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.

Paradise lost? – Elvaston Castle and Gardens

Determined to make the most of the short respite between the end of the first Covid lockdown and the start of the second, we decided to take a trip to Elvaston Castle. Sounds rather grand doesn’t it, conjuring up romantic images of sturdy curtain walls, a moat and a portcullis, and maybe intrepid knights rescuing distressed damsels from dismal towers. But the reality is very different, and a good deal less glamorous.

File:Elvaston Castle - geograph.org.uk - 6393.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Chris J Dixon / Elvaston Castle / CC BY-SA 2.0

Situated on the edge of the city of Derby, Elvaston Castle is a castle in name only. It might more accurately be described as a grand country mansion in the Gothic Revival style, and was designed for the third Earl of Harrington in the early 19th century. Successive Earls of Harrington made their home at Elvaston until 1939, when the 11th man to bear that title finally left for good, relocating to his estates in Ireland.

During World War II, the mansion was turned into a teacher training college when the original college in Derby was evacuated. The college vacated the building in 1947, after which it remained mostly empty for the next two decades and fell steadily into disrepair. Although proposals for the mansion’s demolition – to enable the extraction of gravel – were rejected, a comprehensive rescue package proved elusive.

The Gothic Hall (photo taken 2015)

Such is its poor state of repair that it wasn’t possible for us to view the inside of Elvaston Castle when we visited this autumn. Luckily, we’d visited in 2015, during a rare open day event, and were able to see some of what it has to offer. Mrs P’s photos from that time reveal it to be impressive, a fine example of Gothic Revival design.

With the mansion itself off-limits, our visit this year was confined to Elvaston’s 300 acre (120 hectare) grounds. These offer formal gardens and a walled “Old English Garden,” as well as woodland, parkland and a picturesque lake. Part of the estate is designated as a Local Nature Reserve, offering the chance to spot a variety of wildlife.

The Gothic Hall (photo taken 2015

The gardens have an interesting history, and if you sniff the air attentively you may detect the faint whiff of impropriety, otherwise known as the scandal of the earl and the actress. The earl in question was Charles, 4th Earl of Harrington, a 19th century eccentric and trend-setting dandy, a friend of the Prince Regent who designed many of his own clothes and was addicted to snuff. He reputedly had 365 snuff boxes, one for each day of the year, although history is disappointingly silent on how he coped in leap years.

Towards the end of the 1820s, Charles fell madly in love with Maria Foote, an actress 17 years his junior who was also an unmarried mother.  By the standards of the day it was a dangerous liaison, and inevitably incurred the displeasure of ‘polite’ London society.  Doors slammed in their faces, and the couple retreated to Elvaston to lick their wounds and pursue their relationship out of the public gaze. 

The Moorish temple (built c1846)

To ensure a suitably romantic ambience, the Earl appointed William Barron as his Head Gardener, with a brief to design gardens that would be a “private and secluded oasis of great beauty” for himself and his true love. Leading a team of 90 gardeners Barron set about creating a series of themed gardens, including an Italian garden based on designs from Tuscany, and the Alhambra garden complete with a Moorish temple. 

In all Barron spent around 20 years working on Elvaston’s gardens, and even developed the practice of transplanting mature, fully grown trees to help hurry the job along. Some of the yews transplanted to Elvaston were already hundreds of years old, and were moved over distances of many miles to reach the estate.

The walled “Old English Garden”

Following the 4th Earl’s death in 1851, his brother, Leicester Stanhope, 5th Earl of Harrington, opened the gardens to the public. They became renowned as “a Gothic paradise” and received thousands of visitors, many of whom travelled to Elvaston on special excursion trains. However, like the mansion, the gardens became neglected once the 11th Earl left for Ireland.

In 1969 absentee owner William Stanhope, 11th Earl of Harrington, sold the estate – both house and gardens – to Derbyshire County Council. A year earlier the Countryside Act had proposed the creation of “country parks…for the enjoyment of the countryside by the public.” The Council duly opened the estate to the public in 1970, when Elvaston became England’s first Country Park.

The Council has now owned Elvaston castle for more than 50 years, and given the poor condition of the buildings and the somewhat neglected gardens that we witnessed a few weeks ago, it’s difficult not to conclude that they’ve been asleep on the job. They will maintain their innocence, of course, pointing to financial pressures and competing priorities…but Councils always do that, don’t they?

The decline and fall of Elvaston has been a locally controversial issue for decades, with lovers of the estate incensed and appalled by the Council’s failure to restore and protect a house and gardens that both enjoy Grade II* listed status from Historic England.

Finally, to help them get a grip, Derbyshire County Council established the Elvaston Castle and Gardens Trust to manage the estate on their behalf through a long-term lease agreement. In 2019 the Council and Trust agreed a revised Master Plan, and began touting it as the solution to Elvaston’s ills. Here’s what a Council spokesperson said at the time:

“Protecting, conserving and securing the estate’s heritage and biodiversity for future generations is at the heart of the new Master Plan which outlines proposals to revive and restore the estate to help bring in more visitors and increase revenue…Elvaston is a beautiful place to visit and enjoy and we are working with the Elvaston Castle and Gardens Trust to make sure this nationally important asset is secured for the future.”

Derbyshire County Council spokesperson, quoted in a report on the Derbyshire Live website, 15 July 2019, retrieved 3 December 2020

Sounds reasonable, I suppose, but are these fine words realistic in the context of the financial constraints ushered in by Covid-19? At the end of 2018, it was reported that the Council had identified a repairs backlog of £6.4m and annual running costs of £700,000. Those numbers were enormously challenging even before the pandemic; today I suspect they are unattainable.

I do hope the Council and the Trust will be able to deliver on their lofty ambitions. However I can’t help thinking that, before too long, Elvaston Castle and Gardens may be filed permanently under the heading of Paradise Lost.

Rise and fall, and rise again: Chesterfield Canal

Exploring places within a reasonable driving distance of home has become the norm in the year of Covid, so a few weeks ago we decided to take a walk along part of the Chesterfield Canal. It delivered exactly what we were looking for: a gentle, peaceful stroll in the countryside, with minimal risk of encountering someone bent on sharing their viral load with us

There was almost nobody else out of the towpath that morning and it was difficult to imagine that this waterway was once a bustling hive of activity, a superhighway of barges and narrowboats hauled by long-suffering workhorses.

Oneslide lock

Designed by the so-called “father of English canals” James Brindley, the canal was built in the 1770s between Chesterfield and the River Trent in Nottinghamshire, a distance of around 74 km (46 miles). The aim was to link the Derbyshire town and its hinterland with a growing network of canals and navigable rivers that criss-crossed a country in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

The Chesterfield Canal was an ambitious project. It had 65 locks, including some of the earliest staircase locks ever built, and two tunnels. The canal was a lifeline for the coal and steel industry in North Derbyshire, but also carried ale, pottery, lime and timber.

However the most impressive cargo carried on the the Chesterfield Canal was stone for the construction of the new Houses of Parliament. Between 1841-44 an average of 4,877 tonnes (4,800 tons) or 5,663 cubic metres (200,000 cubic feet) per annum made the journey.

Thorpe Low treble lock

Quarried at North Anston in Yorkshire, the stone was dragged overland two miles to Dog Kennels wharf, where it was loaded onto narrowboats for a journey along the canal to the River Trent. From here it was taken downriver to the sea, then south along the English coast before being moved up the River Thames. The average time from the stone leaving the quarry in Yorkshire to reaching the London building site was two weeks.

Coincidentally, we ended our walk along the canal at Dog Kennels, so named because the grand old Duke of Leeds once kept his hunting hounds there. Today, it’s difficult to imagine the connection between this unremarkable part of Nottinghamshire and the Houses of Parliament, one of the UK’s most iconic and instantly recognisable buildings.

Turnerwood, a “picture-perfect hamlet” on the canalside

In fact, at the time of the Houses of Parliament project the UK’s Canal Age was already drawing to a close. By the 1850s the country was in the grip of a railway fever. Canal transport was inevitably slow, constrained by the speed at which horses could haul their loads. Moreover canals were prone to freeze in winter and dry out in summer. Railways did not suffer these problems, and canal transport declined steadily in the face of their upstart competitor.

By the early 1900s the Chesterfield Canal had lost most trade in manufactured goods and sundries, and the cargoes which remained were low-value and high-bulk; coal, coke, stone, bricks, aggregates, timber and grain. In 1908 the Norwood tunnel collapsed, preventing traffic between Chesterfield and Shireoaks. After World War 1 other stretches became increasingly overgrown and neglected, and all traffic on the canal finally ceased in 1955.

Brown’s Lock, with Thorpe Low treble locks beyond

This might have been the end of the Chesterfield Canal, but times were changing. Post-war Britain could see the attraction of a revitalised canal network that offered opportunities for leisure and acted as a haven for beleaguered wildlife. Reflecting this new attitude, in 1976 the Chesterfield Canal Society was formed to promote the use of the canal and its eventual restoration.

After several decades of fund raising and countless thousand hours of back-breaking work, many miles of the canal have been reinstated. Today there are less than nine miles left to restore. The Chesterfield Canal Trust (successor to the Chesterfield Canal Society) has set itself a target 2027 for the completion of the restoration, as this would be a fitting way to mark the 250th Anniversary of the opening of the canal.

PHOTO CREDIT: Chesterfield Canal Trust website

Meanwhile, all 46 miles of the towpath are accessible to walkers on what is known as the Cuckoo Way. Although that’s good news for the fit and healthy it sounds a bit too much like hard work to me, so it’s encouraging to know that recreational cruises can be taken on several sections of the canal. Maybe, when things have settled down after Covid, we’ll give it a try!

Touching the face of God – Belper’s Memorial Garden

Today, 11 November, is Armistice Day, when Britain remembers its fallen servicemen and women. Armistice Day was first observed in 1919 to commemorate the armistice agreement that came into effect on Monday, November 11 1918 – at precisely 11am – to formally end the First World War. To mark this anniversary a two-minute silence is observed each year at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

In addition, services and ceremonies to remember those who lost their lives fighting for their country in all conflicts – not just the First World War – are held annually on Remembrance Sunday, which always falls on the second Sunday in November. In 2020 Remembrance Sunday was therefore on November 8, but events were scaled back drastically due to the Covid-19 crisis.

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The First World War resulted in around 886,000 deaths of British military personnel. Unsurprisingly, society felt an urgent need to commemorate those who had lost their lives, and up and down the country war memorials were created as the focus for community remembrance. Memorials took many forms, including in some places a dedicated garden.

Although I’ve lived in Belper since 1983 I’m sorry to say that until a few weeks ago I had never visited its Memorial Garden. The Garden dates from 1921 and lies on land donated by George Herbert Strutt, a descendant of one the town’s most famous sons, cotton mill magnate Jedediah Strutt

The names of the dead servicemen are inscribed on a simple white granite obelisk, around 4.5 metres high, standing close to the northern boundary of the Garden. There are 225 names in total, including one W [Walter] Pepper.

When viewing war memorials it can be difficult to get beyond the list of names, and to understand something of the lives they represent. But in Walter’s case there are tantalising insights on the web.

The Belper in Wartime website tells us that Walter Pepper was born and lived much of his life within just a few hundred metres of the parcel of land which was to become the Memorial Garden. He worked as a fitter before the war, and later joined the 1st/5th Sherwood Foresters (Notts and Derby Regiment).

Walter was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, on Saturday 1st July 1916. He was 38 years old. The night before he “went over the top” to his death, Walter wrote this moving letter to his wife:

“Dearest,

I could not rest without saying goodbye, happen for the last time…but I want you to cheer up and be brave for the children’s sake. We must put our trust in God and hope for the best – to come safely through. We go over in the morning and I am in the first line. They are giving them a terrific bombardment… It is simply hell upon earth here.

My last thoughts will be with you at home as we are stepping over the trenches. May God watch over me and guard me and bring me safely through.”

Source: Belper in Wartime website

* * *

Although the obelisk is the primary focus for ceremonies of remembrance, the whole Garden is dedicated to the fallen. Belper town has something of a reputation for its floral displays, and the Memorial Garden was a riot of colour when we visited in September.

The Garden’s generous scattering of benches gives visitors the chance to sit and rest awhile. Here, in this tranquil oasis, it’s easy to escape the hurly-burly of our busy little town, to contemplate and to reflect on the sacrifices others have made so that we may enjoy our comfortable lives today.

One of the Garden’s simple but striking features is the silhouette of an infantry soldier amongst the flowerbeds. Propped against his legs is a plaque bearing the legend “lest we forget.” It’s a poignant reminder of why this is place is here.

And towering over the south-western corner of the Garden is another reminder. Sacrifice depicts the face of Lance Corporal Jim Green, another Belper man who joined the Sherwood Foresters regiment and then perished on the first morning of the battle of the Somme.

Before joining the Army Jim Green worked as a coal hewer at nearby Denby Colliery, and was a popular soccer player. He lived in the Cow Hill area of Belper, within sight of the sculptural installation which now immortalises him. Green’s image is copied from an archive photograph, in which he poses proudly in his uniform tunic and cap.

Sacrifice was designed by local artist Andy Mayers, and is cunningly fashioned from 29 rods of corten steel. As you walk around it the view of the subject’s face is forever changing. From some angles you can almost forget you are looking at a face at all, but from other positions it’s unmistakeably a soldier in uniform. To me the symbolism of this installation is plain: the fallen are forever with us, even though we do not always see them clearly.

* * *

Belper’s Memorial Garden has one more surprise in store, a poem inscribed on a plaque discretely tucked away on one of the boundary walls. One of 20 poems that make up Beth’s Poetry Trail, High Flight was written by John Gillespie Magee, an Anglo-American aviator and poet who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He died in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire in 1941.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Magee has no obvious connection with Belper, and yet his words clearly belong here. He, like the other men whose names are recorded in the Belper Memorial Garden, gave his life in the service of his country, and in so doing touched the face of God.

Essay for Black History Month: Emmett Till, Bob Dylan and the folk singer’s sacred duty

In August 1955 Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. Two white men were tried for the crime but, despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt, were acquitted by an all-white jury.

The following year one of the men, now protected by the rules of double jeopardy, confessed their guilt. Till’s murder and his killers’ acquittal are now seen as a pivotal moment in the development of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, Bob Dylan described the outrage and his reaction to it in The Death of Emmett Till.

* * *

Although I spent a term studying American history as part of my undergraduate degree at Cambridge University, we never touched upon the Civil Rights Movement, let alone Emmett Till. But this was in the mid-1970s, so maybe historians had not yet fully processed the subject matter, transforming it from contemporary observation to historical scholarship?

Today, thankfully, things have moved on, and the Civil Rights Revolution is taught as part of an undergraduate paper on The History of the United States since 1865. However, my own formal education in American history ended with the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I owe my introduction to the life and death of Emmett Till to Bob Dylan.

Born in Duluth, Minnesota on 24 May 1941, Robert Allen Zimmerman attended the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. While studying there he began performing folk and country songs at local cafés, initially taking the stage name “Bob Dillon.”

In 1960, Dylan dropped out of college and moved to New York, where he met ailing folksinger Woodie Guthrie and became a regular in the folk clubs and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village. He signed his first recording contract in 1961.

Dylan first performed The Death of Emmett Till in July 1962. It is not one of his most well known or highly regarded songs, and never appeared on any of his studio albums. However it began to circulate in various bootleg releases from the early 1960s. You can hear the song and read the lyrics in this YouTube presentation:

For me, part of folk’s appeal is that, skilfully executed, it paints vivid pictures of real lives and real issues. The anger, pain and emotion of folk songs brings to life the dirt-dry words of conventionally written history. The Death of Emmett Till may not be Dylan’s greatest composition, but it portrays graphically an injustice that should not be forgotten, and throws light on a dark corner of US history that some would prefer to remain hidden.

So, through his artistry and social conscience, Bob Dylan led me to a place that appeared not to be on Cambridge University’s radar in 1975. I don’t for a moment suppose or suggest that Dylan’s lyrics are in themselves a definitive history of Till’s murder, but in piquing my curiosity and leading me to ask the right questions they did their job.

The internet is loaded with accounts and analysis of Till’s murder and its aftermath, and I have consumed it greedily – but critically – in researching this post. The Wikipedia account is detailed and informative, but much more besides is readily available for anyone willing to look. The truth is out there…

Although it’s the best known of the songs about the Emmett Till murder, Dylan’s was not the first. An Essay on Bob Dylan by Jim Linderman reveals that this accolade belongs to A. C. Bilbrew, a long-time civil rights activist.

Bilbrew’s song is in two parts, each short enough to fit on one side of a 45 rpm vinyl single. It was released just months after Till’s death, sung by jazzman and entertainer Scatman Crothers, masquerading under the name of The Ramparts.

Sadly the song passed largely unnoticed “because [according to Jim Linderman] racist radio stations at the time wouldn’t play it.” However, thanks to the wonders of the internet and the generosity of YouTube, you can listen to Part 1 by clicking here. Part 1 describes events leading up to the murder, and Part 2 the crime itself and the subsequent – farcical – trial. Part 2 is available here.

Legendary folksinger Joan Baez, one time lover of Bob Dylan, has also recorded the A.C. Bilbrew song, combining the two parts into a single offering. You can listen to it by clicking below:

* * *

Three months after the unsuccessful trial of Till’s killers, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A tidal wave of protest followed. 

The Montgomery bus boycott lasted more than a year, resulting eventually in a US Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Many years later Rosa Parks said “I thought of Emmett Till, and I just couldn’t go back [to the section of the bus reserved for non-whites].”

Emmett Till has become a posthumous icon of the Civil Rights Movement. The Emmett Till Interpretive Center helps keep his story alive, both physically and digitally. Any readers of this post wishing to know more about Till’s murder are encouraged to visit the centre’s website, which avows that “racial reconciliation begins by telling the truth.”

In a deliciously mischievous twist, the centre is based at the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the young man’s killers were acquitted. Fair-minded people – and I include myself here – desperately want to believe that things are getting better, and the existence and deliberately ironic location of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center might suggest that they are.

However, events over the last few months, and in particular killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020, must call into question how much progress has really been made.

It is not my place, as a white man living in the UK, to make judgments as to progress – or otherwise – towards racial justice in the US. I simply worry that things appear not to be what fair-minded people might wish them to be.

Nor do I suggest for one moment that this is specifically an American issue. There have been incidents in the UK over the last six months suggesting that racial injustice is alive and kicking here too.

However, one thing does seem abundantly clear: there is no room for complacency, in the US, the UK or, indeed, anywhere else.

And for me, there are three more lessons to be drawn from this brief foray into the story of Emmett Till:

  • History must not be hidden, and truths – even when they are deeply unsettling – must be told.
  • Great universities like Cambridge, my own alma mater, must be vigilant in ensuring that the history to which their students are exposed isn’t monochrome.
  • Folk singers must continue to fulfil their sacred duty: to protest, to rant, to rage and to roar about injustice, wherever they encounter it.

Bob Dylan ended The Death of Emmett Till with following words,

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood
it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

As the UK’s Black History Month 2020 draws to a close I’m pleased to record here my support for the line taken here by Dylan, and applaud him for standing tall in 1962, for adhering to the folk-singer’s sacred duty, and for saying what needed to be said.

Rest in Peace, Emmett Till.

Dovedale: an iconic Derbyshire attraction

Although Dovedale’s only a fairly short drive from Platypus Towers we don’t go there often. It’s just too popular, the jewel in Derbyshire’s crown, always heaving with tourists and therefore devoid of the very peace and tranquillity that would be our reason for visiting this spot in the first place. But maybe this year, with Covid-19 wreaking havoc in the travel sector, we’ll get the place to ourselves?

File:Ilamhall.jpg

Ilam Hall, illustration from Morris’s ”Country Seats,” 1880. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

We park up at Ilam Hall, which is just over the border in Staffordshire, before heading off into Derbyshire to view the iconic Dovedale stepping stones.

“Ilam Hall” sounds grand, doesn’t it, but it’s a mere shadow of its former self. Although there’s been a hall on the site since Elizabethan times, the current building and adjacent Italianate garden date from the early 19th century. The mansion was built in the Gothic Revival style, and was a statement of wealth and power by the man who commissioned it, social-climber Jesse Watts-Russell.

The Italianate garden and the remains of Ilam Hall date from the 1820s

Ilam Hall was so highly thought of in its day that in 1880 it was featured in Volume 1 of the Rev. F.A.O Morris’ series County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, an ambitious multi-volume tome describing what were reckoned to be the finest country houses of the time. 

However, by the 1930s the mansion had become derelict and was sold for demolition. But at the last moment a philanthropist – the flour magnate Sir Robert McDougal – stepped in.

Holy Cross church to the right, and the remains of Ilam Hall in the distance

McDougal purchased what was left of the house (the Great Hall, service wing, hall, and entrance porch) and gave it to the National Trust, on the understanding that it would be used as a Youth Hostel.

Close by the Hall is Holy Cross church, a Victorian rebuilding of a medieval church. The very first church on the site was built in Saxon times, and grew up around the shrine of St Bertram, a 6th-century hermit who took up a solitary life after his wife and child were killed by wolves, packs of which once roamed the local forests.

St Bertram’s Bridge

Just 100 metres from the church is the stone built, single span St Bertram’s Bridge, an impressive scheduled monument dating from no later than the eighteenth century.

But none of this is the reason for our visit today, and so we set off towards nearby Dovedale. On our way, we pass through the tiny estate village of Ilam, built in its present form by Jesse Watts-Russell.

Part of the Ilam estate village, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott

Watts-Russell had originally been attracted to the area because it reminded him of the Swiss Alps. Really? – the man was clearly deluded! Whatever. Having bought the estate and commissioned a new Hall, he decided to indulge his Swiss fantasy by commissioning famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott to design a new Ilam village in an Alpine-style. The scheme was designed around 1839, and still looks splendid today.

Leaving the village behind us we take a well-worn path across the hillside, and stroll for around 45 minutes before we reach the lower section of Dovedale. We know we’re in the right place because it’s chaos, cars piling into the car park and platoons of pedestrians marching gallantly towards the famous stepping stones. So much for having the place to ourselves!

Dovedale by Moonlight, c 1785. Joseph Wright of Derby, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Long appreciated by poets and artists, Dovedale first became a significant tourist destination in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution gave rise to a middle class with both the time and resources to take leisure breaks away from home.

The opening of a railway station at nearby Thorpe Cloud in 1899 made it more readily accessible, and visitor numbers increased. The station and the railway have long since been withdrawn from service, but the visitors keep on coming!

Thorpe Cloud, an instantly recognisable landmark

Dovedale lies in the White Peak, a limestone plateau that forms the central and southern part of the Derbyshire Peak District, and is the name given to the section of the Dove river valley between Milldale and Thorpe Cloud. It contains some of the most spectacular limestone gorge scenery to be found in the UK.

Today we’re not planning to explore the Milldale section, possibly the most scenic part of Dovedale. Instead we’ll walk upstream, in the shadow of Thorpe Cloud – the highest hill in these parts, and an instantly recognisable landmark – until we reach the the iconic stepping stones. Every man and his dog will want to cross the Dove here, and we’ll join them, before returning to our starting point on the opposite side of the river. That should be more than enough excitement for one day.

The stepping stones date from around 1890. It was then that some enterprising locals – who had presumably worked out that increasing the number of visitors to Dovedale would also improve their own chances of making a fast buck – decided to make it easier for casual walkers to cross the river.

A bridge was ruled out, perhaps because of the cost, but just as likely because stepping stones seemed a lot more romantic. If that was their thinking then they were absolutely right. Today everyone who visits Dovedale wants to cross the river via the 16 large flat rocks put there for just that purpose.

For over a century, many thousands of visitors made use of the stepping stones each year. Everyone had a good time, and very few of them fell in.

And even those who did take the plunge suffered little more more than wet shoes and a momentary loss of dignity, given that the river’s wide and very shallow at this point.

However in 2010 the local council decided that the stones were a potential hazard, and placed limestone caps on all but one of them. Health and Safety was – and is – alive and well in the fair county of Derbyshire.

Our visit today passes without wet feet or any other unwelcome incident. We simply have to queue for a while, waiting for countless day-trippers and the occasional dog to make the crossing before, finally, it’s our turn. A grand time is had by one and all.

It’s easy to see why this simple activity, undertaken in such a scenic location, captures the imagination of visitors from near and far. We all need a few simple pleasures in our lives, and crossing the Dovedale stepping stones is one of them.

Sadly, Dovedale’s future doesn’t look rosy. The historic woodlands that flank the lush, green valley are being ravaged by Ash Dieback, a fungal disease that originated in Asia. It probably arrived here thanks to the global trade in plants, and is wrecking ash woodland throughout the UK.

Note how the original stepping stones have been capped with limestone slabs. Health and Safety gone mad!

Conservationists at the National Trust, which manages Dovedale, say 80% of its ash trees are at risk of being wiped out. And four out of five of all the trees in Dovedale are ash.

Ash Dieback Disease is a disaster for such a well-loved Derbyshire landscape. The National Trust’s planned response is

to increase the diversity of tree species in the areas hit hardest by ash dieback, by planting native tree species and allowing areas with other species already present to set seed themselves

Source: National Trust website, retrieved 16 October 2020

Plainly, as Ash Dieback takes hold, Dovedale will never be quite the same again. But all landscapes change over time, and the National Trust should have the expertise at its disposal to ensure that this very special Derbyshire place remains special. Let’s hope so.

Renishaw Hall and Gardens

A few weeks ago the attractive gardens and grounds at Renishaw Hall provided a perfect pick-me-up after the drudgery of the Covid-19 lockdown, bringing some much needed colour to our lives.

Renishaw’s bluebell woods, May 2018

As the Covid-19 infection rate falls and the country starts to open up, we decide it’s time to make the most of summer before it morphs into autumn. One of our first day trips is to the gardens at Renishaw Hall, in the far north of our home county of Derbyshire. We’ve been here before, in spring when the bluebell woods are a magnificent sight, but it looks rather different in the height of summer.

Renishaw Hall: Big is not always beautiful

Renishaw Hall was built around 1625 by George Sitwell, who made his money from iron. By the end of the the 17th century the Sitwells were the largest producers of iron nails in the world and their furnaces were producing more than a tenth of England’s entire iron output. 

They made a fortune, which enabled one of George’s descendants to enlarge and extend the Hall between 1793 and 1808. The man commissioning the work was called Sitwell Sitwell. Yes, his father really was so obsessed by the family’s name that he forced his wretched son to endure it both as a forename and a surname. Poor bugger.

In the mid-19th century the Sitwells fell upon hard times. The residents deserted the Hall to live in Germany, where the cost of living was cheaper, and its contents were auctioned off. Renishaw might have suffered the fate of so many grand English homes and crumbled away into dust and obscurity, had it not been for the timely discovery of coal on the estate.

Weathered, classical-style statues, topiary trees and a distant view of the fountain

The north-east corner of Derbyshire is riddled with coal seams, so we should not be too surprised by the Sitwells’ good fortune. However they made the most of the geological generosity with which their estate was blessed: the family’s fortunes were restored, later enabling the development of Renishaw’s outstanding gardens.

Renishaw Hall is an imposing building, but the curtain of climbing plants clinging to its façade can’t disguise the fact- in my humble opinion, anyway – that externally it’s fairly unremarkable, despite its Grade I listing from Historic England. Big is not always beautiful.

The gardens, however, are rather special. Nearly 120 years ago Sir George Sitwell (1860-1943), fourth baronet, created what is today regarded as one of the most important classical Italianate gardens in the UK.

Sir George could think of no good reason to be modest about his horticultural knowledge and skills, and therefore felt moved in 1909 to show them off by writing An essay on the making of gardens : being a study of old Italian gardens, of the nature of beauty, and the principles involved in garden design. Wouldn’t be my choice of bedtime reading, but what do I know?

Garden features at today’s Renishaw include well-trimmed lawns, immaculately clipped topiary, ornamental ponds, a spectacular fountain, a scattering of statues – both classical and quirky – and borders overflowing with blossoms. And beyond the formal gardens can be found handsome lakes and parkland.

Renishaw’s garden enjoys a II* (“two-star”) listing from Historic England, a non-departmental arm of the British Government funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Also, in May 2015, it received the UK Garden of the Year award. The award, organised by the Historic Houses Association and sponsored by Christie’s auctioneers, recognises the importance of some of the country’s most spectacular gardens, gardens that have outstanding horticultural and public appeal.

After months of near-confinement at Platypus Towers, it’s great to get out and about at Renishaw. The flower-beds are ablaze, and a ballet of butterflies flits happily between the blossoms. The statues, including an unexpected elk (for anyone reading this in North America, a Eurasian elk’s just like your moose), look splendid in the warm sunshine, and down at the lake a swan paddles happily amongst the rushes and reeds.

Renishaw Lake

The Sitwell family still live at Renishaw. In the first half of the 20th century it was graced by the famous literary trio, Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, who were all patrons of the arts and played a significant part in the artistic and literary world at that time. Today’s residents have a lower profile, but are pleased for us all to line the family’s pockets by visiting their gardens and, occasionally, the Hall itself. If you’re ever in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit.

The bear facts – watching grizzlies in Yellowstone

Grizzly bears are amongst Yellowstone National Park’s most iconic residents. With our wildlife watching in the UK and beyond currently limited by Covid-19, this post looks back on two grizzly encounters in September 2018.

The power and the glory

Americans have a complicated relationship with bears. On the one hand bears are the big, bad bogie beasts of the woods, creatures to be feared, shunned and if possible shot, stuffed and displayed somewhere prominent. On the other hand, the locals are in love with the power and the glory of these fearless beings, in awe of the magnificent apex predators with which they share the continent.

Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park want to see bears. Many – like the Platypus Man and Mrs P – are desperate to witness their undeniable majesty at close quarters. Bears are undoubtedly one of the most charismatic species living in the Park.

In the early days of Yellowstone National Park, the public’s desire to get up close and personal with both grizzly and black bears was fulfilled by allowing park visitors to feed them. While this satisfied the primeval urge for an ursine selfie, it did neither party much good. Bears that are fed quickly become dependent on man, and cease to be truly wild. They are also more likely to become aggressive towards humans if they expect to be fed but aren’t.

Above all, bears that are fed lose all caution in the presence of humans, which could easily become – quite literally – a fatal error for one side or the other. Equally, humans who see bears as reliant on their handouts fail to appreciate their true magnificence.

And to make matters worse, in the early days of the Park, waste food and other rubbish from the Park’s hotels was thrown into open garbage dumps. Naturally the bears were attracted to forage at these, and pretty soon watching them do so became a major visitor attraction in the Park. To avoid disappointment the dumps were topped up with tasty goodies, and an armed ranger was posted close to them to sort out any animal that became unacceptably arsey.

In all these ways the National Park was complicit in turning bears into performing animals in an open-air circus. For more on the history of bear feeding in Yellowstone, and some sickening photos, follow this link to the Yellowstone Insider website.

America as a society is built on the philosophy of giving the customer what he or she wants, so it was a brave decision by the National Park authorities exactly fifty years ago – in 1970 – to end the feeding of bears. In addition, more appropriate means of rubbish disposal were introduced, including the now-familiar bear-proof trash can.

With these changes, bears and humans in the Park could at last enter into a more equal relationship with one another. Seeing bears in Yellowstone is more challenging these days than it previously was, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that any bear successfully spotted is living out a natural and dignified life.

Bears remain dangerous, and the Park authorities are happy to remind visitors of this at every opportunity. It’s not, of course, good for business to have your customers mauled by the wildlife, and with this in mind the National Park has a rule that at least 100 yards (91 metres) must separate humans and bears at all times. As well as protecting the tourists, this also protects bears from unnecessary disturbance. Park rangers – bless ‘em all, I say – get very edgy if they see the 100 yards rule being broken, as we are soon to discover.

We’re way too close, but are we bothered?

It’s early morning. We’re driving though a forested area of the Park, pine trees huddled close to the road. We round a bend and see a number of cars stopped at the roadside with hazard lights flashing, and groups of people peering excitedly into the undergrowth. This can only mean one thing: wildlife, and probably something special.

I pull up, and Mrs P asks a guy what’s going on. Grizzlies, he replies breathlessly, grinning like a maniac. We’re out of the car in a flash, so quick that I forget to turn off the engine, something I don’t discover until we go to drive away more than half an hour later.

The road is built on a slight rise, and we go slip-sliding down the slope to join a couple of dozen other watchers spread out amongst the trees. Everyone’s trying to stay safe, crouching low and peering from behind reassuringly sturdy tree trunks to get a decent view.

A little way ahead is a small clearing littered with fallen trees. Rooting around in the grass, digging energetically, is a huge momma bear. Close by is a “teenage” cub, almost as big as her, and back to the right hidden at the edge of the tree-line, is its more nervous sibling.

Momma must know we’re here. Bears don’t have great eyesight but make up for this deficiency with an excellent sense of smell. All these frantic, sweaty bear-watchers must whiff a bit, affronting her super-sensitive nose. But even though we’re well inside the 100 yards exclusion zone, she’s not a bit bothered. She’s focussed completely on digging up her breakfast, although whether this is roots or grubs we can’t be sure .

The first cub also knows we’re here and is plainly a bit anxious, but hunger gets the better of him and he too digs like crazy. Only the second cub remains wary, watching from the safety of the trees, going hungry while momma and brother tuck in ravenously.

This is the best, closest view we’ve ever had of grizzly bears, and Mrs P’s camera is in overdrive, the shutter a blur as she takes shot after shot. It’s the chance of a lifetime, and she’s not going to miss it.

Suddenly there’s a commotion behind us. A ranger has arrived, glowing with self-importance. He does a quick calculation. “The bear is 41 yards from the road, and you’re all even closer to it than that. Therefore, you are all too close. GET BACK at once.”

He’s right of course. I reckon we are maybe 30 yards away from momma, and a number of folk are a bit closer than us. She’s not in the least bit worried, but rules are rules. After a brief pause the assembled bear-watchers start doing what they’ve been ordered to do…but very, very slowly and with as much bad grace as they can muster

By the time we get back to the road there’s a full-scale bear jam in progress, cars parked every which way, people milling around, desperately hoping the ranger will bugger off and annoy someone else instead. He doesn’t, and worse still, reinforcements have arrived, some of them armed with rifles “just in case.”

Another ranger is busily putting cones out on the road, making it abundantly clear that nobody is allowed to park in this vicinity for the foreseeable future. But we’re not bothered – we enjoyed half an hour of uninterrupted bear watching before the ranger rained on our parade, so we return to the car with a spring in our step. You can’t plan for an encounter like this, and it’s been brilliant.

You can enjoy the action highlights by following the link below to my short YouTube video (2 minutes).

A park ranger’s mission

Another day, another bear. Once again, as we’re driving along and minding our own business, we see cars parked where they shouldn’t be. It’s an obvious clue that something interesting is occurring in the neighbourhood.

I pull off the road where it’s safe, and we make our way down towards a parking lot a few hundred yards away where there’s a throng of people pointing cameras and scopes into an area of fallen logs and dead trees. Someone tells us that a female grizzly bear has been seen in this area over the last two or three days, and judging by all the activity she’s back again.

As we get closer we see that the people are all standing behind a line of traffic cones at the entrance to the parking lot which is, in effect, closed for business.

It’s a park ranger’s mission in life to ensure that no tourist ever gets closer than 100 yards to a bear, and they attack the task with gusto. When some brave soul tries to edge beyond the cones, a stern lady ranger warns him darkly about the dangers of crossing the line. He stays put, probably recognising that this young madam is a lot fiercer than any bear he’s likely to see today.

The rangers are out in force, and while madam is keeping the crowds under control, one of her colleagues is trying to locate the bear with his telescope. This place is a tree graveyard, charred trunks standing as silent witnesses to a forest fire that ripped through here a few years ago. 

Finally, the ranger confirms that he has the grizzly in his sights and tells everyone which tree she’s hiding behind. She’s some distance away, and we never get a really clear view of her. However, we can see she’s in good condition. She has a large hump on her back which, in grizzlies, is the tell-tale sign of a well-fed animal.

Everyone is captivated as she works her way between the burnt and fallen trunks. She’s snuffling around carefully, presumably searching for food, and soon disappears into a gully which totally hides her from view. The show’s over, and the viewers walk happily back to their cars, pick-up trucks and RVs, content that they’ve seen one of Yellowstone’s iconic animals.

* * *

This post first appeared, in a slightly different form, in my 2018 blog describing a 24 days-long return road trip from Denver to Yellowstone National Park in 2018. During our adventure, which also took in – amongst other things – Glacier National Park, Utah’s Antelope State Park and an excursion on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, we saw lots of wonderful wildlife, including our first ever view of wolves. To read about our road trip, follow this link.

To learn a little more about grizzly bear conservation in the Lower 48, click here.