We have known of the work of Virginia Spiers as a Guardian columnist and her sister, local artist Mary Martin, for many years. Mary's work depicting life and the landscape here in the Tamar Valley is a firm favourite of ours, and whilst we have never quite run to owning an original we do at least have a beautiful framed exhibition poster which we treasure.
The paintings capture the colour and the landscape and the produce, daffodils and apple blossom in profusion and if ever I buy daffodils I always pick enough to create what I call the 'Mary Martin Effect'..twelve bunches seems to come close.
So we were browsing around Launceston after coffee and cake at Jericho's a few months ago when I spotted Silver River An area of outstanding natural beauty - Tamar Valley Diaries from the Guardian by Virginia Spiers with paintings by Mary Martin. It was in the bookshop window and I was in like a shot and out with a copy before Bookhound could even draw breath to say 'Do you want to get that...'
In his introduction, Neil Sinden of the Campaign to Protect Rural England suggests that the book...
'...slowly and sympathetically reveals the many layers of history, culture, people, places, life and wild life that have accumulated over the centuries to make the Tamar Valley such a rich and distinctive locality.'
Now that I have read it I feel doubly proud and priviliged to have lived here for the last eighteen years, and how perfectly all this segued with my reading of Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways. But this is my landscape and one which you know by now I have come to love, so it was wonderful to read of Virginia Spiers's love for it too.
Virginia and her sister were brought up on a farm in the Tamar Valley (so really local as opposed to us incomers) and these pieces reflect the knowledge that comes from a true bond since childhood with the area and its traditions. It can be hard for newbies like us to know where the old orchards may have been, or how vital the flower trade was to the area's income, or quite how the flowers and fruit were sent up country, so these pieces also become a vital and informative record of that history.
Incidentally the Gamekeeper drove me around the estate he works on last week and past one of the oldest known orchards in the Tamar Valley. I managed one picture from a lurching Land Rover...
Tamar Valley daffodils from the local market gardens, providing employment for over a thousand people, would be picked one day, and thanks to a good pre-Beeching train network, would be with the merchants at Covent Garden early the next morning. The names are magical and all make me think I should track down some of these varieties if I can and get some authentic planting done... Magnificents, Californias (nothing parochial about Cornish daffs) Ice Follys, White Lions, Fortune, Carlton, Victoria, Lucifer, Double Lent... we have really been slacking with our sack of Who Knows What from the garden centre.
This was a mixture of nightsoil, street sweepings with horse manure, fish waste and butcher's offal brought up the tidal river by barge to be off-loaded onto horse-drawn carts for its journey to the strawberry fields where it was spread as manure... I'm thinking e coli outbreaks for sure, but I suspect everyone had better immune systems then too.
Plenty of names I recognised and even our own bluebell woods get a mention along with news of little valleys tucked away within bigger valleys all of which I need to go and discover for myself now, and every piece has one of Mary's paintings in glorious technicolur on the opposite page. In these days when books need to proclaim themselves as things of beauty if they are to compete with the ebook market, then this one does itself proud with 200 pages of good quality paper, and printed and bound in Cornwall.
Robert Macfarlane has this to say about landscapes in The Old Ways...
'We tend to think of landscapes as affecting us most strongly when we re in them or on them, when they offer us the primary sensations of touch and sight. But there are also landscapes we bear with us in absentia, those places that live on in the memory long after they have withdrawn inactuality, and such places - retreated to most often when we are remote from them - are among the most important landscapes we possess.'
And whilst I think he means landscapes of the memory I wonder about the impact of a book like this for any of you, or the impact of a book about where you live for me, and whether it is possible to truly feel that place from the words and the pictures on the page, or even on the screen??
My feeling is that of course I'd love to see and know for real, but when I can't a book feels like a good enough substitute, and I hope occasionally a blog post is too... in the end it is perhaps, as Neil Sinden says about sharing and treasuring the riches we all have on the doorstep in any we can...
'All landscapes and localities have their stories to tell. This book could be an inspiration not just for those with interest in the Tamar Valley but for all who can see comparable richness in places throughout the English countryside that deserve to be valued.