Sunday, 9 January 2011

Book review: The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham


I’M GOING to commit heresy now by recommending a book which disses the Norfolk Broads. What’s worse the offender – Patrick Barkham – is a Norfolk boy. But he’s written a beautiful book on British butterflies which represents much of what is good about  “new nature writing”. (I’m going to struggle for a precise definition of NNW, but basically it’s people who write lyrically about their knowledge of nature through some sort of personal journey or quest. Try Crow Country by Mark Cocker or Nature Cure by Richard Mabey and then tell me what you make of others like Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin.)

Barkham’s quest is to see all 59 species of British butterfly in one British summer. He does it in style of course and offers much thanks to his naturalist father who laid the foundations during childhood summer holidays spent “on the corner of the coast where north Norfolk turns into The Wash.” The Butterfly Isles sees Barkham take his dad’s teaching and run with it. He speaks to all the right people and manages to unearth fascinating stories from learned lepidopterists along the way. So of course every Broads fan is just waiting for the Swallowtail moment. And this Broads fan found the search on the boardwalks of Hickling Broad ever so slightly disappointing. For a start Barkham admits that

“it may be sacrilegious for someone born and bred in Norfolk to say so but I have never really loved the Broads. I adore the flat marshes of north Norfolk but at Hickling it seemed as if we were below sea level. It felt oppressive.”

The swallowtail is spotted, admired and has its photo taken

“but something about the experience of watching Swallowtails on the Broads failed to move me. I think it always had. Was it the order of the nature reserve, with its boardwalks and regular trudge of stunned visitors where leaving the path and plunging into the reeds – the delicious bit, the embrace of nature – was forbidden? Are Swallowtails showy but shallow. Or inbred and unfriendly?”

Harsh huh? But look, don’t let it put you off the book as whole. The Butterfly Isles published by Granta is a cracking read.


  1. The man is entitled to his opinion, and we should not get upset that someone has a negative experience of the Broads. The question should be why? and can we do anything to change the perception and experience

  2. Bumped into Richard Mabey and Polly at RSPB Strumpshaw just before xmas; nice modest man.