Monday 13 May 2024

The Dukes of Hairstreak

 First off, I do believe there is a rabid-madness in wanting to walk up and down very steep hills in Dorset looking for butterflies. Especially on a hot day. But that's what we adventurers do, after a leisurely hot chocolate beforehand of course. 

It's been a busy few weeks, but with the weather set to be warm and fair I took the decision to take Friday off as leave and head down to Hod Hill in Dorset with Mrs Wessex-Reiver. My quest of course, the Duke of Burgundy butterfly. One had been seen here the day before, it promised to be a new site to explore. Which it was but by the time we'd trundled along in the car for nearly 2 and a half hours to get here the promised land yielded nothing more than many a brimstone, orange tip, speckled wood and a single very sleepy wall brown. Two butterflies were scrapping as we entered the hill but they flew off and were never to be seen again. Had they been the Dukes?

What were seen were skylarks, it's a long time since I've seen so many, very good views too and their song pierced the afternoon air. I like Hod Hill but realised after climbing up the only-a-goat-could-climb-this steep slope that I'd been here before. On that one other occasion the hill was alive with yellowhammer. Funny how the mind forgets where the body has been. Despite no Duke of Burgundy today it was lovely to just sit on the hill and take in the views towards the Cranborne Chase, a superb part of England.

Wall Brown at Hod Hill

The weather continued fair on Saturday but after our ten hour day the day before we needed a quiet at-home Saturday. I however woke on Sunday feeling fidgety and decided on the spur of the moment to head to Giant's Hill at Cerne Abbas, just on my own this time as sensibly Mrs Wessex-Reiver couldn't face another long hot drive to then stand on a hill and slowly roast. I set off and she went back to bed. 

Burnet Companion moth

After last years adventures here I knew where the Dukes would be. Like a seasoned professional I donned my butterfly hat, loaded my kit-bag and set off up the slope from the car park. That said, I'm sure this hill is getting steeper, but eventually after ten minutes of impersonating the Flying Scotsman I arrived at my spot. 

Prime Duke of Burgundy habitat

Duke of Burgundy butterflies are really a woodland edge and glade species, they've simply moved to the lesser habitat of chalk grasslands as woodlands have stopped being worked properly, i.e. coppiced.  On first arriving at the site there were a few tantalising glimpses of something but they turned out to be burnet companion, grizzled and dingy skippers, and setting up a right old rumpus along the brambles green hairstreak scrapping madly. More on those later. No Dukes though.

Dingy skipper

I sat down, the sun was warm and what better way to spend a Sunday morning than dozing on a Dorset hillside waiting for the Royal Family to arrive, and arrive they did eventually, or at least he did. Male Duke of Burgundy have two pairs of legs and are often conspicuously perched on a tall piece of vegetation where they buzz and harry anything that passes. Females are seen less often and though they look similar to the males, as females have three pairs of legs identifying the sexes is easy, as long as you obtain a good view. That is why binoculars are so important. I like my images for a historical record but sitting there viewing what I saw through my binoculars was the order of the day and allowed behaviour to be observed closely.  

Male Duke of Burgundy above and below

I had to sit for about ten minutes before the first Duke of Burgundy arrived, and it always catches me out how small this butterfly, with such a grand sounding name, actually is. The skippers are about the same size and with these plus the burnet companion wafting back and forth finding the Dukes required patience and a lot of checking, I was glad then to be just relaxing and taking in the view until a Duke finally came into view. A couple of other butterfly people came past but generally it was a quiet day on the hillside, just the butterflies and me.

Grizzled skipper

His Grace poised for combat

I'd been sitting for about twenty minutes and the activity was slowing down. The green hairstreak had stopped fighting, the Dukes had disappeared, even the skippers hid from view. I rose and went for a little wander, peacock, orange tip, a lot of brimstone, a 'blue' briefly appeared which I'd assumed was a common. In the shady woodland at the bottom of the slope a number of speckled wood and large white were in evidence, and a red admiral. It was nice in here, shady and well hidden. There was a cattle trough nearby, I had a look, the water was clear and devoid of plant life but full of lesser water boatmen. That made me wonder why they come to these troughs, there's little cover and being a trough they'll be trapped here until they die, or get eaten by cattle while having a drink.

I walked back to my earlier observation spot, sat down again and waited. Before too long this obliging male Duke of Burgundy alighted on top of a dandelion. A perfect look-out, it repeatedly flew off to chase away anything which passed before returning again. I like that. I liked sitting quietly and just observing this male defending it's territory, going about its business in it's own quiet way. 

I've included these two images below as an example of how butterflies are usually seen. We've all observed that close-up image of a butterfly, every scale or hair pin sharp and perfect. Well in reality it is not like that, most images are obscured by vegetation and distance. Try and get closer and the butterfly will fly off in a nano-second. No these two images of a male are very much the norm. 

Speckled wood underwing

I needed to stretch my legs once more so arising I went for a bit of a wander, not really looking for anything simply looking about the hillside and find a spot to have lunch. (one banana and a flask of water). Suitably perched I sat for half an hour looking over the valley towards Telegraph Hill. Over there is the best Duke of Burgundy site in Dorset but it is on private land. I've walked the footpath across the hill before but not seen anything. The best habitat is off limits but I did wonder whether these largely sedentary butterflies fly between these two sites, maybe a mile apart?  Lunch over, with the heat really starting to kick in I thought of returning to the car, but before that one last look at the place I'd been to earlier. What a difference.

I was watching this male, for once not obscured by grass leaves when a whirling dervish pair of scrapping green hairstreak caught my eye. They separated and one perched on a bramble stem, which, when I looked closer, also contained a pair of mating Dukes. What a surprise to discover these and they mesmerised me for nearly 15 minutes. In the image below the male is on the left. Such a treat to see as this, the next generation of what is now a rare butterfly, being consumated right in front of my eye. The population of Dukes on Giant Hill isn't huge anyway, I maybe saw a handful individuals during three hours of continuous observation today. There are many primroses and cowslips around here too, suitable sites then for egg laying afterwards.

One of the other identification tips for the sexes is the female has more rounded wings compared to the male. That may be the case with perfect specimens or views, but it's a lot more difficult in real life, even when this close. I was fascinated however on how they remained embraced and motionless for such a long time, around fifteen minutes before they separated, leaving them quite vulnerable to predators in many ways. But actually if I stepped back a little they blended superbly into the brambles, remaining motionless is an advantage too. Lets not forget either that bramble is such an important plant in the British landscape.  

More fighting by the green hairstreak close by reminded me I'd not paid them much attention. They really are stunning, like miniature flying emeralds, though when in flight they look a pale olive-brown. But once settled, with wings closed their underwing reveals an outrageous Day-Glo zingy green, yet they blend in perfectly with the surrounding vegetation.  Even viewed close to they're often hard to see at first, especially if seen head on, even harder to photograph well. Lucky then that the males after aerial combat return to a promenant perch at about head hight to await their next battle. They really are beautiful, the underwing, which is all you'd ever see while they are resting, is like a green mother of pearl, it sheens with an iridescence, like an oil drop on water, yet with that thin brown wing edge delineating the warm brown upper wings which are virtually impossible to see.

Even something that green seems camouflaged

The white dots in a line giving it it's name on the underwing are visible here. 

I checked on the Dukes - still at it.  

But I can't get enough of these green hairstreak 

What a wonderful day with possibly the best part of it being time spent sitting quietly watching the butterflies going about their business, no photographs, no making notes, no trying to get closer, simply sitting and watching.  While doing this a couple walked by me and asked if I was okay. I replied I was but after they'd left it struck me no other people on the hill during the time I was there had actually stopped and watched wildlife for more than a few seconds, they just kept on walking, even if slowly. Such an important lesson to learn, inactivity and observation can reap rewards, I suggest sitting for no less than half an hour in one place, wildlife will come to you, what a treat awaits. 

Friday 19 April 2024

Dorset Rewilding

 This visit to Mapperton House near Beaminster in Dorset actually happened a couple of weeks ago however I've been so busy I'd not had a moment to write it up. 

The Knepp estate in Sussex is well known these days for the work they have put in to create a profitable estate while also encouraging a return to wildlife friendly farming,  Interestingly the Knepp revenue topped £1 million from eco-tourism alone in 2023 with sales from their organic free-range animals around £300,000. Seemingly there is money to be made in wildlife friendly farming and tourism, and less mucking out or vet's bills I should imagine.

A couple of years ago the Earl and Countess of Sandwich embarked on a similar venture at their 2,000 acre estate in the most Hardyeske landscape imaginable. I'd wanted to visit here for a long time, mostly as it has featured in a number of films as a homage to a bygone bucolic England, most recently the 2015 adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd. I wasn't disappointed.

Mrs Wessex Reiver and I were booked onto a Wildlands walk with the ranger Ben Padwick, a brilliant communicator from a farming background in Norfolk. In many ways it was a strange experience for me to be paying to visit such an enterprise having spent years visiting farms and estates for work. Just four people on this walk which was excellent, the other two being a couple on holiday from Berkshire. Coffee and biscuits served while the introductions took place, and a quick resume of the long term plan. Sadly, as we were to discover, we'd not see the two beavers brought onto the estate as they'd escaped in the flooding this winter and no one knew of their whereabouts. But we did get to see beaver poo and a chewed stick, which was as an admirable a start as any.

Ben warned us we'd have a long ascent up to the top of the estate to begin with but after that it would be easy going. He was not joking. Following Ben who took off like a mountain goat we traversed what must have been the steepest hill in Dorset for fifteen minutes. Ben, being young and fit, was chatting away pointing out this and that and talking continuously. I was seeing stars, couldn't breathe, legs buckling, but somewhat comforted when looking about me to see all three of my younger and fitter companions were puffing away. But it was worth it to get up onto the ridge and look back down the valley towards Golden Cap on the horizon with Beaminster in the mid distance. What a landscape.

Not all of the 2,000 acres is being returned to nature friendly farming at the moment, only around 950 acres split into two parcels, in between which the rest of the land is being farmed as sympathetically as possible through tenant farmers who have lifetime tenancies.  Nearly 1,000 acres it is still a huge area as we were finding out. After our visit and as a result of a conversation with Ben, I worked out Mapperton is rewilding the equivalent of 1500 football pitches or 250 Country cricket grounds. I sent an email to Ben. He returned my email a week or so later to say those facts I'd unearthed went down well with a sixth form group he'd taken around the estate. 

So what is their plan and rewilding model? In simple terms it's a softly softly approach for the next five years. A baseline environment and ecological survey has been made and the ecologist who ran that is now creating management plans to be implemented. The estate runs a herd of park cattle who roam on a no-fence system using transmitters around their necks.  Not all of the fences can be removed at the moment but over time as much of the estate as possible will be range-lands for these cattle. Two large arable fields, used until recently to provide winter food for the cattle, have now been left after the harvest last year and the ecological management is aimed to see what successional growth takes place and what mammals, birds and invertebrates arrive to the area just by doing nothing. I'd noticed these fields as we drove in, how they were 'weedy' and as we exited a pair of red-legged partridge crossed our path.

Other areas of moistly former sheep grazed grassland are being managed by five Exmoor ponies and two Tamworth pigs. These have been introduced in a low intensive way to begin with to see what happens on this heavy clay landscape. Already after just over a year changes are happening, with the pigs reducing bracken and by digging up the uniform turf they're are allowing other plants to establish like plantain, violet and celandine.  It was still a little early in the season, but this spring and summer will be a good indicator of what can self-seed into the bare soil left by the pigs. The ponies have a different role, mostly keeping the grass at a low level, though as they only number five, the grass is never grazed for very long.

Everywhere on the former sheep fields there is evidence of the power two Tamworth pigs can bring to the project as ploughing machines. It was fascinating for me to see this as I studied just these ideas at University three decades ago when it was then thought of as a strange somewhat niche theory. At first glance in essence nothing looks as though it has really changed since it was a traditionally farmed landscape. But look more closely and bare patches or pig footmarks are everywhere.  This rooting up of soil and removal of sheep trampling is vital for the establishment of an ecosystem which while in transition doesn't look in balance but with time and effort will re-balance. That was part of a conversation had by the ranger Ben and the couple on holiday, with the latter asking why the land needed managing if it is being rewilded? 

For me that's a real issue with the word rewilding, a word I'm no fan of. At University alongside traditional agriculture I studied Biological Conservation in Agriculture. in other words how we could farm profitably but in sympathy with the natural world. Nature friendly farming may I suggest be a better term, but rewilding is in the media's headlights at the moment so we'll stick with that. 

The many books now published and TV programmes just gloss over the amount of work needed, and the public perception of rewilding is that it is something farmers do by doing absolutely nothing. But a well managed rewilding project needs time and effort to succeed, soft intervention if you like to encourage wildlife to return, but at some point the estate needs to generate income, enough income to bring in a profit. In a crowded landscape such as Britain everything needs managing to a greater or lesser degree. It is a huge debate.

Ben works on his own with some volunteers. They still put up fences, and of course remove some. Hedges are being either being planted or laid. Ecological surveys are continuing, Ben also does deer culls, grey squirrel control, tree work, and presumably now and again wonders where his two escaped beavers are now.  It is a lot of work for one man and his volunteers. 

Plans also include creating a hub in the centre of the rewilding area where currently there are some derelict buildings, a glamping site has already been created (with composting loo), and eventually a butchery, farm shop and retail sales. It will be interesting to return in a few years to see what the changes have brought about, though possibly the highlight for that return may be as during this visit the two Tamworth pigs who were great fun and came to meet us. 

All in all a most interesting two hour visit. I hope they succeed. Ben mentioned that in canvassing the local population, overwhelmingly the people of Beaminster were in favour, not least having beavers which could reduce flooding. It's also hoped the venture will bring in much needed tourism income to what has been a very quiet corner of  Dorset. Some of the adjacent estates are not as keen, either due to shooting loss (Mapperton closed down its shooing business) or damage to woodland (fences needed on the boundary to keep cattle out of neighbouring land), or as happened in Knepp, traditional farmers worried about ' pests and weeds' coming onto their fields. It is not just the wildlife approach that is a balancing act. 

Tuesday 2 April 2024

The Wessex-Sexagenarian-Reiver

Mr Bumble-Gnome - knitted for me for my birthday by a friend.

How on earth did this young naturalist-about-town born on April Fools Day 1964 (in the afternoon so it doesn't count), become a sexagenarian blogger. I began this blog in 2007, which made me 43 years of age, gulp was I really that young? Some of my school friends who I still keep in regular touch with were talking over the weekend about our time in junior school when we took part in a project - how old will we be in the year 2000 and what will the world be like? I can vaguely remember being part of this, the usual weirdness, we'd all be living in sealed bubbles or driving aero-cars, or have turned green and communicate with telepathy, but I can distinctly remember thinking, gosh I'll be 35 years old on January 1st 2000 and then 36 on my birthday. That age seemed very very old to a seven or eight year old. Yet now the year 2000 is itself 24 years ago. 

However as I nudged into my three score years on Easter Monday, I enjoyed the fact that my significant birthday coincided with Easter, and rain.  For a change then on this blog a brief resume to remind myself of this moment in the years to come, while sitting by the fire in my slippers. Though why there's a fire in my slippers is anyone's guess.

Incoming rain shower

Good Friday. We set off on a shortish (7 mile) walk along the Strawberry Line from the nearby village of Winscombe to Cheddar Reservoir and back. This occurred after being rudely awakened by the jackdaws making a nest in the roof above the bed. We've had sparrows and starlings roosting in this part of the house for as long as I've lived here. The house was only built in 1997, but I think being the former show home it was thrown up rather than built, I've had to rectify some quite strange things over the years, such as a window installed the wrong way around, and a strange electrical supply that had no obvious source.

The hole in the roof is where some flashing has come away, luckily it doesn't let the rain in, but the cavity behind the hole is of a fair size and sealed off from the loft. In past winters I'd hear starlings doing what sounded like a sand-dance as they shuffled about in there to keep warm. However about a week or so ago I heard an almighty clattering and banging coming from above the ceiling, accompanied by the tell tale jak-a-jak call of jackdaws. At first I thought it was coming from outside but when I heard what sounded like a small forest being dropped onto the floor over the following days I knew what was going on. Some acquaintances have suggested calling pest control.. really? Okay there'll be a mess in the roof space, but I feel very lucky to have this brilliantly intelligent bird choosing to live with me. Though I have to admit gingernut our cat is a little perplexed by the racket. As I type this the nest building has ended, replaced this morning with some lovely soft contact calls from the pair. Eggs soon I think.

Our walk was along the old railway line that once ran from Shepton Mallet to Clevedon, carrying goods and the product it became famous for, and from which the Sustrans managed pathway now gets its name, Cheddar strawberries. I've heard tell of the 'strawberry' trains running all day, in the season, filling the air with a fruity scent as they whisked these strawberries away from the Mendip slopes to London and Midlands markets. All of this ended with the Beeching cuts but over the last few decades more and more of the old railway route has been restored and opened up to walkers and cyclists, plus it is a fantastic nature reserve in its own right. We'd just set off when there was the most impressive hail storm, turning to rain. There was no shelter so we just pushed on into the wind trying to cover the half a mile or so to the Shute Shelve Tunnel as quickly as possible and out of the rain. This tunnel is a magnet for bats with many studies conducted  here throughout the year. We however reached the southern end of the tunnel to be greeted with sun. So odd entering in rain and exiting in sunshine. 

Cheddar Reservoir with a backdrop of the moody Mendips

Fortunately the rest of the walk was predominantly dry and with the sun up, the wildlife along the path sides as we walked was an added incentive. Violets (violet and white flowers) and primrose were everywhere, a few early bluebell, arum poking up, alexanders were growing tall,  even a patch of wild garlic had a few white flowerheads visible. Catkins adorned hazel and willow and the leaf burst was in full swing along the path, though the standing trees were still winter-bound. Chiffchaffs were everywhere, robin, chaffinch, blackbird, long tailed tit, wren and dunnock all flitted in front of us. Butterfly singles of brimstone, peacock and speckled wood added to the mix with a couple of small white too. Overhead a couple of buzzards wafted by, and a kestrel, and in the fields a smattering of corvids and gulls mingled with sheep. I'd hoped when we reached the reservoir I could do some birdwatching as it is a well known site for waterfowl.  However the wind had really picked up and while there was the usual coot, great crested grebe, mallard and tufted duck on the water with pied wagtail and meadow pipit on the banks, nothing else really was obvious other than a green woodpecker which flew to a fence post and clung on there giving remarkable views.  We got back to the car after about three hours, including a coffee in a cafĂ©, just as the heavens opened once again. 

Saturday we were at home and pottered in the garden. The spring flowers are looking brilliant here at the moment, newly emerged, fresh and nothing much yet has succumbed to decay, it is a lovely time of year. The sun is warm too and I watched a dark edged bee-fly buzzing the daffodils and pulmonaria for ages. We've had these in the garden for a couple of years now, I love them, they're really funky. Sadly a peacock butterfly had died in the greenhouse overnight, but outside and  very much alive was a brimstone and a small white. There were hoverflies and solitary bees everywhere too. As we pottered in the garden a pair of raven cronked their presence overhead, these are a regular sighting now.

By the side of the Strawberry Line

Easter Sunday saw us walk a different six mile section of the Strawberry Line, this time from Congresbury to the new EDF sub-station on Nye Lane. Part of the planning approval for this feeder station from Hinkley Point, was to create a new permissive link between two parts of the existing Strawberry Line, each part of which ended at a farm who refused public access. And very impressive it is too. But not as impressive as I realised a raven pair were nest building in one of the huge super-structures carrying the electricity into the sub-station. 

I'd heard a cronk as we looked over the new site and saw a raven flying by carrying a sizeable twig. I wondered where it was going before it flew left at an angle, back on itself and into this gantry style metal structure. As it arrived, from inside the structure, a softer cronk-craw could be heard - its mate. One of the birds then flew out, did a Biggles style wing roll and disappeared into an orchard over the lane,  only to then reappear a minute or so later with another twig, this time flying directly to and into the gantry. Raven nests are huge so this may well fill the void in that latticework metal gantry, but it will be well hidden and protected. I'll have to pop back and have a proper look, but it seemed incongruous that this bird which extols wild places should decide to make its home in an ultra-modern electricity sub-station now hissing and fizzing with electricity from a nuclear reactor. And given there is a 3 meter electrified fence around the site,  I should think the raven are quite safe in there.

I also noticed that the outer fence, (thankfully not live wired), has badger holes cut into it wherever a badger track existed in the undergrowth. Someone has taken a lot of effort into wildlife mitigation and with a lot of tree planting on the site, and a large pond newly dug, it should mature nicely. On the route to and from Congresbury yet again the birdlife was astonishing, the same species as on Friday but with the addition of song thrush, bullfinch, greenfinch, goldfinch, Cettis warbler, little egret and a yaffling woodpecker. There are also a lot of badger tunnels along this path. We also startled a fox while trying to help an elderly couple retrieve their 'lost' dog who was running about a distant field - thankfully after half an hour Memphis the dog returned safe and well and looked very happy, as did his owner.

Elworthy Cottage Garden - spring meadow

Easter Monday and the birthday had arrived. For a few weeks now I'd said I'd like to visit Elworthy Cottage Plants on my birthday as while normally visiting is by appointment only, it was to open on April the 1st under the yellow-book National Garden Scheme. I'd recently been reading about this small specialist nursery, about an hours drive from home nestled in the Brendon Hills and thought it was worth a visit as I'd never been before. It is located in the middle of a lovely quiet part of Somerset betwixt the Quantocks and Exmoor complete with evocative wild-sounding west country villages such as Monksilver, Roadwater, Timberscombe, Higher Vexford and Wheddon Cross. We drove through torrential rain to get here and as soon as we arrived I thought, I've been here before. When exactly I'd been there before I can't remember but it was, like on this visit, with Mrs Wessex-Reiver. Oh well we're here now so best have a cup of tea and some cake.

As we consumed the tea and cake the clouds parted and for our entire visit the sun shone. Its quite a difficult place to find so there were only a handful of people here, in fact more people helping the owners than visitors I'd say. And on this April day it looked stunning, drifts of snake-head fritillary, daffodils still in their prime, wood anemones, hellebores, primrose and a host of pulmonaria. The owner is known also for her collection of snowdrops, of which there were hundreds of clumps round the garden, not in flower of course. I chatted to her husband asking at some point if they had Galanthus 'fly fishing' - they do but not for sale this year, though the suggestion was if I email them in the autumn then they may know if they can sell me one next spring. It is a difficult cultivar to source so I'm very happy to wait. After an hour mooching around in this lovely garden we headed back home, yet again in torrential rain, stopping on the way at Hodder's Combe to look at the rookery there and half an hour tree-bathing. 

Elworthy Cottage Garden in sunshine

All in all then an enjoyable way to shuffle into year sixty. We mostly managed to avoid the deluges and found ourselves immersed in some lovely wildlife encounters. Speaking of which I must go and see what those jackdaws are up to.

New book I bought on Good Friday with references to Richard Jefferies.

Saturday 30 March 2024

Rocking Rooks


Earlier in the week I finally managed to do my annual rooks-on-the-nest count in the village. I've done this for a few years now, just in and around the actual village itself. I could expand the range of nest sites I might look at as in recent years a number of new rookeries have developed within a 2-3 mile radius. I did a quick drive-by count of those recently and there are 7 new rookeries in the area, all on fairly young trees by roads, rather than traditional mature copse and woodland trees. While it is interesting to speculate why this population boom is happening, food supply (more sheep farming on grassland, fewer cattle farms), climate change, lack of persecution etcetera, remaining faithful to my original site allows for a little consistency. Though none of what I do is scientifically rigorous. I'm just interested.

The above image gives the best view of most of the nests. During the wet and windy winter just coming to an end every nest from 2023 was trashed. By January not one nest remained, I can therefore be virtually certain all those nests I observed this week were 2024 active nests. In total I noted active nests in six different trees. Three nests are on the lane into the village, with a carrion crow nest nearby, a further nine were in two sets of trees on the village outskirts, and a set of three nests were on the farm trees about half a mile away, making 15 nests in total away from the main site. 

That main site consists of two trees holding the bulk of the nests, 23 in total. These two trees have been at the centre of rook activity for a number of years.  New for this year an adjacent tree was hosting five nests, I've not seen nests here before. In total then 43 active nests within the village or no further than half a mile away. That figure, in common with my casual observation of the surrounding wider area, is up slightly, in most years the figure is around the mid to high thirties. I used to do a count of actual birds based on two birds to a nest. Recently though I was chatting to a corvid observer who uses 2.8 birds per nest, with the 0.8 taking into account non breeding individuals remaining within the spatial cohesion of the colony during the breeding season. With that in mind, the village of Wick St Lawrence has, by my Heath Robinson efforts,  a rook population of 43 nests x 2.8 = 120.4 rooks. I may round it down to 120, that 0.4 of a bird is maybe a statistical outlier...or not very well and missing 0.6 of it's body. Eric the half rook if you will.

Given the wider circle of rookeries outside of the village and a quick count as I drove past I'd estimate within a three mile circle there could be a population of 250-300 rooks. 

As an aside, in my home I now have a pair of jackdaws nesting in the roof space of my home (lack of maintenance has a benefit). The noise they create building a nest in the void is astonishing. No doubt I'll write about these in a future post. 

Sunday 17 March 2024

A Portrait of John Moore

Gloucester Services on the M5 (Northbound) is as good a place as any to begin to explore the writer John Moore. 

After an early start from Somerset I'd stopped here for breakfast while travelling up to Tewkesbury, or Elmbury as Moore referred to his home town in his Brensham Trilogy. While forking in the nourishment I took time to plan my day. This was to be a relaxed general discovery day, the second of my ad-hoc project to visit the graves and landscapes associated with rural authors I admire. Tewkesbury Abbey, John Moore's grave, John Moore Countryside Museum, Tudor House and finally the village of Kemerton. First though the Abbey.

Between the wars John Moore was tasked with fundraising by the then vicar of the Abbey, Edward Gough. At this time the fabric of the Abbey was crumbling and Moore, who was working for Gough,  had the not inconsiderable job of trying to raise £25,000 for the repairs. To raise such a large sum Moore organised a Tewkesbury Festival and to his credit the money flowed in allowing the repairs to occur. Nearly a century later this would be my first visit. And it is beautiful.

When I arrived it was still early, meaning I had the place virtually to myself. I sat for a while thinking  of Moore, who despite not being religious in the traditional sense loved this monument to religion. I can understand why as I gazed ever higher at the craftsmanship and detail. If I did nothing else today seeing this interior would have been worth the drive all on its own. However I'd come to the Abbey to find Moore's grave.

I'm not sure what the correct description of Moore is. Writer and broadcaster possibly, campaigner for certain. His biography by David Cole is titled True Countryman. I think then for me Countryside Writer fits a large swathe of his output over the years as it wasn't just nature he wrote about. His interests were many, ranging from the rural scene, changes to the social fabric of the countryside, the people and characters he encountered, conservation of buildings in the town he loved and customs and ways in farming. He also wrote about his time abroad and his World War 2 experiences as a pilot. He was also outspoken on topics that interested him, sometimes bringing him into conflict with those he opposed, or opposed him.

I asked the lady managing the Abbey gift shop if she knew where Moore's grave was. She didn't and confessed she'd heard of his name but had no idea who he was, before suggesting I ask a verger. "Oh yes" the verger said, "out the north door, then head to the left over the grass and it is over there". I thanked her and headed outside, to the area of the Abbey grounds she'd mentioned. There were a number of graves here but after a fruitless search I couldn't find Moore's. I'd been informed by the Chair of the John Moore Society that his grave had recently been cleaned. None of those I searched through were what I'd call clean. Maybe I'd misheard the verger, was it was located at the left of the Abbey as you entered. No, nothing. Checking an image I'd seen of his grave on my phone it had what looked like a gravel path next to it, and where I stood only grass was visible. I knew it was here, I wandered off to another part of the Abbey grounds.

I eventually found it nestled in near the south side of the Abbey, in the exact opposite direction to my instructions. It is a lovely spot to rest in, overlooking the river and with a little sitting area somewhere for the living to also rest a while. I sat on a bench next to the grave to reflect on a man who did so much for Tewkesbury and the Abbey, but who is almost forgotten today. If that is not a metaphor for life I'm not sure what is. My reverie was interrupted by a screeching and a low cronk cronk. A peregrine - they nest on the Abbey I was later told - was circling a pair of raven flying along the river. Other birds, chaffinch, goldfinch and robin especially were singing nearby. It all seemed apt, a peaceful spot to be enriched by nature, in the centre of a very busy town, a town which houses a museum in Moore's name.

I've been to the John Moore Countryside Museum once before, about eight or nine years ago. One of Moore's campaigns was to prevent the demolition of the timber framed and old buildings of Tewkesbury after the War. Many to be fair were in a perilous state and the Town Council wished to modernise the town as there had been a plan to make Tewkesbury an overspill town for the West Midlands. Some buildings were lost, but through Moore people rallied to the cause including his friend Sir John Betjeman adding weight to the fight in writing of the need to preserve this unique heritage. As a result of which around a hundred buildings avoided the wreckers ball. The Museum is housed in a row of buildings preserved by their efforts 

I chatted for over half an hour with the knowledgeable gentleman at the desk. Not just about Moore but a wider ranging chat about writers in general. The Museum itself is quite small and concerned mostly with education and information on the countryside. Display cases of stuffed animals are well presented and the information is up-to-date, such as the role the return of the pine marten would play in grey squirrel red squirrel fortunes. It has had a revamp since my last visit, now feeling less cluttered. Outside the museum is a lovely garden and next door a restored Tudor Merchant's house. I didn't visit either of these this time as there was a tour taking place and I didn't wish to tag along. 

Interestingly my conversation with the custodian touched on the similarities between Moore's legacy with that of Richard Jefferies' legacy. Both wrote about the rural scene, both campaigned for causes they felt warranted their attention and both have museums named after them. However in the opinion of the custodian although the two writers are sometimes favourably compared to each other, Moore himself was no fan of Jefferies' output, thinking it too anthropomorphic and fanciful, written by a dreamer. Which could explain why I almost never see references to Jefferies in Moore's writing. I left the Museum, with a first edition copy of Moore's September Moon, and headed to the home Moore lived in as a child, at the other end of the main street.

Tudor House as it was in the early part of the last century was where Moore lived in childhood. His family were part of the long established Moore & Sons auctioneers business. John Moore himself worked for the family firm but it was a vocation he never enjoyed and by all accounts wasn't very good at either. Today it is the Tudor House Hotel an imposing timber framed building, which despite its name actually dates from the 17th Century. On this visit I didn't go inside but the rooms from which  Moore looked out from over the busy street (and slum alleyways in his time) are bedrooms to stay in. There is however a plaque outside to commemorate his time here. I'd now visited Moore's grave, his home town and his childhood home, my final destination was the nearby village of Kemerton where Moore lived before his untimely death aged 59.

Kemerton is a picturesque village, a hotchpotch of architecture-Midland style. From timber buildings to Cotswold stone, Georgian brick to individual modern. Moore and his wife Lucille first moved here in the late 1940s, first to Chapel House then Lower Mill Farm where finally Moore had the space to develop his interests in creating a natural environment surrounding the house he could enjoy. It's not a large village to explore so first I'd have a tea in the village cafe and look at the map.

Chapel House is a beautiful Georgian brick building on Hill Lane. Running the length of Hill Lane is a culvert stream. As I walked up the gentle slope the trickling sound of water filled the air. This is middle England in its purest sense and I could imagine why Moore and his wife loved this village. On my visit grass was being cut, a hedge was being trimmed into shape, everywhere there were spring flowers. People out for a walk or working in their gardens said hello, while birds sang. After leaving busy Tewkesbury only 5 miles away Kemerton seems a calming peaceful place. I didn't loiter for long outside Chapel House, it is after all a private dwelling, but on this visit the garden was full of primroses and spring bulbs. I wonder if in Moore's time it was just as beautiful.

Lower Mill Farm is at the opposite end of the village tucked down a side lane leading only to the farm. This was Moore's final home and although his health was beginning to fade it was a place he threw his energies into to create what he'd always craved, a house within nature. As I walked through the village song thrush and blackbird song seemed to be everywhere, a nuthatch too. Rook and jackdaw squabbled in the mature trees. Here it seemed nature ruled village life and I could imagine Moore walking around the village absorbing the best that the natural world had to offer.

My visit to John Moore's land was drawing to a close. Before I left though I headed into St Nicholas Church. And that proved a revelation. Largely rebuilt in the Victorian era this hides an amazing artwork on the ceiling and behind the alter by a Miss Hopton. Sadly she was killed not long after completing this masterpiece in a dog-cart accident while out cycling. I discovered this information talking to the two church wardens, there to clean the church.

When he was a child one of the church wardens, as it turned out, said he knew and could remember John Moore. His father knew Moore but it seems they fell out over the collection of water charges. The story told to me being that the lower end of the village then had a private water supply and Moore was charged with collecting the usage fees. This chap's father refused to pay (why this was wasn't offered) causing his father and Moore to not speak. An interesting end to my visit. As I set off this morning I'd never imagined meeting someone who knew a man who died in 1967. By all accounts Moore and Lucille were very happy here, though ironically a year after his death a rare flood of Lower Mill Farm destroyed a lot of Moore's archive and letters.

As an aside St Nicholas Church is planning a fund raising evening in the autumn. As a result of our chat they suggested readings from John Moore may make an interesting addition to commemorate Moore's time in the village and maybe draw in extra people. I said I'd let the chair of the John Moore Society know this was happening and will try and attend this event myself if I can.

There is still more to discover about Moore, but for this my first visit I've expanded my knowledge of this complex writer immeasurably. Would I have liked to meet Moore? Most definitely, though he wasn't one to suffer fools gladly and had a long memory. 

Moore wrote many times about the villages surrounding Bredon Hill, as did farmer and author Fred Archer whose home was nearby Ashton-Under-Hill. 

They were contemporaries writing of the rural scene in this small part of the south Midlands. Chatting to the church warden he said some of the characters and stories in Fred Archer's books were also chronicled in Moore's output. Their styles were different but it seems the landscape and inhabitants of this rural place got under the skin of both. I can feel that, as on my visit I felt the draw of this area, there's something comforting about it. And as the church warden said "It is a shame Moore didn't live longer, otherwise we could have seen Moore and Archer in conversation together celebrating their love of the rural scene"

Now that would be a fund raising event I'd have liked to be part of and see.

John Moore Society 

John Moore Museum 

Fred Archer Trust (now defunct I think) 

John Moore True Countryman (2007) Cole, David, Blacksmith Publishing (Available from the Museum)