Tuesday 29 September 2009

Relocating - to Melbourne, to a Lily Pond, back just 156 feet ....?

Moving house down under, or moving from England to Wales, or moving only 50 metres – seem to fall into the category of “mad dogs and Englishmen come out in the mid-day sun”. When I was researching where 'my post on nuts with peepholes’ came from recently, I also found out that Joseph Banks, the botanist, had joined Captain Cook in his first great Pacific Voyage. I could not leave Captain Cook out of that post, nor could I this one!

Captain Cook’s parents came from Yorkshire, and had built, in 1755, a cottage in the English village of Great Ayton: whether Captain Cook (1728 – 1779) actually lived there is uncertain, and was probably unlikely, as he was a teenager when he became a British merchant seaman, and joined the Royal Navy the same year the cottage was built.

Earlier last century in 1933 the owner decided to sell the cottage with a condition of sale that the building remain in England – which to me seems an odd clause to have in the contract, but I suppose there was good reason! It would be good to know why and the reason behind it. However, that lady had some foresight, as the cottage was put on the local market obtaining an offer of £300. Hereby hangs the tale – Russell Grimwade, an Australian, offered £800, with the agreement that the clause be changed from “England” to “the Empire”!

So the cottage was deconstructed brick by brick, packed into 253 cases and 40 barrels for shipping to Melbourne. Cuttings from ivy that adorned the house were also taken and planted when the house was re-erected. Grimwade, who was a notable businessman and philanthropist, donated the house to the people of Victoria for the centenary anniversary of the settlement of Melbourne in 1934.

The cottage is now a popular tourist attraction with an English country garden around it, while being part of the Fitzroy Gardens, one of the major Victorian era landscaped gardens in Australia, which add to Melbourne’s claim to being the garden city of Australia.

de speldenmaker: the manufacturer of pins
From the Book of Trades 1694

All our family love gardens and about fifteen years ago my mother and I went for a weekend break in “the Fall” to Wales; it was glorious – lovely sunny days, clear skies, misty autumn leaves, the orange, amber, coppery hues of the trees and shrubs changing their colours as we approached, or giving us their magnificence on the landscape as we drove around. Today she remembered and said it was a very good trip!

Bodnant was the second garden accepted by the National Trust, whereby the Aberconways retained ownership of the Hall. The gardens are situated high above the River Conwy looking westwards towards Snowdon. Around the Hall are terraces with informal lawns shaded by trees, while in the valley below through which a tributary runs is the “Dell” containing the wild garden.

It is in an exquisite place and was absolutely superb when we visited; we were able to walk along the Rose and Lily Terraces, the Canal Terrace, through the Rockery into the Dell, and we could see the 50 metre long tunnel of laburnum, which unfortunately flowers in spring, as do the magnificent azaleas and rhododendrons, so we missed those.

Another house that moved is the Pin Mill, which presides over the Canal Terrace, which was purchased by the 2nd Lord of Aberconway (owner of Bodnant) from the tiny village of Frampton in Gloucestershire. The Pin Mill would have needed lots of water, but Frampton was an ideal location situated between the River Severn and one of its tributaries, the River Frome.

©NTPL / Ian Shaw
The Canal Terrace and the Pin Mill at Bodnant Garden in the spring sunlight.

Why Lord Aberconway decided to move it in 1938 is probably recorded somewhere, but unknown to me. In the early 20th century the Pin Mill was used as a factory for making pins (surprisingly!) before being used by a tanner for storing his hides. The folly, as it is described, is a rather pretty building and makes an excellent focal point at the end of the Canal Terrace with its profusion of water lilies: don’t you think?

The third relocation is the strangest of all and sits up the Downs about three miles away from here in Eastbourne. A man called ‘Mad Jack’ (Jack Fuller) was a wealthy local MP, who had madcap ideas, but who was a colourful, fascinating, eccentric, larger than life, very generous, typical Georgian squire – built some bizarre creations. One of which is a light house called Belle Tout.

Fuller witnessed a ship foundering under Beachy Head, the stretch of coast near Eastbourne notorious for shipwrecks. He commissioned a wooden lighthouse in 1828; while the building of a proper lighthouse began in 1829. Unfortunately Mad Jack had not taken into account the sea mists and more often than not the lighthouse was shrouded in mist and not able to be seen from sea.
The Little Lighthouse that moved

A new lighthouse was erected at the bottom of the chalk cliffs with Belle Tout being sold off, in 1902, as a small substantial three storey building. Even in the early 1900s it was known that this part of the coast was liable to severe coastal erosion, and the lighthouse was perilously near the edge. The building changed hands a number of times over the years and had been sympathetically restored as far as possible.

In 1999, after a massive planning operation everything appeared ready for Belle Tout’s monumental move – as the patio was now only ten feet from the edge of the cliff! How does it happen? Simple – it is lifted up onto runners and dragged slowly back away from the cliff, all computer controlled, so there was no disruption – all carefully planned to ensure there should be no heavy digging machinery on site.
From timetravel-britain.com

So necessity caused Mad Jack’s eccentric Belle Tout’s move, a folly purchased changed the location of the Pin Mill, while the house move came about by a philanthropist determined to have a piece of Captain Cook moved down under, even if it was bricks and mortar. All of them seem to be suitably ensconced in their new surroundings – but I have to say the storms and cliff edge movement here along the Downs, probably makes the original statement that Belle Tout had been moved to survive another 75 years somewhat questionable!

Dear Mr Postman – today seems to have been the last of our Indian Summer, the cold north winds are gathering and it’s getting darker in the evenings – I really do not like it that much! I’ll go and join the banksias roses down south .. where spring is coming. My uncle is not very well and things are not quite decided .. so we live in limbo land – time will resolve all.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday 27 September 2009

Garnets, Tolkein, Silver and Gold ....

What does the dirt beneath your feet hold? A treasure trove of wonders perhaps? Just like the hoard unearthed by a Staffordshire man using his trusty metal detector. The clay soils of Staffordshire were practically impossible to farm, so the lands were left relatively unscathed by agricultural upheaval until mechanisation arrived some five hundred years ago.

The farmlands, woods, forests, mountains and dales of ancient times still hold glittering caches from the dark ages of a cultural world, we still do not fully understand during those realms and empires of yore.

A sword hilt fitting, gold with cloisonné garnet inlay, from the Staffordshire Hoard. Soil can be seen on the object as it has not yet been cleaned by conservators.

The Lichfield area became the ecclesiastical centre for Mercia after a number of their Kings were buried in the newly built monastery grounds, when the first Christian king donated land to Abbot Chad. A cathedral was built in AD 700 to house the bones of St Chad after his beatification.

The hoard exemplifies craftsmanship of the highest level, the treasures deemed to be for kings, queens, royalty and aristocratic nobles – exquisite intricate workmanship of an art not seen before. Articles in common use at that time made of gold and silver, decorated with garnet, filigree, millefiori – swords, hilts, helmets, a scabbard boss, a crushed cross – all ornately decorated or depicted with animals of the day.

An amazing collection of over 1,500 gold and silver pieces, the gold items weighing over 5kg, which is three times more than the last great treasure trove in 1939. The Sutton Hoo find seventy years ago seems to establish that this period in English history of presumed barbaric times, was in fact a pretty sophisticated place. One of the pieces found in 1939 came from Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey), thus proving that trade links had been far more extensive than previously thought.

Gold scabbard boss with inlaid garnets
Picture: STAFFORDSHIRE HOARD courtesy of The Telegraph

The most intriguing object is a small inscribed strip of gold with a Latin quotation from the Old Testament Book of Numbers, which translates: “Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face”. This tiny artefact would suggest that Christianity was widespread in seventh century Britain.

We pride ourselves on our Anglo-Saxon heritage, but there’s a feeling that British history essentially begins in 1066 with the Norman Conquest – perhaps this find (the Staffordshire Hoard) will enable historians and archaeologists to unravel the twists and turns of our past and find our way through the mists of time.

Britain about the year 802, showing the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in red/orange and the Celtic kingdoms in green.

This treasure trove was found in the Kingdom of Mercia, one of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchic kingdoms, centred on the valley of the River Trent and its tributaries now known as the English Midlands. The name itself Mercia derives from the Latinisation of the Old English “Mierce”, meaning border people.

J R R Tolkein is one of the many scholars who have studied and promoted the Mercian dialect of Old English and introduced various Mercian terms into his legendarium – especially in relation to the Kingdom of Rohan. Tolkein weaves Mercian monarch’s names into this kingdom, eg Freawine, Frealaf and Eomer.

The name garnet, long used since the Bronze Age for gemstones and abrasives, came from either the Middle English word gernet meaning ‘dark red’, or the Latin granatus “grain”, possibly a reference to the Punica granatum “pomegranate”, and plant with seeds similar in shape, size, and colour to some garnet crystals.

Pomegranate arils

Now that these objects of wonder have been officially classed as treasure they will be evaluated, pondered over, scientifically explored using the latest techniques available to trace their origin, thus establishing perhaps a revised thinking of our Anglo-Saxon history.

Little is really known of this period, a great deal of it conjecture in the true sense, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals charting the history of the Anglo-Saxons (400 AD – 800 AD); it was initially created in the 9th century and added to as time went on. The earliest of these annals was dated 60 BC, and they were updated annually until the early 800s AD, when the Vikings started to conquer England, prior to the great Norman Conquest of 1066. Other works, such as The Venerable Bede’s “Historia” completed in AD 731, like other historical writing from this period were a mixture of fact, legend and literature.

Three glittering prizes (in 1938, 1942 and 1992) have been found in East Anglia – the area that became the Roman and Anglo-Saxon main centre between London and York, and for North Sea trade to Scandinavia and the Rhine into mainland Europe.

From 700AD . . . part of the Staffordshire hoard. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters; courtesy of The Guardian

An abandoned hoard (dated 1455) in Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood fame uncovered in 1966; fleeing Vikings in 902 from Ireland buried coins, ingots, amulets, rings, brooches etc in the river bank of the River Ribble in Lancashire found by workmen in 1840; men plundering a burial cairn for stone on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, unearthed a gold cup in 1837.

And now the greatest Saxon treasure of all, the Staffordshire Hoard – until the earth gives up more buried wares from fleeing warlords – has been detected and laid bare for us all to admire, to excite the archaeologists, historians, scientists – who are describing this treasure as the equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells, and will almost certainly rewrite that period of English history.

Dear Mr Postman – it has been a long week – my poor uncle is not at all well, but fortunately he can be moved from the short stay hospice up to the Nursing Centre where my mother has been for these past two years. In fact we’ve managed to get him into the room next door, which is the same room he had when he recuperated from a fractured pelvis not quite two years ago.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Saturday 19 September 2009

What did the charcoal hawker start ...?

And where did Handel fit in or the ancient instrument: the trumpet? Just three hundred years ago we needed charcoal for our braziers, which were used to cook on and heat our lodgings, while light was supplied by candles – so charcoal hawkers were a necessary part of London life.

Music as an art was beginning to take shape. The word ‘concert’ (of which ‘concerto’ is the Italian form) means a performing together and was long used solely in that sense; in the late
1700s a concert was not an event in musical performance, but a combination of performers. It was at that time often an entertainment to be viewed, discussed, listened to – not necessarily, and not usually, as an artistic expression worthy in its own right.

A keyed trumpet at the Reid Concert Hall Museum of Instruments in Edinburgh.
It seems that the first actual paying concerts were started by John Banister, a London violinist in 1672 who, together with a few other performers, gave a programme daily at 4.00 in the afternoon in a sort of ‘tavern like’ atmosphere.

Thomas Britton, who by day hawked charcoal for a living round the streets of London, had converted his loft into a music-room, where, as a self-taught musician and scholar, who enjoyed the friendship of the most cultured people of his day, including many of the nobility, had installed the necessary musical apparatus, including a tiny organ of five stops, on which Handel was wont to play.
The Proms 2005. Most people sit, while Promenaders stand in front of the orchestra. The Royal Albert Hall Organ is in the background.

This man of humble origins, who carried sacks of charcoal to light braziers in people’s houses, was the originator in 1678 of a series of concerts that were held weekly for thirty six years until his death in1714. These concerts originally were free, until Britton charged ten shillings a year subscription and one penny for a cup of coffee (so coffee was ‘common’ by 1700). Ned Ward, a humorist of the day reported that “anybody that is willing to take a hearty Sweat may have the Pleasure of hearing many notable performers in the charming Science of Musick”.

The diverse aspects of early music spread, allowing different groupings of musicians to gather and play together, exposing not only their talents, but also their instruments to the music loving society of London in various taverns, music premises, theatres, meeting rooms, halls throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Stop knobs of the Baroque organ in Weingarten, Germany

The great courts of Europe employed a kapellmeister, designating a person in charge of music-making (kapelle means “choir”, “orchestra”, or literally “chapel”, and meister “master”). Bach, Handel, Haydn amongst other great composers established their reputations through these positions, while at this time there was a great inter-change of ideas across Europe, which allowed the kapellmeisters or freelancers (as Beethoven and Mozart preferred to remain) to influence music in the great cities at that time, of which London was one.

Haydn, in the 1790s, travelled twice to London to perform and conduct his compositions including the Concerto in E flat-Flat Major for Trumpet and Orchestra, which he had composed for his long standing friend, Anton Weidinger, an Austrian trumpet virtuoso in the classical era. Weidinger experimented with a 5-keyed trumpet, a version of the instrument on which a full chromatic scale became possible, before the introduction of the valve trumpet in the 19th century.
A Promenade concert in the Royal Albert Hall, 2004. The bust of Henry Wood can be seen in front of the organ.
During the 1800s concert performances became more and more popular ranging across the professional musicians’ genre: voice, instrumentation, solos, orchestra, church music etc. Numerous concert halls were built including Queen’s Hall, at which The Promenade Concerts (to be become popularly known as The Proms) were begun in 1895. Popular concerts for the public opened their ears to the possibilities of the orchestral classics, as well as making acquaintance with orchestral novelties via the annotated programmes supplied for the concerts.

The Proms, is an 8 week summer season of daily orchestral, classical music concerts held annually and predominantly in the Royal Albert hall, but now include chamber concerts at Cadogan hall and additional Proms in the Park events across the country. Jiri Belohlavek the Czech conductor, has described The Proms as “the world’s largest and most democratic musical festival”.

Last weekend the final night of The Proms 2009 was held; the BBC interlinking from the Royal Albert Hall to outside venues across Great Britain. Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto was once again played by Alison Balsom, an extremely talented leggy blonde, who has recently won the Classical Brit Award for her trumpet playing, and has made her mark in the fiercely competitive world of classical music; a fantastic achievement bearing in mind the fairly limited repertoire available for this instrument.

The trumpet, that dates back at least to Tutankhamun’s era (1300BC), when bronze and silver trumpets were found in his grave, and Alison Balsom’s splendid performance over 3,000 years later may not have come about except for men like, Thomas Britton, the charcoal hawker.

Handel, in 1710 had been appointed Kapellmeister to George, Elector of Hanover, and when George became King George I of Britain, travelled to London with his court where he joined the general cognoscenti’s acceptance that Britton, despite from humble origins, opened the musical doors to a much wider social audience, which continues to this day.
Alison Balsom's performance at The Proms 2009 - on You Tube

Hallo again Mr Postman - life has been tricky - my uncle has rather suddenly had to go into the hospice and I am now sleeping at his house, as well as generally looking after things for him .. my mother continues on and I relay messages backwards and forwards between the two hospitals! I think there's a life out there - is there?! So I'm grateful to you for delivering this letter to both my mother and my uncle. My uncle sadly cannot read any more - another challenge we need to help him with. I hope he'll be able to go home with care in place. We live each day as it comes. It's been gloriously sunny today here - a really hot balmy summer's day.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Sunday 13 September 2009

Sting like a bee? Dance like a bee?

Nature produces a species that can sting like a bee, but cannot be stung back because it has armour plates and is called a wolf. The honey bee or bumble bee is not meant to be able to fly anyway, but waggles a dance. While the wolf has difficulty adapting to change, it has been around for a long time featuring in folklore and mythology, including the well known Roman tradition that a wolf was responsible for the childhood survival of Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome.

Romulus and Remus nursed by the She-wolf by Peter Paul Rubens (Rome, Capitoline Museums)

The gray wolf survived the ice ages slowly adapting and thriving to be able to live in most habitats – temperate forests, deserts, mountains, tundra, grasslands and even urban areas; however it has now been restricted to a much smaller range, because of the widespread destruction of its territory and human encroachment of its habitat or local extinction (extirpation).

Though once abundant over much of Eurasia and North America, the gray wolf has been pushed to the northern expanses and wildernesses – human cultures have a love hate relationship with the wolf, in some it is respected and revered, while in others they were feared and held in distaste.

Gray Wolf (Canis lupus)

Bees are an enormous species, it is estimated that there are 20,000 varieties in nine families, but entomologists generally agree that these numbers are likely to be much larger, and they are found everywhere, except Antarctica, in every habitat on the planet that contain insect pollinated flowering plants.

It is thought that approximately one third of our food supply depends on insect pollination, most of which is accomplished by bees. They collect nectar which they use as an energy source, while the pollen is primarily used for protein and other nutrients, as well as feeding the next generation – the larvae.

A solitary bee visiting Lantana

They too have evolved and are, like ants, a specialised form of wasp. It is thought that ancestrally the bees switched from insect prey to pollen gatherers, as their target was always covered in pollen when fed to the wasp larvae. The earliest insect flower pollination occurred by beetles well before bees came along; the novelty as far as entomologists is concerned is that bees are generally more efficient as pollinators than any other pollinating insect such as beetles, flies or butterflies.

This evolution has continued and there are now a great many different types of bee of the solitary or the communal types. The honey bee, bumblebee and stingless bee have advanced altruistic forms of community – they practice mass provisioning, complex nest architecture and perennial colonies, while other simpler community types have developed over the millennia.

Beekeeping or apiculture has been developed by humans to farm honey bees to obtain the honey, but recently managed populations of the honey bee may be one potential problem of the disease ‘colony collapse disorder’, however this management may provide a way to contain the condition and allow new colonies to be started up.

Other particular species are the Bumblebee, immortalised so often in children’s tales, the killer bee (Africanised Honey Bee) – these bees are generalists, while, for example, the Orchid Bee, the Hornfaced Bee and other types exhibit a narrow, specialised preference for pollen sources, typically to a single genus of flowering plants.

European Honey Bees Lebanon

The ability of bees to be able to fly has been vexing scientists and mathematicians for years and since 1934 when it was found that their flight could not be explained by fixed-wing calculation – as the calculations “don’t square with reality”, the chase has been on to solve this challenge. There appears to be a connection called the Dance of the Bees relative to their waggle – a navigational command as to the whereabouts of their food source – the flowers. At this point I bow out and leave you to look at the “Hive Mind Honey blog” for a greater understanding, or Wikipedia.

Now you’re asking, I hope, why on earth do we have story on wolves, on bees – well how about a BeeWolf which is actually a wasp, known as a bee hunter (hence its name). This predatory insect injects venom into the bee, which only paralyses it leaving it ready for use in a new brood chamber within the burrow, when an egg is laid. The bee may try to sting back, but another evolutionary feature is that the BeeWolf has an armour plated covering, which prevents a deadly attack from its prey.

The European beewolf, Philanthus triangulum

Nature is so clever – it may take eons for all of these evolutionary forces to take effect, and that constant evolvement continues on – the domestic dog only ‘broke away’ from its common ancestor the wolf approximately 15,000 years ago; will we understand if the waggle dance of the bee actually explains how it flies, and will the BeeWolf continue to hunt bees? Time will tell.

Dear Mr Postman thank you for taking this letter up to my mother, she enjoyed the story on the Banksian nut and Banksia rose and commented that of course those mammoth journeys by Cook were under sail! I explained the four major journeys Cook made, and gave her some background, as I have realised that the mix of subjects within each blog post can be muddling for her – she can still comprehend, and come up with appropriate comments – and takes an interest and is interested, as long as I speak clearly and slowly enough with some pauses for her to comment, if she wants to = for us both the most important thing: getting the interaction going. I have to say my subjects would bemuse most people ... we talked about the fire surviving banksias plants and Captain Cook’s cottage ... but not my mother.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Thursday 10 September 2009

Nuts with Peepholes, a name for talking about ...

Banks a name to be remembered, as a man who influenced the King and society in the days when exploration, knowledge and an understanding of the earth were beginning to take shape. The world was starting to become smaller, texts could be shared, art could be reproduced, knowledge and philosophy could be debated, new lands were being mapped, new sea routes charted, each and every discovery spurring the curious learned, the intrepid explorer to want to know more.

Banksia prionotes inflorescence

Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist and botanist, joined Captain Cook’s first expeditionary voyage (1768 – 1771) on the Endeavour with the prime objective of seeing the transit of Venus on Tahiti (French Polynesia). This joint scientific venture between the Royal Navy and the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, included scientists, naturalists and artists, whose observations, discoveries and pictorial recordings, together with Cook’s own experience as an explorer, navigator and cartographer made the journey of immense importance.

Endeavour replica in Cooktown harbour - just offshore where the original Endeavour was beached for seven weeks in 1770.

Cook had by this time already mapped Newfoundland and this was to be the first of his three great Pacific expeditionary voyages. On their return Cook’s journals were published and he was a hero amongst the scientific community, however Banks became the bigger hero among the general public, as presumably it was easier to understand the plants, the descriptions with the appropriate specimens, while also having the pictorial records than Cook’s concept of the globe with its seas and land outlines.

Banks was a prodigious naturalist and during this first trip, together with botanists from Sweden and Finland, collected over 3,000 specimens. The voyage took them to Brazil, whence bougainvillea was first sighted, round Cape Horn and across to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the sun, and on westwards to New Zealand and the east coast of Australia before returning via Java (Indonesia) and the southern tip of Africa.

The Endeavour on reaching the Australian eastern seaboard had foundered on the Great Barrier Reef necessitating a seven week lay over for repairs; Banks and his fellow scientists took their opportunity to explore, record, draw and search out specimens to be taken back to Europe. Banks introduced eucalyptus, acacia and mimosa to name a few of the new species to the western world, while approximately 80 species continue to bear his name.

Cones: Infructescence of B. integrifola, with non-persistent flowers; and B. marginata, with persistent flowers

During this period the Banksia genus, in the plant family Proteacae, was discovered. One of these produces the Banksian Nut which appears as a seed pod with peephole apertures – this conversation starter (exactly how I came to find out about it – as my uncle has one on his mantelpiece), proved we were extremely ignorant as to its provenance and I was deputed to find out, especially as the only Banksia I had come across was of the Rosa variety.

The Banksia are mainly endemic to Australia and are recognised by their characteristic flowering spikes with fruiting cones and heads. The large seed pod is quite extraordinary as you can see in the picture. The plants have adapted to the occurrence of bushfires in two ways: the first by the fire stimulating the opening of seed-bearing follicles and the germination of the seed in the ground; the second through sprouting either from lignotubers, or from extremely thick bark that protects the tree allowing it to regrow.

They form an essential role in the food chain of the Australian bush, as heavy producers of nectar for nectariferous fauna, vital for bees when nectar is in short supply, tiny seeds, smaller insects or larvae as food for birds and insects, hiding places for pupation or nesting once the large seed heads have ripened or for regeneration when the time is right.

Woodworked Banksia grandis cone

The reddish brown shrubby wood cannot be put to many uses, as it warps too easily, but is used for ornamental purposes in wood turning; while the seed pods are generally marketed as souvenirs for tourists – how my uncle must have received his – from a visiting god-child - or they are turned into a woodworked object such as the one shown here.

Rosa banksiae, commonly referred to as the Lady Banks' Rose

The Rosa banksia I know from my days in South Africa, herald the start of spring with their flowering profusions of creamy yellow clusters of flowers cascading over walls, along facades of houses, clambering along fences bursting with their pendulous welcome to the spring in the southern hemisphere. In Johannesburg this encouraging plant brought the feeling of warmth to the long dry cold of winter, the hope of mellower days before the burning summer sun beats down and our thoughts turned to the expectation of rain.

William Kerr, a professional gardener and plant hunter, worked at Kew when not travelling, and was instructed by Sir Joseph Banks on his expeditions to China. During one of these exploratory trips deep into China in the early 1800s the white Rosa Banksia, named for Sir Joseph’s wife, was classified, then two further variations were found a richer yellow, and the lovely pale creamy yellow variety that I grew to love in South Africa. It is only since I have returned that I have found and seen these beautiful clambering plants in peoples’ gardens in early summer (including my uncle’s) – and now, here too, they remind me of the warmer days to come: wish I was in the southern hemisphere now!

Thank you Mr Postman for coming by today when I've been a little slow in writing, lots going on and just sometimes letters don't happen! My mother is as bright as ever, always cheerful - how I do not know, but her strength amazes me: she will be interested to see the Banksian nut when I take it up and she can touch and feel it. Aren't we lucky isn't the weather brilliant at the moment - we're having a late summer .. it's not quite time for an Indian Summer yet ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Thursday 3 September 2009

Where are Pelicans?

I too asked this question when I saw a note from a friend of mine, Lorna, in New Zealand and clicked through to find out more. Tiny villages or communities like this one is home to just 113 souls; back in the 1970s I lived for a while in a Northamptonshire village of 180 or so, but within a radius of a few miles there were a number of other villages and the main town – so to find Pelican, a sea fishing village on the Alaskan Panhandle was an interesting experience; while then again to find descendents of Charles II time living happily in St James’s Park was too!

Photo credit © Glenn Bills 2004 Aerial View of Pelican

Lorna spent some time in Alaska pursuing her art and photography passion and had spent some time there. What sort of sank in, when I looked at this picture of the sea port, is how obviously isolated it is – and when something major goes wrong to our town’s infrastructure, it just gets sorted out and that is it: in Pelican things are different.

Raven Radio Sitka, Alaska: KCAW-FM Radio Broadcast (short) is interesting - listen here

Their wooden flume broke and this meant that the water and hydro-electric systems failed leaving the town with a rather large quandary: without fresh water and without any electricity in their homes and businesses. The systems have been patched – but the Alaskan winter approaches – the dilemma now is finding a ‘permanent temporary’ measure (if that makes sense?) until the scheduled brand new pipe is installed next year.

Image by City of Pelican

This resilient community will pull through and the tiny haven will continue to offer commercial fishermen storm protection, as intended, when established by The Pelican’s owner in 1938. Raven Radio of Sitka, Alaska reported on the flume’s collapse and there’s a short radio broadcast.

Now comes the fun bit - who would have thought that pelicans would be living on the duck pond in the middle of St James’s Park London – certainly not me! Especially pigeon eating pelicans. This world is amazing! The Russian Ambassador in the late 1600s had given Charles II these exotic birds as a present and here they are to do this day.

This happened in October 2006 – one of the five pelicans living near Duck Island in the Park was sauntering happily along, watched by a number of tourists, as was the poor pigeon minding its own business – pelicans eat fish, but the next thing the pigeon was gulped in – can you see its beady eye? Apparently it struggled but eventually the pelican won and had its strange lunch.

The Pelican with its huge wingspan and large pouched bills are found worldwide, though naturally occurring in the warmer climes; there are two main groups: those with mostly white adult plumage, which nest on the ground, while those with brown or pink-backed plumage nest in trees. The wingspan ranges from as little as 6 feet to over 11 feet, while the bill is the longest of any known bird.

The unusual wildlife spectacle in St James's Park was caught on camera by photographer Cathal McNaughton: courtesy of the BBC 25 October 2006

Surprisingly they often fish in groups forming a line to chase schools of small fish into shallow water and then scoop them up, or with larger fish they are caught with the bill-tip, then tossed into the air and caught before being swallowed head first. The Brown Pelican of North America usually plunge-dives for its prey – watch out all swimmers and surfers, because as one young lady found out she needed 11 stitches after colliding with a Pelican.

Pelicans have been revered for centuries in countries around the world; in Western Europe they feature in heraldry, in Medieval times they were represented in ‘Bestiaries’, in Peru the Moche civilisation (around 300AD) worshipped nature, often depicting Pelicans in their art.

A Pelican can be a book - a child of Penguin?! or as here it can be a seaport, with some desperate repairs needed, found on the panhandle of Alaska – not the one that stretches out into the Pacific, but the strip of islands, long inlets that continues down the coast of Canada for about 400 miles. Or the pelican bird found on various continents and seemingly, on occasions, vicarious in its diet – a pigeon here or there, or a duck, or a dove.

Just looking to find out about something that catches my eye, or amuses me can lead to so many interesting diversions – pelican eating birds, bestiaries, flumes, panhandles, symbolism across the ages: so much has happened in this world of ours that we can, should we wish, find out about.

Dear Mr Postman – Autumn has arrived and it’s only September, it really is a bit much. I have another couple of days to myself before I get back to seeing my mother again on a daily basis – it’s been good to have a little space at home this time, and not have to rush off and catch an aeroplane to the other side of the world – well I’d love to .. but not for 6 days as I have been doing! so this has been treat time, but it’ll be nice to be back to see her.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Gathering taxes by a Hedge?

30,000 miles or 2,000 miles of hedging – which would be India and which would be Cornwall? Closed for the collection of salt taxes, or for soil erosion? How about the Chinese Willow Palisade for ginseng and timber taxes?

Cornish hedges predate both the Indian and the unmeasured Chinese Willow Palisade by some thousands of years. It is extraordinary to think that Cornwall was densely populated in prehistory, and their field systems still exist today as evidenced by the stone-faced earth hedge-banks found all over Cornwall.

Stone Hedges, Pendeen

Cornwall’s prehistoric farmers practised mixed agriculture, while maintaining common land and rough grazing around the fringes of the fields forming a crucial element of this farming landscape. These tiny fields enclosed against the elements cover an estimated 30,000 miles (two thirds of which were built in the Neolithic Age, or the slightly later Bronze and Iron Ages (2,000 – 4,000 years ago).

Hedges in England were altered as the Norman influence took effect, with manorial lands requiring larger field systems, then as the population increased in Medieval times the lands were regulated again through the Enclosure Acts, but now a great many of those replanted Medieval hedges have been grubbed out so that larger fields provide cheaper food for our ever increasing modern population (which recently topped 61 million).

The term “hedge” comes from Old English, German and Dutch signifying ‘enclosure’ as in the name of the Dutch city, The Hague. Hedges are usually boundaries of closely spaced shrubs and trees made up of many species dependent on the countryside, some old boundary hedges may have been existence for many hundreds of years.

Wayside Cross and stile, St Buryan

The western part of Britain suffered less interference from marauding invaders, while the geology, local climate and style of farming ensured that these hedge boundaries have been left relatively undisturbed. The protective structures provided windbreaks for the stock, the courtyard house settlements, the crops struggling to grow, as well as the prevention of erosion of the valuable topsoil.

So often we went out for walks as the sun splayed out from the darkened skies soon to jewel the landscape, the soft mist rolling in on the Atlantic winds dusting the hedgerows and grassy fields with dew drops, before the squalls of life enriching rains came over.

Roadside hedge, Sancreed

When the sun was bright and the sea shone its mix of green and aquamarine with the sky blue above, the hedges colourfully displayed their wares: the early flowering creamy yellow primroses, the white narcissi, the bluebells, the summer bramble flowers, the dog roses, scattered in amongst the natural sedge, the vibrant green ferns unfurling their new leaves through the summer. Autumn comes turning the flowers to berries, or fruits providing more wealth for the briefly sighted or hidden wildlife.

These showed us the tiny wonders of Cornwall, the pockets of wildlife, the hidden gems in the hedges, the sanctuary of protection and life ahead. We heard the constrained buzz of bumble bees collecting nectar inside foxglove flowers, their tall erect spikes adding to the decoration of the already blooming hedge; we saw beetles or the ants crawling amongst the tiny sugary droplets in the celandine or honeysuckle flowers; we watched in amazement the butterflies softly fluttering along the flowery banks.

These heirlooms from generations past continue to provide an insight into plantings and habitats that may have been lost elsewhere, reflecting the natural wonders of days long ago: flower meadows, woodland plantings, heath uplands, lichen and moss covered stones left completely untouched for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

An eager bumble bee on a foxglove

These hedges are a natural part of the West Cornwall landscape, where my mother lived and where we have always holidayed, and can be seen to this day in towns and villages, as well as along all the lanes crisscrossing the Cornish peninsula, reminding us as we walked or drove of these bastions of wildlife.

Today these picturesque hedges add to the feel the visitor experiences of the Cornish landscape – the unkempt-looking hedges with their weathered stones and wind-slanted bushes or trees, the tiny valleys full of lush greenery tucked into this land of rocky outcrops, moors and rugged cliffs, all linked with its patchwork of tiny fields.

We need to protect these ancient stone hedges, which provide a link to pre-farming history, where native species still abound, supporting the many insects, small mammals, birds and rodents finding a home or foraging in the stony crevices.

Old Cornish hedge in Penzance

A hedge a boundary, an earth bank, a thorny tax line or a willow palisade high above a ten foot trench all manmade over time – history will remember all three, but I know I would rather come across the flowery profusion of a Cornish earth-bank, than the straggly prickly tax collecting hedge in India, or the fast growing willow trees hiding the tax trench beyond, which enclosed huge tracts of land in the centre of China. Let’s hope that the 21st century Cornish preserve these wonderful flowering havens.

Hello! Mr Postman – now it’s September Autumn seems to be calling, more blustery winds and squally showers, though we’re fortunate here in the South East as it has been drier. My mother will love to have this letter, which will bring back memories of blackberrying round the lanes, our walks and times gone by; she will enjoy the photos, as they are so evocative of Cornwall.

I have to credit Cornish Hedges with these photographs and reminders about how important our heritage is – their website is really good = about why Cornish Hedges are Different, and! is well worth a read.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories