The Circling Sky

Neil Ansell

Tinder Press, £16.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

The New Forest, on the south coast of England, is one of the few areas in Britain that has kept its original medieval character. Now a National Park, it is so heavily wooded that it is possible to walk for hours on end without breaking cover.

Neil Ansell’s most recent book, The Last Wilderness, was about the north-west Highlands of Scotland. A former journalist, he is at his most content when alone with birds and his own thoughts. While the New Forest is hardly a wilderness – on one walk he encounters an ice-cream van, on another an outing of Jewish schoolboys – in certain ways it is the epitome of English wildness, the sort our ancestors would have found familiar. Created when William the Conqueror turned it into the first royal deer park, it is both rugged and tame. Its heath and forest stretch for miles, and while its main occupants are ponies, cattle, deer and wildlife, it is marked by human activity, in recent times and long ago.

The New Forest is Ansell’s home patch, and The Circling Sky is his version of a memoir. As you might expect of a man dedicated to observation, his personal history never swamps those he prefers to keep centre stage: butterflies and bluebells, the forest’s plentiful fallow deer, but above all its birds. In the first of many laments for our depleted times, he notes that, compared to when he was a child in the 1960s, there are now 40 million fewer birds in Britain.

Brought up with his parents and brother in nearby Portsmouth, Ansell was 12 when he first visited the forest. An avid nature watcher, he kept a diary of his discoveries that, after his father’s death, he discovered stored in his bottom drawer. Theirs had not been the easiest of relationships.

When Ansell was little, the house went on fire, and his father moved them to a cottage in an abandoned quarry. Here, he could roam the outdoors. For a child who was deaf in one ear, he writes, “conversation was too much like hard work; being on my own was like a holiday”.

Deciding to visit the forest over the space of a year, to renew his long-lost acquaintance, he writes: “I want to see what has changed and what has stayed the same, what is lost and gone and what is holding strong; in the forest and in myself.”

Starting in January 2019, Ansell plunges into a teeming British habitat, and his own childhood. The two fit well, because he is an easy storyteller with a companionable style. He is also thrifty with words in the way of those who are perhaps happiest when quiet.

His year in the forest is painterly in its attention to colours, shapes and mood. His knowledge of birds is formidable, and with him we encounter goshawks, a great grey shrike and, most notably, his first glimpse of a honey buzzard. Such a sighting, he reflects, “imprints itself on the mind, a frozen moment that almost seems to divide the relentless passage of life into a before and an after”.

Too clear-eyed to be lyrical, Ansell is resolutely unsentimental. His emotional response to the wilds is genuine, not fashionable. As his past is slowly revealed, with a father against whom he rebelled, a supportive mother, and the young daughters with whom he lives in Brighton, his voice carries the weight of someone who follows his own path, and is comfortable with who he is.

His portrait of the forest’s residents, and his ruminations on its past, would be sufficient record of a remarkable place, but for Ansell that is not enough. “Nature writing may often be read for comfort and reassurance, but perhaps we need to allow a little room for anger, room for the ability to rage at everything that has been taken from us, and taken by us.” Running throughout is his fury at the dispossession of ordinary people from the land, and the ruination of the environment by the same elite that owns most of the British Isles: “…we are still living in what is largely a feudal system, thinly disguised under a wisp of democracy but designed to work primarily in the interests of a handful of privileged, entitled by birth and history.”

The New Forest was once home to travellers, who were corralled into camps. The last of them were evicted in the 1980s, in scenes shameful to recall. Ansell’s own forebears were gypsies, and although it is a century since they lived here, it might explain his ease when sleeping under the stars.

The stranglehold of the wealthy on the countryside, since the Middle Ages, and their mismanagement of it for profit, is the thread on which this book hangs. Today, 30% of land in the UK is still owned by aristocracy, and “60% is owned by a third of 1% of the population … Just 5% of the land area of Britain is available for us to live on. If we can afford it.” He points to Scotland’s community buy-outs and Right to Roam as examples of a better way to share the land, but a great deal of what he says about ongoing feudalism holds as true here as across the Border.

Before the Enclosure Acts – more than 5000 of them – much of Britain, he suggests, would have looked like the New Forest today: “I see a landscape rich in life that looks a lot like what much of our countryside should by rights resemble. Not just a possible past, but a possible future too, if only we were able to envisage a better way of being.”

This is not a perfect book. There are repetitions, and a chapter on a brief trip to Rwanda during the year is jarring. These apart, however, The Circling Sky is impressive and compelling. Treating the natural world with the respect and rigour it requires, Ansell also rails against the forces that have conspired to bring it almost to the brink. Whatever direction the wilderness next takes, you can be sure he will be there to watch.