An extraordinary woman – introducing Anne Lister of Shibden Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Lister’s Diary, 19th January 1821

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

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

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

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

The Study

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

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

Anne Lister’s Diary, 18th June 1824

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bath-house, designed by Robert Adam

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

Aaah, cute!

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

Hidden history: the decline and fall of Cromford Canal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sutton Scarsdale Hall: a sad monument to extravagance and greed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swan Lake lives up to its name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The snowdrop – a flower not to be trifled with

Flowering at a time when pretty much nothing else is in bloom, snowdrops inevitably capture the imagination of all who encounter them in the British countryside. The ‘Fair Maids of February’ reassure us that the bleak midwinter is passing, and more congenial times lie ahead. Poets heap praise upon these humble harbingers of spring’s awakening, while storytellers speculate about their origins. Who doesn’t love a snowdrop?

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Interestingly, although snowdrops are widely distributed and recognised throughout the UK, they aren’t native to these islands. They originated in the damp woodlands and meadows of continental Europe, and were brought here – probably in the sixteenth century – to grace the estates of the idle rich. However these private collections inevitably ‘leaked’ into the surrounding countryside, and by the late 18th century the flower was reported as growing wild. Now completely naturalised, snowdrops can be found in shady woodland, on country estates and along river banks all over the country.

Hodsock Priory, 2016

Snowdrops are also a common sight in graveyards, and this could be the reason why they’re sometimes associated with ill-fortune and even death. In Victorian times it was widely believed that you should avoid bringing snowdrops into your house. If you disobeyed this rule the consequences could range from your milk turning sour to a member of your family dropping dead within a year. Plainly the snowdrop isn’t a flower to be trifled with!

Although these days we happily dismiss such dire warnings as fanciful nonsense, it’s worth noting that snowdrops are poisonous due to high concentrations of phenanthridine alkaloids, particularly in the bulbs. Now, I haven’t a clue what a phenanthridine alkaloid is, but (just like the average beer-swilling Saturday night out during my student days) it’s known to cause confusion, poor coordination, drooling, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and seizures. I humbly conclude that excessive student partying and eating snowdrops are both best avoided!

Hopton Hall, 2017

Paradoxically although some people make a connection between snowdrops and death, others view them as symbols of hope. The reason, I suppose, is that they show themselves just as winter’s drawing to a close, and their appearance is a sure sign that the days are getting both longer and warmer, and that spring will soon arrive.

It’s for just this reason that, around about now every year, Mrs P and I traditionally mark the changing of the seasons by taking a trip to one of our local snowdrop hotspots. These include the gardens of Hopton Hall, an 18th-century country house in Derbyshire, the Dimminsdale Nature Reserve on Derbyshire’s border with Leicestershire, and two estate gardens in Nottinghamshire, at Hodsock Priory and Felley Priory. Each boasts a fine display of snowdrops, and looks splendid on a crisp and sunny February day

Dimminsdale Nature Reserve, 2019

Sadly, to visit one of these snowdrop havens in 2021 would contravene the government’s strict Covid lockdown rules and invite a fine of £200 (each!) from the local constabulary. Instead, we’ve had to get our annual snowdrop fix from Mrs P’s excellent photos and a small clump that survives against all odds in our unkempt front garden. Ah well, there’s always next year I suppose, once Covid’s back in its box.

Felley Priory, 2017

Celebrating World Wetlands Day: return of the cranes

Yesterday was World Wetlands Day. Held on 2 February every year since 1997, the Day aims to celebrate and raise global awareness about the vital role of wetlands for people and our planet. To the casual observer wetlands may not seem vital at all, but instead an inconvenient and undesirable quagmire of mud, mosquitoes and misery. The truth, however, is very different.

Wetlands take many forms, including rivers, lakes, ponds, marshes, fens, swamps, mangroves, estuaries, floodplains and lagoons. Why are they considered vital? To put it at its most basic, wetlands are all about water and so is life. The equation is very simple: no water equals no life. Whether we’re talking about drinking water, food production or storing carbon emissions, humankind needs healthy, thriving wetlands.

And so does the rest of life on Earth. Wetlands are vital for biodiversity: although freshwater wetlands cover less than 1% of the planet’s surface, 40% of all species rely on them.

But despite their importance, wetlands are in big trouble. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) estimates that 87% of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the last 300 years, with vast swathes being drained for housing, industry and agriculture. Those wetlands that remain often suffer from serious pollution, and are also threatened by climate change.

Monty

The Ramsar Convention, which dates from 1971, seeks to secure international agreement and co-operation to protect wetlands. And yet, despite no fewer than 171 countries signing up to this intergovernmental treaty, the loss of – and damage to – wetlands across the globe continues unabated, with an impact on biodiversity that’s difficult to overstate. In this context, World Wetlands Day and similar initiatives – both large and small – are to be welcomed as a means of raising awareness of the continuing wetlands crisis.

* * *

Mrs P and I are big fans of wetlands, which offer superb opportunities for birdwatching. We are lifetime members of the WWT, a UK-based conservation trust which seeks to “conserve, restore and create wetlands, and inspire everyone to value the amazing things healthy wetlands can do for us.”

Sadly we live around 90 miles (145km) from the nearest WWT reserve, so our visits aren’t as frequent as we’d wish. But every visit we’re able to manage is worth the effort, none more so than our 2014 trip to the Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire. Here we were able to witness first hand the positive impact of the Great Crane Project.

Eurasian cranes are unmistakeable birds, standing more than four feet (1.2m) high, with slate-grey plumage, a red crown and a bold white streak extending from the eye to the upper back. They were once common in British wetlands, and countless place names – like Cranford in West London, close to where I grew up – include the element ‘cran’ to signify a locality where these majestic birds were known to congregate.

But loss of habitat due to the drainage of wetlands led to a decline in numbers, and hunting made things even worse. For example, in 1251 King Henry III served 115 cranes at his Christmas dinner, while in 1465 a feast to celebrate the enthronement of George Neville as Archbishop of York involved the consumption of 204 cranes. I can only hope these medieval displays of unrestrained gluttony were followed by unrelieved bouts of chronic indigestion…serve the buggers right, I say!

Unsurprisingly, by around the year 1600 cranes had become extinct throughout Britain. They remained absent from the British landscape for nearly 400 years.

In 1979 a small number of cranes crossed the sea from continental Europe to settle in the Norfolk Broads. They began to breed three years later, but the location was kept secret to avoid the unwelcome attention of egg collectors. The population survives, and has crept into other parts of East Anglia and a few other isolated spots in eastern Britain. But cranes mature slowly and typically have poor breeding success, with the result that after around 40 years the descendants of the Norfolk population remain pitifully small in number.

Chris(tine)

With the prospect of cranes naturally recolonising other parts of their ancestral range being remote, conservationists needed an alternative strategy if the bird was to spread in reasonable numbers to wetlands in the west of Britain. And thus was born the Great Crane Project, with the aim of establishing a self-sustaining breeding population of 20 pairs on the Somerset Levels by 2025.

The project saw a coalition of conservation organisations (WWT, RSPB, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust and Viridor Credits) join forces to work on this highly ambitious, ground-breaking project. Each year between 2010 and 2014, around 20 Eurasian crane eggs were taken under licence from Brandenburg in Germany to be hatched in the UK. In all, 93 chicks were carefully raised in captivity. Dedicated “human parents” hand-reared the youngsters, educating them in the ways of the world at “crane school” before releasing them into the wild on the RSPB reserve at West Sedgemoor on the Somerset Levels. Simultaneously, work was undertaken at some sites to restore and improve the habitat for cranes.

* * *

When Mrs P and I visited Slimbridge WWT reserve in 2014, the prospect of seeing cranes never entered our heads. We’d previously enjoyed a couple of fleeting, distant views of cranes in East Anglia, but it seemed wildly improbable that any birds from the Great Crane Project would end up at Slimbridge, around 66 miles (106km) from where they were released.

And yet, amazingly, we were treated to fantastic views of a pair of cranes, strutting, preening and displaying just a few metres from where we were sitting. What a privilege, to spend an hour in such close proximity to majestic birds that once graced British wetlands in huge numbers, but which are now so scarce.

Monty

The coloured rings on the cranes’ legs make it possible to identify the individual birds we saw that day: the Great Crane Project website confirms them to be Monty and Chris(tine). Theirs was one of the first breeding attempts by any of the birds released as part of the Great Crane Project, but sadly they failed to raise any youngsters, either in 2014 or subsequent years.

The 2020 Annual Report, authored by Elizabeth Antliff-Clark and Damon Bridge from the RSPB, indicates that the cranes released between 2010 and 2014 have so far fledged 31 youngsters, of which 27 are still alive. Sadly 2020 was not a particularly good year for breeding success. The annual report tells us

“27 pairs of breeding age birds were observed in 2020 – two more than last year. Of these, all 27 pairs were thought to be holding territories. 15 pairs made confirmed or probable breeding attempts. Because monitoring activities were minimal on account of the Covid 19 restrictions, there were a higher proportion of pairs in the ‘possibly bred’ category than in previous years so it is likely that this confirmed/probable figure would have been higher in a ‘typical’ year. Nine of the 15 pairs successfully hatched chicks with four of these going on to fledge.

The 15 confirmed and probable nesting attempts this year were made on the Somerset Levels and Moors (7 prs); WWT Slimbridge Reserve Gloucestershire (5 prs); Oxfordshire (2 pr); Cambridgeshire (1 female).”


SOURCE: The Great Crane Project 2020 Report Public Version (section 4.1), published on Great Crane Project website, retrieved 28/01/21

The report goes on to suggest that the explanation for 2020’s poor success rate lies in the near-drought conditions experienced at the time, which led to the drying-out of nest-sites and an increase in predation. If this is correct then last year’s poor performance may be regarded as a blip, and improved breeding success can reasonably be anticipated in 2021.

Let’s hope so. Cranes are a welcome addition to the biodiversity of British wetlands. If the Great Crane Project succeeds in its ambitions the species will continue its slow recovery from nearly 400 years of local extinction, allowing many more birders – and ordinary members of the public – to marvel at the sight of these magnificent birds. Wouldn’t that be an achievement for wetlands conservation!

* * *

STOP PRESS: Just as I was about schedule this post for publication I picked up a press release from the RSPB / Crane Working Group. It reports that “the latest common crane survey reveals a record-breaking 64 pairs of cranes in 2020, bringing the total population [across all of the UK] to over 200 birds.” This number includes the birds released as part of the Great Crane Project and their descendants, and the descendants of the birds that returned naturally to the Norfolk Broads in 1979. The 64 pairs produced a total of 23 chicks.

What brilliant, timely news! There are bound to be bumps along the road, such as the drought that coincided with the 2020 breeding season, but taken as a whole the prospects for cranes in the UK look better than at any time since the Middle Ages. Give Nature half a chance, and She WILL fight back.

Public declarations of love: Bakewell love lock bridge

Bakewell is a picturesque market town in the Derbyshire Peak District. Built on the banks of the River Wye and most famous for the Bakewell Pudding, the town also boasts a range of pretty stone buildings and a church founded in 920. The handsome five-arched stone bridge across the river dates from around 1300, and is much admired by tourists, photographers and painters.

Mrs P and I have dropped in at Bakewell many times over the years so it was a surprise to discover, during a post-lockdown visit last summer, that as well as the five-arched masterpiece the town is also home to another notable bridge: the Weir Bridge.

This second bridge, a footbridge linking the town centre to the local Agricultural Business Centre, has no great age to it. Neither is it good to look at – in fact, it’s a functional steel monstrosity, probably one of the ugliest bridges the world has ever seen. No, the reason for its fame is altogether different. It’s a love lock bridge, dripping with padlocks large and small, many engraved with the names of couples intent on declaring their love for one another to the whole world.

For the uninitiated, here’s what Wikipedia tells us about love locks:

love lock or love padlock is a padlock that sweethearts lock to a bridge, fence, gate, monument, or similar public fixture to symbolize their love. Typically the sweethearts’ names or initials, and perhaps the date, are inscribed on the padlock, and its key is thrown away (often into a nearby river) to symbolize unbreakable love…Since the 2000s, love locks have proliferated at an increasing number of locations worldwide. 

Source: Wikipedia, retrieved 8 January 2021

The tradition of love locks fastened to bridges is said to have begun in Serbia during World War I, after a schoolmistress died of heartbreak when her lover deserted her for a woman whom he met when he went off to war in Greece. Other local women, horrified at befalling the same fate, began to fasten padlocks bearing their own names and those of their true loves to the bridge where the schoolmistress and her lover used to meet.

Padlocks first started appearing on Bakewell’s Weir Bridge in 2012, and now there are thousands of them. An enterprising local tradesman sells and engraves padlocks destined for the bridge, and is presumably making a tidy profit if the number of padlocks we saw that day is any guide.

The trend for these public declarations of love divides opinion. Some people are enchanted by the romance of it all, while others are appalled by the brutal ugliness of your average padlock. Meanwhile, civil engineers are worried that the sheer weight of so many padlocks will cause bridges to collapse, with the situation in Paris being regarded as particularly serious.

Personally, I’m relaxed about love lock bridges. Plainly where there’s a danger of a bridge collapsing the padlocks must be removed and / or outlawed. And they are inappropriate on structures of great architectural merit or historical interest. But on a bridge as sturdy, ugly and insignificant as Bakewell’s Weir Bridge, what’s the problem?

At their best I find love lock bridges quirky, inoffensive and strangely reassuring. Think how many good news stories are symbolised by the padlocks on the Weir Bridge. Despite all the problems facing the modern world today, isn’t it good to know that love is still alive and well amongst visitors to Bakewell, and is also dear to the hearts of couples visiting hundreds of love lock structures scattered across the globe.

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UPDATE: MARCH 2021: On 22 March 2021, just weeks after this post was published, the Derby Telegraph reported that Derbyshire County Council intends to remove all the locks from the Weir Bridge, and will not allow any more to be attached in the future. Councils, don’t you just love ’em? NO!

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.