The second Gresham’s Festival of Nature is bringing a varied line-up of writers, artists and scientists to a series of public events the north Norfolk school, including three EDP nature writers. KEIRON PIM, found out more from festival director Alistair Cormack.

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The interplay between land and water has shaped East Anglia’s development throughout history.

From the Fens’ conversion by Dutch drainage experts from reeds and rivers into agricultural fields, through to the ongoing damage to people’s livelihoods wrought by coastal erosion and flooding, those living in Norfolk and Suffolk have always battled to find a balance between the two.

At a time when the head of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith, has warned that regular flooding is here to stay and we need to choose between saving ‘town or country, front rooms or farmland’, the theme of this year’s Gresham’s Festival of Nature seems especially appropriate.

The school in Holt held its first festival in 2011 and this second festival, which runs from February 24 to March 1, marks a significant expansion with an impressive line-up of expert speakers, three of whom are popular names in the EDP.

Festival director Alistair Cormack, the school’s head of English, said he hopes it will draw nature-lovers from around Norfolk as well as complementing his pupils’ curriculum.

“We did a festival in 2011 focusing on nature writing and this year we’re looking to expand it, not just featuring the literary side but also the sciences,” he said.

“We’ve planned the pupils’ curriculum so in English they’re doing nature poetry, in geography they’re doing the formation of coasts and in biology they’re talking about the formation of ecosystems that week, so we’re trying to bring all the aspects of the curriculum together.

“We always felt it was important for the pupils to think about where they lived and the nature that surrounds them. We’re hoping that the school can be for that week a focal point for people in the area, either people who are green activists or conservationists or in love with the countryside. We want people to come along and share that.”

So as well as celebrating nature writing, the festival brings together art historians, herbalists, artists and biologists, each providing a different approach to the ‘land and water’ theme. Andrew Chevalier is a herbalist of 27 years’ standing and in an event titled “The River Runs Through… Water, Within and Without You”, he will discuss how the human body, predominantly formed of water, and its digestive processes are not “apart or separate from the environment but an intrinsic part of it”. The talk takes place on February 27 from 8pm to 9pm.

Charles Rangeley-Wilson, an expert on rivers and author of Silt Road – the Story of a Lost River (published last year by Chatto and Windus), will lead a writing workshop at 2pm on March 1, titled Palimpsest of a River, for which tickets cost £25. Places are limited and participants will be sent texts to read in advance.

Landscape art historian Andy Mackay will speak at 6.30pm on February 25, while the Auden theatre foyer will house a week-long exhibition of the collaboration between landscape poet Harriet Tarlo and artist Judith Tucker. Their work will be on display at the festival’s free opening event at 6.30pm on February 24, when those in attendance will have a glass of wine and a preview of the festival’s programme, and then the pair will discuss their studies of a Yorkshire river’s intricate tributaries in the Auden Theatre at 7pm on February 26.

And former Gresham’s pupil Dave Leech, an ornithologist, will describe how he “fell in love with a gravel pit” in a session from 6.30pm on February 27 titled Reed: All About It. He will detail his scientific study of the reed warblers, cuckoos and lakeside vegetation at the pit, which has seen Leech and his colleagues overcome floods, wasps and leaking waders to collect data for the British Trust for Ornithology.

The trio of contributors to the EDP, whose pages have long carried esteemed nature-writers such as Ted Ellis and Lilias Rider Haggard, includes Mark Cocker who will give the festival lecture.

“I’d read and greatly enjoyed Mark’s book Crow Country,” said Dr Cormack, “and his new book Birds and People was among a lot of people’s list of books of the year. I’d seen that Aggie Rothon had won the BBC Nature Writing Competition and was very keen to have her involved, and because I live in north Norfolk it’s fantastic to get David North involved because he’s such an important figure and he’s looking after the Cley marshes, which is an amazing landscape.

“We feel that we live in this very beautiful place but we can still be completely cut off from the world, and spend all day looking at a computer screen or looking at a phone,” added Dr Cormack.

“The idea was that we really wanted people to engage with the real world, getting back in touch with the world that surrounds them.”

All events take place at the Auden Theatre, Gresham’s Senior School, Cromer Road, Holt. A ticket for the whole festival (except the Creative Writing Workshop on March 1) is available for £25 from the school’s box office. Tickets for all individual events are £5. To contact the box office call 01263 713444 or email boxoffice@greshams.com.

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