Caught by the River

The Kenneth Allsop Memorial Evening: Fields, Rivers & Bees

Neil Sentance | 27th November 2013

Neil Sentance reviews Fields, Rivers and Bees, the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Evening which took place in Bridport, Dorset on Friday 15 November.

A couple of weeks ago I took the kids for a walk along the River Bride, the most westerly chalk stream in England. We hiked along the white riverside tracks scoured out by autumn rain, amid greensward fields of sheep, keeping a weather eye on the ring of hills to the north, until emerging near wave-plundered Burton Beach, where mining bees were hollowing in the oolite. This short walk typifies the allure of the landscapes of West Dorset, as once affirmed by Kenneth Allsop, the much celebrated writer, broadcaster and pioneer green activist who lived in this nook of southwest England in the early 1970s, the last years of his life.

The Kenneth Allsop Memorial Evening is now in its second year as part of the Bridport Literary Festival and organised by Little Toller Books, and has achieved instant prestige. This is reflected in last Friday’s event at Bridport’s Electric Palace and the stature of its speakers: Charles Rangeley-Wilson and Tim Dee, great men of the CBTR parish, and Professor Dave Goulson, eminent biologist at the University of Sussex.

The introduction was given by David Wilkinson, author of a part biography of Allsop, Keeping the Barbarians at Bay, who explained that Allsop’s late career as an environmental campaigner began as a reaction to the rapacious oil prospectors who had been given carte blanche to drill even in nominally protected areas like the Dorset AONB (the parallels with modern-day threats from fracking are plain to see). There followed the talk with Charles Rangeley-Wilson and Tim Dee. Charles is the author of Silt Road, an elegy to a lost chalk stream of the Chilterns; Tim’s Four Fields is the natural and human histories of four grasslands in the Fens, Africa, Montana and Ukraine. Both books have been similarly lauded in the continuing rich vein of British ‘nature’ writing. Amiably presided over by host Nick Fisher, we sat in on a convivial fireside-type chat, ranging over the character of nature-writing, the losses and gains of the conservation movements, an impressively lucid explanation of chalk formation, and the custodianship of landscapes generally, all interspersed with captivating readings and droll and trenchant anecdotes.

The evening’s second part floated like a Lepidoptera and stung like a Hymenoptera, comprising an entertaining illumination of the bumblebee, an illustrated lecture by Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and author of the Samuel Johnson Prize-nominated A Sting in the Tale. The talk touched on the bee lifecycle, its distribution and behaviour, as well as its economic and ecological importance and well-publicised decline, and the measures we can practically take to stem the decline. Dave’s lecture described research both vital and far-reaching, but was delivered in a light and humorous way that fully engaged the packed audience.

All of this provided great conversational grist in the Tiger Inn later that night, where my pal Paul – once a fly-fishing tutor in Montana – introduced me to the guitarist with indie rockers Longview. Like the Allsop lectures it just proves that Bridport produces some great juxtapositions.