Friday, 25 March 2016

Reflections of an Eastender (2)

Some of my early natural history education is beginning to return to memory. Visits to the Hancock Museum, when in my opinion it was at its best, were certainly always a great experience.  The surrounding area offered very different views than it does today.  My two main recollections are the mummified figure and the old draws with lift up lids full of butterflies from around the world.  The museum had a wonderful atmosphere and as I type I’m imagining the place as it then was.  It still seems to pull the crowds in, but it just isn’t the same, but I’m not a youngster now and it’s youngsters that it ought to be attracting so it’s doing a grand job in that respect.  I am pleased however that the decision was taken to keep the name Hancock even if it is secondary now to Great North Museum.  Little did I know as a child I would become a member of the Natural History Society which I suspect in those years was very highbrow and formal indeed.  Literature from the society at that time whish I have read certainly suggests that to be the case.  Change can often be positive in many respects.

An old guide.

Keeping it simple, but none the less exciting.  I noted that you could have become a life member of the society for £40 then, so I slipped up!

 One trip I remember very clearly as a child was to Derby to visit my brother who was receiving training in agriculture in that area.  Diesel trains were used on this journey but I do remember at a younger age taking my I Spy Book on a previous steam train journey at a time when rail travel was exciting.  I never travelled further south than Derby until I was eighteen or nineteen.    My parents and I stayed in a rather ‘posh’ hotel in Derby, the first time I had ever stayed in a hotel, and I remember the breakfast room very clearly as it had windows which opened onto a garden which led down to a river.  You could put your shoes outside of the bedroom door at night to have them polished, although I never did.  Well, good grief you never know who could have nicked them!  Derby is significant as on a walk on the Sunday morning I heard my first ever Cuckoo as the church bells rang in the distance and the sun shone.  Interestingly I am presently reading Cuckoo, Cheating by Nature/Nick Davies and it’s proving to be a very interesting book and I may have some comments to make on it at a later date.

I’ve written before about my second home being West Cumbria and we had many visits there during my childhood.  We usually stayed with my aunt and uncle and I was introduced to amphibians as at certain times of year the damp area at the back of the house was Toad central.  The village was/is called Sandwith, near to St Bee’s, and I of course had many opportunities to visit the red-sandstone cliffs, initially largely unaware of the different species of seabird I was able to see there.  We were able to walk from the back of the house through fields to the cliff edge and overlook the Solway Firth.  The coastline was very different from what I was accustomed to having experienced frequent trips on the train to our own Tynemouth and Whitley Bay which were often packed with holiday makers in those years.  The wide open spaces of Cumbria had a great effect upon me and to this day my preference is for open land and seascapes.  What I remember best of all was the rookery next to my aunt’s garden and the sounds that came from it at times.  Sadly the rookery met its demise many, many years ago when the trees were felled by the farm owners to allow space for buildings which have now gone along with the farm too, and after years of stagnation the space is being used for housing.  In recent years I became friends with a guy who attended St Bee’s School and who just happens to be a member of NHSN.  St Bee’s School has sadly recently closed down after several hundred years of history.  My parents and I once holidayed in St Bee’s itself and would walk up to the area on the head which as far as I’m aware wasn’t a reserve at the time and the RSPB was a relatively small outfit then.  I’ve always found the red-sandstone cliffs exciting and although I haven’t visited in recent years I know that the heavy rains in that area have done quite a lot of damage in terms of subsidence.  In later years I have done quite a bit of bird watching from this area where Peregrine Falcon and Raven can often be seen along with the seabirds.  My memories of this area could fill a book quite easily.  I’ve always found the people of West Cumbria to be great characters, straight-forward and friendly.  The area has many similarities to the North East.  I had my first ever Stoat sighting right outside my aunt's house.

Photo of Fleswick Bay at St Bees Head taken circa 1950s and kindly passed on to me a few years ago.
My brother eventually began working as a shepherd at Buttermere in the Lake District so holidays were also taken on the farm which had over 2,000 sheep, mainly Herdwicks.   I would have been nine when I first visited Buttermere and at that time the farm had no electric and you went upstairs to bed carrying a candle.  Over many years the sheep were clipped by hand clippers rather than electric shears.  Not because of the lack of electric which was soon installed, but because the thought was that electric shears would cut too close to the skin of the Herdwicks.  My own thought now is that the owner was trying to save money.  All sorts of chemicals were used in the sheep dip which I’m sure are now banned.  Shearing must have been hard work when there are over 2,000 sheep to get through!  There’s no money to be made from Herdwick Sheep wool these days and I understand they are heavily subsidised.  If my memory serves me well I knowingly saw my first Common Buzzard flying over the fells at Buttermere and also my first Grey Herons in the valley under the fell known as Haystacks, on the top of which Alfred Wainwright (he of guide book to the fells fame) asked for his ashes to be scattered.  I was watching a TV programme just this week and found that a guy is planning to re walk all of the fells and update the Wainwright Guides.  I’ve enjoyed watching Grey Herons ever since my first sighting of them.  I doubt I knew at the time that they nested in trees and to this day I always find that they look out of place there. On one visit to Buttermere I learned just how large Pike can grow and I have a slide somewhere of me holding one that had been caught in the lake and it was almost as long in body as I was.  The Lake District in the 1960s was a very different place than it is now with far fewer people and cars about and you could almost have Buttermere to yourself of a Sunday morning.  It was a place where the imagination of a child could run wild and mine often did.  On a hot summers day now, it is sadly more like Blackpool (mind you I’ve never been to Blackpool so that’s a guess).  The best time to visit is winter when folk aren’t about in number.

My brother at work in the 1960s
Holidays even closer to home included a week in a chalet in the dunes overlooking the sea at Cresswell where you stepped from the chalet and walked straight down to the beach.  There’s a photo in the house some where of me and my brother sitting having breakfast on the chalet balcony.  It would have been August as that was when my father always had his annual holiday.  I confess I don’t remember any wildlife but I did have some shells off the beach until recent years.  I checked with my father today to see if he could remember what year it was we took that holiday and he thinks it was either 1957 or 1958 which is interesting as I believe it was 1958 when Cresswell Pond formed.  I don’t remember any sign of a pond nor do I remember any sign of industry nearby, but I guess there must have been mining going on at Druridge Bay during this period.

Breakfast at Cresswell 
An uncle and aunt had a caravan at a fixed site at Lucker next too the Apple Inn where I used to (for some reason) collect the tops off beer bottles during the two or three stays we had there.  I remember bringing these tops home with all sorts of ideas as to what I would do with them.  I eventually chucked them out.  As well as as collecting beer bottle tops I spent much time exploring the river/stream nearby.  It was during one of these stays that I visited the Farne Islands for the first time and I guess it will have been with Billy Shiel’s.  I hadn’t realised until I checked that the Shiel’s family having been running boat trips to the Farnes since 1918, although it was the 1930s when the business really got going.  The Sheil’s family took Queen Elizabeth from the Royal Yachtto Brownsman Island in 1958 and the Queen Mother over to the island in 1962, but we didn’t bump into either one.  We were unable to land on the islands because of the tides, but I saw the Grey Seals for the very first time.  I have to say I don’t remember being hoarded into a boat along with the crowds for a very uncomfortable boat trip as happened to me last year.  I don’t remember the birds either but as this was the 1960s I do know there was only a fraction of the number of Puffins there are now and it would have been past the breeding season anyway.   I checked out bird numbers in the 60s when I wrote an article for Northumbria Magazine a few years ago.  Everything in Seahouses seems to have a Puffin on it these days, but I can’t recall what was popular then, although the gift shop opposite the car-park was there and the fish and chips were very good back then, and they still are.  Less attractive to my taste buds or for that matter eyes were periwinkles or winkles as we called them.  I remember collecting lots on one of our trips to bring home to cook.  After cooking I remember taking one look at them and they were thrown out.  The look and smell was disgusting and funnily enough I heard a presenter on Radio Newcastle just last week talking of the same experience as a child.  I did go through a period of enjoying pickled mussels way back then but these days I find shell fish of most types pretty disgusting to even think about as a food.

At Bamburgh Castle with my father (R) and uncle.  Circa  1960.

Grace Hickling of NHS at Farne Islands monitoring Grey Seals.  Image from 'Cumbria' Magazine 1967.

So if you have stuck with me through part one and two of my east-ender reflections you will have noted that my youthful years were not engrossed in natural history matters, but nevertheless there were a few highlights, a few of which I have included.  Not everyone has the same opportunities either during childhood or adulthood and our interests begin at different stages of our lives, and whilst the terms diversity and inclusiveness tend to be in words at the moment, that’s exactly what I think the world of natural history and birding interests should be.  I dislike exclusiveness and elitism in all of its forms.  Levels of knowledge will differ from one person to the next, but all should be welcomed to the fold and I’ve always found that it is likely that those with real knowledge are often only too pleased to share it.  I feel any organisation involved with nature /conservation that does not focus attention upon the young especially is failing in its task.  Suggestions that young people in particular, but others as well, are not interested are often an excuse for inaction in my opinion and I’ve met with this outlook several times and it isn’t easy to overcome. 

The world has changed a great deal since my childhood and that was brought home to me when I recently dug out two of my books from that period Children’s Encyclopaedia of Knowledge and the New Wonder World Encyclopaedia.

Hope you enjoyed the read.


  1. It was good reading that Brian. I agree about young people, as they are often 'the most' keen to learn about wildlife!

  2. Fascinating read Brian, agree with your summing up inclusion can only lead to a better understanding.

    Decades on and im still learning.

  3. Thanks Mark and Brian. Learning is a lifelong experience. Sam has loaned me a couple of books covering the history of Killingworth and I'm shocked at how much I didn't know about my own patch. Cheers.