Cotswold books: Nine great books for Christmas.


The Wisdom of Sheep & Other Animals: Observations from a Family Farm

By Rosamund Young

If you’ve read Rosamund Young’s charming anecdotal book The Secret Life of Cows about growing up on a Cotswold farm (highly praised by Alan Bennett, saying: ‘it alters the way one looks at the world’), then you simply have to read this.

Born into what was by no means an easy farming life, her family moved to a smallholding at Clapton-on-the-Hill – just to the south-west of Broadway Tower in Worcestershire – when she was less than two weeks old. We learn early on of her empathy towards the animals she spends most of her time with, and her ability to tune into their secret languages is a pure joy to read.

There’s an important lesson for us to learn from the way Rosamund respectfully shares her life with all manner of creatures. Our arrogance as humans to dismiss other animals as in some way inferior – referring in a derogatory way to people as behaving ‘like sheep’ or being ‘bird-brained’ – is a lazy, unenlightened form of shorthand.

I’ll leave with a quote from Rosamund herself: ‘The best thing of all is the unfailing ability of all our cows and sheep to character-judge human visitors. We learn from them, gratefully.’

Wisdom, indeed.

£14.99 hardback, Faber

Great British Life: Folk Tales of the Night By Chris SalisburyFolk Tales of the Night By Chris Salisbury

Folk Tales of the Night: Stories for Campfires, Bedtime and Nocturnal Adventures

By Chris Salisbury

What an absolute gem this book is.

Chris Salisbury, founder of WildWise, has already received rave reviews for his brilliant first book, Wild Nights: The Magic of Exploring the Outdoors After Dark, endorsed by Chris Packham.

The author, a professional storyteller of some years, is evidently perfect at home in the liminal space of night, particularly when experienced under the stars, alongside a fire, with a wide-eyed captive audience.

The stories travel across continents, shape-shifting with each telling, and I can’t help but feel that hearing Chris uttering them aloud as the night creatures emerge would be a special kind of magic. As he says, ‘Read a story and it goes from the eye to the brain, tell a story and it goes from the mouth to the heart.’

Until such time, allow yourself to be transported to another world with this beautiful book.

£14.99, The History Press

Great British Life: From SOE Hero to Dressing the Queen By Lynda Rowland Pen & SwordFrom SOE Hero to Dressing the Queen By Lynda Rowland Pen & Sword

From SOE Hero to Dressing the Queen: The Amazing Life of Sir Hardy Amies

By Lynda Rowland

You’ll no doubt be aware of Sir Hardy Amies’ credentials as one of Britain’s foremost fashion designers, but this book takes a look at how he led a double life as an intelligence officer during the Second World War. Awarded l’Ordre de la Couronne by the Belgian Government in 1948, his work for the Belgian resistance as part of the Special Operations Executive was considerable.

Containing interviews with close friends and people who worked with Sir Hardy, the book gives an insight into how Queen Elizabeth II’s personal designers and dressers played such an intrinsic part in creating her iconic image, and shines a light on the not-often-discussed courageous war-time contribution of gay men in the military during WWII.

Although born into what would be considered a lower middle-class family, Hardy Amies went on to become a well-travelled and cultured man who spoke three languages and was awarded the Knight Commander of the Victorian Order in 1989.

An astonishing story, beautifully told.

£25, Pen & Sword Books

Great British Life: Intelligent Hands, by Charlotte Abrahams and Katy BevanIntelligent Hands, by Charlotte Abrahams and Katy Bevan

Intelligent Hands: Why making is a skill for life

By Charlotte Abrahams and Katy Bevan

It’s been well documented that using our hands to express our creativity has all sorts of benefits: it improves our mental agility and helps with cognitive development, while also giving our mental health a bit of a boost, too.

With more pressure being put on teachers to deliver academic results, in an education system that seems to favour exam results over creative expression, it’s no wonder fewer students realise that a craft-based career is an option. This inspirational book – with a foreword by Jay Blades – seeks to address that imbalance.

In the Cotswolds, we’re fortunate to have some truly creative outlets for people to explore what they can make with their hands and the benefits it brings them. One of these, The Nailsworth Community Workshop, is visited in the book, where Gavin Pond and Pam Brown advocate ‘Practical Intelligence’.

Other schemes and communities, from Nottingham to the USA.

This book has the ability to heal, and should find its way into as many hands as possible.

£19.99, Quercus

Great British Life: Refiner's Fire, by Richard BratbyRefiner's Fire, by Richard Bratby

Refiner’s Fire: the Academy of Ancient Music and the historical performance revolution

by Richard Bratby

This first known full-length history of a British period instrument orchestra is another impressive classical music offering from accomplished author Richard Bratby.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary season (2023/24) of the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM), Elliott & Thompson has released this comprehensive narrative history, chronicling its founding, rise, and transformation to arguably the most influential ensemble of its kind.

Founded in 1973 by the Cambridge harpsichordist Christopher Hogwood and record producer Peter Wadland,

AAM quickly achieved global fame by lifting period instrument performance from the fringes of 1960s counterculture and putting baroque music into the pop charts. However, as the classical record industry faded and 1970s radicals became the 1990s establishment, the AAM faced a new challenge: reinventing itself to meet the artistic, social, and economic conditions of a musical world transformed by its own revolutionary


Fifty years after its foundation, it’s time to assess the full, trailblazing impact of the Academy of Ancient Music.

£25, Elliott & Thompson

Great British Life: The Jar and Pineapple, by Lesley SaintyThe Jar and Pineapple, by Lesley Sainty

The Jar and Pineapple

By Lesley Sainty

This sequel to Lesley Sainty’s 2020 book Taking the Waters is an historical fiction book set in Cheltenham in 1834.

During this era when the town was full of drama surrounding the theatre and the races, but also the rise of a growing opposition towards its many pleasures, Lesley weaves the story of remarkable true-life characters and sensational events in fictional form.

Based on the sensational true stories surrounding the origins of Regency Cheltenham and its famous races, The Jar and Pineapple follows the lives of two women from opposite sides of a divided society. Actress Maria Mount and reverend’s wife Elizabeth Cole form an unlikely bond as they are thrown into scandalous circumstances surrounding the town’s aristocratic rogue Colonel William Buckley and the passionate and pioneering clergyman Francis Cole.

The Jar and Pineapple – a luxurious new ice cream parlour and sweet shop in the town, becomes a haven for the women who are caught up in the lives and struggles of powerful men. The Regency heroine is re-imagined in this historical tale which witnesses one of Cheltenham’s most dramatic periods when power and protest dominate, but Maria and Elizabeth be the ones who gain control?

£6.99 paperback, available in Cheltenham Waterstones, Cleeve Bookshop and online.

Great British Life: Britain's Steam Locomotives, by Julian HollandBritain's Steam Locomotives, by Julian Holland

Britain’s Steam Locomotives: 100 of the best, from Penydarren to Tornado

By Julian Holland

We’ve had the pleasure of having one of Julian Holland’s brilliant books land on our desks on more than one occasion, so this was a welcome treat.

Considered one of the country’s leading commentators on railways – appearing on TV and radio as a guest expert – this is his 16th book with Collins.

A handsome hardback, large-format book, this is a comprehensive, detailed guide to 100 of Britain’s best steam locomotives, telling the fascinating stories of the engineers who designed them, and featuring a unique collection of maps and photographs from the country’s leading railway photographers.

If you’ve a railway enthusiast in your life, then don’t hesitate; this is the book they’ll want added to their library.

£30, Collins

Great British Life: Celebrating Gloucester, by Paul JamesCelebrating Gloucester, by Paul James

Celebrating Gloucester

By Paul James

Gloucester-born Paul James has previously written about the city with Crypt schoolfriend Matt Cass and their 100 Facts, Myths & Legends about Gloucester, and so it’s great to see him return with this follow-up.

Delving into Gloucester’s 2,000-year history, we learn of its royal connections – from Saxon warrior queen Aethelflaed to King Edward II – and we also look at how the city stood rebelliously against the King during the English Civil War and famous 1643 Siege of Gloucester.

Gloucester’s rich industrial heritage is also examined, from the bustling days of the Victorian docks and the important role that Gloucester Railway Carriage & Wagon Company played in WWI, to the iconic brands of Wall’s ice cream and Moreland’s matches.

And if you want to learn the stories behind folk figures such as Doctor Foster and Humpty Dumpty, look no further.

£15.99, Amberley Publishing

Great British Life: Longborough Festival Opera: the first 30 years, by Richard BratbyLongborough Festival Opera: the first 30 years, by Richard Bratby

Longborough Festival Opera: the first 30 years

by Richard Bratby

Having experienced LFO’s production of Wagner’s epic Götterdämmerung earlier this year, I can vouch for the utter brilliance of what Martin and Lizzie Graham have achieved at Longborough.

Originally set up as informal opera evenings in their garden, they had no idea what Longborough Festival Opera would become: an internationally recognised opera company that punches far, far above its weight.

This book by Richard Bratby (critic for The Spectator, Gramophone, Bachtrack and The Birmingham Post as well as writing for many other publications) is full of anecdotes, recollections and photographs, from the early days in an old chicken shed to the triumphant staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle in a purpose-built theatre with singers of international stature.

The release comes as Longborough approaches its most ambitious project yet: its new Ring Cycle (2024), which will see the festival stage all four productions in Wagner's epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, as well as a new production of Puccini’s La Boheme.

Paperback £18; hardback £30,