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The Berko Loop: new book uncovers Berkhamsted’s secrets

PUBLISHED: 19:44 31 October 2018

The Berko Loop by Kevin Exley (photo: Bill Waters)

The Berko Loop by Kevin Exley (photo: Bill Waters)

billwaters

We quiz author Kevin Exley about his new book that takes the reader on the trail of fascinating stories, new and old, around Berkhamsted

So, what is The Berko Loop?

I like to think of it as a book that puts a modern twist on the local interest genre. But the truth is, it’s several things all at once. The original concept was more of a cycling and walking guide, nothing more than a leaflet really, designed to link the most picturesque permissible tracks and bridleways running through the countryside around Berkhamsted. Having spent many a Saturday morning whizzing through woods and across farms on my mountain bike, I felt I had a good handle on where all the most memorable sections could be found. And so sharing an off-road, circular, loop-style route – one that finished where it started and joined all these idyllic trails together – seemed like a nice idea.

Then, of course, I started wondering about some of the ‘things’ this journey passed by along the way. The writer in me (my real job is in advertising) couldn’t resist the chance to start describing a few of the places, people and history that this journey was fast becoming a tour round. These began to overshadow the trail itself and, before I knew it, I was delving into history books and arranging interviews with local producers, naturalists and historians to uncover the real stories hiding behind the hedgerows. I soon realised I had a local interest book – but one with a real difference. Now the ‘loop’ is more a way of ordering the content than anything else.

So I suppose the short answer to your question is that The Berko Loop is a book that can be walked, cycled or simply just read.

Brenda and Kevin Fancourt of Johns Lane Farm (photo: Bill Waters)Brenda and Kevin Fancourt of Johns Lane Farm (photo: Bill Waters)

What stories did you find?

I cover a really diverse range of topics. There’s no real theme that determines whether or not something has a place in the book. If it’s situated along the route and is genuinely interesting, it qualified for inclusion. So one minute you might be reading about an ancient tree that was growing long before Columbus discovered America (and is still going strong today), the next you’re discovering what daily life is like inside one of Europe’s most important Buddhist monasteries, which few realise is right on our doorstep.

Of course, history provides many of the tales hiding in our ancient green lanes. The chapter on Ashridge House is easily the largest. Not surprising, really, when you consider that this incredible place was established more than 700 years ago. Close to the house there’s a solemn reminder that the Second World War touched these quiet hills, as it did just about every other place on our island. If you know where to look, you’ll find it in the unlikely form of tree graffiti – carved into the smooth bark of a beech by American servicemen stationed here during the war.

Chapter exploring the area's ancient Roman links (photo: Bill Waters)Chapter exploring the area's ancient Roman links (photo: Bill Waters)

Appropriately, nature plays a big part in our local story too. I stumbled upon a secret dry valley that serves as a lizard sanctuary; find out why the native-to-Hertfordshire rock, puddingstone, is so named; and discover why the edible dormouse is a local phenomenon. And what self-respecting writer could claim to have properly covered our countryside without exploring the 3,000 acres of National Trust land that is Ashridge Estate – complete with its abundance of protected species and the thousand-or-so head of fallow deer who call the place home?

What surprised you the most?

My research saw me spending a fascinating few hours – well, pints, really – learning about a project based partly on the theory of something called Nature Deficit Disorder. It’s a phrase coined by an American writer and naturalist who identified that the rise of computer games and other compelling reasons for ‘screen time’ is having a hugely negative impact on our children’s connection with nature. It’s a really fascinating subject and one that’s close to the heart of one of the stars of the book, Lawrence, who has chosen to devote his career to creating amazing natural play areas all over the country.

Grave of Peter the Wild Boy at St Mary's in Northchurch. In 1724, as a boy of around 12, he was found 'naked and wild' in the woods in Germany. His discovery sparked international interest. A kind of plaything of King George, he ended up at Broadway Farm near Berkhamsted (photo: Bill Waters)Grave of Peter the Wild Boy at St Mary's in Northchurch. In 1724, as a boy of around 12, he was found 'naked and wild' in the woods in Germany. His discovery sparked international interest. A kind of plaything of King George, he ended up at Broadway Farm near Berkhamsted (photo: Bill Waters)

Another of my favourite chapters uncovers life inside a beehive. That one blew my mind. I mean, we all know that bees work together as a unit in a way that puts other species’ coexistence to shame. But did you know, for example, that it’s the worker bees who control the equilibrium within a colony? They determine the sex of the bee that will emerge from each and every one of the honeycomb cells they make by altering the size and shape that they build them. The queen then checks out a cell with her back legs and – if it’s meant for a drone (a male), she’ll lay an unfertilised egg; if it’s designed for a female (a worker), she’ll lay a fertilised one. It’s insight like this that really makes you pause for thought.

So the book uncovers secrets of the countryside around Berkhamsted, but it’s quick to explore subjects and themes that are relevant to all of us.

It sounds like people were keen to be involved

A home for the glis glis - the edible dormouse. There are 230 of these boxes around Hockeridge Wood to the south west of Berkhamsted. The small grey rodent was introduced to the UK by zoologist Walter Rothschild, who released six at his home in Tring Park, 10 miles away (photo: Bill Waters)A home for the glis glis - the edible dormouse. There are 230 of these boxes around Hockeridge Wood to the south west of Berkhamsted. The small grey rodent was introduced to the UK by zoologist Walter Rothschild, who released six at his home in Tring Park, 10 miles away (photo: Bill Waters)

The enthusiasm folks have had for the project has been overwhelming – both from contributors and readers alike. A lot of the feedback recognises that the book’s written in a light, easy-to-digest style, which is really great to hear. That was always going to be at the heart of my ambition to bring local interest kicking and screaming into the modern day.

All in all, it’s been a lot of fun. But that’s not to say that it’s now over. By its very nature, The Berko Loop is a constantly evolving project and, as businesses change and people move on, it will deserve an update – a second edition – for sure. Hopefully I’ll be able to announce news of that in Hertfordshire Life in the not-too-distant future.

The Berko Loop is available to order online at theberkoloop.co.uk or can be bought in Berkhamsted at Number Twenty (on Lower Kings Road) and Lovelo bike shop and Waterstones (both on the High Street).

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