More beginnings

Both my primary-school friend Robbie – long since grown up into a Bob – and my brother Ivor have insisted that I say more about our beginnings. I am happy to do so. They were magic days.

Eastwick County Primary School, in Great Bookham, Surrey, was built in the grounds – in fact mostly within the old walled garden – of Southey Hall. The Hall and its estate had once been the home of the Lord Howard’s of Effingham. In the nineteenth century it passed through the hands of a series of Members of Parliament, a retired sugar planter, and an Estate Agent – who sold bits off for house plots – of course. It then became a public – that is, a private – school. It was requisitioned during the Second World War for Canadian troops to be quartered there, but after the war it became a school again. However, it did not survive for long. The school closed in 1955. The house was then demolished at the same time as the new Eastwick School was being built.

The new school opened in 1958.  Robbie and I joined in 1960.

Of course I knew nothing of this history at the time. All I knew was that the school playground was bounded on two sides by towering walls, one of which continued along the length of the playing field. And there were huge trees – cedars, grey poplars, and an enormous redwood.

But above all there was the great sycamore which stood in front of the school and which provided the symbol for the badge on both our caps and blazers.

Eastwick Badge

This sycamore was truly immense in height, in girth of trunk and in limbs. The lower limbs spread horizontally like immense arms. The tree as a whole created a vast canopy under which we walked each day. It was, reputedly, the biggest sycamore in England. I do not doubt it. Nor will I ever see such a tree again. When I left Eastwick I was four feet ten and a half inches tall. Now I am five feet ten and a half. This means all trees – indeed the world – are now smaller than they once were. Furthermore, soon after we left Eastwick (in 1966) the tree was felled, having been found unsound and dangerous.

It lives on still – just – as the logo of Eastwick Infant School. The junior school has moved on and adopted as its logo a spray of oak leaves and acorns. The Infant school is soon to follow. In any case, the logo could only ever be a mere cartoon of the great reality it sought to represent.

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Behind the great walls there was wild wood. Out of bounds. And we obeyed the injunction not to go there. Well, except that Robbie and I, in our final and senior year, contrived to have ourselves appointed ‘Wall Monitors’. This meant that we could legitimately be there in order to ensure that others were not.

Partly we bird-watched, partly we played – tunnelling through the undergrowth, imagining worlds as eleven year-olds do – worlds I have now quite forgotten . . .

There was an old corrugated iron shed attached to the back of the field wall, empty, except for a blackbird’s nest high up on a length of timber frame. Quietly we observed her dark eye and her raised bill as she observed us in return, but still sat tight on her eggs – until one day we peered into the dark of the shed to find that the nest had been pillaged, destroyed, and the mother gone.

Magpies perhaps, or a squirrel ?

Or had some two legged raider evaded our defences and stolen the eggs . . . ?

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A far greater mystery remains the still disputed case of the deceased ring ouzel. It was found on the grass below a classroom window. It was dark brown, with a pale crescent across its breast. Clearly a female ring ouzel – as Robbie maintains to this day. But I am an inveterate sceptic. What the devil might a ring ouzel be doing in the middle of Surrey ? It is a bird of mountain and moorland far to the north.

However, it is also a summer visitor to the UK, so perhaps it was on its way north. Or south. Unfortunately we cannot recall what time of year it was when we found it.

Furthermore, I was familiar with a male blackbird in our garden at home which was pied black and white. This is not uncommon among blackbirds. It is called leucism. Maybe our specimen was simply a leucistic female blackbird ?

Who knows ? But it is a fine subject for interminable dispute between old friends !

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Bookham is probably best known for its Common – acres of open grassland with scrub hawthorn, bracken beneath scattered silver birches, and mature mixed oak woods – and ponds. It is owned, like most of Surrey, by the National Trust. We lived just a few minutes away, down the road and over the footbridge at the railway station. Or you could take the road bridge over the railway line which led to the grand and mysterious Bookham Grange Hotel, and the sewage works; or the wide track over the tunnel which led to the Isle of Wight Pond and on to the far edge of the Common at Hundred Pound Bridge. It was a paradise, both for play and for the serious businesses of birdwatching, butterfly identification and pond dipping.

Occasionally Dad took us to some of the smaller ponds to collect daphnia – ‘water-fleas’ – as food for his goldfish. He had a greenhouse full of goldfish of all kinds and colours – comets, shubunkins, pearl- scales, orandas, bramble heads and pom-poms, in orange, yellow, red, black, silver and blue, slate grey and (my favourite) chocolate. Yum.

One day brother Ivor and I decided to go daphnia fishing ourselves. Dad provided us with a plastic bucket with a lid and a couple of nets. We headed off for the Common. Over the footbridge and down a path through the grass and scrub – until I spied a sheet of corrugated tin lying beside the path. I had to look under it of course. I lifted. A tight, dark coil of snake began to unravel. I grabbed it and held it firmly. Worryingly, it kept stretching and stretching in my grasp. And it begun to stink. I kept holding.

It was a grass snake. They defend themselves by creating a stink, so to speak, much like a skunk. I had never actually seen either a grass snake (harmless) or an adder (poisonous) before, but it had to be one or the other. I was confident in an instant that this was the former. Dark green, yellow patches on its neck. Brooke Bond, ‘British Wildlife’, card number 42. (The adder is number 43, so there was really no danger of confusing them . . . ).

In any case, there was no way I was going to let it escape.

Instead of daphnia in the bucket we came home with a grass snake.

I kept it captive, in one of Dad’s fish tanks, for a couple of weeks. I took it to school to show everybody. It continued to stink when handled. Then I let it go in the field behind our house. Shortly afterwards I found a dead slow-worm under one of my deliberately placed sheets of tin.  I looked up the diet of the grass snake in my Observer’s Book of Animals. Had I released a killer upon our local, innocent, legless lizards ?

I was wracked with possible guilt.

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The Isle of Wight Pond lay more or less in the middle of the Common. It was a big pond – or at least, much bigger than any other pond we knew. It was really only accessible on one side, along a narrow embankment with a path along the top. The other sides were made inaccessible by impenetrable scrub and thick alder carr growing in dark and dangerous bog.

There on the pond we spotted mute swans, mallard, moorhens, coots, dabchicks and the occasional heron. Modest spottings, but rewarding enough for beginners.

Much more exciting though was the day we found the pond tumultuous with amphibians in amplexus. I say amphibians because I don’t recall now whether they were frogs or toads. I say amplexus only because I now know that’s what it was. They were in amorous embrace, the smaller males clasped inseparably on the backs of the inflated females waiting for the release of her eggs. I regret to say that I picked up a pair and tossed them out across the pond, just for fun. Had I been a heron I could have ate them until I was incapable of getting airborne. They were so firmly fixed on their desire to reproduce that they were quite helpless.

The water was shallow against the embankment and excellent for pond dipping, or just for observing the creatures that crept upon the bottom or swam in or skated on the water. Dark flat-worms crept very slowly across the mud; water-boatmen rowed vigorously through the water; pond skaters zipped across the water’s surface. Once I spied a water scorpion creeping along the bottom with claws open wide. Often we would catch tiny sticklebacks in among the weeds.

Earlier, in the infamous winter of 1962-63, I remember the Isle of Wight pond being frozen solid. I watched as folk skated on it. Winters were serious in those days. At school we constructed fortresses of giant snowballs piled against the wall of the playing field. Some of us would be in the fortress defending, some would be attacking. Snowballs flew.

Owing to the winter of 1962/3 it was some time before I saw my first wren. It was a common bird before and became common enough again after, creeping like a mouse low in the undergrowth with its tail erect, or singing high on a bush with its volume level set at eleven. The winter of 62/63 killed eighty percent of them apparently, so it wasn’t until 1966 that I spotted one.

The Dartford Warbler was not common even before the winter of ’62/3 – some 450 pairs, living on southern lowland heaths such as the New Forest, and, unlike most other warblers, staying for the winter rather than heading south. When ornithologists went looking for them the summer after only ten were counted. That works out at a loss rate of ninety-eight percent.

It was better to be a wren.

In August 1968 my brother Ivor, our Dad, and myself, joined a coach party of other enthusiasts to visit the RSPB reserve at Arne, a heathland peninsular on the southern edge of Poole Harbour, Dorset. Arne was famous for its (surviving) Dartford Warblers. We walked for some time as I recall across the heath among purple heather and yellow-flowered gorse – exactly the kind of habitat favoured by the warblers – until we found one. Perched on a gorse spike, long tail up, two toned, grey above and plummy-red below, with an orange eye-ring. This is the male. Did we see a male or a female ? I don’t recall. One bird, or more ? Who knows ? It was all a very long time ago. But we did see one, and that had been the point of going.

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We had moved from Bookham in Surrey to the much more rural settlement of Soberton Heath in south Hampshire in 1966, when I was eleven. It was a great adventure. We had our own field – a modest half acre known as ‘The Paddock’. There were garden warblers in the back garden, and I swear to this day that they were young sand lizards on the old cherry- root – dark, and spotted along their length.

Of course that’s impossible because sand lizards are only found in the New Forest and on some of the Dorset Heaths.

Yes, but this was a heath, or rather had once been one, before people started building on it and trying to cultivate what was clay on the top and gravel a couple of feet beneath, a bog in winter and cracked and impenetrable in summer.

In any case, that was only the first summer – after that there were neither garden warblers nor lizards. Our moving in and our disturbance presumably put an end to both. Things change.

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Bookham had been full of open spaces – the field behind our house; the Common; our school, even without going behind the wall, set as it was in the middle of the former Eastwick Estate. When we moved to Soberton Heath we noted with excitement the adjacent Forestry Commission’s West Walk, part of the ancient Forest of Bere – a new wild space to explore.

The Forest turned out to be uninviting and oppressive. The gates were padlocked and had to be climbed. Inside there were ranks of dark conifers. It was easy to lose one’s sense of direction among the tree-lined forestry tracks. It was not a place to play. And everything else was farmland and private. We were confined to the roads and lanes and public footpaths. This was not good.

Fortunately we met Miss Spurgin. As mentioned earlier, she took us to places we could go birdwatching – to Meon Marshes, to Old Winchester Hill, to Farlington Marshes, to Hayling Island and to the watercress beds and chalk downs at Alresford. In any case we were growing past wanting to play. The more serious pursuit of ticking off the birds in our RSPB Field Notes booklets was now the thing. Miss Spurgin even introduced us to fine places and moments in West Walk – a heronry in a wood of towering oaks; a grasshopper warbler rattling and a roe-buck barking in a forest clearing; a nightjar churring and dancing in the dusk.

We also, soon, found other places to ‘play’. The river Meon at Mislingford ran over a narrow weir, dug a brief depth and then spread out into broad shallows before running through the arches of a road bridge. We would swim in the river in the summer, and go dipping with our nets at any time of year. We caught sticklebacks, elvers, crayfish, tiny brown trout, and brook lampreys. Once or twice we took them home in a bucket, but without the oxygen of the running water they soon expired.

Above the weir the river ran beside a wood and thick vegetation. Once I saw, for a moment, as it turned and ran, the substantial rear end of what I decided could only have been a coypu. Now I presume it was probably a water vole. Unless it was a musk rat . . . Or a muntjack . . . Or . . ?

This is of course one of the great frustrations of being a wildlife-spotter. There are so many occasions when the glimpse is not enough to know for certain what you’ve seen. You improve with age and experience, but still you cannot, on every occasion, be certain.

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Meanwhile, Bookham Common was not forgotten. In fact I worried about it. I happened to read a notice on the Parish Council Noticeboard which stated that if your Common was not registered forthwith it would cease to exist – more or less.

Should I write to register the existence of Bookham Common before it was too late ?

I am not sure now whether I decided it probably wasn’t necessary or whether I just never got round to it.

Fortunately Bookham Common survived, despite my neglect.

I was about twelve at the time.

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Our friend Terry Johnson lived just down the road at Mislingford, in a delightfully dilapidated house called ‘Lazy J’s’. His first car, inherited from one of his older brothers I think, was an elderly Singer Gazelle. Classy. Although, as the policeman who stopped us pointed out, the steering wheel seemed to have a rather vague relationship to the position of the front road wheels. No matter, whereas previously we had been reliant on Miss Spurgin or our bicycles, now we had Terry’s car.

I recall a trip to the New Forest. However, my only recollection is of a magic moment as we sat and ate our lunchtime tuck under the protection of great oaks as snow fell and a herd of broad- antlered fallow deer passed closely by, untroubled at our presence.

I also recall a trip we made to the New forest specifically to spot a Great Grey Shrike – a scarce winter visitor. We parked among tall scots pines beside Beaulieu Road railway station and strode off across the heath in search of the bird. At some point in our searching Terry and I wandered off down different paths. The result of this was that while I saw the shrike – unmistakable, , black , grey, white and masked – Terry didn’t.

Well of course he wouldn’t believe it.

Indeed, he claims to disbelieve me to this day.

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The New Forest is one of Terry’s favourite haunts. Or was when he lived in reach of it. He used to go there often with Miss Spurgin – only now, instead of she taking him in her mini, he would take her in his MGB sportscar, and after that in his twin carburettor, soft-top, red, Triumph TR6.

He never took me.

He took Ivor all the way to the Orkneys, while his brother and friend drove a Triumph GT. I will ask Ivor to tell that story though :

Orkney .

It took us the better part of two days to drive from South Hampshire to Orkney. The TR6 and the Triumph GT. We arrived at Scrabster, on the far north coast of Scotland, and caught the ferry across to Stromness. We camped at the western end of the main island for the week. It rained in the mornings but cleared up each afternoon. The wind blew, not wildly, but always. There was, unexpectedly, a tree on Orkney, though it was only six feet tall and skewed by the wind to an angle of thirty degrees.

Mostly there were stones. Big stones. Stones arranged in circles (Ring of Brogar) or piled up on top of each other (Maes Howe). These ancient and impressive structures were atmospheric with the evidence of distant lives. At Scapa Flow we caught up with more modern history, though there was nothing actually to see.

We enjoyed the company of grey seals near to where we camped by the coast – there is a lot of coast in Orkney. There is an isolated air to the islands, remote as they are. But it is not an unfriendly place, just a long way from anywhere else.

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I mentioned seeing a nightjar in West Walk. A slope of woods had been cleared and replanted and was covered with young trees – birches and firs – with some larger trees beside. The nightjar – the male of a pair – sat along a branch of a bordering trees churring like a football rattle. But exactly where he sat was difficult to locate. He churred ventriloquilly. But then he launched out across the slope, clapping his wings together above his back, dancing in the dusk like a great moth, coming quite close to us at times, unconcerned at our presence. But you can only watch nightjars for a short while, even on a summer night, before it becomes too dark to see.

There is another curious call produced by the male nightjar. I have only heard it once and had no idea at first what it even might be. It was after dark and out in arable fields. It was like the sound of a whip swishing, or rather buzzing, through the air, but without the crack at the end. First it was on one side of me, then it was some way over on the other. Therefore it had to be a bird. Nothing else could have moved so quickly. Therefore it had to be a nocturnal bird, because it was night time. An owl ? Possibly. A partridge up past its bedtime. Probably not. Or a nightjar, despite the unlikely habitat. After all, I thought, to get to where you prefer to be you do have to travel through places you’d rather not. I consulted my copy of WH Hudson’s ‘British Birds’ (by far the best still for descriptions of bird sounds) and indeed it was a nightjar.

The female is silent it seems, and not so easily seen because of it. They occupy their territory as a single pair. I was therefore much amazed later on to discover that the giant, screaming hoard of swift-like birds that came hurtling overhead every evening in up-state New York were in fact close cousins of the nightjar. They were common nighthawks. In appearance they were rather similar; in behaviour they were worlds apart. The genteel British night-churr; the brash American hawk.

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A part of both Bob and my own beginnings with birds involved reading the works of Arthur Ransome, author of the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series of children’s adventure stories. My favourites were those which most explicitly concerned birds – ‘Coot Club’, set in the Norfolk Broads; ‘Great Northern?’ (Diver, that is), set in the Hebrides; and even ‘Pigeon Post’ set, like ‘Swallows and Amazons’, in the Lake District. Bob has them all in original editions, with covers. I have a few, in jacketless second-hand copies and cheap paperbacks. This is an illustration of how he is serious about his interests whereas I am a Jack-of-all -and-none. This is why he has become a serious ornithologist, a qualified bird-ringer and an expert on the birds of Malawi – where he happened to live for a while. Even now he annually travels to various parts of the world to ring and otherwise investigate the avifauna of the location in question.

Bob and I lost contact for many years, but Friends Reunited got us back together. He was living in South Wales when I first went to visit him, in a white -walled, slate-roofed cottage, a mile or so above Tintern Abbey. A stream ran in a deep channel between the cottage and the lane. Dippers nested along the stream and whirred up and down right in front of the cottage.

Dippers ! The last time I had seen dippers was in a park in suburban Edinburgh. That was a surprise, to find them in the middle of suburbia. To find them in Bob’s Welsh stream was less so. But to find them at all, coming as I do from southern chalk streams – from which dippers don’t – was a delight. A strange and unique bird – squat, white-breasted, constantly bobbing perched on a river rock, then disappearing into the flow after aquatic quarry.

Bob also took me to see water rails, in the reed beds of a reserve in the shadow of the steel plant at Llanwern. I had only seen a single water rail once, many years before. It was on one of our trips with Miss Spurgin, starting at the rural market town of Alresford – an outing of the Hampshire Field Club. We began our walk from the town square and down to the nearby watercress beds. It was there, for a moment, that we glimpsed a water rail – grey-fronted, brown above, with black and white stripes along its flanks. It quickly disappeared into the vegetation. This seems to be the nature of water rails. Those we saw at Llanwern would nip out of the reed beds for a moment and then vanish again back into them. Nonetheless, they did it repeatedly, so we saw them sufficiently.

From the watercress beds we walked up from the valley and over the chalk downs under a wintery sky until we came to a big house. (This is back with the Hampshire field Club again). There we ate sausage rolls while the grown-ups drank sherry and cups of tea and coffee.

Not long ago I tried to recreate that wonderful walk with Ivor and my kids. However, the open fields of forty and more years ago were now hidden behind tall hedges. The tracks we walked had become canyoned, confined, almost oppressive. The views had vanished. However, when we came back down along the river into Alresford town we were rewarded with a new wonder. There were pike and perch hanging in the clear water close beside the path, perfectly visible and undisturbed at our walking by. The long-backed pike like a torpedo; the sail-backed and striped perch altogether more charming. But both predators. Which is probably why there was no sign of trout on that stretch, or of ducklings.
Like many Hampshire rivers, the Arle – a tributary of the Itchen – drips with brown trout. So too the river Meon. I had heard tales from Terry of his brother Tim tickling trout out of the Meon – catching them by hand, that is. How the devil he managed to even get near a trout in the Meon remains a mystery to me as they are well fished and very wary. Not so the trout in and around the watercress beds and feeder streams at Alresford. These streams are not suitable for fishing and, in any case, so close to the town, people preferred ( this was in the 1970’s) to feed the fish with bits of bread rather than catch them. That is, the trout around Alresford were rather tame. This makes the misdemeanour I am about to confess to particularly dreadful :

I tickled a trout out of an Alresford stream.

It was not difficult. I lay down carefully on the bank beside where an unsuspecting fish hung conveniently close in the clear water. I dipped my hand into the flow and underneath the fish. I brought my hand up slowly until I was touching its belly. I slowly raised it towards the surface, amazed that it didn’t swim away. It was at the surface. I struck – upwards ! It flew – and landed on the bank.

Then of course I had to bash it on the head in order to take it home for tea.

There really is nothing like a wild trout when it comes to eating. A few mouthfuls of firm, rich flesh and you’re full. But what flavour those few, brief mouthfuls ! Speak not of supermarket pond-farmed trout fed on fish-pellets. We are not in the same universe. Not apples and pears, but apples and gravel.

Okay, I exaggerate a little. But not a lot. And it’s probably the case that any wild fish, having fed on wild food, is a good deal tastier than its farmed and pellet-fed equivalent. I would be happy to check this out in the case of salmon, by the way, should anyone wish to offer.
But Alresford was not my worst offence in relation to wild trout . . .

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