Category Archives: Reminiscences

Lake District

My friend Mike is currently building a kayak in Cumbria, so I went over to stay with him for a couple of days. On my way there, on Tuesday, I took a spin through the Yorkshire Dales, visited my joint-favourite second-hand bookshop in Sedbergh, drove over to Windermere, then took the Kirkstone Pass to Brothers Water.

I've wanted to visit Brothers Water for about 20 years—ever since Mum returned from a holiday in the Lake District with Dad, full of excitement at having seen red squirrels in the woods next to Brothers Water. She thought I should drive up there right away to look for them. On Tuesday, I finally got round to it.

Brothers Water
Brothers Water

Not wishing to build up any sort of suspense, I should tell you right away that I didn't see any red squirrels. I've only seen one red squirrel in my entire life: out of a car window, when I was about six, in Dibbinsdale, near our home in Bromborough. You won't find any red squirrels in Dibbinsdale today. Or ever again, most likely. They've been seen off by the pox, and a nationwide cull of the invasive grey vectors seems unlikely.

Who needs squirrels? It was a lovely walk along the footpath near Brothers Water. The weather was unseasonably warm, but there was quite a lot of mist about. Despite the mist, my photos came out better than I expected:

Near Brothers Water
Near Brothers Water
Hartsop Hall farm
Hartsop Hall farm
Near Brothers Water
Near Brothers Water
Grey wagtail, Brothers Water
Grey wagtail, Brothers Water
Rook near Brothers Water
A pensive rook

The following day, yesterday, with Mike taking almost as long as Noah on his boat, I took a spin up to Keswick to visit Castlerigg stone circle. I then popped into the town and visited the pencil museum. There's 15 minutes (and £4.50) I'll never get back!

I stopped for a brew at Coniston Water on my way back to Mike's place. As I tucked into my, I felt, well-earned Eccles cake, I was visited by a pair of robins, on the scrounge for crumbs. Unfortunately, they took it in turns coming over to me, so I wasn't able to get a photo of the two of them together. But they did come sufficiently close to enable me to use my favourite macro lens:

Robin, Coniston Water
Robin, Coniston Water

Yesterday would have been Mum's 76th birthday. She'd have been delighted to hear of my close encounter with a pair of her favourite birds. Even more delighted than if I'd seen some red squirrels.

More photos | View as slideshow

The seahorse and the pelican

[W]hile on the one hand the study of Nature today aims to describe a system governed by immutable laws, on the other it delights in drawing our attention to creatures noteworthy for their bizarre physical form or behaviour. Even in Brehm's Thierleben, a popular nineteenth-century zoological compendium, pride of place is given to the crocodile and the kangaroo, the ant-eater and the armadillo, the seahorse and the pelican; and nowadays we are shown on the television screen a colony of penguins, say, standing motionless through the long dark winter of the Antarctic, with its icy storms, on their feet the eggs laid at a milder time of year. In programmes of this kind, which are called Nature Watch or Survival and are considered particularly educational, one is more likely to see some monster coupling at the bottom of Lake Baikal than an ordinary blackbird.
W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (trans. Michael Hulse)

 
I'm with Sebald: I would much rather watch a documentary about blackbirds than one about monster couplings at the bottom of Lake Baikal. Darwin's remarkable theory describing how life's grandeur came about works for all species. A blackbird is every bit as remarkable as a seahorse or a pelican—and a lot more relevant to me personally.

As young boys, my dad and uncle were evacuated to Harlech in North Wales during the Second World War. They can still sing a particular song in Welsh together, although they have no idea what the words mean. Surprisingly, the woman who looked after them in Harlech was German noblewoman, Amalie (Amy) Elizabeth Sophie Graves, née von Ranke (1857–1951). She also happened to be the mother of the poet and author Robert Graves (1895–1985).

Dad was telling me recently that, although he doesn't remember an awful lot about his life as an evacuee, one of his clearest memories from that time is being allowed to look at a German book full of wonderful engravings of animals. I wonder if it was Brehms Thierleben, as described by Sebald:

Brehms Thierleben
Frontispiece from a reprint volume of the second edition of Brehms Thierleben (Image: Wikipedia).

North Wales, the Second World War, evacuees, German noblewomen, famous poets, zoological compendiums, unreliable memories…

All very Sebaldian!

Treasure trove

I recently helped my dad to clean out his loft in preparation for its being re-insulated. We uncovered a real treasure trove of fond memories.

'The Young Naturalist's Handbook' by Leonard Moore
'The Young Naturalist's Handbook' by Leonard Moore

I was particularly delighted to find lots of old books from my childhood, which I had thought lost—including some old school exercise books from both my primary and secondary schools. There were also numerous nature-related children's books, including my precious I-Spy books, The Observer's Book of Birds (my first ever bird book), some animal encyclopaedias, and a couple of young naturalist's handbooks.

 

My copy of Leonard Moore's The Young Naturalist's Handbook has already proved useful in identifying a greater stitchwort found in the local woods, and a lumpsucker a friend found washed up on his local beach. The book uses the elegantly simple technique of sorting species according to the habitat you are likely to see them in, making it relatively simple to flick through and find what you're looking for. Contrast this with the half-hour I spent unsuccessfully trying to identify the greater stitchwort in a grown-ups' flower book.

It seems to me, in this hyperlinked, cross-referenced, search-engined age, that it should be a lot easier for amateur naturalists young and old to identify mystery species. Fortunately for me, however, I now once again have my trusty Young Naturalist's Handbook to hand.