Bradgate: a deer park for the common people

Any man with social ambition in medieval England wanted his own deer park. Put simply, a deer park was an enclosed area of land designed to keep the noble owner’s deer in and the common people out. Possessing a deer park was a very public proclamation of one’s wealth and privilege: royal permission (a “licence to empark”) was normally required to create one, and the process of enclosure through the digging of ditches, the raising of banks and the erection of palisades was massively expensive.

Fallow deer in the River Lin at Bradgate Park

Deer parks facilitated the aristocratic pastime of hunting, thereby demonstrating the wealth of their owners. And, of course, where there were deer there was also venison. There was no legal way in which the common man could obtain and eat venison. Being able to dine on it and to invite your friends to share in this exclusive bounty was therefore another public declaration of one’s wealth and social status. Put simply, deer parks were the embodiment of medieval one-upmanship.

Stag relaxing in the autumn sunshine at Bradgate Park

However, deer parks were about more than simply the deer and the social status that possessing them conferred. They also enabled the noble owner to supplement his diet through other extravagances, for example by maintaining fishponds and rabbit warrens. And he would never need to feel the cold in winter, with all those trees that he could harvest for fuel. There’s no question that a man who owned a deer park was someone to be reckoned with.

In late September the fallow deer browse on fallen acorns

Although there were a few deer parks in Anglo-Saxon England, it was the Norman Conquest in 1066 that led to their proliferation. Deer parks quickly became a craze among the new nobility, and while the Domesday Book in 1086 only recorded 37, by around 1300 there may have been as many as 3,000. One of them was Bradgate Park.

A male “bugles” in the rutting season, issuing a challenge to other male

Mrs P and I like to visit Bradgate Park at least once a year. It’s situated in the heart of England, close to Leicester in the county of Leicestershire. For readers unfamiliar with peculiarities of English pronunciation, these are pronounced “Lester” and “Lester-shire” respectively.

Bradgate, like other deer parks, is home to some ancient trees

Bradgate Park was enclosed in 1241, and greatly extended in the late 15th century. It now covers an area of 340 hectares (850 acres) of rocky moorland clothed in coarse grass and bracken, and interspersed with several woodland spinneys.

Tranquil waters. It’s difficult to believe that Leicester (population 330,000) is just a few kms away

Running through the park is the River Lin, the shortest river in Leicestershire. A picturesque cascade was created on the river during the Victorian period, to clear silt from the water before it emptied into the nearby Cropston reservoir.

Man-made cascade on the River Lin in Bradgate Park

A significant landmark within the park is the ruined Bradgate House, construction of which began in the 1490s and was largely complete by 1501. Brick was an expensive and high-status building material at this time, and its use here tells us that the commissioner of Bradgate House – Thomas Grey, first Marquis of Dorset – was a man of substance. He must have been relaxed about the state of the nation and his place within it, given that this was one of the first large houses to be built in England without fortifications.

File:Bradgate ruins.jpg

Bradgate House ruins. IMAGE CREDIT: Astrokid16 [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

The most famous resident of Bradgate House was Lady Jane Grey, grand-daughter of the first Marquis. She was brought up and lived there before her marriage to Lord Guildford Dudley in 1553, the year in which she became the “Nine Days Queen”. In February 1554, and still only a teenager, she and her husband lost their heads, victims of the religious and political factionalism that was rife at the time.

Bradgate House dates from late 15th / very early 16th centuries

Despite the uproar around the supposed misdeeds of Lady Jane, the Greys retained ownership of Bradgate Park and House. With money to burn and too much time on their hands, in the 1780s the family commissioned the building of a Gothic-style folly on the highest point in the park.

Old John Tower, Bradgate Park’s late 18th century folly

During the 19th century Old John Tower was used as a lookout giving good views over a horse-racing practice circuit, laid out by the Greys’ descendant the seventh Earl of Stamford. It’s reassuring to note here yet another example of our great English aristocracy making good use of their wealth, rather than frittering it away on needless fripperies (in case you’re wondering, irony is alive and well at Platypus Towers!)

In Bradgate Park the deer are unconcerned by the presence of people

In fairness to the Grey family, they began allowing limited public access to Bradgate Park in the nineteenth century. In 1928 it was bought by a local philanthropist and given, as a plaque in the park describes, “to be preserved in its natural state for the quiet enjoyment of the people of Leicestershire”.

Relaxing with a coffee at the Bradgate Park café

And enjoy it they most certainly do. Whenever Mrs P and I go there we’re struck by the number and variety of people who’ve also made the journey to Bradgate Park, including countless dog walkers, mums with babes in buggies and toddlers at their heels, power-walkers burning off the calories, and old fogeys like me who want nothing more than gentle stroll followed by a slab of cake at the park café. The peaceful surroundings, the deer and the birdlife make a perfect backdrop for such activities.

Dogwalkers by the dozen enjoy Bradgate Park

There are several hundred deer in the park. The most common, and most easily seen, are fallow deer. These are not native to the UK, but were introduced by William the Conqueror and his cronies. It seems that the Normans, not content with wiping out thousands of native Anglo-Saxons, felt the need to maintain their slaughtering skills by ensuring a regular supply of four-footed victims. But that was long ago, and today in Bradgate Park the fallow deer seem completely unconcerned by the presence of people, whom they tend to ignore.

The pride of Bradgate Park – a magnificent fallow deer stag

Close views of fallow deer are easy. Indeed, they’re somewhat difficult to avoid when their chosen path takes them within a few metres of members of the public. These animals are particularly entertaining during the rutting season, when their hormones send them slightly crazy. The native British red deer can also be seen, but are less easy to find.

Raven at Bradgate Park

Bradgate Park is also home to a variety of bird species. We always have our binoculars to hand when we visit, and as well as the predictable favourites like the mute swans, less common birds put in an appearance from time to time, including green woodpeckers, ravens and even a red kite.

Green Woodpecker at Bradgate Park

Free to enter and now run by the Bradgate Park Trust, the park is a superb resource for locals as well as visitors from further afield. It’s the perfect place to relax, chill out and unwind from the stresses of 21st century life. It may have started life as the private domain of a wealthy elite, but today Bradgate is very much a deer park for the common people.

Ironbridge: an industrial icon in rural Shropshire

History is made in the most unlikely places. Shropshire, for example. The Shropshire Tourism website describes it as “the nicest of England’s quiet counties”, which sounds a bit lukewarm if you ask me. The website goes on to add that it’s “ideal for a short break away from the stresses of modern life, or indeed perfect for a day’s escape into the countryside”. All of which makes it very difficult to believe that Ironbridge Gorge, which lies on the River Severn close to the heart of rural Shropshire, is widely described as “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution”.

The Iron Bridge crosses the River Severn

It’s a big claim, particularly as England led the rest of the world into the Industrial Revolution. According to this reading of history, Ironbridge Gorge was the birthplace not just of a local or national revolution, but of a global transformation which made possible our comfortable, technology-driven 21st century existence. How come? I hear you asking.

The bridge was opened to traffic on New Year’s Day 1781

The deep gorge carved out by glacial outflow at the end of the last Ice Age exposed readily accessible deposits of raw materials – including iron, coal, limestone and fireclay – that helped kick-start the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

The key development was in 1709 when the Quaker Abraham Darby I launched his innovative technique for smelting local iron ore, using coke made from coal mined at the Shropshire village of Coalbrookdale. Through its use of coke rather than charcoal, Darby’s discovery made the mass production of cast iron economically viable.

The span is 30.63 metres (100 feet 6 inches).

Darby’s revolutionary technique resulted in the availability of large quantities of relatively cheap iron, which in turn led to this area of Shropshire becoming – by the standards of the time – highly industrialised. The River Severn was a key trading route along which products could be transported, but it was also an obstacle to the cross-country movement of people and goods

Calls grew ever louder for a bridge across the Severn and, inspired by the local iron industry, a proposal was made for the world’s first iron bridge. Thomas Farnolls Pritchard drew up the designs, which were approved by Act of Parliament. Construction began in 1777 but Pritchard died within weeks, and subsequently most of the project was overseen by Abraham Darby III, the grandson of iron smelting pioneer Abraham Darby I.

The bridge was completed in 1781, and remains today an iconic piece of industrial design. Inevitably given its ground-breaking design the project had its problems, and it set an unwelcome trend that HS2 seems likely to emulate by coming in way over budget.

In total the 378 tons of iron used in the bridge’s construction cost £6,000, against an initial estimate of £3,200. However, by the mid-1790s the bridge was highly profitable and the shareholders were receiving a substantial annual dividend of 8 per cent. By way of contrast, BP currently (as of 6 January 2020) pays a dividend yield of 6.28%.

File:William Williams The Iron Bridge.jpg

IMAGE CREDIT: William Williams [Public domain]. Abraham Derby III commissioned Williams to make this picture in October 1780, and paid him 10 guineas for it

Although its use of iron was a radical departure from previous practice many of the techniques employed were surprisingly traditional:

Research also revealed that 70% of the components of the bridge – including all the large castings – were made individually to fit, and all differ slightly from one another as a result. Darby’s workers employed joining techniques used in carpentry, such as dovetail and shouldered joints, adapting them for cast iron.

SOURCE: English Heritage website, retrieved 7 January 2020

View west to east across the bridge. The toll house is on the left

The bridge remained in full use for over 150 years, but in 1934 it was finally closed to vehicles and designated an Ancient Monument. Remarkably, pedestrians continued to pay tolls to cross it until 1950. It is, however, reassuring to note that the owners of the bridge had an egalitarian view of who should pay the tolls: quite simply, absolutely everyone had to cough up:

‘Every officer or soldier whether on duty or not, is liable to pay toll for passing over as well as any baggage wagon, mail coach or the Royal Family.’

SOURCE: Taken from the Table of Tolls (see photograph of the sign)

Even members of the Royal Family were expected to pay if they wanted to cross!

Ironbridge Gorge Museums comprises no fewer than 10 separate museums on sites scattered throughout the area, including Blists Hill Victorian Town, Jackfield Tile Museum, Coalport China Museum and the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron. Anyone with an interest in industrial history can easily spend two or three days here – as we have done, spread across a couple of visits – and still feel that there’s more to explore.

But without doubt the jewel in Ironbridge’s crown is the iconic bridge itself. Shockingly, in the 1960s there was a serious possibility that it would be taken down and sold for scrap. Fortunately for scholars, tourists and local businesses alike, wiser heads prevailed and the bridge was saved for the nation by English Heritage. It remains the most potent and memorable symbol of an age when this relatively remote and rural corner of rural England led the international community into a brave new industrialised world.

The Knife Angel comes to Derby

A few days before setting off on our epic journey around New Zealand, Mrs P and I took a trip to the nearby city of Derby to take a look at the Knife Angel. Also known as the National Monument Against Violence and Aggression, the Knife Angel is a public art installation that is currently touring the country to draw attention to the issue of knife crime. The sculpture, which stands 8.2 metres (27 feet) high, has been created from around 100,000 blades surrendered to police during knife amnesties.

The Knife Angel is the brainchild of the British Ironwork Centre, working with sculptor Alfie Bradley. The Centre provided police forces with 200 secure knife banks, free of charge, to support and encourage them to run more knife amnesties.

The knives and other weapons that were surrendered during the amnesties prompted by the knife banks were sent to the Centre’s workshops, where they were disinfected and blunted. Bradley created a basic angel shape from steel, and then proceeded to weld knives to it. The wings were made from knife blades only, to produce a feathery appearance.

The Centre invited families who had lost loved ones due to knife crime and violence to engrave an everlasting message on a blade, which would then be integrated within the monument. Its website explains that “messages of love and remembrance feature on the angel’s wings, messages not only from families but also perpetrators who have seen the error of their ways and now fight knife crime and violence in a bid to stop it happening on our streets.”

We were surprised and pleased that so many people had turned out on a wet morning to view the Knife Angel. According to the Derby Telegraph, by the time the sculpture moved on to the next city on its itinerary more than 90,000 people had been to see it, from within and beyond the city’s boundaries.

It would be fanciful to expect that pieces of public art like this can have a material impact on the current high levels of knife crime in the UK. However, as a vehicle for community solidarity and a catalyst for reflection on what we have become as a society, the Knife Angel is very powerful indeed. It’s also a damned fine piece of public art, and deserves to be appreciated on those terms as well as for the positive messages it promotes.

Chatsworth House at Christmas

It’s become the fashion in recent years for stately homes – whether in private hands or run by a charitable trust – to open their doors to the public in the run up to Christmas and show off their festive decorations. Some seem to regard it simply as another money-making ploy: just whack up a few trees and glittery baubles, scatter artificial snow liberally in the library, hang a sock or two from a suitable fireplace and watch the money roll in.

Chatsworth House, featuring the “Emperor Fountain”, August 2018

Others – like Chatsworth House in Derbyshire – take it far more seriously, and clearly invest heavily to develop an annual Christmas offer that will delight their visitors. They still watch the money roll in, of course – that’s the name of the game, after all – but at least the punters go away with a smile on their faces, and maybe a few goodies from the seasonally stocked gift shop.

In the magnificent Great Hall the national theme is Russia

Chatsworth House, built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1981 the house, many of its contents and 737 hectares (1,822 acres) of the surrounding landscape were leased to the Chatsworth House Trust, and the family now pays rent to the Trust for the apartment they occupy. The current (12th) Duke and Duchess work with the charity and others to welcome visitors to Chatsworth.

The Chatsworth House website explains the role of the Trust as follows;

Every penny of visitor admission goes directly to the Chatsworth House Trust, which is dedicated to the long-term preservation of Chatsworth House, the art collection, garden, woodlands and park for the long-term benefit of the public

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

Be in no doubt, Chatsworth House is a big business. According to its 2018 annual review, in 2017/18 the house and gardens welcomed a little over 600,000 visitors, generated income of almost £15m and employed 366 people, including 114 full-time posts. In this context the Christmas opening isn’t a deal-breaker, but every little helps, not least in building Chatsworth’s reputation and encouraging return visits in the main, summer season.

In the splendid chapel the national theme is Spain

And as we pull into the car park around ten days before Christmas, the place is buzzing. A host of eager attendants, resplendent in their dayglo yellow tabards, direct us to its further reaches where they can just squeeze us in.

National theme: Russia

The theme of this year’s decorations is ” a land far, far away.” Here’s what the website tells us to expect:

Discover lands afar at Chatsworth this Christmas, following in the footsteps of explorers Phileas Fogg and Amelia Earhart. Our guides will lead you on a festive adventure around the globe as you travel from a Nordic winter wonderland, through blossom trees in Japan, to a baroque Spanish church on the journey of a lifetime.

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

National theme: Canada

It’s a clever choice, a chance to give each room or space a theme relating to a specific country, such as the arched branches of russet maple leaves in the Canadian room (actually, more of a corridor than a room, albeit the grandest corridor most of us will ever see.)

Visiting Chatsworth at Christmas is meant to be educational as well as enjoyable, so signposts in each room advise us of the capital of each nation featured, how far it is from Chatsworth, the average December temperature and how much snow falls there that month.

To give the exhibition a more human touch there are also panels bearing snippets of personal information. For example, the 9th Duke was Governor-General of Canada from 1916 to 1921. Not a lot of people know that.

National Theme: Japan

Generally speaking it’s highly creative and although some of the national themes work better than others, overall it’s very well done. There’s certainly no shortage of Christmas trees, no surprise really considering that there are whole plantations of the things on the Chatsworth estate. But I hate to think what Chatsworth’s electricity bill will be this month, lighting up so many trees across no fewer than 22 separate rooms.

Most of the punters seem content that their £25 entrance fee has been well spent, although a gentleman from the other side of the pond – Texan, judging by his drawl – is overheard complaining bitterly that the American room should have been bigger.

National theme: China

In the interests of transatlantic harmony, and mindful of the fact that we Brits need all the friends we can get these days, I refrain from pointing out that if a larger space really is necessary he could always offer to donate his mouth to the cause. But I keep quiet, and am momentarily dismayed by the sense of an opportunity for innocent merriment that is forever lost.

Meanwhile a couple of visitors have no time to worry about national pride. We watch a young lady – in her early 20s probably – move from room to room having her photo taken in front of every tree. Not once, not twice, but dozens of times in front of every bloody tree in Chatsworth House.

National theme: Switzerland

She poses and postures, pouts and preens, tossing her hair and placing a quizzical finger to her chin, but never looks directly at the guy with the camera. Does she think it makes her look more alluring, more seductive? If she does she’s sadly mistaken, she just appears evasive.

And who is this guy anyway, what is he to the Queen of Preen? Boyfriend? Brother? Agent? Pimp? Who knows, but he’s clearly on a mission, clicking away like crazy on his Pentax. The pair of them are in a little world of their own, obsessed with the photoshoot, indifferent to the magic of Chatsworth House.

National theme: Morocco

But the Queen of Preen and Pentax Man are in the minority: most visitors have simply come here for an hour or two of harmless fun. The organisers have done an excellent job in managing the hordes, and there’s a surprising air of serenity.

Chatsworth at Christmas harks back to a gentler age, an age that is a world away from the madness that assails us in the shops and across the media at this time of year. OK, the vision of Christmas portrayed at Chatsworth is a chocolate box fantasy, a bit of feel-good escapist nonsense. But it’s good to escape sometimes.

And god knows, there’s loads of stuff in December 2019, in the UK, that I want to escape from.

GUEST BLOG: The world according to Milky Bar

When I started this blog one of my first posts was about Milky Bar, a cat who visits our garden most days.  I’ve been quite busy since we got back from New Zealand, what with Christmas coming up fast and me not having bought a thing yet for Mrs P, so I invited Milky Bar to write this week’s post on Now I’m 64

But just to be perfectly clear, I take absolutely no responsibility for anything he says.

*

Hello everyone, my name’s Milky Bar!

Hello everyone, my name’s Milky Bar.  At least, that’s what Old Man Platypus calls me, but what does he know, eh?  Him an’ his missus are weirdos, that’s for sure. They gives names to all the cats what visit their garden, call ‘em after types of chocolate!  That’s why I’m Milky Bar, see. An’ then there’s Malteser – he’s a good pal of mine, knows who’s the boss – as well as Minstrel, Oreo an’ Mars Bar.  Not to mention Toblerone, of course.

Me and Malteser. He knows who’s the boss around here: me!

Toblerone!  I ask you, what kind of person calls a cat ‘Toblerone?’  Poor little mouser, no wonder he don’t show his face round ‘ere no more.

But what’s in a name anyway?  Old Man Platypus thinks callin’ me Milky Bar gives him power over me, thinks if he shouts out my name I’ll come runnin’ like some lapdog.  But I won’t. Cats don’t do that sort of thing, not this cat anyway. 

Here I am, planning how to catch a goldfish. Malteser watches the master at work!

Like I care about him, which I don’t, obviously.  I just sit an’ watch him makin’ a fool of himself.  Laughs at him I do, all this “Ooh, what a lovely cat you are, Milky Bar” an’ “Ah, what a little cutie you are, Milky Bar.”  Yuk!

I think he secretly wants me to move in with him at Platypus Towers, like some mistress or his bit on the side.  No way, José. I mean, if he’s serious about this relationship he needs to work at it, buy me stuff an’ all. You know, he’s never once opened a tin of tuna for me, or bought me a packet of Dreamies!  The man’s a total waste of space, that’s what I say.

Who’s a pretty boy then? Ah, that would be me, the one and only Milky Bar

One time he accidentally drops some pellets what he feeds to the goldfish in his pond, then watches to see if I’ll gobble ‘em up.  Maybe he reckons I won’t even notice, that I’ll think them pellets was meant for me. Me? Fooled by some lousy fishfood? I don’t think so!

I’m tellin’ you, Old Man Platypus ain’t got a clue.  If I was writin’ his end-of-term report I’d put “Must try harder” an’ give him a D-minus.  But only if I was feelin’ generous, like.

Sometimes, when it rains, I have a “bad hair day”

What makes it worse is he can be a good bloke when he wants to.  There’s this rabbit what lives in an ‘utch at the bottom of the garden.  Ugly thing it is, ears like a donkey. But Old Man Platypus thinks it’s wonderful, calls it Attila the Bun.  Attila the Bun, get it? No, neither do I.

Attila the Bun. Ears like a donkey, but Old Man Platypus reckons he’s wonderful

Anyway, Old Man Platypus is always out in the garden talkin’ to that rabbit, tellin’ him what a fine fellow he is.  Like the rabbit can understand him, I mean rabbits ain’t clever like cats, are they?

An’ every day he gives this Attila a massive pack of fresh food.  I tell you, that rabbit eats like a king … if kings eat carrots an’ kale an’ cabbage an’ cauliflower an’ celery an’ spinach an’ sprouts an’ watercress an’ lettuce an’ beetroot an’ broccoli an’ rocket an’ apples an’ pea shoots an’ pears.  Not to mention mixed leaf salad, whatever that is.

That rabbit eats like a king, but does Old Man Platypus ever give me tuna? NO, NEVER!

So that’s why I don’t come on too friendly with Old Man Platypus, ‘cos he ain’t serious about me.  I mean, if he was serious like, he’d cut back on stuff for that wretched rabbit an’ give me a nice big bowl of tuna.  Or salmon, of course. At a push I’d even put up with cod, but no, even that’s too much trouble for Mr Parsimonious Ratbag Platypus.  Fishfood, that’s the extent of his generosity where yours truly’s concerned. Huh!

Madame Platypus ain’t much better.  Always creepin’ up on me and pointin’ her camera in my face she is, tellin’ me not to move an’ to look straight into the lens an’ to tilt my head on one side so I look extra cute, an’ never, ever to blink. 

I like to hide under trees and bushes, an’ keep a lookout for them Mice-With-Wings

Sometimes her camera lens is clickin’ away like a flamin’ flamenco dancer playing the castanets. How’s a cat supposed to sleep with all that goin’ on? I tell you, if I had any credit left on my cell phone I’d ring up the cops an’ get her arrested for disturbin’ the peace.

OK, I admit it, she said I could have some of her photos for this blog.  Good job too, means you can see what a fine lookin’ feline I am, most ‘andsome mouser in the neighbourhood.  So Madame Platypus has her uses, only don’t tell her I said so. I mean, we wouldn’t want gettin’ above herself, would we?

One day I climbed on the special table where Old Man Platypus feeds them Mice-With-Wings

An’ to be fair – me, I’m always fair, of course I am – Old Man Platypus has his uses too.  He likes watchin’ them Mice-With-Wings, puts out food for ‘em on a special table, even has a water bath for ‘em. 

Here I am on a bad hair day, drinkin’ from them Mice-With-Wings’ water bath

Typical, ain’t it, food’n’drink for his little feathered friends, and nothin’ for yours truly. But I forgive him ‘cos I loves drinkin’ from that water bath, I do.  On a good day you can taste ‘em in the water, them Mice-With-Wings!

Old Man Platypus don’t do much gardenin’, says he’s got a bad back, but really it’s just ‘cos he’s an idle bugger.  So, ‘cos he don’t cut back the bushes there’s places for me to hide an’ watch the Mice-With-Wings.  Luck me, eh?

Sittin’ on the water bath, watchin’ out for Mice-With-Wings

I caught one once I did, big as a rat it was, more like a Rat-With-Wings.  I tell you, there was feathers everywhere. Tasted OK too, though ‘cos I’m a cosmopolitan kinda cat I prefers tuna.  But that day I felt real great, goin’ back to my roots, showin’ the world just how it’s done. Milky Bar, King of the Urban Jungle, that’s me. 

I’m the King of the Urban Jungle. Here I am, roaring (or maybe yawning?)

Anyway, I’m gonna stop now.  This bloggin’ business is hard work, so I needs a snooze.  An’ some tuna. Are you gettin’ this Old Man Platypus, do I have to spell it out, I needs tuna.  That’s right, T-U-N-A … TUNA!

An’ I needs it now, so be a good chap an’ nip down to the shop an’ buy me some.  About a dozen cans should do nicely. Until next week, that is.

Here I am, the most ‘andsome mouser in the neighbourhood. I’m very modest too. An’ I LOVE tuna!

Postscript: If you’ve enjoyed The World Accordin’ to Milky Bar, please click on “comment” and tell Old Man Platypus. If enough people tell him they like what I’ve written maybe he’ll let me have another go! With love from your new Best Friend Forever, the cat what always gets the cream (but never any tuna), the one and only Milky Bar. 😺

And now, a message from Old Man Platypus: Milky Bar isn’t the first cat to claim ownership of our garden, although he is the rudest. Old Man Platypus indeed! Click on the link below to find out about Sid, a much politer cat who used to visit.

Museums ain’t what they used to be

Museums ain’t what they used to be.  When I was a lad, back in the days when the UK had only had two television channels (both black-and-white) and England were good at soccer, museums were vehicles of the establishment.  They celebrated the political, military, architectural and cultural achievements of the great and the good. The lives of ordinary folk like me and my family never got a look in, but that was OK because we knew our place.

Trams and buses trundle Beamish’s cobbled streets

All that’s changed now.  Society recognises that, regardless of our backgrounds, every one of us has been on a journey and has a story to tell.  Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham reflects this more inclusive approach. It is a “living, working museum that uses its collections to connect with people from all walks of life and tells the story of everyday life in the North East of England.”

Beamish offers snapshots of North-East life in the 1820, 1900s and 1940s, scattered across a 350 acres site.  Its latest project, underway at the time of our visit on our way back from Shetland in late June, is to reconstruct a 1950s town. 

Traditional apothecary / chemist / pharmacy

This is clearly a good thing.  Everything that surrounds us in our lives in 2019 will be history to future generations, and it’s great to see that Beamish Museum is continuing to add to and update its exhibits.  In creating its 1950s exhibit it will reflect a period that, for today’s oldest visitors – including the venerable Platypus Man – is still just within living memory.

Beamish is heavy with the atmosphere of another age.  Electric trams trundle along the cobbled streets of the 1900s exhibit, past historic buildings with period fittings.  Visitors can ride the trams, go into the shops, the dentist’s surgery and the solicitor’s office, and interact with friendly volunteers and staff in period costume. 

You can ride the trams around the Beamish site

There were lots of school groups on site at the time, and Beamish gave them a glimpse of an everyday life they have never experienced.  The sweet shop proved to be particularly popular, with youngsters able to watch confectionery being made the traditional way, and then to buy the resulting produce. 

At the bank they could learn about pounds, shilling and pence, which are part of my DNA but totally alien to today’s young people.  At the Co-Op store they were able to see what shopping was like in the old days of ‘closed access’, when all the goods were kept behind the counter under the custodianship of the eagle-eyed shopkeeper.

Traditional grocery shop

Beamish offers a brilliant, immersive exploration of living history.  Even though some of the youngsters were more interested in their mobile phones than the museum, many more were clearly fascinated by this brief insight into the lost world of their grandparents.

As for me, I had a grand day out and loved every minute of it.  In the immortal words of Arnie ‘Terminator’ Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.” 

The tram shed

Reminiscence is good therapy for old fogeys, so long as we keep a sense of proportion and remember that life back then was, in most ways, much tougher than ours today. 

Bring back the shilling, the sixpence and the threepenny bit, that’s what I say!

Why I’m not a twitcher

Recently I’ve posted several pieces about birds and birding, and I guess the casual reader might have concluded I’m a twitcher.  Nothing could be further from the truth. In day-to-day conversation most people use the words “twitcher” and “birdwatcher” interchangeably, but this is completely wrong.  To be absolutely clear: I’m not, never have been, and never will be a twitcher. Neither is Mrs P. Capiche?

Twitchers may enjoy seeing wild a Eurasian crane, which is bouncing back in the UK after a reintroduction programme

So just what is a twitcher? 

Twitching is … “the pursuit of a previously located rare bird.” …. The term twitcher, sometimes misapplied as a synonym for birder, is reserved for those who travel long distances to see a rare bird that would then be ticked, or counted on a list. … The main goal of twitching is often to accumulate species on one’s lists.

SOURCE: Wikipedia, retrieved 25 August 2019

Twitching is anathema to me. It sounds like a sad and lonely activity undertaken primarily by sad and lonely men who really need to get their priorities in order. 

Sadly, no self-respecting twitcher would give this wood pigeon a second glance

Twitchers appear to care little for the bird itself, but are obsessed by the chase.  For them it’s all about the quarry. Once a particular species has been seen and ticked off in the appropriate book or list they quickly lose interest and move on to the next challenge.  It’s as if by seeing the bird it becomes their property, theirs to log and then ignore as they immediately consign it to history in favour of the next target.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see a rarity, to get the chance to study in the flesh a bird that most birders have only read about.  But it gives me just as much pleasure to spend a quiet moment watching an everyday bird like a wood pigeon or a bullfinch as it does to glimpse a rarity. 

Sex and the City: peregrines mate on a ledge at a local disused cotton mill. Twitchers and peregrines in simultaneous ecstasy?

Even if it’s as common as muck, a bird is still a masterpiece of nature.  Birds are tangible evidence of evolution in action, sculpted from bones and flesh and feathers.  I love nothing more than to marvel at their very existence, to learn about their lives and to enjoy their antics as they go about the everyday business of living.

Twitchers, it seems to me, are doomed to a life of unhappiness: they have never seen enough birds, or the right birds, to bring them the satisfaction they crave.  Mrs P and I, however, live in the moment, enjoying the starling or the sea eagle or whatever else comes our way, taking simple pleasure in the wonder of nature. This to me is what birding should be about, not pursuing a quarry species to the ends of the Earth and then all but forgetting it once it is seen. 

Twitchers, please don’t dismiss the bullfinch just because it’s a common bird

There’s a book in here somewhere, Zen and the Art of Birding Contentment perhaps?  My next project, maybe?

Bempton Cliffs: a tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts

An earlier post described how the bird cliffs at Sumburgh Head were the highlight of an otherwise miserable trip to Shetland.  Getting to Shetland from our home at Platypus Towers was a bit of a pain. The journey involved a drive of over 400 miles, followed by an overnight ferry crossing of around 12 hours. 

When we finally got to Shetland the puffins were great to see, but I do wonder why we bothered given that we have some excellent bird cliffs much closer to home.

Bempton Cliffs in the East Riding of Yorkshire

Bempton Cliffs are little more than 80 miles away from us, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.  This area of the Yorkshire coast hosts England’s largest seabird colony, and the Bempton RSPB reserve lies at its heart.  It’s always worth a visit, as we confirmed on our way back from Shetland in June. It was, to say the least, an eventful end to our long summer break.

So, for the record, here is our tale of gannets, guillemots and gurgling guts:

*

We’ve left Scotland and its miserable weather far behind us, and as we walk out from the RSPB visitor centre on a gloriously sunny day our ears are assaulted by the calls of a thousand birds, and our noses detect the unmistakable aroma of a bustling seabird city.  We watch, transfixed, as squadrons of gannets patrol the towering cliffs, swooping and soaring along the sheer rock face, escorted from time to time by their loyal wing-men, the fulmars.

Squadron leader?

The Bempton area boasts one of the best wildlife spectacles in the UK.  Around half a million seabirds gather here between March and October to lay their eggs and raise their young on towering chalk cliffs overlooking the North Sea.

Gannets bang their beaks together and point them skywards to reaffirm their pair-bond

Within minutes we spot some puffins going about their business.  There are not nearly as many as at Sumburgh Head, nor are the views as intimate.  This is, however, our most successful puffin encounter ever at Bempton, and bodes well for the rest of our visit. 

Solitary puffin watching as the gannets swoop and soar

Bempton boasts sizeable colonies of razorbills and guillemots.  Most cling to the cliff face and are best appreciated through binoculars, but a few come close enough to enjoy with the naked eye.  Some of the razorbills are still sitting on eggs, but others proudly show off their chicks.

Razorbill adult and chick, with kittiwake behind

However, Bempton’s main claim to fame is its gannets.  The cliffs have the largest mainland gannet colony in the UK, boasting some 28,000 birds.  Each gannet jealously guards its own patch of rock, which it has carefully selected so it can just avoid the angry pecks of its neighbours.  Squabbles break out when a bird oversteps the mark and trespasses on a neighbour’s territory.

Gannets on the nest, and a solitary puffin

Meanwhile, other gannets swoop and dive beside the cliffs, and ride the updrafts to hang in the air just feet away from the cliff-top paths.  These are big birds, with a wingspan of over 6 feet, and when seen in large numbers flying along the cliffs or wheeling over the ocean they’re a magnificent sight.  We watch them for a couple of hours, mesmerised by their grace and elegance, and Mrs P is in danger of wearing out the shutter on her camera.

Gannets fills the sky at Bempton Cliffs

A visit to Bempton’s bird cliffs during the breeding season is a life-affirming and restorative experience.  It’s been a great day, and we round it off with dinner at a modest hostelry close to where we are staying for the night. I wrap myself around a gammon steak, and Mrs P gets up close and personal with lasagne.

The following morning, however, I awake to a gurgling from Mrs P’s guts loud enough to suggest Cuadrilla has opened a new campaign in its fracking business.  Within minutes a vile dose of food poisoning has set in.

Mrs P turns a whiter shade of pale, and spends an anxious hour locked in the bathroom. Finally she announces she’s fit enough to travel, but she has her fingers crossed as she speaks so we both fear she’s not going to make it back home with her dignity intact.  However, checkout’s at 9:30am, so we have little choice.

The 80 miles drive back to Platypus Towers is, inevitably, a nightmare, and the patient takes about three days to recover from her ordeal.

Mrs P swears she will never eat lasagne again

An unlikely place for birdwatching

Washington, on the outskirts of Sunderland in the north-east of England, seems an unlikely place for a day’s birdwatching. Although Washington Old Hall, the greatly remodelled home of George Washington’s distant ancestor William de Wessyngton, is nearby, the area is best known for its heavy industry. The coal and chemical industries were both big business hereabouts, and although these are long-gone a variety of other industries have taken their place.

Goldfinch

Who on earth would choose to put a bird reserve here, in such an unnatural and unpromising landscape?

The answer is, of course, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), and good for them. It must have been a brave move at the time (the 1970s), but it was a stroke of genius.

Greater Spotted Woodpecker

Like other WWT sites, Washington Wetland Centre combines managed habitats for wild birds and displays of captive birds, most of which are part of conservation-driven breeding programmes. There is a strong emphasis on learning and education, with the Centre giving many local children their first close contact with the natural world.

There’s also a Field of Dreams element to this bird reserve: build it and they will come. However improbable it may seem that wildlife could thrive here amongst the industry and urban sprawl, the WWT took the risk and have been richly rewarded. Birds galore and other wildlife – including otters – now call this place home, or drop in for a while during their annual migrations.

Jay

The WWT is a massively important part of our conservation infrastructure. It was instrumental in saving the nene (Hawaiian Goose) from the brink of extinction, and remains at the heart of wetland-focussed conservation projects both in the UK and overseas. Its stated vision is:

We conserve, restore and create wetlands, save wetland wildlife, and inspire everyone to value the amazing things healthy wetlands achieve for people and nature.

Source: WWT website, retrieved 7 October 2019

Mrs P and I are passionate supporters, and life members, of the WWT, so it was a pleasure to drop in at the Washington Wetland Centre on our way back from Scotland earlier this year.

For once the wetland birds were unremarkable as the autumn migration had not yet begun. However there were plenty of other treats to savour, including common terns bringing back beaks full of fish for their youngsters.

Common Tern

We were also thrilled to see a family of Greater Spotted Woodpeckers, and a very confiding jay which jumped manicly between branch and feeder, then back again. Not at all what we’d expected would be the highlights of a visit to a wetland reserve, but great just the same.

Washington Wetland Centre may be an unlikely place for birdwatching, but it definitely delivers the goods. It’s a place we’ll happily continue to visit whenever we’re in the area.

Birdfair: the curse of Glastonbury

My last post was an account our August trip to the Birdfair, an annual three-day celebration of the natural world held on the shores of Rutland Water.  It’s a huge affair, a joyous jamboree with at least a dozen massive marquees and thousands of visitors who park up in the surrounding fields and pastureland before making their way to the site.  At Birdfair a carnival atmosphere reigns … unless, that is, it rains.

Although the rain had stopped, by Saturday morning the ground was saturated and was soon churned to mud

This year we’d noticed for the first time that Birdfair is being styled as the “birders’ Glastonbury.”  Now you can call me an old worry-guts, but I was inclined to think that this is tempting fate given Glastonbury music festival’s uneasy relationship with the rain gods.  And so it proved to be: in the making of this reckless comparison the curse of Glastonbury was duly invoked.

Quagmires soon developed where footfall was greatest

We’ve been to more than 20 Birdfairs, and on the whole have been blessed with good weather.  But all good things come to an end, so it came as no surprise that the forecast for Friday afternoon and evening was dire. 

In these circumstances you hope the weathermen have got it wrong – no surprises to be had there, of course – but this time, regrettably, they were spot on.  The rain set in shortly after midday and got steadily heavier. Soon we were enduring a downpour of biblical proportions. 

When the mud dried on our shoes it turned as hard as concrete

We made a run for it at about 4pm on Friday, back to the comfort of our hotel where, it transpired, television reception was non-existent due to the intensity of the storm. 

I was pleased to get out of the field in which we’d parked without much trouble, but we learned later that folk leaving after us were less fortunate. Many of them had to be pulled out by a tractor, until the tractor got stuck and had to be rescued by another, stronger tractor.  You couldn’t make it up.

The bog-lands of Birdfair

The next day the site was in a wretched state.  Despite the organisers’ best efforts the main pathways were rivers of disgusting mud and slime, interrupted by occasional pools of standing water.  Visitors slipped, slid and paddled between marquees, and the stall selling wellington boots did record business.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Older visitors could be heard belting out the Flanders and Swann classic ‘Mud, mud, glorious mud,’ while one of the less ancient birders treated us to a rendition of Paul Simon’s ‘Slip sliding away.’

Birdfair 2019: a picture paints a thousand words

By Sunday afternoon the mud was turning more glutinous than liquid, and a degree of normality had returned to proceedings.  The foul conditions underfoot didn’t spoil the Birdfair – we Brits are made of sterner stuff – but I fear for next year’s event, lest we once again fall foul of the curse of Glastonbury.