Vron Ware, Return of a Native: Learning from the Land

IssueApril - May 2023
Review by Emily Johns

Vron Ware is exactly the sort of person I would like to go for a walk with. She picks at the landscape, sifts it through a geographer’s mind, looks at a gate, a fingerpost, and unravels a social history of land.

In Return of a Native, she brings an adulthood of feminist, anti-racist, anti-militarist scholarship and activism back to her childhood village in (North) Hampshire and examines the forces that made the place and which play out across the flinty chalklands of Pill Heath today.

The book is written and presented in the manner of travel-writing from an earlier era, like William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (which are referenced) – though, of course, without the racism and anti-semitism of that rural rights campaigner.

It is a good form. A ramble in the best possible sense, where journeying around a very small patch of England and noticing detail leads into big explorations: a new ‘manor’ house erected on the site of a poultry shed leads us into planning laws, the postwar chickenisation of diets and a fascinating history of factoryfarming intersecting with the lives of villagers.

Recently, through my own interest in historical geography and in ferns in my small rambling patch of Sussex, I have gained access to a number of re-wilded farms.

I didn’t understand them – the absence of farming, the nicely laid hedges and the resident hedge-fund managers. How ubiquitous and strange!

Return of a Native explained it all to me, how City bankers can offset their bonuses against a farm’s losses and also avoid inheritance tax by owning agricultural land.

So, it is not only how to study your locality that is important to all of us but the themes that Vron Ware explores – rural wealth, poverty and society – and the particularities she uncovers.

One thing that was new to me (but my mum tells me there is a poem about it): the bones of the millions of dead in the Napoleonic wars were imported and ground up to re-fertilise the depleted soils of Britain. This made me think hard on the intersection of militarism and the industrialisation of agriculture.

We are all possibly still eating the European peasantry.

This book is rich with information and analysis that is relevant to you wherever you live: as broad as the Swing Riots, anti-vaccination movements, the fully-automated Ocado fulfilment centre, and the right-up-to-date population movement to the countryside during the pandemic.

The purpose of Vron Ware’s visits home is to see her mother, whose memory has gone.

Perhaps this accounts for a melancholy that pervades the book because it is also made up of conversations with the people she grew up among, memories of her own childhood, and the very real emotional struggle of natives returning to the place that made them and wondering if they still belong.