It’s a Brambling winter; a stranded kitten; some “beautiful rascals”; geese and an “iffy” bridge; a plummeting Spoonbill; the Wasp Spider; tranquility of The Ridge garden and past hopes for the future are recalled.
On January 14th 1950, Barry birded in the Hythe area, seeing many typical birds of the range of habitats there but his visit was primarily in order to witness a movement of Pied Wagtails going to roost, first noted several weeks earlier. Gran describes it:
The Wagtail movement commenced again at 4.27 [in the afternoon], with four birds, and in various sized parties, some of as many as one hundred and twenty birds. About 700 in all must have passed. The main, Southerly movement was in the direction of Calshot. Barry left the area at 4.50 to catch the boat for home.
These birds, rather like Starlings, are known to form sizeable winter roosts, usually in locally warm places, such as in town centres and on the roofs and eves of less-well insulated buildings. Nevertheless, I think it would be hard to find a roost of this size nowadays.
I have been frustrated throughout the journal by Gran’s lack of political comment about the times in which she lived, but it seems that she had no interest in such things. Even the views of others do not elicit any political statements from Gran. On January 24th she writes:
The afternoon was brilliantly fine and sunny but very cold. I worked in the greenhouse, cutting down old tomato plants and cleaning pots for seed sowing. Unfortunately I was not alone and was treated to the political views of the old man who also works at the Park Road garden. Not my strong subject at the best of times!
Gran’s notes a couple of days later surprise me, given my mother’s dislike of cats, while she was alive, and her readiness always to throw buckets of water over those which trespassed in her garden!
There was some excitement in this neighbourhood during the morning caused by Jock’s small black kitten which had failed to come back after being let out last night. It was discovered at 6 o’clock this morning at the very top of a tall oak tree in the garden next door and no amount of coaxing would induce it to descend, though poor little thing must have been there in the bitter cold all night. Once it slipped and fell a few feet, but stupidly scrambled up again. Eventually it was rescued early this afternoon by the Eastleigh Fire Brigade, and appeared to be recovering from its experience after having a good meal.
It’s cold enough for the local lakes to freeze over, and Gran writes that evening that “Jane dashed along to the lake at Winnal in Winchester, to skate, going straight from school….she skated for about an hour and a half and returned home ravenous”.
Large mixed flocks of winter finches are rather a thing of the past now that arable farming is a cleaner and less wasteful operation that it once was, with less spilt grain and fewer winter stubble fields. Both Dad and Gran have experiences with such flocks during the cold January weather of 1950. For instance, Gran, hoping for some early snowdrops at her favourite Hursley garden, cycles out there:
Just beyond Hursley there is a field where ricks are standing near the road and here there was a large party of finches feeding where a rick had been moved. This consisted chiefly of Chaffinches and Greenfinches, but I was able to locate four or five cock Bramblings, looking out for the diamond-shaped white making on the rump, which was clearly seen when the flock rose.
It seems to be a good winter for Bramblings: a month or so later Gran is recording that within a flock of over two hundred Chaffinches near to Keyhaven, Dad counts at least forty of them, “…by far the largest number of Bramblings we have seen”.
Getting to know better the wintering geese of Hampshire is a priority of Dad’s at this time; he makes several visits to the Whitefront flock in the Avon Valley, and on February 4th he goes, Gran writes, to Totton “in search of a Barnacle Goose which was reported to be present recently on the Test estuary there but he did not see it”. I myself well remember thinking what a smart goose this was when I started birding in the early 1970s, and then my excitement when, with a school friend, I saw my first one – a lone individual amongst those Whitefronts at Ibsley. Little did I know then that this species would figure large in my life when later I worked for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust on the Solway Firth.
Gran joins Dad on one of these goose forays but without locating the flock. She appears to have taken her notebook with her, writing:
Now I am sitting on a little stone bridge over a backwater whilst Barry has gone to ask a man working in the meadows if he has seen any geese today…Barry and the ditcher are deep in conversation, Barry, tall, upright and full of youthful vigour, the man, rather aged, very bent and slow in his movements, but from the intentness with which they are talking, I would hazard a guess that the countryman knows and understands the subject of wild geese.
She adds more to this little story later that day:
When Barry returned from his talk he was much amused because the man’s cap was tied on with rough string knotted beneath his chin, and his jacket was also tied down to prevent it flapping in the wind, which was blowing with great force across he meadows. The man was ditching, building up the edges to prevent the dykes overflowing so as to ensure a good crop of early grass. He told Barry…the geese had not been present in anything like their usual numbers this winter owing to the mildness of the weather. Usually, he assured Barry, there are over five hundred on some days in severe weather.
Gran, I remember, even in her eighties was incredibly “game” when trying to gain access to difficult places if there was a flower or bird prize to be gained by so doing. Floods, barbed wire and unpredictable livestock were all challenges to be faced if necessary, often with humour, and this day in the Avon valley, it seems, presents her with an “iffy” moment:
…we reached a small bridge over the river, a frail-looking structure of wire and planks which Barry persuaded me to negotiate. It was a horrid little bridge and when I reached the middle it sagged until it was only just above the swirling water and I had the queer sensation that I was being carried upstream. Barry was convulsed with mirth because, he said, I was leaning hard against the wind as if to hold myself away from the river. I felt positively seasick and was glad to reach the meadow again!
A Water Vole (so abundant in those days, yet so severely declined now) was feeding at the edge of the river and a Barn Owl was watched quartering the ground as they made their way back to Ringwood. On their return to The Ridge, they were delighted to find Jock there, and:
Later in the evening they went out and saw many Toads on the move through the pinewood, making for the Lake for spawning.
Around this time, Gran walks into Eastleigh “pushing Jane’s bicycle to be sold”. And that evening she attends a meeting of the Southampton Natural History Society:
…at which we had a most interesting lecture on spiders, creatures for whom I have a particular affection but of whom I know very little. It was good to hear that a new species was discovered at Southbourne by a Mrs Bell in 1940 and has since established itself and extended its range as far east as Keyhaven.
This spider, Gran tells us, “was handsome and conspicuously marked with black and yellow, and it feeds on grasshoppers”. It was surely the so-called Wasp Spider, today locally abundant in the south, and first recorded in the UK in the 1920s.
On February 23rd:
Sunset was obscured and the evening cloudy. I went to the Winchester County High School to see the girls in a performance of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and it was so excellent and the children so natural and convincing that, though a digression from my nature recordings, I think it worth a place in my journal of lovely things to remember.
Gran may have her patience tried at times by the depredations of wild creatures but she will forgive them anything! On February 25th she writes:
Two bullfinches, a cock and a hen, were picking the buds in the pink Prunus tree in the garden. They appear every year just as the buds are showing colour, and then systematically, but with infinite grace and delicacy, proceed to peck off almost every one. The beautiful rascals care nought for me and as soon as I am out of sight, return to their mischief. Today I have gathered a few sprays for myself and have brought them indoors.
So the winter continues, with Gran noting the regular and frequent minutiae of the natural world about her, but including a few observations of the less frequent: flocks of Golden Plover in ploughed fields adjacent to Eastleigh Airport; occasional sightings of Hawfinches by Barry; Porpoises seen off Hurst Spit; a good view of a Stoat in Poles Lane; a cock Cirl Bunting close to Compton Church; a hunt for the wingless female Spring Usher moths in the nearby woods, and the finding of a number of these, and other insects, trapped in resin issuing from wounds in trees.
And she writes of one reason for keeping this detailed record:
Here, I think, lies the advantage of keeping this journal of lovely things, for as I grow too old to wander about very far and my recording consequently restricted, I shall be able to re-read all this and refresh my memory, thereby, please God, keeping out all bitter or resentful thoughts.
And, being a parent too, I find a lump in my throat as I read an early March entry, written on a “perfect afternoon” in Cranbury Park:
The sky is a flawless summer blue, and I am reminded of a March afternoon twenty years ago, when I walked to this same place on just such a day as this, five months before Barry was born. I remember sitting then, as now, in sunshine, listening to the birds, but in those days I was serenely happy, my mind full of all the beautiful things I would show my coming Babe and the joy that we would find together. True, in this my hopes have been more than fulfilled, for Barry has been an enjoyable child and has grown into just the son for whom I hoped, with a love of nature, if possible, even more intense than my own and he, with Jane, is now my greatest comfort and interest in life, since sorrow crushed my world into fragments.
She is loth to leave the quiet of the woods but, as a bee flies around her head, and another visits “the pollen-laden catkins round about”:
The serenity is shattered now by loud clamourous voices, and the shouting spoils the beauty of the woodland, giving me the necessary impetus to leave…I always taught my children to speak and tread quietly in the woods even if excited by some unexpected find, for all the most exciting things are seen in silence and never venture where noise abounds.
As Gran watches from her window, the “dainty tracery of the birch trees swaying against the dawn sky” on March 11th, she says:
…and I thought how dear to me is this lovely spot that has been my home for nearly twenty-two years. So many years ago this month, I saw the foundations of this house laid, and planned to leave those same birch trees – no more then than saplings reaching only to my shoulders – to grow in their wild natural beauty and make a pleasant shade under which the children for whom I hoped could play in freedom and happiness.
For me, when I remember growing up and visiting The Ridge, it is the Birch-tree’d back garden, which most easily comes to mind. Gran’s trees are felled now but some of their progeny continue to cast welcome shade there.
On March 12th she describes an exciting event in the lives of “Barry and Jock” who visited Bucklers Hard and its environs that day. At the Blackwater Lake, a mixed flock of birds took flight and:
Flying with this crowd of birds was a Spoonbill, a new bird to Barry and one that I have never seen… When Barry and Jock reached the lake they… found the Spoonbill standing in the shallow water, resting on one leg and appearing to doze. After a little preening it tucked its bill into its scapulars and remained motionless.
The bird took flight again:
After circling and soaring to about one thousand feet Barry and Jock were amazed to see the Spoonbill suddenly hurtle down in a great twisting dive to about one hundred feet above the lake.
It executed this manoeuvre three times in total before finally planing down to join two Herons in the top of a pine tree. There it preened, losing a feather in the process, which, Gran writes, “was later procured”.
This Spoonbill story entered the Goater family folklore, both Dad and Mum (Jock) relating it to me many times over the years. In those days, Spoonbills were exotic and rare vagrants to Britain and this would easily have been the rarest and most exciting bird on their list at the time. Today this species is a much more frequent visitor, although still uncommon, and now it even nests in very small numbers in the UK.
- 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)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 21)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 22)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 23)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 24)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 25)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 26)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 27)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 28)
- Forty Years in Chandler’s Ford – a Journal (Part 29)