#BookReview The Shady Side of Town: Reading’s Trees by Adrian Lawson & Geoff Sawers

The Shady Side of TownAbout the Book

Three hundred years ago, an acorn germinated at the edge of a field; today a mighty oak stands in the middle of a congested roundabout.  What has it witnessed and what can we discover from it?

The stories of towns are so often told in terms of their architecture, or the humans that have lived in them.

This book brings trees to the fore, with evocative illustrations and beautifully told stories of the natural wonders of Reading.

Format: Paperback (94 pp.)    Publisher: Two Rivers Press
Published: 1st May 2017          Genre: Non-Fiction, Nature

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Find The Shady Side of Town: Reading’s Trees on Goodreads


My Review

The Shady Side of Town is full of evocative and informative descriptions of some of the notable trees to be found around Reading in Berkshire, UK.  For example, this entry for the obscurely-named Elaeagnus-leaved Pear: ‘The trunk emerges from the ground twisting around on itself…it would not look out of place in a fairy tale involving elves and sprites deep in a Bavarian forest.’   Or the touch of personification in this description of a line of Lombardy Poplars: ‘Their branches do not intermingle.  They have just that bit of standoffishness about them which gives them a haughty air.’

The book emphasises the importance of community green spaces and the role of trees as natural relief from the buildings around them and the hustle and bustle of a large town.  Given the nature of urban development, some of the trees have ended up in rather incongruous positions, such as the middle of a roundabout!   As we learn from the book, trees provide a vital habitat for wildlife in an urban environment such as Reading and within the branches of the town’s trees the author observes bird species such as the goldcrest, siskin, redpoll, woodpecker and owl.   Beetles, spiders and bats also make their home in hollowed out trunks and other natural nooks and crannies in the trees.

Alongside the descriptions of the trees are interesting titbits about how they came to be planted and about the history of some of Reading’s older buildings.  It has to be said there are also some intriguing insights into the youthful activities of the author and those of a similar generation.

At times there is an elegiac quality to the descriptions. Talking about two mighty oaks in the Whitley area of Reading, the author writes: ‘These trees – having been here for so long that they were already old and hollow when the surrounding area was rich in wildlife, before the rise of chemicals and intensive farming – are repositories of the life of a countryside now lost.  How these trees must mourn, deep inside their boles.’  The author locates trees hidden away behind housing estates, overshadowed by hoardings or with only recycling bins for company.   Admiration for the resilience of trees definitely comes across as does concern for the proper future stewardship of Reading’s trees, such as the importance of coppicing.

Amongst the many things I loved about this book was being reminded of the historical role of trees in marking boundaries and crossroads.  In days before reliable maps and certainly before GPS, trees would often act as distinctive meetings places for local people.  I also liked the recognition that trees can conjure up visions of other places in the world, such as in this entry for a Bhutan pine in the Caversham area of Reading. ‘Bhutan is a mystical, isolated kingdom in the Himalayas famed for its happiness, amongst other things.’ 

The book blurb ends with the question, “Which is your favourite?” and I confess I find myself hard-pressed to pick one out.  However, if pushed, I’m going to go for a tree I saw often on the Whiteknights campus of the University of Reading in my student days.  It’s a Monterey Pine outside the University Library (the word ‘Monterey’ evoking memories of Jimi Hendrix for the author).  Here’s just a snippet to give a taste of the wonderful descriptions in the book.  ‘The magnificent black trunk soars skyward, with its huge branches growing horizontally all around the circumference before swooping back down in dramatic curves and forks tapering to the tips, the heavy foliage almost sweeping the ground.’    I must also mention at this point the fabulous illustrations by Geoff Sawers that accompany each entry.

The Shady Side of Town may be a slim volume but it is packed full of interesting detail and feels like a labour of love on the part of the author and illustrator.  It will appeal to those with an interest in trees, the natural world, environmental issues and social history.  Those who have lived, studied or worked in Reading will also find many interesting facts about the town within its pages.  If you ever have occasion to visit Reading, some of the trees mentioned are located within easy walking distance of the railway station.   Indeed, this little book may cause you to think about Reading in a completely new light…. I’ll confess, it did me.  It’s also a pleasure to support a local publisher.  They have plenty more enticing sounding titles in their catalogue so do visit their website (details below).

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In three words: Fascinating, nature, environment

Try something similar…An Artist’s Year in the Harris Garden by Jenny Halstead


About the Author

After an eclectic career in which he was paid for spending a lot of time in Reading’s outdoor spaces, Adrian Lawson was extremely fortunate to be able to take early retirement with the intention of spending less time with his family.  Since then he has worked as a bike mechanic and campaigner for cycle facilities as Director of Reading Bicycle Kitchen.  Other than that he spends his days teaching refugees to speak English, walking his dogs and birdwatching.  He has a partner, Anne, three kids, four dogs and a taste for loud and bizarre music.

About the Illustrator

Geoff Sawers scuppered a promising sporting career when he left the crease at Welayarapatta Cricket ground in pursuit of a rare butterfly.  He never found it.  Today he lives in west Reading with his wife Dani Hall, their three children and a growing collection of moths.

About the Publisher

Two Rivers Press has been publishing in and about Reading since 1994.  Founded by the artist Peter Hay (1951-2003), the press continues to delight readers, local and further afield, with its varied list of individually designed, thought-provoking books.

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