the Ganges. Here her heartfelt accounts of visits to some of the poorest places stand out, at a time when she was grieving the loss of her father.
April 2020 newsletter
April’s collection was an unusual mix of reviews of books on aviation and the joy of flight, but that go beyond that with some great insights into the nature of risk, fear and exploration. There are some great adventure tales too.
Propellerhead by Antony Woodward
For anyone interested in the lighter end of flying, such as light aircraft and microlights, this book is a must-read. However, with its tales of flying adventures it does a good job of conveying the pleasures and excitement of flight to a wider audience and is written in a funny and engaging way. It is about the author’s time learning to fly what – by current standards – is a fairly old design of microlight and his successes and mishaps as he spread his wings to travel around the UK. However, please don’t take it as a good practice guide to how to be a pilot because it’s definitely not.
Fate is the Hunter by Ernest K. Gann
Fate is the Hunter is often voted to be the best book written on aviation. However, I struggled with it initially and put it aside after the first chapter, slightly put off by the convoluted language, before deciding to give it another go. It was worth persevering though as it’s now one of my favourite books, and it works at two levels; as a fascinating account of the birth of long distance air travel and a wider discussion of the nature of risk and exploration and the joy of flight. Some adventures which stand out include pioneering flights from the USA across the Amazon to Brazil and over the Atlantic to Greenland, made long before the days of radio and satellite aids and air sea rescue. It’s one of the few books I’ve read twice and still occasionally dip into.
Skybound: A Journey in Flight by Rebecca Loncraine
One of the best books I’ve read in recent years, Skybound describes a journey back from serious illness facing the author’s fears through another great challenge: that of learning to fly. With lyrical descriptions of gliding high above the mountains of Wales and New Zealand and of her childhood upbringing on a hill farm in the Black Mountains, there is a wonderful attention to detail.