A Summer on the Nene by "BB"

Book dust cover 

A short while ago I read a fascinating article by “Old Stager” in the IWA Northampton Magazine, Endeavour. He recalled a book that he owned titled “A Summer on the Nene” by “BB” with illustrations by D.J. Watkins-Pitchford. I was familiar with Denys Watkins-Pitchford as being the illustrator of Tom Rolt’s Narrow Boat but I was unaware of much of his other work. The review by “Old Stager” was compelling, particularly given our proximity and interest in the Nene. Quite simply his review got me hooked, so I sought out a copy through ABE Books and it became my bedside reading for few weeks.

 Denys Watkins-Pitchford was a well-known naturalist, illustrator and author. He not only illustrated “A Summer on the Nene” but penned it; “BB” was his nom-de-plume. Published in 1967 the book is richly illustrated with wood cuts and describes a pair of journeys taken in 1966, down the Nene from Oundle to Orton Waterville in May and a trip upstream in early autumn to Woolaston Mill. The title therefore uses some artistic licence. BB was not very physically fit during the voyages and most of the locking appears to have been done by his crew, his wife and daughter, or others he meets. For both journeys he borrowed a fibreglass cruiser the Jolly Enterprise from the then newly built Oundle Marina. Unfortunately the upstream journey in the spring was curtailed when they damaged the propeller when mooring at Wansford.

Brought up in rural Northamptonshire (Lamport) as the son of vicar, he has a countryman’s outlook on nature. He shoots, hence the nom-de-plume which relates to shooting, and fishes, but has a particular interest in birds. As a result the book has numerous wood cuts of ornithological subjects. Since I can well recall the sixties, the book has, for that time, an almost old-fashioned look. The use of wood cuts makes it feel more like a book from at least a couple of decades earlier, but they contribute greatly to its charm. BB is capable of evocative descriptions of wildlife and nature. He is particularly eloquent when he describes the nesting habits and behaviour of birds but he is also capable of describing rural scenes in way that transports the reader to the place and his time. I would recommend the BB Society web site for those who wish to discover more about BB’s life and work.

One of the many charming wood cuts that are within the text

I was particularly taken by BB’s descriptions of a favourite spot of ours, Wadenhoe. He clearly loves the place and spends some pages describing its charms. He describes how he would have like to visit the Kings Head Inn and its garden at the “threshold of high summer when the goldfinches sang in the apple trees and the sedge and reed warblers chattered from the river jungles below”. I can say that we have enjoyed mooring at Wansford in high summer by the Kings Head, although our knowledge of bird calls cannot match that of BB, we can report that it is a spot which can transport you away from the cares of modern life.

Wadenhoe Church from the Nene in 2006

Wadenhoe Church in 2006

Although 1966 seems not that far back to me, much has of course changed since BB was writing. He describes the manual operation of the River Nene locks and the boating traffic that includes working boats delivering flour to the mills in Wellingborough. He also describes processes in agriculture that have since changed. It is noteworthy that he mentions stubble burning several times in the book, a practice which was popular with farmers at the time but that was effectively banned in 1993. He also bemoans the loss of the red kite to Northamptonshire, a bird which is now well re-established in the Rockingham area – I drove along the Nene valley just this week and saw three around Oundle.

As with all similar books, “A Summer on the Nene” also covers the history of the area. It includes the happenings at Fotheringhay in the 16th century involving Mary Queen of Scots, the village being illustrated with several impressive full-page wood cuts. However, the unique feature of the book, as far as English history is concerned, is much more prosaic. Unusually, the book contains a ten-page appendix recoding an interview with a Mrs Julyans who lived in the rural Nene Valley in the 19th century and who died in 1967. The picture she paints of rural life is heart-warming without being nostalgic. It certainly adds to the book’s appeal and it helps increase its focus on rural life. The review by Old Stager describes some of this material.

Which brings me back to where I started. Old Stager lent the original copy of his book and it was never returned; he relied on a library copy when writing his piece for Endeavour. I understand he would like his original copy back. I can vouch that my copy didn’t belong to Old Stager, it was an ex-library copy from far-off Kent! He did note in his piece that a copy had been on sale in Uppingham for around £150 but my very smart copy was nowhere near that cost.