The snowdrop – a flower not to be trifled with

Flowering at a time when pretty much nothing else is in bloom, snowdrops inevitably capture the imagination of all who encounter them in the British countryside. The ‘Fair Maids of February’ reassure us that the bleak midwinter is passing, and more congenial times lie ahead. Poets heap praise upon these humble harbingers of spring’s awakening, while storytellers speculate about their origins. Who doesn’t love a snowdrop?

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Interestingly, although snowdrops are widely distributed and recognised throughout the UK, they aren’t native to these islands. They originated in the damp woodlands and meadows of continental Europe, and were brought here – probably in the sixteenth century – to grace the estates of the idle rich. However these private collections inevitably ‘leaked’ into the surrounding countryside, and by the late 18th century the flower was reported as growing wild. Now completely naturalised, snowdrops can be found in shady woodland, on country estates and along river banks all over the country.

Hodsock Priory, 2016

Snowdrops are also a common sight in graveyards, and this could be the reason why they’re sometimes associated with ill-fortune and even death. In Victorian times it was widely believed that you should avoid bringing snowdrops into your house. If you disobeyed this rule the consequences could range from your milk turning sour to a member of your family dropping dead within a year. Plainly the snowdrop isn’t a flower to be trifled with!

Although these days we happily dismiss such dire warnings as fanciful nonsense, it’s worth noting that snowdrops are poisonous due to high concentrations of phenanthridine alkaloids, particularly in the bulbs. Now, I haven’t a clue what a phenanthridine alkaloid is, but (just like the average beer-swilling Saturday night out during my student days) it’s known to cause confusion, poor coordination, drooling, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and seizures. I humbly conclude that excessive student partying and eating snowdrops are both best avoided!

Hopton Hall, 2017

Paradoxically although some people make a connection between snowdrops and death, others view them as symbols of hope. The reason, I suppose, is that they show themselves just as winter’s drawing to a close, and their appearance is a sure sign that the days are getting both longer and warmer, and that spring will soon arrive.

It’s for just this reason that, around about now every year, Mrs P and I traditionally mark the changing of the seasons by taking a trip to one of our local snowdrop hotspots. These include the gardens of Hopton Hall, an 18th-century country house in Derbyshire, the Dimminsdale Nature Reserve on Derbyshire’s border with Leicestershire, and two estate gardens in Nottinghamshire, at Hodsock Priory and Felley Priory. Each boasts a fine display of snowdrops, and looks splendid on a crisp and sunny February day

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Sadly, to visit one of these snowdrop havens in 2021 would contravene the government’s strict Covid lockdown rules and invite a fine of £200 (each!) from the local constabulary. Instead, we’ve had to get our annual snowdrop fix from Mrs P’s excellent photos and a small clump that survives against all odds in our unkempt front garden. Ah well, there’s always next year I suppose, once Covid’s back in its box.

Felley Priory, 2017

No pain, no gain: Reflections on getting the Covid vaccination

The vaccination centre is in a church hall, in a village three or four miles from Platypus Towers. I didn’t know the building even existed until the start of last week when I got the letter inviting me to log on to the internet to book my jab, but I’m pleased to make its acquaintance. Community venues are essential if vaccinations are to be rolled out in line with the government’s ambitious target, and although the place is modest and a little down-at-heel it’s more than adequate.

The operation is well organised by the NHS, with plenty of staff on hand to do what needs to be done, checking my temperature and personal details, giving guidance and reassurance, ushering me here and there as necessary, and finally administering the injection with cheerful good humour. Within 15 minutes I’m back outside in the fresh air, clutching an information leaflet advising on possible side effects of the vaccination.

PHOTO CREDIT: CDC via Unsplash

So far, so good. For the next few hours I get no reaction at all and almost forget that I’ve just had the jab. But by mid-evening I begin to feel feverish. Within an hour it seems like I have a bad dose of flu. My limbs ache and I’m shivering violently, and I’m so cold that I resort to putting on an outdoor fleece over my indoor clothes, with a hot water bottle tucked inside. I even wear my woolly hat while watching television, which Mrs P finds hilarious.

Finally I’ve had enough and stumble upstairs, collapsing into bed clutching the hot water bottle and still wearing my fleece and woolly hat. I’ve had worse nights, but not often. However by the next morning I’m feeling much better, and definitely a lot warmer. I can only assume that my reaction to the vaccine is proof positive that it’s doing what it’s meant to do, priming my immune system to fight off any Covid viruses that I might encounter in the future

* * *

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the side effects of the jab. It’s a small price to pay for the Covid protection that it will give me in the future. As the saying goes, no pain no gain.

And for god’s sake, we need to understand that things could be so much worse. It’s only around a year since Covid started making its presence felt in the UK, and yet already effective vaccines have been developed and more than 18 million Brits have received their first dose. That is truly extraordinary, and in the midst of all the doom and gloom that surrounds the pandemic we should recognise that if this virus had emerged, say, half a century ago, our ability to deal with it would have been so much less.

While I don’t for one moment wish to minimise the suffering and hardship the virus has caused – I too have lost a family member to this disease, and friends have also lost loved ones – I’m relieved that it’s hit now and not when I was a kid. Today scientists are better able to find ways of containing, if not eliminating, coronavirus, and doctors have more treatment options to help those who have already been infected by it. Meanwhile, internet and communications technology allows many of us to avoid contact with Covid altogether by working remotely, ordering stuff online to be safely delivered to our front doors, and staying in touch virtually with friends and family.

I also recognise that I’m privileged, a comfortably well-off citizen of a wealthy, sophisticated nation. The other morning the BBC radio news made the point that around 135 nations have yet to administer a single dose of coronavirus vaccine. Realistically, governments are going to look after their own citizens first – that’s what governments do – but having done that they have the chance to do a good thing, to do the right thing by ensuring that everyone, everywhere, has access to the vaccine, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, wealth or personal circumstances.

Even better, rich governments like ours could undertake such action as an absolute good, on the basis of an overriding moral imperative and without regard to any potential strategic advantage or economic benefit. I’m probably being a bit naïve here, but a man can dream!

Working together we can put Covid back in its box and maybe, in the process, start to build a better world. Now wouldn’t that be something, one truly positive outcome to emerge from the recent annus horribilis that has taken so many lives, and ruined so many more.

Celebrating World Whale Day: whale watching around Newfoundland

Next Sunday, 21 February, is World Whale Day. The origin of World Whale Day can be traced back to 1980, when it was declared in Maui, Hawaii as part of the annual Maui Whale Festival. During our visit to Hawaii in 2014 whales were in short supply (it was the wrong time of year), but over the years we’ve been lucky enough to see them in the waters off Iceland, Madagascar, New Zealand and Alaska.

However our best encounters were around Newfoundland, Canada, in 2017, and to celebrate World Whale Day I thought I’d revisit some of the blog posts I wrote at the time. We spent around four weeks on The Island, as the locals call it, and without doubt the whales were the highlight of the trip. I wrote a blog of our Newfoundland journey at the time, but the following focuses on our magical, memorable meetings with some of the many humpbacks that spend the summer months around its shores.

Having a whale of a time

4 July 2017

The tell-tale spout of a whale announcing his presence

Today’s been a woolly hat day, courtesy of a bitter wind howling in from the high Arctic. It’s appropriate therefore that we should have seen our first iceberg this afternoon as we drove the coast road towards the bizarrely named township of Heart’s Content, which, as I’m sure you know, is just down the road from its sister settlements of Heart’s Desire and Heart’s Delight!

The cold has been made more bearable by the warm afterglow of yesterday evening’s brilliant whale-watching trip. Whale-watching is always a bit of a lottery, and sometimes you lose.  But yesterday we hit the jackpot.

Pretty soon we are amongst them, surrounded by a pod of five or six humpbacks

St John’s sits in a sheltered harbour, connected to the sea by a narrow inlet unimaginatively referred to as “the narrows.” Passing through the narrows we were thrilled to spot the towering, tell-tale spouts of whales announcing their presence to the world.  Hey guys, they seemed to say, we’re over here, why don’t you pop along and say hello.  We took them at their word and pretty soon we were amongst them, surrounded by a pod of five or six humpbacks.

Best of all was when they arched their backs to make a deep dive. This is the manoeuvre that causes the whale’s huge, fluked tail to lift clear of the water, a clown’s battered, white-gloved hand waving goodbye to his adoring fans before the animal plunges into the murky depths in search of lunch.

A clown’s white-gloved hand waving farewell to his adoring fans

I struggle to explain why I find whale-watching such an emotional experience. Partly, maybe, it has something to do with the fairy tale notion of a gentle giant.  But also, mixed in with this, is a sense of shame at mankind’s persecution of this majestic, harmless creature in the pursuit of a quick profit.  Hunted to the brink of extinction humpbacks are, thankfully, now on the way back.  They are awe inspiring animals, and it’s a joy to see them.  Yesterday was a memorable day; yesterday was a great day.

In the thick of it: the whales of Witless Bay

27 July 2017

Our evening whale-watching trip out of the harbour at Bay Bulls starts with a visit to Gull Island. Unsurprisingly, it’s generously endowed with gulls and other seabirds, including the ever-popular puffin. But birdwatching isn’t the purpose of our journey today, and we quickly move on to Witless Bay, reputedly the best place in Newfoundland to get up close and personal with humpback whales.  For once the hype is fully justified, and within a few minutes we find ourselves surrounded by a group of between 15 and 20 humpbacks, all gorging themselves on fish (capelin) that congregate here to breed.

Surfacing with a loud, fishy-smelling blow of exhaled air and tiny water droplets

The skipper kills the engine and we sit still in the water, mesmerised by the whales circling all around us. The humpbacks patrol the bay, breaking the surface as they swim sedately along, then diving suddenly in pursuit of their quarry, then surfacing again with a loud “blow” of exhaled air and water-droplets.

A couple of times we see them lunge-feeding, exploding from the deep with huge gaping mouths that have, in this single manoeuvre, made short work of thousands of tiny fish.  Occasionally we spot one spy-hopping, raising his head above the water’s surface to watch what we’re up to. They approach within metres of the boat, so close was can see barnacles growing on their skin. Sometimes they simply lie at the surface like floating logs, as if winded by the sheer volume of fish they’ve just swallowed.

They approach so close we can see barnacles growing on their skin

Today could have been a pretty miserable day, but it turns out to be one of the best we’ve had in Newfoundland. Yet this is a strange place, and Newfies march to the beat of a different drum.  After the whale watching is over we retire to a nearby restaurant that specialises in fish.  The waitress welcomes us warmly, says we can sit anywhere we like and have anything on the menu … except fish.  Unsurprisingly perhaps in a part of Canada where Basil Fawlty sets standards that some locals find unattainable, it appears that the fish restaurant has completely run out of fish.

Relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world: the whales of Witless Bay

31 July 2017

Our last day on The Island.  We decide to end the adventure in style by taking another whale-watching trip to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, hardly daring to believe it can be as successful as the first.

Whales to the left, whales to the right, whales in front and whales behind

This time we know the ropes, arriving at the dock and joining the line early.  This means we can be amongst the first to board, which allows us to choose a prime position.  We head for the top deck and station ourselves at the pointy (bow) end, which offers good views both left and right of the boat.  The weather is warm and sunny, the sea swell rolling our boat gently as we ease our way out of the harbour and past the low cliffs lining its entrance.

Again we call at Gull Island on the way, enjoying the sight of the puffins and smiling at the excitement of our fellow travellers when they spot their first “sea parrot”.  There are thousands of puffins sitting on the rocks watching the world go by, while a few others venture out on to the sea and swim past our boat.

We quickly leave the clownish birds behind us and head towards the spouts that tell us the humpbacks are still here. Soon we are amongst them, whales to the left, whales to the right, whales in front and whales behind, while seabirds wheel overhead, seeking out the same fish that have drawn the humpbacks to this spot.

Little and Large (Notice the puffin in the bottom left corner of this shot!)

There must be two dozen whales at least, and some of them come so close we can almost touch them, can smell their fishy breath.  A few swim alongside us, keeping pace with the boat as if out for a stroll with a group of friends. Others cross casually in front of us at the surface of the water, relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world.

But then, somewhere deep within them, instinct kicks in. With an arch of their backs they dive deep, seeking out capelin beyond counting, fish needed in huge quantities to accumulate the thick layers of fat that will sustain them in the waters off Dominica, until they return to these cold northern shores next year.  And as they dive they wave their tails, bidding farewell to their spellbound acolytes.

As they dive they wave their tales, bidding farewell to their spellbound acolytes

It is a truly extraordinary hour, one of the best wildlife watching experiences of our lives.  In several respects The Island hasn’t quite lived up to our expectations, but the whale watching has surpassed anything we had imagined.  This, above all else, is the memory of Newfoundland that will stay with us.

Whale song

Reflections on the fate of the whale, UK, August 2017

One of the unexpected delights of Newfoundland is its thriving folk music tradition.  Much of this has a Celtic flavour, reflecting the strong connection between The Island and Ireland.  Interestingly many of the locals have a slight Irish lilt to their accents, though in some cases it’s much more pronounced than this and you could believe you were in Dublin or Cork or Kilkenny or wherever.

Some come so close we can almost touch them

We picked up a few CDs during the trip, but couldn’t play them until we got home. Our car, a Chevy Cruze, was great to drive with lots of high tech features, but despite this (or perhaps because of it) there was no CD player!  The first CD I tried when we got home was by a well-known Newfoundland folk band, The Irish Descendants.  The lyrics of one of the songs, the Last of the Great Whales, brought a lump to the throat, not least because of all brilliant humpback encounters we enjoyed during our trip.  The song is written by Andy Barnes, from Milton Keynes in the UK, and goes as follows:

My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying

Last night I heard the cry of my last companion
The roar of the harpoon gun and then I was alone
I thought of the days gone by when we were thousands
But I know that I soon must die the last leviathan

This morning the sun did rise Crimson in the sky
The ice was the colour of blood and the winds they did sigh
I rose for to take a breath it was my last one
From a gun came the roar of death and now I am done

Oh now that we are all gone there's no more hunting
The big fellow is no more it's no use lamenting
What race will be next in line? All for the slaughter
The elephant or the cod or your sons and daughters

My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying

Poignant, n’est pas?   I can’t trace on YouTube a recording of the Irish Descendants singing this song, but here’s a link to an excellent version performed by Celtic Crossroads. Though the whale has been saved for now, for me the lyrics capture with devastating clarity the nature and scale of the wrong that has been done to these gentle creatures throughout the ages.  Let’s hope that Andy Barnes will be proved incorrect in his gloomy prophecy.

The whale watching surpassed anything we had imagined.  This, above all else, is the memory of Newfoundland that will stay with us

My first butterfly of 2021

Winter always drags, but this year’s been worse than ever. Lockdown 3.0 was imposed just after Christmas, meaning that – other than a weekly trip to the supermarket and an occasional stroll around our suburban estate – we’re confined to Platypus Towers. No chance of a swift visit to a bird reserve on a fine day, and thanks to the regular visits of local cat Milky Bar, only birds with suicidal tendencies visit our garden. It’s a pretty miserable existence, and the lousy weather makes things worse.

But after several days of wintry conditions we wake up on 22 January to a dazzling morning, the sun blazing from a cloudless blue sky. We sit ourselves down in the garden room – which faces south – intent on making the most of this meteorological anomaly, when to our amazement a butterfly appears. It settles on the window ledge, just a metre away from us on the other side of the double glazing, and soaks up the rays for about 20 minutes before moving on again.

The Peacock is a spectacular and unmistakeable butterfly, and takes its name from the vivid pattern of eyespots that decorate all four wings. It’s one of just a handful of British butterflies that overwinter as dormant adults, hunkering down somewhere sheltered during the darkest months in readiness for an early start to the breeding season when spring arrives. However, as we discover today, even in the depths of winter a relatively warm day may rouse Peacocks and encourage them to take to the wing.

I’ve been interested in butterflies since I was a little kid, but have never spotted any this early in the year. And never have I been more grateful to see one of these magical insects: the last 12 months have been tough, and it’s good to be reminded that the beauty of nature will still be there for us to enjoy when the Covid restrictions are finally lifted.

* * * * *

In 2020 I saw my first butterfly around 6 March, and described it as a “symbol of hope in the darkest of days.” You can read my reflections about the symbolism of butterflies by clicking here.

Celebrating World Wetlands Day: return of the cranes

Yesterday was World Wetlands Day. Held on 2 February every year since 1997, the Day aims to celebrate and raise global awareness about the vital role of wetlands for people and our planet. To the casual observer wetlands may not seem vital at all, but instead an inconvenient and undesirable quagmire of mud, mosquitoes and misery. The truth, however, is very different.

Wetlands take many forms, including rivers, lakes, ponds, marshes, fens, swamps, mangroves, estuaries, floodplains and lagoons. Why are they considered vital? To put it at its most basic, wetlands are all about water and so is life. The equation is very simple: no water equals no life. Whether we’re talking about drinking water, food production or storing carbon emissions, humankind needs healthy, thriving wetlands.

And so does the rest of life on Earth. Wetlands are vital for biodiversity: although freshwater wetlands cover less than 1% of the planet’s surface, 40% of all species rely on them.

But despite their importance, wetlands are in big trouble. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) estimates that 87% of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the last 300 years, with vast swathes being drained for housing, industry and agriculture. Those wetlands that remain often suffer from serious pollution, and are also threatened by climate change.

Monty

The Ramsar Convention, which dates from 1971, seeks to secure international agreement and co-operation to protect wetlands. And yet, despite no fewer than 171 countries signing up to this intergovernmental treaty, the loss of – and damage to – wetlands across the globe continues unabated, with an impact on biodiversity that’s difficult to overstate. In this context, World Wetlands Day and similar initiatives – both large and small – are to be welcomed as a means of raising awareness of the continuing wetlands crisis.

* * *

Mrs P and I are big fans of wetlands, which offer superb opportunities for birdwatching. We are lifetime members of the WWT, a UK-based conservation trust which seeks to “conserve, restore and create wetlands, and inspire everyone to value the amazing things healthy wetlands can do for us.”

Sadly we live around 90 miles (145km) from the nearest WWT reserve, so our visits aren’t as frequent as we’d wish. But every visit we’re able to manage is worth the effort, none more so than our 2014 trip to the Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire. Here we were able to witness first hand the positive impact of the Great Crane Project.

Eurasian cranes are unmistakeable birds, standing more than four feet (1.2m) high, with slate-grey plumage, a red crown and a bold white streak extending from the eye to the upper back. They were once common in British wetlands, and countless place names – like Cranford in West London, close to where I grew up – include the element ‘cran’ to signify a locality where these majestic birds were known to congregate.

But loss of habitat due to the drainage of wetlands led to a decline in numbers, and hunting made things even worse. For example, in 1251 King Henry III served 115 cranes at his Christmas dinner, while in 1465 a feast to celebrate the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York involved the consumption of 204 cranes. I can only hope these medieval displays of unrestrained gluttony were followed by unrelieved bouts of chronic indigestion…serve the buggers right, I say!

Unsurprisingly, by around the year 1600 cranes had become extinct throughout Britain. They remained absent from the British landscape for nearly 400 years.

In 1979 a small number of cranes crossed the sea from continental Europe to settle in the Norfolk Broads. They began to breed three years later, but the location was kept secret to avoid the unwelcome attention of egg collectors. The population survives, and has crept into other parts of East Anglia and a few other isolated spots in eastern Britain. But cranes mature slowly and typically have poor breeding success, with the result that after around 40 years the descendants of the Norfolk population remain pitifully small in number.

Chris(tine)

With the prospect of cranes naturally recolonising other parts of their ancestral range being remote, conservationists needed an alternative strategy if the bird was to spread in reasonable numbers to wetlands in the west of Britain. And thus was born the Great Crane Project, with the aim of establishing a self-sustaining breeding population of 20 pairs on the Somerset Levels by 2025.

The project saw a coalition of conservation organisations (WWT, RSPB, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Viridor Credits) join forces to work on this highly ambitious, ground-breaking project. Each year between 2010 and 2014, around 20 Eurasian crane eggs were taken under licence from Brandenburg in Germany to be hatched in the UK. In all, 93 chicks were carefully raised in captivity. Dedicated “human parents” hand-reared the youngsters, educating them in the ways of the world at “crane school” before releasing them into the wild on the RSPB reserve at West Sedgemoor on the Somerset Levels. Simultaneously, work was undertaken at some sites to restore and improve the habitat for cranes.

* * *

When Mrs P and I visited Slimbridge WWT reserve in 2014, the prospect of seeing cranes never entered our heads. We’d previously enjoyed a couple of fleeting, distant views of cranes in East Anglia, but it seemed wildly improbable that any birds from the Great Crane Project would end up at Slimbridge, around 66 miles (106km) from where they were released.

And yet, amazingly, we were treated to fantastic views of a pair of cranes, strutting, preening and displaying just a few metres from where we were sitting. What a privilege, to spend an hour in such close proximity to majestic birds that once graced British wetlands in huge numbers, but which are now so scarce.

Monty

The coloured rings on the cranes’ legs make it possible to identify the individual birds we saw that day: the Great Crane Project website confirms them to be Monty and Chris(tine). Theirs was one of the first breeding attempts by any of the birds released as part of the Great Crane Project, but sadly they failed to raise any youngsters, either in 2014 or subsequent years.

The 2020 Annual Report, authored by Elizabeth Antliff-Clark and Damon Bridge from the RSPB, indicates that the cranes released between 2010 and 2014 have so far fledged 31 youngsters, of which 27 are still alive. Sadly 2020 was not a particularly good year for breeding success. The annual report tells us

“27 pairs of breeding age birds were observed in 2020 – two more than last year. Of these, all 27 pairs were thought to be holding territories. 15 pairs made confirmed or probable breeding attempts. Because monitoring activities were minimal on account of the Covid 19 restrictions, there were a higher proportion of pairs in the ‘possibly bred’ category than in previous years so it is likely that this confirmed/probable figure would have been higher in a ‘typical’ year. Nine of the 15 pairs successfully hatched chicks with four of these going on to fledge.

The 15 confirmed and probable nesting attempts this year were made on the Somerset Levels and Moors (7 prs); WWT Slimbridge Reserve Gloucestershire (5 prs); Oxfordshire (2 pr); Cambridgeshire (1 female).”


SOURCE: The Great Crane Project 2020 Report Public Version (section 4.1), published on Great Crane Project website, retrieved 28/01/21

The report goes on to suggest that the explanation for 2020’s poor success rate lies in the near-drought conditions experienced at the time, which led to the drying-out of nest-sites and an increase in predation. If this is correct then last year’s poor performance may be regarded as a blip, and improved breeding success can reasonably be anticipated in 2021.

Let’s hope so. Cranes are a welcome addition to the biodiversity of British wetlands. If the Great Crane Project succeeds in its ambitions the species will continue its slow recovery from nearly 400 years of local extinction, allowing many more birders – and ordinary members of the public – to marvel at the sight of these magnificent birds. Wouldn’t that be an achievement for wetlands conservation!

* * *

STOP PRESS: Just as I was about schedule this post for publication I picked up a press release from the RSPB / Crane Working Group. It reports that “the latest common crane survey reveals a record-breaking 64 pairs of cranes in 2020, bringing the total population [across all of the UK] to over 200 birds.” This number includes the birds released as part of the Great Crane Project and their descendants, and the descendants of the birds that returned naturally to the Norfolk Broads in 1979. The 64 pairs produced a total of 23 chicks.

What brilliant, timely news! There are bound to be bumps along the road, such as the drought that coincided with the 2020 breeding season, but taken as a whole the prospects for cranes in the UK look better than at any time since the Middle Ages. Give Nature half a chance, and She WILL fight back.

Public declarations of love: Bakewell love lock bridge

Bakewell is a picturesque market town in the Derbyshire Peak District. Built on the banks of the River Wye and most famous for the Bakewell Pudding, the town also boasts a range of pretty stone buildings and a church founded in 920. The handsome five-arched stone bridge across the river dates from around 1300, and is much admired by tourists, photographers and painters.

Mrs P and I have dropped in at Bakewell many times over the years so it was a surprise to discover, during a post-lockdown visit last summer, that as well as the five-arched masterpiece the town is also home to another notable bridge: the Weir Bridge.

This second bridge, a footbridge linking the town centre to the local Agricultural Business Centre, has no great age to it. Neither is it good to look at – in fact, it’s a functional steel monstrosity, probably one of the ugliest bridges the world has ever seen. No, the reason for its fame is altogether different. It’s a love lock bridge, dripping with padlocks large and small, many engraved with the names of couples intent on declaring their love for one another to the whole world.

For the uninitiated, here’s what Wikipedia tells us about love locks:

love lock or love padlock is a padlock that sweethearts lock to a bridge, fence, gate, monument, or similar public fixture to symbolize their love. Typically the sweethearts’ names or initials, and perhaps the date, are inscribed on the padlock, and its key is thrown away (often into a nearby river) to symbolize unbreakable love…Since the 2000s, love locks have proliferated at an increasing number of locations worldwide. 

Source: Wikipedia, retrieved 8 January 2021

The tradition of love locks fastened to bridges is said to have begun in Serbia during World War I, after a schoolmistress died of heartbreak when her lover deserted her for a woman whom he met when he went off to war in Greece. Other local women, horrified at befalling the same fate, began to fasten padlocks bearing their own names and those of their true loves to the bridge where the schoolmistress and her lover used to meet.

Padlocks first started appearing on Bakewell’s Weir Bridge in 2012, and now there are thousands of them. An enterprising local tradesman sells and engraves padlocks destined for the bridge, and is presumably making a tidy profit if the number of padlocks we saw that day is any guide.

The trend for these public declarations of love divides opinion. Some people are enchanted by the romance of it all, while others are appalled by the brutal ugliness of your average padlock. Meanwhile, civil engineers are worried that the sheer weight of so many padlocks will cause bridges to collapse, with the situation in Paris being regarded as particularly serious.

Personally, I’m relaxed about love lock bridges. Plainly where there’s a danger of a bridge collapsing the padlocks must be removed and / or outlawed. And they are inappropriate on structures of great architectural merit or historical interest. But on a bridge as sturdy, ugly and insignificant as Bakewell’s Weir Bridge, what’s the problem?

At their best I find love lock bridges quirky, inoffensive and strangely reassuring. Think how many good news stories are symbolised by the padlocks on the Weir Bridge. Despite all the problems facing the modern world today, isn’t it good to know that love is still alive and well amongst visitors to Bakewell, and is also dear to the hearts of couples visiting hundreds of love lock structures scattered across the globe.

A touch of the exotic: the Mandarin Duck

As the UK’s first Covid lockdown began to ease last June, one of our earliest trips out was to Straws Bridge nature reserve close to the small Derbyshire town of Ilkeston. It’s known to locals as Swan Lake because … well, because it’s a lake that boasts several handsome swans amongst its residents. The swans were out in force when we visited, but were overshadowed in our eyes by the unexpected sight of a family of mandarin ducks.

Mandarins favour small wooded ponds and avoid large expanses of open water, so the Straws Bridge reserve is ideal for them. Comprising three modest bodies of water set in a landscape of mixed woodland and meadows, it’s one of those habitats that shows how nature can bounce back when man lends a helping hand. In the 1970s and 1980s the area was scarred by open cast coal mining, but when the company concerned got into financial difficulties the local council took it on and restored the site as a wildlife habitat and local amenity. 

We’ve visited this reserve many times over the years and have always found it busy with families out for a stroll, often with a loaf of bread in hand to feed the swans and ducks and – inadvertently – sustain the burgeoning rat population at the same time.

In June last year the place was heaving with visitors, all grateful to get into the open air after the relaxation of the government’s stay-at-home Covid restrictions. None of them, other than Mrs P and I, appeared to have a clue that they were in the presence of a bird that’s regarded by many as the world’s most beautiful duck.

Mandarin ducks look far too exotic to be native British birds, and that’s absolutely right. They hail from East Asia – China, Japan and eastern Russia. The male sports a bright red bill, a reddish face with a large white crescent above the eye, a purple breast with two vertical white bars, and ruddy flanks. It also has two orange “sails” at the back. These comprise large feathers that stick up like the sails of a boat, and are perhaps the most eye-catching feature of what is a very elaborate bird.

The female, however, is drab, with a grey head, brown back and mottled flanks. Her white eye-ring and stripe can’t disguise the fact that, in common with the females of most duck species, she’s unremarkable.

Although the disparity in their looks might suggest otherwise, eastern folklore tells us that a pair of mandarins make the perfect couple. The birds are said to mate for life. In traditional Chinese and Japanese culture, mandarin ducks are therefore regarded as symbols of marital faithfulness. They are a favourite of artists, and also feature in Buddhist legends where they are said to represent compassion.

Male and female. No prizes for guessing which is which!

The supposed everlasting bond between mandarins is captured in a Japanese folktale, which begins with a great lord capturing a male bird so he can forever enjoy its beautiful plumage. Separated from its mate, the male is desperately lonely and begins to pine away. Seeing that the bird will soon die of a broken heart, the lord’s maidservant and her samurai lover decide to do the decent thing and reunite the lovelorn pair. However they get caught in the act and the furious lord condemns them to death for their treachery, proving beyond all doubt that for mankind and birdlife alike the course of true love does not always run smoothly!

* * *

It was in the mid-18th century when mandarins were first brought to Britain, with the intention of adding a bit of oriental glamour to the ornamental waterfowl collections of the idle rich. They escaped with monotonous regularity, and sometimes were deliberately released, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that a significant self-sustaining population of feral birds became established.

Juvenile mandarin

Since then numbers have grown rapidly, and there are now reckoned to be close to 8,000 mandarin ducks scattered widely throughout England. There are also feral populations in parts of continental Europe, as well as California and North Carolina in the US.

Spotting a lucrative gap in the market, China exported tens – or perhaps hundreds – of thousands of mandarins over several decades. Although the trade was banned in 1975 its impact, combined with widespread habitat loss, has resulted in a big fall in the wild Chinese population. Luckily mandarin ducks are reputed not to taste very good, otherwise pressures on the wild population would have been even greater in a country with over a billion mouths to feed.

Mandarins are notable for perching in trees, and the female invariably chooses a hole or cavity in a tree trunk in which to lay her eggs. After hatching, the ducklings jump to the ground and avoid injury thanks to the cushioning of their fluffy down. The mother swiftly gathers her brood together, and leads them to water. At Straws Bridge the female had plainly done a good job, and we got clear – although distant – views of some juveniles.

However, without doubt the male is the star of the mandarin show. What a looker!

Cat-astrophe avoided: Milky Bar gets his mojo back

It’s Christmas Eve afternoon. We’re sitting in the garden room, listening to music and watching the midwinter sun die slowly in the western sky. Overhead, gangs of starlings flock back to their roost, chattering noisily to one another as they pass. Then, to our right, a familiar clatter. It can mean only one thing: our good friend Milky Bar, the visiting cat who calls our garden home, has leapt onto the rickety fence that separates our property from Jim’s.

The injured party: Milky Bar

Yes, there he is. But something’s wrong. Normally the fence panels, although barely a couple of centimetres wide, are no challenge to a young, athletic cat blessed with a fine sense of balance. Today, however, he’s struggling, jerkily swaying to the left and then to the right, like a drunken tightrope walker in a tornado. Indignity – and possibly serious injury – seems just seconds away.

But when we look more closely we realise he’s already injured. Milky Bar’s standing on three legs, holding his right front paw clear of the fence. It looks badly swollen, and we can tell by his demeanour that he’s in a lot of pain.

Maybe he’s broken a bone in a freak accident? Perhaps he’s ripped out a claw fighting with a cat that dared invade his territory? Or has an infection set in, sending poison coursing through his frail little body? This look serious.

For several minutes Milky Bar maintains a precarious balance on the fence, before finally taking a leap of faith into our garden. As he lands a shockwave runs through his whole body, and he immediately snatches his damaged paw back into the air. He just stands there looking stunned and dishevelled, apparently unable to take another step. The boisterous, confident cat we know and love is gone, and he looks so fragile that a gentle puff of wind could topple him.

Normally the fence panels, although barely a couple of centimetres wide, are no challenge to a young, athletic cat blessed with a fine sense of balance

We discuss what to do. If we knew where he lives we’d go fetch one of his family, but Milky Bar’s domestic arrangements have always been a mystery to us. We agree that if he doesn’t move on after a few minutes we’ll bring him into the house, keep him warm and give him some food. We’ll even try to track down an emergency vet, though on Christmas Eve in the middle of a pandemic that could be tricky.

Finally, after an agonising wait for all parties, Milky Bar gathers himself and hobbles off slowly towards the area of the estate where we suspect his family lives. He looks so sad, so crushed, and we fear that we may never see him again.

* * *

We spend a restless night, haunted by the prospect of losing another “borrowed” cat. It happened once before when Sid disappeared suddenly and without trace, and we can’t bear the thought of history repeating itself.

To reward his bravery we offer Milky Bar some cold roast turkey, and he’s pleased to tuck in

Christmas Day dawns and we work our way through the familiar routine: opening presents, phoning family, whacking a turkey the size of a small ostrich into the oven. It’s business as usual, but our spirits are subdued as we worry about Milky Bar’s fate. We scan the garden every few minutes, but he’s nowhere to be seen. We fear the worst.

And then, when we’ve all but convinced ourselves that he’s not coming back, Milky Bar appears. He’s limping badly and his paw is still swollen, but at least he’s made it through the night and must be feeling a bit better to venture away from home. A couple of minutes later he leaves, but we reassure ourselves that he’s on the mend.

We don’t see him again for the next couple of days, and our anxieties start to return. In particular we worry that infection has taken hold, perhaps because his family were unable to find a vet to give him some urgently needed antibiotics during the festive holiday. But still we check the garden regularly, hoping for good news.

“Please don’t disturb me while I’m eating my lunch”

And finally, at last, our borrowed cat re-appears, cheekily peering up at us through the kitchen window. We can tell immediately that he’s feeling much better. The sparkle’s returned to his eyes, and he’s moving more freely.

To reward his courage we offer our brave little soldier some cold roast turkey, tossing it onto the patio in front of him. Milky Bar’s on it in a flash, tucking in greedily and looking cuter than ever. Clearly, this moggie’s got his mojo back.

Then, to round off a perfect day, Milky Bar’s pal Malteser also puts in an appearance. Never one to turn down food, he wolfs down some turkey too.

Milky Bar’s pal Malteser also wolfs down some turkey

Having filled their faces, the two cats swagger off in search of their next adventure. But hopefully this time Milky Bar will take a little more care. It’s been an anxious few days, and we could do without a repeat performance any time soon.

* * *

Postscript – do you want to know more about Milky Bar and Malteser? Follow the links below for earlier posts featuring the feline superstars

Wassailing: extortion, boozing and blessings

Yesterday – 5th January – was 12th Night, the last of the 12 Days of Christmas. It is traditionally marked by a range of festivities, many involving the consumption of food or drink in various forms and copious quantities. Wassailing is a practice belonging to this tradition, and dates back many hundreds of years.

According to Anglo-Saxon lore, at the beginning of each year the lord of the manor would greet his assembled subjects with the toast waes hael, meaning “be well” or “be in good health.” In response his followers would proclaim drinc hael, or “drink well.” Toasts duly completed, all parties would then get down to some serious boozing.

Orchard Wassailing ceremony. PHOTO CREDIT: “Barker’s Wassail 2013” by muffinn is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Clearly it’s just a small step, linguistically speaking, from the first of these Anglo-Saxon proclamations of good cheer to the word wassail that we use today. But just to confuse things a little there are two types of wassailing. House Wassailing involves groups of merrymakers going from one house to another, wassail bowl in hand, singing traditional songs and offering the occupants a swig of their brew in return for a material reward, often financial. In contrast, Orchard Wassailing is a distinctly pagan ceremony concerning itself with the blessing of fruit trees.

* * *

The great and the good usually played along with house wassailing, recognising that a bit of seasonal generosity dispensed with a tolerant smile would enhance their image. However things sometimes got out of hand, with rowdy gangs of youths gaining entry to the homes of wealthy neighbours and demanding free food and drink as the price of moving on to torment someone else instead. We have a word for that sort of thing today: it’s called extortion, and the law takes a dim view of it.

Mostly, however, wassailing was conducted in good humour on both sides. Many fine wassailing songs have survived in the folk tradition, including the Gower Wassail from the Gower Peninsula in South Wales. The lyrics – shown below – illustrate how the relationship between the parties was meant to play out:

A-wassail, a-wassail throughout all the town
Our cup it is white and our ale it is brown
Our wassail is made of the good ale and cake 
Some nutmeg and ginger, the best you can bake

Our wassail is made of the elderberry bough
And so my good neighbours we'll drink unto thou
Besides all on earth, you have apples in store
Pray let us come in for it's cold by the door

There's a master and a mistress sitting down by the fire
While we poor wassail boys stand out in the mire
Come you pretty maid with your silver headed pin
Pray open the door and let us come in

It's we poor wassail boys so weary and cold
Please drop some small silver into our bowl
And if we survive for another new year
Perhaps we may call and see who does live here

We know by the moon that we are not too soon
And we know by the sky that we are not too high
And we know by the stars that we are not too far
And we know by the ground that we are within sound

We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear
So that we may have cider when we call next year
And where you have one barrel we hope you'll have ten
So that we may have cider when we call again

There are countless recorded versions of the Gower Wassail. I’m particularly fond of this one, by the ephemeral Derbyshire folk band Cupola Ward. Listen to them perform Gower Wassail by clicking on the YouTube link below:

House Wassailing is a thing of the past, and rarely if ever happens these days. However, it has morphed into another form in which groups of people go from door-to-door singing Christmas carols. And in the words of one of those carols – We Wish You a Merry Christmas – there is a hint of the extortion into which wassailing sometimes descended, when the singers demand “now give us some figgy pudding,” and then threaten “we won’t go until we’ve got some!”

* * *

Although House Wassailing survives only in Christmas carolling, Orchard Wassailing is alive and well in those parts of England that have a tradition of making cider, and in some parts of the USA and Canada too. If you search YouTube you can find various short films capturing modern celebrations of Orchard Wassailing. This one is informative as well as entertaining.

In the Orchard Wassailing tradition, participants drink and sing to the health of an orchard’s apple trees with the intention of encouraging a bumper autumn harvest. Although this can take many forms, some of the standard elements are as follows.

The wassailers select one tree in the orchard, usually the biggest or the oldest, to be the focus of the ceremony. They also choose, from amongst their number, a queen to carry out certain ceremonial duties. The participants process through the orchard and around the chosen tree. Songs are sung, blessings are proclaimed, and the wassail queen hangs from one of the tree’s branches a slice of toast soaked in cider. The intention is to attract good spirits, or possibly robins as these are regarded as lucky birds.

Having duly invited benevolent spirits to appear, malevolent forces are driven away by shouting and the banging together of pots and pans. Then the tree is given a drink of mulled cider.

Inevitably, after the tree has had its fill there is still some alcohol left, at which point the wassailers selflessly help out by knocking it back themselves. They also sing a few jolly songs, encouraging the tree to be a prolific producer of apples in the year ahead. The orchard owner may also get involved, rewarding the revellers with some form of warm, spiced alcoholic beverage from a communal wassail bowl or cup.

By the end of the proceedings everyone’s feeling suitably merry, and it’s only the tree that won’t wake up with a headache in the morning!

Although house and orchard wassailing differ in their origins and underlying purpose, it’s interesting to see how they overlap. Look again at the the Gower Wassail lyrics above, and note that although this song is clearly designed to be sung at a wealthy man’s door with the intention of financial gain (“Please drop some small silver into our bowl“), the singers also express enthusiasm for a bountiful apple harvest in the the autumn (“We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear / So that we may have some cider when we call next year.”)

In the modern parlance I suppose you would say that – in pursuit of merriment and material advancement – singers of the Gower Wassail were covering all the bases. And who can blame them, life’s way too short to be shy in coming forward.

* * *

Folk traditions and folk music aren’t static, so it should come as no surprise that in the hands of gifted exponents the wassail tradition continues to evolve. Mrs P and I have recently started listening to the music of Vicki Swann and Jonny Dyer, and a couple of weeks ago treated ourselves to a live gig on Zoom. One of the songs they performed that evening was the Essex Wassail, which they wrote as recently as 2012 “based on all the Wassails that we could find.” You can find the lyrics here, and to hear Vicki and Jonny performing their wassail song simply follow the YouTube link below. Enjoy!

Time to look forward (The Show Must Go On)

What a bloody year it’s been. I expect you’ve noticed…the UK’s barmy Brexit brinksmanship, the excruciating US election, the brutal killing of George Floyd, the Australian bushfires, the climate-change deniers, the relentless rise of rampant populism, the worldwide economic meltdown. And then, of course, there’s Covid.

I could go on but you’re probably depressed enough already, so I’ll leave it there. I’m sure you get the point.

From a personal point of view it’s not been great either. It’s true we’ve avoided Covid, and I’m very grateful for that, but otherwise 2020 feels like The Lost Year. It’s the first time since Mrs P and I married over 35 years ago that we’ve spent every single night under our own roof. Planned breaks in various parts of the country had to be cancelled, and the best we’ve managed has been some local birdwatching and a few daytrips to places close to home.

Although phone calls and the internet helped us stay in touch, we’ve spent almost no time with family or friends since March. We managed to “attend” a few folk music gigs on YouTube and Zoom, but it ain’t like the real thing, is it? Worse still, we’ve not been to a restaurant for over nine months, and although we both enjoy cooking, we’re sick of it right now. A man can cook – and eat – too many curries, and this man has.

Time to look forward

And when, we wonder, will we ever be able to safely visit a coffee house again for a sweet, steaming mocha and an enormous slab of chocolate cake?

* * *

About ten days ago Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television to announce tougher restrictions aimed at halting the spread of a new, more virulent strain of Covid-19. The festive plans of millions of Brits were ruined. At a stroke BoJo had come close to cancelling Christmas, and people were in shock.

Later that evening we settled down in front of the television to watch the final of Strictly Come Dancing (for anyone reading this in North America, that’s the UK’s version of Dancing with the Stars). Eventual winner Bill Bailey danced his Showdance to The Show Must Go On, a classic number by Queen [click here for the poignant lyrics, and magical archive footage of Freddie Mercury leading the vocals] . Answering a question from host Claudia Winkelman directly after his dance, a panting Bill Bailey agreed that his routine was a “rallying call.” He said:

……the restrictions are going to be harder [following the Prime Minister’s announcement] and people are going to be isolated at Christmas…it’s not just a song about the arts, this is an anthem about not giving up, keeping hope, getting through this…the show must go on. It’s about being strong and getting through all of this.

Bill Bailey, speaking on BBC Strictly Come Dancing live broadcast on 19/12/2020 and subsequently reported by Digital Spy. Retrieved 24/12/2020

And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s been a rotten year, but the show must go on. We must learn from what’s happened, but refuse to be crushed by the tragedy of it. Now is the time to consciously embrace positivity, to look forward with hope and expectation, to take comfort in the belief that – if we all pull together and do the right thing – 2021 can be better than the wretched year that’s about to end

The lyrics to Queen’s song include the following lines. The words were written nearly 30 years ago but have never been more relevant than they are today, as we prepare to step forward into the new year:

I’ll face it with a grin
I’m never giving in
On with the show

The show must go on.