I have wanted to write some sort of tribute to this lady and her famous diaries for some time, I read them every year and they have given me much inspiration and joy. For those not familiar, Edith Holden was born in 1871 and compiled two diaries while she was living in Olton, Warwickshire during the years 1905 and 1906. They are quite simply notes on the wildlife she saw in the area and on holidays to Scotland and Devon, illustrated throughout with her own charming watercolours and many poems.
Her diary for the year 1906 is most famous as it was published under the title ‘The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady’ in 1977 and went on to sell millions of copies worldwide and translated into 13 languages. Today it is easy enough to get your hands on a copy as they are to be found in almost every charity shop in Britain. This ‘country diary’ mania led to tie-in products and even a television film as well as the publication in 1989 of her 1905 diary under the title ‘The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady’. This huge popularity can perhaps be explained as a great wave of nostalgia in the public consciousness for a Britain long-gone. The 70’s were a time of great change in all aspects of life as cities grew, agriculture intensified, technology advanced and even wildlife altered noticeably – the diaries hark back in gorgeous detail to an idyllic Arcadia that was was still in living memory.
These diaries become ever more interesting as time goes on; they are 110 years old now and the differences between the countryside she describes and how it is currently are quite noticeable. The winters she describes are harsh, freezing affairs with much snow and frosts, the summers too are described as splendid English summers with lots of sunshine, thunderstorms and heat. She mentions seeing her last Chiffchaff of the year in early October, whereas today it is easy to see them in the middle of winter. What strikes the modern reader most though is not what different species were common or rare back then but the abundance of life she describes. Wild flowers are everywhere and in great numbers and diversity, the same goes for the birds and insects – things are so much more abundant in her notes than we experience today – the effects of all our chemicals is stark when reading these books.
Her powers of observation are really to be commended; after all she had no optics or camera, no proper identification guides, no internet or wildlife charities to help with research or ID. She simply walked out of her door and looked with her naked eyes at what was around her then wrote it down just as she remembered. It is also notable then how good she was at identifying everything, especially flowers (at which she excelled), she knows the name of everything she sees (often using unfamiliar folk names). But really it is her way with words that makes her diaries stand out – after all anyone with an eye for nature can write down what they see – but she writes it in a way that is beautiful to read and really transports you to that place, here is a good example from June 1906:
‘Everywhere the lanes were fragrant with Wild Roses, and Honeysuckle, and the breeze came to us over the hedges laden with the perfume of the clover-fields and grass meadows. The grasses of all kinds were lovely, all along the wayside. I found the Meadow Sweet in bloom in many places, gathered Self-heal and Great Burnet among the meadow grass, and Dogwood and the white, waxen blossoms of the Trailing Rose from the hedges. We picniced under the hedge, with pink and white clover bloom and tall grasses nodding round our heads, while a pair of excited Robins chattered and fluttered in the bushes round us, evidently very curious as to what we were about, down in their field-corner.’
Yet sometimes she wrote simple sentences such as ‘Gathered Early Purple Orchis, Lesser Stitchwort, and Water Crowfoot; found two Blackbirds’ nests with eggs.’ Of course her other great gift was with the brush; she painted many subjects that she came across on her walks but it is her watercolours of wild plants that are the most impressive. She paints them with a fragile delicacy that emulates the real-life plant and manages a great amount of detail and scientific accuracy, her colours also are just perfect; not overly garish but pastel-like, more like the actual colours of the flowers.
What attracts me most to Edith’s nature notes is not the illustrations or poetry, nor the comparison between her countryside and ours and the nostalgia that goes with it, it is the reason behind her writing that attracts me. She is not writing these with the intention of getting them published, neither is she writing them as biological records for the benefit of science, she isn’t even writing them for another person (as Gilbert White did) – she is noting down and painting the nature she sees day-to-day for the simple reason that it brought her joy. It is plainly evident in her writing that she takes great pleasure in going for a walk, picking a few flowers to paint later, looking at the birds and butterflies then going back home and carefully noting down what she had seen.
It is something that I feel has been lost somewhat in recent times, that very simple joy in nature, nowadays if we (meaning specifically people with an interest in wildlife) go for a walk in the country it may be for recording purposes, to do a survey and contribute data towards conservation. It may be more of a mission to see a specific species that is rare or special in some way, it may be a walk for photography purposes, it may be purely birding, with an eye to seeing lots of different species, hopefully some rarities to get your list up.
There is nothing wrong with any of these things, but when Edith Holden walked out into the lanes and fields of Warwickshire she did not carry binoculars or kilos of camera equipment or a clipboard and pen or a Collins Bird Guide. She just went out without any expectations and saw what she saw, using just her own senses, and loved it, then to make the memory last she wrote it down, even if it was just a Robin pecking at half a coconut she put out. It is this raw, naked enjoyment of nature with the only motivation being a lust for wild flowers and birds, trees and streams, clouds and blue sky that I feel is missing today and should be embraced a bit more – go on a walk without any equipment, without any excuse and just lap up the nature around you.