The Barrow Hill Roundhouse and the romance of steam

What is it about steam locomotives that so captures the imaginations of young and old alike, both here in the UK and across the globe? Like Tyrannosaurus Rex and the Velociraptor they seem like monsters from another age, ill-suited to the modern world, and yet they hold their legions of fans enthralled.

Everyone loves a steam train, and Mrs P and I are no exception. We’ve experienced the romance of steam on several heritage railways (that’s railroads to you guys in North America!), but last year we decided to explore steam locomotives from a different angle when we took a trip to Barrow Hill Roundhouse in the north of our home county of Derbyshire.

The turntable sits at the heart of the roundhouse, here in the process of turning a small diesel shunter

Railway roundhouses were constructed to house and service steam locomotives. At the heart of most roundhouses was a turntable, where locomotives and other rolling stock could be turned around for the return journey. Radiating out from this central turntable – and thereby dictating the circular shape of roundhouses – were spokes of track where the locomotives could be serviced and stored.

Once roundhouses, and the turntables associated with them, were familiar sights up and down the UK’s rail network. But when, in the middle of the last century, steam locomotives were replaced with diesel and electric alternatives that could run equally well in either direction without the need to be physically turned around, turntables became surplus to requirements and most roundhouses were razed to the ground.

Barrow Hill Roundhouse was completed in 1870 and finally ceased operation in 1991. It quickly fell victim to vandalism and neglect, at which point a group of amateur train enthusiasts, the Barrow Hill Engine Shed Society, stepped in with a proposal to save it from demolition. Their vision won the backing of influential backers and charitable funders, and today Barrow Hill is said to be the last surviving railway roundhouse in the United Kingdom with an operational turntable. You can see the turntable in action, and soak up some of the atmosphere at the Barrow Hill Roundhouse, by clicking on the link below to my short YouTube video.

Visitors can see the turntable in action every day while also getting up close and personal with numerous steam and diesel locomotives, as well as a variety of other memorabilia in Barrow Hill’s impressive railway museum. The locomotives have been polished until they gleam, and standing next to them it’s easy to appreciate what magnificent, monstrous beasts they were.

Their time has passed and will never return – climate change and the need to control carbon emissions makes this a certainty – but they and their predecessors were at the heart of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Steam locomotives boosted the economy by enabling easy cross-country transportation of goods and materials, and changed society beyond recognition when they made swift, affordable long distance travel available to the masses. The display at Barrow Hill offers a pleasurable opportunity to wallow in nostalgia for few hours, and is recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the romance of steam.

Three songs for Ukraine

Events in Ukraine continue to dominate the news, and my thoughts inevitably drift to the anti-war movement and the peace songs of my youth. I am, at heart, a child of the 60s, and the anthems of those heady days still resonate with me. In those far off times we were convinced that the world could be a better place, if only those in power would listen to our pleas and give peace a chance.

We were, of course, hopelessly naïve in the belief that our message would be heard by those in a position to make the necessary changes. Fifty years on the world is a very different place, but as recent events demonstrate, not a lot better.

Photo Credit: by Miha Rekar on Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong, I believe absolutely that, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, culture, religion, gender or sexuality, the vast majority of human beings are fundamentally decent people. But not everyone, and when bad people get into positions of power, bad things can still happen. The evidence is all around us right now.

Much of the anti-war sentiment that prevailed as I grew up in the 60s and early 70s came from the conflict in far-off Vietnam, but for many Brits memories of WW2 were also raw. I remember my father telling me of the occasion when his unit came under intense aerial bombardment and one of his terrified buddies completely lost his mind, leapt onto the bonnet of his jeep, shook a furious fist at the attacking planes and screamed “Death, where is thy sting?” The poor guy found out soon enough.

And I recall, too, my mother’s horrific account of how the family house was destroyed in one of the first air-raids of the war, and of how she and her parents were forced to flee across London to her auntie’s home with all the possessions they had left in the world bundled up in a single tattered bedsheet.

In the circumstances it is no surprise that, when I first heard Edwin Star‘s rendition of War I immediately felt a connection with his words, including:

 War, I despise
'Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mother's eyes
When their sons go off to fight
And lose their lives
I said, war, huh (good God, y'all)
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing...
War can't give life
It can only take it away

In fact, the song wasn’t written by Starr himself, but was penned instead for the Motown label by Norman Whitfield and Barret Strong. Although first recorded by The Temptations in March 1970, it was Edwin Starr’s powerful version three months later that took the anti-war movement by storm, reaching #1 for three weeks on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, and #3 on the equivalent UK chart (see note #1 below).

Sadly, War’s lyrics seem just as relevant today as they did when I first heard them half a century ago.

The invasion of Ukraine has brought to mind other anti-war songs from the same era. Bob Dylan‘s Masters of War, for example, an angry attack on those who seek to profit from conflict without any concern for the suffering of those caught up in it (see note #2 below). Can you spot the connection with recent events in Ukraine? No? Then look harder!

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly...

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

And finally, my mind turns to John Lennon, who told the world in 1969 that we should Give Peace a Chance. A couple of nights ago we changed television channels a little early to watch the evening news, and caught some tail end coverage of a Rugby Union match. The game itself was over and the studio pundits were raking over the embers, as they always do. And in the background was John Lennon with his Plastic Ono Band, belting out his anthem for peace across the stadium’s sound system.

It can’t have been a coincidence: whoever chose to play that track at the end of that rugby match must have had Ukraine on his mind. And my overwhelming reaction was one of immense sadness, sadness that, nearly 50 years after Lennon laid the track down, we still feel the need to play it.

All we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance"
All we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance"

___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

Note #1: Other notable covers of War include recordings by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984: YouTube link here) and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (1986: YouTube link here). YouTube also boasts compelling amateur footage of the Boss performing the song live alongside Edwin Starr: enjoy it here).

Note #2: Notable covers of Masters of War include a recording by The Flying Pickets (1984: YouTube link here) and this acoustic YouTube version by Ed Sheeran (c.2013).

The goose that never was

Here’s a question that I know has been on your mind for ages: when is a goose not a goose? The answer is, quite simply, “When it’s an Egyptian Goose.” Despite its name and goose-like appearance this bird is actually a type of duck, most closely related to the Shelducks. And to complicate matters even further it’s not strictly Egyptian either, being native to large swathes of Africa and not just the land of the pharaohs. The Egyptian Goose is plainly a bird suffering a full-scale identity crisis!

This non-goose species appears to have got the first part of its name because it featured in the artwork of the ancient Egyptians, who considered it sacred. It was first brought to the UK in the late 17th century, when its pale brown and grey plumage, with distinctive dark brown eye-patches, made a striking addition to ornamental wildfowl collections.  Some of the captive birds soon made an understandable bid for freedom, and the escapees established a small feral population in the county of Norfolk on the east coast of England.

Numbers remained tiny for centuries, the British climate proving to be a bit of a challenge for a species that is native to sub-tropical regions and habitually breeds in January. The bird remained stubbornly confined to Norfolk, so when we encountered one at Rutland Water – just 50 miles (80km) from Platypus Towers – around 20 years ago I refused to believe that the creature in front of us could possibly be an Egyptian Goose. Mrs P stuck to her guns, however, and was eventually proved correct, something I am never allowed to forget!

Indeed, this sighting was a sign of things to come. After being static for so long, numbers of Egyptian Geese in the UK have expanded rapidly in the last three or four decades. The reason for this sudden change is uncertain, although the finger of suspicion inevitably points at climate change.

While Norfolk remains the Egyptian Goose’s UK stronghold, it has now spread widely – and is breeding successfully – across eastern and southern England. We regularly see them at the nearby Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottinghamshire, and have encountered them at several other wetland habitats in our region. The RSPB tells us there are now around 1,100 breeding pairs in the UK, with an overwintering population of around 3,400 birds.

Plainly, the Egyptian Goose – the goose that never was – is here to stay.

The Burghley sculpture garden

Back when I was a lad, if you wanted to see sculptures you had to go to an art gallery, or maybe a museum. True, if your interest extended no further than humanoid figures you could reasonably expect to see statues of former monarchs, politicians and sundry other ne’er-do-wells in civic spaces scattered throughout the urban landscape. But if your tastes ran to something less formulaic and more creative you were pretty much confined to museums, galleries and similar indoor areas.

And then, thankfully, some bright spark came up with the idea of sculpture gardens.

Vertical Face II

A sculpture garden, and its big brother the sculpture park, is an outdoor space dedicated to the presentation of durable, three dimensional works of art in landscaped surroundings. In galleries and museums sculpture is contained, hemmed in by walls and ceilings, often difficult to fully appreciate.

In sculpture gardens and parks however, sculpture sits comfortably within a spacious, natural environment, with room to breathe. And the sculptures and the landscape in which they sit enhance one another: the gardens and parks frame the sculptures, while the sculptures become visual anchors within their surroundings.

Held

Sculpture parks can now be found throughout the length and breadth of the UK, and visiting one can be an uplifting experience. Last week I wrote about our visit to Burghley House, a grand mansion dating from the late 16th century. In total contrast to the baroque excesses of the house itself, one of the joys of the parkland at Burghley is an excellent sculpture garden featuring a variety of contemporary and modern pieces.

Burghley’s sculpture garden dates back only a couple of decades, but is situated in an area of the grounds originally fashioned by the famed late 18th century landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown. It combines a scattering of works on permanent display with an annual themed exhibition. The theme when we visited in 2021 (carried over from 2020, due to Covid) was ‘House‘, originally conceived to honour the 500th anniversary of the birth in 1520 of Burghley House’s founder William Cecil. 

Cornu Cecilium

One of the most striking pieces on permanent display in the sculpture garden is Vertical Face II by English sculptor Rick Kirby. Works by Kirby are on display in various parts of the UK, and if Vertical Face II is typical I can see just why: it’s a haunting, enigmatic creation.

Equally serious – or, to be blunt, downright spooky – is Held by Anne Gillespie. The body of a man, folded into a foetal position and entombed in a rock wall, is not an easy piece to view, and is laden with hidden meaning. But what, exactly? I know what it means to me, but your interpretation may be totally different. And in the end that doesn’t really matter, the point is that we are required to exercise our brains and think about it…which, after all, is surely one of the purposes of art?

Trojan Horse

But art, and sculpture, doesn’t always have to be deep and meaningful: it can also, quite simply, be fun. The colourful sculpture of a snail, Cornu Cecilium by Pete Rogers, plainly fits into that category. However there is more to this piece than initially meets the eye. Commissioned for Burghley’s 2021 themed exhibition House, the shape of the snail’s shell echoes the grand octagonal towers of Burghley House.

I was also taken with the Trojan Horse. Fashioned from logs and standing several metres high it’s a quaintly rustic piece, and seems to be completely at ease in the lightly wooded landscape in which is stands.

Teddy bears’ picnic

Talking of wooded landscapes, if you go down to Burghley’s woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise: a family of whimsical bears enjoying a picnic, including mama bear in a faded blue dress. Again, there’s no great depth of meaning here, but it’s fun, isn’t it.

Also at home in the wooded landscape are the snowdrops of Everlasting Spring, another Pete Rogers creation. Snowdrops are “here and gone again” in the blink of an eye every spring, but thanks to Rogers they last all year long in Burghley’s sculpture garden.

Everlasting Spring

Italian artist Michele Ciribifera’s Elicoide BG is definitely eye-catching. Elicoide translates from the Italian as “spiral” or “helical”, and this gleaming metallic piece stands out boldly in the verdant landscape of grass and trees. Maybe there is a hidden meaning here? Or is it simply intended to please the eye? Personally I’m inclined not to overthink it: the latter explanation works just fine for me.

And finally, in this whistle-stop tour of a few of the sculptures we saw at Burghley last year, is City Cuts by sculptor Paul Cox. Inspired by the 2007/08 world financial crisis, a handsaw is seen slicing into a swanky city skyscraper. This one is rather poignant for me. At the time of that economic meltdown I was working as a senior public service manager, and found myself forced to make massive cuts to stay within my greatly reduced budget. I was compelled to wield not just a saw, but an axe too.

Elicoide BG

Several of my staff, including friends whom I respected and admired deeply, sadly lost their jobs in the dark days and months that followed. Seeing this stark piece at Burghley certainly gave me cause to think about my own very small, local role in dealing with the impact of the global financial crisis all those years ago. It was not a particularly happy part of my life, but life’s not meant to be easy all the time, is it?

City Cuts

Thankfully those days are over, and because I’m retired I don’t have to worry about how to navigate my service through the new financial crisis brought about by Covid. So, while my unfortunate successor wrestles with that impenetrable problem, I have time on my hands to visit some more wonderful sculpture gardens, like the one at Burghley. Don’t they say that good things will eventually come to he (or she) that waits?

Visions of heaven and hell: the Burghley prodigy house

Have you ever heard of prodigy houses? No? Me neither until very recently, but although the terminology was foreign to me the buildings themselves are achingly familiar. I’ve trudged around numerous examples over the years, my eyes goggling at the ostentatious excesses to which previous generations of the idle rich would resort in order to show off to their peers. None, I would suggest, is more ostentatious than Burghley House.

Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys

Prodigy houses were large, extravagant country houses commissioned by the English aristocracy and noveau riche, particularly between about 1570 and 1620. They were the projects of families that had thrived under the Tudor dynasty, and were built with the intention of impressing visiting monarchs.

And yes, if you were a prominent, rich English subject your king or queen might well come a-calling. At this time in our history the sovereign, sundry family members and a large entourage of flunkies and hangers-on were in the habit of touring the realm every year on journeys known as summer progresses.

The Great Hall lives up to its name

During these elaborate processional trips through the English shires Elizabeth I, and her Stuart successor James I, demanded to stay in the homes of their most wealthy, high status subjects. They expected to be entertained in the lavish style to which they were accustomed, and to avoid the risk of social humiliation – or perhaps much worse – their hosts invested in elaborate prodigy houses that simply oozed with the wow factor.

And nowhere did the wow factor ooze more copiously than at Burghley House, situated on the northern tip of Cambridgeshire close to the boundaries of Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. It was built and mostly designed by William Cecil (later Baron Burghley, 1520 – 1598), who looked after the royal finances for many years as Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.

The rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the House’s owners and royal guests.

The main part of the House has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors. In addition there are more than 80 lesser rooms, as well as numerous halls, corridors, bathrooms and service areas. William Cecil may have been dimly aware of the concepts of modesty and frugality, but plainly wanted nothing to do with them.

The exterior of Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys. Its intention is clear, to communicate a blunt message to anyone approaching the vast mansion: here lives a family that has more wealth, power and influence than you can possibly imagine!

The Bow Room was the 5th Earl of Exeter’s State Dining Room

Burghley’s interior, much of it remodelled during the late 17th century, is every bit as grand as the exterior promises. The Great Hall, for example, lives up to its name, while the rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the house’s owners and royal guests.

But it’s the painted ceilings and full height murals, many of them depicting scenes from Roman mythology, that really take the breath away. The Bow Room, for example, the work of the French painter Louis Laguerre (1663 – 1721) in 1697, is stunning. But can you imagine eating your dinner beneath that gaudy ceiling and surrounded by those huge, lurid murals? Plainly the 5th Earl of Exeter, a descendant of William Cecil could: it was his State Dining Room!

The Heaven Room is considered to be Antonio Verrio’s masterpiece, painted around 1697. In the centre of the room is a Queen Anne oval wine cistern dating from 1710

Meanwhile, another of the impressive state rooms, known as the Heaven Room, is reckoned to be the greatest masterpiece of the Italian artist Antonio Verrio (c1636 – 1707). It depicts a classical view of heavenly life, one in which countless fit, scantily clad gods and goddesses spend their days lounging around having a thoroughly good time.

Verrio was also responsible for the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, but its subject matter is altogether more sombre. Here we see the tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat. Definitely the stuff of nightmares.

The Hell Staircase, ceiling by Verrio, Murals by Thomas Stathard added later.

I really don’t know what to make of Burghley House, but maybe – just like Verrio’s ceilings – it is a vision of both of heaven and hell. On one level the building and its contents are undoubtedly magnificent, and although much of it isn’t to my taste I can appreciate the quality of the artwork.

But on the other hand, isn’t it all a bit over the top, just too excessive to take seriously? Restraint, subtlety and simplicity are in painfully short supply, and may indeed be altogether extinct at Burghley. Less is sometimes more, and if there’d been a bit less of it I would probably have appreciated it even more.

Detail from the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, depicting tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat.

However there’s more to Burghley than just the house, thanks to an inspiring sculpture garden in the surrounding parkland. The contrast between the overblown baroque excesses of the house and the pared-back, thought-provoking and sometimes witty and whimsical sculptures is stark. Taken as a whole, the combination of house and sculpture garden is enticing, and make Burghley well worth a visit.

In my next post I’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of Burghley’s sculpture garden. Meanwhile, here’s a taster to whet your appetite:

Wardrobe woes

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, a three-door, five-drawer solid pine wardrobe in which to store my suits and shirts and socks and stuff. It was a big beast, to be sure, but we liked the look of it, and never gave much thought to how we’d get it up the stairs and into our bedroom. And anyway, it wasn’t really our problem: the guy at the furniture warehouse said they could deliver anywhere, and we took him at his word.

In the event it took a four man lift, and a lot of colourful cursing, before my new wardrobe made it to the top of the stairs and could be coaxed into its final resting place in a corner of the bedroom. And there it remained, unmoved and unmoveable, for more than a quarter of a century. Until we decided to redecorate.

Mrs P said in no uncertain terms that the time had come: the time for a new carpet, new curtains and a decent paint job. She looked at me meaningfully: painting is my territory, though I rather wish it weren’t. I said that I agreed – and I did agree, honest! – but in order to do a decent job we first needed to move the wardrobe. And that wardrobe was, as I explained, way too big for a man of my age, with my bad back, knackered knees and history of hernias, to contemplate moving.

The wardrobe-shaped elephant in the room

So there we left it for a year or two, the wardrobe-shaped elephant in the room. Until, one day about three weeks ago, Mrs P suddenly announced “I’ve had an idea!”

My heart sank. Don’t get me wrong, Mrs P’s a lovely lady (I married her, after all) but whenever she says “I’ve had an idea”, I know that my life’s about to get more complicated.

“And what idea is that?” I asked innocently, hoping fervently she’d already forgotten.

“Simple,” she replied brightly, “the bedroom desperately needs redecorating. If the only thing preventing it is that wardrobe, you’ll have to get rid of it and treat yourself to a new one.”

“Of course,” I responded in a flash, “but aren’t you forgetting something? Before we can buy a new wardrobe we’ll need to get rid of the one we’ve got now. And, as I may have mentioned previously, we can’t move the bloody thing!”

“No worries, we’ll offer it to a charity. They’ll collect the wardrobe. No problemo!

I had to admit, her idea sounded like a good one. Charities are always on the look out for quality items of furniture that they can sell, thereby raising much-needed cash to support their good causes. The wardrobe seemed like it was worth a bit, and local charities would surely be queuing up to take it away.

* * *

And so, just 24 hours later, we’re in the local offices of a big health charity, agreeing the deal. I whip out my mobile phone, and show the lady on duty a photo of the wardrobe.

“Ooh, how lovely,” she purrs, “we’d be pleased to take it off your hands.”

“And you’ll collect, of course? It’s a wee bit heavy and awkward to manoeuvre,” I caution, with a degree of understatement that verges on the criminal.

“Our guys will do their very best,” she responds, “but they have the right to refuse if they think it’s impossible or unsafe to proceed.”

“Oh, that’s OK, I’m sure they’ll manage just fine,” I lie. She smiles, plainly convinced by my reassurances. I just wish I felt the same.

* * *

A week later, the collection crew arrives. It’s a modest outfit, just two blokes and a van. “We’re doomed!”, I mutter to Mrs P as we usher them up to the bedroom.

They inspect the wardrobe from all sides. “Big, isn’t it?” one of them says unnecessarily, his voice trembling ever so slightly.

They then check the route they must take, the impossibly tight 180 degree turn needed to get the thing out of the bedroom and on to the landing, the limited vertical clearance of the stairwell, the narrowness and steepness of the stairs.

There is much scratching of heads and furrowing of brows. Finally they agree they’ll give it a go, and manage to drag the wardrobe a short distance away from the wall, unscrew the top half from the bottom and lift it off before waving the white flag.

“Sorry,” the head honcho says “can’t be done. I don’t know how the hell anyone managed to get it up here, but it ain’t going back down.”

And then they depart, leaving our hopes in tatters and the wardrobe, now in two halves, abandoned in the middle of the bedroom floor. So Mrs P and I have no option than to spend the rest of the afternoon dismantling the thing completely, taking it apart bit by bit and dragging the wreckage downstairs to dump in the garage. Even the individual pieces take a monumental effort to move, and we are left in awe of the crew that successfully delivered this monolithic piece of furniture all those years ago.

So the good news is that, after much heartache, we now have a new, wardrobe-shaped space in the bedroom. But the bad news is that I now have absolutely no excuse not to get on with the painting. Woe is me!

This is Derbyshire: magnificent mansions and hidden hermitages!

My home county of Derbyshire is famed for its stately homes, magnificent mansions built centuries ago by the idle rich to show ordinary folk how well-bred, wealthy and successful they were. Chatsworth House, for example, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, dates from the 18th century and is reckoned to be one of the finest of England’s great houses.

Chatsworth House (rear view) dates from the 18th century. In the foreground is the “Emperor Fountain” built for the anticipated visit of Tsar Nicholas II (he never actually came!)

Then there’s Hardwick Hall, built between 1590 and 1597 for relentless social climber Bess of Hardwick. It was the wonder of its day, celebrated in the phrase “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall” for its unprecedented number of windows – glass was prohibitively expensive in the 16th century! It still looks spectacular today.

And let’s not forget Kedleston Hall, a mid-18th century neo-classical masterpiece which the National Trust describes as “a show palace built to impress,” noting that it “was built to wow guests with lavish details and luxurious surroundings.” I’ve previously written about Kedleston Hall and the park in which it sits in this post.

Hardwick Hall, “more glass than wall”, was built in the 1590s

But I wouldn’t wish to mislead you into thinking that Derbyshire is all about grand mansions. Last year we visited the remains of two very different, but equally fascinating dwellings, the largely forgotten, hidden homes of long-dead hermits.

* * * * *

The Dale Abbey hermitage, hidden in woodland on the outskirts of the village of Dale Abbey, dates from the early 12th century. The story goes that one day around the year 1130, a baker called Cornelius living in the nearby town (now city) of Derby had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin told him to make his way some 7 miles (11km) to a place called Depedale, where he should devote the remainder of his life to God.

Dale Abbey hermitage dates from the 12th century

Upon arrival, Cornelius discovered Depedale to be uninhabited, simply an area of marshland in the bottom of the valley (dale). On its southern side was a steep sandstone bank, and here he excavated a cave in which he would live and worship in peaceful seclusion for around 20 years.

Nearly 900 years later, the results of the baker’s efforts are still plain to see. The simple cave has a sizeable interior, and boasts openings for a door and several large windows. Its construction by just one man using rudimentary 12th century tools must have required a huge amount of effort.

View from the inside of Dale Abbey hermitage

The interior walls of the cave-house are covered with countless graffiti etched into the rock. Amongst these, and now highlighted with a modern coat of fading yellow paint, is an engraved cross. Despite the thoughtless desecration by vandals, it feels as if the hermit Cornelius speaks to us across the centuries. Here, he seems to say, in a world unimaginably different from your own, lived a simple, holy man. Look around you, and see how I toiled to honour my God. Remember me!

Hidden amongst countless graffiti from across the ages, and highlighted with a modern coat of fading yellow paint, is an engraved cross

As stories of the hermit spread, Depedale became a place of growing religious significance. In the 13th century, perhaps attracted by accounts of Cornelius’s exploits, some Augustinian canons founded a monastery on land not far from his hermitage. This was Dale Abbey, which gave the surrounding area the name by which it is now known.

Once a grand and imposing building, Dale Abbey has now all but disappeared thanks to King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. However the modest hermitage lovingly excavated by Cornelius the baker still survives, proof should anyone require it that big is not always best.

* * * * *

Derbyshire’s second hermitage can trace its origins back even further back, and may have royal connections.

The Anchor Church cave in South Derbyshire, around 14 miles (22km) from Dale Abbey, is hollowed out of a sandstone outcrop close to the River Trent. Although the hermitage may have started life as a small cave carved out naturally by the action of the river, human intervention has made it what it is today. It comprises a series of impressive internal spaces (“rooms”?) and pillars, all accessed by a large doorway and lit by several substantial window openings.

The Anchor Church cave dates from the 9th century, and is one of the oldest intact domestic structures ever found in the UK

Astonishingly, research published in 2021 indicates that the cave-house can be dated back to the Saxon period, making it one of the oldest intact domestic interiors ever found in the UK. More intriguing still are suggestions that it may have been the home of Eardwulf, who was deposed as king of Northumbria in AD806 and died in exile around AD830.

Eardwulf, however, may not have lived in the cave voluntarily. Rather, it appears he was kept there by his enemies under some Saxon form of house arrest. His cave-dwelling lifestyle and spirituality set him apart from his fellows, and in due course he became known to history as Saint Hardulph.

In the 18th century the Anchor Church cave was re-purposed as a summerhouse, when its openings were widened to allow well-dressed ladies to pass through more easily!

The cave-house continued to be used long after Eardwulf’s death, and in the 18th century was re-purposed as a summerhouse by the Burdett family, the owners of the land in which it sits.

The Burdetts are also thought to have widened openings into and within the cave to allow well-dressed ladies to pass through more easily. They seem to have had scant regard for the cave’s history but, fortunately, their overall impact on the structure was slight, and with a little bit of imagination the visitor can still detect Eardwulf’s presence.

* * * * *

Neither the Anchor Church cave nor Dale Abbey hermitage are obvious 21st century visitor attractions. Neither is classically beautiful, or even quaintly pretty. Neither has a tea-room, or a gift shop, or even a car park – both must be reached via a short hike through the countryside.

Both, however, offer fascinating insights into lives that are totally alien to our own, comfortable 21st century existence. Magnificent mansions are an important part of Derbyshire’s “visitor offer”, but there’s so much more to our county’s history than the gilded mansions of the idle rich, if we only care to look.

Rear view of Kedleston Hall, a mid-18th century neo-classical masterpiece. Beautiful, but intrinsically no more interesting than Derbyshire’s hidden and largely forgotten hermitages.

Year of the (Amur) Tiger

According to the Chinese calendar, a few days ago the world transited from the Year of the Ox to the Year of the Tiger. At Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP), however, it’s always the year of the tiger. Or, to be more precise, the year of the Amur Tiger, three of which currently call the Park home.

The Amur Tiger, also known as the Siberian Tiger, is one of six tiger sub-species, and is the largest big cat in the world. Adult males may weigh up to an impressive 200kg (440lb). These are majestic, iconic animals, and YWP visitors can often be seen gazing in awe at Vladimir, Sayan and Tschuna as they prowl around their ample enclosure.

Our consciences may be troubled at seeing such magnificent beasts living behind a fence, but the sad truth is that those tigers are lucky to be alive at all. In the 1940s the Amur Tiger was teetering on the edge of extinction. Fewer than 50 individuals remained in the wild at that time, after decades of political instability that had seen Russia bloodily reborn as part of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union had a wretched reputation in the latter half of the 20th century. Those of us who lived through the Cold War, wondering anxiously when the Kremlin’s missiles might come a-calling, don’t have particularly fond memories of the Soviets. On the face of it, theirs was not a regime that would be expected to place much emphasis on wildlife conservation.

But when it came to saving the Amur Tiger, the Soviet Union certainly stepped up to the plate. In 1947 they gave full protection to the tigers living within their borders, the first country in the world ever to do so. Killing tigers was outlawed and hunting of their main prey species, boar and deer, was restricted.

Government intervention came just in time and numbers have recovered, albeit very slowly. By 2005, the population of wild Amur Tigers had reached 330, and according to a recent report in the Moscow Times is now estimated at over 600.

So successful has the recovery been in Russia that a few Amur Tigers have now crossed the border into north-east China. The Chinese government is encouraging the process through the creation of two new nature reserves, one of which (the Tiger and Leopard National Park, or TLNP) is 50% larger than the USA’s wonderful Yellowstone National Park.

Meanwhile zoos throughout Europe, including Yorkshire Wildlife Park, are participating in a European Breeding Programme which acts as an insurance policy potentially supporting numbers and genetic diversity in the wild population.

In 2015 one of YWP’s females (Tschuna) gave birth to three cubs called Harley, Hector and Hope. The youngsters are now grown up, and have been dispersed to zoos in other parts of the world as part of the ongoing species breeding programme. This all happened some time before I retired from work and so, sadly, Mrs P and I never got see them. But we’re regular visitors to Yorkshire Wildlife Park these days, and are hoping for another similarly “happy event” very soon.

One day, maybe, such captive breeding programmes will be unnecessary, and the encouraging news emerging from Russia and China offers some cause for optimism on this count. In the meantime, however, it’s good to know that places like Yorkshire Wildlife Park are doing their bit to protect the future of this magnificent species of big cat.

You can enjoy some film of YWP’s tigers by clicking on the link below to my short video on YouTube.

Birdwatching banishes the Blue Monday blues

The third Monday of January is known to some in the UK as Blue Monday, supposedly the most depressing day of the year. The theory was first espoused in 2005 by a “life coach,” which immediately raises a vitally important question: what the hell is a life coach? Stage coaches – definitely! Football coaches – maybe. But a life coach – really? Surely life’s complicated enough already without total strangers waltzing up to tell us how to do it better. Dear god, why do we insist on doing stuff like this to ourselves?

The larger of the Hardwick ponds, 15 January 2022

But I digress! According to believers in Blue Monday, on this particular day we’re likely to be regretting the impact of Christmas excesses on waistline and wallet, and will already have miserably failed to stick to our New Year Resolutions. Daylight hours will be short, the weather inclement and television schedules probably packed with unwatchable rubbish and unwanted repeats. And Mondays are, of course, loathed by anyone with a traditional Monday-to-Friday work pattern.

“Most of the usual suspects were there, including…Mute Swans”

It’s nonsense, of course, total bunkum. Even the guy who first came up with the notion is reported to have subsequently disavowed it, describing Blue Monday as a self-fulfilling prophecy that “is not particularly helpful”. But, just to be on the safe side, this year Mrs P and I decided to banish the Blue Monday blues from our lives by doing a spot of birdwatching.

The weather, as it turned out, was perfect, one of those crisp, cold and gloriously sunny midwinter days that make you feel glad to be alive. So we quickly got togged up in our thermals, grabbed cameras and binoculars, and headed off up the M1 to Hardwick ponds.

A single Grey Heron, perched high in a tree, surveyed events below with magisterial disdain

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire is one of our home county’s most significant stately homes, and its impressive parkland includes several large bodies of water that are a haven for a variety of wildfowl. We try to visit Hardwick ponds several times each year, and are never disappointed.

On this occasion both of the larger ponds were partially frozen. Black-headed gulls, wearing winter plumage and puzzled expressions, stood awkwardly on the ice contemplating this unexpected turn of events. The ducks and geese, however, were having none of it and instead sought out those areas of the ponds that remained ice-free.

Female goosanders are largely grey, with a distinctive reddish-brown head, white chin, and white secondary feathers on the wings

Most of the usual suspects were there, including Canada Geese, Mute Swans and a Great Crested Grebe. A single Grey Heron, perched high in a tree, surveyed events below with magisterial disdain. Nothing remarkable in any of this, of course, but what really caught our eye was a gang of good-looking Goosanders.

Goosanders are streamlined diving ducks, fish-eaters that use their long, serrated bills to catch and hold on to their slippery prey. They are members of the sawbill family, which also includes the similar-looking Red-Breasted Merganser. To add to the confusion Goosanders can also be seen in the USA, but there they are known as Common Mergansers!

Male goosanders have a white body and a black head which sports an iridescent green gloss. They have a black back, and a grey rump and tail.

Whereas the Red-Breasted Merganser is most commonly seen around the UK’s coastline in winter, Goosanders favour freshwater. Their summer habitat is the fast-flowing upland rivers of Northern England, Scotland and Wales, where they nest in holes in riverbank trees. In winter they move to gravel pits and reservoirs, as well as lakes or large ponds such as those at Hardwick.

In common with most species of duck, the Goosander displays a high degree of sexual dimorphism. Adult males have a white body and a black head which sports an iridescent green gloss. The have a black back, and a grey rump and tail. Females are largely grey, with a distinctive reddish-brown head, white chin, and white secondary feathers on the wing.

A graphic lesson in sexual dimorphism: male on the left, female on the right, but both the same species!

The Goosander is a relatively new arrival in the UK, having first bred in Scotland in 1871. Its numbers slowly built up there for a century, until in 1970 the species crossed the border to begin colonising England and Wales. There are now thought to be close to 4,000 breeding pairs across the UK as a whole, with the wintering population numbering around 12,000 birds.

Female goosander having a flap, observed by a preening male

At least a dozen members of that wintering population were present at Hardwick ponds on 15 January, many more than we’ve ever encountered before at a single viewing. It was a delight to see them, and all the other birds that were strutting their stuff that morning. You can catch a glimpse of the Goosanders – and some of Hardwick’s other avian residents too – by clicking on the link below to my short YouTube video.

Blue Monday may have come calling for us last week, but I’m pleased to report that we were very much not at home!

“Black-headed gulls, wearing winter plumage and puzzled expressions, stood awkwardly on the ice”. See also one female and two male Goosanders in the open water to the rear of the gulls.

Yorkshire Wildlife Park: Saving the Warty Pig

Yorkshire Wildlife Park has plenty of iconic critters that are certain to impress visitors. The black rhinos, polar bears and Amur tigers, for example, are guaranteed to provoke appreciative oohs and ahs from delighted punters. But there’s other stuff too, animals that are pretty much unknown to all but the most dedicated wildlife geeks, animals that are maybe a bit more difficult to love. Warty Pigs, for example. I mean, whoever heard of a Warty Pig? And who cares?

I care! It’s true that Visayan Warty Pigs aren’t obviously cute or charismatic, but so what? All living things are intrinsically valuable, worthy of our respect and protection regardless of their looks or lifestyle. And there’s a reason why we’ve never heard of them: they’re all but extinct in the wild, and hail from the Philippines, a little known and unglamorous part of the globe that few of my fellow citizens could locate on a world atlas even if they’ve heard of the place at all.

The Visayan Warty Pig is classified as “critically endangered.” It is endemic to six of the Visayas Islands in the central Philippines, but is believed to be extinct on four of these. Their natural habitat is the rainforest, but between 95% to 98% of it has been lost to commercial forestry and slash-and-burn farming. With their natural food sources severely depleted, the pigs have resorted to raiding cultivated land, and are consequently persecuted as agricultural pests. They are also hunted for bushmeat.

There seems little doubt that, without a major conservation effort and captive breeding, the Visayan Warty Pig is doomed to extinction. Fortunately, there are many programmes, both in the Philippines and in zoos across the world, that are dedicated to saving the species.

And here’s where Yorkshire Wildlife Park is doing its bit. We’ve visited YWP several times over the last couple of years, and have been pleased to see a decent-sized group of adult females and youngsters going about their business in the ample, wooded Warty Pig enclosure. They are feisty, entertaining animals and you can enjoy some of their antics by clicking on the link below to my short video on YouTube.

The adult male – which boasts impressive facial warts, as well as a stiff, spiky crest of hair – lives next door to the main family group, replicating behaviour in the wild where males live apart from the females most of the time.

The male plainly knows his stuff, and his managed encounters with the females have produced multiple, humbug-striped piglets. My brief research on the internet confirms that other zoos are having similar breeding success, suggesting that Visayan Warty Pigs can thrive in captivity. Hopefully, one day, some of their descendants can be reintroduced to the wild, where they rightly belong.