Wassailing: extortion, boozing and blessings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas dinner: let’s talk turkey!

As December rolls on we finally get around to planning our Christmas day. It doesn’t take long. Although government rules would allow us to “bubble” with Mrs P’s family we’ve opted not to do so: with vaccinations on the horizon, why take risks that could undermine the sacrifices we’ve all made this year? And as far as dinner is concerned there’s not a lot to plan – at the end of a year like no other, one thing will remain the same. On Christmas Day roast turkey will once again be the star of the show.

Turkeys first arrived in England in 1526, when Yorkshire-born voyager William Strickland acquired six birds from Native American traders and sold them at Bristol market for tuppence each. At that time the wealthy treated themselves to goose at Christmas, or maybe a boar’s head, while peasants scraped by with whatever meagre fare they could afford.

PHOTO CREDIT: “Roast Turkey” by Turkinator is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Taking time off from bedding mistresses and beheading wives, King Henry VIII is said to be the first Englishman to have eaten turkey for his Christmas dinner. The evidence for this is scanty, although a man who spent so much of his life pulling crackers would doubtless have welcomed such a substantial meal to bolster his virility.

Despite royal patronage the popularity of turkeys at Christmas grew only slowly. Even in the 19th century turkey was not the most popular Christmas roast, because of its relatively high cost. In northern England the wealthy favoured roast beef while in the south they preferred goose. Poorer families often had to make do with rabbit, or even worse.

Christmas is a family time and turkeys are family sized, so as disposable income increased after World War II more families began to treat themselves to a Big Bird as the centrepiece of their seasonal feast. Meanwhile the growing availability of refrigerators also encouraged consumers to think big. By the 21st century England at least 80% of Christmas roast dinners would feature turkey, with many of us eating leftovers for several days afterwards in curries, soups and sandwiches.

In the 19th century Attila the Bun would have been on the Christmas menu, but this year he and Mrs P will both be feasting on brussel sprouts. Yuk!

Eating roast turkey for Christmas is a peculiarly British habit. Although it’s not unknown in some other English-speaking countries, it hasn’t really caught on elsewhere. Fish, shellfish, ham, beef, pork and wild game are all Christmas day favourites in one country or another.

Curiously, in Japan, Kentucky Fried Chicken is said to be a popular Christmas dinner, a tradition dating from a big 1974 marketing campaign called “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (“Kentucky for Christmas!”) The attraction of KFC at Christmas reportedly lasts to this day, causing some people to order their boxes months in advance or queue for two hours to get their annual fix.

I’ve visited Japan a couple of times and love the country, its culture and its people dearly. However this is one of its customs I’m definitely not going to adopt, although we’d struggle anyway as our lovely little town doesn’t have a KFC. Indeed, we don’t have a McDonald either, so some would say we are doubly blessed!

PHOTO CREDIT: by Adrianna Calvo from Pexels

No, on Christmas day the Platypus Man and Mrs P will be sitting down to a plate of roast turkey, a sausage or two, roast potatoes, a few garden peas and some decent gravy. Mrs P and our rabbit Attila the Bun will also have brussel sprouts. I, however, consider this vile vegetable to be the devil’s cohones, and will steer well clear.

We will wash our turkey down with a glass or two – or maybe three – of “bubbly” (champagne or sparkling white wine) and then retire to the toasty living room, turn on the television and snooze peacefully in front of it until teatime. Ah, the joys of Christmas day, chez Platypus.

Wherever you are, I wish you a joyous Christmas day and a tasty Christmas dinner. Perhaps you too will feast on turkey. But whatever else you find on your plate, I urge you to avoid the brussel sprouts. You have been warned!

PHOTO CREDIT: Public Domain Pictures via Pexels

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What will you be having for Christmas dinner this year? Tell the world about your Christmas menu by submitting a comment.

Celebrating National Robin Day

The good folk at SongBird Survival (SBS), an independent charity which funds research into the declining numbers of Britain’s songbirds, have declared next Monday – 21 December – to be National Robin Day. And who can blame them? The instantly recognisable robin has an appeal that extends way beyond dedicated birders, so celebrating this bird table superstar is an inspired way of gaining more publicity for their worthy cause. To mark the day, I thought I’d share some random facts and folklore about this iconic bird.

1 Robins are British Christmas card icons

It’s no accident that the SBS chose mid-December as the best time to celebrate National Robin Day. In Britain robins have been associated with Christmas since the 19th century, when postmen were dubbed robin redbreasts because of their red tunics. The mail they delivered at Christmas brought happiness to householders across the country, and the link was quickly made between redbreasts and seasonal merriment. Robins soon started appearing on Christmas cards, and they’ve been there ever since.

Worthy of a Christmas card

2 The naming of robins

The original English name for the robin was purely descriptive: our ancestors called it the redbreast. But they got it wrong. Even a cursory inspection in good light will reveal the bird’s breast to be orange, or perhaps an orangey-red, rather than pure red. The word orange, describing a colour, was unknown in English until the 16th century when it appeared as the name of the now-familiar citrus fruit. But by this time earlier generations had already adopted the next most appropriate word in the language – red – to describe the colour of the robin’s signature plumage.

The word robin, when applied to the bird, emerged in the 15th century when it became popular to give human names to familiar species. This new practice resulted in the birds becoming known as robin redbreast, which was eventually shortened to robin

3 The robin is Britain’s unofficial National Bird

In the 1960s the Times newspaper organised a poll of its readers to find Britain’s most popular bird, and the robin came out on top. Around half a century later, in 2015, popular birdwatcher and author David Lindo organised a similar survey. Over 200,000 people took part and the robin won again, having received 34% of votes cast, ahead of the barn owl (12%) and the blackbird (11%). Despite these public votes the UK government has remained on the fence and, for now at least, officially we don’t have a National Bird. Unofficially, however, the robin clearly takes the title.

Britain’s unofficial National Bird sings out, warning others to keep clear of its territory

4 Robins are nestbuilding mavericks

When it comes to choosing a place to nest, robins aren’t fussy. Just about anywhere will do. Most commonly their nests can be found about two metres off the ground, within some kind of hollow or crevice and sheltered by vegetation. But others will nest on the ground, perhaps behind the overhang of a grassy tussock, or occasionally beneath fallen twigs covered by leaf litter.

However, radical freethinkers within the robin population choose to nest amongst the flotsam and jetsam of human life. Old teapots, discarded kettles, watering cans, coat pockets, wellington boots, farm machinery, flowerpots, hats, barbecues, an unmade bed and the body of a dead cat have all been selected by robins as a suitable place to bring up a family!

Although their nestbuilding strategy may seem bizarre, it delivers the goods. There are estimated to be 6,700,000 breeding territories in the UK. Since 1970 the robin population has increased by around 45 per cent.

5 Male and female robins both have vivid breast plumage

Robins are highly territorial, and – particularly in the breeding season – adult males like to show off their vividly coloured breasts in an attempt to intimidate other males. Although females are less competitive, they too have orangey-red breasts. The two sexes look very similar, and their brightly coloured breast plumage got them into trouble towards the end of the 19th century when robin skins were for a time a popular adornment for ladies’ hats.

It’s worth noting that juvenile robins have a speckled brown breast and don’t develop the species’ distinctive plumage until after their first moult. The youngsters therefore belong to the group that is the nemesis of birders everywhere: they are Little Brown Jobs.

Juvenile robin (aka a Little Brown Job)

6 Robins sometimes fight to the death

You wouldn’t think it to look at them, but robins are aggressive little birds prone to acts of violence. It’s all about territory. It begins with a singing contest, males belting out their songs at one another while trying to get to a higher perch from which to flaunt their brightly coloured breasts. If one or the other doesn’t back down the dispute can become physical, resulting in injuries and even – on occasion – the death of one of the combatants. Shockingly, in some populations, up to 10 per cent of adult mortality is due to these avian turf wars.

7 Robins, friends to gardeners everywhere

Putting aside the connection with Christmas festivities, another reason for the robin’s popularity is its confiding nature. The robin presents as a friendly, trusting bird, more so than any other species that regularly visits British gardens.

Gardeners in particular often get up close and personal with robins. As ground feeders, robins enjoy nothing more than cheekily scavenging earthworms and other invertebrates dug up by gardeners going about their business. They’re also regular visitors to bird tables during the winter months, feisty feeders that aren’t shy about claiming their share of the feast.

Interestingly, robins are less confiding on continental Europe. This is thought to be because in many parts of the continent, particularly in the southern part of the robin’s range, the locals have the detestable habit of hunting small birds. It therefore pays the robin to keep its head down, skulking in the undergrowth, where hunters are less likely to find them. In Britain, where this horrible hunting tradition doesn’t exist, there is no evolutionary incentive for such caution.

The robin is a regular visitor to British bird tables

8 How the robin became

Unsurprisingly for a bird that associates so closely with humans, many stories have grown up to explain the robin’s distinctive colouring. One legend says that when Jesus was dying on the cross, a robin flew to his side and sang into his ear in order to comfort him. At this point the robin’s plumage was a dull, unremarkable brown colour. However the blood from Jesus’ wounds stained the robin’s breast. In that moment the world welcomed its first robin redbreast, and from that day onwards all robins bore the mark of Christ’s blood.

An alternative version of this tale tells us that one day an ordinary brown bird was flying high over Golgotha, near Jerusalem, when it looked at the ground below and spotted Christ suffering on the cross. Determined to ease Jesus’ torment it flew down and tried to remove His crown of thorns, but as it tugged in vain at the cruel affliction some of the Lord’s blood stained its breast. And this was how the robin became.

A third robin creation myth also makes a link between Jesus and the robin’s colouration. According to this story, shortly after Mary had given birth in the Bethlehem stable a small brown bird appeared and – in a noble attempt to keep the Christ Child warm – started to fan the flames of the dying fire. However, embers from the fire scorched its chest feathers, leaving the bird red-breasted. Mary saw what had happened and declared that the red breast was a sign of the bird’s devotion to the Lord. She went on to promise that the bird and all its descendants would forever onwards wear a red breast in memory of this selfless act of love.

9 Q: When is a robin not a robin? A: When it’s an American robin

The species of robin seen in British gardens is found all over Europe, extending as far east as Western Siberia and south to North Africa. Robins are also found in North America…or are they? Well, no, actually they’re not. The American Robin isn’t really a robin at all, and belongs instead to the thrush family. Early European settlers in the Americas, desperate for reminders of home, noticed its reddish coloured breast and named it after the bird they knew from back home. Ornithology plainly wasn’t their strong point as, other than the colour of the breast, the two species bear little resemblance.

Interestingly, in the 1964 movie Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews, the director got the wrong bird. Despite Dick van Dyke’s laughable attempt at a London accent, Mary Poppins is clearly set in England. However the bird that lands on Mary’s finger during the song A Spoonful of Sugar is an American Robin rather a European robin. Why am I not surprised by Hollywood’s cavalier relationship with factual accuracy?

The American Robin…is not really a robin at all!

10 Who killed cock robin?

The robin appears in the well-known English nursery rhyme Who Killed Cock Robin?, a gruesome tale describing the murder and the funeral of a robin. The unfortunate redbreast is shot by a sparrow, and subsequent verses reveal who organises his funeral, who digs his grave and who plays the role of chief mourner. The person who concluded that such a verse constitutes suitable entertainment for children was clearly in need of therapy.

The nursery rhyme first appeared in print in 1744, in a volume entitled Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book. However the story appears already to have been an established part of England’s oral tradition. A stained glass window dating from the 15th century and showing a robin killed by an arrow can be seen Buckland Rectory (Gloucestershire), while in the early 1500s John Skelton wrote and published a similar story called “Phyllyp Sparowe.”

There are now multiple versions of the nursery rhyme, some of which have been put to music. My favourite is by the American folk-singing duo Dana and Susan Robinson. They are brilliant performers – we’ve seen them perform on a couple of occasions in the UK – and for us Who Killed Cock Robin? is always the highlight of their gigs.

So, dear reader, as you reach the end of this little post, please join me in celebrating our National Robin Day by listening to Dana and Sue’s rendition of the tragic tale of one robin’s untimely end, courtesy of the YouTube link below.

Anarchy in the UK – the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football

November 1976 saw the Sex Pistols – the dark princes of English punk rock – release their debut single, Anarchy in the UK. The Pistols were wild and wayward, and maybe just a little bit bonkers, but even in their maddest dreams they cannot possibly have imagined the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football. Like the Pistols themselves, Shrovetide football isn’t for the faint-hearted. Anarchy rules, OK.

Unless you’re English you’ve probably never heard of Ashbourne. To be fair, even if you are, the chances are that this quaint little market town of around 8,000 souls nestling in the Derbyshire Peak District has passed you by. It oozes bucolic charm, and is therefore memorably forgettable.

A few years ago a former Ashbourne resident, writing on the student website The Tab, described it as “the most backwards town in the country“. Seems a bit harsh to me, but it has to be said that unless you’re very easily excited, the place won’t set your pulse racing. Except, that is, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, when football comes to town.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “10-P2183459” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Shrovetide football bears scant resemblance to any other form of football. The Ashbourne game comprises two teams – the Up’Ards, born north of the local River Henmore, and the Down’Ards, born to its south. The number of players is unlimited, and can exceed a thousand on each side. The goals, where the ball must be touched down to register a score, are three miles (five kilometres) apart.

The game begins in the Shawcroft car park in the centre of Ashbourne, where an eager crowd of thousands gathers. They belt out the national anthem as if their lives depend on it. Then silence falls and the excitement builds, everyone waiting impatiently for the fun to begin.

At last, with the tension close to unbearable, an invited dignitary or celebrity standing on a brick-built podium “turns up” the ball – lavishly painted, filled with cork for added buoyancy and about the size of a Halloween pumpkin – into the expectant horde of pumped-up masculinity. Testosterone hangs heavy in the air, so thick you could butter toast with it. No rules prevent women from participating, but good sense persuades most to take a back-seat and let their menfolk do the hard graft and risk the consequences.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “05-P2183439” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The objective of the game is straightforward. The Up’Ards must carry the ball to Sturston Mill, south of Ashbourne, and “goal” by tapping it three times against a millstone. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The only problem they face is the thousand or so Down’Ards who are blocking the way and baying for blood.

Meanwhile, the aim of the Down’Ards is to carry the ball to Clifton Mill, north of the town, where they also must “goal it”. Inevitably, they find their passage blocked by at least a thousand incensed Up’Ards, whose ambition is to prevent this happening by means both cunning and brutal.

As you will have worked out by now, Shrovetide football has no designated pitch or playing field. The game is played through the streets of the town, and the sprawling farmland beyond, occasionally spilling into the freezing river. It is the original “game without borders.”

Proceedings are boisterous, chaotic and occasionally violent. Shopkeepers close their businesses and protect their premises with wooden boards and shutters, car owners move their vehicles out of harm’s way and paramedics are on standby. Schools close for the day, lest students get caught up in the mayhem. Injuries are common, although fatalities are mercifully very rare.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “21-P2183512” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Play begins at 2pm on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and finishes eight hours later. Battered, bruised and bloodied, the players limp off home to lick their wounds, only to assemble the following day at 2pm to do it all again. Despite 16 hours of play, it is rare for more than two goals to be scored in any year. Sometimes, the result is a nil-nil draw, and every year the broken limbs, bruises, sprains and strains outnumber the goals scored.

You can count the rules on the fingers of one hand. Players must not enter churchyards or cemeteries, and must refrain from hiding the ball or attempting to carry it on a motor vehicle. In addition, murder is frowned upon. But with these few exceptions, pretty much anything goes.

“Mob football”, as the Ashbourne game is classified, has a long history – dating back at least to the 13th century – and was once widespread in rural England. Inevitably the mayhem it caused was resented by the wealthier and more refined types, those who had the most to lose from mass outbreaks of anarchic behaviour.

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PHOTO CREDIT: “02-P2183425” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Eventually these elite groups got their way, and mob football went into serious decline in the nineteenth century after the 1835 Highway Act banned the playing of football on public highways. But it clung on in Ashbourne, and a few other places including Workington and Sedgefield in northern England, and Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

Shrovetide football remains a much-loved tradition amongst Ashbourne people, a demanding endurance test for all the participants, and also a rite of passage for lads wishing to follow in the hallowed footsteps of previous generations of men in their families. Many former residents return to the town every year to take part or watch from the side-lines, and tourists visit in droves to see what all the fuss is about. For two days every year, Shrovetide football ensures that Ashbourne has a national – and even international – profile.

And now to the question that’s been on your mind as you’ve read this post – has the Platypus Man ever played Shrovetide football? The answer is an emphatic ‘no,’ and although Ashbourne lies just a few miles from Platypus Towers I’ve never attended as a spectator either. Frankly, life’s too short and my body is way too fragile to risk the frenzy of the mob. Have a look at this short video, on the Guardian’s website, and you’ll understand everything!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that this relic from our country’s medieval past hangs on in deepest, darkest Derbyshire. But I’m glad too that, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can read about it and watch YouTube videos of the highlights in own home, secure in the knowledge that there are several miles and a very sturdy brick wall between me and the madness.

A little bit of Anarchy in the UK isn’t without its appeal, but only when viewed from a safe distance.

Chatsworth House at Christmas

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

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

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

In the magnificent Great Hall the national theme is Russia

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

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

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

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

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

In the splendid chapel the national theme is Spain

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

National theme: Russia

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

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

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

National theme: Canada

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

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

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

National Theme: Japan

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

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

National theme: China

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

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

National theme: Switzerland

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

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

National theme: Morocco

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

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

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

Birdfair: the curse of Glastonbury

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

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

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

Quagmires soon developed where footfall was greatest

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

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

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

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

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

The bog-lands of Birdfair

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

Mud, mud, glorious mud

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

Birdfair 2019: a picture paints a thousand words

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

Birdfair: hanging out with friends I’ve never met

Like most couples, I suppose, Mrs P and I have a few anchor dates in our diaries, days of fun, feasts and finery that are also milestones marking the passing of the year.  Chief amongst them are Christmas, our birthdays – both in March, just a couple of days apart – and of course our wedding anniversary in May. But no less important than any of these is the annual British Birdwatching Fair – or Birdfair as it’s known to its thousands of admirers – held every August on the shores of Rutland Water, by surface area the largest reservoir in England.

Offers abound in one of the Birdfair marquees

Birdfair began in 1989, and Mrs P and I have missed only one since we first decided to give it a try in the mid-1990s.  At first, we just went along on a Saturday to see what all the fuss was about. We were so captivated that pretty soon we were making a weekend of it, but eventually we realised even that wasn’t enough.  For about the last 15 years we’ve stayed at local hotels and been on site for all three days of Birdfair.

Specialist travel companies and interest groups are thick on the ground

So, just what is Birdfair?  In short, it’s a three-day celebration of the natural world, not just birds but wildlife and conservation as a whole, in the UK and beyond.  It was the first-ever event of its kind anywhere, and has been the inspiration for countless similar festivals across the world.

At Birdfair you can go to fascinating talks on conservation issues, hear about wildlife travel destinations and maybe buy the holiday of a lifetime.  You can browse stalls selling a staggering variety of high-quality wildlife art and top-end optical equipment, and watch a range of media personalities and birding experts making complete fools of themselves in spoofs of TV quizzes.

You can even pop along to the British Trust for Ornithology stand to watch a bird-ringing demonstration, or walk out to the Rutland Water nature reserve for a spot of birdwatching. Finally, you can go home feeling good about yourself, as the money raised from entry tickets goes towards vital conservation projects around the world.

TV personality Mike Dilger hosts a birding quiz

This year’s Birdfair was as good as ever.  We were inspired by Isabella Tree’s talk about a farm rewilding project in West Sussex, and excited by Mark Elliott’s account of bringing beavers back to Devon. 

We were given food for thought by Ian Carter’s talk on the red kite’s recovery in the UK, and got wildlife photography tips from the master himself, David Tipling.

A chance for some last minute research before our autumn trip to New Zealand

Mark Warren’s presentation on birding breaks in Scotland gave us a chance to reminisce, while Ruary Mackenzie Dodds’ talk on a bizarre New Zealand dragonfly suggested something else we should look out for during our trip Down Under.

Iolo Williams, possibly the funniest wildlife raconteur I’ve ever heard, made us laugh until we cried, and Simon King tried hard to convince us that Shetland has more to offer than rain.

Conservationist and TV presenter Simon King tries to convince us it doesn’t always rain in Shetland

We even found time to buy a new camera, and at a 26% discount on the price I was quoted a few days earlier in our local store.  Result!

During the Birdfair we were able to catch up with some friends and family who’d also made the trip.  And, just as important, we could spend three days in the company of people who share our interests and values, briefly hanging out with friends we’ve never met.  It may sound trite, but Birdfair feels like a family, everyone connected by the shared DNA of a passion for the natural world. 

Queueing for a talk on rewilding … with 100s of friends I’ve never met

In an article in the Birdfair programme Lucy McRobert and Rob Lambert touched on this theme when they wrote: “This is the natural history clan coming together, the British wildlife constituency gathering in thousands on the shores of an inland sea.”

Exactly!  Long may it continue.

Invitation to a wedding

Sadly, I’ve reached the time of life when I get to go to many more funerals than weddings.  Until the invitation to Mark and Kate’s nuptials arrived it had been nearly two years since I’d last witnessed a couple tying the matrimonial knot, so I was delighted to be asked.  And as an added bonus, their wedding was to take place at one of the colleges of Cambridge University, so picturesque surroundings, excellent food and plenty of fine wine were all pretty much guaranteed.

A Cambridge college makes a pictureseque wedding venue

Mark is my godson.  Also, he and his mum are pretty much the only blood relatives I have left, or at least the only ones I’m aware of.  However, I’m sad to say that I hardly know him. 

Mark lives in London, while Mrs P and I are holed up in the north Midlands.  Our paths have crossed only rarely over the years, and although he once stayed with us for a couple of days and his mum updates us from time to time on his exploits, he’s something of a mystery.

The invitation to Mark’s wedding was therefore a pleasant surprise, though not one I probably deserved given my inept performance as a godfather.  Even better, it quickly became apparent that Mark is a lovely, caring man. 

The college chapel was an intimate setting for the ceremony

Although this was his – and Kate’s – big day, Mark went out of his way to greet and make welcome all the guests, to spend loads of time chatting with them, and to find ways of ensuring those guests got to know one another.  And he also found plenty of time to be attentive to his 99 years-old wheelchair-bound maternal grandad, whom he clearly adores.

One of Mark’s cunning plans to bring the wedding guests closer together was to lay on an evening barn dance.  Such were his powers of gentle persuasion that even I took to the dance floor, for the first time in a couple of decades.  Mrs P likes barn dancing, so thanks to my godson I won myself a rare brownie point. Yes, result!

Moreover, I’m proud to report that I held my own in the Gay Gordons, before plumbing hitherto unimagined depths of incompetence while Stripping the Willow. 

Mrs P says the latter failure was down to her, but I think she’s just being nice: I really should learn the difference between left and right. But, despite the exhaustion and the humiliation I will confess I thoroughly enjoyed myself, though I don’t imagine I’ll be putting on a repeat performance any time soon.

Cake, cake, glorious cake!

All too soon the evening was over.  Mark and Kate left to begin their new life together.  I left, supported by my long-suffering missus, for a quiet lie down in a darkened room.  Too much wine and barn dancing can do that to a man.

I’m really pleased we made the trip to Cambridge for Mark’s big day.  Partly because families – particularly tiny ones like mine – should stick together, but mainly because he’s a thoroughly decent human being and it was good to spend a few hours in his company. 

With luck we’ll meet up with him and Kate again before too long … though probably not on the dance floor!