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:
A 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.
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.
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!
As the UK’s first Covid lockdown began to ease last June, one of our earliest trips out was to Straws Bridge nature reserve close to the small Derbyshire town of Ilkeston. It’s known to locals as Swan Lake because … well, because it’s a lake that boasts several handsome swans amongst its residents. The swans were out in force when we visited, but were overshadowed in our eyes by the unexpected sight of a family of mandarin ducks.
Mandarins favour small wooded ponds and avoid large expanses of open water, so the Straws Bridge reserve is ideal for them. Comprising three modest bodies of water set in a landscape of mixed woodland and meadows, it’s one of those habitats that shows how nature can bounce back when man lends a helping hand. In the 1970s and 1980s the area was scarred by open cast coal mining, but when the company concerned got into financial difficulties the local council took it on and restored the site as a wildlife habitat and local amenity.
We’ve visited this reserve many times over the years and have always found it busy with families out for a stroll, often with a loaf of bread in hand to feed the swans and ducks and – inadvertently – sustain the burgeoning rat population at the same time.
In June last year the place was heaving with visitors, all grateful to get into the open air after the relaxation of the government’s stay-at-home Covid restrictions. None of them, other than Mrs P and I, appeared to have a clue that they were in the presence of a bird that’s regarded by many as the world’s most beautiful duck.
Mandarin ducks look far too exotic to be native British birds, and that’s absolutely right. They hail from East Asia – China, Japan and eastern Russia. The male sports a bright red bill, a reddish face with a large white crescent above the eye, a purple breast with two vertical white bars, and ruddy flanks. It also has two orange “sails” at the back. These comprise large feathers that stick up like the sails of a boat, and are perhaps the most eye-catching feature of what is a very elaborate bird.
The female, however, is drab, with a grey head, brown back and mottled flanks. Her white eye-ring and stripe can’t disguise the fact that, in common with the females of most duck species, she’s unremarkable.
Although the disparity in their looks might suggest otherwise, eastern folklore tells us that a pair of mandarins make the perfect couple. The birds are said to mate for life. In traditional Chinese and Japanese culture, mandarin ducks are therefore regarded as symbols of marital faithfulness. They are a favourite of artists, and also feature in Buddhist legends where they are said to represent compassion.
The supposed everlasting bond between mandarins is captured in a Japanese folktale, which begins with a great lord capturing a male bird so he can forever enjoy its beautiful plumage. Separated from its mate, the male is desperately lonely and begins to pine away. Seeing that the bird will soon die of a broken heart, the lord’s maidservant and her samurai lover decide to do the decent thing and reunite the lovelorn pair. However they get caught in the act and the furious lord condemns them to death for their treachery, proving beyond all doubt that for mankind and birdlife alike the course of true love does not always run smoothly!
* * *
It was in the mid-18th century when mandarins were first brought to Britain, with the intention of adding a bit of oriental glamour to the ornamental waterfowl collections of the idle rich. They escaped with monotonous regularity, and sometimes were deliberately released, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that a significant self-sustaining population of feral birds became established.
Since then numbers have grown rapidly, and there are now reckoned to be close to 8,000 mandarin ducks scattered widely throughout England. There are also feral populations in parts of continental Europe, as well as California and North Carolina in the US.
Spotting a lucrative gap in the market, China exported tens – or perhaps hundreds – of thousands of mandarins over several decades. Although the trade was banned in 1975 its impact, combined with widespread habitat loss, has resulted in a big fall in the wild Chinese population. Luckily mandarin ducks are reputed not to taste very good, otherwise pressures on the wild population would have been even greater in a country with over a billion mouths to feed.
Mandarins are notable for perching in trees, and the female invariably chooses a hole or cavity in a tree trunk in which to lay her eggs. After hatching, the ducklings jump to the ground and avoid injury thanks to the cushioning of their fluffy down. The mother swiftly gathers her brood together, and leads them to water. At Straws Bridge the female had plainly done a good job, and we got clear – although distant – views of some juveniles.
However, without doubt the male is the star of the mandarin show. What a looker!
It’s Christmas Eve afternoon. We’re sitting in the garden room, listening to music and watching the midwinter sun die slowly in the western sky. Overhead, gangs of starlings flock back to their roost, chattering noisily to one another as they pass. Then, to our right, a familiar clatter. It can mean only one thing: our good friend Milky Bar, the visiting cat who calls our garden home, has leapt onto the rickety fence that separates our property from Jim’s.
Yes, there he is. But something’s wrong. Normally the fence panels, although barely a couple of centimetres wide, are no challenge to a young, athletic cat blessed with a fine sense of balance. Today, however, he’s struggling, jerkily swaying to the left and then to the right, like a drunken tightrope walker in a tornado. Indignity – and possibly serious injury – seems just seconds away.
But when we look more closely we realise he’s already injured. Milky Bar’s standing on three legs, holding his right front paw clear of the fence. It looks badly swollen, and we can tell by his demeanour that he’s in a lot of pain.
Maybe he’s broken a bone in a freak accident? Perhaps he’s ripped out a claw fighting with a cat that dared invade his territory? Or has an infection set in, sending poison coursing through his frail little body? This look serious.
For several minutes Milky Bar maintains a precarious balance on the fence, before finally taking a leap of faith into our garden. As he lands a shockwave runs through his whole body, and he immediately snatches his damaged paw back into the air. He just stands there looking stunned and dishevelled, apparently unable to take another step. The boisterous, confident cat we know and love is gone, and he looks so fragile that a gentle puff of wind could topple him.
We discuss what to do. If we knew where he lives we’d go fetch one of his family, but Milky Bar’s domestic arrangements have always been a mystery to us. We agree that if he doesn’t move on after a few minutes we’ll bring him into the house, keep him warm and give him some food. We’ll even try to track down an emergency vet, though on Christmas Eve in the middle of a pandemic that could be tricky.
Finally, after an agonising wait for all parties, Milky Bar gathers himself and hobbles off slowly towards the area of the estate where we suspect his family lives. He looks so sad, so crushed, and we fear that we may never see him again.
* * *
We spend a restless night, haunted by the prospect of losing another “borrowed” cat. It happened once before when Sid disappeared suddenly and without trace, and we can’t bear the thought of history repeating itself.
Christmas Day dawns and we work our way through the familiar routine: opening presents, phoning family, whacking a turkey the size of a small ostrich into the oven. It’s business as usual, but our spirits are subdued as we worry about Milky Bar’s fate. We scan the garden every few minutes, but he’s nowhere to be seen. We fear the worst.
And then, when we’ve all but convinced ourselves that he’s not coming back, Milky Bar appears. He’s limping badly and his paw is still swollen, but at least he’s made it through the night and must be feeling a bit better to venture away from home. A couple of minutes later he leaves, but we reassure ourselves that he’s on the mend.
We don’t see him again for the next couple of days, and our anxieties start to return. In particular we worry that infection has taken hold, perhaps because his family were unable to find a vet to give him some urgently needed antibiotics during the festive holiday. But still we check the garden regularly, hoping for good news.
And finally, at last, our borrowed cat re-appears, cheekily peering up at us through the kitchen window. We can tell immediately that he’s feeling much better. The sparkle’s returned to his eyes, and he’s moving more freely.
To reward his courage we offer our brave little soldier some cold roast turkey, tossing it onto the patio in front of him. Milky Bar’s on it in a flash, tucking in greedily and looking cuter than ever. Clearly, this moggie’s got his mojo back.
Then, to round off a perfect day, Milky Bar’s pal Malteser also puts in an appearance. Never one to turn down food, he wolfs down some turkey too.
Having filled their faces, the two cats swagger off in search of their next adventure. But hopefully this time Milky Bar will take a little more care. It’s been an anxious few days, and we could do without a repeat performance any time soon.
* * *
Postscript – do you want to know more about Milky Bar and Malteser? Follow the links below for earlier posts featuring the feline superstars
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.
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.
* * *
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!”
* * *
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.
* * *
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!
What a bloody year it’s been. I expect you’ve noticed…the UK’s barmy Brexit brinksmanship, the excruciating US election, the brutal killing of George Floyd, the Australian bushfires, the climate-change deniers, the relentless rise of rampant populism, the worldwide economic meltdown. And then, of course, there’s Covid.
I could go on but you’re probably depressed enough already, so I’ll leave it there. I’m sure you get the point.
From a personal point of view it’s not been great either. It’s true we’ve avoided Covid, and I’m very grateful for that, but otherwise 2020 feels like The Lost Year. It’s the first time since Mrs P and I married over 35 years ago that we’ve spent every single night under our own roof. Planned breaks in various parts of the country had to be cancelled, and the best we’ve managed has been some local birdwatching and a few daytrips to places close to home.
Although phone calls and the internet helped us stay in touch, we’ve spent almost no time with family or friends since March. We managed to “attend” a few folk music gigs on YouTube and Zoom, but it ain’t like the real thing, is it? Worse still, we’ve not been to a restaurant for over nine months, and although we both enjoy cooking, we’re sick of it right now. A man can cook – and eat – too many curries, and this man has.
And when, we wonder, will we ever be able to safely visit a coffee house again for a sweet, steaming mocha and an enormous slab of chocolate cake?
* * *
About ten days ago Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television to announce tougher restrictions aimed at halting the spread of a new, more virulent strain of Covid-19. The festive plans of millions of Brits were ruined. At a stroke BoJo had come close to cancelling Christmas, and people were in shock.
Later that evening we settled down in front of the television to watch the final of Strictly Come Dancing (for anyone reading this in North America, that’s the UK’s version of Dancing with the Stars). Eventual winner Bill Bailey danced his Showdance to The Show Must Go On, a classic number by Queen [click here for the poignant lyrics, and magical archive footage of Freddie Mercury leading the vocals] . Answering a question from host Claudia Winkelman directly after his dance, a panting Bill Bailey agreed that his routine was a “rallying call.” He said:
……the restrictions are going to be harder [following the Prime Minister’s announcement] and people are going to be isolated at Christmas…it’s not just a song about the arts, this is an anthem about not giving up, keeping hope, getting through this…the show must go on. It’s about being strong and getting through all of this.
Bill Bailey, speaking on BBC Strictly Come Dancing live broadcast on 19/12/2020 and subsequently reported by Digital Spy. Retrieved 24/12/2020
And that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s been a rotten year, but the show must go on. We must learn from what’s happened, but refuse to be crushed by the tragedy of it. Now is the time to consciously embrace positivity, to look forward with hope and expectation, to take comfort in the belief that – if we all pull together and do the right thing – 2021 can be better than the wretched year that’s about to end
The lyrics to Queen’s song include the following lines. The words were written nearly 30 years ago but have never been more relevant than they are today, as we prepare to step forward into the new year:
I’ll face it with a grin I’m never giving in On with the show
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.
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.
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!
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!
What will you be having for Christmas dinner this year? Tell the world about your Christmas menu by submitting a comment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
My last post described a recent visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Some of the sculptures displayed there can be seen in traditional galleries while others are to be found in the open air, in a magnificent parkland landscape of hills, woodland, lakes and formal gardens. The undoubted highlight of our visit was Beyond, a temporary exhibition by celebrated Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971).
Joana Vasconcelos creates vibrant, often monumental sculpture, using fabric, needlework and crochet alongside everyday objects from saucepans to wheel hubs. She frequently uses items associated with domestic work and craft to comment from a feminist perspective on national and collective identity, cultural tradition and women’s roles in society
Sounds a bit wild and wacky, doesn’t it? I’m happy to say that the exhibition fully lived up to its billing. Joana Vasconcelos’ creations are amazing, a true delight in a year that’s been painfully grim.
There was an early indication of what to expect as we drove up to the car park: a multi-coloured rooster towering nine metres above startled visitors. It’s called Pop Galo [Pop Rooster] and is inspired by the Barcelos Rooster (aka the Portuguese Rooster.)
I’ve never been to Portugal and the legend of the Barcelos Rooster had therefore passed me by, but research for this post tells me that it’s regarded as the embodiment of the Portuguese spirit and love for life. Always vividly coloured, the Barcelos Rooster is a cultural icon and the unofficial symbol of the nation.
In Portugal the Barcelos Rooster is traditionally rendered as a colourful piece of pottery. Vasconcelos has fashioned hers from no fewer than 17,000 glazed tiles, creating a monumental and unforgettable artwork. Stunning!
And while we’re on the subject of monumental artwork, Solitário [Solitaire], is also pretty damned impressive. Standing seven metres high, it comprises golden car wheel rims topped with a huge diamond crafted from crystal whisky glasses, all fashioned into a stridently ostentatious engagement ring.
The website explains that Solitaire shouldn’t be seen as a blingy blot on the landscape but is, rather, a piece of caustic commentary on modern societal values. It says: “representing the stereotypical ambition of our society to acquire wealth and material possessions, the work unites symbols of luxury – cars, jewellery and alcohol – which bridge social classes.” So now we know!
Joana Vasconselos was born in Paris but lives in Lisbon, and trained initially as a jeweller before becoming a sculptor. The change of direction has enabled her to develop her craftsmanship on an altogether grander scale. In her world big is most definitely beautiful, whether outdoors or in.
And moving along to one of the indoor galleries, another of Vasconcelos’ startling pieces is Marilyn, a pair of oversized silver stilettos made entirely from hundreds of stainless steel saucepans.
The work’s title references Marilyn Monroe and is, in the words of the website, “[a commentary] on social conventions [highlighting] the division between women’s traditional domestic and contemporary public roles.”
Another work to be seen in one of the indoor galleries is Red Independent Heart #3, based on the Heart of Viana, a well-known Portuguese emblem symbolising life, love, friendship, honesty and generosity. It stands over three metres high and hangs from the ceiling, slowly rotating. As it turns, expressive and melancholy Portuguese fado songs play in the background, speaking of love, loss and the conflict between emotion and reason.
The piece is made entirely from red plastic cutlery which have been shaped and manipulated until its individual components are barely recognisable.
I’m not sure how I feel about plastic sculptures – there’s way too much plastic in the world already. But let’s give Vasconcelos the benefit of the doubt, and assume the thousands of items making up her Red Independent Heart are recycled cutlery that were otherwise destined for the nearest dump.
Plastic features in another of the works that make up the Beyond exhibition. At four metres high, Tutti Frutti dominates views of the landscape in which it sits. It’s made from plastic moulds of apples, pears, strawberries and croissants – all suspended from a stainless steel frame. Portuguese children apparently use these moulds at the beach to make a local version of sandcastles.
Tutti Frutti is one of those sculptures that can’t fail to raise a smile – who can resist such garishly whimsical frivolity? But beneath it all is a serious message about modern society’s tendency towards overindulgence and superficiality. The artist proclaims that the seductive moulds beguile and captivate unwary onlookers, who fail to spot the hollowness at their heart.
Of course cynics might argue that this is a metaphor for all of Joana Vasconcelos’ work, but I say “to hell with cynics!”
And finally, take a look at I’ll Be Your Mirror. Standing over three metres high and composed of countless elegantly-shaped mirrors, this work presents the classic Venetian mask as we’ve never imagined it before.
Masks have traditionally offered a hiding place, and never more so than in this year of Covid-19. We all wear masks at the supermarket these days, and behind each I see someone just like me, lying low and hiding from the virus. Mirrors, mirrors, everywhere…
Joana Vasconcelos’ work will not be to everyone’s taste. Indeed you may find it crass, pretentious or even banal – this reviewer for one was clearly unimpressed.
I will admit that her sculptures don’t magically reveal the meaning of life. But for god’s sake, they’re fun aren’t they? And don’t we all need a bit of fun in these dark, dark days? For me these monumental pieces are genuinely joyful, they have a “wow factor” and – if you so choose – they can make you think about stuff in a slightly different way.
If this is art, then give me more. Joana Vasconcelos, you are beyond amazing.