Obituary: Alasdair Aston, poet

Naturalist and prize-winning poet whose work showed his love of the countryside

Alasdair Aston, poet.

Born: 21 June, 1930, in Inverness.

Died: 17 July 2010, in Framlingham, Suffolk, aged 80.

A renowned and multi prize-winning poet, teacher, schools inspector and naturalist, Alasdair Aston was passionate in his work and his hobbies, and especially about the countryside.

Born in Inverness in 1930, Alasdair Eoin Aston moved to Suffolk with his parents when he was eight years old. He grew up in a rural area, surrounded by the natural environment that would dominate his thoughts for the next 72 years.

His love of poetry came largely from his mother, who would regularly recite Scottish poems with him, particularly as they did household chores together.

Aged 11 he made a life-affirming decision to join the Suffolk Naturalists Society (SNS), where he became a friend of the founder, Claude Morley, spending time with him at his Monk's Soham house throughout the 1940s.

Aston remained a member of the SNS until his death and was a regular contributor to its tri-annual magazine, White Admiral.

Academically gifted, Aston received a scholarship to Framlingham College, a private school founded in memory of Prince Albert in 1864. The college has links with Pembroke College, Cambridge which date back to the 17th century, and this is where Aston took his degree in English in 1950, but not before a stint in the Royal Signals for his National Service.

Aston excelled at Pembroke and in his third year at the institution he was awarded the Chancellor's medal for poetry.

It was the first of many prizes for the talented wordsmith, and he followed in the footsteps of great poets such as Spenser, Grey and the former Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes.

In 1954 Aston moved to London to take up a teaching position at Emanuel School. He moved to Alleyn's and for five years from 1962 he was head of the English department.

His abilities as a teacher, his attention to detail and his passion for student improvement led to his inclusion on a team of school inspectors which worked as part of the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA).

While forms and bureaucracy are part of such posts, Aston was less interested in the paperwork and more interested in making a difference to the education standards of the schools he visited.

His style was less to denigrate but simply to praise the good work being done and suggest how improvements could be made in a constructive manner so as to bring the best out of students in all demographics.

Unsurprisingly, he was earmarked for higher positions and the last four years of his employment were spent as chief inspector for English at the ILEA, before his retirement in 1990.

His passion for education was largely driven by his love of the English language and his own works, and his enthusiasm for the work of others - especially that of children - were testament to that. In his time visiting schools he collected thousands of examples of children's poetry and literature, and in 1978 he edited a collection of these, entitled Hey Mr Butterfly.

As for his own work, Aston was a highly admired poet. The Chancellor's Medal prize in 1953 was for his poem Gloriana Rediviva, which made reference to the ascension to the throne of the current monarch and the 350th anniversary of the death of the previous Queen Elizabeth.

He performed his recital in the Senate house at Cambridge University before being taken down to the river for the "bumps".

Aston's most notable feat, however, was his success at the Seatonian Prize. Since 1750 the prize has been awarded annually by Cambridge University for "the best English poem on a sacred subject". Aston won the prize eight times between 1973 and 1994.

His final success was for Anima naturaliter Christiana, in which he writes about Gilbert White, a fellow naturalist and a clergyman.

The poem was influenced by Aston's move to the village of Selborne, Hampshire, in 1982.

The house he bought was next to one once owned by White, and Aston was a great admirer of this former resident, noting that White's book on Selborne has never been out of print since its first publication in 1788.

Retirement enabled the already prolific poet to concentrate on his writing full time, and also to indulge himself in his other passion, entomology.

His love of the countryside, evident in his writing, transferred to most areas of the natural environment and insects in particular, but it was moths that really fired Aston's imagination.

He would spend hours wandering the lanes and paths of Hampshire, finding inspiration for his work and even the onset of Parkinson's disease later on in life did little to dampen his desire for the outdoor life, even if it hampered his physical enjoyment.

He was a former chairman of the Dulwich Poetry Society, chairman of the Education Committee of the National Poetry Society, as well as a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society and the Linnean Society.

In 2009 he published Suffolk Boy, a collection of 20 poems about his childhood in north Suffolk. It was shortlisted for the New Angle Prize for Literature by the Ipswich Institute.

He is survived by his wife of 31 years, Phil, and by his son and daughter from a previous marriage.