The Barrow Hill Roundhouse and the romance of steam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Burghley sculpture garden

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

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

Vertical Face II

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

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

Held

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

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

Cornu Cecilium

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

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

Trojan Horse

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

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

Teddy bears’ picnic

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

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

Everlasting Spring

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

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

Elicoide BG

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

City Cuts

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

Visions of heaven and hell: the Burghley prodigy house

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

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

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

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

The Great Hall lives up to its name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Derbyshire: magnificent mansions and hidden hermitages!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dale Abbey hermitage dates from the 12th century

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

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

View from the inside of Dale Abbey hermitage

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

Year of the (Amur) Tiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birdwatching banishes the Blue Monday blues

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

The larger of the Hardwick ponds, 15 January 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Female goosander having a flap, observed by a preening male

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

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

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

Yorkshire Wildlife Park: Saving the Warty Pig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A colourful evening at Yorkshire Wildlife Park

We first visited Yorkshire Wildlife Park (YWP) a few months after I retired, and have returned several times since I have some reservations about keeping wild creatures in captivity (don’t we all?), but the place seems OK. The animals are plainly well cared for, with plenty of space to roam. Importantly, the Park supports a number of conservation initiatives to breed highly endangered species in captivity, and seeks to educate visitors about their plight. I’ll write more about some of these conservation projects later in the year.

To help raise the money needed to care for its animals YWP is always looking for new ways to encourage visitors. Last year we’d planned to visit the Park’s Light and Lantern Festival held around Christmas, but Covid restrictions got in the way. This year the restrictions have been, well, less restrictive…but the weather was miserable throughout December, so we gave it a miss.

Finally, last week, conditions improved and we made the decision to hot-foot it 45 miles (72km) up the M1 to the outskirts of Doncaster to catch the Festival before it ends in mid-January. It was definitely worth the trip, as Mrs P’s photos show. With the exception of one hyena, which was racing madly around its spacious enclosure like Usain Bolt in his prime, living animals were notable by their absence. I suspect they were all sleeping peacefully in their dens and nests, blissfully unaware of the numerous visitors trekking round the Park, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the spectacular illuminations.

The lanterns celebrate many of the animals living at the Park – including lions, leopards and okapi – and some that don’t. A T-Rex and sundry other dinosaurs paid homage to animals that none of us will ever see in the flesh. Let’s hope that the conservation initiatives supported by YWP, and similar bodies throughout the UK and beyond, mean that the species currently living there won’t suffer a similar fate to that of the dearly departed dinos.

The Festival of Christmas Trees at Chesterfield parish church

The Christmas season seems to have been with us forever. Pubs and restaurants have been promoting their festive menus for months. For several weeks shops have been cluttered with seasonal promotions. And Christmas trees are springing up all over the place, in public spaces, shops and windows all over town.

The tree on the far right is sponsored by a bridalwear business: brilliantly inventive!

The link between evergreen plants, including fir trees, and mid-winter festivals pre-dates Christianity. It reflects our ancestors’ conviction that, even on the darkest of days, better times and the green shoots of spring are just around the corner.

The Christmas tradition of bringing fir trees into the home and decorating them appears to have developed in the 16th century, in the area of Europe we now know as Germany. However it didn’t catch on in the UK until the middle of the 19th century.

The sudden rise in the popularity of Christmas trees here was down to the royal family, which had historic links with Germany. These were boosted in 1841 when Queen Victoria married her German cousin Prince Albert, who had fond memories of Christmas trees from his childhood.

In the centre a tree decorated by a local mortgage broker featuring “baubles” in the shape of houses, and a silver key (presumably the key to the home you might buy with the help of their services!)

In 1848 the Illustrated London News reported enthusiastically on the Christmas trees Victoria and Albert had put up at Windsor Castle. It also featured on its front cover an illustration of a cluster of happy royals admiring their biggest and best tree. The paper was widely read in well-to-do circles in and around London, and other newspapers also picked up on its story.

It soon became widely known just what the royals were up to, and at a time when it was fashionable amongst the wealthier classes to copy the lifestyle and habits of royalty, Christmas trees became all the rage. But only, of course, amongst those sections of the population with money to acquire them and the space to display them.

Centre left is a tree by a business selling intruder alarms (the “baubles” are actually Passive Infra-Red [PIR] detectors!) The centre right tree is from a local jeweller.

In time the fashion trickled down through the social hierarchy until just about everyone in the country aspired to celebrate Our Lord’s birthday by chopping down a poor, defenceless little fir tree and disfiguring it with gaudily tasteless decorations. Bah, humbug!

* * *

Please forgive the previous paragraph… I jest, of course. In fact, Mrs P and I do rather like Christmas trees, although at Platypus Towers we make do with an artificial one to avoid the carpet being knee-deep in pine needles before Twelfth Night. So to get into the Christmas spirit, a couple of weeks ago we took a trip to the north of our home county of Derbyshire to visit the Festival of Christmas Trees at the parish church of St Mary and All Saints in Chesterfield.

Not all trees are from businesses. Second from the left is a tree presented by BANA (British Acoustic Neuroma Association) and second from the right is one from Chesterfield Panthers Rugby Club.

We discovered that the church was playing host to around 120 Christmas trees donated and decorated by local businesses, community organisations, service providers and sports clubs. Of course, the motivation of those providing the trees wasn’t entirely selfless: promotion of their products, services and causes appeared to be the name of the game in most cases.

But it doesn’t pay to be churlish. Plenty of folk just like us were also wandering happily through the church that Thursday morning, admiring the imagination and inventiveness of the people behind the various Christmas tree creations. It’s been a difficult year for most of us, although perhaps not quite as grim as 2020, and the Festival of Christmas Trees felt like a good attempt to raise community spirits, to bring people together and to encourage everyone to look forward to more cheerful times ahead. I’m pleased we made the effort to attend.

A local timber merchant celebrates the crooked spire of St Mary and All Saints church

Andy Warhol, the Devil and unexpected virgins: the story of Chesterfield’s crooked spire

Andy Warhol is said to have observed that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.  By extension it might be argued that everywhere will be famous too, that each and every place under the sun will become well-known for something, albeit in most cases something rather insignificant. Chesterfield, for example, is famous for the crooked spire that graces its medieval church, but for little else.

Chesterfield, for the uninitiated, is a town in the north of my home county of Derbyshire. Home to around 100,000 people, for the most part it’s pleasant though unremarkable place. The coal industry that once dominated the landscape and economy of this part of Derbyshire is all gone now, and today Chesterfield’s role is primarily as a service centre for the surrounding area.

Bizarrely, just as I was about to start writing this post, a news report popped up in my inbox declaring that, according to a recent survey, Chesterfield is the happiest place to live in the whole of the English East Midlands. Really? I worked there for a couple of years in the late 1980s and don’t recall it being unusually joyful. But maybe the outbreak of local happiness coincided with my departure? Sounds plausible!

Reading the newspaper report more closely, I see that even some of the local residents query the accuracy of this accolade. Objectively, I suspect most unbiased observers would regard Chesterfield as memorably unmemorable, were it not for the iconic architectural imperfection otherwise known as the parish church of St Mary and All Saints.

Completed around the year 1360, St Mary’s and All Saints is Derbyshire’s largest church. It’s famed for its unusual crooked spire, which leans 9 feet 5 inches (nearly 3 metres) from true.  To be clear, this is not an eccentrically flamboyant design statement…the spire is meant to point straight up, like every other church spire in the known universe.

So what went wrong? The traditional explanation is that it was built with green, unseasoned timbers, which warped over time. But that can’t be it. Builders in the Middle Ages were accustomed to using used green timber, and would have made allowances to cope with it.

A more convincing explanation is that the spire’s 32 tonnes of lead tiles were simply too heavy. According to this theory the sheer weight of the tiles, combined with the failure to use cross-bracing, caused the spire to twist and lean alarmingly.

The omission of cross-bracing has been blamed on the Black Death, a plague that swept through the country between 1348 and 1350. If the experienced craftsmen working on the new Chesterfield church were killed by the disease, the spire may have been finished by unskilled builders to whom the concept of cross-bracing was totally unknown.

Accurate though this explanation may be, it’s disappointingly boring. Unsurprisingly, local folklore offers some more entertaining possibilities. One of these tells that the Devil was resting on the spire, where he was able to keep his balance only by wrapping his tail around it. However the smell of holy incense from inside the church offended him so much that he sneezed violently, jerking his tail in the process and causing the spire to twist.

A second explanation also blames the Devil. Old Nick was resting up on the church spire, his tail tightly wrapped around it while planning mischief and mayhem. In fear for the souls of his fellow townsfolk, one brave man rushed to the church, determined to warn everyone by ringing the church bells. The din was cacophonous. Taken totally by surprise, a shocked Devil lost his balance and toppled from the spire, twisting it as he plunged to the ground.

A third local legend once again points the finger of suspicion at the Devil According to this story, Satan was resting on the spire, tail wrapped round it in the now familiar manner. Looking below, he noticed a wedding about to take place in the church. On closer inspection he realised that the bride was a virgin, an occurrence so surprising in Chesterfield that he fainted from shock. As the unconscious Devil hurtled towards the ground his tail, still wrapped around the spire, twisted it into its current shape.

The fourth theory lets the Devil off the hook, and instead puts the blame squarely on the healthy sexual appetite of Chesterfield residents. According to this version, a virgin got married in St Mary’s, and the church itself was so surprised that its spire turned around to get a better look at such a rare specimen. The legend continues that if another virgin ever marries in the church, the spire will return to its original form again. Don’t hold your breath, folks!

Further explanations for the origin of Chesterfield’s crooked spire are available if you care to look, most of them involving the Devil or unexpected virgins. A definitive, agreed version, doesn’t seem likely to emerge any time soon. However, one thing is beyond dispute: the locals have taken this quirky architectural blunder to their hearts.

For example the local professional soccer team, Chesterfield Town FC, are known to fans as the Spireites, while over the years various local businesses have referred to the crooked spire in their branding and promotions. And who can blame them? Chesterfield’s crooked spire is a spectacular sight, and ensures that an otherwise rather unexceptional town enjoys its 15 minutes of fame. Andy Warhol would be impressed.