COUNTRY LIFE

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE never been much of a one for literary pilgrimages. Those devout trails that dog the routes of Sam Johnson and George Borrow and the needless quests for the real map of Hardy's Wessex seem belittling. They underplay both the transforming power of writing and the independence and capriciousness of the landscape.

But I make an exception for Kenneth Allsop, and the chalk redoubts of West Dorset in which he spent his last few years. I was down there a few weeks ago, helping to judge a natural history essay competition virtually next door to the medieval mill-house where he lived until 1973. He was a master of the form and, had he still been alive, would probably have chaired the proceedings. As we debated tales, passionate and pathetic, of slaughtered foxes and insect invaders, it made my skin prickle to remember Ken's words on the same themes, and to look out at the knoll that rose up behind his garden - an "airy world of gentians and harebells beyond the petrified and barkless tree whose gallows bough is a favourite sniper's post for buzzards." I'm susceptible partly because, as a young tyro in thrall to the man, I had been lucky enough to walk some of this country with him. But Ken did offer "country writing" something new. In his hugely popular Daily Mail column on life at the mill, his errant pets, the "burning glare" of a sparrowhawk's eyes, a search for bootleg Blue Vinney, were seen through the eyes of a literate newcomer.

There was not a hint of the condescending squire, weekend dilettante or fake peasant - the old, jaded voices of country writing. He wrote as he was, the urbane presenter of 24 Hours, the new-wave journalist, the country boy mellowed in the metropolis. And the jagged, compressed, often outrageously extravagant but always knowledgeable prose came closer than any post-war writing to linking the ancient life of the countryside with the modern consciousness. It has cast an aura over every combe and barrow. No wonder he appealed to all those exiled from the green fields. So I persuaded our little company of judges to take a pilgrimage to Eggardon, the great whaleback hill that dominated Ken's Dorset:

"This is the grand soaring finale to the westward drive of chalk... Sitting quietly here you can see fallow deer in the rough dell far beneath. Buzzards idle over the oaks of King John's hunting preserve. The wind which planes the flesh from your cheekbones blows meadow pipits into the gorse scrub."

And, quite eerily, as we stood in the wind ourselves, there appeared everything as Ken had described it: the buzzards above, the deer and Powerstock Forest, like a green surf, below.

Then, a quarter of a mile ahead of us, something fell corkscrewing out of the sky. It was a peregrine falcon. Just a few days before he took his own life in 1973, Ken had been watching birds of prey in Wales. How he would have exulted to know that peregrines were back nesting on the cliffs just miles from his own eyrie. 8

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