Shirley Collins MBE is a Sussex folk singer, and somewhat of a legend. This year she celebrated her 85th birthday during the Covid crisis, and six Brighton Morris Men, of whom she is patron, came along her Lewes street and performed a socially-distanced Morris Dance in her honour (after apologising to her for being somewhat less fit than they had been before lockdown).
Billy Bragg said of her: "Shirley Collins is without doubt one of England's greatest cultural treasures."
She has also been a member of Sussex Wildlife Trust for many years, so we caught up with her for a chat.
You truly are a Sussex person. Growing up in Hastings, how aware of nature around you were you?
I was fortunate to grow up at the time I did. In those days, you were surrounded by nature. My sister Dolly and I would be out walking in the country around Hastings all time, tramping over fields. She had more knowledge about wildlife than me. We went out on bicycles when we got older, and even got as far as Cranbrook once to see Laurence Olivier as Nelson in the film Lady Hamilton.
There was so much that we did seasonally then. Jam jars of tadpoles, blackberrying, nutting for hazelnuts, mushrooming. We'd eat sweet chestnuts and play with conkers. I remember our ankles getting prickled walking across stubbly fields. My mum would send us out to the garden to pick caterpillars off cabbages as my grandad sat whittling wood.
How have you found lockdown?
I've really missed seeing my grandsons. I've got a new album out and I can't go out to sing and promote it. I had a gig booked at Charleston Farmhouse, which was cancelled but we're going to try again for next spring.
Tell us a bit about what you’re working on now
My 15th album, Heart's Ease, has just come out. There are so many songs I know that I've not recorded and it feels more important that I sing and get these beautiful songs out there. They are the real thing. They speak of my Sussex. My England. Not the England of Nigel Farage. They are about the resilience of the ordinary working class people and their hardships. They contain so much history.
We are so delighted you are a member. Can you tell us why you joined?
What more do you need than those three words? Sussex Wildlife Trust. Says it all.
How do you like to engage with nature now?
On the wild bank at the back of my garden I've got lots of birds. Magpies that are very noisy. Goldfinches, a robin, long-tailed tit, blue tits, blackbird, wren. Two wood pigeons that land on the elderberry tree branches that bow down then spring back up, they are so bumbly and funny. I was delighted to see a hummingbird hawk-moth on the flowers in pots in front of my house. There are a couple of mason bees. And I love watching the trees and the sky from my front window as well.
I love foxes. I've only seen a few red squirrels in my life and I'd like to see more. I enjoy watching a red kite flying over, and catching a glimpse of a skein of geese thrills me more than anything.
I worry about the amount of foraging that goes on. If you take things, you're not leaving enough for the wildlife that needs it to survive the winter. Each person might not think they're taking much, but you add it all up, and it's a lot.
I also wish people, particularly parents of young children, would look up from their phones and see what's around them.
Has nature been a source of inspiration for any of your songs?
Generally, yes, they are songs from rural people, in a rural setting, about the downs and the meadows.
Nature attaches you to the world, now more than ever.
To find out more about Shirley, her life and her work, see here