Signs of spring excite Gran but she is worried by news of pending development of her beloved woods.
Gran notes Salix caprea (goat willow) catkins open on March 15th, and a male Early Moth coming to light at a bedroom window the day before this. On the 16th:
The speckled Wood butterfly which I brought home from the greenhouse on March 5th was today spreading its wings to the sun in the dining room.
I have discovered that the greenhouse was at a small market garden, located at the north end of Park Road, where Gran worked, fairly frequently though probably not every week day. She refers to it as “the Park Road Garden”. There will be more about this later, I’m sure.
Although there is clearly sunshine that day, heavy snow fell the day before, causing Gran to start her entry for the 16th with the first of many prayers that I’ve noted elsewhere in the journal. It’s perhaps a bit naive and clichéd but shows that she has a truly deep love and concern for her kindred creatures:
Hear our humble prayer, O God, for our friends the animals and the tiny birds. We entreat for them all thy mercy and pity, and for those who deal with them we ask a heart of compassion and gentle hands and kindly words.
She’s put it in quotation marks so I presume the words are not her own but someone else’s.
A mild but dull, cloudy and foggy day, clearing later describes the weather on the 17th. It seems that the snow and frost of the winter is over, and Skylarks are singing in the “lane to Eastleigh”. Gran finds some Crocii in bloom in a rubbish tip, so brings them home for the rockery. In the wood opposite, the first brimstone of the year flies at 3:50 (BST) and there is a report of wood-larks singing at West End and a small bat flying round at dusk. I think that West End is a fully urbanized part of Southampton now and certainly not a place for Woodlarks. There is no indication of the reporter’s identity but it is likely to be her younger brother, Norris, who worked for a time at a fruit farm in West End, then reasonably rural, my Dad tells me.
The appearance of a grey squirrel appears to be worth a mention on March 18th – probably in Chandler’s Ford:
Grey squirrel crossing the road with a series of hops, tail first erect then drooping with each movement. At my approach it suddenly ran into the wood and up a tree.
On the same day, making a trip to Compton, Shawford and Twyford Downs, and St Catherine’s Hill, Gran notes:
Willows gleaming red with the newly-rising sap, along the Winchester by-pass road which is blocked with huge falls of chalk from the side of St Catherine’s Hill, caused by the recent severe frosts.
In spite of the severe frosts, long-tailed tits, whose populations tend to crash after prolonged periods of such cold, are noted flying down the road among the birch trees opposite on the 20th.
And the following day Gran is excited:
The first migrant has arrived, the Chiff-Chaff, seen and heard in Cranbury Park, Otterbourne. Perhaps Spring has really arrived on its official day! It has! At 4.10 two orange-underwing moths were seen flying over the birches opposite here.
Between the pages of the diary here are not only one of Gran’s long dark hairs, presumably not placed there deliberately, but also a small newspaper cutting (probably from “The Echo”, which is how The Southern Daily Echo was always referred to) with the heading, “The first migrant”:
A Chandler’s Ford reader, Mrs. J. Goater, of 27 Hiltingbury-road, reports the appearance of the first migrant – the chiff-chaff – which was heard and seen in Cranbury Park, Otterbourne yesterday. Two orange-underwing moths were also seen in this district yesterday, and the first brimstone butterfly to appear after hibernation was observed on March 17.
Walking in “Cranbury” after tea on the 22nd, looking for signs of Spring Gran writes, that:
We encountered a keeper but told him we had permission to wander for nature recordings so all was well, he being quite affable on hearing this.
She also mentions that she saw two men digging at the base of a tree there; she wondered if they were looking for Chrysalids! Surely, I thought on reading this, unlikely – even in those days that sort of activity would have been a bit eccentric, notwithstanding that it was perfectly normal in the Goater family. But Dad tells me that pupa-digging was a common activity for the numerous entomologists of the day, and therefore perfectly likely.
Dad often mentions that in the “early days” they were perfectly at liberty to walk all over Cranbury Park – The Chamberlayne Estate – but is bitter now that all access, even when formally applied for, is denied him and other people with a long history of going there and with perfectly bona fide reasons for so doing.
The search for signs of Spring seems to be all-consuming during late March, with more trips to Cranbury Park, Shawford, the St Cross area of Winchester, and an organised field trip to Highcliffe. Huge numbers of mating toads are noted in the larger lake at Cranbury, and Gran notes huge numbers of Scilla nutans – the old scientific name for bluebell – which, she writes, “should be a sight later on”.
The very early Sapindus Aesculus (Horse-chestnut) in the main avenue at Southampton is again in leaf well ahead of all others. It has been the habit of this particular tree to foliate weeks before others of this species for at least thirty years.
I wonder if the tree is still there, and still coming into leaf early.
The field trip on the following day was organised by the British Empire Naturalists’ Association. It appears to have been a wash-out, with the New Forest flooded in many places and the usually placid streams “raging torrents”. She typically notes that none of the other people on the ramble had yet recorded any spring migrants. Gran was always keen on a bit of one-upmanship!
A visit is made to Chilworth the next day, to look for wild daffodils. Large numbers were found in bud, and were suitable for gathering – probably an activity disapproved of now, though picking the flowers , rather than digging the bulbs, would not necessarily reduce the number or vigour of the plants.
On March 30th, a visit is made with my Dad (16 years old at the time) to Farley Mount. Perhaps most or many of her country wanderings were done in Dad’s company but it is rarely made clear. On this occasion, however:
…also found a tawny owl’s nest in an old hollow tree and she flew off as Barry began to climb to investigate. We had a splendid view of the bird and the nest contained two eggs. She flew up into a plantation of young trees and we heard her calling there. Lying beside the path there was a dead sparrow-hawk which had unfortunately been shot.
Dad collected bird’s eggs in those days, like many boys who became well-respected naturalists in later life, but it is not clear whether these particular owl eggs were taken. The egg collection still exists, and owing to its age, is legal, and at present remains in the study at The Ridge, where Dad still lives. Given Dad’s meticulous nature when it comes to recording, any owl eggs there will be dated and labelled.
April 6th was Easter Day in 1947. Gran makes her way to church at Compton for early service at 7 o’clock. She has the company of my Dad. She says that “in spite of the early hour we saw a kestrel hovering over a field, and as we passed, a Skylark rose with joyous song”. Compton church was always Gran’s place of worship. I don’t think she went every Sunday but she certainly made her way there for services very early in the day on the main holy days. Communion was important to her and she seemed to have a totally unquestioning faith – which was tested at times of stress and depression, which becomes clear later in the journal.
There is much moth-related prose during early April, including, to give a flavour, this on the 10th:
Glorious sunset after a perfect day, the sun going down a ball of fire behind silver birch trees. Clear starlit night. Many moths around the sallows, including a new find, the powdered quaker. Others included an early tooth-striped, a shoulder-stripe, several common quakers and clouded-drabs, some of a pale variety, and many hebrew-characters and small quakers. Clear all night.
And the following night (all this mothing, usually referred to as “bug-hunting” in those days, is done in Dad’s company):
Had an interesting experience this evening late. We went “sallowing” in the pinewood (this is adjacent to Hiltingbury Lake) and I was amazed at the number of moths feeding on the male catkins. We placed sheets on the ground under the male trees, and when these were shaken, drunken moths showered down onto the sheets. Many small, common and twin-spot quakers and Hebrew characters, two blossom-underwings, and one early tooth-striped, and a few chestnuts were among those identified by the light of a torch. A small engrailed settled on my coat.
What fabulous English names our moths have! I imagine that by the time I was born and aware of Dad’s expertise as a lepidopterist, these species would have been “old hat” to him but I think that Gran’s entries like these show how his early interest, experience and knowledge were nurtured and expanded.
Compared to mentions of my Dad, Gran and Grandpa’s daughter Jane seems to be rarely written about. Gran was rather a one for favouritism, and it was generally agreed that the first-born of any siblings in the family received from her more than their fair share of attention. However, what may be Jane’s first (albeit indirect) mention goes thus, on April 12th:
Three members of the family think they heard the cuckoo, one at 6 a.m. but not sufficiently clear for accurate recording. He should arrive any day now! The fourth member of the family has just reported definite arrival of the cuckoo this morning.
One of these people was likely to have been Jane. Spring avian arrivals and newly flowering plants are mentioned on many days of walks in the local countryside during April. Gran seems keen on picking many wild flowers such as Violas and Primulas, I think for posies to put in her room at The Ridge, “for Adrian”.
She quotes a so-called reliable report of Nightingale heard at Fryern Hill on the morning of the 22nd and though she may have heard one giving its “characteristic slow notes” on the 19th at Brambridge, she could not be certain. Nightingale, like Wood Warbler, also regularly recorded in numbers in the birch woods along Hiltingbury Road, is very much a bird of the past there nowadays.
Dad used to tell me of all the Nightingales along Hocombe Road, the colony apparently located just west of the tarmac road into Cranbury Park).
Gran mentions them breeding and singing along the border shrubs of Hiltingbury Lake, regrettably a wild and semi-natural place no longer, but somewhat manicured and arguably over-populated by fishermen and dog-walkers – from the Nightingale point of view.
This is and was the refrain to Dad’s (and Gran’s) lives: too many people; access to wild places too easy; too much urbanisation and other development; over mechanisation of farming, and too much traffic, filling the air with fumes. The cost is decline in species diversity and abundance, and therefore a reduction in their (Dad and Gran’s) quality of life. In many ways they were and are absolutely right – but of course, they, like the rest of us, were also part of the problem, enjoying unfettered access, travelling by car and enjoying relatively cheap farm produce.
In a similar vein, on a trip to Braishfield and Ampfield on the 26th, Gran notes, as well as fields of black calves and black lambs:
An old windmill, a picturesque addition to the landscape, and one which made me think it is a pity we have advanced so far along the road of ugly progress and in so doing, passed by so many of the things which create beauty. Does speed justify this loss of beauty? I do not think so!
And at the end of that day’s words, following a comment that a male cuckoo with a characteristically croaky voice and therefore probably the same individual, is noted in the district each recent year, she writes of Adrian (without naming him) for the first time:
A perfectly cloudless evening with a glorious sunset of rose and gold. It saddens me to think that the one who so loved all this beauty and added so tremendously to my own appreciation of it, is no longer here to see it, and I trust that in his new awakening he has found Beauty sufficient for his ardent, beauty-loving soul. A brilliant bird chorus at eventide, owls calling early in the night, and late nightingales singing to perfection in the peaceful quietude, undisturbed by any banal sound.
On a visit to Farley Mount and Ashley Down she finds “a mound of sacks filled with the ferny moss [“Leucobryum” says my Dad but I’m not sure – it’s not very “ferny”] which abounds here and is so much in demand by the florists”. On the 29th there are further comments on the rock fall on the Winchester by-pass. The note begins thus:
On the bridge by the St Cross road a fisherman was sprawled across the parapet assiduously fishing. He looked anything but comfortable but apparently found it worthwhile for a good-sized trout lay on the wall beside him. A mile of the bye-pass is still closed for falling chalk, the effects of the heavy frost still being felt. A squad of German prisoners was busy pushing the loose chalk down from the hillside, and forcing the corroded lumps down with crowbars. It now looks a horrible eye-sore, since there is only glaring white chalk again as it was before the herbage grew on it, when the road was first built.
Surely German prisoners of war had been repatriated by this date? On Gran’s arrival home:
A horrible shock awaited me. Our lovely piece of woodland opposite, with the two Taxus baccata trees standing sentinel beside the sloping stretch of Betula alba, is for sale, and I fear some soul-less person will tear up the trees and spoil the whole outlook. If only I could buy it and preserve it in its present beauty, which I have loved for nineteen years. I hate civilisation which I have found to be even more barbaric in its savagery than in the despised days of long ago.
Well, she’s writing about 1947, and it is only a few weeks ago that Dad was saying to me that it was just after the War, when these woods were full of pre-D-day military camps, that the area was divided up into lots for sale. I remember the yew trees – one is still there in the car park for the shops, disrespectfully festooned with signage.
I was aware of these shops being built some time in the early 1960s (no doubt the diary will comment on this later), and I expect this was during the last phase of the conversion of the woods opposite to some sort of suburbia.
- 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)