Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Glamis Castle Ghosts



Glamis Castle, said to be the most haunted castle in Scotland, is the family home of the Earls of Strathmore and Kinghorne. The lands were presented to them by King Robert II (Robert the Bruce) in 1372. The main keep of the Castle dates from the 14th century, the towers and turrets were added later. The Bowes-Lyons family, as the Earls of Strathmore, still own the Castle. The late Queen Mother, the daughter of the 14th Earl, and her daughter Princess Margaret were both born there.

(www.visitscotland.com)

It’s said that Shakespeare visited the Castle and that Glamis was the setting for Macbeth, the Scottish play. There the connection ends – the murder of King Malcolm occurred in the 11th century, Duncan was King from 1034 -1040, Macbeth from 1040 -1057. In the play Macbeth dies at Dunsinane; he actually died at Lumphanan. All these events theatrical or historical took place before the Castle existed

An infamous ghost at Glamis is that of Earl Beardie. In the15th century the First Earl Glamis and Lord Crawford, nicknamed Earl Beardie and Tiger Earl because of his straggly beard, were playing cards on a Saturday night. A servant interrupted them to warn them of the approaching Sabbath. They swore to finish their game; Earl Beardie, a compulsive gambler, who had been drinking and losing badly said he would play with the devil himself. Needless to say the devil appeared and took him up on the offer. Earl Beardie died a few days later and since then his strangled cries can be heard in the tower. Some people have even claimed to have seen a ghostly figure with a straggly beard.

The Ogilvys and Lindsays both took refuge in the Castle under the First Earl after a battle between their clans; neither of them knew of the presence of the other. The Earl took action to ensure it remained that way. He put the fugitives in different rooms and locked the doors. He forgot to unlock the Ogilvys’ room – they starved to death. Their skeletons were found when the room was unlocked years later. Since then loud knocking and the cries of starving men can be heard from the so-called Haunted Chamber.

Legend has it that the Grey Lady Ghost is that of the 6th Lady of Glamis, Janet Douglas, Accused of plotting to kill James V she was covered in pitch and burnt at the stake as a witch on Castle Hill, in Edinburgh in 1537. The Grey Lady haunts the chapel and is also said to appear in the Clock Tower.

The ghost of a young black boy ill treated in the 18th century haunts a stone seat outside the Queen Mother’s Sitting Room.

More gory is the Glamis Monster, the hideously deformed ghost of the handicapped son of the 11th Earl locked up at birth in the early part of the 19th century and hidden in the Castle until he died. His coffin was the bricked up in his secret room. The ghost is said to exercise along a rooftop walk known as the ‘Mad Earl’s Walk.’

Other ghosts associated with the Castle about which less is known include the figure known as Jack the Runner who haunts the grounds and runs across the grass on moonlit nights. More sinister is the ghost of a female servant of an early Earl who witnessed a brutal crime. To ensure her silence her tongue was cut out; she died of shock. Now her ghost runs about the grounds pointing to her bloody mouth.

With so many hauntings in mind it’s hardly surprising that Sir Walter Scott when he visited the Castle said, “I began to consider myself too far from the living and somewhat too near the dead.”

In 2009, the owners of the Castle wanted to put an end to the procession of ghost hunters and to attract a more discerning clientele. The general manager has been reported as saying, “There is absolutely no evidence whatever that there are any supernatural beings in the Castle.”

What next for Scotland? No monster in Loch Ness!

[NOTE: depending on the source used there are variations in the accounts of the ghosts at Glamis. The accounts used have been arranged in date sequence except for Jack the Runner and the maid with no tongue.]

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Sidecars to Jaguars: Amy on Sepia Saturday 51


The origins of Jaguar go back to the seaside town of Blackpool. In 1922 Bill Lyons, a motorcycle enthusiast, and William Walmsley formed the Swallow Sidecar Company – Walmsley had previously been building sidecars and attaching them to reconditioned motorbikes.

In 1926/27 The Swallow Sidecar and Coachbuilding Company diversified taking existing cars and re-bodying them with more fashionable coachwork.

SS cars came in the 1930s when a chassis to Swallow’s design was fitted with engines from the Standard Motor Company. Later the SS name was altered to SS Jaguar. As a consequence of WWII the term SS had unwanted Nazi connotations and in April 1945 SS Cars became Jaguar Cars.

What’s this to do with Amy?

In September 1948 Jaguar announced the Jaguar Mark V, its first post war model.


 This week’s photo shows Amy with her husband Bob (the couple on the left), her sister Edna and Edna’s husband, Charles. They were on a trip to London in 1948 to see the Motor Show at Earls Court, the first after the war.

More Sepia Saturday at http://www.sepiasaturday.blogspot.com/

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Seven Stories

The Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books were the co-sponsors for the Sixth Annual Fickling Lecture on Developments in Children’s Literature given by Roddy Doyle on 18 November at Newcastle University’s Curtis Auditorium.

Seven Stories, the first museum in the UK wholly dedicated to the art of British children’s books, is the only UK exhibition space solely celebrating British children’s literature.

Their exhibition programme is designed to spark the imaginations of children and adults, and inspire exciting new work. Activities give opportunities for dressing up, dramatic fun, creative writing and word play.

Story telling events are held for all the family. Author and illustrator events enable you to explore how they create their books. These events may be followed by book signings in the Bookshop which is one of the largest independent children’s bookshops in the country.

Seven Stories is located in the Ouseburn Valley close to Newcastle's quayside.


Fighting Words: the write to right.




The Sixth Fickling Lecture on Developments in Children’s Literature

  Fighting Words: the write to right

Thursday 18 November 2010 – Curtis Auditorium, Hershel Building, Newcastle University.

Fighting Words is the creative writing centre for children and young people opened in Dublin in 2009 by Roddy Doyle and Sean Love. The idea for the centre was inspired by 826 Valencia a creative writing centre in San Francisco founded by the American author, publisher and philanthropist Dave Eggers.

Fighting Words is the first European Member of the Once Upon a School movement established across deprived cities in America.

The deliberately misspelled slogan “The write to right” had the builders working on the exterior wanting to change the words and correct the spelling. “The write to right” has remained and this reinforces its invitation to children to: Write First, Worry Later.

It was a surprise when Roddy Doyle announced that he had never given a formal lecture before and that he would be reading from notes. This did not in any way distract from the message he put across to his audience.

What follows is taken from a few of my notes taken the time:

Roddy told of primary school children at Fighting Words, asked what was needed in a story, came up with ‘characters’ ‘things that are funny’ ‘full stops’. One 9 year waved her hand up and said ‘conflict and resolution’. It was obvious that it was bright bunch. After reflection Roddy found he was a bit depressed and that it was a pity that they knew the requirements for a story – before they had written anything.

As a 10 year old Roddy was asked to write a story. He was told by his teacher that what he was writing on his blotter was brilliant. Roddy reminded us that anything that isn’t brilliant in Ireland is disastrous. Nevertheless he never forgot being told he was brilliant.

Children need to be encouraged. Unfortunately the teaching of creative writing is not encouraging; although perhaps now it’s not encouraged in a more encouraging way. A child does not need to learn all the rules before beginning to write. If you give a child a ball he (or she) does not need to know the laws of association football before kicking it. Give the kid the ball the rules can come later. This football analogy applies to writing too. So give the kids the tools and let them get on with it.

Roddy explained how the Fighting Words centre operates. They have 400 volunteers and around 40 artists that are used to assist when a group of children attend. They sit on bean bags in front of a screen and are asked what they want to see in a story. A volunteer in front of the group puts up their suggestions on a screen, artists sketch their suggestions – sharks, three-eyed monsters whatever.

I hope these few notes give you a flavour of the lecture. I strongly recommend that you listen to it in full and the question and answer session at

Including the preamble and the introduction of Roddy Doyle by Kate Edwards the CEO of Seven Stories the recording lasts 1hr 35 minutes.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Voluptuous Witch

 
The Cutty Sark  posted by daily.postcard@gmail.com (Sheila) at A Postcard a Day  reminded me that I had written this for Yarm Writers Group in 2008


The Voluptuous Witch

"Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice or scolding tongue, having a rugged coat on her back, a skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand and a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspect but pronounced for a witch."

So said John Gaule in his condemnation of Matthew Hopkins the infamous, self-styled "Witch-finder General" – who took his notorious business throughout East Anglia in the 1640's.

Nannie was not like that. She was winsome and walie; what we today would call voluptuous. She wore only a short shift made for her as a child from coarse Paisley linen and far too short to hide her modesty.

On a dark and stormy night after a day’s hard drinking a farmer left an inn on his faithful horse. The Scots would say he was fou or, perhaps you may prefer, he was three sheets into the wind. Along the way he came to an old churchyard just as the storm grew worse and lightning illuminated the scene. To the accompaniment of thunder the farmer saw that graves had opened up and coffins stood on end. Corpses held torches to light up the merriment that was taking place and which was presided over by the Devil.

Warlocks and witches danced hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys and reels. Amongst them, was the scantily clad Nannie, the voluptuous witch, lively and full of spirits. The bemused farmer watched her in awe and could not resist shouting out, “Well done.”

This was the cue for warlocks and witches, led by Nannie, to break off from their revelry and give chase to the farmer on his horse. Although initially rooted to the spot the farmer, fearing for his life, fled pursued by the horde. He urged his horse on towards a bridge over a river; he knew that if he could make it there the witches could not cross the running water and he would be safe.

He reached the bridge, but as he crossed Nannie reached out and grabbed his horse’s flowing tail. Fortunately for horse and man, the horse did not stop and Nannie was left holding the horse’s tail which she had pulled off.

The man lived on to farm and drink another day.

But what of Nannie? Her fame lives on in Scottish legend. In her short shift still holding the horse’s tail she became the inspiration for the figurehead of the fastest and most famous of all the world’s tea clippers.

Despite a disastrous fire in 2007 the clipper remains the only one surviving to this day. Its name is Cutty Sark.

The story of the farmer and Nannie in her cutty sark, the too short shift of coarse Paisley linen, was immortalized by Robert Burns in his famous poem Tam o’Shanter.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Fickling Lectures On Developments in Children's Literature

Fighting Words was the subject of the sixth Fickling lecture this year. Roddy Doyle was the speaker in the Curtis Auditorium, Herschel Building, Newcastle University on 18th November.

I'll post my notes on his talk in a later post. Meanwhile I hope you enjoy details of Nick Hornby's lecture from 2009:


Nick Hornby: Fifth Fickling Lecture

The Fickling Lectures on development in children’s literature were instigated with the support of David Fickling Books in response to the debate about the cultural importance of contemporary children’s literature. The inaugural lecture in 2005 was given by Philip Pullman; later lectures were delivered by Andrew Motion, James Naughtie, and Sandi Toksvig.

Nick Hornby’s lecture on 26 November 2009 was entitled “Why All Fiction should be Young Adult Fiction.”

“Books are more important than anything else,” was an early quote made by Nick Hornby in his look at young adult literature, the subject of reading and writing and the lessons for authors from books intended for a younger readership.

In 2006 a number of authors were asked to identify 10 books that all children should have read before they left school. Philip Pullman, J K Rowling were among those who made selections; many including Nick Hornby refused. Andrew Motion’s list was:

The Odyssey Homer
Don Quixote Miguel de Cervantes
Hamlet William Shakespeare
Paradise Lost John Milton
Lyrical Ballads Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth
Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë
Great Expectations Charles Dickens
Portrait of a Lady Henry James
Ulysses James Joyce
The Waste Land TS Eliot

Hornby confessed that he had not read all these and though that such a list would put children off reading for life. He had abandoned reading Ulysses and recommended that if you were finding any book difficult to read you should do likewise. Books intended for you adults could be complex but should address situations reflecting life, even if fantasy or sci-fi. He made special reference to David Almond’s Skellig, which won the Carnegie Medal in 1998 and was the Whitbread Children’s Book of The Year. In 2007, judges for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for children’s literature considered Skellig to be one of the most important children’s novels of the last 70 years.

Children today have access to technology that didn’t exist in Nick’s youth so they will not necessarily pick up a book to read unless the content is interesting to them. In addition to Skellig He also mentioned M T Anderson’s Feed in which the story revolves around a teenage boy and his relationship with a girl with a vastly different world perspective. They live within a futuristic world where technology has merged electronics and telecommunications with the human mind.

I had not heard of the Alex Awards referred to by Nick; the Awards are made annually by the Young Adult Library Services Association and are given to ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, selected from the previous year's publishing. Stephen King’s Just After Sunset was given an award this year. [The Alex Awards, first given annually in 1998, became an official American Library Association award in 2002. The Awards are named after Margaret A Edwards, known to her friends as ‘Alex,’ who pioneered young adult library services and who worked at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. See: www.ala.org/yalsa/booklists/alex.]

Nick concluded that what was wanted for each person leaving school to be able to draw up list of 10 books that were their favourites; the content was not important. We want children to read for pleasure.

Interesting comments in the Q&A session that followed were that Nick regards writing as hard work and a job; reading is a pleasure. He also said that the average professional writer earned less than £5000 a year.

[You can listen to a recording of Nick Hornby’s lecture by following the link at http://www.ncl.ac.uk/events/public-lectures/item.php?nick-hornby-author

Friday, 19 November 2010

Amy's Parents for Sepia Saturday

These may not be sepia photographs but they are old enough to be interesting. They show Amy's parents at the seaside - we don't know where. If someone can identify the deckchair owners (Greeves Bros) then we might be able to identify the location.




Mary Hannah and George Albert by the sea



George Albert and Mary Hannah
We believe this to be a photo by a seaside photographer - again we don't know where. Nor can we date it from the car or the gas lamp in the street.

Don't forget to check out www.sepiasaturday.blogspot.com again this week.





Saturday, 13 November 2010

Amy on Sepia Saturday

I have just been looking at the The Daily Postcard blog and a post entitled 'To Amy from Paris.' This led me to www.sepiasaturday.blogspot.com hosted by Alan Burnett which invites you to post  any sepia photo you may wish to share.

Why have I added a picture? Well let me introduce you to Amy, my mother-in-law when she was young. I won't tell you her full name but  her family's name was Garside.







This photo is from the early 1900s. A beautiful picture of a girl who became a lovely woman remember by all who knew her.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Are You In A Rut?


If so, you could have learnt about ‘rutways’ by attending the Books and Banter session, entitled ‘Saltburn’s Rutways, presented by Rachel Graham of Teesside Archaeology at Stockton Library this month last year..

Rutways were created as safe routes for horsedrawn carts transporting cargoes between the foreshore and ships beached at low tide; such journeys were often made in poor visibility or when the tide was flooding or receding.

In 1986 John Owen reported on 17 locations on the North East coast of Yorkshire where rutways could be traced. The rutway sites are found from Saltburn to south of Scarborough, with all but two north of Whitby.

Teesside Archaeology, in partnership with the Nautical Archaeology and the Teesside Archaeology Societies, has been surveying rutways in the Saltburn area since 2005. Work can only been done at those times of the year when the tides are at their lowest, usually during one week in the summer – they haven’t been brave enough to work in March, the other optimum time. On any one day tasks have to be completed within a five hour time period.


 Huntcliffe (Behind Saltburn pier)

Initially surveying has been conducted on the shore below Huntcliffe, just south of Saltburn. The majority of the rutways have a gauge width of 4ft 4ins, the size for Yorkshire carts. A simple width gauge assists in identifying the location of the rutways which will originally have been cut by hand as long ago as the 17th century. Erosion has worn them away over the years; their existence is not always easy to confirm and may be confused with cracks and faults in the rocky foreshore.

Square post holes have been located which may have been used as guide posts or to hold lamps to light the way in the dark. It is hoped to date the holes from the wood still left in one.

A row of round post holes, 7ins in diameter, leads out to sea with rows of 3.1/2in dia. on either side. It is believed these are more recent as they cut through the rutways; these may have been used to set out salmon nets.

The surveys completed have shown that the rutways ran round the base of Huntcliffe down towards Skinningrove to the south and can be traced to two inlets probably used for loading and unloading ships.

The concentration of rutways at Huntcliffe indicates substantial traffic with and up and down system akin to railway lines. Ships would have been able to beach on Saltburn’s sand and to be service by the carts using the rutways. {The picture in the gallery shows Huntcliffe in the background)

It is most likely that the rutways were used as part of the Yorkshire alum industry. They may also have been used to collect ironstone fallen out of the cliffs until around 1850 and the discovery of Cleveland’s main ironstone seam. Other uses could have been the collection of seaweed for the fertiliser industry or even the salvage of wrecked vessels (there are record of around 50 vessels lost at Saltburn and Huntcliffe.

A major ingredient for the alum industry is the shale found in this area. Alum works were in operation at Kettleness and Peak, near Ravenscar, north and south of Whitby. Shale, coal and seaweed are used to produce alum used as a mordant, or fixer, for dyes. The Archaeological team is monitoring a building being washed of the cliffs which is believed to be an alum house.

In 1790, when around 5000 tons of alum were produced, this would require 4450 tons of kelp, 35000 tons of coal and 56500 gallons of urine. For the 60 ton ships of the time the traffic on the rutways would have been considerable.

There are rutways at sites in Cornwall with those at Prussia Cove appearing on the first Ordnance Survey maps (1850s). These have the same 4ft 4in gauge but are up to 1ft deep. [If you Google Prussia Cove you may see pictures clearly showing the rutways]

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

A Hero's Salute

A piece for Yarm Writers tomorrow 11th November, altered to include the photos.


Guests arriving at the St George Hotel cannot miss the larger-than-life bronze statue of an airman in WWII flying gear, standing at attention and holding a salute. If they check the memorial garden in front of the hotel, the wartime Officers’ Mess at Middleton-St-George, they will see a tribute to the Royal Canadian Air Force.


In 1944 Andrew Mynarski and Pat Brophy were members of the crew of a Lancaster bomber in the RCAF’s 419 “Moose” Squadron. Although Brophy was an officer the two became friends. Andrew would say. “Goodnight, sir,” and salute Brophy in a teasing way. Shortly before their 13th mission Andrew gave Pat Brophy a four-leaf clover for good luck.
On 11 June 1944 Mynarski was promoted to pilot officer. The next day the two friends left on that 13th mission on a bombing raid over the railway marshalling yards in Cambrai, France. Mynarski occupied the middle gun turret on top of the bomber’s fuselage, Brophy the tail-gun turret.
Later Brophy recalled that it was 12.13am on 13th June on his watch when the Lancaster was hit by cannon fire from a German fighter. With two engines on fire the captain ordered everyone to bail out. Brophy was trapped in the rear gun turret with the back of the plane in flames.
Mynarski, at the hatch ready to jump, saw that Brophy was trapped. By the time he had crawled to reach his friend, Mynarski’s clothes and parachute were alight. Mynarski’s efforts with an axe and his bare hands failed to release the rear gunner.
Brophy screamed at Mynarski to give up and to save himself. As Mynarski crawled back towards the hatch he never took his eyes off his friend. At the hatch he came to attention and saluted. Brophy knew that what Mynarski said before he jumped was, “Good night, sir.”
Andrew Mynarski died from his burns shortly after being found by French farmers. Incredibly Brophy, thrown out of the plane when it crashed, survived without a scratch – the four leaf clover still nestled in his flyer’s hat.
On 11th October 1946, four days before what would have been his 29th birthday, Mynarski was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest honour for valour.
Andrew Mynarski is buried at Meharicourt Communal Cemetery near Cambrai, France. The bronze statue of him at the salute was dedicated in 2005 at the former RAF Middleton St George, 60 years after he lost his life. Fittingly it was Pat Brophy’s daughter who unveiled the memorial.
Mynarski was just one of the 55753 men of RAF Bomber Command who lost their lives in WWII and one of the twenty-three awarded the VC among who are the perhaps better known Leonard Cheshire and Guy Gibson.
Sixty-five years on from the end of the war there still is no memorial to those in Bomber Command who lost their lives. The memorial fund has not reached the £5.5m target required for its erection in London’s Green Park.
“The Few” have their national memorial on the white cliffs of Dover at Capel-le-Ferne. The Green Park memorial is in danger of being delayed until after the Olympics in 2012. What a shame it will be if there are no veterans left to honour their comrades when it is eventually erected. We should not forget what Churchill said at the time, “The fighters are our salvation, but the bombers alone provide the means of victory.”

Saturday, 6 November 2010

To The Woods


Three years ago I set out to trace the origin of a small wood near the village where I live in the UK. I visited the wood at fortnightly intervals through most of the year taking photos that interested me and which show what was happening as the year progressed. (I'll post some of these at appropriate times of the year)


To The Woods

There are simple steps that may help you find out about woods that exist near you Anyone interested in tracing the history of woods on their land, or in their neighbourhood might well start with Ordnance Survey (OS) maps

My local wood is unnamed on OS maps and situated, beside an A67 road in North Yorkshire, it is little more than a small patch of green on the current maps. OS maps for the area dating back to 1857 and 1894 in the Middlesbrough reference library produced the first positive information about when the wood was planted. Not there in 1857, it appeared on the first edition of the 25,000:1 scale map of 1894. Other woods in the area had the same names as today, and a large hall also appeared for the first time

The Kirklevington village research group has traced ownership of the estate from William the Conqueror through absentee aristocratic and royal landowners to its sale to wealthy local families and its take over by a family of industrialists at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A family map from that time showed the hall and the wood. Comments on the estate referred to the establishment of new plantations and woods, i.e., those which appeared on the 1894 OS map. The hall, commissioned in the eighteen-seventies and first inhabited in 1884, is now Judges Country Hotel whose website gives 1881 as the year it was erected. 

Ancient woodland is land that has had a continuous woodland cover since at least 1600AD. My wood cannot therefore fall into this category and certainly no tree has a girth to suggest such an old age. You can check whether a wood is ancient by using the interactive map and ancient woodland inventory available on www.magic.gov.uk. In my case, using the post code to select the area showed ancient and replanted ancient woodland within five miles – but not my wood – superimposed on the OS map. However if a wood is less than 2 hectares, it will not appear on the ancient woodland map or inventory. 

On the 1894 OS map, using the 25,000:1 scale I calculated that my wood, which I christened ‘Boot Wood’ due to its characteristic shape, to be just under the 2 hectares. A picture on an archaeological web site of Boot Wood showed it in full leaf alongside what, in 1803 was established as a turnpike road and is now the A67; four adjacent fields are clearly land that was once tilled by a ridge and furrow system. Aerial photography may tell you more than can be seen on the ground. 

Boot Wood (and ridge and furrow system)

In researching a wood, you may find tree preservation orders (TPO) have been placed on individual trees or, even on the woodland itself. TPO made by the council or local planning authorities protect specific trees or woodland from deliberate damage and destruction. The felling, lopping, topping, uprooting or otherwise willful damaging trees are not permitted without the permission of the local planning authority. A council has a ‘discretionary’ power to make a TPO, but there is no legal reason why it has to make one. Even if a wood contains a wonderful tree it does not mean it will be the subject of a TPO. Because some TPO are quite old (they can date back to 1949) landowners may not know they have a TPO on their trees. TPO are available for inspection at local authority offices. 

Woodlands face threats from development in many areas, whether from new housing, roads, leisure amenities such as golf courses, or facilities for motor or mountain bike events. The Woodland Trust has a guide for planners on ancient woods and trees which supports 2005 Planning Policy Statement [PPS] No.9 on biodiversity and geological conservation. Although PPS 9 strengthens the protection for aged and veteran trees and ancient woods in England, there are legal loopholes which allow even sites of special scientific interest to be damaged and destroyed. Examples exist, such as Penn Wood in Buckinghamshire, where development decisions arising from public enquiries have been reversed following campaigns by residents and the Woodland Trust. It’s a good policy therefore to look out for announcements of consultations on local development plans which may affect woodlands where you live. 

A E Housman (Shropshire Lad, 1896) wrote “About the woodlands I will go.” However, if you intend to enter a wood which is on private land, and there are no designated bridle ways or public footpaths, you have ‘no right to roam’ without first obtaining permission. The right to roam, provided by The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 applies only to mapped areas of uncultivated, open countryside - namely mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land and not to woodlands. The estate farmer gladly gave me permission to enter and study Boot Wood even although there are no paths or rights of way through its trees. 

What did I find in early March? The wood was only criss-crossed with animal tracks; it truly reflected Lord Byron’s words, “There is a pleasure in pathless woods”. The impact of man was plainly seen in its shape constrained on three sides by sheep netting, topped by a single barbed-wire strand strung between wooden fence poles; a neatly tonsured hawthorn hedge stretched sinuously along the northern side. Litter strewn inside the eastern edge demonstrated today’s fast food culture – empty plastic bottles, a discarded board announcing “Open; Food & Drink, Next Left”, cardboard, plastic and polystyrene food cartons and empty beer and soft drinks bottles and cans. Road works’ discards included safety helmet skull cap linings, battered traffic cones and a yellow warning lamp.

Inside the wood, the noise of human activity intruded with the steady hum of speeding traffic, the whine of aircraft overhead and even the rumble of an occasional far-off train. Then the sounds of the wood drown these noises out, first a blackbird’s warning cry of protest at being disturbed and a clatter of wings as wood pigeons took to flight and then, as things quietened down, the family chattering of long-tailed tits performing acrobatics in the trees. On a breezy day, the trees emitted eerie creaks interspersed with the rattle of last year’s ash keys and finally came the territorial call of a cock pheasant celebrating his escape from the last of the winter’s February shoots. 

In later months, road-kill chefs would have been able to feast on pheasant, fox, rabbit and squirrel, with badger from further along the wood-side road. Last winter, the wood has been alive with rabbits and grey squirrels; the rabbits have marked their favourite scrapes and moss stumps by copious droppings and, with a flash of white, take cover among the larger bramble bushes. Reportedly, deer have been seen in the early light of day, but these frequent the larger, nearby woods and fields, from where their tracks enter the wood.
Boot Wood is dominated by ash trees, whose keys and ivy-covered trunks have provided late winter colours, while silver birch, beech, oak, horse chestnut, hawthorn, blackthorn, elder and holly have also staked their claims. 

“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall”, wrote Tennyson, about the time the wood was planted. This is demonstrated now by ‘ship wrecks’ of silver birch trunks like broken masts with spars amid bramble-rigging at their feet; the characteristic hoof-shaped tinder fungus has also thrived on birch trunks and fallen branches. Large holes carved in trunks have not yet been inhabited. Similarly a massive beech log hollowed out and turned into a den contained no sign of occupation. 

Tinder (Horses hooves) fungus

The greatest future threat to woodland and natural habitats will be that of climate change. The Woodland Trust has reported that oaks are leafing earlier, with spring two weeks earlier and autumn one week later than thirty to fifty years ago. Recent warnings have spoken of the potential demise of the oak and bluebell which would be a loss to many woods. Individual trees and species may be affected by the changes in environmental stresses brought on by drought and milder winters. Droughts make trees more vulnerable to disease and lack of water can threaten the survival of trees and woods. Milder winters and the absence of severe cold may disrupt flowering and fruiting, and the germination of seeds from many trees which cannot follow the predicted retreat northwards of mobile insects, butterflies and birds. 

For now, apposite although Housman’s, Byron’s and Tennyson’s words may be, the most appropriate to Boot Wood must be Kipling’s Tree Song,

“Of all the trees that stand so fair,
Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.”