Summer Books 2024

'And the waters - oh, the waters I found'

Yoal Desurmont

Wild Service: Why Nature Needs You

Wild Service starts with a description of St. Mark’s Church in Englefield, Berkshire, which, between the hours of 10-4, is open to all. ‘People come to nature as they come to church,’ Jon Moses writes, ‘to experience something greater than themselves, a silence and awe that allows them to reflect on themselves and their place in the world’.

Wild Service is a heartfelt call from the team behind Right To Roam to re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world. While not a religious concept, Wild Service draws on the sense of love and belonging often found in faith-based communities to set out a new vision of ‘ecological devotion’, with a range of familiar voices, including Nick Hayes, Amy-Jane Beer and Guy Shrubsole, and new voices, such as Dal Kular and Romilly Swann.

Between each chapter, there are short sections which celebrate the ‘Architecture of Belonging’ – rope swings, cairns and bothies, – and ‘Wild Service in Action’, with examples of inspiring individuals who already live this change, such as Paul Handrick (a.k.a., @the_beeguy), Becca Blease, founder of the Conham Bathing Group, and Liz Richmond from the Rebel Botanists.

Wild Service: Why Nature Needs You (ed. Nick Hayes & Jon Moses, Bloomsbury)

The Wild Swimmers by William Shaw

Let’s hope life doesn’t follow art in this new murder mystery about a swim group on the Kent coast.

Mimi Greene is a strong swimmer and much-loved member of her local swim group, familiar with the complex currents, cold temperatures and risks of swimming alone. And so, when her body is found washed up on the shores of Dungeness, everyone is suspicious.

The latest in William Shaw’s Alexandra Cupidi crime series, The Wild Swimmers is a confident, fast-paced and warm-hearted thriller which takes great delight in the surprising female leads, vivid descriptions of the Kent coast, from Dungeness to the Hoo Peninsula, and all the twists, turns, false leads and interconnected lives you’d expect – and, of course, dryrobes!

The Wild Swimmers by William Shaw (Riverrun)

By The River: Essays from the Water’s Edge 

There is something for everyone in this collection of essays from Daunt Books – a wide range of voices and places which seek to start new conversations about the role of rivers in our personal lives and society at large.

The collection opens with ‘I Felt Sure She Had Gone Down to the River’, in which Jo Hamya reconsiders the life of Virginia Woolf, upending the usual fascination with Woolf’s death and focusing instead on her life in the Sussex countryside, drawing on letters and diaries which show Woolf’s excitement about the changing seasons, ‘the size & shape & fertility & wildness of the garden’, ‘the infinity of fruitbearing trees’, reimagining the river as a source of joy and inspiration in Woolf’s life.

The collection also features a much-loved passage from Waterlog where Roger Deakin collides with two bailiffs of Winchester College, ‘strawberry-pink with ire’, before reflecting on the problems of private ownership and rights of access, which still feels fresh and relevant 25 years after the original publication.

And in ‘Falling Out of the Sky’, perhaps the highlight of this new collection, Caleb Azumah Nelson explores the power of rivers to divide communities, travelling to Seville, where, against the advice of his mysterious host, he dares to cross the Guadalquivir river and discovers a place of refuge on the other side.

By the River: Essays from the Water’s Edge (Daunt Books)

Rural Hours: The Country Lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann by Harriet Baker

Another one for fans of Virginia Woolf …

Why do we think of Woolf as an urban figure? Perhaps because of Clarissa Dalloway stepping out one morning to buy the flowers? Perhaps we remember Woolf’s own role in the group of artists and intellectuals who lived in and around the Bloomsbury area of London? But Harriet Baker’s fantastic new biography explores Woolf’s life in the countryside, alongside two lesser-known novelists of the 20th Century – Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann.

There isn’t much swimming here, beyond a quick dip in the sea, but Baker does focus on something which will be familiar to many outdoor swimmers: ‘the creative and radical potential of rural life’. Following Woolf’s life in Sussex, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s life in Dorset, with her girlfriend, Valentine Ackland, and Rosamond Lehmann’s life in Berkshire, where, for almost 10 years, she had an affair with the poet, Cecil Day-Lewis, Baker explores how this ‘creative and radical potential’ helped to influence their work.

Rural Hours: The Country Lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann by Harriet Baker (Allen Lane)

Sea Bean: A Beachcomber’s Search for a Magical Charm by Sally Huband

There is a moment in Sea Bean when Sally Huband travels to the Netherlands to meet Maarten, a beachcombing guide who shares some of his favourite finds: a rubber duck which he traces back to Cornwall, a mammoth bone, Lego figurines from a container spill in 1997 – itself the subject of another book, Adrift: The Curious Tale of the Lego Lost at Sea by Tracey Williams (2022) – and, yes, a couple of ring-binders, both ‘bulging’ with messages found inside bottles washed up on the beach.

This is what I imagined Sea Bean would be like – a deep dive into the weird and wonderful discoveries which prove just how connected we are, even on small remote islands, such as Shetland, where Huband lives with her husband and two small children. But there is much more to this memoir in which Huband explores her struggle with chronic pain against a backdrop of climate change, even anticipating a time when beachcombing ‘will become a necessity again’.

While you might struggle to describe Sea Bean as sentimental or hopeful, Huband’s love for the natural world shines through her encounters with sea birds and mysterious creatures which she finds on the beach, culminating in her search for a sea bean – a rare seed which can still germinate, even after years at sea.

Sea Bean: A Beachcomber’s Search for a Magical Charm by Sally Huband (Penguin)

Night Swimmers by Roisin Maguire

David Nicholls meets Doc Martin in this dramatic debut. 

Evan arrives in the fictional village of Ballybrady to escape his troubled marriage and stressful job, but here he meets Grace, a spiky and cantankerous fifty-something year old with her own troubled past. So what happens when lockdown strikes and Evan finds himself stuck in this remote village on the Irish Sea, separated from his wife and young son? 

In this confident but unexpected romance, perfect for Book Clubs, Roisin Maguire explores questions of prejudice, forgiveness and the ‘grace’ of strangers. 

And, of course, this wouldn’t be an OSS review if we didn’t provide some practical tips on how to go night swimming yourself. 

Night Swimmers by Roisin Maguire (Serpent’s Tail)

Women and Water: Stories of Adventure, Self-Discovery and Connection in and on the Water

Women and Water is a beautiful new anthology which celebrates the importance of water in women’s lives, shares practical advice and explores questions about identity and freedom in the modern world.

Here are just some of the artists, scientists, athletes, teachers, activists and entrepreneurs who share their stories:

An Olympic athlete who now teaches other women how to swim; a disabled woman, paralysed from the chest down, who rediscovers freedom in the act of floating; a marine biologist determined to share the wonders of our marine world with more women; and a fisherwoman who travels all over the US – ‘oh, the waters I found’ – in search of solace and friendship after the death of her wife.

Women and Water: Stories of Adventure, Self-Discovery and Connection in and on the Water (ed. Gale Straub, Hailey Hurst & Noël Russell, Chronicle Books)

Patrick Naylor