Season 1, Episode 4: The Fennel's Journal Story
Lifestyle author Fennel Hudson shares the 21-year history of his Fennel's Journal series of books, explaining why many people refer to the series as a 'route map to freedom'.
Transcript of The Contented Countryman Podcast
Episode 4 – 19th May 2017 – The Fennel's Journal Story
About Fennel’s Journal
Fennel’s Journal is a series of 14 lifestyle books. It’s based upon my quest for a simple rural life: one that began as a reaction to hostile conditions but which evolved into a journey of rediscovery. I retraced my footsteps to build a better life, creating an honest representation of my self that was reflected in the activities I did and the special things around me that helped to achieve a meaningful and fulfilling life.
If you’ve ever yearned for quiet times where you can breathe and savour the beauty of the world, then Fennel’s Journal is for you.
It’s about life in the slow lane, away from the pressures and fast pace of modern living. It’s about escapism, freedom and adventure in the great outdoors. It’s about the discovery and rediscovery of self, being individual, nurturing one’s self-belief, and realising one’s dreams. It’s about defining and living your life on your terms, and keeping the balance by knowing how to ‘Stop – Unplug – Escape – Enjoy’. Ultimately it’s about having fun. About celebrating the eccentricities of life and maintaining one’s spirits amidst the chaos.
That’s why each book begins with an instruction: to take time out from the stresses of modern living, to stop the wheels for a while, unplug from the daily grind, escape to a quiet and peaceful place, and enjoy the simple life. And to encourage this, I ask that you read the book in a distraction-free and relaxing place. Somewhere you can savour quality time and, if possible, delight in the beauty of the countryside.
A life retold
In reading Fennel’s Journal, you’re going on a journey. My journey. The books track a ten-year period in my life where I moved towards progressively brighter things. So, as an autobiographical account, the books are enhanced by their context – to each other and to the bigger picture of where and how they came about. The first book – entitled A Meaningful Life – was written in 2006. But the origins of the series begin ten years earlier. Let me take you back to 1996, where it all began.
A communication between friends – 1996
In 1996, I was 22 years old. I was a gardener on a country estate, living a peaceful outdoor life. I’d tend to my plants during the day, fish or shoot each evening, and then come home to writer letters to my friends telling them about my adventures.
This was a time before emails and text messages were commonplace. People still wrote to one another – with a fountain pen, onto paper, placing it into an envelope and licking a stamp and pressing it onto the envelope, then walking the post box to send it. The whole act was slow and ponderous, but with an undercurrent of excitement that the recipient would enjoy receiving it and might – if you were lucky – send you a response. It was an act of sharing, and of hope. I loved it, so would spend hours every night staying up late, writing by candlelight. I’d write up to a dozen letters a night, often the same letter to multiple people, sending them to friends all over the UK.
This is where and how Fennel’s Journal began, and how I developed my writing style. Writing quickly by hand and with little opportunity to correct or edit – I just wrote what was in my head, capturing my thoughts and sharing stories, while seeking to entertain and inspire others. I wanted to make them think and act. And, of course, I wanted them to look forward to receiving my letters.
The recipients of my letters were mostly members of The Golden Scale Club – a group of countrymen and traditional anglers I joined in 1996. Each appreciated and upheld rural traditions: everything from real ale to what we referred to as ‘organic life’ where things develop and happen at a natural pace. There was no urgency, and no pressure; just good humour and a great deal of love for the natural world.
And with there being 21 people in the Golden Scale Club, I would send twenty specially crafted letters each month, written in handmade ink on bespoke stationery, with the intention of them being something that the recipient would want to keep. And, as most members were a generation or two older than me, they appreciated reading about how this young man was exploring the world and his sense of individuality, and would share the wisdom of their years with me.
The best of mentors
Four people within the Golden Scale Club inspired and encouraged me to write, mentoring me in how to view the world and how to capture what I see in writing.
The first was Chris Yates, angling author and television celebrity; the second was Bernard Venables, artist and author, creator of Mr Crabtree Goes Fishing and Editor of Creel magazine; third was Mike Winter, journalist and teacher; and fourth but by no means least, was Peter Wheat, author of more than a dozen books, Editor, journalist and very much a professional writer.
They wrote to me as frequently as I to them, and with every letter, I studied how they wrote. Their letters helped to shape not just my writing, but also my future. I’ve kept every single one of them, referring to them every now and then to keep my message and tone of my writing consistent with the original correspondence between me and my great mentors.
Letters, on a bigger scale – 1997
Writing so many letters can provide tiring to one’s hand, especially when it’s the same letter written twenty times. So in 1997 I decided to produce the letter, which had become known as Fennel’s Journal, as a hand-bound document that a nice lady at the public library photocopied and stapled for me. Most of these were still handwritten, usually with a postscript written in ink by me, and with photographs included. Some were produced as pocket-sized illustrated booklets – essentially self-contained short stories – that I called ‘Creel Editions’ in the hope that they would be taken in a creel or bag to the riverbank and read during a lazy afternoon outdoors. This is still the intention of Fennel’s Journal today, with the paperback version being pocket-sized so that it can go with you on your travels.
An opportunity lost – 1998
Enjoying my regular letters, Chris Yates wrote to me in 1998 asking me to write a regular column in his new magazine Waterlog. Chris was Editor and he wanted my column to be called ‘Hudson’s Diary’. It should have been the making of me as a writer. I’d never had such an opportunity. But I bottled it. Always the shy writer, I feared whether I could rise to the challenge of writing for a broader audience, or whether I could sustain the commitment of meeting deadlines, or stomach any negative feedback. Ultimately I convinced myself that I wasn’t good enough and so declined Chris’ offer. I really can be an idiot at times, and this is the one moment in my life that I perhaps most regret. I’d let my friend down after so many years of encouragement, and would never receive the offer again.
Self-sabotage is possibly the biggest threat to a would-be writer. There are always reasons not to do something. You just have to let go of your fears and just write for yourself – for the same pleasure of writing that first caught your passion – and (when the time’s right, usually before you’re ready) you share it with others. I knew that my writing was good enough, and that I could sustain the regular output (I was already writing thousands of words every day), so to prove that I could do it, I made the commitment to write a monthly article, in private, every month. This I did, storing them in box files that grew in number and weight. This act, as I would eventually discover, was the lifeline I needed to retrace my footsteps back to when I was happiest. Because, much to my horror, everything was to change.
Life corrupted – 1998-2003
My near-perfect life was shattered in 1998 when a bank manager told me I was too poor and, in so many words, too pathetic to ever amount to much. He withdrew my overdraft facility, put a hold on further borrowing, and told me that – given my current trajectory – I’d never be able to afford a house, a car or new clothes. I was, as he put it, “building a life of dreams on the vapour of nothing”.
Fuelled by white-hot anger (that, if I’m honest with myself, still motivates me), I acted out of sheer rage that someone would think me worthless and likely to amount to nothing. I set about proving the bank manager wrong. I quit self-employment, got a job at a garden centre, enrolled at night school and went in search of fortunes laid beneath a hangman’s noose. I quit my Fennel identity, reduced my writing output, distanced myself from my friends, and focused on money as I recklessly spiralled out of control, spinning towards a life suffocated by ignorance and compromise. By 2003 I was a workaholic career-man, living on caffeine tablets and vodka, caring for no one and building a life of pretence while being hopelessly in debt.
Darkness and light – 2003/4
This life ended, I’m pleased to say, in September 2003. I won’t go into the details, suffice to say that pressures became too great and my mind decided it was time to take a holiday. I lost everything, including my health and six months of memory.
This is where the Fennel’s Journal series begins. It explains how I met Mrs H-to-be, how she helped me to pick up the pieces of my earlier life, how she and I put in place a ten-year-plan to build a meaningful life together, and how I rediscovered and rebuilt my identity based upon a promise to do everything I can to live my life as truthfully and completely as possible.
And this is what shaped Fennel’s Journal.
Nature Within – 2005
Of the few possessions I had left, I’d kept the boxes of letters and secret writing. I opened them and spent three weeks reading them. This helped me to remember who I was and would be again, and understand what’s important to me. Themes appeared, around self-belief and self-confidence, freedom, adventure, wild places, natural places, countryside traditions and rural living, outdoor hobbies such as fishing and gardening, and a whole section about truth, honesty, integrity, passion, beliefs and striving to live a balanced life on one’s terms. And, above all else, my identity as a writer – the thing that most defines me and inspires me.
I decided on New Year’s Day 2005 that I would resume my writing, readopt my Fennel identity, and reach out once more to my friends. First, though, I needed to rediscover my voice. So I began writing a weekly ‘note’ to myself about something I referred to as ‘nature within’. It helped me to get thinking and moving forward, building momentum – and strength in my writing hand – so that I could share a monthly letter from January 2006 onwards. Fennel’s Journal would be reborn, with me speaking as much from the past as the present.
A Meaningful Life – 2006
I began the new incarnation of Fennel’s Journal by sharing The Promise that I’d made a year earlier. It was a sort of New Year or ‘new life’ resolution. Putting onto paper and sharing The Promise with the friends who’d tolerated (and would hopefully forgive) my recent absence was an act of ‘going back to one life, but never back to another’. I wish I’d started it with a simple ‘Hello, I’m sorry’. But my gaze was only just widening, and I didn’t really consider the communication from their perspective. Still, it was nice to be back doing and being everything I – and they – know to be special.
That’s why A Meaningful Life is so broad and deep in its content. It’s scoping out the things that would eventually shape and define Fennel’s Journal. And it was about looking closer at things, at different times of day and in different lights, so that I could inch my way out of the darkness.
I’m especially proud of this book, as it marks my commitment to a new and better way of living. It’s as much about turning my back on recent traumas and growing as a person, as a writer, and as an adult. But of course, it wasn’t a book at the time, merely letters to my friends.
A Waterside Year – 2007
My first year of writing helped me to understand what’s important and define the future life that I sought to build over the coming ten years. But I was still hurting from so many years of living recklessly, not doing the things I really love. So I felt a compelling need to live intensely – to make up for lost time. To do this, I’d need ‘time out’ from everything, to find and feed the roots that once sustained me. As an angler, gardener and countryman, being outdoors most brings me to life – especially when I’m near water. So, when an opportunity presented itself to join a fishing syndicate that had recently secured the rights to a remote lake in Worcestershire, I saw my chance for a much-needed adventure. So I packed my tent, grabbed my fishing tackle, binoculars and notebooks, and headed into the wilderness.
With Mrs H-to-be and I due to get married at the end of the year, and a writing job that encouraged ‘home’ working, I had the spring, summer and autumn months available for me to enjoy an extended camping trip beside the lake. This would be proper ‘time out’, an analogue existence with no phone or email distractions, where I’d live in near-isolation. Sure, Mrs H-to-be visited me at weekends and I took regular walks to the nearby village for supplies and to post my letters, but mostly it was just me – camping in a wood beside a lake, fishing and writing, foraging and hunting, looking after the camp fire, and doing my best not to be freaked out by the wildlife I discovered. It was a Waldonesque existence, as first championed by Henry Thoreau, but in miniature. A Waterside Year. And I didn’t do nearly as much fishing as you’d expect. I was happy to escape everything and be, for nearly a year, totally free.
A Writer’s Year – 2008
Spending so long alone in the wild forged my love of isolation. But it also made me yearn to be home and to stop running from my problems. I wrote on the back of my last notebook at the lake: ‘It’s better to run towards something good, than away from something bad’. I knew, deep down, that I’d been running since Chris Yates asked me to write for him, and since that bank manager crushed my dream in 1998.
The best way for me to confront my fears was to commit to being a writer – to write professionally, under my name (I’d written on behalf of others for years). I’d been reminded of this in a letter from my old friend Mike ‘Prof’ Winter. Pleased that I’d returned to the fold, he’d written to me saying ‘publish a book before you’re too old to read it without glasses’. I knew that he meant, and sensed the frustration in his words. I was, after all, the person he’d described as being the most naturally gifted writer he’d ever met. And yet, for 12 years, I’d kept my writing within my circle of 20 friends. 2008, therefore, was when I decided to champion the writer’s art and say, from that moment onwards, that I am first and foremost a writer – and that I would one day make my living from it. It resulted in a writing-themed Journal called A Writer's Year.
Three fishing books, written for a friend
And then something happened that I didn’t expect. My friend Mike Winter was taken seriously ill. Struck down with bacterial meningitis, he was suddenly fighting for his life in intensive care. As I visited him in hospital, seeing him lying there in a coma, I became aware of the fragility and finite nature of life. Here was one of the four men who’d most influenced me, trusted me, believed in me, encouraged me; the one who most wanted me to write. And I hadn’t yet had chance to show him my writing in print. If he were to die now, I’d never forgive myself for failing him. And so, quickened by recent events, I began writing more intensively than I’d ever done before. And I wrote exclusively for him.
Knowing that Mike’s biggest love was angling, I opened up the ‘private writing’ box files and transcribed the content into fishing-related letters that I sent to him every week. They piled up on his beside table while in hospital, and then when he woke the nurses read them to him. As he regained his consciousness and strength, he was able to read them himself, and then when he returned home (albeit still bedridden) he was able to write back to me.
Wild Carp – 2009
Frustrated by being bedridden, Mike yearned for adventure and time outdoors. He encouraged me to resume a quest that he and I began twenty years ago – to find an old and very rare strain of fish. These feral carp, known as wildies, were our shared love. Mike had explored virtually every lake in Devon looking for them, and I in the counties bordering Wales. We’d found some truly remarkable waters, but we knew that there potentially existed a strain of fish that had remained since Roman or Norman times. My quest led me to discovering the ultimate wild carp water in 2009, and making Mike very happy. This journey is now shared in the book Wild Carp.
Fly Fishing – 2009, Traditional Angling – 2010
I continued writing to Mike every week, always about angling. I spent a whole year writing to him about fly fishing, and then a year about traditional angling for coarse fish. The best of these letters were photocopied and sent to my other 19 friends, and later became the books Fly Fishing and Traditional Angling.
The Quiet Fields – 2011
Spending three years writing exclusively about angling proved to me that as much as I love the sport, it plays only a part in my overall appreciation of a country life. I’m an all-round countryman, very much in the vein of the naturalist-sportsman writer ‘BB’. And so, with 2011 marking the 30th Anniversary of BB’s book ‘The Quiet Fields’, I decided to take a rest from writing about fishing and pay homage to BB by theming my letters around countryside subjects. They read more like my earlier writing, very nearly as a follow-on to A Waterside Year, and became the book known as The Quiet Fields.
2011 was a big year for Fennel’s Journal. My friend Lawrence Breakspear had persuaded me to share my ‘Stop – Unplug – Escape – Enjoy’ message with a wider audience, so I’d built a website that included some scans of the original letters and some of the writing typed up into blog form. It proved a hit, with people from all over the world asking me to share more and – if possible – make it available in printed form. Cue the launch of the limited edition collectors’ magazine version of Fennel’s Journal.
Fine Things – 2012
I’m very lucky, and honoured to have at my side throughout this journey, my dear friend John Summers. He runs a design agency in Worcester and is expert at print production. Together, he and I were able to take all of the handwritten letters and turn them into high quality magazines, complete with a super-high quality leather binder. Limited to just 600 copies, of which the first 100 were signed by me and embossed with the Fennel’s Priory stamp, each magazine represented once year from 2006 onwards. The magazine format was a nod of appreciation to my mentor Bernard Venables who had sought to produce something of similar quality with his Creel magazine in the 1960s. I could have gone for book format at this time, or published through a traditional publisher, but there was something nice about maintaining the link to the work of my mentors. Bernard had done it with Creel, and Chris with Waterlog. Now it was my turn, albeit with a magazine written by one person and with no advertising. A book in magazine format, I suppose. And a very fine thing indeed.
In celebration of how Fennel’s Journal was a very fine thing, I wrote the Fine Things edition. This was the first to be written specifically for the magazine and not as letters. The content, therefore, shows much bravery – with me keen to reveal all aspects of my rather eccentric individuality.
Fine Things is full of humour, but a slightly sad undertone that you might not pick up on. I was aware that Mike Winter was deteriorating in health. This was the Journal where I could finally show him my writing in print, cheer him up and remind him of his legacy as teacher – that he’d enabled me to be confidently individual, headstrong, passionate in my beliefs, and unquestionably back to being the Fennel he met in 1996. The result is my favourite Journal, the one where I feel that I’ve delivered on my promise to him. And, knowing that I now need glasses, it’s why Fine Things is the first to come out in book form.
A Gardener’s Year – 2013
By 2013 I was very much sensing the near-completion of my ten-year plan to rebuild my life. With a strange feeling that mine was about to blossom just as Mike’s was about to end (he was rapidly deteriorating in health), I was reminded of the organic cycle of life and that striving for one’s dreams is very much like the act of gardening – where we sow seeds and nurture them into maturity until they finally return to the soil. Hence A Gardener’s Year, which on one level tells the best and funniest stories of my twenty-year career in horticulture (I was still trying to give Mike a laugh) and on another provides a metaphor-based route map to a better life. It’s about hope, dreams, futures, and – yes – chicken poo and a very smelly wax jacket.
Sharing my brand of humour was an experience in itself, insomuch as I became aware that it doesn’t always translate across borders. Fennel’s Journal grew rapidly in popularity, going out to more than 30 countries by the end of 2013, and it seemed the Americans didn’t understand sarcasm or double meanings, and I had two emails from people in Japan asking why ‘tugging a carrot’ could be perceived as being rude. Still, I suppose it means that there are multiple levels of enjoyment to be found in reading Fennel’s Journal.
The Lighter Side – 2014
2014 marked the completion of my ten-year plan to rebuild my life. I paid off the last of my debt from 2003, moved back to the country, celebrated my 40th birthday and…promptly had another breakdown. The relief of finally reaching my goal, mixed with deferred exhaustion from the climb, proved too much. I collapsed and grieved for the life I wanted but didn’t have the strength to enjoy, and for the loss of Mike Winter who had passed away six months earlier. This could have been the end for Fennel’s Journal. But unlike my illness ten years earlier, I decided to bounce back harder and with more passion than ever. I kept going – knowing that fulfilment was within my grasp.
I remained focused – and conscious – remembering the importance of using one’s energy to do the things we love. So I took six months off work to explore The Lighter Side of life. The result is a deeply felt and wisely considered Journal that’s the natural companion to A Meaningful Life. It’s a collection of lifestyle essays that addresses key issues such as work-life pressures, the importance of faith, keeping going through adversity, how to see the funny side of a situation, and – bold move that it is – a study of the depression that’s so common in creative people. It’s sounds heavy, but it’s not. Fennel’s Journal is resolutely upbeat and optimistic, marked by positivity and awareness that reading is a form of entertainment. It’s about the lighter side, which is what this Journal achieves.
Friendship – 2015
Knowing that Fennel’s Journal is founded on friendship, and seeing how much I’d done to honour The Promise I’d made ten years earlier, several Friends of the Priory sent me letters and articles to feature in a special edition of Fennel’s Journal. This was themed around Friendship, with awareness of time and wisdom of age being the messages most evident in the writing – ideal to highlight the bond of ‘old friends’. It sold out in less than 24 hours, such was the Journal’s growing popularity, and proved that Fennel’s Priory had grown beyond one man. Whilst I had taken Bernard Venables gift of name and idea in 1996, and held the torch for 19 years, I was delighted to see the flame alive in others. Fennel’s Journal had become something that’s ‘for us and by us’ with friendship as the theme.
Nature Escape – 2016
2016 was the year when the plan really came to fruition, when I left my job and the corporate world to make a new life as a full-time writer. I sold my cottage in the Cotswolds and moved with my family to North Wales in search of greener and quieter times. And in doing so I was reminded of my conclusion at the end of my Waterside Year, that ‘It’s better to run towards something good than away from something bad’. I was escaping to something, rather than from something. We’d always dreamed of living the quiet life, and North Wales was – and is – the perfect venue.
So instead of writing a ‘compare and contrast’ style lifestyle Journal, as I’d done in the past, I decided to produce something that really championed the message of ‘Stop – Unplug – Escape – Enjoy’. I grabbed my rucksack, some provisions and a writing pad and walked from home to Priory Wood, so spend 24 hours alone amongst nature. I walked, camped, studied wildlife, did some fishing in a pond at the centre of the wood, and generally reflected and felt grateful for my lot. The result was a Journal that provides a first hand, real-time, account of a day and night ‘enjoying’ – as BB would describe it – the wonder of the world. The resulting book Nature Escape sits nicely alongside A Waterside Year and The Quiet Fields – a trilogy of sorts and very much designed to help you ‘escape’ as you read it. So even if you can’t spare 24 hours to sit alone in a wood, you can do so by reading the book. It’s rather special.
Book of Secrets – 2017
And now our story comes up to date. 2017 marks the 21st Anniversary of Fennel’s Priory and, I’m pleased to say, life is better than ever. So the ‘journey’ as tracked in Fennel’s Journal is complete – for now. But I’m conscious that I’ve shared my writing with you without providing its full context. I sometimes allude to metaphors in each Journal, and this film goes some way to providing context and continuity to the story. But there’s more. That’s why I’m going to be sharing two more books with you.
The first is Book of Secrets that will be written this year. It will include 14 chapters that will serve as the prequels to each book in the series. They’ll join everything together, so you’ll be able to either read a chapter and then the book to which it relates, or simply read it as a standalone story. There’s some quite personal writing in there, and now’s the time to share it. As a ‘coda’ to the series, it’s my way of leaving nothing hidden or unanswered.
The Pursuit of Life – 2017/18
The second book I’ll be writing, and this really will be the last one in the series, is a much-extended version of the story I’ve shared with you in this podcast. It will include a great deal of my private writing, and some of the correspondence that’s kept me going over the years. Fennel’s Journal has often been cited as a route map to freedom, and The Pursuit of Life book will provide the guidance and encouragement to help you along the way. It’s about the pursuit of life, and is designed to encourage you to pursue your dreams.
Fennel’s Journal: 1996-2017
So there we are: 21 years, 14 books, some ups and downs, a great deal of loyalty to others and faith in myself. It’s been a life worth living, and certainly worth writing about. I hope you enjoy reading about it, that it helps you to smile, and that it inspires you to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life. Remember: ‘Stop – Unplug – Escape – Enjoy’…and never do anything that offends your soul. It’s your life, so live it.