IT began back in 1979 with a bucket of nuts and a herring net.
Not to mention goats in the Mini! Now considered a classic of countryside literature, Membury resident John Jackson is celebrating the 35th anniversary of his first book, ‘A Little Piece of England.’
Ten years before television couple Felicity Kendall and Richard Briers sought ‘the good life’ in Surbiton, John, with his wife and three young children, built up a smallholding in a sliver of countryside in rural Kent, and by trial and much error, came to make themselves self-sufficient in meat, milk, eggs, vegetables and some fruit, while learning various country crafts 'in their spare time.'
First published as ‘A Bucket of Nuts and A Herring Net: The Birth of a Spare-Time Farm,’ the original title came from John’s unconventional method for rounding up sheep.
It was later released as ‘A Little Piece of England: A Tale of Self-Sufficiency’ in 2000.
John, now 84, is a polymath. He is an established author, lawyer, businessman and political and constitutional campaigner, and is probably best known as a founder, and former chairman, of the Countryside Alliance.
He was born in Membury in 1929, close to where he lives today. The family were ‘flat broke’ and lived on what they could grow or forage and ‘if the tide was right, what we could get out of the sea.’ ‘By the time I was four,’ he said ’I knew about the land. I knew how to use it. We had had an early lesson in how to look after ourselves.’ John remembers how a conger eel his father caught could provide them with fish cakes for a week!
Later John wanted some of the experience of his own early years to be passed on to his children. In 1965, at the height of his corporate career in the City, the family moved from London to Underriver, south east of Sevenoaks, where they started out innocently enough with a few chickens. Before long they had assembled a cast of memorable characters - bullocks, cows, horses, sheep, goats, and geese - as well as a few four-legged freeloaders, largely kept on land borrowed from neighbours on a ‘barter’ basis.
John's daughter, Sue Woods, still lives at White Rocks Farm where she trains animals for film and television and provides holidays for special needs children.
John works a couple of days a week as the chairman of the international law firm Mishcon de Reya, but these days he is more often found in his garden in Membury where Alpine and woodland plants are his speciality. Over the years he has donated seeds to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, to Wisley, and to the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.
His land is bordered by the River Yarty which holds wild brown trout and in the autumn there’s a small run of sea trout and the occasional salmon. ‘I could fish for them, but I prefer to watch them,’ he says.
He remains passionate about the countryside, conservation and the sustainable way of living.
‘The book is about more than the activities of a family and their animals. It is an attempt to make a small statement about people’s relationship with the land they live on and the importance of that relationship.
Jackson 2 ‘The best way to get an understanding of the land is to use it. I have long believed that the health of a nation is better and its communities and their cultures stronger the more it cleaves to and values the land it lives on,’ Mr Jackson said.
For much of his life he has worked in London, and around the world, but John says that he has always felt ‘a greater sense of belonging in the countryside.’ Shortly after moving back to Membury, a neighbour built him an owl tower in the hope that owls will take up residence.
‘It’s that sense of community, of people living and working together, that is one of the great strengths of the countryside. That’s what I felt when I moved back to Devon,’ he says. ‘I feel like I’ve come home.’ ‘A Little Piece of England’ is available to order from all quality bookshops, RRP£12.99. iBook and Kindle versions are also available £2.99.