Reviewed by Rob Spence
I come from Manchester, so I know about rain. Actually, Manchester’s reputation as the rainy city is, as I am overfond of pointing out, a result of a mistake in meteorological analysis made in a study of north-west rainfall in the 1920s. I know, I should get out more. Melissa Harrison is all for getting out — though she doesn’t venture north of Shrewsbury– and presents, in this charming book, an account of four walks in the English countryside at different times of the year. It’s a deceptively simple idea, but one which allows her to demonstrate her knowledge of the countryside and her deep understanding of the forces which have made it what it is.
In this short (barely 100 pages) book, the four walks, in Wicken Fen, Shropshire, The Daren’t valley, and Dartmoor are each covered in a discursive ramble, taking in natural lore, local history and language, and the impact of rain on the landscape. It’s no coincidence that each of the locations chosen by the author is associated with the National Trust: its logo appears on the dustjacket, and there is a discreet description of its activities on the flap. But there is no question of this being a piece of PR flummery: it’s a considered, meditative, poetic evocation of specific aspects of the English countryside at particular times of the year.
Harrison’s method is to ground her observations in her own life, moving from the personal to the universal in the process. For instance, the section on Shropshire, centring on the Wrekin, begins with some domestic detail about her annual visits to the area to see her parents-in-law. Then she launches into her walk – nothing ambitious, a meander around some village streets and across a couple of fields. As she walks, she observes, and it is the quality of the observation that marks off Harrison’s writing from many other nature watchers. At every point on the route, there is some snippet of history, science or folklore, deriving from an encounter with the country scene unfolding before her. So the reader is carried along with her on the walk, learning all the way. In a few pages on the Shropshire walk, she mentions the early show of oak leaves, betokening a dry summer; then a discursion on the “D-value”, or digestibility of grass; then a brief history of the quaintly named British Rainfall Organisation and its founder, James Symons; then some reflections on swallows as harbingers of summer, illustrated with an old rhyme. And so it goes on, a fascinating rattle bag of information and contemplation, shot through with personal reminiscence and delightful digression.
One welcome aspect of this volume is Harrison’s interest in dialect terms for weather, which she emphasises, taking a leaf out of Robert MacFarlane’s book, by including a glossary of words concerning rain. I particularly liked the onomatopoeic words she mentions: ‘slobber,’ used in Shropshire for thin cold rain mixed with snow; ‘smir,’ used in Scotland of fine, misty rain; ‘thunner-pash,’ a Durham usage for a heavy thunderous shower; and ‘plype,’ a sudden heavy shower in north-east Scotland.
You can read this book in a couple of hours, but it will stay with you much longer, and I guarantee it will make you want to get out and about. I’ve just looked outside: it’s raining.
Melissa Harrison, Rain: Four Walks in English Weather (Faber, 2016) 978-0571328949, 104pp., paperback.
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