Blackberries – bottled and jammed; identifying small birds by call; a bit of Anglo Saxon history; the Hostel of St Cross; planes versus trains; “sugaring” for moths; the Burren Green and ladies’ tresses.
It’s August 20th 1948. A change of season is in the air and Gran writes, while blackberrying again in the woods opposite:
Again the fragrance of damp bracken and water mint mingled with the perfume of ripe blackberries to give that indescribable scent of the August woodland, and the tang of Autumn was heavy in the air… the birds were silent, save for an occasional “T’seet” from a Tit…”
Great, Blue and Coal Tits, together with several other small woodland species, I found difficult to identify by their calls when I started birding, and I remember asking Dad’s advice about how to tell them apart. His answer was, in a Mexican accent, “ eetz eazzy” (this being the call of all these birds) which we both found entertaining, but was of little help to me, as I did not find it easy!
Next day, Gran is off to Winchester via the bye-pass “…where the Wild Guelder and Wayfaring berries are now in perfection”. She writes:
St Catherine’s Hill lured me to look for Autumn Ladies’ Tresses, but in this I was unlucky and did not locate a single one this year… I have never seen so much Red Bartsia as on the foot of the hill today.
The harvest is well under way and she notes a threshing machine busy in a field at Compton, “the grain pouring out at one point and the straw at another, while the man fed it as fast as he could with the stooks previously carted”.
And a few days later, along the lane to Eastleigh:
Harvesting was in full swing and the promise of a fine day must have raised the hopes of farmers for the ingathering of the crops. Barley had already been carted for some had been pulled from the wagons in passing and was hung upon the hedges all along the lane.
Picking about seven pounds of blackberries with Jane on the 23rd, she is dismayed that:
…the usual peace and solitude of the woods is spoilt by the loud voices of some vandals cutting trees and burning undergrowth. Unfortunately part of our woods is let in plots for people to put up their own temporary homes and I fear the desecration of the woods will be a sad catastrophe for those of us who love them.
There is much gathering of blackberries around this time. Dad picked fourteen pounds in Cranbury Park and Gran says:
…the kitchen smelled deliciously of hot jam – I made thirteen pounds – and bottled the rest of the blackberries towards the Winter. There is a great satisfaction in gathering the bounty of the countryside and seeing a store of home-made jams and bottled fruit.
Gran seems to have need to visit Winchester quite often these days, for she is there again next day:
I entered Winchester from the bye-pass and so passed the oldest house in the City, the 15th century Chesil Rectory, which is now a tea-room.
And we get some more history:
It was in Winchester in the year 827 that the Anglo-Saxon King Egbert proclaimed himself the first King of all England and thus made it the first capital of the Country. Here also King Alfred began the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now preserved in the British Museum.
She writes at length about the St Cross Hospital, “the oldest almshouse in England” (founded in 1136):
In 1446 Cardinal Beaufort added another almshouse accommodation and the fine tower, under which the wayfarer entered to receive his dole of a horn of beer and a slice of bread on a wooden platter. This is still given out as far as present day circumstances allow. Now that bread rationing has ended it will be easier again.
When I was small, Gran took me to the Hostel of St Cross, where I too received alms. I doubt I was given beer!
Each evening, Gran meditates while looking out of her window as the sun sets. It is often a melancholy time for her. She says, on August 25th:
It has become still outside for a moment and a distant train is pulling out of the station. Somehow I like the sound of a train at night when all is quiet – it does not disturb my mind, but at the sound of an aeroplane my whole consciousness is in a state of protest immediately. I wonder why? Aeroplanes seem to me such alien things in a world of nature yet the train is just as much the product of man’s ingenuity and – in its early days – progress. But aircraft are always associated with war and its attendant horrors; trains are peaceable in comparison. I remember how, in the recent war, we were always so relieved to hear the trains start again after an air-raid warning. They usually moved before we heard the “all clear”, but we always knew it would soon follow their departure. How my mind wanders… one thought leading to another, always questing, pondering, remembering, wondering, and, I hope, learning…
Sunset was obscured by cloud but no rain had fallen to interfere with harvesting. I have put treacle on the tree for moths, water in the bird-bath but I am loth to go in. I stand watching the dusk creep over the woodland. Robins have ceased their evensong, and there is no sound now except close to the sugar-patch, the soft drone of moths’ wings can be heard, each one having its characteristic mode of arrival. The Yellow Underwings arrive hurriedly with a thump, the Copper Underwings land above the treacle and hurry, mouse-like, towards it, with a fussy, unsteady walk. Most moths fly straight onto the patch but the Copper Underwing invariably alights above or to one side and walks onto it. There is also a Mouse moth, two or three Square-spot Rustics and a Flame Shoulder moth. They feed greedily, the long proboscis thrust into a daub of treacle.
Later that night:
Barry has just come in and says that large parties of waders are flying over towards the coast but it is too dark to identify them and though we can hear them calling as they fly we do not recognize them.
We are given an interesting insight into Gran’s attitude to “country folk” and ‘town folk” by what she writes after meeting a mother near Pitt on the 29th:
I spoke to a countrywoman who had beautiful twins in a pram, pushing up a very steep hill. Seven months old they were, boy and girl, Geoffrey and Joyce. She told me she was so pleased to have one of each and when I said that I thought it nice too, she startled me by saying, “You see, it’s our first girl; we’ve got five boys including Geoffrey.” Yet she was immensely happy and proud of them and they were assuredly bonnie babes, and I suppose she leads a hard life, according to some standards. But she obviously possessed the contentment of the country folk, which makes one wonder if perhaps it is a great mistake to try too hard to “improve” their outlook, for the townsfolk, with all their opportunities of education, society and amusement do not possess one iota of this woman’s happiness and unquestioning contentment.
I’m not sure whether Gran thinks of herself as “Town” or “Country”.
September 1st sees Gran at a naturalist’s house in Farringdon, near Alton. She writes:
The cottage which I visited at Farringdon was most attractive, thatched, with a lovely pink jasmine (new to me) rambling over the front, and an interesting garden, which though rather out-of-hand was nevertheless attractive. Partly, no doubt, because it was a glory-hole for a naturalist, many of the trees having caterpillars “sleeved out” upon them… The interior of the cottage fascinated me – low, beamed ceilings and slanting walls upstairs, wooden doors opening from outside with strings and an uneven brick floor, polished and covered with rugs. Chintzy curtains, so in keeping with the whole, brick fireplaces, winding staircase but cunningly fitted with electric light, heating and modern conveniences.
Gran has a frustrating habit of not mentioning the names of those she writes about but luckily, in this case, Dad can enlighten me. He tells me that this was the abode of Hugh Robinson, inventor of the famous (within entomological circles, at any rate) Robinson moth trap, and his wife Mary.
His younger brother Peter lived at Sandy Down in the New Forest. The young Barry got to know both of them well and stayed with them at various times. He says, “They used to go in for old Bentleys and Lagondas, for which they reckoned to pay £1 per horse-power, and refurbish them. In 1951, we made the famous expedition to the Burren in an ancient Bentley – Hugh, Peter, Eric Classey and me, meeting Stuart Wright, the Irishman who had found the first Calamia tridens (Burren Green) the previous year, while wiping his bottom”!
And, in a telling indication of the loss since those days, not so much of biodiversity but of bio-abundance, Dad continues, “I remember seeing huge numbers of moths in Hugh’s trap – as there were in those days. Hugh reported getting 10,000 Setaceous Hebrew Characters in one night, and two and a half pounds of Yellow Underwings (too many to count) on another night”.
Gran brings back from Farringdon, seven almost fully-grown Privet Hawk caterpillars for Dad to rear.
Dad enlarges on the story of the Burren Green, saying that prior to this expedition, the Burren, in Western Ireland, was well known for its localised plants and day-flying moths and butterflies but until the Robinsons and their associates, with their new-fangled mercury vapour light traps, operated by generators, appeared on the scene, few studies had been made of the nocturnal Lepidoptera. The 1951 expedition discovered that the Burren Green was well established there, and on the same trip, new subspecies of several British moths were discovered.
Returning to Gran’s journal: Dad, on his way to Cornwall on September 4th 1948, writes to his mother from Honiton to say that on the way, he had found that orchid Gran had failed to find on St. Catherine’s Hill in August – Autumn Ladies’ Tresses Spiranthes autumnalis – on Pepperbox Hill in Wiltshire. And in her journal Gran writes in response:
It is a joy to me that both my children are nature-lovers… we are blessed by living in this lovely place and having so many years of their childhood when it was quite unspoilt. And I am thankful that I took them about the countryside from babyhood, showing them all the things that I love so well…
She follows this with a quote from Richard Jefferies, who, she says, wrote long ago, “All of you with little children, take them somehow into the country, among green grass and yellow wheat – among trees – by hills and streams, if you wish their highest education, that of the heart and the soul, to be completed”.
In today’s world, when so many children in the UK are reared on concrete and tarmac, and are actually fearful of the countryside, these I suggest, are wise words. In my experience as a countryside ranger, there was nothing more uplifting than to see urban children thrilled and challenged by the experiences of the outdoors: the stoop of a Peregrine; the negotiation of a flooding tidal channel; the risk of muddying a pristine set of trainers!
However, a few pages later I discover that you don’t, after all, have to be an urban dweller to be afraid of what the countryside has to offer, for Gran writes:
A neighbour’s child came today to ask what they should do about a bat which was resting on the curtain in their house. I assured her that it would not hurt them and would remain quiet until dusk if undisturbed. She said her mother was afraid of it and wanted to know if it would be safe to leave it until her father came home to take the curtain down. I wondered why she did not take it down herself!
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 1)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 2)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 3)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 4)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 5)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 6)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 7)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 8)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 9)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 10)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 11)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 12)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 13)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 14)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 15)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 16)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 17)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 18)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 19)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 20)