Wainwright prize for nature writing goes to 'extraordinary book' on first world war

Where Poppies Blow by John Lewis-Stempel studies how the natural world helped sustain the morale of troops contending with the horror of the trenches

In the week when relatives and dignitaries marked 100 years since the battle of Passchendaele, Where Poppies Blow, the author and farmer John Lewis-Stempel’s “profoundly moving” exploration of how nature helped maintain British soldiers’ morale during the first world war, has taken the Wainwright Golden Beer book prize for nature writing.

Lewis-Stempel argues that one of the major reasons why men volunteered to fight in 1914 was their desire to “preserve inviolate … rural Britain’s ‘fair sights and sounds and perfumed airs’ – and that “for the generation of 1914-18, love of country meant, as often as not, love of countryside”. Where Poppies Blow explores this theory by way of figures such as Edward Thomas, author of the great poem of English rural life Adlestrop, who was killed in action in April 1917; and considers Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, the “musical embodiment of pastoralism and patriotism”. Lewis-Stempel also looks at how soldiers in the trenches were in direct contact with the natural world, and used nature to take solace when faced with the horrors of war.

Where Poppies Blow continues Lewis-Stempel’s domination of the four-year-old award, which he won in 2015 with Meadowland, before appearing on the 2017 shortlist twice, with Where Poppies Grow and The Running Hare. The shortlist also included Stephen Moss’s look at how to bring back Britain’s wildlife, Wild Kingdom, and Madeleine Bunting’s look at the Hebrides, Love of Country.

Chair of judges Julia Bradbury hailed Where Poppies Blow as “an extraordinary book about the healing power and resilience of nature in the darkest of times”, which she predicted would become a modern classic. It was the unanimous choice of judges for the £5,000 award.

“Beautifully written and profoundly moving,” Bradbury continued, “it is a reminder of the atrocities of war, but John Lewis-Stempel cleverly weaves in the story of the animals and wildlife that survive, die and thrive alongside the men and women who lost their lives.”

According to the organisers, recent years have seen rising interest in nature and travel writing, with sales since 2013 growing by £4.5m. Other winners of the award include Amy Liptrot’s memoir The Outrun. The prize aims to reward the books that “most successfully reflect the ethos” of the nature writer Alfred Wainwright, to “inspire readers to explore the outdoors and to nurture a respect for the natural world”.

Canongate publishing director Francis Bickmore, which published The Outrun, said that Britain was a “world leader” in this kind of writing. “At a time when more and more people are screen-locked and less connected with the countryside than ever, it’s encouraging to remember there has been a huge renewed interest in books about the natural world,” said Bickmore.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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