Brusher Mills and a black Adder; update on “old Major”; a day full of beauty; Winnall Moors and “poor old Thumper”.
More work in the Sparrow’s Hedge garden next day, March 3rd 1948, when Gran is:
…setting out Early Midlothian potatoes for sprouting, sitting alone in the sunshine with only the sound of hens scratching round me…”
This mention of the nursery garden (owned and managed, I learned, by the Misses Cope and Bainbridge) reminds me that I discovered recently the name of the lady I met who had known Mrs Goater, who picked apples in her parents’ orchard, mentioned in relation to a group photograph shown in Part 5 of this series. She was Pamela Pratt, who lived with her two sisters at a property called “Firwood”, close to Park Road, and possibly close to Sparrow’s Hedge, since today there is a road called “Firwood Close” nearby. Dad clearly remembers one of her sisters, Gill Pratt. Perhaps these are the three unidentified girls in the front row of the photograph.
I received a letter today from the assistant secretary of the Lymington and District Naturalists’ Society asking me to act as leader to a party of botanists who are anxious to study the wild flowers of the New Forest. My account of our “finds” in the newspaper prompted her to write to me but most of our discoveries are in the Winchester area, at any rate, the Orchids are. Still, I should enjoy a flower-hunt in the New Forest and must see what can be arranged.
This Society was only two years old at the time but appears still to be thriving today.
Building has begun in the opposite woods now, as Gran states:
…I found quite a number of wild Daffodils in bud in the wood nearby, where there were many when I came here twenty years ago. Building has spoiled some so I had no compunction in bringing the bulbs home as more building is pending.
She picks a bunch of early-flowering Primroses in the copse in Poles Lane, which, “…though short-stemmed make an attractive bowl arranged in moss…”
To date, Gran has not written much about reptiles, merely noting Slow-worms in and around the garden, Grass Snakes seen regularly in places like Cranbury Park, and the occasional adder seen on heathy ground nearby. On March 5th, though, almost her whole entry is taken up with the following:
I was interested to read in the local paper today about Brusher Mills, who was a well-known hermit and snake-catcher in the New Forest about fifty years ago. He lived for twenty years in a hut of his own fashioning in the deep woods near Lyndhurst. During that time he must have caught between five and six thousand snakes for zoos and laboratories. His only weapon was a forked stick – but it was combined with a knowledge of woodcraft which few men since can have possessed. The question is whether there is a successor to old Brusher. Not only the zoos and laboratories would like to know.
A common snake in the Forest is the Adder, still a source of danger to children and small animals. The paper wonders if anyone is carrying on the work and I shall be interested to see if there are further developments, because I can remember quite clearly meeting a snake-catcher in the Forest when I frequently went there as a child and I am not yet fifty! I have seen many Adders but have never come to any harm from them. I remember once a friend put his foot on one near its neck and called us to come and see because it was spitting white fluid all over his boot. Luckily for him his boot prevented it from striking where there was no protection.
On a more recent occasion, about nine years ago, my brother killed one at Brockenhurst, jet black with ruby-red eyes, – a most vicious-looking reptile. We sent it to London for identification as it lacked the characteristic Adder marking on its skin. It was, however, a black Adder. The largest I have ever seen was found by Barry on the gravel bank opposite here nine years ago and was twenty-two inches long.
Although Gran seems interested in snakes, I’m surprised that she does not seem more keen on them – given that she was a fairly enlightened naturalist in her views on all of “God’s creatures”. And I’m surprised too, that she and her brother Norris, were confused by a melanistic adder, as these are not particularly unusual. And surely, I thought, the equally enlightened Norris did not kill that snake deliberately! But Dad tells me, “He did – it was usual in those days”.
Notwithstanding this, Norris was a great lover of all natural life in the Forest, where he lived in the Thatched Cottage Caravan Park, Lyndhurst, during his later years – when I knew him best, and occasionally went birding with him.
Referring to “God’s creatures” – this is definitely how Gran thinks of them. She writes about the “ringing song of the Wren in Compton Churchyard”:
…and so penetrating was his voice that I could not help noticing it even amid the intonations of the kneeling congregation. I hope it is not irreverent to be so acutely conscious of a small bird’s song whilst in church, but I do not think it can be since it is part of God’s most wonderful creation.
Cycling through Hursley and into Poles Lane on March 7th she describes an encounter with a Brown Hare – a species she has not mentioned before, and I’m not sure if that’s because they are too common to warrant a diary entry, or because they are relatively rare, or because she just gets a really good view on this occasion:
To my amazement I met a hare in full flight and on seeing me he turned sharply to the left, scrambled through the hedge and away over the field at incredible speed. His black-tipped ears with white below, and enormous length of limb were splendidly displayed and he was a beautiful russet-brown colour.
There is an update in the local paper to the story of swans on the Cemetery Lake on Southampton Common. “Old Major,” who Gran describes as a “misogynist – and moody” now has plenty of company, as thirteen other swans, some with clipped wings, have been introduced there. She says that whether he will be interested in seeking a new mate remains to be seen. I think it’s more likely that he will bash them up – possibly with severe consequences if, with clipped wings, they cannot fly from harm’s way. Perhaps later entries will enlighten us.
During the second week of March, as Spring progresses, Gran is somewhat overwhelmed by the beauty of the ever-increasing numbers of butterflies and moths, and newly flowering plants she records:
Today has been so very beautiful that it leaves me somehow humbled and awe-stricken and I am reminded of the old Bible story of the Creation in Genesis. Ch 1. V.31 which says, ”And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” And I think he had every reason to find His world very good and we are very lucky people to live on God’s beautiful earth. There is beauty at hand everywhere. The more we appreciate his beauty, the more we shall find to appreciate. Have you ever tried to count how many beautiful things you see in one day? You will be surprised at the number. Today I have seen so many and so varied that it is difficult to believe that men could ever be such consummate fools as to try to destroy God’s lovely world by meddling with the atom. I have seen the blue heavens, the sunshine, trees bursting into flower, new leaves on some, daffodils and crocii in the garden, many birds, the smile on an old woman’s wrinkled face as she said, “what a lovely day!”, a baby, wide-eyed, looking with wonder out of its pram, my own two healthy children, bright and energetic, butterflies, the sunset and many more, and now, as I write, velvety skies spangled with stars…For who knows how long before man’s ruthless, senseless greed will destroy it all?
So, in spite of her constant underlying discontent with life, this is, on the whole, dear old Gran exhibiting the positive outlook with which I was so familiar. There are many people who could take a leaf out of her book!
Southampton’s early foliating Horse-chestnut tree made the local news again around this time and Gran describes it on March 11th:
While its many companions are but masses of sticky buds, shining in the spring-like sunshine of these delightful March days, Southampton’s famous Sapindus aesculus (Horse-Chestnut) tree at the corner of Brighton Road and The Avenue is bursting into leaf. Every year this most irregular tree produces leaves, and then flowers, long before the ordinary chestnuts and then sheds its leaves as if in a hurry to begin its long winter rest. Every year this forward tree creeps into the news, because somebody always notices it and writes to the paper about it.
She wonders about the reason, citing one or two theories put forward such as its roots being in a spring, or it being a hybrid but says:
…whatever the reason, Sotonians welcome their most forward tree and now would miss this early wearing of the green. I, personally have known and noticed it for well over thirty years and hope to see it for a great many more. Deo volente.
On March 16th, the day after she records that toad-spawn is in the lake now “and the usual collection of small boys has appeared with jam jars”, she is off to Kingston upon Thames again, by early train and “Barry has agreed to keep these records for me while I am away”.
Gran spends three days with Adrian’s mother. They visit Richmond, taking in the famous view of the river from the terrace at the top of the Gardens:
This view is said to have inspired William Byrd in 1737 to give the name Richmond to the town he founded in Virginia. Here also was found the inspiration for the song “The Lass of Richmond Hill”.
Gran recounts some history of Kingston, including that the Bridge is “famous in history as the place from which the last recorded ducking of a woman as a punishment for scolding took place in 1745”.
She returns home to Chandler’s Ford late on the 18th to some unhappy news:
Only one thing marred my return from three days of restfulness and comfort, and that was the sad news that earlier in the evening two dogs had come into our garden, torn away the netting of the run and killed our Thumper, before our neighbours, who saw what was happening and rushed to the rescue, could intervene. It seems a shame that people who own dogs do not control them properly but leave them to roam the neighbourhood and kill other people’s pets. Thumper had lived happily in his run with hutch included for five years and previously, Rags, a white and black buck rabbit for nine years. There will be no more excited scampering when I go down the garden and no more soft brown face pressed to the ground for my caresses when I feed him. Poor old Thumper.
The next day:
This evening I laid poor little Thumper to rest, and, a little sentimental perhaps, hoped that, since our Lord is aware of every sparrow who falls, He would know about Thumper, and the spirit of St. Francis be with him. I shall miss our “little brother”.
“Official Spring today”, writes Gran on March 21st, and she notes that the Chiffchaff has been singing in the neighbourhood. She also has collected Primroses and Violets to send for Adrian’s Garden of Remembrance for Easter Week “and have a most lovely box to post tomorrow”. She hopes that the flowers will take “in some measure, to Adrian’s mother, the comfort I found in gathering them”.
I have been struck this year, 1948, by the number of times Gran has reported Lapwings displaying and calling over nearby arable fields. This triggered my own memories of the same thing in the Hampshire downland fields, particularly at the back of Farley Mount, when I was young but I think lowland farm-nesting Lapwings are almost a thing of the past now, since mechanisation and the field operations necessary for Winter-, as opposed to Spring-sown cereals devastates the nests and young of these and other ground-nesting birds.
On March 22nd, Gran mentions Winnall Moors, near Winchester:
Barry went from school this morning to Winnall Moors beyond the North Walls recreation ground in Winchester to catch some minnows for the school aquarium. Needless to say, he noticed many things besides minnows – many Mallard on the river and one Cormorant. There were also numbers of Coots swimming about and over the moors, Snipe were drumming and calling not, of course, drumming as does a Woodpecker, with its beak on rotten wood, but with its wings as it turns rapidly in flight, the wind catching its primaries as it moves.
This latter remark, is of course, wrong, and surely was known to be incorrect in those days. The drumming noise, which sounds like a bleating lamb, is made as the bird dives fast and steeply down in display flight, extending each stiff and vibrating outer-most tail feather.
Dad comments on the change in bird populations and their distribution since those days, saying that Yellow Wagtails, long gone now, were common breeders at Winnall, and that Cetti’s Warbler, a southern European non-migratory species, not recorded in the UK then, has now colonised many wetlands of Southern England, including those at Winnall.
- 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 (Part13)