I was fortunate enough to spend most of my childhood in the countryside - specifically the Essex coast, with its big skies, arable farms and mudflats. The fields and skies were close and familiar, but the coast was something altogether different. I remember a sponsored walk along the seawall between Heybridge and Tollesbury with the local cub scouts (one of the only good things about being a member). Our party had become separated and strung out, and I found myself pretty much on my own. It was getting late, and across the salt marshes I could hear the melancholy calls of wading birds. The evening, and the landscape, had become isolated, desolate and unfamiliar.
When I read 'What to look for in summer' by E.L. Grant Watson, I felt much the same sensations. The 25 watercolour illustrations by C.F. Tunnicliffe R.A. opened up the possibilities of other, stranger landscapes somewhere in Britain waiting to be discovered. All of a sudden the Essex countryside seemed commonplace. Beyond its borders lay wonders, and Tunnicliffe's pictures helped me explore them - redshanks nesting among rare orchids, moorland streams gushing through heather, treasures of crab and razor shell washed in the tide. We had no orchids, heather or razor shells where I lived. But through Tunnicliffe I could imagine them, and through imagining, learn more about them.
The four books in the series, each covering a different season, are all illustrated by Tunnicliffe. His illustrations teem with life and detail (look deep into one of his pictures and you will keep finding things to amaze you), but they are also an accurate depiction of rural life and light, or at least rural life as it was in the 1960s. They have a timeless quality. Another picture in 'What to look for in summer' shows a farm beyond a still lake, nestled among elms. The sky has the calm lowering yellow of an evening that began decades ago and shows no signs of ending.
In the age of the film clip and the selfie, it is easy to forget how a piece of art can make a genuine connection with the viewer, how it can stir the imagination and evoke memories. My favourite illustration, on page 6 of 'What to look for in summer' shows a family of mallards half-hidden among willow trees. Water has always been a fascination of mine, and in this image of a flooded pool Tunnicliffe has managed to evoke a sense of darkness and secrecy. Today, I live in a flat on the other side of London. But I am lucky enough to cross a river on the way to work every day. On the river are mallards, and willows that cast deep shadows across the water's surface. Each time I cross it I think of Tunnicliffe.
I cannot speak highly enough of the 'What to look for' series. Not only does it beautifully illustrate the changing sights and moods of the British countryside; but, for a young boy growing up in Essex, they made nature into an adventure - an adventure which continues to fascinate me to this day. Thank you, Ladybird Books, and thank you Tunnicliffe!