Hertfordshire’s Emerging Writers 2024 : Nic Wilson from Hitchin

Diane Maybank

Nic Wilson
. Photograph: Steve Grainger
Laid hedge at Purwell Ninesprings
Photograph: Nic Wilson
Old Man Alder at Purwell Ninesprings.
Photograph: Nic Wilson
Wet meadow at Purwell Ninesprings
Photograph: Nic Wilson

Nic Wilson is one of Hertfordshire’s successful emerging writers. Her subject is at heart the natural world; and Hertfordshire, for all its wounds and compromises, is lucky to have her as its advocate for the imagination. Our county is her unlikely Muse and she honours its chalk streams, its downs, woodlands and wetlands with her eclectic prose style. Read her and she will guide you through close encounters with all that rural and suburban Hertfordshire has to offer.
I was lucky enough to catch Nic at home in Hitchin last January. With her Bantams pecking at buckwheat in the garden and her rosemary – oily, fragrant and rampant on the drive, she gave generously of her time to answer my questions.

How long have you lived in Hertfordshire Nic?
Let’s see, we moved here in January 2003, so that’s 21 years now.

Like many of us, you probably moved here for work early in your career.

It was for my husband’s job rather than mine. We reckoned that as it was half way between London and Cambridge, I’d have a pretty good chance of getting a teaching job in a sixth form college. It was a bit of a punt, but it paid off.

Looking back, can you remember waking up to Hertfordshire’s natural landscape?
No! When I arrived I was initially really, really fed up! It was pretty flat and boring down south and I’d loved my Durham years as a student and teacher. Around the northeast nature is big, splendid, obvious. Here, I was working full time in a demanding job and I just didn’t see the wild life around me. I vaguely recall passing a sign to Purwell Meadows, but walked on past. It took a long time to even think of spending my weekends in Hertfordshire. We travelled to Suffolk, Norfolk and especially The Lodge at RSPB Sandy for bird watching.
My experience goes to show that even if initially you don’t see the potential around you; you can come to feel deeply connected to an area like North Herts.

So when did you realise there was plenty here to keep an emerging writer busy?
I gradually got to notice my surroundings, but this was long before I saw myself as a writer; that only happened in the last two or three years. You could say the impulse was triggered when I went to The Edible Garden Show with a friend. He suggested we go to a talk on writing blogs. This was at a time when I had decided not to return to teaching after starting my family. I had been in the thick of family commitments for several years. It can be very isolating, looking after young children at home and I was about to explode.
I remember sitting there thinking: this sounds really interesting and before I knew it I was writing three hours a night and it felt just great. This burst of creativity had been building for some time and I was soon writing one big article a week. Back then my focus was gardening rather than the wild.
I had really enjoyed a garden design course at The Settlement in Letchworth. About the same time I started those school walks over and over and I began to notice the burgeoning life in the alleyways, the hedges and even the pavement cracks.
A big step into nature on my doorstep was to volunteer with Herts & Middlesex Wildlife Trust. I was based at Purwell Ninesprings and gradually found time for some bird recording. I also led walks for scout groups and carers. Purwell offered me connection, community and the less quantifiable – love and excitement for my local area.
I had enjoyed a good career in teaching, but I didn’t feel I had quite landed. This is when biding your time and resisting what might be convenient come into their own. You have to steel yourself and float for a time; waiting in suspension and hoping that the right match will come up, and it did for me. I had this choice because of my husband’s financial support and I know this doesn’t come to everyone. I have been fortunate.
Nature writing is where I want to be for the rest of my life. I have found my connection with my local landscape and a wider connection with a brilliant community of writers who offer wonderful support.

Are there parts of the county that are worth return visits?
Return visits are always the way to go, for me everywhere is the place to return. Each visit is different: weather, time, season, company, can all offer fresh insights.
If I had to choose I would say that Purwell Ninesprings has offered me a profound experience. I have gained a deep knowledge of this six hectares of land in all seasons, enhanced by research, observation and memory. We don’t need to flock to beauty spots or someone else’s special place to have this privilege, we can make our own connections.
I have worked through the seasons at Purwell Ninesprings. I have coppiced, scythed, bashed scrub, laid hedges and cut reeds. When I visit I can see the progress the hazel hedges are making; those I helped coppice five or six years ago. I have read about the history of the area, both human and more-than-human, I know about land ownership and land use. My work on this land is a tiny fraction of what others have done in the past but still, it offers me a strong pathway to connection that I take great pleasure in. Finally, thinking about the value of repeated visits, this land is so varied, it has reed beds, ponds, wet meadows. Old Man Alder waves to me whenever I pass through, he stands next to the coppiced hazels. And besides, it is something to know where the Small Teasel pops up and from which bush the Whitethroat sings.

Do you have a favourite season in Hertfordshire?
Well, May…. it is very easy to love spring. I do though especially love winter, perhaps because it’s not so easy to love and I talk about that in my book. In winter I feel safer walking in the dark because dusk is so early. You can see the landscape more clearly, especially the alder carr at Purwell Ninesprings. It’s more accessible in winter as the nettles and undergrowth have died back. With fewer distractions the eye finds fresh interests, like tree bark which I’ve been researching recently and find fascinating. Then of course we have the water fowl; I’ve seen Jack Snipe in the reed beds in winter, they don’t breed here, they are winter visitors.
Winter is full of small surprises that make it worth braving the cold for.

Like a lot of English counties Hertfordshire is in deep trouble. How do you see your writing alongside the gloom and depressing statistics of terminal decline?
I’m not trying to effect political change through my writing, there’s no point in lecturing people. I see myself more as sowing seeds in people’s minds. I want to help people see nature around them in greater depth or in a slightly different light. If people think of natural places as important then that leads to care and in the end advocacy. Most of all though, I want to share my own feelings of joy, of love and yes, of sadness about the natural world.

Who do you write for? I’m asking this question because you have written about loving nature from an early age and others have shared with you the importance of having a close relative or friend who got them interested.
I agree that people reading my work and getting something out of it will likely already be receptive and ready to make connections. But even experienced readers can find new insights which could well send them off in new directions. That certainly is the case with me. The Guardian Country Diary is providing a platform for underrepresented voices. There is great diversity in the mix of contributors and with their Young Country Diary feature inviting writing from children and teens they are looking to the future.

Advice to get out in nature for our health and wellbeing is everywhere these days. I’m guessing your message to readers wouldn’t be quite as utilitarian as this. What would it be?
I hope to encourage people to engage their imaginations in small ways, like spending quality time on the view from the window. Here I’m thinking of people who can’t get out. My dad ringed a Siskin a while back and it was found in Finland. Able bodied or not, armed with this snippet of information anyone has the means to research background. I am going to follow the Siskin story online and in books, possibly linking to the Museum of Helsinki where I think the Siskin ended up.
We have to be aware that there is no ‘nature cure’, this is a narrative the media have taken up and it is misleading, even harmful. Nature can help if you are struggling and we need to go on raising awareness to threats to its survival or we’ll be in a far worse situation than we are already in. Speaking for myself, most times looking out the window simply isn’t enough. If I am unable to immerse myself in nature that can feel very frustrating. Nature will always be out there but for some, life is about a constant renegotiation with your body and how well you feel day by day.

Your career has moved up by several notches in the past year. How are you finding the increased public exposure?
Well, what I’m doing is so niche I can’t say there’s been a big impact. What has changed is that I’ve found a community and it has given me wonderful friendships and support. That has meant more to me than becoming well known for my writing. I’ve gradually got used to the public reading my stuff and giving talks has got easier. Positive feedback from people I trust has helped my confidence and self-belief. Getting commissioned for The Guardian Country Diary and BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine were very big steps into the unknown for me. I have an amazing mentor who has given me incalculable help in writing my first book and I owe a great deal to him.

Can you take us through how you prepare for writing a piece, both in the field and on your return?

It can depend on my subject. If I’m writing to a brief, to report on a plant for example, I will go out with a plan. Compare that to the moment I saw a Sparrowhawk predate a Kingfisher at Purwell Ninesprings. That split second moment was so unexpected and amazing, I wanted to get it down on paper really quickly. I may take notes or go for a completely immersive experience. I may use a Dictaphone or I might write a few things down on my phone. My main approach is composing phrases and sentences in my head as I walk. I reflect on how things appear to me and when I get to my desk there’s lots of putting myself back in that position and working on the imagery. Writing a first draft can come quite easily, it’s the editing that’s time consuming. Editing a paragraph for the Country Diary can take three hours.
I love the mix between fiction and non-fiction, that’s the border I sit on when writing my memoir and that really suits me. A lot of the writing I do is commissioned, but going forward in writing books that’s my style – creative non-fiction. I’ve always had a pluralist imagination and I love the place where poetry, the imagination and knowledge collide – that’s exciting.
Writing my book was stressful and challenging but so much fun, especially those passages when I was assembling a multi-layered response.

Can you tell us a bit about how Hertfordshire’s chalk landscapes have inspired your writing?
I’ve spoken a lot about connection and I feel that most strongly when I’m in Hertfordshire’s chalk landscapes and that includes all the plants they support. I got interested in plants specific to alkaline soil and that led me to go deeper and think in geological and deep time ways about Hertfordshire. The chalk of this county seems to have great depth and strength to me so I’ve used it to express the strength I feel I’ve gained in my personal life, partly through the liberating act of writing about myself.
It was the creative writing course at Cambridge that gave me the time, mentorship and confidence to think that I could write creatively about nature. Nature speaks to me so much and our time outside is limited so I want to make the most of it.

Becoming a columnist for The Guardian Country Diary must have been exciting and challenging in equal measure. How did you find writing to a word limit?
I found it pretty straightforward, I credit years of teaching for making me disciplined. I usually produce a piece that’s comfortably over the limit but quite easy to trim down. Editing always produces something better so it’s a good process for me. I don’t produce pieces to fit consciously, they just happen, my brain seems to know how to do it. Writing my first piece for The Guardian was particularly tricky as the content I had in mind relied on flowers being out and they weren’t, so I ended up with something I had to choose quickly and work up from scratch.
Good editing decisions are always key. I might spend five hours on something that I think I will use, but I am careful to kill my darlings if need be. I am OK with this as ruthless cutting and changing always results in a better piece. I have a few people I trust who will advise me what to take out and, though sometimes I disagree, I almost always get rid of stuff even though it’s a wrench.

Your knowledge and especially your ability to identify what you encounter – flora and fauna – is a particular strength of your work and of course it’s expected in the genre. It certainly works for me and I don’t see you compromising on language difficulty. Do you see it as being particularly important for the reader?
This is a matter of personal preference but for me the language – words and the natural world are what get me buzzing. There’s a history in that language and it adds layers to what I am writing about. I agree, names are important and I think they help people remember things. If you find names in my work it’s because they are important to the piece but I will leave them out if that is not the case. For my book I wrote it for myself, if names are there it’s because for me they are intrinsic to the piece.
In my Country Diary piece Finding a Real Treasure, out of the Blue I encounter the UK’s tiniest resident butterfly at Hexton Chalk Pit. I think using its glorious Latin name, Cupido Minimus and following up with the word binomials is informative and suggests to the reader that this encounter was a rare treat.

And finally, does Hertfordshire offer us something unique?
Hertfordshire’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it isn’t unique. In terms of natural history it’s a very ordinary place. Alas, it has lost a lot and it’s built up. There are still many beautiful places to visit. So it’s not always great in terms of nature but it shows us the value of what we have left.

Nic Wilson is a writer. She is best known as a Guardian country diarist, sharing her love for Hertfordshire’s unassuming wild places with a wide readership.Her work has featured in anthologies, journals and magazines including BBC Gardeners’ World, The English Garden, The Garden (RHS) and The John Clare Society Journal.
Look out for:
Nic’s pieces for The Guardian Country Diary, all of which can be found on the newspaper’s website at https://www.theguardian.com/profile/nic-wilson
Pasqueflowers (16 April 2019) in which she writes about the chalk downs at Therfield Heath
Snickets (30 June 2019) published in Women on Nature edited by Katharine Norbury 2021, paperback edition 2022, published by Unbound

Song of the Iris (2 March 2022) in which Nic writes about her return to Hertfordshire’s chalk lands after the difficulties of lockdown
A Quince in the Hand published in Moving Mountains Writing Nature through Illness and Disability edited by Louise Kenward, published 2023 by Footnote Press

Nic’s nature memoir
Land Beneath the Waves in which she writes extensively about Hitchin’s wild and suburban places is hopefully awaiting publication in 2024. It was long listed for The Nan Shepherd Prize in September 2023.

You can join Nic’s ONLY CONNECT community and receive her newsletter about all things nature/local by subscribing to her newsletter.


find out about Purwell Ninesprings and The Greenspace Action Plan for Purwell Meadows 

This page was added on 27/03/2024.

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