Tuesday, 14 November 2017

A Morning Watching The Birds

My brother Les and I spent Monday morning at Lackford Lakes Bird reserve near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. It was bright and sunny but only a few degrees above freezing when we arrived. Here are  few photos:

Ducks and geese on the islands.

Footpath leading through woodland.

a duck with an absurdly large beak
which it passes from side to side in the water
filtering out food particles.

A bit of autumn colour in places.

Sunlight on reeds and grasses.

The Lakes are another area of old gravel pits
returned to nature.

Oaks with a touch of autumn.

Regular readers will know
that these are Jacob sheep.

Would you like a list? Well, here's a list of what we managed to see: Blackbird, Robin, Dunnock, Wren, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Starling, Long-Tailed Tit, Rook, Magpie, Jay, Jackdaw, Wood Pigeon, Black-Headed Gull, Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Lapwing, Cormorant, Heron, Mute Swan, Greylag Goose, Canada Goose, Egyptian Goose, Gadwall, Wigeon, Shoveler, Goldeneye, Teal, Tufted Duck, Pochard, Mallard, Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Coot, Moorhen, Pheasant, Snipe, Green Woodpecker, Kestrel, Chaffinch, Kingfisher.

Take care.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Meet The Gang

Meet some of the more civilised and courteous citizens that I've encountered on my walks in the English countryside. Like their human counterparts they're a mixed bunch, some industrious, some more relaxed; some exotic and unfamiliar, others who can trace back their ancestry through the centuries; but all with their own stories to tell.

Konik Pony
These rough, tough little characters can be found at Wicken Fen Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire. Hard-working and uncomplaining they munch the coarse vegetation and do a grand job for conservation on the fen. They're not locals though, coming originally from Poland where "konik" is the diminutive word for horse. They are a primitive-looking breed and are thought to be similar in appearance to the extinct Tarpan, the last of which died about a century ago. On cold misty days when the east wind blows across the flat landscape, tangling their long manes and tails, a more primordial scene would be hard to imagine.

Lincolnshire Longwool
Despite the hairstyle, which reminds me of Beyonce rather than anything from the English farmland, the Longwool's ancestry can be traced back to medieval Lincolnshire. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, when many experiments in cross-breeding of different sheep were conducted, the Longwool became a valuable animal and breeding stock were exported to New Zealand, Australia and South America. One ram was sold in 1906 for the staggering sum of 1,450 guineas. By 1960 the popularity of the Longwool had declined to such an extent that it only survived through the perseverance of just three farmers. Nowadays there are only about 1,000 breeding ewes and the breed is considered "at risk".

I like Berkshires. With their turned-up snouts, alert ears and white markings about their face they always look active and intelligent. Although they're a rare breed today they were extremely popular in the early 1900s for their firm, juicy meat. Surprisingly, for a pig breed, they are well represented in literature. The very fat sow, known as the Empress Of Blandings, features in several of P G Wodehouse's tales from Blandings; Beatrix Potter's Pig-Wig is a Berkshire sow, while Napoleon in Orwell's Animal Farm is described as a Berkshire boar. A mixed reputation then.

English Longhorn
English Longhorns originate from "oop north" in the Craven area of North Yorkshire where they were first of all used as draught animals, pulling carts and ploughs. As with sheep a lot of improvement of the breed took place during the industrial revolution, motivated by the need to provide food for the increasing urban population. Longhorns were found to be suitable for milk and beef as well. Unlike Texas Longhorns the horns of the English variety tend to curve around, framing the face.

 Bluefaced Leicester
Did you ever see such a noble, aristocratic profile as the Bluefaced Leicester sheep? Unlike the others we've met these are not a threatened breed, even though their numbers are not great. They were developed by the sheep-breeder Robert Bakewell in the eighteenth century and are used mainly today to crossbreed with various hill ewes to produce what are known, confusingly, as "mules". Looking after the Blueface is notoriously tricky so they tend to exist in small herds kept to produce the rams to father the "mules" which are so hardy and useful.

If you meet with a ginger pig it's almost certainly a Tamworth. They're quite a primitive breed, not at all close genetically to modern pigs but having more in common with the wild boar. As you might expect they're more hardy than most breeds but usually only have small litters of 6 or 7 young rather than the 10 to 12 you'd expect from commercial breeds. There are about 300 Tamworth breeding sows in England today.

Jacob Sheep
Some people, including the Jacob Sheep Society, think this is the oldest surviving breed of farm animal in the world and believe them to be descended from the speckled and spotted sheep that Jacob selected from Laban's flock in Biblical times. From there they were imported into Spain and some folk even claim that they arrived in this country having swum ashore from wrecked ships of the Spanish Armada. (Did they really take live sheep with them?). In recent years the Jacob has been much improved by selective breeding making them a better commercial proposition so that they are no longer an endangered species. They are unusual in that they can have four or even six horns. The word for having lots of horns is "polycerate" - a useful addition to anyone's vocabulary, I'm sure.

Take care.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Diversions And Digressions

A few more of the dotty details and hidden histories that add a little spice to any walk in the British Isles.

Deserted, Decayed But Not Quite Destroyed

In the south-west corner of Cambridgeshire there's a cluster of very small villages with populations of less than 200 souls. One of the smallest (though not the least populated as that honour goes to Clopton which is completely deserted) is Shingay. It was not always so insignificant however. In 1144 it became the site of the Preceptory of the Knights Hospitaller who were a military and religious order formed as a result of the Crusades. Their history at Shingay is extremely sketchy though it's thought that there were royal visits, probably because of its proximity to the Old North Road. When the Hospitallers were suppressed in 1540 the buildings continued to be used as the home of the local squire. 

If you want to see what remains of this grand establishment today you can push your way through a hole in the hedge and view the rather overgrown, reedy moat, which these days surrounds nothing but horse-paddocks.

Great White Hope

This fine fellow, wading through Moore's Lake at Fen Drayton bird reserve, is a Great White Egret. A few years ago you'd have been extremely unlikely to have seen one anywhere in Britain, but they're slowly establishing themselves in this country, possibly as a result of global warming.

Thomas The Tank Engine
About 40 years ago two of my cousins from the USA visited and were charmed by the little steam train that was used on road signs to warn drivers that a railway track was crossing the road. Guess what? We still use the little puffer train on our signs today. One day we'll realise that steam has been superseded by diesels and electric trains!

Farmyard Features

It's always worth keeping your eyes open when passing through farmyards (and not just to avoid treading in something unpleasant). Big old threshing barns are now used for other purposes but, if the door is left ajar, you might be able to see the original old beams within. It's not a good idea however to trespass on farm property as there are many dangers from machinery and animals to say nothing of grumpy farmers. But just by standing at the farm gate you might see features like the octagonal building in the picture below...

Sandwiched between cartsheds and cowsheds is an old dovecote from the days when doves were kept on the bigger farms as a source of meat during the long winter months.

The Calm Before The Storm

After 23 years of extreme dullness while the rector of Cockayne Hatley was a man called Bland, they opted for a bit more excitement and appointed the more dashingly named Rev Storm. Though this Storm apparently blew itself out after just 11 years!

Take care.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

An Afternoon Saunter

After grabbing a bit of lunch I trundled through the village on my bike. Just after I'd taken this photo the church bells began to ring so I made my way through to the churchyard bench. After a lazy half-hour sitting in the sunshine and listening to the bells ringing out across the village I thought I'd better continue on my way.

I passed through Shepreth and on to Barrington where I locked up my bike in the churchyard and went for a walk. I followed the road up Chapel Hill passing the huge and now disused cement works and eventually finding the footpath that leads off westwards.

Most of the way the path led me through a tunnel between trees and bushes, though I knew from my map and from occasional glimpses through the branches that I was close to the edge of the huge quarry that had been excavated by the cement company over the decades.

That's the best view I could get of the great chalk cliffs of the quarry. When quarrying was abandoned they had dug back a mile from the cement works along a front 0.6 miles wide - that's a lot of cement! The company also owned a lot more of this chalk hill which they presumably would also have excavated had it been economically viable.

Happily the crest of the hill, where the track runs, has been preserved, saving the wide views out over the flat Cambridgeshire landscape.

I would guess that this is a very a old track indeed as our Stone Age ancestors customarily made their way through the south of England following the high chalk ridges. I discovered a huge badger sett among the trees though couldn't find any evidence of recent occupation.

A few farm tracks led off towards the farms in the parish of Harlton.

That's what I'd been looking for: the little footbridge leading onto an old road, which crosses the hill and goes by the interesting name of Whole Way.

The road is now just an unmade track leading down from Cracknow Hill. If you look carefully to the right-hand side of the road you'll see a little caravan tucked in among the bushes. As I got closer I could see there were two small caravans, a glowing campfire, a diesel-powered generator and a line of washing: the temporary home of a travelling family. Two children were playing outside, the older of whom, a boy, had a chat with me as I grew level with them. I suppose they should have been in school, but who could begrudge them a childhood among the fallen leaves in the slanting golden light of early November?

Onwards to the wide, tree lined road leading up towards a modern estate farm.

The sun was already descending in the western sky throwing long shadows through the small plantation beside my path as I made my way back towards Barrington.

Photographing the quaint cottages in the village is all a bit too easy and rather addictive. I strolled across the village green to the church, where my faithful bicycle stood waiting by the churchyard wall.

Take care.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

The Beauty Of Carved Wood

In a recent post I told you about the Rev Henry Cust, one time rector of Cockayne Hatley, who became obsessed with buying beautiful carvings till his little church overflowed with all his acquisitions. I understand how that happens; I've collected far more photos of intricate woodwork than I really have space to show you. However here are a few more:

Between the heads of the early saints are these delightful cherubs. You might excuse the artist for spending a little less time on these peripheral figures, though actually they seem to be carved with even more loving care than the main subjects.

The above tableau of apparently under-age winemakers is just one scene from the elaborately carved altar rail. 

Now lets move on to one of my favourite words: misericord. Misery-what? I hear some of you say. Misericord: a perch for a monk's bum, of course...

In the early monasteries, like the ones in Flanders where these choir stalls originated, monks were expected to stand for the duration of the interminable services. As there has never been a retirement age for monks, some of the older ones found this difficult - so they cheated! A small ledge was provided under the upturned seat so that they could settle their buttocks upon them and still appear to be standing. Such seats were called "mercy seats" or "misericords"

They can turn up (literally!) in any old religious building and, strangely, they sometimes depict rather non-religious carving. The one above appears to be a "green man", an odd fellow with leaves instead of hair. Besides giving its name to many English pubs, it's also thought to be a pagan symbol. It's usually said to be an exclusively English motif - but these seats originate from Flanders (??).

The rather scary figure seen above can be encountered in (I think) Therfield church and is part of someone's memorial. Not the sort of thing we'd decorate a tomb or memorial with today but in its time quite normal.  The carving is rather fine despite its gruesome subject. 

Lets hurriedly move on to the church at Hemingford Abbots where there's a splendid fifteenth-century oak roof with carved angels:

I know they don't look much like angels but that's what they're always called. The three (out of a total of 22) which I show you here are all musicians. On the left is what's supposed to be a cittern, an early English version of the guitar; in the centre is a harp; and on the right is a shawm - which seems to have more finger-holes than anyone has fingers.

Many of these carved and often painted roofs have succumbed to the ravages of the passing centuries as church roofs are notoriously leaky structures, but very few were touched by the Puritan iconoclasts of the seventeenth century. Even William Dowsing and his distinctly unmerry band, who made a thorough job of smashing anything at ground level, failed to have sufficient persistence to climb up to the rafters to complete their task. Most often they left instructions with the church wardens that the offending woodwork should be removed, though in most cases they also lacked the necessary resolve.

So here they remain, for us to crick our necks and wonder at today.

Take care.