Fiona Stafford is the author of two previous nature books, the acclaimed The Long, Long Life of Trees and its sequel, The Brief Life of Flowers. Each of the books’ chapters takes a particular subject and briskly examines it through a series of lenses: nature, history, literature, folklore, art. An oak, say, or a rose becomes a door through which the reader is expertly guided into an unfolding cultural landscape (Stafford is professor of English at Somerville College, Oxford). In some ways, Time and Tide is a very different beast. Although ostensibly structured in a similar fashion, the nineteen brief chapters of this deeply personal book have oblique, suggestive titles, such as ‘Drained’, ‘Otters and Cockles’, ‘Here Be Dragons’ and ‘The Waves’. At first I missed the unambiguous signposts of her previous nature books – as a reader, I like to know what I’m in for – and I was some way through the book before a revealing phrase from the prologue drifted back into my mind. In it, Stafford collages words from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘Pied Beauty’ into her own. ‘Places are lit up’, she writes, ‘by what is out of the ordinary, by what’s counter, original, spare and strange.’ I realised that what at first strikes the reader as a bewildering, wandering narrative is in fact gently underpinned by the theme of the out-of-place. Throughout the book, Stafford demonstrates that focusing on relics, oddities and traces of the not-quite-vanished can be a rewarding way of thinking about landscape and history.
Stafford is drawn to in-between, often watery places: the Fens, the Solway Firth, the suspension bridge that crosses the Humber. The viewpoints she chooses are often as oblique as her chapter titles: she is more likely to descend into caves and mines than to enjoy a conventional hilltop prospect, and