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In The Green Hill, Sophie Pierce writes about the sudden death of her son Felix with an aching and gentle honesty. Struggling to come to terms with the loss not only of the young man he was, but everything that he would eventually become, she finds herself overwhelmed not only by grief, but also by love. Her writing is illuminated by a remarkable attention to the beauty and consolation of the natural world, and by the wisdom and tenderness which has been so painfully acquired. This is a book that will be a great comfort to those who need it. Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent and Melmoth.
In 2017, Sophie Pierce’s life changed forever when her 20-year-old son Felix died suddenly and unexpectedly. Thrown into a new world of loss, she had to find a way to keep on living. In a series of letters to her son – composed during walks and swims taken close to his grave on The Green Hill in Devon – Sophie learns how to live in the landscape of sudden loss, navigating the weather and tides of grief. In the surroundings of Dartmoor and the South Devon coast she finds ways to continue the bond with Felix, both in her mind and with physical activity; actively mourning, rather than grieving.
The book celebrates the natural landscape and the role it plays in our lives and relationships, as well as looking at how we think about our own mortality. The Green Hill, Felix’s burial place by the River Dart, comes to symbolise the issues that become important in the journey of grief: nature, beauty, a sense of place, and the passing of the seasons.
The story starts when Sophie is on her way to Leicester to see Felix perform in a play at university. When she arrives, he is not at their meeting place. It transpires that he is in fact lying dead in his room. Sophie later learns that he has died from SUDEP – sudden unexpected death in epilepsy. The devastating effect this has on Sophie’s life is explored in the book which tells her and Felix’s story through letters she writes to him after his death, and first-person narrative. There are two storylines, present and past, the present uncovering how she deals with this unimaginable blow, and the past incorporating memories of Felix’s life. Through these strands the reader builds up a picture of the relationship between mother and son, and what happens when this broken by death.
The book shows how Sophie finds ways to continue the bond and recreate her relationship with Felix, both in her mind and with physical activity: pen on paper, needle on the fabric of the clothes he wore, and swimming and walking. She learns to focus on the landscape around her, the plants and trees, the rivers of Dartmoor and the sea off the South Devon coast, to somehow ‘be’ with him again.
What does it mean to experience sudden loss? And how do we mourn?
Grief is a universal experience that has gained new and acute urgency in recent times, with the world thrown into uncertainty by a seemingly invincible virus and by climate change. Suddenly, we feel ill equipped for the future. The Green Hill is one woman’s story of finding a way out of trauma and loss.
Picture credit for photo of Sophie at the start of the video: Frankie Mills
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Sophie Pierce is a writer and broadcaster who lives on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon, where she loves to swim in rivers, lakes and the sea. For many years she worked for the BBC as a radio and TV reporter. She is the co-author, with Matt Newbury, of Beyond the Beach: the secret wild swims of Torbay; Wild Swimming Walks Dartmoor and South Devon; and Wild Swimming Walks Cornwall (to be published in 2021). She wrote the introduction to the Wainwright Prize longlisted Wild Woman Swimming by Lynne Roper.
I AM BACK AT THE GREEN HILL far away.
The wind on the exposed hillside scythes my body. It always seems to be howling a gale up here and, as usual, I’m thinking “what now?” I’ve been standing like this for a while, staring across the fields to the great white building in the distance that dominates the skyline. Beyond it, under a heavy grey sky, lies the sea. In the other direction, away to my left, is the lumpy outline of Dartmoor. I need to be here. But I also have to get away.
I head down to the estuary below and walk along the bank where wild garlic is emerging; there are no flowers yet, just broad shiny leaves and a faint oniony echo. Scarlet elf cups nestle in the moss. As I walk through the trees, the river glimpses, its smooth surface glinting in the sun. Some geese pass above, their coarse cries reverberating. I reach North Quay, an old stone jetty festooned with seaweed. As I begin to change, a light breeze blows downstream, making me shiver. As usual I leave my clothes in an untidy heap on top of my rucksack, impatient to get in. I walk across the ragged grass which covers the top of the quay, a feeling of dampness in my toes, and climb down the old metal ladder off the jetty. Its rungs are cold and hard on my feet. I sink backwards off it into the brine of the River Dart. The water is turbid but silky. The tide is going out and I swim upstream past the twisting oaks whose long boughs dip into the water like the arms of wizened old ghosts reaching for sustenance. Delicate fronds of bladder wrack float by me in the water. I look up to the green hill high above, where I’ve just been. And in that moment, I feel myself fall away.
- 15th June 2021 THANK YOU!
Thank you so much for supporting The Green Hill. You'll have had an email to tell you it's reached its funding target, but I just wanted to say thank you again for your support. IIt really does mean so much.
I've completed 10 chapters of the book so there is still quite a lot of work to do, but it is incredibly exciting that I can now get on with finishing it without having to…8th April 2021 The old stones
I hope you are well and enjoying springtime.
Living on Dartmoor, I am fortunate to be in an area with one of the largest concentrations of Bronze Age remains in Western Europe. I've always been fascinated by the mysterious stone circles, stone rows and standing stones these people left behind. The picture above is of the stone row at Drizzlecombe, which has the highest terminal…12th March 2021 Into spring
Spring is nearly here, but in true British form, the weather is throwing a few curveballs as we enter the last lap of winter. Yesterday there were hail showers here in Devon and there have been some very hard frosts in the last week. Earlier today, by happy accident, I ended up on Wind Tor on Dartmoor - a place I haven't been before, despite it being only a few miles from home. …26th February 2021 A small, unusual world
Today has been so springlike, a day full of endless blue sky and bright, bright sun. I went with a friend to Teignmouth where the beach was full of people and there was a sense of hope in the air. We had a swim, and then decided to stop off on the way home to visit a little lost world.
This particular lost world is on the northern bank of the Teign estuary, between Teignmouth…5th February 2021 Revisiting the past
This week I walked out to a waterfall on the Glaze Brook on Dartmoor. It is the most enchanted place, where a cascade crashes down into an oval pool, surrounded by oak and beech trees. William Crossing, in his famous Guide to Dartmoor, writes: "This is the Wishing Pool, and it is said that those who leap across it, and while doing so loudly express a wish, will obtain what they…28th January 2021 Memory
Yesterday, quite by accident, I came across a scrap of video I'd forgotten about, of a family walk in horrendous conditions on Dartmoor. It shows Felix, who was then 13, his younger brother Lucian who was 10, and my husband Alex, as blurred blobs, braving the rain and wind to walk up Butterdon Hill near Ivybridge. They look like people from a silent film, anonymous and indistinct…14th January 2021 New extract to read
I hope you're all safe and well and coping ok with the latest lockdown. We're all in need of stuff to read, so I thought it might be nice to start publishing some extracts from the book. We've put an excerpt from chapter 1 on the website (click on PROJECT SYNOPSIS and scroll down, it's just underneath the cover image), I hope you enjoy it.
"Enjoy" might seem an inappropriate…4th January 2021 Swimming into another year
Thank you so much for supporting The Green Hill. Every pledge means a great deal as this project is so close to my heart.
A couple of days ago I walked along the South Devon coast from Wembury to Heybrook Bay and on to a little cove I call Felix's Lagoon. As we arrived in Wembury the little valley down to the sea was white with frost. The sea was like a millpond and the sun…
These people are helping to fund The Green Hill.