Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Madeleine Bunting's father brought his wife and family to North Yorkshire. There he bought an acre of scrub-land on the steep western edge of the North York Moors--not to live on or farm, but as a kind of sanctuary. There, he built a chapel (he was a devout Roman Catholic) and invited a very select few prepared to listen to his thoughts and opinions--and he had plenty of those. His wife and growing brood of children, whose names he often forgot, were tolerated, but not especially welcomed.
Why did he do it? What was so special about this particular plot and where it stood? What was its place in history and the development of this unique culture and environment? What was his, for that matter and what did this place mean to him? What did it mean to the author when she was growing up and what does it mean to her now her father is dead? Madeleine freely admits to having had a difficult relationship with him. In attempting to answer these questions, she has produced a tour de force, something which is neither a biography, a memoir or a history book. The result is greater than the sum of its parts.
She talks about the geology, the geography, the topology of this plot, the flora and fauna and how people mould the landscape. She discusses the evolution of landscape appreciation, tourism and a sense of place. She covers the economic ups and downs of agriculture, forestry and War, plaster saints and art. She wonders whether our 'love' of the land is a mere sentimental indulgence. Do we all need to have somewhere we can call home? How will things change in the future?
This may sound a muddle; believe me, it's not. As a journalist and historian, she pulls all these strands together into a sustained and coherent essay that is not just the story of a man, an artist with a vision, but of England itself. It's the kind of book you want to read over and over again, for its love of the land, its people and the wistful portrait of a sad man she only got to know and love after his death.