RAM-bling through Derby

Derby is obsessed with rams. The city centre boasts at least three statues featuring rams. The local professional soccer team (Derby County) are nicknamed “The Rams” and have a mascot called Rammie. Derby’s annual half-marathon event was for many years known as the Ramathon. Even the city’s library service, when first introducing public internet computers in the late 1990s, called its new service Cyber-RAM.

Michael Pegler’s millstone sculpture has been a Derby landmark since 1995

This infatuation with rams (male sheep, also known as tups) is captured in a folk song known as The Derby Ram, or alternatively As I was Going to Derby. The story it tells can be traced back at least to the early 18th century. It’s a far-fetched and humorous, if somewhat gory, account of a huge ram taken to Derby market and the challenges townsfolk encountered when processing it for meat.

The song is well known in folk-singing circles in many parts of the English-speaking world. Even George Washington is reputed to have taken time off from thrashing the Brits to belt out his own rendition, although I’m not sure how we know this story is true. Links to a couple of recordings of the song are given at the end of this post.

How this tall tale came to be associated with Derby is unclear. More widely, however, during the Middle Ages rams were regarded as symbols of physical strength and sexual potency. It therefore takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why Derby folk might have been pleased to encourage a legend that linked them with such a feisty and formidable beast.

This statue by Tim Roper dates from 2019, and stands at one of the entrances to the main Derby shopping centre (mall)

The link continues to this day, and is being celebrated during summer 2021 by an arts project called The Derby Ram Trail. Organised by the local Museums Trust, this is a free public art trail comprising 30 ram sculptures vibrantly decorated by a range of artists.

The sculptures are made of lightweight, fire-resistant fibreglass and are based on Michael Pegler’s millstone ram, which has been a Derby landmark for around a quarter of a century. The trail weaves its way through the city centre, and its organisers hope it will “[encourage] local people to explore and enjoy their city from an exciting new perspective.”

Rameses by Judith Berrill

The Derby Ram Trail website explains how the project has been organised:

Businesses across the area were invited to sponsor a blank ram sculpture – the 3D canvas! New and established artists were then invited to submit designs to transform the blank rams with individual artworks. Design ideas were presented to sponsors in January 2020 who each selected their favourite. Successful artists were then commissioned to apply their designs to the sculptures in a wide range of media, both traditional and new, including fine art, illustration, graffiti and mosaic amongst others.

Forming a trail of discovery, the sculptures provide an exceptional, creative opportunity to engage people in important topics – from health and well-being to history and culture, to name a few.

Source: Derby Ram Trail website, retrieved 13 July 2021

For those with good local knowledge, the subject matter of some of the designs has an obvious connection with Derby or the surrounding county of Derbyshire. For example, decorating a ram to reflect artistic fashions current at the time the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses the Great, over 3,000 years ago, isn’t an obvious choice. However, once you understand that generations of local children have been inspired by two ancient Egyptian mummies displayed at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, all becomes clear. Rameses is one of my favourite rams, and the pun’s pretty good, too!

Another striking design with local connections is Royal Ram, inspired by one of Royal Crown Derby’s decorative animal paperweights. Royal Crown Derby pottery is made about a mile south of the city centre, and is sold to appreciative collectors across the world. Local heritage is also recognised in Nurse Nightingale, which honours the life and achievements of pioneering 19th century nurse Florence Nightingale, who was born just a few miles north of Derby. And standing outside the new Museum of Making, housed in the historic Silk Mill building, Derby Industries celebrates the city’s remarkable achievements in science and manufacturing.

Royal Ram by Donna Newman

The significance of For Those About to Rock initially escaped me, until I read on the trail’s website that the piece was inspired by music festivals held annually in Derbyshire, particularly Download and Bloodstock. The website explains that “in the Heavy Metal tradition of battle jackets, the ram is wearing a denim jacket covered in patches which, along with his tattoos, represent significant events and Derbyshire-related subjects.” By way of contrast, Woolly Rammy (a ram in sheep’s clothing) has a more obvious local connection, depicting a ram wearing a Derby-inspired woolly jumper which proudly displays a recognisably local street scene.

For Those about to Rock by Sue Hetfield

Doodle Derby is a bit more whimsical, being “based on all of the awesome things about our city from architecture, culture and outdoor spaces to real ale and how Derby first invented the hotdog! ‘Doodle Derby’ takes you on a tour of all the brilliant things you can do in the city and celebrates a diverse, colourful place of happiness and positivity – an inspiring Derby!” Hmm, hyperbole is alive and well, and living on the Derby Ram Trail website…but what the heck, it raises a smile, and don’t we all need that with Covid infections soaring yet again.

In some cases the connection between Derby and the ram’s design is distinctly tenuous. For example, Derby has no obvious links with pirates (some people claim it to be further from the sea than just about any other English city), but nevertheless Pirate Sheepmate seems to have made himself at home there. I love the parrot on his shoulder. Meanwhile the fierce-looking Rambo seems to be little more than an excuse for fond memories of “Sly” Stallone….and, of course, another groan-inducing pun!

Rambo by Joy Pirkle

Some of the rams are intended to convey a message that has universal relevance, rather than being specific to Derby. Memories Fade but Warmth Remains is perhaps the most obvious and poignant of these. The website explains that the artist “has combined the symbolism of the forget-me-not flower – a flower often associated with dementia – with that of the sunflower, symbolising warmth, deep loyalty and hope. Lynne wanted to create a message about the power of enduring love: that memories can fade but the warmth of the human spirit continues to shine.”

Walking the trail, which at a leisurely pace took us about half a day and included plenty of photo stops (Mrs P took over 400 pictures!), encouraged us to explore parts of the city centre that we’ve never seen before. It also took us past recent developments that are seeking to breathe new life into the place. Plenty of other people were also seeking out the rams, and I suspect were also discovering parts of Derby that were new to them.

Derby Industries by Sanita Gnaniah, with the historic Silk Mill behind

The organisers set out to create a feel-good project, and from my point of view they definitely succeeded. Derby is not an especially attractive city, and has little to recommend it in either architectural or artistic terms. The decorated rams are therefore a welcome – albeit temporary – addition to the urban landscape, and certainly brighten up those parts of the city centre in which they are located.

Doodle Derby by Carla Dee

With one exception – an old guy complaining (wrongly) that the cost of the project would result in his taxes going up – everyone we spoke with seemed to be enjoying the Derby Ram Trail, and found at least some of the artworks to be inspiring and uplifting. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the whole experience was the way the trail encouraged total strangers to talk to each other, and, even more remarkably, got them talking about art! That’s an achievement in which the organisers should take pride.

Memories Fade but Warmth Remains by Lynne Hollingsworth

The sculpture trail will grace the city until 22 August 2021, after which the rams will all be herded together and sold by auction. The proceeds will go to Derby Museums Trust to support the delivery and development of their services, which seems like an appropriate reward for the organisation that was the brains behind the Derby Ram Trail. Moreover, Derby is planning an application to be the UK’s next city of culture, so its heritage and arts organisations need all the funds they can raise. Watch this space!

Mrs P’s collage of rams!

* * * * * * *

Links to recordings of The Derby Ram. The following link is to a version credited to Keith Kendrick, Pete Castle, Roy Harris and Derrick Hale. I’m not familiar with them, but must be from hereabouts as they’re singing it in a Derby/Derbyshire accent, which although quite distinctive is barely recognised outside the area. You don’t hear the accent so much these days, so it’s good to have fragments of it preserved here.

The YouTube video includes the lyrics. As with all folksongs the words to The Derby Ram have mutated over the generations, and this version is a case in point. The mention of the Baseball Ground (at around two-and-a-half minutes into the song) references Derby County’s home soccer ground between 1895 and 1997. It could never have appeared in the original, traditional (18th century) version of this song, and doesn’t belong in 21st century versions either.

While Keith Kendrick et al sing The Derby Ram unaccompanied, most recorded versions feature instruments as well as voices. If a capella and the Derby/Derbyshire accent are not your thing, the following version by Barry Dransfield may suit you better. Dransfield, who hails from Yorkshire, sings somewhat different lyrics, and plays a mean, mean fiddle! Enjoy!

In Sherwood Forest (Robin Hood and nudists nowhere to be seen!)

Sherwood Forest once covered about a quarter of the historic county of Nottinghamshire, an area of around 7,800 hectares (19,000 acres). Today it’s a shadow of its former self, the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve weighing in at a measly 423 hectares (1,046 acres). And yet the magic lives on, courtesy of the legend of Robin Hood, hundreds of ancient oak trees and a few wandering nudists. Sounded like a fascinating place to visit, so we decided to give it a go.

Welcome to Sherwood, today just a fragment of a once vast forest in the English Midlands

In medieval times kings and their retinues of noble cronies hunted in Sherwood Forest, chasing down the buck and the boar and whatever else took their fancy. They lived the good life, with no regard for the pains and hardships of the poor. Ordinary people needed someone to fight their cause, and in Robin Hood they found just the man.

The Robin Hood story first emerged in the thirteenth century CE. Legend has it that Hood and his gang of outlaws hid out in Sherwood Forest, emerging from time to time to defend the rights of common folk, robbing from the rich and giving the proceeds to the poor, and all the while teaching the nobles a few much-needed lessons.

The Major Oak, the king of all Sherwood’s trees, is believed to be between 800 and 1,100 years old

As is inevitable with any oral tradition the legend of Robin Hood was embellished over the centuries, courtesy of the vivid imaginations of countless storytellers, poets and balladeers. Hard evidence of the famous folk hero’s actual existence is impossible to find, but that doesn’t really matter.

As a species, we humans call superheroes into existence because we need them to exist. The Robin Hood story emerged and flourished because our downtrodden ancestors desperately needed to believe that someone was looking out for them, and that their oppressors would be held to account.

Mrs P once hid in the Major Oak’s gnarled and fissured trunk. Sacrilege like that isn’t allowed these days!

Robin Hood is part of English national consciousness, a cultural icon. He’s been portrayed countless times on both the big and small screens, played by stars as diverse as Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner and Kermit the Frog. The remakes and reinterpretations keep on coming, each generation retelling the story in its own way, and although there was no sign of him when we visited Sherwood Forest last month, Hood’s spirit lives on.

Also surviving in Sherwood Forest is a magnificent collection of ancient oak trees, many of them dating from the time when the Robin Hood legend first emerged. King of them all is the Major Oak, which is estimated at between 800 and 1,100 years old. Surprisingly the name doesn’t relate to its size and great age but instead references Major Heyman Rooke, who in 1790 wrote a book detailing his local oak trees.

When Mrs P was growing up (I’ll not say exactly when, but we’re talking several decades ago!) it was possible to walk right up to the Major Oak, to touch it and even to play hide-and-seek in and around it. Sadly those days are gone. Today admirers are kept at a respectful distance by picket fencing, thus preventing soil compaction which would damage the tree’s roots.

This magnificent Red Admiral brought a vibrant splash of colour to the greenwood

Since the 1970s the massive boughs of the Major Oak have been propped, another precautionary measure to help protect Sherwood Forest’s most venerable resident. Plainly the tree is in the twilight of its life, but looks in surprisingly good shape for its age. A bit like me, I suppose!

Some of the other trees are not faring so well. Rotten Roger has clearly seen better days, but a nearby notice (text reproduced below) wittily explains that decaying trees like this play a vital part in Sherwood’s ecosystem.

Rotten Roger has clearly seen better days

Oooh, I’m rotten to the core, just like my namesake. [Rotten Roger] was a nasty outlaw, a spy for the Sheriff, who was caught and locked inside my trunk by Robin Hood. Now I’m rotting from the inside out, but don’t be alarmed, it’s all part of my natural cycle. When a crack appears in an old tree like me, fungi creeps in and begins to rot away my heartwood. This rotting wood is great for beetles, flies and lots of other insects…not good for outlaws though. So although I may be a little heartless, I’m much loved by all these little creatures.

The leafy trails through the Sherwood Forest Nature Reserve are wonderfully atmospheric, not least for the symphony of birdsong that echoes all around, and the butterflies that bring extra colour to the greenwood. Birdsong and butterflies are not unexpected in a place like this, but nudists are. The official Sherwood Forest website warns that there is a long history of nudists – or naturists, as I believe they prefer to be called – wandering the forest trails.

Now I’m a broadminded soul and have no problem with my fellow citizens letting it all hang out wherever the fancy takes them, but common sense tells me this behaviour may be unwise. Thickets of briars and patches of stinging nettles hidden round every corner are an obvious hazard, to say nothing of columns of marching ants and the occasional random hedgehog lurking in the undergrowth. Nudism has its place, but I humbly submit that Sherwood Forest may not be it.

Its roots protected by fencing and its boughs supported by props, the Major Oak should still be here many years from now

When we visited the nudists were nowhere to be seen, or perhaps they were simply off somewhere nursing their injuries? Never mind, their presence or absence is of no consequence. Sherwood Forest is a majestic, tranquil haven where nature is protected and allowed to flourish, a place etched into our country’s folklore through the tales of Robin Hood and his merry band of outlaws. It’s well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area.

And finally, because it’s my ambition to share my taste in folk music with a wider audience, I invite you to listen to Barry Dransfield singing about Robin Hood and the Pedlar. The song, which can be traced back over 100 years, tells how our hero and his merry sidekick Little John encounter a pedlar, one Gamble Gold by name, and plot to rob him. A fight breaks out, but then it’s revealed that Mr Gold is in fact Robin Hood’s cousin. At this point they all adjourn to the nearest pub to sup some ale and get even merrier. Fanciful stuff, a bit cheesy I suppose. But nevertheless Robin Hood and the Pedlar is a lot of fun, and Dransfield puts in some lively guitar work for us to admire. Enjoy!

Postscript: If ancient trees are your thing you may be interested in this post about the Old Man of Calke, another majestic oak believed to be around 1,200 years old.

An extraordinary woman – introducing Anne Lister of Shibden Hall

Ever since the first series of Gentleman Jack aired in 2019 we’d been planning to visit Shibden Hall, near Halifax in West Yorkshire, where the BBC / HBO television drama was filmed. With Covid restrictions eased we finally made it there earlier this month, in search of the ghost of Anne Lister. We were not disappointed.

The core of Shibden Hall dates to around 1420. Subsequently there have been multiple extensions and alterations, many masterminded by Anne Lister.

Anne Lister (1791-1840), referred to contemptuously by her contemporaries as Gentleman Jack, inherited Shibden Hall in 1826. By the time of her death in 1840 she had left an indelible mark on it, and on LGBTQ history in the UK.

Portrait of Anne Lister, attributed to Joshua Horner (1812-1881). It hangs in the central hall (the “Housebody”) at Shibden.

Her diaries, written between 1806 and 1840, are now reckoned to amount to more than five million words, spread across 7,722 pages. They – together with numerous letters, account books and other papers – are a goldmine for historians and writers seeking a better understanding of life in early nineteenth century Yorkshire.

The diaries show Anne Lister to be a complex, unconventional woman who refused to be bound by society’s expectations of a wealthy young lady. She dressed like a man and wore only black, managed her estate tenaciously, and carved out a place for herself in the male-dominated coalmining industry that flourished around Halifax, her local town.

Anne Lister’s life at Shibden is marked by a blue plaque

Around one sixth of the diary entries are recorded in a baffling code devised by Lister herself. Employing a combination of symbols, numbers and Greek letters, she called it her crypt-hand. The secret text shows her to have been a self-confident lesbian who was determined to defy the social conventions of the day in order to live life and pursue relationships according to her own instincts and needs.

I love and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved of them in turn, my heart revolts from any love other than theirs.

Anne Lister’s Diary, 19th January 1821

Shibden Hall dates from 1420. It began as a timber-framed manor house, and first came into the possession of the Lister family in the early 17th century. The Hall’s current appearance owes much to Anne Lister, who set about redesigning and adding to it in the mid-1830s.

The “Housebody” was where meals were eaten, visitors received and business deals completed. Anne Lister was responsible for installing the new staircase and gallery.

Under Lister’s direction a new three-storey Gothic tower, complete with library and modern water closets, was added to the west side of the original Hall. She also added an eastern wing including dressing rooms, a new kitchen and accommodation for staff. In Shibden’s central hall (the “Housebody”) she set out to impress by removing the Tudor ceiling and adding a gallery, a new staircase, a Victorian mock-Tudor fireplace and wooden panelling, all to re-create the effect of a medieval manor hall.

Taken as a whole the changes were intended to make Shibden a grander, more imposing building which would better demonstrate the Lister family’s wealth and status. In doing so Anne Lister projected an image of comfortable social respectability, while simultaneously creating a secluded space where she could pursue her sexual liaisons away from scrutiny by the repressive, male-dominated society in which she moved.

The Study

She had a series of female lovers, and one of them – Ann Walker (1803-1854) – would eventually become her live-in partner at the Hall. The couple secretly exchanged rings and took holy communion together at a local parish church on 10 February 1834. Although their union had no legal status, they considered themselves to be married.

Oh women, women! I am always taken up with some girl or other.

Anne Lister’s Diary, 18th June 1824

Ann Walker was not the true love of Anne Lister’s life – that title would have gone to Marianna Belcombe, who broke Lister’s heart when she married a wealthy male landowner (“The time, the manner, of her marriage,” Lister wrote in 1823, “Oh, how it broke the magic of my faith forever.”) However, some years later, Ann Walker – the wealthy heiress of a neighbouring estate – offered her the chance of a new beginning in a stable relationship, with the added bonus of access to the large fortune she had inherited.

Promotional material relating to the Gentleman Jack drama series, displayed in the main entrance to the Hall. Lister (right, in the top hat) was brilliantly portrayed by Suranne Jones. In the poster on the left she has her arms round Ann Walker, played by Sophie Rundle

Anne Lister’s ambitious renovations and extensions to Shibden Hall would have been largely unachievable were it not for her wife’s inheritance. In that sense, the Shibden Hall that we see today is – albeit by default – almost as much Ann Walker’s doing as it is Anne Lister’s.

To be honest, while being an interesting and enjoyable place to visit, Shibden Hall itself is far from exceptional. England boasts dozens of other buildings on a similar scale and of a similar vintage. Taken as a whole the Hall lacks architectural coherence, and presents instead as a messy hotchpotch of architectural styles and borrowed motifs. What makes Shibden Hall truly fascinating, however, is the story of the extraordinary woman who lived there in the first half of the nineteenth century.

To learn more about Anne Lister I thoroughly recommend watching Gentleman Jack if you haven’t already done so. Series 2, much delayed by the combined impact of Covid and the pregnancy of a key member of the cast, is nearing completion (a week’s filming at Shibden is scheduled later this month), and when it is broadcast, re-runs of the highly acclaimed first series can be confidently predicted.

On the left the Gothic tower, one of the many additions and changes to Shibden that Anne Lister commissioned

If this post has aroused your curiosity about Anne Lister, Calderdale Council – which now runs Shibden Hall as a museum and visitor attraction – has published an informative video about her on YouTube. Presented by Helena Walker, who successfully decoded Lister’s secret diaries in the 1980s, it provides many more tantalising insights into Lister’s life both before and after her move to Shibden Hall in 1826, as well as her death in 1840 following an insect bite she received near Tbilisi at the foot of the Caucasian mountains.

And finally, I’d like to share a link to the Gentleman Jack theme tune. Regular readers of this blog will know that I enjoy folk music, and this song, written and performed by Belinda O’Hooley and her wife Heidi Tidow, is just the sort of thing I like. The folk duo wrote it to honour and celebrate the life of Anne Lister. Some time later the writer of the television series heard them perform it at a gig and decided it would perfectly complement her drama. The rest, as they say, is history. The YouTube video includes the song’s lyrics, making it possible to appreciate just how well Belinda and Heidi captured Anne Lister’s story. Enjoy!

Kedleston Hall – A walk in the park (no peasants allowed!)

Our county of Derbyshire has many exceptional stately homes, where ordinary folk like me can catch a glimpse of what life was like for the English super-rich before inheritance taxes prompted them to modify their extravagant lifestyles. Kedleston Hall, an 18th century Palladian and Neoclassical masterpiece now managed on behalf of us all by the National Trust, isn’t the most famous of these, but it’s definitely one of my favourites.

Rear of Kedleston Hall viewed from the Long Walk, with the C12th All Saints Church to the left. Note also the ha-ha, which is invisible from the Hall and stops wandering sheep getting too close.

Of course, when you’re obscenely rich, conspicuous consumption doesn’t have to end with your palatial mansion – when you’ve spent as much as bad taste will allow on alabaster, marble and gold leaf, you can always throw more of your wealth at the rest of the estate. Kedleston is a case in point. As you wander through the magnificent parkland in which the Hall sits, it’s easy to forget that this is an entirely man-made landscape.

Trees have been selected and positioned to add to the visual appeal of the parkland. The sheep help too!

Kedleston is the ancestral home of the Curzon family, who have lived in the area since the 12th century. Between 1759 and 1775, Nathaniel Curzon, 1st Baron Scarsdale (1726-1804) commissioned renowned Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) to design an opulent new mansion, flanked to the south and west by an elegant formal garden of trees and shrubs. Surrounding the Hall and garden, and separated from them by a ha ha – a sunken wall which was invisible from within and intended to keep livestock out – was a landscape comprising some 800 acres (324 hectares) of rolling, naturalised parkland.

Robert Adam’s fine three-arched bridge, one of the highlights of Kedleston’s parkland

Once there was a small village at the centre of the estate, clustered around the C12th All Saints Church. However in 1759, as was the custom of the time, the villagers were all evicted to ensure that Baron Scarsdale could go about his daily business on the estate without any danger of coming into contact with representatives of ‘the great unwashed.’

An idyllic landscape, now managed on behalf of the nation by the National Trust

The peasantry having been removed, it was time to set about taming the landscape. Adam put the stream that traverses the estate to good use, moving mountains of earth to create a series of scenic lakes and cascades. To cross the stream he built a fine three-arched bridge, and this remains one of Kedleston’s most impressive features. Other structures to adorn the parkland include a bath-house and a fishing pavilion, although several temples and follies proposed by Adam were never completed.

One of the civil engineering works required to create and manage Kedleston’s lakes

Robert Adam wanted his creation to be enjoyed from all angles, and to this end he designed the Long Walk, a winding three mile circuit through the estate, with views of the rear of the Hall and across the parkland.  It was this walk that Mrs P and I embarked upon a few weeks ago.

The bath-house, designed by Robert Adam

The sun was shining, the birds were singing, lambs frolicked playfully under the watchful eyes of their mothers, and the vistas offered by the Long Walk were uniformly pleasing. After long months confined to our own modest house and garden by the Covid restrictions it was great to escape its confines and to enjoy the wide open spaces that the Kedleston estate offers.

Aaah, cute!

Robert Adam was without doubt a genius: both the Hall (which I shall write about in a future post) and the parkland lift the spirits enormously. But if you ever visit Kedleston do spare a thought for the local peasantry, who lost their homes so that this magical place could be created as an exclusive pleasure ground for Baron Scarsdale and his idle-rich buddies!

The magic of bluebells

I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at.  I know the beauty of our Lord by itGerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899)

The celebrated English Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins clearly loved his bluebells. We do too, and one of our treats every spring is to seek out some local bluebell woods where we can enjoy them in all their majesty. That wasn’t possible in 2020 due to the Covid restrictions, so this year, as soon as government rules and the weather conditions permitted, we made a beeline for the gardens at Renishaw Hall. We weren’t disappointed! 

Renishaw Hall and Gardens can be found in the north-east corner of our home county of Derbyshire. I wrote briefly about their history in this post last year. Renishaw is famed for its stunning formal gardens, laid out in 1895 by Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943) in the classical Italianate style. However, wonderful though these are, it is the bluebell-rich woodland that is our favourite springtime feature at Renishaw. It’s an area known as Broxhill Wood, although on a map of the estate dating from the 18th century it’s referred to as the Little Old Orchard.

With their drooping habit and deep violet-blue colouring, bluebells are distinctive residents of woodlands throughout the length and breadth of the country. They go under various evocative names including Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap, Witches’ Thimbles, Wood Bell and Bell Bottle.

They’re also referred to as the English Bluebell to distinguish them from the Spanish variety, which is available to buy from garden centres. The two species are subtly different: Spanish bluebells grow upright, with the flowers all around the stem, not drooping to one side like the English version. The Spanish species is a more vigorous plant, and may constitute a long-term threat to our more delicate native flower by out-competing or hybridising with it.

Bluebells are found all across Britain except Shetland, and although they’re also present in Western Europe the UK accounts for around half the world’s population of this beautiful bulb. Woodlands carpeted by masses of bluebells are magical features of the British countryside in late April and May, and have inspired generations of poets and writers. Here’s what the author Graham Joyce (1954-2014) had to say about them: 

The bluebells made such a pool that the earth had become like water, and all the trees and bushes seemed to have grown out of the water. And the sky above seemed to have fallen down on to the earth floor; and I didn’t know if the sky was the earth or the earth was water. I had been turned upside down. I had to hold the rock with my fingernails to stop me falling into the sky of the earth or the water of the sky. But I couldn’t hold on.

As Graham Joyce implies, bluebells are a bold, unmistakable presence in the British landscape, so it’s no surprise that a rich folklore has grown up around them. Bluebell woods are believed to be enchanted, fairies using them to lure unwary travellers into their nether world and trap them there. The bells are said to ring out when fairies summon their kin to a gathering, but if humans hear them death will surely follow. And, of course, fairies are by their nature capricious beings, so when you visit a bluebell wood it’s best not to trample on any of their precious blooms. You have been warned!

On a slightly different note, folk tradition has it that wearing a garland of bluebells will induce you to speak only the truth. This, of course, is why you will never see a politician bedecked with bluebells.

Our ancestors found various practical applications for bluebells. Their sticky sap was once used in bookbinding because it would repel attacks by insects, and in early times it was also used to glue the feathers onto the shaft of an arrow. Herbalists prescribed bluebells to help prevent nightmares, and as a treatment for snakebites and leprosy – perhaps a somewhat misguided course of action, given that the plant is poisonous.

The bluebell is traditionally associated with St George, England’s patron saint, probably because it starts to bloom around his feast day on 23rd April. In reality, the flower’s connection with England is much stronger than that of George himself. Bluebells have been found throughout the country at least since the last ice age, whereas the celebrated saint never actually visited these shores (the historical St George was born in Turkey in the late 3rd century CE, and died in Palestine in 303 CE.) 

The connection between St George and bluebells may be somewhat tenuous, but the popularity of the flower here is beyond dispute. In a 2002 national survey organised by the charity Plantlife, the bluebell was voted Britain’s favourite flower. So overwhelming was its victory that voting for bluebells was banned in a repeat of the research in 2004.

The popularity of bluebells is such that they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). This prohibits anyone digging up the plant or bulb from the countryside, and landowners are similarly prevented from removing bluebells from their private land with a view to selling them. Trading in wild bluebell bulbs and seeds is an offence.

Bluebells are an enchanting, iconic part of the British countryside at springtime, and have clearly captured our collective imagination.  To put it crudely, we Brits just can’t get enough bluebells. Let’s give Anne Brontë (1820-1849), the notable Victorian novelist and poet, the final word on their very special charms:

The Bluebell

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power. 

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

Hidden history: the decline and fall of Cromford Canal

History is all around us, but you have to know where to look. Some relics of Derbyshire’s past are easy to spot: the monumental cotton mills, for example, now derelict or re-purposed, are remnants of the time when this area was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution. And as you drive around the county you pass countless pit head winding wheels, preserved and brightly painted as proud reminders of a coal mining industry that once dominated the local economy.

Starvehim Valley Bridge, built 1792, a crossing point over the old Cromford Canal

But other aspects of our history are tucked away, hidden from view. Mrs P spent her teenage years in a village close to where we now live, and enjoyed walking along a nearby section of the abandoned Cromford Canal. However, although I’ve lived around here for almost 40 years, I was totally unaware that this relic of Derbyshire’s industrial past was within a short drive of home. So, when lockdown finally eased a few weeks ago, Mrs P suggested we check it out.

Cromford Canal was completed in 1794, built by prominent local industrialists William Jessop and Benjamin Outram to facilitate the easy transportation of coal, limestone, lead, iron ore and spun cotton. It ran for around 14 miles (23 km) from Cromford to Langley Mill, and included the impressive Butterley Tunnel burrowing over 3,000 yards (2,800 metres) through the Derbyshire hills. At Langley Mill it joined up with the Erewash and Nottingham Canals, which provided connectivity with the rest of the national waterways network.

Here the Cromford Canal has become shallow over the centuries (note the recent stepping stones!)

For a few decades Cromford Canal was busy: in 1802 over 150,000 tons (152,000 tonnes) of freight was carried, rising to nearly 300,000 tons (305,000 tonnes) by 1842. However, by the second half of the nineteenth century, competition from railways was taking its toll. This novel way of moving freight around the country was faster, cheaper and more reliable than the waterways network. By 1888 Cromford Canal’s annual trade had fallen to just 45,000 tons (46,000 tonnes).

With canal business in decline, maintenance of the infrastructure was an expense that was increasingly difficult to justify. When subsidence closed the Butterley Tunnel in 1899, Cromford Canal’s days were clearly numbered.

Here the canal is a little wider, but still very shallow. Note the reads and rushes blocking it on the left

On this occasion the Tunnel was repaired, but further subsidence in 1900 led to its permanent closure. Those parts of the canal that remained operable and connected to the national waterways network limped on until 1944, when most of it was abandoned. By 1962, Cromford Canal was dead.

Two hundred years ago Cromford Canal resounded to the cries of men urging on the heavy horses that plodded along the towpath, dragging behind them barges laden with the materials and products that shaped the Industrial Revolution. It was a hive of noisy, boisterous activity. But time has moved on, and tranquillity has descended again on this once frantic corner of Derbyshire. Today the great age of canals is just a distant, faded memory.

Another view of the Starvehim Valley Bridge, which was built by famed local industrialists William Jessop and Benjamin Outram.

In 2021 the line of the old canal is a great place for a walk, but no place to take a boat. Large stretches are now filled in, and where water remains it’s mostly clogged with vegetation, mud and silt. Cromford Canal is a haven for wildlife and a welcome change of scenery for recreational walkers, but serves no other significant purpose.

Perhaps the most surprising part of our walk was the Starvehim Valley Bridge. Built from local stone in 1792 as a crossing point on the new canal, it’s now in the care of Historic England and protected by law (Grade II Listed). Luckily a very short stretch of canal either side of the bridge still contains water, adding to its visual appeal. Hidden and little known, Starvehim Valley Bridge is wonderfully picturesque, and serves as a compelling memorial to the decline and fall of Derbyshire’s Cromford Canal.

Decline and fall: here the Cromford Canal has been entirely swallowed up by mud, silt and vegetation

Sutton Scarsdale Hall: a sad monument to extravagance and greed

Set high on a hilltop, the ruins of Sutton Scarsdale Hall loom over the M1 motorway as it carves its way through the broad valley below. Once this was an imposing Georgian mansion, one of the grandest houses in our home county of Derbyshire. It was built between 1724 and 1729 by Nicholas Leke, the 4th Earl of Scarsdale, in an ostentatious statement of his wealth and power. But today it’s a roofless, crumbling shell, a monument to extravagance and greed.

The decrepit state of the Hall today is a sad metaphor for the state of the Earl’s finances at the end of his life. The Sutton Scarsdale project was too ambitious, Leke’s finances simply not up to the job. Building Sutton Scarsdale Hall ruined him.

The 4th Earl of Scarsdale had no legitimate heirs, and following his death in 1736 the Hall was sold. In the decades that followed the building passed through various owners, but they never truly loved it in the way Nicholas Leke would have wished.

The final indignity came in 1919 when the Hall was sold to a company of asset strippers. They quickly reduced the once grand mansion to a dilapidated shell, with many of its finely decorated rooms being sold as architectural salvage by purchasers interested only in making a fast buck. However, some of the rooms still exist, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic. Three original interiors are displayed at the Museum of Art in Philadelphia; click here to see one of them in all its glory on the Museum’s website.

A visit to Sutton Scarsdale Hall today offers tantalising glimpses of Nicholas Leke’s vision. The eastern façade is particularly grand and features at its centre four towering, attached Corinthian columns topped with a triangular central pediment. It’s said that remnants of the fine internal plasterwork are still visible in some of the principal rooms, but when we were there we couldn’t get close enough to see – entry to the ruins is prevented by sturdy Heras fencing, presumably intended to protect visitors from falling masonry.

Adjacent to the Hall, and in much better shape, is the medieval Church of St Mary. Dating from the 14th century it’s still used for Sunday services, although how many worshippers attend them in such an isolated location is unclear. Doubtless the church was much busier during the Hall’s heyday a couple of centuries ago, before the rot set in.

Sutton Scarsdale Hall is now in the ownership of English Heritage, a government conservation agency. The aim is to stabilise the ruins, protecting what remains and render the building safe to visit. Reconstruction, however, is out of the question. For this once grand mansion, the glory days are over and will never return.

Swan Lake lives up to its name

Straw’s Bridge Nature Reserve in Derbyshire is known to the locals as Swan Lake, and with good reason. Although both a Canada goose and a mute swan appear on its signage, there’s no question which is the top bird…and it’s not the goose! When we were last here the star attraction was a pair of mandarin ducks. Sadly they were nowhere to be seen this time, but mute swans were out and about in large numbers.

Families were also out in force, many clutching loaves of sliced bread to share with their feathered friends. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. Bread is not appropriate food for waterfowl and is definitely not recommended for swans (although the local brown rat population loves it!) On the other hand, it’s great to see people getting up close and personal with swans, and introducing their children to these magnificent creatures.

There are around 6,000 breeding pairs of mute swans in the UK, and numbers rise to around 70,000 individuals in the winter when migrants arrive from the continent in search of better weather. They are impressive birds. With a wingspan of up to 2.4 metres (nearly 8 feet) and weighing in at almost 12 kilos (26 pounds) they are the largest of the UK’s wildfowl, a formidable presence on rivers, lakes and ponds all over the country. But they come with a health warning: as a kid I was often on the receiving end of the dire predictions about what they would do to me given half a chance: don’t get too close, worried adults would caution, that swan’ll break your arm in an instant.

Of course I know now that this was a gross exaggeration, and a terrible slur on a wonderful bird. Sometimes they’d hiss a bit if I got too close to a nest of chicks, but the swans I encountered never resorted to violence. For the most part they seemed like improbable, gentle giants and I was a little bit in awe of them. I am still, I guess, and look forward to revisiting Swan Lake in a few weeks time when some newly hatched cygnets should be on show.

Footnote on the quirky history of English swans (aka Swan Upping)

In medieval England swans were a highly prized menu item at banquets hosted by the nobility, and as such were a valued status symbol for those able to serve them up. Reflecting this cherished position, every mute swan in England was deemed to be the property of a major local landowner, each of whom gave the swans in their ownership a unique pattern of marks on the beak.

Beginning in the 12th century, an annual Swan-Upping exercise was carried out to manage the ownership of wild, free-flying birds. Adult mute swans and their new cygnets would be captured. The adults’ beaks would be examined for marks of ownership, and their cygnets given similar marks.  Any unmarked adult swans would be claimed by the Crown.

Of course the monarch, as chief amongst the nobles, had a particular interest in the management of mute swans. This interest is illustrated by the royal Christmas festivities of 1251, when King Henry III served up 125 birds (around 1 ton, or 1,000 kilos, of swan flesh) to his cronies. To ensure a steady and sufficient supply of this avian delicacy the Crown claimed ownership of mute swans on certain stretches of the River Thames and its surrounding tributaries.

By the 15th century the monarch was sharing ownership of swans on ‘his’ stretch of the Thames with the Vintners’ and Dyers’ Companies, two London-based medieval trade organisations. During the Swan Upping ceremony the Worshipful Company of Dyers would mark their swans with a nick on one side of the beak, with the Worshipful Company of Vintners marking theirs with a nick on each side. The swans belonging to the Crown were unmarked. 

Although swans are now protected by law and eating them is strictly forbidden, the quaint and archaic ritual of Swan Upping has been reinvented to help support the conservation of swans. This fascinating YouTube video, featuring Her Majesty the Queen’s very own official Swan Marker, explains more. You just couldn’t make it up!

Escape to the country

Last week, after three long, weary months, the government lifted its “Stay at Home” Covid instruction. We quickly decided to escape to the country for a few hours. The weather was unusually warm for the time of year and we expected to find the car parks at Carsington Water overflowing with ecstatic visitors making the most of their first day of freedom in 2021. As it happened numbers were modest, ensuring our visit was a good deal more tranquil than we’d feared.

Canada geese grazing next to the reservoir

Carsington Water is the ninth biggest reservoir in England. It was formally opened in 1992 after what can only be described as an eventful construction: in 1983 four workers tragically died, asphyxiated while working in a 16 foot (5 metre) surface drain, and a year later part of the dam wall collapsed. Nearly 30 years on, however, the reservoir has been seamlessly integrated into the Derbyshire landscape and is a popular centre for a range of recreational activities, including walking, cycling, fishing, sailing and canoeing. With a good proportion of Carsington Water designated as a nature reserve, it is also a favourite spot to watch birds.

Great tit

In our experience rarities are rare at Carsington! However this isn’t a problem for us: we are not twitchers and have never been motivated by the desire to “tick off” rarities. All birds, whether uncommon or not, are wonderful and worthy of attention. Even Canada geese!

Robin

Inevitably, Canada geese were liberally scattered throughout the reserve last week, some floating serenely on the water, others grazing greedily on the meadows adjoining the reservoir, and a few honking noisily as they flew overhead in search of pastures new. You can be sure of getting your fill of Canada geese on any visit to Carsington. Not to mention mallards, coot and black-headed gulls!

An unexpected nuthatch

Although Carsington Water is an obvious spot for watching water birds, on this occasion some of the best action was on and around one of the feeding stations. Great tits and robins were the most frequent visitors, and a nuthatch the most unexpected.

Primulas prove that spring has sprung

The woodland in which the feeding station is situated was dotted with primulas, evidence that spring has well and truly sprung. And mindful, no doubt, that Easter was fast approaching a rabbit put in a brief appearance, while at one point a vole scurried across our path, way too fast to be photographed. Again, nothing exceptional here, but all such welcome sights after thirteen weeks of lockdown.

One of Carsington Water’s very own Easter bunnies

We’re fortunate that Carsington Water is just a few miles from our home town, and now Covid restrictions are being relaxed we’ll be escaping to this part of the country regularly to sample once again the joys of birding on our local patch. After all, a man just cannot see too many Canada geese!

* * *

POSTSCRIPT, Tuesday 6 April, 2pm. Having written this post over the weekend, this morning we made a return trip to Carsington Water and were thrilled to spot no fewer than 16 swallows, newly returned from Africa, wheeling and whizzing over the water. It’s official then, spring really is here!

The very best thing about being retired

Exactly three years ago today, on 31 March 2018, I trudged out of the office for the last time, bade farewell to the world of work and joined the ranks of the retired. Technically I was made redundant, my post deleted as part of yet another local government cost-cutting exercise. But since the manager who designed the restructuring exercise was me I could have no complaints, particularly as my employers compensated me handsomely for my noble sacrifice.

And anyway, I was exhausted. The restructuring had been dragging on for months, and many valued colleagues – several of whom I had personally appointed and nurtured – were certain to lose their jobs. I was doing what had to be done in the context of a rapidly shrinking budget, but I’d had enough. Surely, I thought, there must be more to life than this. Just give me my pension, and let me get on with it.

But adapting to retirement took longer than expected. Work brought a welcome structure to my existence, a secure framework of expectations, routines and relationships around which to arrange the rest of my life, and without it I was all over the place for a while. In addition it had given me purpose and status – I had an important job to do, and many people relied on me – but overnight all this was swept away. My social interactions also diminished when the daily water cooler banter and tea point chats abruptly ended. Suddenly I found myself a stranger in a strange land.

On the positive side, retirement brought an end to the frantic rushing around that had characterised my earlier life. I could do domestic chores when it suited me and take as long as I liked over them, rather than desperately cramming everything in on weekends. More importantly, it freed up time to travel as and when we wanted, rather than at times dictated by the business needs of my employer. Our rewards have included six weeks touring New Zealand, and a magical return trip to Yellowstone National Park. Nearer to home, until Covid intervened we finally found time to visit many of those places in the UK that had been on our “to do list” for years.

There are lots of things I don’t miss at all about work: the morning commute, for example, as well as the stifling risk aversion and mindless bureaucracy that are endemic within local government culture. But the thing I miss least of all is regular contact with politicians. During the last decade of my career I had the dubious pleasure of spending a lot of time with politicians.  As this was in local government their capacity to wreak mayhem and misery was geographically constrained, but it didn’t stop many of them having a damn good try.

The average politician is less trustworthy than an alligator with terminal toothache

To be fair, some of the politicians I had dealings with were capable, decent, well-meaning human beings, regardless of party affiliation.  They simply wanted to make life better for their local community. However the majority were, in my humble opinion, cut from an altogether different cloth: ignorant, incompetent, self-important, totally lacking in self-awareness and less trustworthy than an alligator with terminal toothache. Time spent in the company of politicians is rarely time well spent, as I learned to my cost during my last few years at work.

And so I am pleased to report that despite all the wonderful things Mrs P and I have done since 31 March 2018, the very best thing about being retired is that it is now 1,096 days since I last spoke with, or was in the company of, any politician. Long may it continue.