Wildlife and art

Stroud Nature Director Steve Roberts recalls his early interest in all things natural and his own art and illustration. The two are inseperable.

What sparked my love of nature from such an early age?

I was one year old when I moved with my mum and dad from a 1900’s small terraced property in Totterdown, Bristol, to a council house in Hartcliffe. Built in the 1950’s to accommodate the post war population explosion and situated right on the southern extremities of the City, Hartcliffe covered a large area. Its secondary school had almost 3,000 pupils.

It was only as I grew up there, that I realised that in order to build the estate, the developers must have more or less, cut down every single tree that would have existed in what had been a green field site.

So maybe it was the fact that our house was almost on the edge of the estate and we had views towards the field and hedgerow clad slopes of East Dundry, which aroused  my interest for wildlife and the countryside. Maybe it was the closeness of those fields and hedgerows that encouraged birds into our garden. House sparrows and starlings were plentiful then and I guess I took them for granted. But Dad’s couple of fruit trees attracted greenfinches and chaffinches. We had the occasional bullfinch and the more common members of the tit family were always regular visitors and best of all there were often kestrels hovering just beyond the last house where the countryside began.

Hartcliffe

Cannot remember how old I was, but I began trying to draw the birds. Did my parents give me bird books before or after that? Cannot recall, but the love of drawing and an interest in birds and other wildlife blossomed together. I was hungry for information, printed and first hand. All my books were books on wildlife – the Observers Books, Ladybird Books. I loved the illustrations of Charles Tunnicliffe, Basil Ede and John Leigh Pemberton.

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Come my mid-teens, my father and mother were happy for me to wander ‘up the fields’.
I had my pair of 8×40 binoculars, a bag to collect ‘things’ and sketch pad and pencils.
I could be gone for hours and hours and on occasion, almost the whole day. This would be the later 1960’s, early 70’s. The landscape above the estate was a typical patchwork of fields, pasture, hedgerows and copses with numerous springs and streams. You would not at that time have considered it exceptional, rare or unique. Yet within fifteen minutes of the house, I would see spotted flycatchers, linnets, great spotted woodpeckers, green woodpeckers, willow warblers, whitethroats, blackcaps and jays among others.

Bluebells and primroses grew in the shady places, red and pink campion lined some of the small streams, one field was ablaze with buttercups, another had a large area of ragged robin. Climbing to the top of the slopes, gave me views over Somerset and in the distance Chew Valley Lake, which I walked to on a couple of occasions.

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I guess I was lucky that I was given/inherited the gift of being able to draw. I have always drawn wildlife, not figures or landscapes. I continue to do so, not so much for publishing these days, but to support the Interpretation Design business I run and through art workshops where I try to encourage people to look at the things around them in the same way that I did.

I also still wander the countryside, only now it’s around my home in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where I continue to find inspiration and delight. I still find a childish joy at making new wildlife discoveries. I have just moved house (quarter of a mile) having spent the last twenty five years at the base of Rodborough Common, a European Special Area of Conservation and SSSI. It’s somewhere that is special to me and though I have explored it now for all of those twenty five years, it continues to amaze me with new discoveries.

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I don’t know if I was lucky, growing up in a pre-digital age. Do kids today have it so good. Are they under more pressure. Is their growing disconnectivity with nature inevitable, in a society that is based on instant gratification at the touch of a screen, governments and a mainstream media that does little to promote the natural world? I will avoid a rant on this occasion.

Suffice to say that I am still inspired by nature in everything I do and I thank whoever?, whatever?, fate?, chance?, luck?, my dad?, my mum?, maybe my uncle who was an artist?, Jeffery Boswell?, Johnny Morris?, David Attenborough? and all of the other things that sparked and kept alight my passion.

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