The extraordinary writing which made John Lewis-Stempel Columnist of the Year

Country Life's John Lewis-Stempel was named Columnist of the Year this week by the British Society of Magazine Editors.

By the time you reach the bottom of this page, you'll know exactly why.

It was a fantastic vindication for a brilliant writer, a man whom the judges called, ‘the perfect writer in the perfect place, erudite, informative, and poetic.’

Country Life editor Mark Hedges put it a different way, calling him ‘simply the countryside’s most beautiful writer. A superstar in wellies.’

Here, Country Life’s features editor Paula Lester picks out three of John’s finest columns from the year that he has been a contributor to the magazine.


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Half Winter, Half Spring

(Published February 21, 2016) 

Winter returned in the night and stuck its talons into the land.

At 8am, there are four degrees of frost. The morning notes of a blackbird in the ash skip off the white surface of the field as thrown flat pebbles skim over water.

When the female buzzard comes round on her patrol, she is silent—it’s too cold to mew.

My hands thick with leather gauntlets, I drop the big axe. There’s no thud; instead, the earth rings with the metallic toll of a bell. I let the rest of the medieval executioner’s tools fall to the ground—small axe, billhook, bow saw. The music is atonal, Stockhausen.

John Lewis-Stempel illustration

By 10am, I’m hot, my face rinsed with sweat and not just from the hedge-laying. The day has gone warm—the thawing of the earth freeing the salad smells of new life.

And here we have February—the month of half winter, half spring. I’ve ‘stopped up’ the hay meadow and removed the sheep in the expectation of the 6˚C grass needs for unstoppable, luxurious growth.

Greenshift. On the other hand, the hedges up here in the Herefordshire hills are still winter-bare, leafless, and I can finish the last 20 yards of hedge-laying without disturbing nesting birds.

Over the thicket, a pair of woodpigeons rises and falls in flight, oddly like the swooping paper darts one threw at school, such is their courtship routine. Country folk used to believe that Valentine’s Day was for more than humans; it was the day the birds became betrothed. Chaucer wrote a poem, The Parlement of Foules, on the very theme. The love of birds is very British, very old.

There’s an unexpected privilege in hedgelaying; one gets to peep into the inner sanctum of this linear woodland before the veil of leaves comes down. You see the hedge’s secret life.

Chopping into the base of a hawthorn, properly almost severing it, but not quite, the billhook hits a patch of glossed bark and swings back with two or three ginger hairs stuck to the sappy blade. Whether from weasel or stoat, I’m not sure, but I’ve found the entrance tunnel of a mustelidae.

A yard further on, sewn into a fork of hawthorn, is the nest of a long-tailed tit, a perfect dome of moss covered with verdigris lichen.

In the squinting sunlight, it assumes the guise of a cyclops’s helmet.

Scientifically, we know evolution exists; spiritually, we know that the Nature around us is unimprovable. Can the long-tailed tit’s nest be bettered? No. The bird actually meshes spiders’ webs into the moss so the nest is elastic and will expand to accommodate growing chicks. For a bird’s brain, that is perfection achieved. Full stop.

Less perfect and wholly human, if you want the archaeology of farming, the hedge is the place to dig and probe. The hedge has always been the favourite dumping ground for farmers. In the 20-yard stretch, I find a brown Bulmer’s cider bottle, a broken costrel and the thin bone-white stem of a Victorian clay pipe. This western hedge of the meadow is about 400 years old—by the rule of thumb of naturalist Max Hooper, the age of a hedge is the number of woody species in 30 yards multiplied by 110. I’m working the shady spot where the men of old sat when resting from ‘haying’.

I take my elevenses in the same place.

A cock chaffinch, in full breeding fig, lends the hedge a burst of colour and whistles at the ladies. Then, it’s back to work. The hedge was originally composed of blackthorn and hawthorn and intended to create a thorny, stockproof barrier. One or two haws remain, piercing red against the sky, bright bloodspots to match the puncture wounds on my arms, gauntlets not withstanding.

Somehow, the spikes always get you. Christ’s crown of thorns was reputedly made from blackthorn, the cruellest of trees.

Hedge-laying is one of those jobs down on the farm that aligns one with the ancestors, puts one in the stream of all human time.

I’m cutting at wood, then laying it at 35˚ and weaving it into a wall, with a metal billhook; the first Neolithic farmers here chopped at the wildwood with flint adzes to create fields. Different cutting medium, same perspiring action.

In creation, there’s always chaos.

A well-laid hedge will be a wildlife haven, as well as an impenetrable barrier to stock for upwards of 50 years, but, in that 20-yard dash, I build up a bonfire of trimmings and trample flat the emergent hedgerow flowers. The furled umbrella spikes of lords and ladies (Arum maculatum) suffer most.

Locally, the plant was once known as cuckoo pint, the name derived from ‘cuckold’ and ‘pintle’, the latter meaning penis. There are at least 99 wink-wink alternative rural names for Arum maculatum. ‘Carry On’ humour is very British, very old.

John Lewis-Stempel illustration

There’s another ancient element in the scene: man and dog. I’ve Edith with me and she alternately mooches in the hedge, then lays in the sun with matronly dignity. I’ve known her since the moment she was born, when I watched her come into my world. She’s always been the most beautiful black labrador, outside and in. She would be a shoo-in for a canine Country Life ‘girl in pearls’. Indeed, her proper name is Edith Swannesha, ‘Edith Swan-neck’, in honour of the legendary Anglo- Saxon beauty married to King Harold.

My Edith is dying. She has cancer and I’m atomic-clock counting down the days of her life.

Tick. Tick. I’ll bury her under the hedge, because, among all its other purposes, the hedge is the graveyard of the dogs of blessed memory. Tick.

I’m not crying. Those are not tears on my face.

It just happens to have started raining.

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Up with the lark

(First published May 18, 2016)

Last night, the sun sank to its death, red and violent. I was delighted as I’m a shepherd and we’re still on lambing (which is going well, as you ask). Fine days are what I need.

So, here I am, at 4.30am on a dark, but dry, May morning in darkest Herefordshire, checking sheep. Even this early, it’s warm enough for atoms of summer smells to be rising. As I walk around the sheep in the lambing paddock, the perfume of new-season grass crushed by my feet fills the air.

Two more sets of ‘doubles’ (twins) greet the two-million candlepower beam of the torch. Auto-farmer routine follows: blast the drooping remnant of the lambs’ umbilical cords with purple antibacterial spray, then grab the ewes and make sure they’re giving milk by pulling on the teats. Sometimes, there is a waxy black plug in the nipple hole that needs to be massaged out—too much information, perhaps.

In the far east, somewhere over Orcop Hill, comes a thin horizontal blade of light. No need, however, to feel sorry for me, because I’m up while you’re still slumbering under the duvet.

I’m about to witness a wonder of Britain.

John Lewis-Stempel illustration

The dawn chorus is at its best in May, when male birds sing to attract females and mark out territory. It’s also free and democratic, a pleasure available to everyone who can get to a garden, park or field.

Of course, we Britons do like our birds. There’s now an International Dawn Chorus Day, which was founded courtesy of the Wildlife Trust in Birmingham. It’s actually international in the way the World Conker Championships is international— it’s a British thing.

I walk down to the hay meadow because, when in one at daybreak, you can experience what Britain was like before the pandemonium din of 24/7 shopping and wildlife-unfriendly agricultural ‘improvement’. Back then, Britain was a wonderland, bright with birdsong, loud with colour.

There’s no need for a torch, now. In the space of minutes, the scene has gone from blackout to gloom. Anyway, my path is shown by the luminescent globes of cow parsley alongside the hedge. As I push open the gate into the hay meadow, the song thrush at the top of the ash has already opened the concert. He sings each refrain twice over, ‘Lest you should think he never could recapture/The first fine careless rapture!’ as the poet Robert Browning has it.

Then, other birds come in, signalled by some invisible conductor. There is an order to the dawn chorus: robin, blackbird.

A soprano skylark takes to the air to spill out tinkling silver coins. Dear Percy Shelley was wanton and wasted, but this he got right: the skylark, the bird of meadowland, is the ‘blithe spirit’. When a lark ascends to Heaven’s gate, your heart soars with him.

Up with the lark, indeed.

John Lewis-Stempel illustration

Down in the shadowy alder beside the brook, wrens and blue tits start whistling.

In Three Acre wood, a pheasant cok-coks and vibrates its wings; across the wheat field in the copse, another pheasant answers him in kind—they are the bass section.

Around my wellingtoned feet, the grass is a retreating black tide. Implacably, the colourising sun advances across the field— the more the light, the more the birds.

Chiffchaffs, willow warblers, blackcaps commence chanting. Last are the chaffinch and hedge sparrow.

The birdsong goes on rising in full Dolby Surround Sound, because all four hedges have songsters. Two male blackbirds, on opposite sides of the field, sing against each other in an ecstatic proclamation of their stake in the world.

This is what the Earth was like when it belonged to animals. And then I think, scientists aver that the dawn hymns of birds are merely battle songs, but surely birds take pleasure in their singing? The sky materialises to Creation blue. The air is sufficiently clear to carry every avian syllable.

I see dew for what it is, the world’s birth fluid. By 6am, full light, all the birds of Herefordshire and Monmouthshire have gathered round in choir. Crescendo.

The sun has also revealed the full florulent glory of the May-time hay meadow—it’s the field of the cloth of gold. There is yellow rattle, celandine, buttercups, dandelion and cowslips, but, look closer and you see they’re under-stitched with red clover, white clover, daisies and, my favourite, my lotus flower, bird’s-foot trefoil, known locally as the bacon-and-eggs plant in recognition of its pink-and-yellow colour scheme. Then, there’s glossy green sorrel, the medieval haymaker’s favourite plant; if you chew it, its tartness stimulates saliva in the mouth to slake thirst.

I haven’t mentioned the grasses yet: Timothy, sweet vernal, cock’s-foot, perennial rye, common bent and the wonderfully monikered crested dog’s-tail. Within the span of my legs, I can probably encompass 30 plant species.

The increasing warmth of the sun does bring on life. I can feel it. Quite taken with the moment, I lie down on my elbows for a bee’s view across the meadow— I’m afloat on a pea-green sea into which a naïad has thrown polychrome confetti.

The heat is opening every floral cell, so the scene is thick with the aroma of honey. The birdsong drops away and the drone of insects has yet to begin. In the silence of the interregnum, there is just the wine-glug of the old brook.

Farming, like rust, never ceases. Livestock eats, defecates.

I feed, clean out. Repeat.

I should be off on chores, but, standing alone in a May-time hay meadow at dawn is so precious, I can hardly bear to pull myself away.

I notice that the sun has hardly moved, as if it, too, is mesmerised by such things.

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Shine on, you crazy diamonds

(First published June 22, 2016)
On a pond, panic has a pattern. The mallard drake takes off, into the hint of breeze, for lift. At the far end, the moorhen slinks leggily away though the reeds. She shows her white under-tail feathers as she goes. In the perpetual gloom under the willow, her warning signals are as bright as lamp-flash.

Small wonder the waterfowl are alarmed.

I’ve arrived at the farm pond driving a Kubota mini-digger, on caterpillar tracks, with the front loader clanking. The demonic din of the Industrial Revolution.

I turn the mini-digger’s engine off. Rain pitters on the roof, drips off and in through the open sides of the cab.

On the surface of the pond, the rain makes endless, repeating Spirograph circles. Where gathered raindrops funnel off the trees, fairy bubbles blow on the water, then pop.

From the security screen of green reeds, the moorhen kerrupps at me. Her cry sounds as if her mouth is full of water. Moorhens are misnamed. The bird has nothing to do with moors, but everything to do with meres, meaning mires. All farm ponds should have moorhens; it should be the law.

Heavier rain now, which makes strange plurping music on the water. The pond takes the colour of the June storm to become a black tar pit. The reflections of the bulging, fecund trees on the western bank are oily Rococo reproductions on the water.

It’s wet, but June muggy. Although the year is slipping towards the midsummer silence of the birds, this noon the birds are singing.

Willow warbler. Chiffchaff. Blackbird.

Another glimpse of the moorhen—this time, she’s scurrying along the grass on the eastern bank. With her red bill, yellow gangly legs and outsize shoes, she looks ridiculous, like a girl who’s got at her mother’s make-up box and wardrobe. The moorhen disappears into the base of the briar fortress where her nest is. She’s already on her second clutch of the year. The brambles are also tenanted by rabbits—sometimes, she hisses at them.

John Lewis-Stempel illustration

A cock chaffinch flies back and forth to his nest in the hazel, feeding gape-mouthed chicks with grubs. White grubs, green grubs. He passes across my vision once a minute, to become a vague imprinted line on the retina.

On the flattened rushes beneath the digger’s cab, globules of rain have silver, Glam Rock sparkle. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.

The writer Denys Watkins-Pitchford (‘BB’) wrote: ‘A pool to me is as important as a house.’ It’s a view I share. When we have lived in houses without ponds, I’ve made them. A china Belfast sink in a cottage garden was a particular triumph.

Our current pond is industrial-sized, about a third of an acre, being originally a medieval fish pool. Mind you, with no fertilisers and agro-chemicals to pollute them, almost all ponds then were fishponds and teemed with eels, pike and trout. Some fat abboty carp linger in the pool, but, for the past century, its prime purpose has been providing drinking water for cattle.

The farm pond is a slow suicide; it fills with silt from ditches, with leaves from trees. To keep it alive requires vigilance.

Last February, a pair of Canada geese took up residence, attacked everything and ate everything, including the frogspawn.

I shouted at them, fired off guns, got the dogs to bark at them. They wouldn’t budge, they wouldn’t move. In the desperate end, it was the pond’s life or that of the Canadas. I suppose one would call it de-wilding.

My son and I shot them, with heavy BB cartridges, on a bleak February day when the silver birches on the wooded western bank looked curiously North American.

The Canadas were sitting on the water.

A 12-bore broadside to the gander— I expected the goose to fly, but she refused.

Tris, as startled as me: ‘Do I shoot the other one?’ Was it love? Loyalty? I don’t know, only that she bravely faced the gun.

Dead on the water, the Canadas turned turtle to float on their backs and, when the wind blew them towards us, they were as menacing as pillows. Hauled onto the bank, they were such beautiful corpses, their black snakey necks damn good enough for a stempost on a Viking longship; the fine sawtooths of the bills delicate engineering beyond the skill of man.

I’ve digressed. Suddenly, the rain has stopped.

A pond changes by the hour, by the minute.

Now, it’s placid glass, with only the faintest ripple betraying the movement of the warm air. Insects emerge from their hiding. Midges clutter my face. A blue damselfly, the smaller relative of the dragonfly, hovers above the reeds; an ancient insect atop a plant that thrived in dinosaur mud. The damselfly flickers away, a horizontal shaft of neon light.

Then come the magical smells we get in June after rain, when water and earth are warm with summer. The aniseed aroma of ground elder fills the air. Purple loosestrife bows in the heat. The peace is heavenly.

Five fallow deer trip down through the green haze of the oaks. They’re no more than 30 yards away and, as they turn to the bank, their silk flanks ever so slightly brighten.

John Lewis-Stempel illustration

In a line, they stand drinking, almost inanimate, a plastic-toy version of ‘fallow deer drinking at their watering hole’.

Eventually, the young buck raises his head, sees me, and bolts. The does are on his tail, no hesitation, no questioning. The five of them speed away, swerving, sidestepping the oak pillars. The bobtails of the deer flash, just like the moorhen’s. The deer breast the sea of briars, the emergency exit, out into the field.

For a second, the percussion of hooves trembles the earth. It is some sound, I tell you; it’s the echo of the Norman chasse through the old wildwood.

The pond returns to its innate monkish tranquillity.

The old cock chaffinch is still about his labour. He is the Protestant work ethic on wings. I should be about my job, too. The reason I’m here with the digger is that a pine tree has toppled into the pond, blocking the outlet. The tree needs to be lifted away. I switch the engine on.

I suppose I gazed at the pond for no more than 20 minutes. A kind of thirst was slaked.

John Lewis-Stempel, BSME Columnist of the Year 2016 (Specialist category)