REVIEW: A Good Parcel of English Soil by Richard Mabey

In brief: Part of the Penguin Lines series celebrating 150 years of the London Underground, this book looks at the intertwining of nature and progress through Metroland as the Metropolitan line grows.

The good: I loved reading more about Metroland.

The not-so-good: Probably not the best thing to read during intermission at a show.

Why I chose it: I am a London Underground nerd.

Year: 2013

Pages: 96

Publisher: Penguin

Setting: London, England

Rating: 8 out of 10

A Good Parcel of English Soil is the first of the Penguin Lines series that I’ve actually read on a train. I can now understand how easy it is to read these small, light books when you’re on a train carrying the football and concert crowd. (You can also read it at intermission as it fits nicely in your handbag and is much cheaper than lining up at the bar). This was a lovely novella about the interaction of nature and transport, focusing on the Metroland promotion of the twentieth century to link the Metropolitan line with a rural life.

Richard Mabey is an excellent choice for this subject, given both his knowledge of nature and that he grew up very close to the ecotone – where the city meets the country. He reminisces about the field he grew up playing in between two housing estates in the area designated Metroland. This was an advertising campaign for the Metropolitan Railway who had shrewdly bought properties in the north west of London and then expanded the train route to there. This was so families could have the benefit of living in a rural, nature filled area with the convenience of being able to commute to London for work. Beautiful expanses of park land, birds, flowers, golf courses…Metroland had it all. It was also a way the poor could explore the countryside cheaply on the weekends. For Mabey’s family, it was a smart move that took them out of the path of the Blitz.

Mabey discusses the way that nature has absorbed the changes (the M25’s columns have ivy trailing over them) and how nature is returning to the city in the case of the red kite reintroduction to Metroland and beyond. It’s beautifully written and clearly demonstrates Mabey’s detailed eye for nature. I enjoyed this brief foray into Metroland which conjured images of an idyllic countryside rather than cramped train travel.

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