A new project entitled ‘Back to Nature’ aims to open up some previously uncatalogued collections relating to Hampshire’s rich natural heritage.

The records had been deposited in several separate accessions, but due to their bulk and limited staff resources, had not been made fully accessible before now.

Collections are very varied in nature and subject matter, ranging from official documentation submitted to a Public Inquiry, to diaries and personal papers which have yet to be seen in the public domain. Among the records catalogued as part of the project are the nature diaries, 1948-99, and correspondence, 1984-99, of the late Paul Bowman (132M99).

Pencil sketch and description of a Bean Goose, sighted on the River Test at Moorcourt Farm, near Nursling, on 22 Feb 1979, by Paul Bowman (132M99/A22)

Joint author of The Flora of Hampshire with Anne Brewis and Francis Rose (1995), Bowman has been described as a ‘real polymath of a naturalist being a wildflower expert as well as a keen birdwatcher’ (Southampton Natural History Society). The collection provides a detailed insight into the surprising variety of flora and fauna encountered in the local area by Bowman for over 50 years. It also gives us a glimpse into the workings of the naturalist’s mind, and his meticulous and scientific approach as he recorded everything for the benefit of other researchers.

The diaries comprise 34 manuscript bundles, and include some very adept sketches drawn on the hoof in ballpen or pencil, usually as an aide memoire for future reference, when the identity of the species was not obvious. There are also very occasional samples of seeds taped to the pages for the same reason. The diaries are accompanied by a series of 12 indexes, arranged by locality, bird species, and plant species to help navigate the diaries. Cataloguing the records was a joy, as the diaries were completely legible and instantly comprehensible even to the non-expert, with straightforward abbreviations, page-numbering, and colour-coding throughout.

A typical entry for 16 Jun 1964, at Nursling; entries are colour-coded to help with indexing later on, as follows: birds (bracketed in blue), butterflies/insects (red), plants (green), animals (brown), and fungi (yellow). Note that Bowman is his own harshest critic! (132M99/A12)

I was led to wonder how Bowman would have taken to spreadsheets and databases, had they been in use at the time he compiled his diaries. I’m not sure he could have done a better job with their help, but he would certainly have found his task much quicker to complete! I don’t doubt he would have made great use of a smart phone or digital camera to aid his observations, but somehow I think he would still have got a great deal of satisfaction from making his own hand-drawn sketches to go alongside them, as a good way to fix specific details of a plant or bird in his mind for future reference.

List of birds spotted at Calshot, 11 Sep 1974 (jotted down on the back of scrap paper torn from an OS map: Bowman worked for the OS in Southampton in his day job) (132M99/A18)

Twenty-eight bundles of correspondence complete the collection, and even here we see Bowman’s painstaking approach, with everything re-arranged alphabetically by correspondents’ names rather than by date, alongside photocopies of his own letters sent in reply. His correspondents are many and varied, including museum keepers, botanists, conservationists and ecologists, who often request his expert assistance with certain projects.

One typical set of papers relates to a request for data by environmental scientists working on a new energy-from-waste plant (later the Marchwood Energy Recovery Facility) in the late 1990s. In his role as South Hants Recorder for the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland, Bowman provided a meticulously prepared list of plant species, all arranged by location and occurring within a 5km radius. Another bundle concerns a request by the National Trust for plant data on the Mottisfont Abbey estate, and there are letters in a further bundle which show him using his knowledge and expertise to lobby in support of a local action group trying to head off a proposed extension to a gravel extraction site in Fawley, 1992-4.

Many correspondents are simple enthusiasts needing advice or reassurance about an identification. One keen youngster seems to have written to Bowman over a period of years, contributing to the older man’s plant data recording work. In an early letter the young man apologises for sending his mentor on a ‘red herring hunt’ by wrongly confusing Bladderwort ‘88 with Reseda Phytuema ’87, and in another he writes that he is ‘letting off steam’ by informing him of the destruction of a much-loved wildlife habitat near his house.

Pencil sketch and description of a Bobolink sighted on holiday at Green Porth, Tresco, Isles of Scilly, 28 Sep 1976 (132M99/A20)

Paul Bowman was profoundly deaf, which perhaps explains why he came to be so immersed in and enriched by the physical world around him. He retained his capacity to inspire, organise, communicate, and keep learning, right up to his death in 1999.

Adrienne Allen, Archivist

Ballpen sketch of a Grey Phalarope, sighted on Southampton Common, 10 Oct 1960 (132M99/A10)

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